by Padre Mike Peterson

Only a handful of Anglican parishes dotted Upper Canada when hostilities between Britain and the United States commenced in 1812, but the fledgling Church in Canada was there to serve the defending troops, settlers, and First Nations.  While some churches were physically destroyed and their congregations scattered, the Church as a whole served and endured.  As we remember the War of 1812 in this bicentennial year, we as an Ordinariate can look back and see some of the earliest beginnings of Anglican military chaplaincy in Canada.

Padre John Strachan, hero of Upper Canada and later, as pictured here, Bishop of Toronto.

Before the War of 1812, the status of the Anglican Church in the Canadian colonies can best be described as favoured but not exclusively privileged.  Despite the arguments of Anglican churchman such as Upper Canada’s  John Strachan and Montreal’s Bishop Jacob Mountain that the Anglican Church’s “union, discipline, and order” would serve the government well and protect its sovereignty from “the levelling opinions” of “inferior [Protestant] sects” such as Methodists, whose preachers often came from the US and were politically as well as theologically suspect.  Mindful of the French and Catholic majority in Lower Canada, and of the diverse Protestant settlement in Atlantic and Upper Canada, the Crown was never swayed by these prelates and refused to grant Established status to the Anglican Church inCanada.  The Anglican Church flourished as best it could in Upper Canada, always short of trained clergy and much dependent on funding from the missionary societies.

Whereas the Crown’s representatives in Canada kept Church and State separate, the British military of the day upheld the Established Church of England and only accepted Anglican clergy as chaplains.  However, due to abuses and lax performance, the office of regimental chaplain had been abolished by the British Army in 1796, replaced  in 1809 by Brigade Chaplains, who received the King’s Commission and were under military discipline, each responsible for several thousand soldiers and their families.  With few exceptions, only Church of England clergy, unencumbered by a parish or “the cure of souls” as it was called, were appointed, provided that they were approved by their bishops and were judged fit “for the fatigues and duties of their employment”.  As many army units, and particularly those in Canada at the outbreak of the war, lacked military chaplains, provision was made to employ local “Clergymen of Good Character … on the spot”, to serve troops stationed locally.

In Upper Canada, where most of the fighting occurred, there were only a handful of Anglican clergy available to support the military.  They included the Revs. G.O. Stuart (Kingston), John Strachan (York/Toronto), Robert Addision (Fort George/Niagara), and Richard Pollard (Sandwich/Windsor/Amherstburg).  Later they would be joined by military chaplains fromGreat Britain, but for the first desperate year of the war these clergy were literally and solely “on the spot”.  Besides their parish responsibilities, they were called on to perform the many onerous duties asked of them by an army in wartime.

Besides presiding at Divine Service at compulsory church parades, according to the Book of Common Prayer, hospital visits consumed much time, especially given the indifferent medicine of the age.  As British soldiers were accompanied by dependants and camp followers, chaplains were also expected to minister to families, baptize children, and administer the regimental schools established “For the Management and Education of a Certain Number of Orphan and other Children … of the Army”.  Clergy were also expected to raise the moral tone of the army, preaching “earnestly”, “railing” against drunkenness, and teaching in a manner “suited to the habits, Moral and Intellectual of the Soldier”.  As clergy were expected to minister to far flung detachments and garrisons, and were indifferently compensated for their time and travel expenses, men such as Addison and Pollard spent much time in correspondence fighting for moneys owed to them.

Many of the Anglican clergy in Upper Canadawere directly touched by the war.  Several saw their parishes destroyed and their congregations scattered.  Robert Addison’s St. Mark’s Church in Niagara was burned by American troops in 1813, but was compensated by a share of the prize money when British troops captured Old Fort Niagara and Buffalo that year.  Richard Pollard, who as a young man had already weathered one American invasion as a defender of Quebec City against Benedict Arnold in 1775, was driven out of his parish of St. John’s, Sandwich (now Windsor) when the Americans crossed the Detroit Frontier in Oct 1813, and was captured and detained in the subsequent British defeat at Moraviantown, where Chief Tecumseh was killed.  Pollard returned toSt. John’sonly to see it burned weeks later, and spent the rest of the war atYork.  John Strachan, the Garrison Chaplain ofYork, is well known for his role after the fort and town of York fell in April 1813.  After the British retreated, he negotiated the terms of surrender with US General Dearborn and insisted that they be honoured; fearlessly scolding the Americans for plundering his parishioners’ property.  When the Americans raided again that July, he even demanded successfully from US Commodore Chauncey that books stolen in the first raid be returned.

While these Anglican clergy generally did good and sometimes brave service, their work was neither representative of the religious complexity of the war, nor was it always appreciated by others.  A Methodist soldier recovering in a British hospital heard Strachan preach “the marrow of Calvinism” and was unimpressed, writing in his journal that “God save us from such spiritual guides”.  Methodist soldiers sought ministry from their own, and may even have been better served by their “saddlebag brigade” of circuit preachers.  A considerable number of Roman Catholics also served in the Canadian militia and in British regiments raised in Ireland.  On the American side, the war, largely initiated by southern politicians, had initially been opposed by the New England clergy as being immoral.  A 2012 study of the few Regular and many militia chaplains in US service in the War of 1812 shows that very few were Episcopalians; the majority were Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian.

Like clergy of all denominations, Anglican chaplains faced daunting challenges in the War of 1812.  They did the difficult work of pastoral ministry in border regions riven with religious strife and suspicion; among neighbours who were recent immigrants from the US whose loyalties were sometimes violently doubted.  They managed as best they could to lead their parishes through war and chaos, and sometimes literally rebuilt them.  They comforted the sick and wounded in primitive military hospitals and in the wake of the horrific conditions of Napoleonic warfare.  They did all of this work without any of the professional training, equipment, and support that we as chaplains take for granted, and they did it because of their faith in the gospel and their confidence in the gifts and durability of the Anglican tradition.  If the Anglicanism of men like Strachan seems intolerant and even chauvinistic to us today, we should bear in mind that it is in part because of the devotion and resilience of these early clergy and chaplains that there is an Anglican Church of Canada today.

With thanks to the Rev. Dr. John Brinsfield, US Army Chaplain Corps Historian (retd.).

Padre Mike Peterson is the Base Chaplain at CFB Suffield.  He blogs at