Some Reflections on the Military Chaplaincy
(With Special Reference to Lutheran Chaplains in the Union Army During the Civil War)
Confessional Lutheran churches have always been cognizant of their duty to minister to the spiritual needs of their members who serve in the military, but they have also often struggled with the theological and ecclesiastical ambiguities that are associated with the military chaplaincy. Before the Second World War all of the major Lutheran synods in America participated in the military chaplaincy, even though the more conservative ones were uncomfortable with certain aspects of this participation. The concerns focused on two issues. Since the government was in many respects regulating and supervising the ministry of the chaplains, and was paying their salaries, some Lutherans were concerned that this represented a confusion of the civil and spiritual powers. As they saw it, the government seemed to be involving itself in activities and responsibilities that God had actually assigned to the church. And, in light of the traditional Lutheran teaching regarding church fellowship, which would not approve of “unionistic” worship services that are conducted jointly by Lutheran clergymen and clergymen of other confessions, or that are deliberately emptied of their distinctive Lutheran content, many Lutherans were concerned about the strongly ecumenical thrust of the military chaplaincy. While recognizing that a Lutheran pastor would certainly be willing to share God’s Word with people of other denominational backgrounds according to their need, they were also aware of the fact that the military often considered it to be in its interest to blur or minimize the doctrinal differences between the various churches, and to encourage a more generic and (presumably) less controversial type of religiosity among soldiers and sailors. Confessional Lutherans did not want their chaplains to be put into situations where they would be pressured to compromise their convictions. Nevertheless, because of the Lutheran churches’ concern for the spiritual welfare of their members in the military, and with an appreciation for the unique ways in which the military chaplaincy could facilitate pastoral care to Lutherans and others in times and places when it would be most needed, these churches concluded, at that time in history, that the benefits of participation outweighed the drawbacks.
Several Lutheran chaplains served with the Union army during the Civil War (1861-1865),1 and two of them were from synodical bodies that were quite conservative in their theological outlook: Claus Lauritz Clausen of the Norwegian Synod and Friedrich Wilhelm Richmann of the Missouri Synod. These pastors would have shared the concerns regarding church-state confusion and Confessional integrity that are summarized above, and during the Civil War such concerns would not have been without some justification. For example, when the chaplain of a Wisconsin regiment preached about the possibility of damnation for those who do not repent of their sins and believe in Christ, his Colonel responded:
I don’t want any more of that doctrine preached in this regiment. Every one of my boys who fall fighting this great battle of liberty is going to Heaven, and I won’t allow any other principle to be promulgated to them while I command this regiment.2
But these Lutheran pastors also knew that the chaplaincy can give a minister of the Gospel unequaled opportunities for the faithful administration of the means of grace. The ministry of an exemplary Methodist chaplain, from an Indiana regiment, was described by a soldier as follows:
Without a thought for his personal safety he was on the firing line assisting the wounded, praying with the dying, doing all that his great loving heart led him to do. No wonder our boys love our gallant chaplain.3
And so, all points being considered, Clausen and Richmann were willing to serve as chaplains, and their respective synods were willing to endorse this service.
This service was indeed appreciated by the men with whom they were associated. Out of respect for their chaplain, and with gratitude for his ministry to them, the members of one of the companies of Clausen’s regiment (the 15th Wisconsin Infantry) honored him by giving themselves the nickname “Clausen’s Guards.” And Clausen was positively impressed by the spiritual earnestness of most of the soldiers and officers to whom he ministered. He wrote:
Attendance at services was completely voluntary for both the officers and soldiers, except on certain occasions such as when the whole army unit was ordered out, and a few times when the Regiment was drawn up in formation. If attendance had been forced, we naturally could not have drawn any conclusions about the moral and religious state of the Regiment from the numbers attending, but as it was, since each could follow his own desire in this regard and it was evident that most of the Regiment attended services and followed them with deep interest, one can be led to draw the most favorable conclusion.4
In Richmann’s regiment (the 58th Ohio Infantry) attendance at the chaplain’s services was not voluntary, but the soldiers were nevertheless attentive to the sermons that were preached. Richmann commented on this:
The soldiers have orders to attend services, but they seem to be willing to listen with reverence to the sermon. This much is certain, many of these soldiers who at home no doubt spent the hour set aside for worship in a beerhall, are now in a much more receptive mood for God’s Word than they were when they were not exposed to physical danger.5
Richmann noted further that
It causes much trouble to assemble the individual companies of wounded soldiers for the services, yet there is always a small band which hears the Word of God with joy. Usually I preach mornings at six and evenings at six, once in German and the other time in English.6
He also reported: “The moral condition of my regiment seems to be better as compared with others; at least, one does not hear as much cursing here as elsewhere and sees no drinking and card playing.”7
During the Civil War the military chaplaincy was much less centralized than it is in the armed forces of our time. Chaplains in the Union army were salaried at the same rate as a captain of Cavalry, but the only “rank” that they were authorized to hold was that of “Chaplain.” In other words, they were not a part of the regular military command structure. In keeping with this principle, the distinctive uniform that they were authorized to wear was black in color, rather than blue, and without traditional military insignia. Also, according to the “volunteer regiment” system that was in use during the Civil War, the chaplain of a state regiment would usually be chosen by the vote of the staff officers and company captains of that regiment. Such a chaplain would not be liable to be transferred against his will by federal military authorities from one unit to another.
Another aspect of the “volunteer regiment” system was that companies and regiments were generally raised in one particular region of a state. This means that the men who served together in one regiment had usually been recruited together in the communities where they had been living together before the war. When we realize that American society in the 1860s was largely a patchwork of socially and ethnically homogeneous towns and urban neighborhoods, comprised of people who often shared the same religious beliefs, then we can understand why a typical Civil War regiment, often drawn from a cluster of communities in close geographical proximity to each other, was usually not characterized internally by a large degree of cultural and religious diversity. Clausen’s regiment, for example, was comprised almost completely of Scandinavians, most of whom were Lutherans, and Richmann’s regiment was comprised largely of Germans. But cultural homogeneity did not always translate into religious homogeneity. While Richmann’s regiment did include “Some members of our synodical congregations, as well as some other Lutherans,” he observed that “almost all German officers, the staff, and the largest part of the German companies...consist of members of the Catholic Church.”8
It is also worthwhile to take note of the unique ministry of William Alfred Passavant during the Civil War. Passavant is well known in Lutheran history as a gifted pastor and preacher, as the editor and publisher of religious periodicals, and as the founder or patron of various educational institutions and institutions of mercy. During the Civil War Passavant served, informally and occasionally, as a civilian chaplain. In its 1861 convention the Pennsylvania Ministerium had actually wanted to call Passavant to this kind of ministry in a more formal and permanent way. The Ministerium noted that, “inasmuch as so great a proportion of the volunteers from Pennsylvania and other States are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, we realize our responsibility as a Church to provide for the spiritual welfare of our members, called from their homes to defend our common country.” Accordingly it resolved to call and appoint Passavant “to be the missionary chaplain of this Synod in the volunteer armies of the United States,” and pledged “the support necessary to sustain him in this field of useful labor.”9 After much deliberation Passavant declined this call, but from time to time he did leave his home in Pittsburgh in order to minister to those who were serving in the military. His efforts were usually carried out among soldiers who were recovering (and sometimes dying) from wounds and disease in federal military hospitals. Passavant – and the Lutheran deaconesses with whom he worked – cooperated closely with Dorothea L. Dix, who served the Union during the Civil War as the superintendent of army nurses. But Passavant also had opportunities to preach to soldiers in the field. He described such an occasion in the following words:
The pulpit was a camp chest with the heavens for a sounding board, while the many soldiers, not yet recovered from the prostration of the hurried march on Monday last, were stretched out on the ground before me. At the close of the service a large number came forward and gladly accepted some tracts but the stock on hand was exhausted before half of the soldiers were supplied.10
During the military build-up that preceded the entry of the United States into the Second World War, the government reorganized the military chaplaincy in a way that accentuated those features of the program that conservative Lutherans had previously found most troubling. Chaplains were now incorporated more directly into the command structure of the armed services, and each chaplain was placed into one of three basic religious categories: Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. Lutheran chaplains were, of course, categorized as “Protestants.” While they would still be permitted to conduct worship services of a distinctly Lutheran character, they would also be expected to conduct generic “Protestant” services that would be acceptable to any “Protestant” soldier or sailor who might attend. For these and other reasons, the Wisconsin Synod, one of the more conservative Lutheran bodies, concluded that the time had come to bring to an end its participation in the military chaplaincy program. Previously, especially during the First World War, the Wisconsin Synod had made use of both civilian and military chaplains, but now it decided to provide pastoral care to its members in the military exclusively through the use of civilian chaplains who would be called and supervised by the church. This approach was later adopted also by the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (successor to the Norwegian Synod), a sister church of the Wisconsin Synod. The Missouri Synod, while sharing many of the same theological concerns, responded in a different way. It decided that it would be able to accommodate itself to the changes that had been introduced by the government, while also encouraging its chaplains to maintain their Lutheran distinctiveness as much as possible. Missouri Synod chaplains still serve as part of the armed forces of the United States.
David Jay Webber
June 15, 2005
1 See John W. Brinsfield et al., editors, Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2003); Warren B. Armstrong, For Courageous Fighting and Confident Dying: Union Chaplains in the Civil War (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1998).
2 Quoted in James I. Robertson, Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1984), p. 149.
3 Quoted in Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1978).
4 Quoted in Ole A. Buslett, Det Femtende Regiment, Wisconsin Frivillage (Decorah, Iowa: 1895), on the web site for the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry: www.15thwisconsin.net For more on Clausen, see David J. Webber, “C. L. Clausen: Civil War Chaplain in the Civil War,” Lutheran Sentinel 74:6 (July 1991), pp. 6-7.
5 From excerpts of Richmann’s diary published serially in the Daily Corinthian (Corinth, Miss.), May 1954.
6 A report published in Der Lutheraner; quoted in Karl Kretzmann, “A Lutheran Army Chaplain in the Civil War,” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly XVII:4 (January 1945), p. 100.
7 A report published in Der Lutheraner; quoted in Kretzmann, p. 99.
8 Reports published in Der Lutheraner; quoted in Kretzmann, pp. 101, 99.
9 Quoted in George H. Gerberding, Life and Letters of W. A. Passavant (Greenville, Pa.: Young Lutheran Co., 1906), pp. 311-12.
10 Quoted in Gerberding, p. 314.
C. L. Clausen (left), W. A. Passavant (center), F. W. Richmann (right)
This essay was delivered at the Evangelical Lutheran Synod West Coast Pastors Conference in West Jordan, Utah, April 23-24, 2008.
It was published in Lutheran Synod Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 283-88.