Baptist History Spotlight: John Gano

April 21, 2015

Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

John Gano was a famous Baptist Pastor, Evangelist, and Chaplin. He was the Pastor of First Baptist Church of New York. He was an evangelist in the pioneer areas of early America. He served as a chaplain in the Revolutionary War and his big claim to fame is that he is alleged to have baptized George Washington during the war. A painting at William Jewel College shows him baptizing Washington in a river by immersion. There are witnesses who are definite to this being an actual happening. He was one of the most famous evangelists during the 18th Century. He ministered to another generation after the Great Awakening under Whitefield and Edwards’ leadership. Nonetheless, God used him to minister during the turbulent Revolutionary War time and is notable as a famous early Baptist leader.

John Gano was born in Hopewell Township in Mercer County, New Jersey, on July 22, 1727. He was raised a Presbyterian. His father was a descendant of the Huguenots and his mother had a background going back to the English Baptists. Gano became a Baptist having studied the different principles of the Baptist faith.

After becoming a Baptist Gano enrolled in what eventually became Princeton University. Gano did not graduate, leaving to pastor the Scotch Plains Baptist Church in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He was ordained and became pastor of the church on May 29, 1754. He left the church in 1760 to serve as pastor for two years in North Carolina. He returned to New England becoming the founding pastor of the First Baptist Church of New York. Although he remained pastor of the church for 26 years, until 1788, he made trips all over the colonies doing itinerant work.

Gano had a great vision to reach people for Christ throughout the colonies. He had a patient church that endured his being gone for as long as two years. He was an original trustee at the charter of the College of Rhode Island which became Brown University.

Gano served as a solider and chaplain in the Continental Army when the American Revolution began. He was noted for his bravery in battle at the conflict on Chatterton Hill. Being continually under fire he displayed a calmness and courage. He earned the admiration of officers and men in this battle. He served throughout the war saying a prayer at the end of the war which General Washington designated to be the official end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. Gano returned to his congregation after the war in New York to find his church reduced and scattered. Serving now on a regular basis the church began to grow once more with Gano there.

In 1788 Gano moved to Kentucky becoming the pastor of the Town Fork Church near Lexington. He remained in Kentucky where he also died in 1804. He is buried in a cemetery close to the grave of Daniel Boone. Gano was married twice. His first wife was the sister of the wife of Dr. James Manning, the first president of Rhode Island College (Brown University). His son, Stephen, served in the Revolutionary War being trained as a surgeon. After the war he felt led to go into the pastoral ministry. He initially preached in the vicinity of New York. In 1792 Stephen was called to the historic pastorate of First Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island. He spent his entire pastoral ministry with great effectiveness serving the oldest Baptist Church in the United States. Gano’s son also followed his father as an overseer of Brown University for a long period of time until his death.

The story of George Washington’s baptism by immersion by Gano was claimed in an affidavit by Gano’s oldest daughter saying her father baptized Washington at Valley Forge when he served the General as one of his chaplains. The baptism story is rejected by some secular historians.

William Grady in his book “What God Hath Wrought” subtitled “A Biblical Interpretation of American History” believes the story to be true. Others believe the story not to be true because it is in none of Gano’s writings or biography to suggest that the event took place. There has been a discussion over if Washington’s alleged baptism took place at Valley Forge, which would have been very frigid, or in the warmer climate of the Potomac River. Some say Gano was with Clinton’s army and that none of the 42 alleged witnesses ever documented the event.

There is a Gano chapel at William Jewell College in Missouri. The chapel displays a painting of Gano baptizing Washington. The chapel also contains a sword owned by Marquis de Lafayette which Washington purportedly gave to Gano.

John Gano’s versatility was amazing considering the different roles that he played. His travels and experience made him party to much of American history. Gano’s energy and tireless work are remembered. He is considered one of the most famous pastors and chaplains in the 18th century. God blessed his ministry with longevity and a lasting legacy.