Chaplains serve throughout history

7 Sep 2006 | Sgt. Robert L. Fisher III

Watching old war movies no one ever sees the chaplain, they’re never there.  They are not one of the sung heroes or the mysterious men who stories revolve around.

But chaplains have served armed warriors and military members for countless years.  History records leaders of the divine have served on the fields of battle as far back as ancient Assyria.

When the Continental Navy was approved by Congress on Oct. 13, 1775, it was felt religious leaders were needed to serve on ships.

The second article of Navy Regulations stated, "The Commanders of the ships of the thirteen United Colonies are to take care that divine services be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays, unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent."  Chaplains were not exclusively mentioned, but a sermon implied Congress intended for an ordained clergyman to be on board.

"When the military first begun, they brought in chaplains because they knew the men needed to be ministered to and faith was extremely important, especially in the beginning," said Wills.

They were never officially mentioned until Jan. 6, 1776, when the Journals of the Continental Congress referred to them in the distributions of prize money from captured ships.

Reverend Benjamin Balch became the first chaplain known to serve in the Continental Navy on Oct. 28 , 1778.

On Jan. 28, 1802, President Jefferson issued a new edition of Naval Regulations that includes the duties of a chaplain, "Read prayers at stated periods; perform all funeral ceremonies; perform the duty of a schoolmaster instructing midshipmen and volunteers in writing, arithmetic, navigation, and whatever else they might need to make them proficient; and teach the other youths of the ship as the captain orders."

Chaplain Robert Thompson first introduced the idea of a Naval Academy to the Secretary of the Navy on July 27, 1807, to teach young officers navigation.  Chaplain George Jones later became a highly influential figure in the establishment of the currently known United States Navel Academy at Annapolis, Va., in 1845.

Chaplains started many reformations and rid the Navy of several "traditions" such as flogging.  Jones persuaded many sailors to sign pledges of abstinence and introduced coffee and sugar as the replacement for grog.

"They were key in eliminating some of the more brutal punishments, like being keelhauled," said Moured.  "Today we’re seen both as the spiritual advisor and the moral and ethical advisor."

A number of other chaplains lent their abilities and passions to the creation of other helpful institutions.

Chaplain Walter Colton published the first American newspaper in California, The Californian, on Aug. 15, 1846.

The Chaplain Corps came under fire March 13, 1859, when civilians objected to its existence.  The House judiciary Committee defended the sailor’s rights to divine service and later adopted a new regulation defending the position of chaplain and their rights, "Every chaplain shall be permitted to conduct public worship according to the manner and forms of the church of which he may be a member."

Since its establishment, the chaplain Corps had been primarily Christian until Oct. 30, 1917, when Rabbi David Goldberg became the first Jewish chaplain to be commissioned.
He still the wore the traditional cross on his uniform until June 26, 1918, when he was granted permission to wear a shepherd’s crook instead.  The "Tablets of the Law" became the official device for Jewish chaplains in 1941.

Several chaplains have stepped beyond the call of duty to help on the battlefield, sometimes even at the cost of their own life.

Cmdr. Joseph T. O’Callahan became the first chaplain awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions aboard the USS Franklin March 19, 1945.  Lt. Vincent R. Capodonna, another chaplain who served during Vietnam, received a Medal of Honor for his "heroic conduct" in Quang Tin Province, Vietnam, Sept. 4, 1967.

Today, there are positions open for chaplains to serve in many different forms of worship – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist – the military and its chaplains today have embraced diversity and are fighting to keep a freedom of worship.
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