Author: Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist
Benjamin Rice Lacy Jr. was born on July 30, 1886, in Raleigh, N.C., to Benjamin Rice and Mary Burwell Lacy. Lacy came from a prestigious family, including his grandfather Drury Lacy Jr. who served as president of Davidson College and was a Civil War chaplain. His father Benjamin Lacy Sr. was a pioneer in promoting labor organizations in North Carolina, and later served as the North Carolina Treasurer from 1901 to 1928. Benjamin’s mother Mary Burwell Lacy was the daughter of the president of Peace Institute in Raleigh, N.C.
After attending the Raleigh Male Academy, Benjamin Lacy Jr. attended college at Davidson College, where he was the star quarterback on the school’s football team. He graduated from Davidson College with a degree in history in 1906. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Worcester College, Oxford University, from 1907 to 1910; Lacy Jr. received a bachelor of arts degree in 1910 from the college. In 1913, Lacy Jr. received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) in Richmond, Virginia, and was awarded the Hoge Fellowship for the next school year. He taught church history while at Union Theological Seminary. Lacy Jr. became the assistant pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Raleigh, N.C. He worked as a pastor at Willow Springs, Mt. Pleasant, and Oakland Presbyterian churches in Johnston County, N.C., from 1914 to 1917.
Prior to the United States’ entrance into World War I, Benjamin Lacy Jr. was living in Raleigh, and served as a chaplain in the 1st Field Artillery, North Carolina National Guard. When the National Guard was called into federal military service for WWI, the 1st Field Artillery was reassigned as the 113th Field Artillery, 30th Division, U.S. Army. Lacy Jr. was inducted into active federal military service on July 25, 1917. Before his unit was sent to training camp, Lacy Jr. gave a sermon to the men encamped in Raleigh, N.C., at the end of August 1917. Lacy Jr. went to Camp Sevier, S.C., for basic training. He and his unit remained there until May 1918. Both Benjamin and his brother Thomas A. Lacy served in the 113th Field Artillery, and were stationed together in France during the war.
On May 27, 1918, the 113th Field Artillery left the United States from Long Island, New York, for Europe. During the trip across the North Atlantic Ocean on a troop transport ship to England, Benjamin Lacy gave sermons to the men in rain and cold, and involved in leading singing and hymns to pass the time. He arrived in England on Saturday, June 8, 1918. Lacy’s time spent studying in England gave him a cultural familiarity with the country, but also led him to be less impressed with parts of it compared with other men who had never seen the country. As a chaplain, Lacy noted the difficulties of fulfilling his ministerial duties from constant travel in a letter to his family once in England: “I have traveled on Sunday every time I have moved anywhere in the Army. I went to Sevier on Sunday. Left Sevier for N.Y. on Sunday. Left Long Island on Sunday & now have come here on Sunday. But I do not think they are going to wait until next Sunday to send us away from here. Wish they would.”
After arriving in France in mid-June 1918, Benjamin Lacy Jr. began to settle in to his duties as a military chaplain. He conducted Sunday services, held service meetings with officers and regular soldiers, spoke to the convalescent soldiers in field hospitals, and led entertainment efforts. One of his most challenging duties was presiding over—often at the last minute—over funerals for fallen men, both inside and outside of his own regiment. Lacy notes in one letter from August 5, 1918, about a funeral for a man from the Brigade Headquarters Detachment of the 30th Division, who died of injuries from a runaway horse: “Our regiment furnished the caisson, band, bugler and Chaplain. Also helped dig the grave. . . . As always the service was very simple, but very impressive. I guess I shall never get used to funerals for always they affect me very much, but especially these in a foreign land. I have just finished a letter to the boy’s married sister.”
Benjamin Lacy Jr. also was the captain for the 113th Field Artillery’s baseball team, and was the theatrical manager for camp musicals or theater performances. Although he stated that he would not trade his job with a man in the regular Army on the front lines, Lacy became known as the “Fighting Parson” because of his heroism in aiding the wounded before the German lines in France. On one occasion, a deserted German battery with guns and ammunition was found, but it could not be turned against the enemy because all of the instructions were in German. Chaplain Lacy—who was read German and was able to decipher the tables and symbols—took charge, and for two hours joined in operating the guns in well-directed fire.
Benjamin Lacy Jr. received the Silver Star citation for his bravery on September 26, 1918, for the following actions:
“By direction of the President, under the provisions of the act of Congress approved July 9, 1918 (Bul. No. 43, W.D., 1918), First Lieutenant (Chaplain) Benjamin R. Lacy, Jr., United States Army, is cited by the Commanding General, American Expeditionary Forces, for gallantry in action and a silver star may be placed upon the ribbon of the Victory Medals awarded him. Chaplain Lacy distinguished himself by gallantry in action while serving with the 113th Field Artillery, American Expeditionary Forces, in action in Bois de Avocourt, France, 26 September 1918, in rendering aid to the wounded under heavy enemy fire.”
He would be twice cited for meritorious service during WWI. Lacy Jr. was involved in the following military campaigns: Saint-Mihiel offensive; Meuse-Argonne offensive; and the Lorraine offensive. He left France and arrived back in the United States on March 21, 1919, at Camp Stuart, Virginia. Lacy Jr. was honorably discharged from active military service on April 15, 1919, at Camp Jackson, S.C.
Two weeks after being discharge from WWI service, Benjamin Lacy Jr. married Emma Elizabeth White on April 29, 1919, in Raleigh, N.C. He served briefly as pastor of a church in Johnston County, N.C., before being named pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1926, Lacy Jr. became president of Union Theological Seminary, where he remained until his retirement in 1956. He became the pastor of the church at and the chaplain to the college at Hampden-Sydney, Virginia, until 1961.
In 1934, Lacy Jr. was elected Moderator of the Presbyterian Synod of North Carolina. In 1948, he was the United States representative to the International Conference on Theological Education in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1950, he became the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of the United States, which was the highest elected position in that denomination. A prodigious writer, Lacy Jr. authored in 1943 the book Revival in the Midst of the Years. He received honorary degrees from Davidson College, Duke University, Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Richmond, and The University of North Carolina.
Benjamin R. Lacy Jr. died on August 3, 1981, at the Presbyterian Home in High Point, N.C., and was buried in Union Theological Seminary Cemetery in Virginia.
[Portions of this biographical note were taken from the entry on “Benjamin R. Lacy Jr.,” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, edited by William S. Powell, published by UNC Press, 1996.]
You can now view the typescript of Benjamin Lacy Jr.'s WWI letters online through the digital WWI collection of the North Carolina Digital Collections, a joint effort of the State Library of North Carolina and the State Archives of North Carolina.
To learn more about Benjamin R. Lacy Jr.'s WWI service, check out the Benjamin R. Lacy Jr. Letters (WWI 86) in the WWI Papers of the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh, N.C.
This blog post is part of the State Archives of North Carolina’s World War I Social Media Project, an effort to bring original WWI archival materials to the public through the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ (NCDNCR) various social media platforms, in order to increase access to the items during the WWI centennial celebration by the state of North Carolina.
Between February 2017 and June 2019, the State Archives of North Carolina will be posting blog articles, Facebook posts, and Twitter posts, featuring WWI archival materials which are posted on the exact 100th anniversary of their creation during the war. Blog posts will feature interpretations of the content of WWI documents, photographs, diary entries, posters, and other records, including scans of the original archival materials, held by the State Archives of North Carolina, and will be featured in NCDNCR’s WWI centennial blog.