General Washington, Pluralism and Chaplain John Murray

The earliest reference to a chaplain in George Washington’s writings during the Revolutionary War is a short announcement.

The Revd Mr John Murray is appointed Chaplain to the Rhode-Island Regiments and is to be respected as such.

General Orders, 17 September 1775

The order appears unremarkable until you realize that this is the only such appointment announced in Washington’s general orders. Why did Washington feel the need to issue an order with reference to this particular appointment?

The answer is found in the words at the end of the line, “and is to be respected as such.” In this case, Washington’s words are not an abstract sentiment about respect for chaplains in general.

Some chaplains did not like John Murray and were unwilling to accept him. Why? Murray was the founder of the first Universalist church in the United States. He denied the common Christian teaching about hell and held an unorthodox view of the Trinity. Both views would have separated him from the Congregationalist, Presbyterian and Anglican clergy who also served as chaplains.

Murray’s own Rhode Island troops had no problem accepting his ministry. They had requested him. Washington’s order was addressed to those outside Murray’s regiments who were unwilling to associate with him or who spoke evil of him. Washington expected them to respect the office – if not the theology – of whomever the government might appoint as a chaplain for the troops.

The order is the first hint at the pluralistic nature of the Army chaplaincy. Chaplains will often disagree with each other on matters of religion, but they are still bound to respect each other as chaplains, united in the common service of their country.

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