General Washington and Continental Congress Support for Chaplains

The Army Chaplain Corps claims July 29, 1775 as the date of its birth. On that date, the Continental Congress set the rate of pay for chaplains at $20 per month, the same as a captain of infantry. Although $20 per month exceeded the average working man’s income in that era, General Washington’s chaplains were not happy with their salaries. At the end of December 1775, Washington wrote John Hancock, the president of the Congress. According to the letter, the general had been receiving complaints from his chaplains.

I have Long had it on my mind to mention to Congress, that frequent applications had been made to me, respecting the Chaplains pay—which is too Small to encourage men of Abilities—Some of them who have Left their flocks, are obliged to pay the parson acting for them, more than they receive—I need not point out the great utility of Gentlemen whose Lives & Conversation are unexceptionable, being employed for that Service, in this Army, there are two ways of makeing it worth the attention of Such—one is, an advancement of their pay, the other, that one Chaplain be appointed to two Regiments, this Last I think may be done without inconvenience I beg Leave to reccommend this matter to Congress whose Sentiments hereon, I Shall impatiently expect.

George Washington to John Hancock, 31 December 1775

Washington was concerned that the relatively low rate of pay would keep the best qualified clergy out of the ranks. Congress could either raise the pay outright, or it could raise the pay in connection with a reduction in force structure. The standard Army structure, inherited from the British, called for one chaplain per regiment. Washington recommended changing the rule of allocation to one chaplain per two regiments, and raising the pay of the remaining chaplains. The new rule of allocation would result in an overall cost savings to Congress, and in Washington’s opinion his chaplains could manage the new workload. Congress agreed and enacted the plain on January 16, 1776.

In February, Washington announced the new structure in a General Order.

The Continental Congress having been pleased to order, and direct, that there shall be one Chaplain to two Regiments, and that the pay of each Chaplain shall be Thirty-three dollars and one third, per Kalendar Month. … As there can be but fourteen Chaplains under this establishment, to the 28 Regiments (including the Artillery, and Riffle Regiments) and as preference will be given to those Chaplains who served last Year, provided their conduct, and attendance, have been unexceptionable: The Brigadiers are to enquire into this matter and with the Colonels and commanding Officers of the several Regiments, arrange them agreeable to the above direction, and make report thereof that orders, may issue accordingly.

General Orders, 7 February 1776

There was good news and bad news for chaplains. The good news: chaplains would now be paid $33⅓ per month, the same rate as a major. This represents a 66⅔ % increase in their salary. The bad news: up to half the chaplains had to go. There were probably vacancies in some regiments, so there may not have been a large number of chaplains dismissed. Still, there were some who had to leave. At least a few commanders appear to have dragged their feet in carrying out Washington’s order. Washington had to push the matter with his generals again at the end of the month.

The General desires that the Brigadiers, who have not complied with the Orders of the 6th Instant concerning the Ammunition; and that of the 7th respecting the Arrangement of Chaplains; may be informed, that he expects an immediate report from them.

General Orders, 20 Feb 1776

Within a few months, however, Washington changed his mind about the new arrangement. He hated it. He wrote Hancock again in June.

I would also beg leave to mention to Congress the necessity there is of some New regulations being entered into, respecting the Chaplains of this Army. they will remember that applications were made to increase their pay which was conceived too low for their support, & that It was proposed, If It could not be done for the whole, that the number should be lessened, and one be appointed to Two Regiments with an additional allowance. This latter expedient was adopted and while the Army continued altogether at one encampment answered well, or at least did not produce many Inconveniences; But the Army now being differently circumstanced from what It then was, part here, part at Boston and a third part detached to Canada, has Induced much confusion and disorder in this Instance; nor do I know how It is possible to remedy the evil but by affixing one to each Regiment with Salaries competent to their support. no shifting, no change from one Regiment to another can answer the purpose, and in many cases It could never be done, Tho the Regiments should consent; as where detac⟨hments⟩ are composed of unequal numbers or ordered from different posts. many more Inconveniences might be pointed out, but these It is p⟨re⟩sumed will sufficiently shew the defect of the present establishment, and the propriety of an alterat⟨ion⟩—what that alteration shall be, Congress will please to determine.

Washington to John Hancock, 28 June 1776

The new arrangement wasn’t working anymore; in some cases, it never had. As far as Washington was concerned, the only way forward was to return to the original rule of allocation – one chaplain per regiment – and retain the higher level of pay. Congress assented on 5 July 1776, and Washington reported the good news in a general order.

The Honorable Continental Congress having been pleased to allow a Chaplain to each Regiment, with the pay of Thirty-three Dollars and one third per month—The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly; persons of good Characters and exemplary lives—To see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect and attend carefully upon religious exercises: The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger—The General hopes and trusts, that every officer, and man, will endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.

General Orders, 9 July 1776

And to Major General Artemas Ward who commanded the Eastern department of the Army, Washington wrote.

Congress have made some Alteration in the Establishment of Chaplains, and advanced their Pay; as they have that of the regimental Surgeons, as you will see by their Proceedings, Copies of which in these Instances are also transmitted.

Washington, to Major General Ward, 9 July 1776

On 27 May 1777, Congress changed the rule of allocation once again, perhaps in at its own initiative, or perhaps at the urging of Chaplain Abiel Leonard. (More on Chaplain Leonard in a later post).

Resolved, That for the future, there be only one chaplain allowed to each brigade in the army, and that such chaplain be appointed by Congress: That each brigade chaplain be allowed the same pay, rations and forage that is allowed to a colonel in the same corps: That each brigadier general be requested to nominate and recommend to Congress a proper person for chaplain to his brigade; and that they recommend none but such as are clergymen of experience, and established public character for piety, virtue and learning.

Journals of Congress, May 27, 1777

Those familiar with the Army’s current structure may be tempted to see “brigade chaplain” in modern terms, with chaplains assigned at every level of organization at battalion and above. That’s not what Congress meant. Congress was authorizing brigade chaplains in the place of regimental chaplains, not in addition to them. Chaplains would now cover three to six regiments each.

In his reply to Congress, Washington strongly dissented:

I shall pay the strictest attention to the Resolutions transmitted me; However I am not without apprehensions, that the Regulation lately adopted, respecting Chaplains, will not answer. I recollect when One was assigned, in the course of last year, to Two Regiments, the prevailing Opinion was, and that founded on a variety of reasons, that it would not do, and the old mode of appointment was introduced again.

Washington to John Hancock, 29 May 1777

This new plan, in Washington’s opinion, would just not work. Still, he took the first steps toward implementing Congress’s instructions. He started by ordering his commanders to report how many chaplains they he had and where they were located.

A return to be made to morrow of the Chaplains in each brigade, specifying where they are.

General Orders, 8 June 1777

At the same time, Washington wrote to Hancock with a new argument for assigning chaplains to regiments, not brigades. It wasn’t just a matter of the troop-to-task ratio, it was a matter of religious accommodation.

I shall order a return to be made of the Chaplains in service, which shall be transmitted, as soon as it is obtained. At present as the Regiments are greatly dispersed, part in one place & part in Another, and accurate States of them have not been made, it will not be in my power to forward it immediately. I shall here take Occasion to mention, that I communicated the Resolution appointing a Brigade Chaplain in the place of all Others, to the several Brigadiers: They are all of opinion, that it will be impossible for ’em to discharge the duty—that many inconveniences & much dissatisfaction will be the result, and that no Establishment appears so good in this instance as the Old One. Among many other weighty objections to the measure, It has been suggested, that it has a tendency to introduce religious disputes into the Army, which above all things should be avoided, and in many instances would compell men to a mode of Worship, which they do not profess. The Old Establishment gives every Regiment an Opportunity of having a Chaplain of their own religious Sentiments—is founded on a plan of a more generous toleration—and the choice of Chaplains to officiate, has been generally in the Regiments. Supposing One Chaplain could do the duties of a Brigade (Which supposition However is inadmissible, when we view things in practice), that being composed of Four or five—perhaps in some instances Six Regiments, there might be so many different modes of Worship. I have mentioned the Opinion of the Officers and these hints to Congress upon this subject, from a principle of duty, and because, I am well assured, it is most foreign to their wishes or intention to excite by any act, the smallest uneasiness & jealousy among the Troops.

Washington to John Hancock, 8 June 1777

In Washington’s day, one didn’t enlist in the Army and then randomly receive an assignment to a regiment. Soldiers enlisted in the regiment itself. They belonged – at least initially – to regiments raised near their homes. The regiment, then, naturally assumed a certain amount of cultural – and religious – homogeneity. Religious practices were different in New England than they were in the mountains of Virginia, and both were different from Quaker practices in Pennsylvania or Anglican practices in the coastal cities. Brigades, on the other hand, were a fluid combination of widely diverse regiments. Washington argued that regimental chaplains selected by the regiment were more likely to meet the religious needs of soldiers than those randomly assigned to brigades. Conversely, forcing Presbyterians or Baptists to worship in the same manner as Quakers or Anglicans in the same brigade was bound to lead to conflict. Religious conflict would damage the fighting force’s esprit de corps.

It would be hard to imagine a more strongly worded response than the one Washington provided to Hancock. The review of the Army’s chaplain strength may have been a way of slow-walking implementation of the congressional mandate. At a meeting with the Continental Congress Committee to Inquire into the State of the Army on 17 July (see here and here), Washington apparently talked the committee out of immediately implementing the new structure. The committee’s report to Congress on 5 August announced:

The appointment of Brigade Chaplains has in some measure been suspended until the Sense of Congress is more fully known on the Matter.

Journal of Congress, 5 August 1777

On 19 July, Washington wrote to one of his generals informing him of the delay.

Since the Congress passed the Resolve that there should be but one Chaplain to three Regiments, nothing has been done towards reducing them, and I have my doubts whether the Resolve will ever be carried into execution. The appointment you mention had therefore better be suspended for a while.

Washington to Major General William Heath, 19 July 1777

Washington believed that his arguments had carried the day. They hadn’t. The following year’s pay tables indicate that Congress imposed its will. As reenacted by Congress on 2 June 1778, Chaplains would be assigned to brigades and paid as colonels.

Resolved, That the following sums be paid to them Monthly for their subsistence (viz.). To every Colonel 50 Dollars pr Mo. To every Lieut. Coll 40. To every Major 30. To every Captain 20. To every Lieut. & Ensn 10. To Every Regl Surgeon 30. To every Regl Surgns Mate 10. To every Chaplain of a Brigade 50.

General Orders, 7 June 1778

Curiously, Washington’s General Orders for 29 August 1779 (citing congressional action on 17 August 1779) raises those numbers tenfold – to 500 dollars per month for colonels and brigade chaplains. Inflation? Devalued currency? I don’t know.

Over time, the Army’s regiments lost personnel due to desertion, disease, disability and death on the battlefield. Regiments formed, reformed and reorganized. My Revolutionary War ancestor began as a company commander in the 1st Virginia Regiment, and then was shuffled from regiment to regiment as the war continued – even after he was taken prisoner in Charleston. Some regiments basically existed only on paper. Other regiments disbanded completely. What would happen to chaplains who became excess – or “supernumerary” – as this process unfolded? In a General Order, Washington informed the chaplains of Congress’s 8 May 1781 resolution.

Resolved That the Commander in Chief be and he is hereby authorized and directed to arrange the brigade Chaplains of the several state lines serving with the Army; and the commanding General of the southern army those of lines serving with that army so as to retain in service no more Chaplains of each line than are equal to the number of Brigades. That every Chaplain deemed and Certified to the Board of War to be supernumerary be no longer continued in service and be entitled to have their depreciation made good and to the Halfpay of Captains for life.

General Orders, 30 May 1781

After the war was over, Washington proposed a very small standing Army for the new nation: four regiments of infantry, one of artillery.  He urged Congress to assign chaplains once again to regiments, not brigades, and to cut their pay. In Washington’s mind, the “brigade chaplain” experiment had been a failure.

A Peace Establishment for the United States of America may in my opinion be classed under four different heads: … First. A regular and standing force, for Garrisoning West Point & such other Posts upon our Northern, Western, and Southern Frontiers, as shall be deemed necessary … Secondly. A well organized Militia;  ….  Thirdly. Establishing Arsenals of all kinds of Military Stores. … Fourthly: Accademies, one or more for the Instruction of the Art Military; particularly those Branches of it which respect Engineering and Artillery … Also Manufactories of some kinds of Military Stores. …

… Altho’ a large standing Army in time of Peace hath ever been considered dangerous to the liberties of a Country, yet a few Troops, under certain circumstances, are not only safe, but indispensably necessary. Fortunately for us our relative situation requires but few. The same circumstances which so effectually retarded, and in the end conspired to defeat the attempts of Britain to subdue us, will now powerfully tend to render us secure. Our distance from the European States in a great degree frees us of apprehension, from their numerous regular forces and the Insults and dangers which are to be dreaded from their Ambition.  But, if our danger from those powers was more imminent, yet we are too poor to maintain a standing Army adequate to our defence, and was our Country more populous & rich, still it could not be done without great oppression of the people. …

… The above establishment differs from our present one, in the following instances … giving a Chaplain to each Regiment instead of a Brigade. Besides the 4 Regiments of Infantry, one of Artillery will be indispensably necessary.  … The pay of the Battalion Officer’s is full low, but those of the Chaplain, Surgeon and Mate are too high; …

Washington’s Sentiments on a Peace Establishment, 1 May 1783

Maintaining an effective chaplain structure while controlling personnel costs continues to be a matter of concern to the Army.


This is one chapter of the series, George Washington’s Remarkably Modern Chaplain Problems.

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