Saluting the Brave Army Chaplain Corps

by Sally Matheny

Chaplain candidates praying.
(Photo by Capt. Kristin Mack)
Did you know July 29, 1775 is the official birthday of the American Chaplaincy Corps? 

Although some pastors enlisted or were commissioned as early as April 1775, it wasn’t until July when Congress recognized chaplains as part of the national army. Their rank was equal to that of a Captain.

Chaplains often trained to perform medical procedures in addition to attending to the spiritual needs of the troops. It made sense. While some did fight with weapons, most chaplains were back at camp either praying for those heading to battle, the wounded returning from battle, or over the deceased.

Chaplains gave sacrificially in more than one way. Many of those first army chaplains were required to pay those who were filling in for them at their home churches.

Back in September of 1776, Congress recognized the spiritual need of soldiers, whether the soldiers realized it or not. Congress passed the “Articles of War” which included fines and confinement for soldiers not attending services.

Serving as a chaplain was not for the faint of heart either. Any chaplain bowing out of the stresses of war, by going AWOL, was court-martialed and fined.

Rules and expectations varied within the different branches of service. The Navy Chaplaincy, established in November 1776, required religious services twice a day and a service on Sunday.

According to legend, seamen are typically known for their colorful language. It’s interesting to note one of the early rules for the Navy:

"If any shall be heard to swear, curse, or blaspheme the name of God, the Commander is strictly enjoined to punish them for every offense, by causing them to wear a wooden collar or some other shameful badge of distinction ... Commissioned officers forfeit one shilling for each offense, a warrant or inferior officer, six pence. For drunkenness, a seaman shall be put in irons until sober - if an officer he shall forfeit two days pay." 

Drury, Clifford Merril, The History of the Chaplain Corps, United States Navy - Volume One - 1778-1939, (Washington, DC, US Government Printing Office, 1948).

Take note, Congress ordered 20,000 Bibles for the Army in 1777.

Pocket Bibles were distributed to thousands of American soldiers during WWI as well. Part of President Woodrow Wilson’s forward said,

        “The Bible is the Word of Life.

I beg that you will read it and find this out for yourselves, -read, not little snatches here and there, but long passages that will really be the road to the heart of it.

You will find it full of real men and women not only, but also of the things you have wondered about and been troubled about all your life, as men have been always;
and the more you read the more it will become plain to you what things are worthwhile and what are not, what things make men happy,-loyalty, right dealing, speaking the truth, readiness to give everything for what they think their duty,
and, most of all, the wish that they may have the approval of the Christ, who gave everything for them,
-and the things that are guaranteed to make men unhappy,-selfishness, cowardice, greed, and everything that is low and mean.”

In 1941, millions of WWII soldiers received a New Testament from the Gideons. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote in the prologue,
"As Commander-in-Chief, I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States.
Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel, and inspiration.
It is a fountain of strength and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest aspirations of the human soul.”

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Robert Hicks.
(Photo by Master Sgt. Bob Haskell)

However, today, it’s a challenge to get the whole truth of the Bible to the troops.

Gone are the days of issuing fines to troops for not attending worship services. Today, some Christians are scrutinized for living out their faith while serving in the military.

A few Christian chaplains are under fire for sharing their foundational beliefs in Jesus Christ and for using the Holy Bible as their guide.

According to a 2015 article in The Washington Times, “soon there may only be atheists in foxholes.”

‘Michael Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said that while chaplains can believe whatever their religion teaches, those who think they must act on religious teachings about sex or sexuality have no place in the military.

“You can continue to believe that internally, but if you have to act on that, the right thing to do is to get out of the U.S. military..."'

I’m curious if there are any religions out there that encourage people to believe one way but act another. If an atheist says, “there is no God,” then is he required to go out and act as if there is one?

Saluting the Brave Chaplains Corps
(Pixabay Photo)
Shouldn’t we all be free to express ourselves according to our own beliefs? If someone serving in our military seeks out a Christian chaplain for counsel, then shouldn’t he expect counsel according to the chaplain’s beliefs?

Would you want to receive counsel from someone who didn’t believe in what they were saying? Would you seek help from someone who was ordered to hold back the full truth from you—the part which they believed would be most helpful?

All of our service members are adults. They should have the freedom to choose how to worship and conduct their lives according to their religious faith. If they approach a Christian, whether that is a chaplain or other service member, they deserve to have a respectful, uninhibited conversation.

Why do people desire to complicate things? Those who seek counsel from chaplains, regardless of what the chaplains’ religious beliefs are, have chosen to listen to what the chaplains have to say. Then, they take it or leave it and make their own decisions. No one is forced to believe a certain way.

The military had 2,837 active-duty chaplains as of December 2014, according to numbers provided by the Defense Department. The largest group was the Southern Baptist Convention, with 437 members. More than 200 chaplains are affiliated with the Roman Catholic church, while 26 are Jewish, and just one is Hindu.

“The Department of Defense respects, places a high value on and supports by policy the rights of members of the military services to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to have no religious beliefs,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, spokesman for the Defense Department. 
“The mission of the chaplain corps is to provide care and the opportunity for service members, their families and other authorized personnel to exercise their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.

Advocates agreed that chaplains play a crucial role in allowing troops to exercise their freedom of religion, no matter what religion that is.

“Commanders have also relied on chaplains to act as combat multipliers, dealing with issues in the ranks like marriage crises or financial troubles that commanders often can’t address,” said Mr. [Douglas] Lee, [president of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.]     -The Washington Times.

So today, even though it's the anniversary of the Army Chaplain Corps, I salute the brave chaplains serving in all the branches of service. More than that, I pray for them. May the Lord help them to stand firm in their faith and continue to trust Him as they serve in the midst of this spiritual battle.

Chaplain Cmdr. David Oravec
(Photo by Spc. Eric J. Cullen)

“When you are approaching the battle, the priest shall come near and speak to the people. He shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, you are approaching the battle against your enemies today. Do not be fainthearted. Do not be afraid, or panic, or tremble before them, for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.”

Deut. 20:2-4

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