George Washington and Army Chaplains

James Caldwell, the “soldier parson”

On Fr Peter Preble’s blog, yesterday:

On this day, February 7, 1776, General George Washington notifies his troops of a new policy regarding chaplains’ pay. He’d advocated for better treatment of his chaplains, and he’d succeeded!Shortly after Washington assumed command of the American army during the summer of 1775, the Continental Congress approved its first act regarding chaplains. This act set chaplains’ salaries at $20 per month just above that of lieutenants. Washington was unimpressed. He wrote the President of Congress, noting that the pay was “too Small to encourage men of Abilities.” He asked that a way be found to increase chaplains’ salaries.

Congress approved Washington’s request. It passed an act providing for the appointment of one chaplain to every two regiments. The chaplains had more responsibility, but their pay was also increased. Instead of $20 per month, they were to receive a little more than $33 per month. Washington announced the change on February 7, 1776.

After a few months, Washington decided that the system (unfortunately) did not work for logistical reasons. If regiments were separated due to the demands of war, one regiment might find itself without a chaplain for a while. Washington wrote Congress again. He asked that chaplains be assigned one per regiment, with a salary “competent to their support.”

Congress initially agreed, but the new policy did not last. Eventually, fiscal concerns caused chaplains to be assigned one per brigade. A brigade was a much larger unit of the army; it could be composed of several regiments. In other words, there were fewer chaplains, overall, in the army.

Washington objected again. Interestingly, his main concern was for religious liberty. He wanted many chaplains of a variety of faiths. If there were fewer chaplains overall, then, by definition, there were fewer choices for his men. They were more likely, he wrote Congress, to be compelled “to a mode of Worship, which they do not profess.” Washington preferred the old system, with more chaplains and a greater likelihood that the men could have “a Chaplain of their own religious Sentiments.”

Perhaps what is most interesting about all of these events is the great importance that Washington placed upon the presence of chaplains in his army. He thought they served a valuable function, and he advocated for them consistently. Remember that Washington often faced shortages of supplies and funds. Yet he thought it important to spend some of these valuable funds on chaplains.

 

7 thoughts on “George Washington and Army Chaplains

  1. I’m glad that you point out Washington wanted a variety of Chaplains representing different faiths. As the Mount Vernon website puts it (http://www.mountvernon.org/educational-resources/encyclopedia/george-washington-and-religion):

    “When studying the religious beliefs of George Washington, it is difficult to make absolute, concrete conclusions. Depending on the source examined, Washington has been painted in differing lights ranging from a Deist to a believing Christian.”

    And I find this informative,

    “He served as a churchwarden for three terms, helping to care for the poor. Washington’s church attendance varied throughout his life.” (a bit of a Chaplain himself). He was apparently quite a humanitarian, though he may have refused to take Communion.

    Then,

    “Washington was also tolerant of different religious beliefs, having attended services of multiple Christian denominations.”

    As a longtime Chaplain myself, I continue to be disturbed by publicly-funded Chaplains. However, I do feel there is a need, in prisons, hospitals and the military, for well-trained Interfaith or Secular Chaplains (we exist!) who choose the profession to serve compassionately in presence ministry with or without faith. This may not be what Washington had in mind, but I suspect he, Franklin, Jefferson and some others would have said a hearty AMEN!

      • Yes, it is quite novel! There are many Humanist Chaplains as well as Pagan and other non-theistic forms of chaplaincy. I was an Interfaith Chaplain (supported by many faiths and no faiths) for many years. A “nature” or secular Chaplain is something I’m developing, grown out of years of study and experience, committed to the “essentials” of good chaplaincy (in my opinion) such as presence, listening, justice and compassion work, etc. This is NOT anti-religious. I have many religious friends and teach courses on World Wisdom. The common ground of compassion work can be practiced by people of any faith or no faith. That’s my concern and intention as a Secular (Nature) Chaplain. Thanks for asking.

  2. I can’t recall the source now, but I do remembering reading once that G.W. had a number of ‘Mystical experiences’, which undergirded much of his outstanding courage & fortitude in the founding of this young nation – “One Nation Under God”!

    • Of course, you realize that the “one nation” Washington and his colleagues launched was not to be of one religion, but to allow people of any faith or no faith to be free citizens. This is one reason the Constitution does not dwell on any “God.” And, surely you know that this invites the question: Which God do you mean? Many of the founders were not cut from the same cloth as many Christians today, some were Deists, Unitarians or simply open minded. How do you think Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims or Non-believers like me feel, as Americans, when someone says there is one true American God? Maybe you don’t mean to imply that, but there are many who mean exactly that.

      • “…endowed by their CREATOR with inalienable rights…” – “Creator”–as in the ONE Who Created ALL humankind…Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Atheists and everyone in between; the Sovereign ‘Just Cause’ that caused All living things into Being. The Creator/God Who exists irrespective of the creatures beliefs or lack thereof. The Creator/God that is UNITY Itself within the Creator/God’s own nature – a nature that is not fractured or divided, as can exist within the creatures themselves.
        “…that all men are CREATED equal…” – a Dignity conferred upon the creature by THE Creator!

        Jesus Christ is the Revelation of THE Creator/God and the Fulfillment of all religions – whether acknowledged or not, believed or not, accepted or not!
        Jesus Christ is the Sovereign Ruler over all nations, all peoples, all dominions – whether acknowledged or not, believed or not, accepted or not!

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