In the days of the Merovingian dynasty (c. 450 – 751 AD), when Latin was still the language of the high-born, some people were called cappellani. In the fourth century, the word referred to priests who dedicated themselves to preserving the religious relics of St. Martin of Tours. St. Martin (b. 316 – d. 397 AD) was the patron saint of France, the father of the monastic life in Gaul, and the first “great leader” of Western Monasticism. One of these relics was St. Martin’s half-cape (cappella). St. Martin’s Cappella gave its name to the tent, later chapel, where the Cappella was preserved — over time, adding religious relics to the collection. During the Carolingian dynasty (751 – 880 AD), and in particular, during the reign of Charlemagne, the priests who guarded St. Martin’s relics were called, in Old French, Chapelain.
In those days, Chaplains were appointed by the King, later Holy Roman Emperor. They lived in the palace, and in addition to guarding the sacred relics, performed mass for the monarch on feast days, worked with the royal notaries , and prepared any documents the emperor required of them. In these duties, Chaplains gradually evolved into ecclesiastical and secular advisors to the king/emperor. It became a tradition throughout western Christendom for monarchs to appoint their own chaplains. Many of these chaplains became bishops. This tradition continues today, as evidenced by the fact that the British Crown appoints members of the Royal College of Chaplains, although they no longer serve as the official keepers of records.
In modern usage, the term chaplain no longer addresses itself to any particular church or denomination. Clergy and ministers appointed to various institutions (cemeteries, prisons, legislatures, hospitals, colleges, embassies, legations, and within the armed forces) are called chaplains.
Chaplains serve in the armed forces of most countries, usually as commissioned officers. They are non-combatants and, as such, are not required to bear arms. They may bear arms, if they choose, in defense of themselves and the sick or wounded. In the United States, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Moslem chaplains serve as chaplains in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Navy Chaplains provide the ecclesiastical needs of the Marine Corps.
U. S. Armed Forces chaplains provide religious services and advise their commander and fellow staff officers on religion, morality, and ethics. They offer counseling services to service members and their families, operate pre-marriage counseling programs, make regular visitations to the sick and wounded, and provide opportunities for prayer services and last rites. The Army, Navy, and Air Force Chief of Chaplains provide similar advice to the U. S. Secretary of Defense.
All military chaplains must be ordained and endorsed by a recognized religious organization. A military chaplain’s rank is determined by years of service and criteria established by the military organization in which commissioned. Chaplains are recognized in uniform by rank and religious affiliation. The symbol for Christian Chaplains is the Roman Cross; a symbol of the Ten Commandments identifies Jewish Chaplains. Moslem Chaplains wear a crescent as their religious symbol.
On 29 July 1775, the Continental Congress established the military chaplaincy, but chaplains did not wear a symbol of their faith until 1880. In 1835, Army regulations required chaplains to wear black uniform coats without shoulder boards or symbols of rank. The first symbol for chaplain was a shepherd’s crook or staff, approved in 1880; the Latin Cross replaced the shepherd crook was adopted in 1898. The first Jewish Chaplain was appointed during the American Civil War, but it wasn’t until World War I that Jewish Chaplains had their own religious symbol.
On 28 November 1775, the Continental Navy published its regulations provided that, “The Commanders of the ships of the Thirteen United Colonies are to take care that divine service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent.” The Navy recognized the need for chaplains but did not foresee a requirement for uniformed attire or insignia of rank or religious affiliation until 1847. At that time, the prescribed uniform was a black coat with a black collar and cuffs with no insignia. In 1864, the Navy Department authorized Navy Chaplains to wear the standard uniform of commissioned officers and the symbol of the Latin Cross. Essentially, Navy chaplains served “as officers without rank.”
In 1905, Navy Uniform Regulations provided that Chaplains would have ranks equivalent to line officers; they were to wear the standard navy officer’s uniform with the service braid in lustrous black (not gold as with line officers). The Navy later modified this requirement in 1918 to include both the officer rank insignia and a gold cross.
Naval Staff Corps regulations discontinued the black braid and replaced it with the same gold braid worn by other officers – along with the Latin Cross.
In modern times, the Navy accepts clergy from religious denominations and faith groups, but an applicant’s request is contingent upon a favorable recommendation by their religious governing authority. An applicant must meet the Navy’s requirements, including appropriate age and physical fitness. Even after acceptance, the endorsing religious authority can revoke their endorsement at any time, the effect of which leads to the separation of the chaplain from naval service.
An applicant for service as a chaplain in the Navy must be a US citizen, be at least 21 years old, hold a post-graduate degree which includes 72-hours of study in theology, religious philosophy, ethics, and foundational writing. Upon acceptance and commission, chaplains attend the Navy Chaplain School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. There is also a Chaplain Candidate Program Officer program for seminary students interested in obtaining a commission before completing their graduate studies.
The modern mission for Navy chaplains includes religious ministry, religious facilitation for all religious beliefs, caring for Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard personnel (and their families), advising their commanding officers in spiritual matters, promote ethical and moral behavior, increase combat readiness through ministerial programs, improve morale and retention, and employ modern technology to support their missions. Assisting Navy chaplains are enlisted religious program specialists.
Several Navy chaplains have distinguished themselves in combat, including Lieutenant Vincent Capodanno (Medal of Honor), Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O’Callahan (Medal of Honor), Commander George S. Rentz (Navy Cross), Lieutenant Thomas N. Conway (Navy Cross), and Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Aloysius H. Schmitt (Silver Star). Navy ships were named in honor of O’Callahan, Rentz, and Schmitt.
There has seldom been a Navy chaplain far from the forward edge of the battle area, whether serving aboard ship or in the field with the Marines. Pictured right, Navy chaplains conduct religious serves on Mount Suribachi, on Iwo Jima, Easter Sunday, 1945.
My personal salute to all military chaplains, particularly those of the U. S. Navy who, at the risk of their own lives, provide injured and dying Marines with comfort in their final moments. In many cases, the face of a Navy Chaplain or a Navy Corpsman is the last face our mortally wounded Marines see.
- Burgsma, H. L. Chaplains with Marines in Vietnam (1962-1971). Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1985.
- Drury, C. M. History of the Chaplain Corps. Washington: Navy Publications Center, 1994.
 In Gaul and early France, the title of Notary was an employee of the Royal Chancelleries, titled “Notaries of the King” and served as scribes in the royal seigniorial and communal courts of justice who maintained records of all official proceedings.
 I have only known one chaplain who wore a sidearm in combat – a Presbyterian.
 A Catholic Priest, Lieutenant Conway was assigned as the chaplain aboard USS Indianapolis when a Japanese submarine torpedoed the vessel off the Philippine Island of Leyte on 30 July 1945. More than 800 crewmen were forced into the ocean, some of whom were badly injured, and remained at the mercy of nature for three days. These men were severely dehydrated and suffered numerous shark attacks. Only 316 men survived the ordeal. Conway was recognized for swimming through shark infested waters to administer to suffering crewmen, saving as many as 67 men. Conway was one of the crew who didn’t survive; he stood by these men when they needed him most. His award was delayed for 75 years, finally presented to family members on 8 January 2021.