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The history of Chaplaincy

Reflection Paper, the history of Chaplaincy

The position of the Chaplain as it is known today is not a modern creation. It is more of a work
in progress that has been constantly undergoing changes for just above two millennia. The
evolution of the role of the chaplain has been precipitated by the constantly changing needs of
the members of the militaries and their masters the governments that sponsor them. The only
thing that has remained constant throughout the ages is the need for a figurehead to provide
spiritual guidance to foot soldiers as well as their commanders. The manner in which this has
been carried out is what has defined Chaplaincy through the different periods. In this exercise
Chaplaincy will be analyzed with respect to its historical development right from the time this
concept first emerged around 27BC up until the 1600AD.
Chaplains in the Military during the Roman Imperial Period
The Imperial Roman period took place between 27 AD and 500 BC. During this period the
military was the most treasured organization within the government and this is because it
provided foot soldiers who defended the empire, helped expand it and also maintained its
legitimacy within its borders. This is to say that the military carried out the work assigned to
today’s policemen or law enforcement personnel. Their biggest role however was that of battle
and this meant that they had to use whatever leverage they could get to overcome their
opposition on the battle field. This called for dependence on a higher power who would help tilt
the odds in their favor in light of the strenuous and unpredictable nature of battle coupled with
the grave implications held by a win or loss.

Prior to Emperor Constantine’s action of introducing Christianity to Rome, the prevalent religion
was Paganism. What this shared in common with Christianity was a belief that the fate of
humans was controlled by beings or a being that wielded great supernatural powers. As such the
Roman society strove very hard to demonstrate its allegiance to the Pagan deities so as to ensure
good favor for itself, a key part of this being religious victory. The importance of this meant that
there were specific priests who were given the responsibility of taking the soldiers through their
worship sessions so as to ensure they were at peace with the gods prior to and during any
battlefield engagement. Here is where Chaplaincy has its roots as it is the first instance in history
where there was need for a person whose key purpose was to provide spiritual guidance in a
military. These individuals oversaw religious ceremonies and rituals being carried out by the
Emperor Constantine is often credited as being the man who converted the Roman Empire to
Christianity from its Pagan way of life. While this is true to a great extent, it is also true that his
move had the impact of Romanizing Christianity and this refers to the inclusion of practices that
were exclusively Roman into Christian practices. Key among this was the application of spiritual
leadership within the military. All of this was achieved through the emperor’s action of reversing
the edict that had rendered Christianity a banned sect. this move effectively provided legitimacy
to the appointment of Priests to lead the Soldiers in Christian practices so as to appease God an
win his favor, something Constantine believed was crucial for the success of the Roman Military.
Priests and Deacons became a permanent fixture during battle under his orders and they also
prayed for victory among other activities they carried out (Bergen, The Sword of our Lord).
In the 13 th Century the role of the Chaplain became more defined effectively making such a
person’s role much more than blessing the weapons that soldiers were going to use in the battle

field. The office of Chaplain gained recognition by the highest levels of government in the 13 th
Century when they were now being included as part of the Navy with each of the King’s ships
being expected to have a Chaplain. This was supported by the fact that Church and state did not
exist as separate entities during this period. During the protestant revolution when Martin Luther
spearheaded a rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church the role of chaplains also
transformed depending on the religious orientation of the army or government they served
(Vallance, Revolutionary England and the National Covenant). During this period the
prominence of Chaplains grew in predominantly Protestant regions such as the United Kingdom
whose dependence on its military, specifically the Royal Navy grew tremendously. Given that
the United Kingdom rose to be a super-power prior to the World Wars, it got to spread a
protestant model of Chaplaincy to many countries, the United States included.
Another factor that led to the appreciation of Chaplains in the United States Military was the
apparent moral authority-vacuum that presented itself during the civil war. The need for
chaplains within the ranks of the army became clear when many of the young soldiers
overindulged in antisocial behaviors of the time such as gambling and drunkenness among others
making it difficult for them to render their services effectively in the crucial battle. Abraham
Lincoln then ordered the commanders of all regiments to appoint Chaplains. Many in the North
looked down upon the South whose soldiers were considered undisciplined for lack of an
effective spiritual guidance system. The confederates are said to have been too keen to have men
able to fight rather than have disciplined units, something that could have contributed to their
defeat (Beringer, Why the South lost the War).


  1. Bergen, Doris L. The Sword of the Lord: military chaplains from the first to the twenty-
    first century. Univ of Notre Dame Pr, 2004.
  2. Vallance, Edward. Revolutionary England and the National Covenant: State Oaths,
    Protestantism, and the Political Nation, 1553-1682. Boydell Press, 2005.
  3. Beringer, Richard E., Archer Jones, and William N. Still. Why the south lost the Civil
    War. University of Georgia Press, 1991.
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