Rev. Mr. Robert Keith, Chaplain

Robert Keith. The Mr. Keith who is named by James L. Howard as the frigate Confederacy’s chaplain on page 210 of Seth Harding: Mariner is Robert Keith. The fifth of nine or ten children of Captain William Keith (1714-1781) and Margaret Stockton (1721-1772), Robert was probably born in 1753, although some genealogical sources suggest he was born as early as 1747. He was the older brother of Isaac Stockton Keith born on 20 January 1755 who, like Robert, also became a Presbyterian minister. Their father, a native of Londonderry, William Keith moved to Upper Makefield Township near Newtown prior to 1750 when other Scotch-Irish Presbyterians immigrated to Bucks County, PA. The elder Keith bought 230 acres from the London Company on 3 December 1761 and built the 24 feet by 28 feet two story stone dwelling “on the road from Brownsburg to the Eagle” in which the Keith children were raised two years later in 1763. It was from this house that Washington launched his celebrated attack on Trenton after crossing the Delaware on Christmas Day 1776. Most of what we know of Robert Keith comes from the Records of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1841), the History of the Presbytery of Philadelphia by Alfred Nevin (1888) and writings associated with Princeton University where Keith was a member of the Whig Society and graduated with his first degree in the arts in 1772. Graduating classmates of Keith included future Vice-President Aaron Burr, Attorney General William Bradford and fellow preachers and Revolutionary War chaplains Philip Vicars Fithian and William Linn. At his graduation, Robert offered an opposing argument to Mr. Ebenezer Finley, son of the fifth President of Nassau Hall Rev.Samuel Finley, on the thesis “Amor Patris non debet Virtus haberi, nisi ad Benevolentiam erga Universos referatur” (On account of Love, the Father will uphold a Just Government). Robert Keith was received as a candidate for the ministry on 4 November 1773, licensed to preach on 2 August 1774 and ordained as a minister on 21 August 1776. Classmate Fithian’s journal of Tuesday 17 May 1774 records the precise length of Robert Keith’s examination sermon for the 1st Philadelphia Presbytery as forty-four minutes in length, sixteen minutes shorter than Israel Evans who preceeded him. At the meeting of the Presbyterian Synod on 17 May 1775, it was reported by the 1st Philadelphia Presbytery “that since our last [1774 Synod] they have licensed to preach the gospel, Messrs. Philip Vicars Fithian, Andrew Hunter, Israel Evans, and Robert Keith; [and] ordained to the work of the gospel ministry, Messrs. Nathaniel Irwin and Daniel McCalla.” Several days later on 22 May 1775, the Synod ordered that “Mr. Keith, Mr. Hunter, jun’r. and Mr. Fithian, are appointed each of them to supply three months under the care of the Presbytery of Donegal and each of them three months under the care of the Presbytery of Hanover before our next meeting; and also to spend what time they can in supplying under the care of the Presbytery of Orange.” Shortly after this Synod meeting, Philip V. Fithian of Greenwich, NJ records in his journal on 20 June 1775, “crossed the Potomac then through a small blind road to Mr. King’s meeting house of upper West Conococheague, where the Presbytery of Donegal met Mr. Black gave the sermon. Present—Messrs. Cooper, Thompson, Hoge, McFarquhar. Candidates—Black, Keith, McConnel, Hunter and myself. Students—Wilson, Linn, Waugh and Bard. At Mr. Black’s—he lives west under the North Mountain. He has a sweet pleasant wife and child. Mr. Black, played for our diversion and amusement, many airs on the German flute; we recalled and chatted over our peregrinations since we parted.” Fithian’s entry of two days later on Thursday 22 June 1775 notes, “At Presbytery by nine, we got our appointments, Mr. Keith over the Allegheny. I have the following, next Sabbath at Cedar Springs; first Sabbath in July, at Northumberland, second at Buffalo Valley, third at Warrior Run, fourth at Bald Eagle, fifth in Chillisquaque, first, in August, in Pennsvalley, second West Kiscoquillas, third East Kiscoquillas, fourth Shirley, a vast stony round. At eleven left the Presbytery and rode to Mr. King’s, within a mile of Fort Loudon; Mr. Keith along. We rode north into Path Valley; Mr. Keith left me at twelve miles on his way to Bedford.” Just over three months later, on 27 September 1775, Robert Keith graduated with a second degree in the arts from Princeton University then known as the College of New Jersey; along with contemporaries Israel Evans, Philip Vicars Fithian, Andrew Hodge, Andrew Hunter, Jr., William Linn and others. His younger brother Isaac Stockton Keith also graduated with honors with his first degree and delivered a latin oration on “Pax nationis summa felicitas” (Peace for the Nation, the Highest Happiness) at the commencement ceremony. Keith was paid forty-two pounds for his labors that year and apparently his ministerial work in these jurisdictions was deemed acceptable as the Synod of the following year reported on 22 May 1776 that “Messrs. Debow, Keith, Hunter, Fithian, Ichabod Lewis, Nathan Kerr, and Alexander Miller, fulfilled their missions as appointed at our last.” At that 22 May meeting, the 1st Philadelphia Presbytery applied to the Synod for their concurrence to ordain Robert Keith ‘sine titula’, or without credentials, in the event of “his going out to supply at Canetuck [Kentucky], to which the governing body agreed. The Philadelphia Presbytery ordained Mr. Keith on 21 August 1776, but not for the purpose of missionary work but rather as a chaplain to the Army. Just nine days prior to his ordination, on 12 August 1776, the Rev. Robert Keith is reported in the Minutes of the Committee of Safety of Bucks County, PA as appointed chaplain for the Battalion of the Flying Camp under the command of Colonel Joseph Hart. He is also listed on the roll of officers and men for the unit a month earlier on 9 July 1776. The four hundred men raised in Col. Hart’s Battalion of Bucks County Militia were attached to the Flying Camp of ten thousand men of the Middle Colonies established by the Continental Congress on 8 June 1776 and assembled near Amboy, NJ. Officers included adjutant John Johnson, surgeon Joseph Fenton, Jr., quartermaster Alexander Benstead and company Captains John Folwell, William Roberts, William Hart, Valentine Opp and John Jamison. The soldiers provided their own rifles and accouterments and were advanced one month’s pay against their term of enlistment which was to expire on 1 December 1776. While no official account of their service is extant, it is likely that this battalion was involved in the disastrous New York campaign of 1776 including the Battle of Long Island on 27 August and the Battle of White Plains on 28 October, culminating in the capture of Fort Washington on 16 November. Many of the Pennsylvania men are known to have been captured in these engagements, including chaplain Robert Keith. The Presbyterian Synod minutes records Keith’s absence at the 21 May 1777 meeting although the report of the 1st Philadelphia Presbytery provides a hint of the tragic circumstances surrounding the imprisonment of three of her Army chaplains, “the Rev. Mr. Enoch Green is removed by death since our last, likewise Mr. Philip Fithian, a licensed candidate; and that they have ordained Mr Robert Keith, to qualify him to act as a chaplain in the army, to which he had been appointed.” Both Fithian and his mentor Green were married to daughters of the Rev. Charles Beatty. Enoch Green, valedictorian of the Princeton University Class of 1760, left the pulpit of the stone church he helped to build at Deerfield Street, NJ to serve as chaplain in Col. Joseph Bloomfield’s Third New Jersey Battalion. He contracted camp fever at Fort Washington, returning home to Deerfield to die on 2 December 1776 where he is interred at his beloved church. Philip Vicars Fithian, commissioned on 20 June 1776, served as chaplain of Col. Silas Newcomb’s Battalion of Nathaniel Heard’s Brigade in the campaign and died in camp of dysentery at Fort Washington on 8 October 1776. Robert Keith was recorded as absent from the Presbyterian Synods meetings held in Bedminster, NJ on 20 May 1778 and Philadelphia on 19 May 1779. Interestingly, the 1st Philadelphia Presbytery reported in 1779, that at some time since the 1777 Synod meeting, Princeton schoolmate and Army chaplain Andrew Hunter had also been ordained. It is not presently determined how long Keith was in captivity or restricted by parole terms, however; we know from his own recollection that it extended at least into 1777 and probably until the Spring of 1779. John Jay’s letterbooks include a story told by the Reverend Robert Keith on board the frigate Confederacy and transcribed on 19 December 1779, just one day after the crippled ship was brought into Martinique for repairs. Keith spoke of a Mrs. Sarah Smith, the widow of New York cabinetmaker John Smith, who ministered to the prisoners of Fort Washington who were brought into the city for confinement. Keith recalled how paroled officers, including himself, were invited into her home and received into her family as boarders. “She not only entertained those who could come to her house, but also daily visited those who were kept in close confinement.” When questioned by British officials on what authority she was “craving alms” from the “well disposed people of her acquaintance,” the elderly widow retorted “by the authority of the Word of God.” Eventually she was “gaoled” and upon her release, left the city in 1777, escaping up the North River to Clarkstown near Tappen Bay. Her “extraordinary sacrifice” was recognized by American leaders due to the reverend’s remembrance. Additional details of Keith’s parole may be gleaned from the publication Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City, February 1778 by H. Jordan (1900). Boudinot was the commissary-general of prisoners. Sometime during the Summer or early Fall of 1779, Robert Keith was attached to the Navy as a chaplain and went on board the frigate Confederacy near Philadelphia. He replaced one Major Hallet who had served as the Confederacy’s chaplain on her maiden cruise from New London to Chester. According to a letter from Boudinot to George Washington which the general forwarded to the Board of War on 22 May 1779, Chaplain Hallet was suspected of being an agent in the British service. On 20 May 1779, John Brown penned a letter to Captain Seth Harding ordering him to send the Confederacy’s chaplain under guard for the purpose of appearing before the Marine Committee on Friday evening 28 May at six o’clock in the evening. Two weeks before embarking on what would be a seven month cruise, Robert Keith was married to Mary Adams on 7 October 1779 at Holy Trinity (Old Swedes) Church in Wilmington, DE. No other details of his marriage are known. The newlywed cleric sailed with the ship under the command of Captain Seth Harding from Chester on 25 October 1779 with passengers John Jay, his wife Sarah- the daughter of New Jersey Governor William Livingston, their 12 year old nephew Peter Jay Mintro, Sarah’s brother Col. Henry Brockholst Livingston, secretary William Carmichael, retiring French ambassador Conrad Alexandre Gerard and his wife Mme. Gerard, all bound for France. The ship was dismasted on route and redirected to Martinique for repairs where it remained until sailing for home the following March in 1780. A surviving letter in the Franklin Papers at Yale from Robert Keith to Conrad Alexandre Gerard, by that time on a return voyage to France, dated on board the Confederacy at St. Pierre on 17 March 1780 suggests that a box of furs was mistakenly taken by the French ambassador’s steward James. He requests that the box containing 2 otter, 5 red fox, 12 fisher and 4 mink skins be forwarded to Captain William Keith (his father) of Philadelphia upon its discovery. Gerard’s apologetic response of 4 June 1780 indicates the “mistake is especially unfortunate… the skins which were already spoiled in Martinique, are almost completely lost.” Arriving in Philadelphia on the Confederacy without his furs on 27 April 1780, Keith managed to attend the Presbyterian Synod meeting which opened on 17 May 1780 with an ironic sermon from 1 Corinthians 4:2 concerning trustworthy stewards. Arriving late, the minutes report, “The Rev. Mr. Robert Keith is now come.” In typical Presbyterian understatement the report continues, “Messrs. Spencer, Keith, Miller, Eakin, and Debow, who were absent from our last [1779 Synod], gave their reasons for absence, which were sustained.” Of particular interest to Keith at this meeting would have been an overture from his own 1st Philadelphia Presbytery requesting the advice of Synod concerning the ordination sine titulo of his younger brother Isaac Stockton Keith, a probationer under their care. After hearing the case, the Synod voted favorably to authorize them to proceed. It is presumed that Robert Keith remained attached to the frigate Confederacy during her Summer refitting in Philadelphia and sailed again with the ship on 5 December 1780 on her ill-fated cruise to Cape Francois in the West Indies. On the return voyage home, the Confederacy with her officers and men were captured by the British warships Roebuck and Orpheus off the Delaware Capes on 14 April 1781. It is assumed that Rev. Keith was paroled with most of the officers to New London, CT while most of the crew were confined on the prison ship Jersey in New York. Like many serving as chaplains from the 1st Philadelphia Presbytery, Keith was initially recorded as absent from the Presbyterian Synod meeting in Philadelphia on 16 May 1781, “Rev. Messrs. James Watt, William Hollingshead, Alexander Mitchell, James Boyd, James Grier, Daniel McCalla, Israel Evans, Andrew Hunter, and Robert Keith,” however, “Messrs. Boyd, Clark, and Robert Keith, are now come; their reasons for not attending sooner, sustained.” Robert Keith was present at the Presbyterian Synod meetings held in Philadelphia on 15 May 1782 and the following year on 21 May 1783, albeit late again that year as seems his habit. One month later, the Minutes of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania for Tuesday 17 June 1783 indicate that the Reverend Mr. Robert Keith was due over 142 pounds in principal and interest for his late service as chaplain of the Flying Camp. Keith was recorded as absent from the Synod meeting in May of 1784. It is written that Robert Keith continued to serve as a chaplain throughout the war and while it is apparent that he provided pulpit supply to many area churches, Keith was never called to permanently minister to a particular congregation. It is suggested that he engaged in missionary work after the close of hostilities and prior to his death in 1784. His death was reported to the Synod of the Presbyterian Church on 18 May 1785. Robert Keith is possibly buried with his parents in the Presbyterian churchyard at Newtown; however, the deteriorated conditions of the adjoining grave stones and slabs prevent identification. Forty-two years after the death of the frigate Confederacy’s chaplain Robert Keith, the Presbytery of Philadelphia raised the question of “the propriety of their ordaining to the work of the Gospel ministry a licentiate under their care who now holds the office of a chaplain in the navy of the United States.” The Synod of 1826 responded by declaring “the Presbyterian Church feels a deep and lively interest in the spiritual welfare of the mariners of this country, and especially of those who are engaged in the naval service of our Union; and that the Assembly therefore will rejoice if any Presbytery under its care has the opportunity of ordaining any well-qualified persons, men of piety and learning, with a view to their rendering permanent ministerial services to large congregations of our fellow citizens who dwell in ships-of-war.”

This entry was posted in Chaplains, Continental Navy Officers, Navy Wardroom, Warrant and Petty Officers. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *