The 3000 Year History of Chaplaincy

The 3000 Year History of Chaplaincy 

A chaplain is typically a member of the clergy serving a group of people who are not organized as a mission, [temple, synagogue] or church; lay chaplains are also found in some settings such as universities. For example a chaplain is often attached to a military unit (often known as padre), a private chapel, a ship, a prison, a hospital, a college or other (especially boarding) school, even a parliamentary assembly and so on. Lay persons may also be appointed as official or unofficial chaplains, particularly to organisations too small to justify an ordained chaplain.


History records various 'equivalents' from ancient Assyria onwards, sometimes rendered as 'chaplains'. Favored theories of the derivation of the term relate to the relic cloak (capa or capella) of St. Martin of Tours or from the Latin term Capellanus. In various languages, the word equivalent to Almoner (e.g. Aumônier in French, Aalmoezenier in Dutch - but also Kapelaan with the military) is used in many instances where English uses chaplain, sometimes there are still other terms (e.g. also Proost, otherwise equivalent to Provost, in Dutch).

In the Old Testament book of Joshua, Levite priests accompany the Israelites' military and political expedition into Israel; carrying the Ark of the Covenant and playing a major role in the goodwill of military matters. While these priests cannot be considered "chaplains" with the current meaning, their role as spiritual aides provides a model for modern chaplains to rely upon.

Originally a Christian chaplain had a function of serving as an aide to a bishop and various chaplains still help the pope in his ecclesiastical duties. In other circumstances their duties were limited to saying a mass in certain functions. In many catholic parishes the curate has one or more younger priests, styled Chaplains, attached to him, under his ordinary jurisdiction.

Many historical monarchies and major noble houses had or even still have one (often several) 'private' chaplain, either following them or attached to a castle or other residence. Castles with attached chaplains generally had at least one 'chapel', sometimes as grand as a cathedral (as St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, also the 'home' of the Order of the Garter). See also Chapel Royal, and the Ecclesiastical Household.

Since in feudal times most laymen, for centuries even most noblemen, were poorly or not educated, the literate clergy was often employed as advisers and secretarial staff (as in a chancery) until the advent of legists and proper bureaucratic civil service (mainly under Absolutism), hence the term clerk, derived from Latin clericus ('clergyman'). This made them very influential in temporal affairs; there was also a moral impact since they heard the confessions of the elite.


The first English military-oriented chaplains were priests on board proto-naval vessels during the eighth century CE. Land based Chaplains appeared during the reign of King Edward I, although their duties included jobs that today would come under the jurisdiction of military engineers and medical officers. A priest attached to a feudal noble household would follow his liege lord into battle. In 1796 the Parliament of Great Britain passed a Royal Warrant that established the Royal Army Chaplains' Department in the British Army.

The current form of military chaplain dates from the era of the First World War. A chaplain provides spiritual and pastoral support for service personnel, including the conduct of religious services at sea or in the field. In the Royal Navy chaplains are traditionally addressed by their Christian name, or with one of many nick-names (Bish; Sin-Bosun; Devil Dodger; Sky-Pilot etc). In the Royal Marines and British Army, chaplains are traditionally referred to (and addressed) as padre.

In the Royal Navy chaplains have no rank other than "chaplain." They are identified by a unique cap badge (similar to an officer's, but with gold-rimmed black leaves instead of solid gold ones), and their rank insignia is a fouled anchor superimposed over a cross. In order to remain accessible to all (chaplains are "a friend and advisor to all on board"), a chaplain assumes the rank of whoever they are counselling (ie, they are effectively a Commander when speaking to a Commander, and an Able Rating when speaking to such).

In the United States, military chaplains have rank based on years of service and promotion selection. They are identified in uniform of both rank and religious symbol insignias, and may be referred to as chaps.

Christianity is not the only faith to have chaplain-equivalent positions. Other religions, such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism may also provide chaplains for military service. The British Armed Forces traditionally only employed Christian and Jewish chaplains; the appointment of civilian chaplains from other faith groups occurred for the first time in October 2005.

The Buddhist equivalent term for chaplain may be the Sanskrit word purohita. In medieval Japan, Buddhists priests of the Jishu sect accompanied samurai armies and were known as jinso (literally, "camp priests"). Currently the United States, United Kingdom, and the Republic of Korea Armed Forces (ROK) employ Buddhist military chaplains.

Chaplains are nominated in different ways in different countries. A military chaplain can be an army-trained soldier with additional theological training or a priest nominated to the army by religious authorities. In the United Kingdom the Ministry of Defense employs chaplains but their authority comes from their sending church. Royal Navy chaplains undertake a 16 week bespoke induction and training course including a short course at Britannia Royal Naval College and specialist fleet time at sea alongside a more experienced chaplain. Naval Chaplains called to service with the Royal Marines undertake a grueling 5 month long Commando Course, and if successful wear the commando's Green Beret. British Army chaplains are trained by the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre at Amport House. In the United States military, chaplains must be endorsed by their religious affiliation in order to serve on active duty. This religious endorsement must be obtained throughout the active duty years of service and in fact can be withdrawn at any time by the religious body that the chaplain is affiliated. Without such endorsement, the chaplain can no longer serve on active duty as a chaplain.

In France, the existence of military chaplains has come under debate because of the separation of Church and State; however, their position has been maintained as of 2004.[1]

Roman Catholic chaplains for the United States Armed Forces are provided by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services. Potential Roman Catholic chaplains must seek permission from their diocesan Bishop or religious superior to be released for at least three years. A board evaluates each candidate: the application process usually takes from two to six months to complete.

Noncombatant status

The Geneva Conventions (Protocol I, 8 June 1977, Art 43.2) are clear that medical personnel and chaplains are noncombatants: they do not have the right to participate directly in hostilities. The widely held view that the Conventions require chaplains to be unarmed is untrue. (The fallacious argument begins with the fact that the Conventions specifically permit medical personnel to bear arms but do not mention chaplains. This misses a key point: the specific permission given in Protocol I, 8 June 1977, Art 13.2(a) refers to civilians, not service personnel). At least some UK chaplains serving in the Far East were armed during WWII. In recent years most western nations have required chaplains (but not medical personnel) to be unarmed, however Chaplain (then Captain) James D. Johnson, of the 9th Infantry Division, Mobile Riverine Force in Vietnam describes (Combat Chaplain: A Thirty-Year Vietnam Battle) both "unofficial training" with small arms and carrying the M-16 rifle while embedded with a combat patrol.

Captured chaplains are not considered Prisoners of War (Third Convention, 12 August 1949, Chapter IV Art 33) and must be returned to their home nation unless retained to minister to prisoners of war. Inevitably, serving chaplains have died in action. Many have been decorated for bravery in action (five have won Britain's highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross). The Chaplain's Medal for Heroism is a special military decoration of the United States of America which honours military chaplains who have been killed in the line of duty, although it has to date only been awarded to the famous Four Chaplains, all of whom died in the USAT Dorchester sinking in 1943 after giving up their lifejackets to others.

Various Non-Military

Chaplains also can be attached to emergency services agencies (see the International Chaplains Association or International Conference of Police Chaplainsor the Federation of Fire Chaplains), educational institutions like universities and colleges, private clubs such as the Knights of Columbus, scout troops, ships, places like hospitals, prisons or nightclubs, and on occasion private companies and corporations. Chaplains also serve in hospice programs and retirement centers. The term can also refer to priests attached to Roman Catholic convents.

Many hospitals and hospices employ chaplains to assist with the spiritual needs of patients, families and staff. In the United States, healthcare chaplains are typically educated through the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education and may be certified by one of the following organizations: International Chaplains Association, The Association of Professional Chaplains, The National Association of Catholic Chaplains, or The National Association of Jewish Chaplains. In Canada, they may be certified by the Canadian Association for Pastoral Practice and Education. Certification typically requires a Masters of Divinity degree, faith group ordination or commissioning, faith group endorsement, and four units (1600 hours) of Clinical Pastoral Education.

Even some…businesses employ chaplains for their staff and/or clientele.

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