During the War of 1812, the British had command of the Chesapeake Bay on the east coast of the USA. Tangier Island, being a central island of that Bay was captured to become their base of operations. A Methodist pastor on Tangier, Joshua Thomas, took a great risk in preaching the Gospel to these enemy soldiers and sailors. But because he proved to be a true soldier of the Cross, he was allowed to address them before they sailed north to attack Baltimore. Something to keep in mind was that the British had been totally triumphant up to this point. Washington, D.C. had been burned. Now Britain’s finest fleet moved again to attack America’s feeble forces at a key fortress, Fort McHenry. If it fell, then America would fall.

Toward the close of summer in 1814, those living on Tangier Island were made aware by important movements among the British forces encamped there that something significant was about to take place. Signals were exchanged from ships to shore, orders were given, which launched a bustle of activity. Some of the officers told Parson1 Thomas what was going on. “We’re going to take Baltimore,” they declared. He told them they should leave it alone; they might be mistaken in their calculations. Baltimoreans might resist them and would fight hard for their city and their homes.

The British laughed it off, “Oh! We can easily take it.” He told them it was a dangerous undertaking because he believed God would fight for the good people in that city to help them defeat their enemy. However, before the British fleet left Tangier Island, they asked Parson Thomas to hold a public meeting and exhort the soldiers before they went. He didn’t want to refuse, yet felt very awkward in performing this duty. He thought and prayed about it, and he decided to stand up for Jesus as a good soldier of the cross; to fight the fight of faith. He knew some of these men might be killed in the battle, and never have another opportunity to hear the Gospel. Therefore, it was his duty and privilege to obey their order and hold the meeting. It was on the last Sunday they were in camp. Early that morning, the flags were hoisted, the drums beat, and every preparation was made for a full assembly.

Boats were bringing soldiers in from the ships while bands of music were playing on board. At start time, the soldiers were lined up in solid columns, about twelve thousand men, under the pines in the old campground, which formed the open space in the center of their tents. Parson Thomas stood on a little platform at the end of the camp near the shore, all the men were facing him with their hats off; held in their right hand under the left arm. One officer stood on his right, and another on his left, and sentries were stationed a little distance behind him.

As Parson Thomas looked around at the troops standing at attention, he’d never had such a feeling in his whole life. Yet he felt determined to give them a sincere warning, even if those officers with their sharp, glittering swords, could cut him in pieces for speaking the truth. First came singing and then prayer. Parson Thomas began to feel more confident and more at liberty to say what God had laid on his heart. As they worshiped, all fear and anxiety disappeared. So in a loud voice, he proceeded with his exhortation as freely as he had ever done, any place, before any congregation.

In his own words, Parson Thomas tells us: I told them in the commencement what caused war, and fighting among nations and men; what made this once good, happy world, so full of evil and misery as it now is; and what brings ruin on men, soul, and body. Sin, I said, did all this; but it is a faithful saying and worthy of acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I told them what kind of a sinner I was, and how He saved me from sin; also, many of my neighbors, and that He is able to save to the uttermost all those that come to God through Christ. I described some of the seasons of refreshing we had enjoyed in that spot in the presence of the Lord and thanked them and their Admiral for the kindness they manifested to us; but I could not bid them God’s speed, in what I understood they were going to do.

Parson Thomas continued with his story: I warned them of the danger and distress they would bring upon themselves and others by going to Baltimore with the object they had in view. I told them of the great wickedness of war, and that God said, “Thou shalt not kill!” If you do, He will judge you at the last day; or, even before then, He will cause you to perish by the sword. I told them it was given to me by the Almighty that they could not take Baltimore, and would not succeed in their expedition. I exhorted them to prepare for death, for many of them would in all likelihood die soon, and I should see them no more till we met at the sound of the great trumpet before our final Judge.

The service ended, and many soldiers stepped up to the brave Parson and thanked him for his faithful warnings, and said they hoped it would not be as bad for them as he had prophesied. Parson Thomas shook his head in sorrow because he believed many had received their last call to repentance. The proud fleet weighed anchor, and with pennants streaming, and decks bristling with the machinery of war, sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and left the anxious islanders awaiting the outcome. Day after day they could hear the booming of heavy canons bouncing back over the waves day after day, and night after night, gun answering gun, until everything suddenly went silent. It told the people of Tangier that the fight was over. But they all wondered, who won and who lost? For several nights they laid awake wondering what would happen next. Parson Thomas didn’t get anxious, but he did grieve for those who might have been slain in battle.

Then some of the islanders spotted British ships coming back down the Bay. Parson Thomas ran down to the shore to be the first one to greet them when they landed. He stood there trying to fight the fear that many of those he preached to had been killed in battle. He also thought about some of those he knew in Baltimore and wonder if they too met death. It wouldn’t be long before his worst fears would be realized. He asked the first officers who came ashore if they had taken Baltimore? They looked at him, shook their heads, and told him that hundreds of men had been killed, including their top General. They solemnly told him that it turned out exactly as he said it would. One of them said: “All the time we were fighting we thought of you, and what you told us. You seemed to be standing right before us, still warning us against our attempt to take Baltimore.2

As more and more messages were given to him, they deeply affected him. Especially when one soldier came looking for him and informed him of his buddy who was mortally wounded, and before he breathed his last breath whispered, “God bless Parson Thomas. He showed me the way to Christ, and now, though I die, I hope for mercy and salvation through the name of Jesus, and expect to meet that good man in heaven.” Another infantryman looked for Parson Thomas to tell him: “I never felt my sinfulness before God until that Sunday you preached to us; and while the bullets were flying, and my comrades falling all around me, I threw myself on the mercy of the Lamb of God, and now feel at peace.” Another told him he would take this story back to England and not forget it as long as he lived.

As a result of the British losing this war, the people of Tangier Island were told that they were now free. All during this time they were considered prisoners of war, The news of peace was joyful to them beyond all expression. In fact, they were among the very first on the continent to receive the welcome tidings. Then in January 1815, peace was declared between England and the United States. They were told that in Washington the peace treaty would soon be agreed to and ratified by the President. The news flew, like lightning, over the United States, and everywhere there was great rejoicing.

There are two things that make this story stand out to me and makes my heart rejoice because it tells us that God is always in control. First of all, it was at this battle in Baltimore, on Friday, September 14, 1814, that Francis Scott Key penned the famous words that became our national anthem. Now we know why everyone should stand when it is played to honor those who fought and won the victory to keep America free from foreign domination. The second thing that warms my heart is that Parson Joshua Thomas is my maternal fifth great-grandfather, which makes me throw my shoulders back, even more, when I hear the national anthem played. He was a true soldier of the cross. – Dr. Robert R Seyda

1 Parson was an early term in the USA for “Pastor” or “Reverend.”

The Parson of the Islands: by Adam Wallace, Office of the Methodist Home Journal, Philadelphia, 1872

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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