The heritage of the United States Army Chaplaincy reaches far back into the dim recesses of history. In times of turmoil, trouble, and terror mankind always looks to religion and religious figures for comfort. War is no exception. Both ancient and modern societies have turned to religion in periods of conflict. Communities always have extended the comfort of religion to those serving in the heart of battle. From what we know of societies prior to written history, it is likely that priests and other religious figures petitioned gods and spirits for victory in war.
The modern chaplaincy's roots are essentially medieval Catholic in origin. The Council of Ratisbon (742 AD) first officially authorized the use of chaplains for armies, but prohibited "the servants of God" from bearing arms or fighting. The word chaplain itself also dates from this period. A fourth century legend held that a pagan Roman soldier called Martin of Tours encountered a beggar shivering from the cold and gave him part of his military cloak. That night he had a vision of Christ dressed in the cloak. As a result, Martin was converted to Christianity. He devoted his life to the church, and after his death was canonized. Martin of Tours later became the patron saint of France and his cloak, now a holy relic, was carried into battle by the Frankish kings. This cloak was called in Latin the "cappa". Its portable shrine was called the "capella" and its caretaker priest, the "cappellanus". Eventually, all clergy affiliated with military were called "capellani," or in French "chapelains", hence chaplains.
Religious figures in this era often went into battle as fighting men with the army. Archbishop Turpin (Tilpinus of Rheims), whose exploits are to be found in The Song of Roland, is a notable example of the warrior priest. In l066 at the Battle of Hastings, Bishop Odo, the younger half-brother of William the Conqueror, fought with a heavy blunt mace since as a religious man he had forsworn the use of edged or pointed weapons.
Between l607 (the founding of Jamestown) and l775, a span of l68 years, a unique civilization emerged in North America as waves of European immigrants (mainly from the British Isles, but also from the Germanies) were transformed, often in a generation, into Americans. This extended period of change also saw an almost continual war with the Native American tribes, and against the French for the political and economic control of the continent. The chaplain, clad in his suit of black broadcloth, accompanied the colonial militia into battle from the very beginning. The colonial forces were locally recruited and when they went to war they took with them one of the local ministers, who usually, but not always, was one of the younger and more physically able of the clergy.
THE REVOLUTION, 1775-1783
The history of Army chaplains throughout our War for Independence is a chronicle of sacrifice and service. Colonial clergymen frequently raised military units from their own congregations or localities, and often led them in battle. They bore their suffering and knew hunger, loneliness, imprisonment, defeat, wounds, death, and ultimate victory. The story of the Revolutionary War chaplains begins at Lexington Green and Concord Bridge on 19 April l775. A number of New England clerics served at Concord: William Emerson, later to die while on active duty; Joseph Thaxter, soon to be wounded at Bunker Hill; Edmund Foster, a theological student; and the Reverend Doctor Philips Payson. The latter three not only ministered to the minutemen but also "shouldered their muskets, and fought like common soldiers." It was written of Rev. Payson: "Seizing a musket he put himself at the head of a party, and led them forward to the attack." William Emerson served at Concord in the capacity of a chaplain only, and so has the distinction of being the first Revolutionary War chaplain.
Scores of others were not content to wait for action with this home guard but joined the minutemen or militia: Some fighting, others simply as ministers of religion, and still others taking up the work they had laid down years before after the capture of Louisburg in King George's War, but all without military status. The Reverend Benjamin Balch of Danvers, Massachusetts, for example, served as a lieutenant in an Alarm Company commanded by a deacon, Captain Edmund Putnam. Following Lexington, Balch volunteered to be the chaplain of Colonel Ephraim Doolittle's Regiment. In 1778 he became the first chaplain in the fledgling American Navy.
When George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army at Cambridge, Massachusetts, chaplains were already present for duty. Washington could count fifteen chaplains serving with the twenty-three regiments gathered around Boston. The Continental Congress gave the chaplains its official recognition on 29 July l775, when it voted pay for various officers and enlisted personnel in the Continental Army not previously covered in its resolution of l6 July. The reference is to dollars per month, and it reads: "Chaplain 20." This was the same sum paid captains and Judge Advocates, and it was the first official recognition of chaplains by an American government. As such it is considered the birth date of the chaplaincy. Nearly a year later General George Washington issued the following General Order:
New York, July 9th, l776
The Honorable Continental Congress having been pleased to allow a Chaplain to each Regiment, with the pay of Thirty-Three Dollars and one third dollars pr month - The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly; persons of good Characters and exemplary lives - To see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect and attend carefully upon religious exercises. The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger -The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavor so to live, and act as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.
At the outset of the war, each colony had its own plan for the chaplaincy or hastily improvised one. Virginia established its militia regimental chaplaincy by legislative act in 1758 at the request of Colonel George Washington, yet no chaplains seem to have been appointed until 1776. Connecticut had regimental chaplains appointed by the Governor. Massachusetts had several systems operating at the same time. The official plan was to rotate the duty among the clergy of the established Congregational Church. Each clergyman was paid by his parish while neighboring pastors substituted in his pulpit. Rhode Island had at first no chaplains, but soon two brigade chaplains were chosen by the brigade officers. They were Chaplain John Murray, who served without pay, and Chaplain John Martin, who appeared on the rolls as a surgeon. The New Hampshire troops surrounding Boston chose a local minister as their chaplain. The only consistent principle was that the chaplain should represent, if possible, the religious sentiment of the troops he served. When Congress, in 1777, desired to substitute brigade chaplains for regimental chaplains, General George Washington protested that the measure might introduce religious disputes, and that the regimental arrangement "gives every regiment an opportunity of having a chaplain of their own religious sentiments, it is founded on a plan of a more generous toleration ... a Brigade ... composed of four or five, perhaps in some instances six regiments, there might be so many different modes of worship."
The chaplains of the Revolution, who had so well served in the crisis of war, also helped in the development of the new nation. Former chaplain Abraham Baldwin represented Georgia in l787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and was one of the 39 signers of the Constitution. He became a Senator and a founder of the University of Georgia. His brother-in-law, Joel Barlow, late chaplain of the 4th Massachusetts Brigade, became a poet and hymn writer of distinction and represented his country in diplomatic missions to France, England, and during the Barbary War. Nathan Strong became a figure of stature in his church and editor of the Connecticut Evangelical Magazine. Timothy Dwight, a noted hymn writer, became one of Yale's more famous presidents and was instrumental in the religious revival that later swept that campus and all of New England. Israel Evans became chaplain of the New Hampshire General Court.