John Gano: Fearless Baptist Calvinist Captain and Chaplain of George Washington

Eric Jon Phelps
By Eric Jon Phelps January 10, 2011 16:54 Updated

John Gano: Fearless Baptist Calvinist Captain and Chaplain of George Washington

Baptist Chaplain John Gano Baptizing George Washington, Hudson River, 1781

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John Gano: Evangelist, Calvinist, Baptist

John Gano, a contemporary of Isaac Backus, served both as a pastor and as an itinerant evangelist in New England, the Middle Colonies and the South.  David Benedict comments that as an itinerant evangelist, Gano was “inferior to none… unless it were the renowned Whitefield.”  Gano had extensive evangelistic experience both as an itinerant and as a pastor.  His initial ministry experience came when he accompanied Benjamin Miller and John Thomas, who were responding to a request made for assistance by a pair of Virginia churches to the Philadelphia Association.  On this journey the young evangelist had the opportunity to preach.  Taking Romans 10:3 as his text, he preached with power and several people were converted.  This embarkment led to several preaching invitations for the novitiate.

In 1755 the Charleston Association authorized Oliver Hart, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, to secure the services of a missionary.  This missionary was to be sent to the destitute parts of that colony and to its neighboring provinces.  Gano received the appointment and began his career as an evangelist.  The resulting missionary tour at the Jersey Settlement on the banks of the Yadkin River was very successful.  Henry C. Vedder notes this “was the beginning of that work of evangelization to which the subsequent rapid progress of Baptists was made.”

Gano’s subsequent pastoral ministry included stops in New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, but the bulk of it was spent serving the First Baptist Church of New York City.   First Baptist was constituted in 1762 with 27 members.  Under Gano’s leadership and evangelistic zeal, the membership grew to 132 in five years.  The War of Independence suspended the ministry of the church, as it did many other congregations.  Disbanded in 1777, the congregation did not reconvene until 1784.  When the church reopened its doors, the members who made their way in—noticeably smaller in number than seven years earlier—found that their facilities had been damaged by the British troops who had used them as a stable.  [The Union troops of the North would do the same to Southern Churches in the South!]  The ravages of war had not only wreaked havoc to the structure of the church building but had also depleted the congregation of well over half of its members. Nevertheless, Gano penned the circular letter on behalf of the Philadelphia Association with a hopeful tone.  He wrote to the affiliate churches:

We trust, you will unite your efforts with ours, to the same good purpose; and that our thanksgivings for the present peace, harmony, and increase of our churches, our prayers for their further growth, with a more powerful effusion of the Divine Spirit and grace upon them, will be mutually offered up.  May the consideration of our effectual calling prove an incentive thereunto!  Which is the subject now to be considered, as in the tenth chapter of our Confession of faith…. This is an act of sovereign grace, which flows from the everlasting love of God, and is such an irresistible impression made by the Holy Spirit upon a human soul, as to effect a blessed change….

We are to consider who are the called.  They are such as God hath chosen and predestinated both to grace and glory, elected and set apart in Christ, as redeemed by his blood….

The changes produced are from darkness to light, from bondage to liberty, from alienation and estrangedness to Christ to a state of nearness and fellowship with him and his saints….

This is an holy calling, and is effectual to produce the exercise of holiness in the heart, even as the saints are created in Christ Jesus unto good works.

Samuel Waldo, moderator for the association, and William Verndon, its clerk, signed the letter by order of the association.  Gano remained with the New York congregation only four more years; yet in that brief span he baptized 125 individuals and the total membership of the church grew to 192.

Richard Furman, who served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, and as the first president of the Triennial Convention, stated the doctrines Gano “embraced were those which are contained in the Baptist Confession of Faith, and are commonly styled Calvinistick [sic].”  Furman described the evangelistic preaching of Gano, observing, “The careless and irreverent were suddenly arrested, and stood in awe before him; and the insensible were made to feel, when he asserted and maintained the honour of his God.”  It was under such searching preaching by Gano and others that A.H. Newman says a “large proportion” of General Baptists in Virginia “felt… for the very first time they understood what conversion meant.”  Leon McBeth declares Gano “must be ranked as one of the most outstanding Baptist leaders in early America” because his preaching abilities, his evangelistic zeal, and his appointment as an associational missionary helped “turn scattered Baptist churches of America into a denomination.”


Here is what J. T. Headley wrote of Gano in The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution (1864) on page 264-265; 271-272:

“On another occasion he was standing near some soldiers who were disputing respecting whose duty it was to cut wood for one of the came fires.  At length one exclaimed in an angry manner, ‘I’ll be d—–d if I will do it.’  Soon after finding he must, he took up the axe to perform it.  Gano immediately stepped forward, and reaching out his hand, said, ‘Give me the axe.’  ‘Oh no,’ replied the soldier, ‘the chaplain shan’t cut the wood.’  ‘Yes, but I must.’  ‘Why?’ said the soldier in surprise.  ‘Because I just heard you say you would be d—–d if you would cut it, and I had rather do it for you than that you should be made imserable forever.’  The longest homily on the guilt of profanity would not have produced half the effect on the soldiers that this indirect rebuke did. . . .”

“Mr. Gano returned to New bury, where the army erected huts to live in during the winter, andone lafger than the reast for a place of public worship on the Sabbath.  Here three services a day were held, the chaplains from each brigade preaching in rotation.

“Thus passed the winter, while rumors of peace filled the land with hope and delight.  In the spring the British evacuated New York, and Gano returned to the city, to find his house dilapidated and plundered.  His scattered congregation, such as were living, soon returned, and he settled down once more to his pastoral labors.  He continued here for some time, but attracted by representations made to him of the growing state of Kentucky, and hoping to relieve himself from debt which he saw no way of canceling in his present position, he removed thither in 1781 [just after Gano had baptized George Washington by immersion in the Hudson River while encamped at Newburgh], much to the disappointment and regret of his church.  He settled near Frankfort, where he died in 1804, in the seventy-fifth year of his hag.  A fall from his horse in 1798, followed by a paralytic chock, rendered him a cripple the last six years of his life, but he never ceased his labors—sometimes preaching while lying on his back.  Calm and resigned, he saw death approach without a terror, and to a friend who asked him if he wanted to go home and be with Christ, he faintly, sweetly answered, ‘Yes.’ This was the last utterance of his lips on earth, and the Christian and patriot passed to that better land reserved for the people of God.

“True to his country, true to his high office, true to his God, he went through the trying scenes of the Revolution, and through life honored, respected and loved by all who knew him, and now sleeps with those whose names are inscribed in the hearts of their countrymen.”


Of Gano baptizing George Washington we read from Dr. William P. Grady’s tome How Satan Turned America Against God (2005) on pages 150-153:

“Citing The Baptism of George Washington, as recorded in the archives of the First Baptist Church of New York, Dr. E. Wayne Thompson writes:

‘Daniel Gano, one of Gano’s sons and a captain of the artillery, was present and said that he, with about forty officers and men, accompanied the chaplain down to the Hudson River where the Reverend John Gano baptized George Washington.’

Dr. James Norwood, a former associate pastor of Dr. J. Frank Norris, cites from A History of the First Baptist Church in the City of New York by I. M. Haldemann:

‘While in camp at Newburgh [near the Hudson River, 1781], General Washington requested Patsor Gano to baptize him according to the Scriptures.  He did so immersing him in believer’s baptism, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.’

“With the onset of the Washington Bicentennial, a number of secular historians began to question the well-established tradition, citing an absence of ‘official’ documentation.  In an attempt to ‘convince the gainsayers,’ Dr Lemuel Call Barnes, a respected Baptist historian, devoted thirty-five years to the question, ‘Was General George Washington baptized by Chaplain John Gano?’  He notes:

‘Washington said that many things about his life could be known only by tradition.  He took costly pains for the preservation of his personal writings [his letters subsequently burned by Tobias Lear V after he murdered the General via the poison cup!], leaving us “over 400″ manuscript volumes. . . . Yet he said to a correspondent:

“Notwithstanding that most of the papers, which perhaps may be deemed official, are preserved; yet the knowledge of innumerable things of a more delicate and secret nature is confined to the perishable remembrance of some few of the present generation.”

“Dr. Barnes writes (with regard to what I believe to be the crowning achievement of his unpublished, 180-page manuscript),

‘At my request, grandchildren of the chaplain put the certainty of their childhood teaching into affidavits.’

“After contacting several Gano descendants, I discovered that the priceless documents had been lost to the family for decades.  My own investigation turned up nothing.  Then, in May of 2002, my friend and colleague, Pastor James Beller, informed me that he had found the missing affidavits in the archives of the Samuel Colgate Historical Library, Rochester, New York!  Two months later, I had the priviledge of personally reviewing these amazing handwritten papers.  Two notarized testimonies read as follows:

‘I am the grandson of Rev. John Gano, now in my eighty-third year, and the brother of Mrs. Margaret Ewing.  I was raised from my fifth year to manhood by Mrs. Margaret Hubbell (nee Gano).  I have heard her say that her father baptized (immersed) George Washington.

‘S. F. Gano, M.D.

‘Subscribed and sworn to in my presence this 16th day of August, 1889.

‘Stephen Gano Long, Notary Public, State of Kentucky

‘To whom it may concern: I, Margaret Ewing (nee Gano) aged 90 years last May, being of sound mind and memory, make this statement:  I have often heard my aunt Margaret Hubbell (nee Gano), the elderdaughter of Rev. John Gano, say that her father told her that he baptized General George Washington, at Valley Forge, to the best of my recollection.  She, Mrs. Hubbell, also said that General Washington, for prudent reasons did not desire that his baptism should be made public.  Rev. John Gano was a Chaplain in the Revolutionary War and an intimate personal friend of General Washington.

‘Margaret Ewing

‘Subscribed and sworn to in my presence this 16th day of August, 1889.

‘Stephen G. Long, Notary Public, State of Kentucky’

“That a ninety-year-old Christian widow would employ the innocent qualifier ‘to the best of my recollection’ when suggesting Valley Forge as the baptismal site (as opposed to Newburg) is refreshingly disarming of suspicion.

“In 1908, Rev. E. T. Sanford of Manhattan’s North Church commissioned a painting of Gano baptizing Washington.  The historical masterpiece was originally placed in the Baptist church at Asbury, New Jersey, where it hung until Mrs. Elizabeth Johnston, John Gano’s great-granddaughter, presented it to William Jewell College, Liberty, Missouri, in 1926.  (Time magazine named the former Baptist school as its choice for Liberal Arts College in the year in 2001.) . . .

“In the lobby of the John Gano Chapel (underneath the painting of Washington’s baptism), an encased sword is prominently featured.  A commemorative plaque reads:

‘The Sword’

‘In 1996, Margaret Gano Redpath, the great, great, great, great granddaughter of John Gano offered William Jewell College the family sword.  George Washington had received it from the Marquis de Lafayette; in turn, he bestowed it on John Gano, the first chaplain of the Continental Army.  History records George Washington gave the sword to John Gano after he baptized Washington in the Potomac [in fact, the Hudson River].’ . . .

“Pastor Beller renders the following profound observation in his book, America in Crimson Red:

‘George Washington presented that battle sword, given to him by Lafayette to his Baptist chaplain, John Gano.  Let us not take this gesture of kindness too lightly, for a commanding officer knows exactly the ramifications of surrendering his sword. . . . The author will leave the reader to ponder the full thrust of its meaning.  However, “a word fitly spoken” is in order at this juncture of our narrative.

‘It is the contention of this author that Washington knew the symbols he was leaving to posterity:  He was breaking the baptism of the established church-state monstrosity by submitting to believer’s baptism.  He further demonstrated, to the best of his ability, his deferment to the victor of the second state of the war, the spiritual stage.  This deferment was not to John Gano personally, but to the Bible and the belief system he so profoundly represented.  He placed the symbol of victory and the final break with England, and in essence, Rome, in the hands of a Bible believing, baptized preacher of the Gospel.

‘To the baptized believers, looking back through the leaves of history, the meaning of the baptism and the sword ought to be clear—America is not under the baptism of England, or Europe or Rome.  America’s baptism has no earthly headquarters.‘”

The End

Eric Jon Phelps
By Eric Jon Phelps January 10, 2011 16:54 Updated
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