General Washington and Chaplain Support of Sunday Services

During the Revolutionary War, General Washington issued numerous orders to the army setting aside time for Sunday worship. The commander viewed worship as a universal human obligation, a duty of honor and thanksgiving that mortals owe the deity. Worship was also a means of seeking God’s favor for the nation and the army, as soldiers lifted their petitions to heaven. On the human side, worship satisfied the mind and increased human happiness. Moreover, worship reinforced morality. Immorality threatened the army with both divine disfavor and military indiscipline.

Washington first commanded his troops to “divine service” with their chaplains in May 1776.

As the Troops are to be exempt from all duties of fatigue to morrow, the regiments are to parade on their regimental parades, and to be marched from thence a little before Ten, to hear divine service from their respective chaplains.

General Orders, 16 May 1776

Washington ordered a rest from manual labor (“fatigue”), Troops were to be marched to worship. This sounds a little familiar. When I was a chaplain for soldiers in basic training, the chapel was always full. Soldiers could either go to chapel or the drill sergeant would find something for them to do around the barracks. Perhaps, they could mop or buff the floor – again. Somehow, chapel seemed more attractive. We had to make it clear that sergeants couldn’t punish soldiers who didn’t want to attend religious services. Most came anyway. At least there was no drill sergeant in their face for an hour. And the life of a soldier in basic training was never his own (or her own). They marched everywhere they went. Sometimes, the sergeants would just line everyone up and march them to chapel, whether they volunteered to go or not. An empty barracks gave the drill sergeants a needed break as well. More than once, I had soldiers tell me just before the service began, “Sir. I’m in the wrong service” or “I don’t want to be here.” And again, the chaplains had to set the drill sergeants straight. Attendance at worship is voluntary – now. It wasn’t then.

When Washington said the regiments are “to be marched thence a little before Ten, to hear divine service,” he meant loddy doddy everybody, as subsequent orders will make clear.

Let Vice & Immorality of every kind be discouraged as much as possible in your Brigade & as a Chaplain is allowed to each Regiment see that the Men regularly attend divine Worship.

Circular Instructions to the Brigade Commanders, 26 May 1777

The order of 28 June 1777 made mandatory weekly worship the standard in perpetuity.

All Chaplains are to perform divine service to morrow, and on every succeeding Sunday, with their respective brigades and regiments, where the situation will possibly admit of it: And the commanding officers of corps are to see that they attend; themselves, with officers of all ranks, setting the example. The Commander in Chief expects an exact compliance with this order, and that it be observed in future as an invariable rule of practice—And every neglect will be considered not only a breach of orders, but a disregard to decency, virtue and religion.

General Orders, 28 June 1777

Washington expected “exact compliance” Neglect was a “breach of orders.” Officers were to set the example. Even with the standing order, Washington continued to reiterate the requirement.

Divine service to be performed to morrow, in all the regiments which have chaplains.

General Orders, 5 July 1777

As the troops will rest to day, divine service is to be performed in all the corps which have chaplains.

General Orders, 27 September 1777

The Commander in Chief directs that divine Service be performed every sunday at 11 oClock in those Brigades to which there are Chaplains—those which have none to attend the places of worship nearest to them—It is expected that Officers of all Ranks will by their attendence set an Example to their men.  While we are zealously performing the duties of good Citizens and soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of Religion—To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian—The signal Instances of providential Goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labours with complete Success, demand from us in a peculiar manner the warmest returns of Gratitude & Piety to the Supreme Author of all Good.

General Orders, 2 May 1778

Here, Washington emphasized the “higher duty” of “gratitude and piety to the supreme author of all good.” Worship is something all humans owe God.

Every Day is Sunday

And while Sunday worship was the ideal, Washington came to recognize that military requirement often made that difficult.

The situation of the army, frequently not admitting, of the regular performance of divine service, on Sundays, the chaplains of the army are forthwith to meet together, and agree on some method of performing it, at other times, which method they will make known to the Commander in Chief.

General Orders, 7 October 1777

Washington ordered his chaplains to propose a plan for what to do when Sunday worship was impossible, and then to provide him with a back brief. During my initial military training as a chaplain, I learned that “every day is Sunday.” It appears that Washington himself was the first to suggest this.

As Washington directed, the chaplains met a few days later.

Chaplains of the army are to meet together tomorrow at 12 oClock in the Rear of the Artillery Park for the purpose mentioned in the Genl orders of the 7th Inst.

General Orders, 10 October 1777 [as recorded in Muhlenberg’s Orderly Book]

The meeting is presumably the first conference convened with the purpose of standardizing chaplain support the army.

The First Army Chapel

Washington doesn’t return to the subject of routine Sunday worship until the last year of the war. Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781, but peace was not declared until April 1783. The British continued to hold the city of New York, and in October 1782 Washington established the winter quarters for his army at New Windsor, New York, just north of West Point and near the town of Newburgh where Washington made his headquarters. Among the buildings constructed at the site was a building used for worship services and other assemblies.

Reconstruction of New Building or
Reconstruction of New Building or “Temple” at New Windsor Encampment
Interior of reconstructed New Building or
Interior of reconstructed New Building or “Temple” at New Windsor Encampment

In February 1783, Washington gave directions regarding its use:

The New building being so far finished as to admit the troops to attend public worship therein after tomorrow, it is directed that divine Services should be performed there every Sunday by the several Chaplains of the New Windsor Cantonment in rotation and in order that the different brigades may have an opportunity of attending at different hours in the same day (when ever the weather and other circumstances will permit which the Brigadiers and Commandants of brigades must determine) the General recommends that the Chaplains should in the first place consult the Commanding officers of their Brigades to know what hour will be most convenient and agreeable for attendance that they will then settle the duty among themselves and report the results to the Brigadiers and Commandants of Brigades who are desired to give notice in their orders and to afford every aid and assistance in their power for the promotion of that public Homage and adoration which are due to the supreme being—who has through his infinite goodness brought our public Calamities and dangers (in all human probability) very near to a happy conclusion.

General Orders, 15 February 1783

Today, the Army considers the building known as “the temple” as the first Army chapel. (At least that’s what it says on the Army Chaplain wall display in the Pentagon.)

Washington’s directions sound familiar to modern ears. Every chaplain learns to check the commander’s schedule before putting an event on the calendar. And multiple services take place in Army chapels every weekend; somebody has to synchronize and deconflict the schedule.

On 15 March, Washington stood in the assembly building and begged his dissatisfied officers not to mutiny against Congress. The coup was averted. A week later, a relieved Washington once again called his army to worship.

In justice to the zeal and ability of the Chaplains, as well as to his own feelings, the Commander in chief thinks it a duty to declare the regularity and decorum with which divine service is now performed every sunday, will reflect great credit on the army in general, tend to improve the morals, and at the same time, to increase the happiness of the soldiery, and must afford the most pure and rational entertainment for every serious and well disposed mind.  No fatigue except on extra occasions, nor General review or inspections to be permitted on the Sabbath day.

General Orders, 22 March 1783

Worship, Washington said, improves morals, increases happiness and satisfies the mind. The commander acknowledged the “zeal and ability” chaplains had exhibited throughout the war and even used the phrase now found in every military award citation: “reflect great credit on the Army”.

On 19 April, Washington stood in the same building to announce the end of the war. Which will lead us to another post on General Washington and Chaplain Support of Military Ceremonies.


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

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