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The Navy Chaplain Corps: 230 Years of Service to God and Country

By - Petty Officer 3rd Class Bryan J. Dickerson | | October 27, 2005

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“Vocati ad Servitum” For 230 years, the Navy Chaplain Corps has been called to serve God, America, and America’s sea services.  Through wars and peacetime, in good times and bad times, Navy chaplains have been there provide ministry, counseling and solace for Sailors and Marines and their families in countless places around the globe.  On 28 November 2005, the Navy Chaplain Corps will celebrate its 230th Birthday.The history of the Chaplain Corps and the Navy that it serves dates back to the early months of the American Revolution.  On 13 October 1775, the Continental Congress established the Continental Navy.  On 10 November 1775 the Congress established the Marines as well.  On 28 November 1775, the Congress established regulations to govern the new Continental Navy.  Article II directed captains to provide for religious services aboard their ships.  Interestingly enough, Article III enacted punishments for blaspheming the name of God as well as punishments for drunkenness. This date is regarded as the birth date of the Navy Chaplain Corps. The first Navy chaplain is believed to be the Reverend Benjamin Balch.  Balch was a Congregational minister who had been educated at Harvard.  His father had served as a chaplain in ‘King George’s War’ in 1745.  Prior to becoming a Navy chaplain, Rev. Balch had fought at Lexington as a Minuteman and served as an Army chaplain during the siege of Boston.  On 28 October 1778, Chaplain Balch reported aboard the frigate Boston and served aboard her until her capture during the siege of Charleston, South Carolina in 1780.  He then served aboard the frigate Alliance under the command of Commodore John Barry.  Because of Chaplain Balch’s being active amidst Alliance’s sea battles, he earned the nickname ‘the Fightin’ Parson.’  After independence was won from England, the Continental Navy was essentially dissolved.  The U.S. Constitution adopted in 1787 provided for a navy but because no action was taken so for 13 years, the United States had no navy to speak of.  Construction was begun on several frigates but was halted before completed. Ongoing problems with first the Barbary pirates and then the French preying upon U.S. merchant ships compelled Congress to create the Department of the Navy on 30 April 1798 and construct warships for it.  On 30 October 1799, Reverend William Balch - son of the first Navy Chaplain - was commissioned as the first Navy chaplain under the new Department of the Navy.  Balch served aboard the frigate Congress and then the frigate Chesapeake.  Navy chaplains served aboard several warships during the Quasi-War with France, the wars with the Barbary pirates and the War of 1812. They served aboard such legendary warships as the frigates Constellation and Constitution.  During the early history of the Navy Chaplain Corps, being an ordained clergyman was not a requirement for becoming a Navy Chaplain.  Most of the early chaplains were not ordained clergy and were hired more for their teaching abilities than their ecclesiastical ones.  Oftentimes, the chaplain was a layman appointed from the Ship’s Company.  It was not until 1841 that the General Regulations mandated ordination and good moral character as requirements for appointment as Navy chaplains.Most of the early Navy chaplains were Methodists and Episcopalians. These two denominations accounted for over 2/3rds of ordained Navy chaplains during the Navy’s first 80 years.  Over time, other Christian denominations came to be represented including Presbyterians, Unitarians, Lutherans and Baptists. Reflecting the growing numbers of Catholics serving in the Navy, the Navy began commissioning priests as chaplains starting in 1888 with the commissioning of Father Charles H. Parks.  In World War One, the Navy commissioned Rabbi David Goldberg as the first Jewish chaplain.   In the decades preceding the Civil War, the U.S. Navy undertook numerous exploration and scientific expeditions.  Navy Chaplains accompanied most of these expeditions.  The first USN vessel Vincennes to sail around the world 1829-1830 included a Chaplain - Charles Samuel Stewart. When Lt. Charles Wilkes took an expedition throughout the Pacific and to Antarctica in 1838-41, he was accompanied by Chaplain Jared Elliott. Chaplains George Jones and Edmund Bittinger were part of Commodore Matthew Perry’s trips to Japan in 1853 and 1854.When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the U.S. Navy only had 42 commissioned warships in service, of which only twelve were in U.S. waters.  Similarly, there were only 24 Navy chaplains.  Chaplain John L. Lenhart was the first Navy chaplain to die in combat when his ship USS Cumberland was sunk by the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) on 8 March 1862.  During the Civil War, the Chaplain Corps experienced several notable changes including the granting of relative Navy ranks to chaplains, and the authorization of chaplains to wear the Navy uniform with those ranks and the Christian cross as their branch insignia.  Throughout the 19th Century and up until World War One, the Chaplain Corps was consistently undermanned by Congress.  In August 1842 Congress set number of Chaplains serving in the Navy at 24, primarily for fiscal reasons. That quota stayed in effect until the outbreak of war in Europe forced its increase in 1914.The Navy Chaplain Corps’s next major conflict was the Spanish-American War.  Chaplain John P.S. Chidwick, a Catholic priest, was one of only 89 survivors of the explosion and sinking of the battleship Maine. He distinguished himself and the Chaplain Corps by ministering to the dying and wounded.  Chaplain John Brown Frazier stood alongside Commodore George Dewey on the bridge of the cruiser Olympia during the famed Battle of Manila Bay. The earliest documented occurrence of Navy Chaplains serving with Marines occurred during the Civil War.  However, it was not until the second decade of the 20th Century that Navy Chaplains began to be regularly assigned to Marine units.  In the summer of 1912, Chaplain J. F. Fleming accompanied Marines ashore in operations in Nicaragua.  In April 1914, Chaplain Bower R. Patrick became the first Marine Expeditionary Force - Atlantic Chaplain and landed with the Marines at Vera Cruz, Mexico.  Chaplain Leroy N. Taylor was permanently assigned to the 4th Marine Regiment from 23 August 1915 to 18 December 1916 and accompanied the 4th Marines in operations at Santo Domingo.World War One broke out in August of 1914 but the United States managed to avoid being dragged into it until the spring of 1917.  The war led to some major changes with Navy Chaplains.  The naval chaplaincy expanded from 40 chaplains to over 203 chaplains by war’s end.  In order to accomplish this, the Navy drew heavily upon its Naval Reserve Force and naval militias.  Of these 203 chaplains, 22% were Catholics, 20% Methodists, 16 percent were Presbyterians and the remainder were Protestant denominations including Lutherans, Baptists and Episcopalians.  To oversee this expansion, Chaplain John B. Frazier was appointed as the first Chief of Chaplains.  The Navy Chaplain Corps / Marine Corps relationship strengthened significantly during World War One.  Thirteen Navy chaplains served with the Marines.  Navy chaplains served in the trenches with the Marines in France and during the epic Battle of Belleau Wood.  Four chaplains -- Albert Park, John J. Brady, H. A. Darche, and James D. MacNair -- were awarded the Navy Cross for heroism while ministering in combat with the Marines.World War One proved the value of having naval personnel in reserve to augment the active duty forces during a wartime mobilization. This was especially true with regards to chaplains. In 1925, Congress formally re-organized the Navy’s reserve forces and established them as the Naval Reserve. Again, chaplains were a key component of the Naval Reserve.  As war threatened to break out again in 1939, 63 chaplains were available in the Naval Reserve.
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