William Dwyer

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The First American Chaplain to Die in the Service of his Country.

An Irish immigrant, John Rosbrugh was born in 1714, came to the colonies in 1735 with his brother and sister, and married at the young age of 19, only to suffer the deaths of his first wife and infant child just a year later. The next several decades are a mystery, though when his brother William and his wife died, John became guardian of their three children, and these years were likely spent seeing them safely to adulthood.

But by the early 1760’s, John had begun to pursue a calling to the Gospel ministry. He studied theology privately under the Rev. John Blair, then pastor of the Presbyterian church at Fagg’s Manor, PA. He was licensed by the Presbytery of New Brunswick in 1763 and ordained in 1764, installed as pastor of three small congregations. During these years, he married his second wife and to this marriage were born five children. Then in 1772, he answered a call to serve the Presbyterian church in Allentown, New Jersey.

But Rev. Rosbrugh is remembered in history as the first chaplain to give his life in the service of his country, when he was killed during a portion of the crucial military campaign that first involved Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River. Accounts of Rev. Rosbrugh’s death vary, but the most reliable one states that:

“…there was perhaps some confusion in the haste with which General Washington withdrew his army to the south side of the Assunpink [river], when Cornwallis marched into the town. In the haste and confusion that January 2nd, 1777, it seems Rev. Rosbrugh lingered behind the rest of his comrades. Seemingly not fully conscious of the dangers which surrounded him, he remained too long in the town before seeking a place of greater safety with the army beyond the Assunpink. He came to a pub in the city of Trenton. As night was drawing on, he tied his horse under a shed and entered the house to obtain some refreshments. While at the table, he was alarmed to hear the cry “The Hessians are coming!” Hastening out, he found that his horse had been stolen. Hurrying to make his escape, he found that one avenue after another was blocked. He then turned back into a grove of trees, where he was met by a small company of Hessians under the command of a British officer. Seeing that further attempt at escape was useless, he surrendered himself a prisoner of war. Having done so, he offered to his captors his gold watch and money if they would spare his life for his family’s sake. Notwithstanding these were taken, they immediately prepared to put him to death. Seeing this, he knelt down at the foot of a tree and, it is said, prayed for his enemies.” No sooner had he finished praying than he was murdered on the spot. “So died the ‘CLERICAL MARTYR OF THE REVOLUTION,’ at the age of sixty-three, upon a spot not trodden by the busy multitude, and forgotten amid the hum and bustle of commercial life in Trenton.”

“As the shades of that cold and dreary winter evening settled down upon the sad scene, his body lay in the icy embrace of death. The British officer at whose command he had been put to death, repaired to the pub which Mr. Rosbrugh had so recently left, and there exhibited the dead Chaplain’s watch, and boasted that he had killed a rebel parson. The woman of the house having known Mr. Rosbrugh, and recognizing the watch, said: “You have killed that good man, and what a wretched thing you have done for his helpless family this day.” The enraged officer, threatening to kill her if she continued her reproaches, ran away as if afraid of pursuit.”

Such is the account (gently edited) found in John Clyde’s biography, Rosbrugh: A Tale of the Revolution. (Easton: 1880). [available on the Web at http://archive.org/details/cu31924032738407]

Again, the fog of war still clouds much about about the death of Rev. Rosbrugh. The ferocity of his murder, historian William Dwyer contends, may be explained in that he was captured not far from Princeton, where the College of New Jersey was located, and that Rev. Rosbrugh may have been mistaken for the Rev. John Witherspoon, a man who was greatly hated by the Royalists and who had been recently burned in effigy by British troops.  [See Dwyer, William M., The Day is Ours! An Inside View of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, November 1776-January 1777. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1998, page 323.]

There is also a good deal of mystery as to where exactly Rev. Rosbrugh was buried. One grave established in his memory can be viewed here.

Words to Live By: Surely our times are in His hands. Which is to say, our lives are under the sovereign guidance of our Lord, and not one of His children ever dies a moment before God allows. This Scriptural truth affords the Christian great courage at times when others may faint away. At the same time, this fact does not mean that we can tempt God (Mt. 4:7). We should never act in a foolhardy way. In the end, Rev. Rosbrugh may have simply been careless and not kept his wits about him, at a time when he should have remained particularly alert. Each of our actions and choices will have consequences. The spiritual application should be obvious. As Christians, we are engaged in a spiritual battle: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:8, KJV). Learn the discipline of confessing your sins promptly, in sincere repentance and stay close to the Lord, day by day. The only safe place is by His side.

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