Item of the Day: Josiah Whitney’s Sermon Addressed to a Military Company (1800)

Full Title: A Sermon, Addressed to a Military Company belonging to the 13th Regiment of Infantry in the Army of the United States of America, under the Command of Captain Asa Copeland, at their Rendezvous in Brooklyn, On Lord’s-day, August 25, 1799. By Josiah Whitney, Pastor of the First Church of Brooklyn. Windham: Printed by John Byrne, 1800.

. . . Courage is an essential requisite in the soldier’s character. By all means the soldier should have it. Without it, a person is not worthy of the name of soldier. Should persons have all other martial qualifications, yet want this, they would be unfit for service.

“True valor is distinguishing excellence in a military character, without it, the soldier is one of the worst poltrons, he must unavoidably dishonor the arms he bears, and the profession he assumes. It is true valor we speak of; not a savage ferocity, not a brutal rage, not an insatiable cruelty—But a manly greatness, a sedate firmenss and resolution in the midst of danger, whereby a man is not insensible to danger, yet above the fear of it, not so confounded by the most threatening approach of it, as to lose the possession of himself and the command of his understanding, but is capable of recollection, of judging what becomes a person in his station to do, and has the presence of mind to exert all his abilities in doing whatsoever can justly be expected from him.”

Courage is not equally imparted to all, by the author of our beings. To some he gives a greater share of it, than to others. The natural make of some is bold and daring, they are never more in their element than when passing through great dangers. Such persons are some times raised up, and used as instruments of bringing to pass some great things in the world, which infinite wisdom determines should take place. Others, again, whose natural courage is not so great, may by reason’s aid, surmount unmanly fears, and by being accustomed to dangers, may acquire such measures of fortitude as to act their part well, in hazardous daring enterprizes, and be blessings to their country. The soldier’s calling, for instance, is a hazardous one, and they who enter upon it, are to resolve to venture their lives for the defence and preservation of their country, their friends, their relatives, their liberties, &c. Therefore, they are never to forget this, but stand prepared to obey the call of GOD and their country, whether it be to life or death. “The soldier’s life is unfit for one that dare not die. A coward is one of the most pernicious murderers: he verifies Christ’s saying in another sense—He that saveth his life shall lose it. While men undauntedly stand in their lot, it is usually but few that die, because they quickly daunt the enemy and keep him on the defensive part; but when once they rout and run away, they are slain on heaps and fall like leaves in windy autumn. Every coward who pursueth them, is imboldened by their fear, and dares to run them through or shoot them behind, who durst not so near have looked them in the face, and maketh it his sport to kill a fugitive, or one who layeth down his weapons, who would fly himself from a daring presence. Cowardly fear betrayeth the cause of your country, it betraeth the lives of your fellow-soldiers; the running of a few affrighted dastards, lets in ruin upon all the rest—it casteth away your own lives which you think to save. If you will be soldiers, resolve to conquer or die. It is not so much skill or strength that conquereth, as boldness. It is fear that loseth the day, and fearlessness that winneth it. The army which standeth to it, getteth the victory, who they fight never so weakly, for if you will not run, the enemy will. And if the lives of a few be lost by courage, it usually saveth the lives of many. If the cause be not worth your lives, you should not meddle with it. If it is, you should chuse rather to sacrifice the, than your country.” The man of good courage, is prepared to bear up against all the hardships of the warmest service with an unbroken erect mind, when the casue of GOD and his people, shall press him into their service. The intrepid spirit, rested on the brave Nehmiah, when he exclaimed—Should such a man as I, flee? This spirit, inspired that brave commander, who, when deserted by his army in the heat of battle, cried out to them saying: “Go tell the living, that I die fighting, while I go and tell the dead, that you live flying.” Are the preceeding observations just? We hence learn that courage is necessary in men of military character. No wonder then, that Israel’s brave commander, thus said to his army. “Be of good courage.” And no wonder that he further said, let us play the men. Q.D. Let us do that on this great, trying occasion, which MEN, reasonable creatures ought to do. In these words, there is an implication, that he himself was resolved to do that, which he called them to do—either enter into battle, or so post himself, as to direct and guide them to victory. We have no reason to suspect, but that he would readily have done the former, if the case had required it. Every good general chuses rather to sacrifice his life in battle, than his country and honor. When existing circumstances, call to a most dangerous post, he readily exposes his own person. And so will all other good military characters in places below him, when called to dangerous posts.

In these words, let us play the men, we discern civility and decency. Though the army were under this general’s absolute command, yet he addressed them not as a pack of slaves and poltrons, nor in profane language, as too many have, to the shame of humanity; but as men, his fellow creatures, whom he respected, and who had a right to civil, human treatment. Such treatment conciliates esteem, and leads to obedience from a principle of love, which is a nobler incentive to action, than fear. Playing the men, imports doing bravely and valiantly. The sacred historian, in another place narrating this speech, thus varies the phraseology, let us behave ourselves valiantly. Playing the men, and behaving valiantly, are nearly, or quite synonymous terms. To play the men in battle, none can, unless they behave valiantly. —I proceed, . . .

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Filed under 1790's, American Revolution, History, Military, Political Pamphlets, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Sermons

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