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September 14th, 2010

Ministers of the Gospel have always played an important role in history. Of particular interest is chaplains in the United States. Although the separation of church and state is widely debated and lawsuits have been initiated to block the Christian witness and presence, Chaplains still have an influence in the United States House of Representatives and Senate and our Armed Forces. Here is a brief look at some of that history.

Samuel Provoost, Bishop, Episcopal Church USA and first elected Chaplain of Congress

On July 29, 1775, the Continental Congress established the military chaplaincy. Chaplains were paid $20 per month, and provided “forage for one horse.” Gen George Washington issued this order at Valley Forge on May 2, 1778: “The Commander-in-Chief directs that divine services be performed every Sunday at eleven o’clock in each bridge which has chaplains…While we are duly performing the duty of good soldiers, we are not to be inattentive to the highest duties of religion.” Worship for soldiers was voluntary and chaplains of all faiths cooperated with each other, being sympathetic to the beliefs of others.

The history of the military chaplaincy reaches back to the beginning days of the United States. When Colonial forces went to war, they took with them one of the local ministers. Usually he was one of the younger clergy and more physically able. “This was an age when religion played a much more important role in the lives of Americans. For the Colonist, the minister was a powerful figure of authority within the community, and usually the best educated. Not even a minor military operation was planned or carried out without making sure that a minister was available to counsel and motivate the colonial fighting men”. [1] By the start of the Revolutionary War, the Military Chaplaincy stood upon 150 years of service to the American fighting men and women.

During the Civil War, military chaplains were held in high regard and there was an increased emphasis on professionalism. Some interesting facts of the chaplain’s influence with Confederate Army soldiers and officers are found in these facts: 150,000 Confederate soldiers rededicated or were baptized during the war; Eighty percent of college students in the South after the war found their religious faith while in the Confederate Army; Thirteen former Confederate chaplains were consecrated as bishops by 1892; and Twelve former Confederate chaplains became presidents of major colleges. [2]

Civil War Chaplains

One the more interesting events of the Civil Way was the election of a Union female chaplain. Mrs. Ella E. Gibson Hobart was elected as the Chaplain of the 1st Wisconsin Regiment of Heavy Artillery. She served in this position for a number of months in 1864, until Secretary of War Stanton refused to recognize her status because of her sex. The Civil War also saw some other firsts: It was the advent of the first Jewish Chaplains, and the first Black and Indian Chaplains. Another milestone in the war was the service of Unaguskie, the son of a Cherokee Chief and a Christian, who was the Chaplain of the Cherokee Battalion raised in North Carolina by the Confederate Army. [3]

When the Senate first convened in New York City on April 6, 1789, one of its first orders of business was to appoint a committee to recommend a candidate for chaplain. On April 25, the Senate elected the Right Reverend Samuel Provoost, Episcopal Bishop of New York, as its first chaplain. Since that time, the Senate has been served by chaplains of various religious denominations, including Episcopalians (19), Methodists (17), Presbyterians (14), Baptists (6), Unitarians (2), Congregationalists (1), Lutherans (1), Roman Catholic (1), and Seventh-day Adventist (1). The Senate has also appointed guest chaplains representative of all the world’s major religious faiths. In addition to opening the Senate each day in prayer, the current Senate chaplain’s duties include spiritual care and counseling for senators, their families, and their staffs — a combined constituency of over 6,000 people — and discussion sessions, prayer meetings, and a weekly Senators’ Prayer Breakfast. [3]

The former Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-West Virgina) addressed the Senate on June 5th, 1980 on “1789-1989: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate” giving an interesting history that is worth reading. You may read his address here: http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/Chaplain.pdf

The same history is true for the United States House of Representatives. The election of the Rev. William Linn as Chaplain of the House on May 1, 1789, continued the tradition established by the Continental Congresses of each day’s proceedings opening with a prayer by a chaplain. The early chaplains alternated duties with their Senate counterparts on a weekly basis. The two conducted Sunday services for the Washington community in the House Chamber every other week. Since the election of Rev. Linn in 1789, the House has been served by chaplains of various religious denominations, including Baptist (7), Christian (1), Congregationalist (2), Disciples of Christ (1), Episcopalian (4), Lutheran (1), Methodist (16), Presbyterian (15), Roman Catholic (1), Unitarian (2), and Universalist (1). In addition to opening proceedings with prayer, the Chaplain provides pastoral counseling to the House community, coordinates the scheduling of guest chaplains, and arranges memorial services for the House and its staff. In the past, Chaplains have performed marriage and funeral ceremonies for House members.[5]

[1] The Military Chaplain, Vol LXXII, Number 5
[2] The National Civil War Museum, The Arthur S. DeMoss Learning Center, Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA; http://chaplainmuseum.org/religion.html
[3] Lighthouse Ministries,Civil War Chaplains; http://www.ourchurch.com/view/?pageID=156779
[4] United States Senate, Senate Chaplains: http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Senate_Chaplain.htm
[5] History of the Chaplaincy, United States House of Representatives: http://chaplain.house.gov/chaplaincy/history.html

Photo: http://www.old-picture.com/civil-war/Chaplains-Civil-War.htm