Give them Watts!

On June 9th my spouse and I celebrated thirty-years of marriage.  Our wedding picture shows us both in 18thcentury clothing – he in a white wig, and I dressed in a robe à la française (also known as a “sack back”).  We met as Revolutionary War re-enactors and fell in love at Old Fort Niagara… so this all made sense to us at the time (although it undoubtedly mystified a few neighbors).

Isaac Watts

So, when I had a chance to preach at the Springfield Church in NJ, I jumped at the chance… although I did preach in my usual Sunday pulpit gown and not my 18th century kit.  This charming colonial church is the site of a famous tête-à-tête (French again!) between the British and the Continental forces.  Rev. James Caldwell, a Presbyterian pastor whose wife had been killed by the British at the Battle of Connecticut Farms, was at the Springfield church likely in his role as a military Chaplain.  

During the battle the Continentals ran out of the paper used to roll cartridges.  Rev. Caldwell reportedly ran into the church and grabbed some hymnals.  He threw them to the army shouting “Give them Watts’ boys”, referring to several of the hymns that were penned by Isaac Watts.   As a result, the Battle of Springfield was a Continental victory.   

There are a variety of reasons folks express concern about the mixing of politics and faith.  For some its based on confusion over the principle regarding the “separation of church and state” which prevents the State from endorsing any particular faith system.  Other folks will cite the Johnson Act[1].  But at its root I think we don’t like to mix politics and faith because it is messy.  It is also risky.

Rev. James Caldwell didn’t live long after his “Give them Watts’ boys!” moment: a Continental soldier who was rumored to have been bribed to kill the chaplain succeeded in doing so. 

Rev. Virginia Gerbasi was the victim of “tear gas” and flash bombs last week as she handed out water on the patio of St. John’s Episcopal in Washington, D.C.

Messy.  Risky.  

These are the sorts of actions that make folks uncomfortable, and we will do anything to avoid discomfort… including making our churches political safe zones.  Instead of engaging one another in difficult conversations about how faith impacts our understanding of politics, we silently agree not to discuss it.  

J. Herbert Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA raises this question:  “How deep is our faith? How deep is our commitment to get into places we aren’t familiar with and proclaim the gospel?”

For Caldwell and Gerbasi the answer was clear, and messy and risky.

Where does your faith lead you?  What is your commitment to the proclamation of the Gospel?


[1] Churches and other faith groups are forbidden from endorsing political candidates by the IRS.  This doesn’t mean a church that does this will be arrested/sued/forbidden to meet, its intent is to limit the power of organizations that do not pay taxes to sway their population.

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