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.