Bringing the Gospel to the Troops

A Survey of American Military Homiletics

(Left to right) U.S. Navy Lt. Kenneth W. Neilson, a Catholic Chaplain assigned to the 1st force Services Support Group, says prayers for a Marine patient. (Top middle) U.S. Navy Battalion Landing Team Chaplain, Navy Lt. John Hoke holds Mass for several Marines. (Bottom middle) Chaplain holds up a Consecrated Host during Mass for soldiers. (Right) U.S. Navy Chaplain Cmdr. David Gravec giving an Easter Sermon aboard a military Sealift Command Hospital ship.

The record of preachers in uniform is a remarkable one, filled with physical bravery and moral courage in the face of internal and external pressures, ameliorated by a deep, and very personal sense of care for the ordinary combatants who are simply performing their duty to their country. Currently, the United States active military is composed of approximately 1.3 million women and men (Army – 475,000; Navy – 327,000; Air Force – 317,000; Marine Corps – 182,000).1

To provide for the constitutional right of free exercise of religion for these soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, the government has commissioned approximately 2,800 military chaplain officers and, of that, almost one-half are Army, and one quarter each of the Navy and the Air Force. (The Navy furnishes chaplains to the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, as well.) A faith sponsor, such as the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA – Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D. (www.milarch.org), must endorse them for selection. Only ordained priests are accepted as Catholic chaplains; however, a limited number of deacons assist the archdiocese in its work. Today’s active duty Catholic Chaplains comprise less than 10% of the total (200+), despite the almost 25% (300,000+) of active military members professing the faith. The vast majority of chaplains today are from evangelical Protestantism, a result of the marked decrease in priests and main-line protestant ministers. (The author, a U.S. Marine for 25 years in the 1950’s-1980’s, recalls very few instances when Catholic Chaplains were not available to minister to the troops.)

Nevertheless, the work of military chaplains in general is legendary! The former U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains, Chaplain (Major General) Donald Rutherford, a Roman Catholic priest, wrote the following about his service’s chaplains:

Since 1775, chaplains have served as religious and spiritual leaders for 25 million soldiers and their families. From military installations to deployed combat units and from service schools to military hospitals, chaplains have performed their ministries in the most religiously diverse organization in the world. Nearly three hundred Army chaplains have laid down their lives in battle. Six have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Currently over three thousand chaplains are serving the total Army representing over one hundred-forty religious denominations.2

Bringing the gospel (preaching) to American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines is difficult today, for the same reasons it is difficult in society at-large. There is a lack of religious knowledge in the backgrounds of our young; there is a widespread sense of relativism in the country; there is a lack of credibility in our clergy in the wake of numerous scandals. However, that has not always been the case. “When George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army on July 2, 1775, he found twenty-three regiments of soldiers with fifteen chaplains among them.”3 When the war ended in 1783, there were two hundred twenty chaplains. Royster tells us:

Chaplains also helped General’s work in sermons and addresses. Commanders required soldiers to attend divine services. A commander might suggest the text for a sermon and urge the chaplain to ‘”dwell a little more on politics” if he was one of the few who failed to do so. After Chaplain Benjamin Boardman had preached on Jehoshaphat’s prayer for God’s help against invaders, Colonel Samuel Wyllys thanked him and said, “it was the best sermon he had ever heard upon the occasion and troubles of the day.” The survey sermons strive to attain a very demanding ideal: to nourish and justify the hopes of America’s future, to foster individual courage in combat, to celebrate the unity of courageous men in a just cause, to awaken soldier’s watchfulness for the signs of their own salvation, and to encourage orderly conduct of a disciplined soldier and upright Christian.4

Religious leaders were at the forefront of the rebellion from the pulpit, but they also were on the firing line from the earliest moment. Dickens summarizes these phenomena well:

In 1775, the “shot heard round the world” was fired on the green outside Lexington, Massachusetts… with the men were Stephen Farrar, Joseph Willard, and David Grosvenor. All of these men were preachers who shouldered arms with their parishioners. Also present was Benjamin Balch, who would eventually be known as the first Continental Navy chaplain. Even before the official position of chaplain was created, clergy were involved in the life of the revolutionary army.5

Pastor and Chaplain David Jones, preached a sermon to Colonel Dewees’ Regiment of Troops at Chester, Pennsylvania, not far from Valley Forge, in the early days of the war. A review of it indicates both an exhortation for bravery from individual troops, and a justification for the rebellion itself.

When a people are oppressed, insulted, and abused, and can have no other redress, it then becomes our duty as men, with our eyes to God, to fight for our own liberties and properties; or in other words, that a defensive war is sinless before God.

There is another objection. Surely martial engagements do not suit a meek and loving disciple of Christ. But a defensive war is no more murder than a legal process against a criminal…Remember, all men are not converted; if they were there could be no necessity of war in any sense.6

Some seventy-five years after the American victory at Yorktown, a new wave of preaching had rolled onto the shores of America, just in time for the Civil War. This was called “the Second Great Awakening,” and occurred as the dominance of Calvinism waned. The new movement did not favor an elect as had the old. It grew quickly from north to south, but was most welcomed on the frontier.

One person was now thought to be as good an interpreter of the Bible as another … God wanted revivals, and it took only faithful souls to bring one about … salvation was not open just to those elected to it; it was available to anyone who would trust and accept God’s promises. These differences gave a very different dynamic to the movement and a very different style of preaching to mediate it.7

Quimby makes a strong argument that the usual theme for preaching to the Union Army was “the standard evangelistic one inherited from Edwards, Whitefield, Finney, Cartwright, and the frontier camp meetings.”8 He goes on to point out that an additional purpose of preaching was to reduce the fear incumbent to the battlefield by promising salvation for the Christian soldier. “Chaplains committed that attendance rose when a battle was expected. Soldiers who had been careless in religious matters became psychologically receptive to the minister’s oratory,” and their battlefield exploits.9

Father William Corby, who later served as President of Notre Dame University (1866-1872), became famous on the battlefield at Gettysburg where he was chaplain to the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac. He preached to the Union troops immediately before the Confederate advance on Cemetery Ridge, and then, as Baxter describes:

He climbed onto a nearby boulder and, exposing him to enemy fire, stood up and pronounced the absolution of sin on every man he saw. He later claimed that all the soldiers in the brigade, whether Catholic or not, knelt solemnly in front of him as cannon balls exploded and bullets whisked over their heads.10

In a different but continuing challenge to the old order, Dickens relates how the First Wisconsin Heavy Artillery enlisted Ella E. Hobart as the very first female chaplain to serve the American military until the 1970s. “She served (September 30, 1864 to July 31, 1865) without title or the pay.”11

Military chaplaincy continued to change, along with the society it served, after the Civil War and, at least in form, continues to do so today.

Chaplains are preachers, teachers, and counselors, counted as vital players who quietly hold the military together. In garrison, they offer counsel and spiritual support to soldiers, and their families. Deployed to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re missionaries bringing God’s love to men and women who are unusually open to matters of faith.12

No longer are chaplains assigned only to hometown units from their state. Today, they can be assigned anywhere their service is located throughout the world, and in addition, they are assigned as general practitioners of religion who are responsible for a myriad of programs of a morale and character-building nature for troops of every religious persuasion that happen to be members of their unit. Naturally, their liturgical preaching is proclaimed under the guise of their particular denomination, but all troops must be welcomed. A caveat to this is that Protestant chaplains are expected to present a Protestant universal service, not one specific to their denomination. This is called a “Collective Protestant Worship Service” and generally follows this sequence: Call to Worship, Hymn, Welcome and Greeting, Hymn, Pastoral Prayer, Sermon, Offering (Doxology), Closing Hymn, and Benediction.

Since World War II, there has been a sharp rise in the number of Evangelical and Pentecostal military chaplains, which is a cause of concern to the military hierarchy. Loveland traces the rise in Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations that have opted for military chaplaincy over the past fifty years as one that occurred in conjunction with the decline in mainline Protestant denominations, as well as the decline in Roman Catholic priest chaplains.13 This shift has impacted military chaplaincy preaching. After all, there are a limited number of Evangelical and Pentecostal seminaries and, thus, homiletical learning centers attended by prospective chaplains from these faith groups.14

Nevertheless, preaching is important for all the military service chaplains, no matter their denomination.

The Church is foremost the Church when preaching and hearing take place. It is there that God is calling, justifying, and sanctifying His people. This means that the sermon is not just a refined Bible study spoken with no interruptions. The sermon in its purest form is proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.15

Each time todays’ military chaplains climb into their pulpits, they find the same, or similar, challenges found by their forbears in 1776, and in 1861. They are expected to support the nation, and they are expected to care for the spiritual and moral lives of the troops. However, today they find a lack of religious knowledge in the background of officers and enlisted personnel who come from a secularized society, and they find a widespread sense of relativism throughout the congregation. “This leads to significant relational and respect issues that result in empty pews and empty souls.”16

The Army had responded to this new situation by advancing lifelong learning opportunities to improve the homiletical skills of it Chaplain Corps.

Lifelong learning is an essential element of preserving the spiritual soul of the Army and increases its spiritual strength … The College of Preaching will serve as an advisory group to the Chief of Chaplains on the state of preaching, homiletics, or sacred communications within the Branch, and prepare training, or education, to improve this area across the Corps.17

Unfortunately, this effort to improve preaching has faltered under new leadership, or simply found to be not as practical to implement it, as to plan it. Today, additional ways to assist in preaching are under consideration for the need of good preaching continues to demand attention in our society, both in, and out, of the Armed Forces. While such initiatives may be formidable challenges, the more fundamental one facing military chaplains, and especially newly commissioned ones in their preaching life, lies in the nature of the military culture itself. The distinctness of this culture, and finding ways to address it, have become increasingly complex over the past four decades for new chaplains. Numerous military historians trace the increasing military-civilian disparity in cultures to the advent of the “all-volunteer force,” or AVF, adopted by the United States Government in 1973 as a reaction to the strength of the anti-Vietnam war sentiment existing in the American public at-large at that time. The AVF stands in marked contrast to the previous two-hundred years of our country’s military history.

From 1776 through 1940, the peacetime size of the United States military was minimal. Its purpose, fundamentally, was to preserve a core of military expertise so that a larger number of conscripts, or volunteers, could be raised and quickly trained in time of war. The military ethos was not strong, and this factor is reflected in the popular culture of the time. “

For example, the television show M*A*S*H*, which ran from 1972 to 1983, depicted soldiers who were “civilians at heart,” regular folk, who would rather not be defending their country, but who either felt a call to serve or realized they had no choice because of conscription, which did not end until 1973.18

That perspective has changed dramatically. The link that existed between civilian and military culture from the earliest days of the American Revolution, through the grim years of the American Civil War, and through several decades following American involvement in World War II, has been greatly weakened. Today’s military is more professional, and more elite. Robert L. Goldich, a renowned military historian and consultant, argues in the summer 2011 issue of Daedalus, that now a separate military world exists, one that is “flinty, harshly results-oriented, and emotionally extreme.”19 The social impact of using a force of volunteers instead of conscripts means that no one is in the military who does not desire to be. Goldich points out that modern civil society is organized around the virtues of friendliness and tolerance; it is gender neutral, with male aggressiveness kept to a minimum; it fiercely defends the right of individuals to express themselves. Today’s military world is the opposite. It is group- oriented, tough, disciplined, aggressive, male-dominated, and physically arduous.

Today’s military personnel are called upon to fight more regularly, and when not, to be constantly ready for battle. This is a situation that is far removed from the historical reality, and is also far removed from the civilian world that military chaplains come from. When they are ordained for military chaplaincy, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, they enter a new world, one that has its own language, values, and community. Military values that predominate in this culture include: selfless service, sacrifice, and integrity. Military members follow lawful orders, even when those orders clash with a service member’s own personal values, or faith commitment.

Preaching must be relevant to the congregation to be effective, so chaplains must analyze, grasp, and then use the military culture in their preaching for the glory of God. Today’s military chaplains, including our priest chaplains, must find ways to bridge the gap in their experiences between civilian pastoral homiletics, and preaching the gospel to the troops, to reflect how Christ is present in the everyday life of our American warriors. Some two-hundred-forty years ago, military chaplains did just that, and there is no reason that this challenge won’t be met, with God’s grace, in the years to come.

  1. Congressional Research Service, FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act: Military Personnel Policy Issues, accessed January 9, 2017. fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R43184.pdf.
  2. Donald Rutherford, “Chaplain Corps,” Department of the Army, accessed January 8, 2014, Army.Mil/Chaplaincorps.
  3. Richard Holmes, “Religion in the Military,” in Oxford Companion to U.S. Military History, ed. John W. Chambers, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 22.
  4.  Charles Royster, “Battling Irreligion in the Ranks,” Journal of Christian History, 15, no.2 (1996), 35. See Royster for a full and frank discussion of the problems faced by American Revolutionary War chaplains.
  5.  William E. Dickens, “Answering the Call: The Story of the U.S. Military Chaplaincy from the Revolution through the Civil War.” (Doctor of Ministry thesis, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1998), 7.
  6.  David Jones, “Defensive War in a Just Cause, Sinless: A Sermon Preached in Chester County at the Log Meeting House, before Col. Dewees’ Regiment of Troops,” Papers of the Baptist Church in the Greater Valley, accessed April 9, 2012 bcgv.org/history/notable members/
  7.  Ibid., 404.
  8.  Rollin Quimby, “Recurrent Themes and Purposes in the Sermons of Union Army Chaplains,” Speech Monologues 31, no. 4, (November 1964): 431.
  9.  Ibid., 433.
  10.  Michael J. Baxter, “In Place of an Afterward: My Argument with Father William Corby, C.S.C,” in The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century, 204-210.
  11. Dickens, “Answering the Call: The Story of the U.S. Military Chaplaincy from the Revolution through the Civil War,” 145-147.
  12. Deann Alford, “Faith, War, Peace,” Christianity Today, 48 no. 12 (December 2004): 44-48.
  13.  Anne Loveland, “From Morale Builders to Moral Advocates: U.S. Army Chaplains in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century,” The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century, 233-249.
  14.  Paul Boyer, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: Evangelicals and the Military since World War II,” Review of American History 25 no.4 (1997): 686-691.
  15.  Thomas Murray, “The Collective Protestant Worship Service: An Examination from Calvin’s Perspective,” Military Chaplains Review Spring (1992): 34-38.
  16.  Michael Coffey, Chaplain Ministry to the Millennial Generation, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: United States Army War College Research Project, 2006, 1-17.
  17. Douglas L. Carver, The Powerful Privilege & Responsibility of Sacred Communications, Fort Jackson, South Carolina: Department of the Army, U.S. Chaplaincy School, 2010, Unit Ministry Team, Summer-Fall 2010, 1-3.
  18.  George Q. Flynn, The Draft: 1940-1973 (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1993). This work is the definitive diagnosis of the draft and indicates changes in military culture since its demise.
  19. Robert L. Goldich, “American Military Culture from Colony to Empire,” Daedalus, 140, no. 3, 58.
Deacon William Smith About Deacon William Smith

Bill Smith is a Permanent Deacon of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, assigned to Father Michael  Kennedy, S.J. Father Kennedy is the founder and Executive Director of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, which provides Ignatian retreats to the thousands of men and women incarcerated in California State Prisons. Bill holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (Preaching) from Aquinas Institute of Theology, as well as three Master’s Degrees. He loves Chaplains!

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