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By Greg Uttinger
The first volume of moral philosophy penned in America came not from among the sons of Britain, but from a German-born preacher. Reverend Johan Daniel Gros served as both chaplain and soldier in the Continental Army and, on one occasion, formed his congregation into a militia to drive away the enemy.
The phrase “Renaissance man” is something of a cliché, used to describe one seemingly able to do all things well. Yet Johan Daniel Gros was such a man, blending thought and action in an effective and profitable mixture. He was a pastor, college professor, moral philosopher, author, army chaplain, almsman, land speculator and, when need required, an Indian fighter and soldier.
He ministered on the Pennsylvania frontier and at the hub of our new federal government, fashionable New York City. His text on moral philosophy outlined America’s new civil religion, but it denounced slavery as an unconscionable evil before most Americans had recognized it as a moral issue, at all. Nonetheless, Johan Gros has received little more than a footnote from historians, whether Christian or secular. He was a great man in an age of politically greater men.
Johan Daniel Gros was born in the Palatinate, in Webenheim, Bavaria, in 1737. He was educated at the prestigious universities of Marburg and Heidelberg. In 1763, he married Eleanor Philippina Holstein, the daughter of a baron. Together they set out for the brave new world of the American colonies.
At that time the German Reformed Church in America was woefully lacking in pastors; the churches were tied to the Reformed Church in Holland (Classis Amsterdam) for their supply of ministers. And so Gros “went to Holland to arrange to be sent to America by the deputies, but found the ship ready to sail and came over without waiting for them.” Gros arrived without official sanction.
The American Coetus, the functioning synod of the German churches, wrote: “Therefore he at once desired our assistance here. We were obliged to take him from the ship, because several shepherdless congregations wanted to take him, engage him and receive him as their pastor. To stop and prevent all disorder, we examined him in theology and languages, and found him exceedingly well versed. His delivery was defective, but his credentials from Marburg and Heidelberg were genuine and fine. … In this manner we ordained him and located him at Whitehall, where he is serving four congregations with zeal and praise.”
Gros arrived on December 1st, took his oath on the 4th, and was serving on the frontier before Christmas. God’s people were hungry for the preaching of His Word. Gros ministered to four frontier congregations in Pennsylvania-Egypt, Allentown, Jordan and Schlosser (now Unionville).
The Coetus would write of him: “As upright a man as competent, diligent a person as can be desired. He has labored with so much zeal and diligence in his four congregations where many ministers would not have wanted to locate, by reason of the woods, rocks, water and the rudeness of the people.”
The report further describes the Whitehall charge as “four, poor, ruined congregations … almost completely broken up by Indians and adventurers.”
In 1767, the four Whitehall congregations built him a parsonage on 6 acres of land, but two years later he wanted to leave. He complained of the poor building and the lack of wholesome water: “Domine Gros, who is much beloved by the Reverend Coetus as well as by his charge at Whitehall, this year received a regular call from two large congregations at Saucon and Springfield, which last year already were commended to the Reverend Fathers. Domine Gros showed considerable inclination to accept this call, and complained especially on account of the unfitness of his present dwelling at Whitehall. He lives in a very poor building, also at a place where no wholesome water can be had: which to a minister in this country, who has nothing to drink but water, may be a chief cause for complaint, especially in the hot summer days, when through bad water one’s health can easily be impaired.”
Nonetheless, “the congregations were satisfied with Domine Gros, and … they would be sorely grieved if they were forced to lose him.”
“Do. Gros thereupon declared, that the separation from Whitehall would be very hard for him, because he well knew that his ministry among them had been blessed by the Lord to the good of many souls, and for the future even more was to be expected; that therefore he could not leave these congregations unless Coetus would recommend to them in his place the first capable minister whom the Reverend Fathers [in Holland] might send over.”
The Coetus agreed. For a while, though, Gros served both charges, preaching to the Whitehall congregations for three Sundays and at Saucon and Springfield on the fourth. During this time Gros served a year each as secretary and as president of the Coetus. There can be no doubt of the respect his fellow pastors had for him.
In 1770, Gros gave up the Whitehall congregations. But in 1772 he accepted a call to Kingston, N.Y. According to Coetus records, he gave his reasons for leaving Saucon and Springfield as “1. Want of love, stubborn conduct and neglect on the part of his members in attending divine worship. 2. Unrighteousness on their part in withdrawing and keeping back from him his salary.”
But after a brief stay in Kingston, Gros accepted a call to Sand Hill (or Fort Plain) in the Canajoharie region of the Mohawk Valley. This was frontier again and would be a key theatre in America’s war with Britain. The Mohawk Valley was the breadbasket of the Revolutionary armies.
When the War for Independence came, Gros served as a chaplain for at least two regiments. But his duties went far beyond preaching. When most of his garrison was fighting the Battle of Oriskany, Gros took charge of the local fort, even leading his men on a seek-and-destroy mission against the hostile Tories and their Indian mercenaries.
On Aug. 12, 1777, he wrote to Captain Dygert: “Last evening I returned from an Expedition, which I hope will strike terror into our Scandalous Enemies. I took such a Part, that if your Scheme had succeeded would have brought the Enemy entirely into our Hands. We did send out Scouting Parties Last Morning to different Places; one in particular to the Jacheiser Kill, who went down 4 miles downward of the Vlys; but could discover nothing. Another Report said that the Enemy was in a Cove on a branch of Ashroake Creek; but we did find upon our return from the Lake, that it was not so, this part having been scouted by the Springfield Men.
“I must think that the Enemy was at or about Adam Young’s, so I took my March to that Place with a Party of 42 excellent Men. We could come so near, that we could discover that no Troops appeared there; therefore I thought, we would bring of Adam Young, his Wife Cattie and family. But Capt. Eckeler and the good People, prayed with Tears in their eyes, that we would desist from doing that, for their own safety. My whole party fell to their side. And so we went up to the House with the whole Body Scaring Adam Young and Wife into the Bush.
“I endeavored to break the Plot, by promising Pardon, to them who would surrender themselves in about Three Days, by telling the friends of the Tories, that in a short time, at least in 4 days, a Reward would be laid upon every Tory who would be taken dead or alive. That at present the Bush was full of our Militia on all sides, that they must thank our friends, their Neighbors, that not their Persons, Cattle and everything, was not at Present taken or destroyed. I think that this and the like Exertions will strike terror into the Tory Club.”
The War raged on, and British forces under Sir John Johnson ravaged the valley.
In another letter, written Sept. 8, 1777, Gros reported that, “parts about the Canajohary Castle were on the Brink of Ruin … no force could be collected; I was forced to call upon my Congregation in order to disperse the enemy.”
Here was a clergyman who not only fought in the militia, but turned his congregation into one in time of need.
“Gros’ congregation would continue to fight and suffer. On Aug. 2, 1780, a Loyalist force of Indians leveled Canajohary. Led by chiefs Joseph Brant and Cornplanter, the raiding party killed 17 (two more were scalped but survived), destroyed 52 houses, 42 barns and the Reformed Church which Gros served. Everything was put to the torch. Fifty-two prisoners were taken. Of that number, 24 were 10 years of age or younger. Four of the children were a year old. Men discovered their wives and children had vanished with the enemy. Families were splintered; families of Gros’ congregation.”
With their church building destroyed, the congregation continued to meet in a nearby barn. A new church building would have to wait till the end of the war.
And the war did end. Peace returned to the Mohawk Valley. And in 1783, George Washington came to visit, greeted along the road by Johan’s wife, Eleanor, and a cadre of the town’s schoolboys she had rallied to cheer the beloved soldier. Acknowledging their salute, the general and future president doffed his hat in return.
In that same year, Gros accepted a call to the German Reformed congregation that met on Nassau Street in New York City. The church was known as the “little Calvin church” and “the Baron’s church,” for the famous Baron Steuben was a member there. And so Gros arrived in New York in time to see Washington’s inauguration and Congress’s first session. He would continue there for 12 years.
In 1784, Gros became professor of German and professor of geography and chronology at Columbia College. Three years later, he became professor of moral philosophy as well, and as such he distinguished himself with the publication of “Natural Principles of Moral Rectitude.” It would set the pattern for textbooks on the subject through the mid-1800s. He attributed his completion of the book to the encouragement of Baron Steuben, “his great patron and friend,” and his “worthy pupil,” the illustrious Rev. Philip Milledoler.
Gros’s work is in many respects typical of the age. He made no attempt to exegete Scripture or tie his arguments to the Reformed theology he preached from his pulpit. He argued that natural law is open to human reason and assumes that, at least in most respects, it is a sufficient basis for civil society.
He assumed that the highest goal of the state is the happiness of its citizens. But for him, human happiness lies in submission to the will of God. And since nothing in human life is morally indifferent, the State must base all of its laws upon the law of God revealed in nature. And none of these will contradict Scripture. (He argued for religious toleration, and yet defended laws against blasphemy and profanity.)
In two respects, however, Gros’s work is remarkable, at least in the eyes of secular scholars. First, unlike most earlier theologians, Gros argued that the citizen has a positive duty toward the state, and that the state has a positive duty to encourage good in its citizens, particularly by promoting education and science. The state is more than God’s hangman. Though it does not exist to establish a particular denomination or sect, it ought to promote godly moral order. Here in broad outline is the conservative version of America’s civil religion.
Second, while Gros was no egalitarian, he denounced slavery in scathing terms. He argued that no man can have absolute property in another; that each man’s standing as a moral creature directly accountable to God renders such a thing impossible.
Furthermore, he insisted that slavery corrupts the minds and manners of the next generation of freemen: “The young master and miss soon forget that they have to do with the human species, and imbibe the love of tyranny and vice almost with their mother’s milk.
“The idea of slavery has already so far advanced in our free country,” he continued, “that even the children of the framers refuse the most necessary work, such as is essential to the management of a farm under the foolish notion, that it is degrading to a freeman, and an occupation only fit for slaves.”
Gros retired from the New York church and from Columbia in 1795 because of poor health. He and his wife returned to Canajoharie, where they lived until 1802. Obviously optimistic about the future prospects of the young nation, Gros invested in soldier’s land-warrants and became wealthy later in life. Gros retired to a farm near Fort Plain in 1802 and went to be with Christ on May 25, 1812. His wife had gone on the year before. They were buried side by side. Gros’s will makes no mention of children, though he had many nieces and nephews. He left his family a considerable inheritance in real estate.
Johan Gros was a far cry from the sort of pastor Hollywood portrays. He was a man of God in all the best senses of the words. Had he been born in another era, we might find his name and story much more familiar. But as with each of us, his name is known to God.