Religion in the Military

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Religion in the Military. For more than 220 years, religion and religious leaders have provided a source of strength and faith for a total of 55 million Americans who have served in the military forces of the United States. The rigorous demands of military duties—separation from friends and family, training in remote locations, battle, and the possibility of violent death—have mandated support for those who serve and who may potentially lay down their lives for their country.

The initial involvement of chaplains as voluntary, noncombatant religious leaders within the American military was an answer to the pressing needs of commanders and soldiers. Religion provided moral direction and spiritual assurance to those who bore the burden of the nation's wars. When George Washington assumed command of the Continental army on 2 July 1775, he found twenty‐three regiments of soldiers, with fifteen chaplains among them, posted around Boston. From the service of the 220 chaplains of the Revolutionary War to that of the 12,000 chaplains of World War II and the 5,000 U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force chaplains who today perform pluralistic ministries at U.S. bases in 65 countries around the world, religion has been a traditional support and a guaranteed right for American military personnel.

The organization of the military chaplaincy began in July 1775, when the Continental Congress appropriated funds to pay officers in the army. Chaplains were authorized $20 a month. Chaplains received no military training, were not eligible for regular promotion above their pay grade of captain, wore no standardized uniforms, and were endorsed by no particular ecclesiastical agency except the congregations and soldiers they served. After 1776, when Benjamin Balch became the first chaplain in the Continental navy, chaplains performed their tasks on sea as well as on land.

With the advent of the Civil War in 1861, ministry in the military widened its base. In 1862, the army authorized the first Jewish chaplains, the first African American chaplains, the first Native American chaplain, and the first hospital chaplains. The navy adopted the Latin cross as the cap insignia for Christian chaplains in 1863, the first faith‐specific insignia approved for wear in the U.S. armed forces.

When 2,300 army chaplains volunteered for duty during the early months of World War I, it became clear to Gen. John J. Pershing and to Congress that a large chaplaincy in a world conflict required more centralized direction than could be provided by unit commanders. In 1920, the National Defense Act reorganized the armed forces and provided for chiefs of chaplains to direct ministries in each of the services. President Woodrow Wilson selected Chaplain John T. Axton as the first army chief of chaplains and Chaplain John B. Frazier as the first navy chief of chaplains. Although three chaplains had performed duty in the air service in 1918, it was not until after World War II that the air force chaplaincy was established as a separate service. President Harry S. Truman appointed Chaplain Charles I. Carpenter the first air force chief in 1948.

Historically, American soldiers and sailors have reflected about the same degree of religious commitment as the civilian communities from which they came. Units that were recruited in areas characterized by strong religious institutions tended to include larger numbers of religious servicemen. In a U.S. Army survey taken in 1994, some 80 percent of the soldiers polled stated that they believed in God and had a specific religious preference. More than 100 religious denominations and faith groups were represented among soldiers, with Protestants and Roman Catholics constituting 85 percent of the total number. Chaplains from an equal number of separate denominations provided ministry for these soldiers.

Religious life in the military centers on opportunities for voluntary worship, counseling, religious education, moral leadership training, pastoral support, religious retreats, child and youth ministries, and holiday observances. Religious activities for military personnel, in garrison or in the field, are approved by the commander of the unit involved. The chaplain serves as a staff officer, qualified by education, ordination, and endorsement to implement the command religious program for the welfare of service members and their families, and to facilitate the free exercise of religion guaranteed to them by the First Amendment.

Worship services are held in a wide variety of settings. Military chapels, mess halls, decks of ships, aircraft hangars, tents, and open field assembly areas are frequently utilized. Chaplains may encourage service members to participate as lay readers, choir members, eucharistic ministers, and ushers, as well as in other roles. In combat, services are frequently conducted in small groups with abbreviated orders of worship. Most chaplains have combat kits available that contain worship supplies suitable for field services. Enlisted chaplain assistants in the army, chaplain service support personnel in the air force, and religious program specialists in the navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard assist chaplains in performing their duties.

Since 1973, when the navy commissioned Lt. Dianna Pohlman as its first female chaplain, women have provided increasing religious leadership in the military. By 1993, thirty female chaplains were serving on active duty in the army, navy, and air force. According to some estimates, women perform as much as 65 percent of the volunteer religious work accomplished on military installations.

Since 1775, more than 400 chaplains have given their lives for their country, 7 have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and hundreds have been decorated for bravery and outstanding service. Recent interest by former Warsaw Pact countries in developing military chaplaincies based on the U.S. model may be evidence of the respect other nations have for the way religion functions in the American military establishment.
[See also Conscientious Objection; Culture, War, and the Military; Militarism and Antimilitarism; Religion and War.]


Dom Aidan H. Germain , Catholic Military and Naval Chaplains, 1776–1917, 1929.
Roy J. Honeywell , Chaplains of the United States Army, 1958.
Daniel B. Jorgensen , The Service of Chaplains to Army Air Units, 1917–1946, 1961.
Herman A. Norton , Struggling for Recognition: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1791–1865, 1977.
Clifford M. Drury , The History of the Chaplain Corps, USN, 2 vols., 1983.
John E. Groh , Lively Experiment: A Summary History of the Air Force Chaplaincy, Military Chaplains' Review (Winter 1990), pp. 67–114.

John W. Brinsfield

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Religion in the Military

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Religion in the Military