What General Washington Expected from his Chaplains

This post brings the series on George Washington’s Remarkably Modern Chaplain Problems to a close. Today, we will revisit some of the ground we’ve already covered and capture the last few remaining pieces of Washington’s correspondence that directly relate to chaplains.

The core competencies of the modern Army Chaplaincy are: Nurture the Living, Comfort the Wounded, Honor the Dead. Modern Army chaplains are both religious leaders and staff advisors. What did General Washington expect from his chaplains during the War of American Independence?

As we’ve seen, he expected them to lead regular worship – on Sundays, when possible, and at other times when not. He also expected them to offer services, prayers and speeches at military observances as directed by Congress and the command. In his correspondence with John Hancock on the structure of the chaplaincy, Washington argued that chaplains should provide worship in the manner to which the soldiers in their regiments were accustomed, so that religion would not become a source of conflict in the ranks.

In their relationships to each other, Washington expected chaplains to treat each other with dignity and respect, and to work collaboratively with each other. The case of Chaplain John Murray shows he expected them to respect even chaplains with whom they found little common ground on matters of theology. In other words, he expected them to support the army’s pluralistic environment. Washington instructed his slightly diverse chaplain corps (by modern standards) to come to an agreement about the practice of non-Sunday worship, the use of the army’s first chapel and a plan for ensuring adequate coverage during leaves and absences – and to submit their plans to the command for approval. Modern eyes see evidence of internal staff coordination, operational process teams and back briefs to the commander – all elements of Army staff processes.

The general was very concerned about what today’s chaplains might call the Ministry of Presence. At New Windsor, where the army erected its first purpose-built chapel, Washington wrote:

The General has been surprised to find in Winter Qrs that the Chaplains have frequently been almost all absent, at the same time, under an idea their presence could not be of any utility at that Season—he thinks it is proper he should be allowed to judge of that matter himself—and therefore in future no furloughs will be granted to Chaplains except in consequence of permission from Head quarters, and any who may now be absent without such permission are to be ordered by the Commanding officers of their Brigades to join immediately—after which not more than one third of the whole number will be indulged with leave of absence at a time. They are requested to agree among themselves upon the time and length of their furloughs before any application shall be made to Head quarters on the subject.  

General Orders, 15 February 1783

Washington was shocked – angered, really – to find that so many chaplains were absent from camp on furlough. They thought their “presence could not be of any utility at that Season.” The general told them to think again: “he thinks it is proper he should be allowed to judge of that matter himself.” Washington revoked the chaplains’ freedom to take leave whenever they choose and withheld the authority to grant chaplains leave to his own headquarters, a rather severe restriction by modern standards. No more than 1/3 of the chaplains could be on leave at any one time. Washington told the chaplains to agree among themselves about the time and length of their absences before they submitted their application for leave. Today, it is still necessary for chaplains to coordinate their leave plans with others serving on the installation and in their organizations. Not everyone gets to take leave at Christmas, Spring Break or the week school gets out. Someone has to mind the store.

Specifically, Washington expected his chaplains to provide spiritual comfort for soldiers, especially the sick, wounded and dying. He concluded his 1783 order by directing chaplains to provide care to the sick and those in hospitals.

The Commander in Chief also desires and expects the Chaplains in addition to their public functions will in turn constantly attend the Hospitals and visit the sick—and while they are thus publickly and privately engaged in performing the sacred duties of their office they may depend upon his utmost encouragement and support on all occasions, and that they will be considered in a very respectable point of light by the whole Army.

General Orders, 15 February 1783

In earlier correspondence, Washington had directed chaplains to provide ministry for prisoners, condemned spies awaiting execution. (Unfortunately, he also expected chaplains them to collect intelligence as they did so).

Surprisingly, I can find no reference in Washington’s correspondence of chaplains conducting funerals or providing honors for the dead.

Finally, Washington expected his chaplains to promote morality, patriotism and good order and discipline. Washington’s letter to a commander of cavalry makes that point with sarcasm.

A Chaplain is part of the Establishment of a Corps of Cavalry, and I see no Objection to your having One, Unless you suppose yours will be too virtuous and Moral to require instruction. Let him be a Man of Character & good conversation, and who will influence the manners of the Corps both by precept & example.

Washington to Colonel George Baylor, 23 May 1777

The chaplain’s military function is to teach and model virtuous morality. In letters regarding Chaplain Abiel Leonard, Washington gives us examples of how he sees this at work in practice. Chaplain Leonard encouraged his troops to be courageous and obedient, stemming the tide of desertion overtaking the force.

Upon the late desertion of the Troops he delivered a sensible and judicious discourse, holding forth the necessity of courage and bravery, and at the same time of perfect obedience and subordination to those in Command.

Washington to Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, 15 December 1775

… his usefulness in this Army is great—he is employed in the glorious work of attending to the Morals, of a brave people who are fighting for their Liberties …

Washington and Israel Putnam to the First Church of Woodstock, 24 March 1776

In addition to inculcating public and private morality, religious activities also satisfied the deepest human needs of the mind and increased human happiness.

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.

General Orders, 22 March 1783

Perhaps most importantly, though, Washington believed humanity owed God a debt of gratitude for His divine benevolence and justice. Chaplains led the command in seeking God’s favor for the nation and the army, without which the Army could not hope to succeed.

The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger.

General Orders, 9 July 1776

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

And when the war ended, Washington expected his chaplains to lead the way in giving thanks.

The Chaplains with the several Brigades will render thanks to almighty God for all his mercies, particularly for his over ruling the wrath of man to his own glory, and causing the rage of war to cease amongst the nations.

General Orders, 18 April 1783

That’s what General Washington expected from his chaplains.

This is the final installment of the series George Washington’s Remarkably Modern Chaplain Problems.