Sermons of Thomas Picton, West Point's second chaplain

Sermons of Thomas Picton, West Point's second chaplain

Picton, Thomas (1775 – 1861). An archive of ten sermons and other documents, mostly 1816 to 1823. Ten manuscripts on bifolia bound with strings, about 200 pages total. Text easily legible, overall in very good condition.

While there have been clergy stationed to serve soldiers stationed at West Point since 1778, it was not until 1813 that the United States Military Academy engaged Rev. Adam Empie as the school’s first official chaplain. When he left five years later, Rev. Thomas Picton was hired as his replacement.


Portrait of Thomas Picton, Westfield Presbyterian Church, New Jersey (photo by Brian Picton Swann)

A native of Pembrokeshire, Wales, Picton received his ministerial training in Glandwr under Rev. John Griffith (1731–1811). He emigrated to the United States in 1796. After several lesser appointments, he accepted the post of pastor of the Westfield Presbyterian Church in Westfield, New Jersey in 1805. During his thirteen years there, he led a revival (1808) and earned a degree from Princeton University (1811).  

In 1818, Picton resigned from Westfield to assume the position of Chaplain and Professor of history, geography, and ethics at West Point. He was the first to teach law at the Academy, and incidently the only Presbyterian in an otherwise unbroken line of Episcopalian ministers to occupy the position. Among the cadets under his care were David Wallace '21 (Cullum 270), who would later serve the state of Indiana first as Governor then as Representative, Alexander D. Bache '25 (Cullum 392), who would become a distinguished scientist, and his son, John M. W. Picton '23 (Cullum 372). His tenure came to an end on 1 January 1825 following a negative report by some members of the Board of Visitors who recommended his dismissal. At issue, allegedly, was the quality of his preaching: the members of the board wanted, as Herman Norton put it, a "more eloquent pulpiteer." The complaints of students may also have been a factor. John W. Brinsfield observed that:

Unfortunately for Picton, his initial sermon coincided with compulsory chapel attendance, a practice Superintendent Thayer inaugurated on September 21, 1818. When the cadets were marched to chapel they thought it was at the direction of the new chaplain and many deeply resented this innovation.

It is also possible that grief may have diluted Picton’s expository zeal. In 1821 his wife died and was buried at West Point. The other faculty expressed surprise and alarm at Picton's dismissal, but he went on to other positions in New York and New Jersey. He died in Hoboken in 1861. In 1865, with the consent of the Secretary of State, his remains were removed from New Jersey and reinterred beside his wife at West Point.

This gathering includes the manuscripts for nine of Picton’s sermons, each of which is marked with the dates and places of delivery. A tenth manuscript dates from his early years in Wales. At least seven sermons are noted as having been delivered before the cadets of West Point. Most interesting among these is a lengthy homily “on Christian self-denial.” Delivered first at West Point in 1823, it includes examples drawn from philosophy, history and geography (i.e., anthropology), including a lengthy quotation on Hindu asceticism from one of the textbooks he assigned to his students.

The archive comprises:

The Preface to Revelation, circa 1790[?]. A 4 1/4 page exposition signed by Picton, followed a 2 ¾ page statement signed by Griffin and other leaders of the Church of Chris in Glandwr supporting Picton’s application for further study for the ministry with a Mr. Williams (possibly John Williams, 1745/5–1818). The document describes the young man as being descended from pious parents “who is now an orphan under the Tuition of our Worthy Pastor for some years, Piety and Seriousness appearing in him very Early.” 7 pp. total.

[Sermon on] Luke 13.34. Preached first in 1807; West Point, February 2nd, 1823. 11 pp.

Funeral Sermon [on Ps. 90:12]. Preached first in 1809, and at West Point, at the funeral of Cadet James Scott of Newbern, North Carolina, May 13, 1819, and again at West Point on July 25, 1824. 11 pp.

New Year [on Luke 13.8]. Preached first in 1810, and again at West Point, January 5, 1823 (twice). 12 pp.

[Sermon on] Philippians 2:12-13a. Preached first Westfield, 1812; West Point, 1821. 32 pp.

Fast day [on Isaiah 21:11]. Preached at Westfield, 1816. 15 pp.

Thanksgiving [on Ps 50:14]. Preached Westfield, 1816. 29 pp.

[Sermon on] Ezekiel 36:37. Preached first in 1817; West Point, 1821. 29 pp.

Sacramental Occasion: on the Sufferings of Christ [on I Peter 3:18]. Preached first in 1817; West Point, 1821. 28 pp.

On Christian Self-Denial [on Mt 16:24]. Preached first at West Point, 1823. 38 pp.

Several sermons from Picton’s early ministry are in the manuscript collections of Princeton University, and Brinsfield cites some material in the archives of the United States Military Academy. But so far as we have been able to determine, these are the only sermons that survive from his time at West Point.

Selected References

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    Sermons of Thomas Picton, West Point's second chaplain