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LETTER FROM AMERICA: The US military chaplaincy

July 2018 | by Ben Wilkerson

Naval chaplain, Iraq, 2004
see image info

As Christians live hemmed in on every side by the world and its cultural agendas, we know we are in a battle. Paul stated that we do not fight against flesh and blood, but ‘against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ (Ephesians 6:12).

There are, however, those in the military who face both cosmic spiritual powers and ‘flesh and blood’ enemies. By God’s providence, chaplains have served the American military since the onset of the Revolutionary War and are currently serving our armed forces, counselling and pastoring them as they defend our nation.

While this chaplaincy has been there since the nation’s inception, it has over recent decades borne the brunt of many debates in court. I hope here to explain briefly its history and some of its current difficulties.


While the practice of having priests or ministers present with an army has existed since the days of the Israelites’ conquest of the Promised Land, the practice of chaplains serving with the US military is as old as the United States itself.

The US Chaplain Corps dates back to 29 July 1775, when the Continental Congress authorised one chaplain per regiment. It instructed army and navy commanders to give ministers and chaplains great freedom in shepherding the soldiers.

George Washington wrote to Benedict Arnold: ‘[As] far as lays in your power, you are to protect and support the free exercise of the religion of the country and the undisturbed enjoyment of the rights of conscience in religious matters, with your utmost influence and authority’ (‘Why does the US military have chaplains’, Hans Zieger, Pepperdine School of Public Policy website). General Washington furthermore delegated that 16 May 1776 be designated a day of rest and worship (Ibid.).

This continued through subsequent American wars. James Madison, during his term in Congress, voted in favour of chaplains in 1791, 1794 and 1797, and authorised the maintenance of chaplains in the army during his presidency, in 1814.

During the American Civil War, the office of chaplain was further defined and the numbers serving the armed forces grew considerably. Both the Confederate and Union Congresses authorised chaplains in their armies and there was significant growth in their influence.


During the Civil War, over 2,300 men served as chaplain to the Union army and at least 1,300 to the Confederates. While Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis served, most of the chaplains were Protestant.

It is worth noting that significant revivals occurred in both armies and their Protestant chaplains were kept incredibly busy. It is estimated that over 150,000 men were baptised in the Confederate army and nearly 100,000 in the Union army.

After the Civil War, chaplains have continued to serve sacrificially for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of fellow soldiers. In World War I, a chaplain named Francis P. Duffy served with distinction during the heavy fighting in France. He was often seen in the thick of battle, caring for the wounded as they were carried out on stretchers. He received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Protestant service on Peleliu,1944
see image info

Chaplains in World War II too, were noted for their ministry. There were four aboard the USS Dorchester who comforted and evacuated many men after a U-boat torpedo hit and sank their vessel. They died in the midst of the evacuation.

Chaplaincy service to the armed services won respect from both World Wars’ leaders. General Pershing said, during World War I: ‘Their usefulness in the maintenance of morale, through religious counsel and example, has now become a matter of history’ (Ibid.). General MacArthur, during World War II, stated: ‘Moral leadership devolves, in large measure, upon the corps of chaplains working in close understanding and cooperation with all unit commanders’ (Ibid.).

Chaplains continued to serve with great bravery and love throughout the Korean and Vietnam wars. During the latter, they also began to counsel troops on drug abuse.


But the role of the chaplaincy within the US armed services has not been without political and moral struggle. Even as early as 1818 the chaplaincy’s constitutionality was questioned.

On 11 December 1818 there was an appeal from the Kehukee Primitive Baptist Association for the ‘repeal of all laws authorising the appointment of chaplains to Congress, the army, navy, and other public stations’ (Ibid.). The remarkable thing was that Congress didn’t even consider the appeal.

There have been other appeals by lawyers over the years questioning the chaplaincy’s constitutionality. The reason behind these challenges often derive from a literal reading of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

In 1985, the Second Circuit Court defended the chaplaincy, stating that the Free Exercise Clause ‘obligates Congress, upon creating an army, to make religion available to soldiers who have been moved to areas of the world where religion of their own denominations is not available to them’.

But with that liberty comes certain moral dilemmas. In direct response to the Free Exercise Clause, there are all sorts of chaplains within the US military. While, over the years, there have always been a large number of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish chaplains in the military, you will also find Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu chaplains.

There are even ‘religious groups’ that focus on exercising atheism. According to a Military Times poll in 2012, 60 per cent of the military affirmed being Christian, but 20 per cent of the remainder were either non-religious or atheistic.

DADT policy

While evangelism is not prohibited in the military, speaking up for one’s particular views is not looked on favourably. This was especially the case in relation to the repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT) policy.

Issued in 1993, DADT policy prohibited military personnel from harassing or discriminating against homosexuals, and also prohibited anyone openly homosexual from serving in the military.

The policy was repealed in 2011 and there has since been quite a media stir as homosexual military personnel married in quick succession and even participated in uniform in gay pride parades. While public opinion (according to the Pew Research Centre) was largely in favour of allowing homosexuals to enlist in the military, chaplains’ feelings were mixed on the matter.

The Southern Baptist Convention considered removing their chaplains from service since speaking openly against same-sex attraction and marriage was prohibited. The Roman Catholic Church was concerned, but has not pulled any of its priests from service. Other denominations, especially liberal ones, have stated that the repeal of DADT is not an issue.

Some chaplains were discharged for speaking out about this issue. Such was the case for Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder, a naval officer and chaplain who was initially removed from his office and given a ‘detachment for cause’, when a junior officer brought two Equal Opportunity representatives and complained that Modder had a ‘behavioural pattern of being anti-discriminatory of same-sex orientation’ (Fox News, ‘Former SEALs chaplain could be kicked out of Navy for Christian beliefs’, 9 March 2015).

However, Chaplain Modder was reinstated in September 2015, after several attorneys from the Liberty Institute defended him. The Naval Personnel Command (NPC) cleared him of all charges and he was able to retire upon his 21st year of service. The NPC stated that there was not enough substantial evidence to issue the detachment for cause.


Chaplains in the US military certainly carry a heavy responsibility, as they seek to love and pastor soldiers under their care while treading a thin line in regard to the pluralistic policies of the military.

They have served and are continuing to serve with distinction, offering solace, counsel and teaching to those who are in the front line. They have been close to the battle, tending the wounded, serving the Lord’s Supper, and standing as beacons for the gospel, in the midst of one of the greatest difficulties a man can endure on this earth — the hardship of war.

Let us continue to pray for them, that they may be strong and courageous, and that above all they may have a saving knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, which they can communicate effectively to the many soldiers under their care.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA

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