Benjamin Church: Surgeon, Son of Liberty, Spy

Surgeon, Son of Liberty, Spy

Benjamin Church, a Rhode Island-born, Harvard-trained physician, was considered by friends and neighbors a fierce Patriot and unwavering advocate for independence. He was a known member of the famed Sons of Liberty – a secretive band of colonists who organized opposition to British policies – and a close associate of revolutionary figures John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere.

picture of The Battle of Lexington
British troops and Massachusetts militia clash in the village of Lexington, 1775
British troops and Massachusetts militia clash in the village of Lexington, 1775

Benjamin Church, a Rhode Island-born, Harvard-trained physician, was considered by friends and neighbors a fierce Patriot and unwavering advocate for independence. He was a known member of the famed Sons of Liberty – a secretive band of colonists who organized opposition to British policies – and a close associate of revolutionary figures John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere.

Prior to the war, Church was elected to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and was involved in planning preparations against the British occupation, including militia efforts to acquire weapons and other military supplies. Before that, he treated victims of the Boston Massacre and participated in the Boston Tea Party. Church was eventually appointed by the Continental Congress as the Director General and Chief Physician of the Continental Army’s Hospital Department – essentially the first Surgeon General.

He was also a longtime British spy.

Letter from George Washington to the Continental Congress reporting the conviction and sentencing of Benjamin Church
Letter from General Washington describing Benjamin Church’s treachery, 1775

Under enormous debt and the influence of his English wife, Church began betraying his fellow colonists in 1772, three years before the Revolutionary War began. He sold information to the British commander in Boston, including details of colonial military plans, likely spurring the British to march on the villages of Lexington and Concord to seize arms and munitions that the militias were rumored to be stockpiling. British forces skirmished with Massachusetts Minutemen in the two villages, leading to “the shot heard ‘round the world.”

A Spy Betrayed

Church’s treachery was discovered months later, when Colonials intercepted an encrypted letter his mistress delivered to the British in Boston using a courier. The captured correspondence was brought to the attention of General George Washington, the newly appointed head of the Continental Army. Though Church claimed the letter was innocent, it was found to include a number of sensitive details about the composition of the Continental Army, and the longtime Patriot activist was immediately imprisoned.

A court-martial found Church guilty of communicating with the enemy. He was placed in custody but eventually released due to failing health and exiled to the Caribbean. While in transit, his schooner was lost at sea and he was never heard from again.

An encrypted letter from Benjamin Church page 1 image icon An encrypted letter from Benjamin Church and its translation, 1775
An encrypted letter from Benjamin Church page 2 image icon
An encrypted letter from Benjamin Church page 3 image icon