U.S. entry to WWI remembered as chaplaincy catalyst

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"The world has never witnessed such a situation as this," Southern Baptists said of WWI in a report adopted at the 1918 SBC annual meeting. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
U.S. entry to WWI remembered as chaplaincy catalyst


The 100th anniversary of the United States' entry to World War I is also, says former U.S. Army chief of chaplains Douglas Carver, the 100th anniversary of when "the U.S. military chaplaincy came into its own ... as a distinct branch of the Armed Services," Christian Telegraph reports according to Baptist Press.

Among Southern Baptists, April 2017 additionally marks the 100th anniversary of the North American Mission Board's assignment to coordinate Southern Baptist Convention participation in U.S. military chaplaincy -- initially under the auspices of NAMB's precursor, the Home Mission Board.

The 146 chaplains in the Regular Army and National Guard on April 6, 1917 -- when America declared war against Germany -- expanded to a chaplaincy force of more than 2,300 by the war's end in 1918. That expansion cemented the "'ministry of presence' chaplains provide in today's Armed Services," said Carver, NAMB's executive director of chaplaincy.

"Chaplains serve as a constant reminder to our troops that God is present with them, especially in a combat environment," Carver told Baptist Press in written comments. "Today's chaplains continue to provide personal ministry, pastoral care and training resources for our troops who suffer the 'spiritual damage' of war" like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and "moral injury."

In World War I, chaplain duties included providing pastoral and personal counseling, ministry to the wounded and dying, conducting memorial ceremonies and services and leading worship in stateside camps and for troops deployed in Europe, Carver said.

WWI chaplains almost universally had college and seminary degrees, and all were 41 years old or younger, North Carolina's Biblical Recorder newsjournal reported Jan. 30, 1918.

A minister baptizes WWI-era soldiers and others in the Trinity River at Camp Bowie in Fort Worth, Texas. SBHLA photo
Twenty-seven WWI chaplains were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, according to data provided by Carver, the second highest Army award for extraordinary heroism in battle. Among recipients of the honor, according to internet reports, were Colman O'Flaherty, who was killed while helping the wounded in 1918, and John DeValles, who earned the nickname "angel of the trenches" for searching for wounded soldiers in the area between opposing trenches known as "no man's land."

Another notable WWI chaplain was Paul Moody, son of evangelist Dwight Moody.

Paul Moody served under Gen. John Pershing in France, Carver said, and "was instrumental in helping to organize the U.S. military chaplaincy into a branch of its own. He and Gen. Pershing's personal chaplain consulted the British Army Chaplain General for advice and adapted several of their features in the American plan for the military chaplaincy."

Eleven American chaplains were killed in action while 12 died of disease.

Southern Baptists joined the nationwide push to recruit chaplains at the 1917 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans, instructing the HMB "to use its best endeavors to stimulate and cultivate the interest of our people in this matter and to care for the interests of the denomination as may be necessary," according to the 1917 SBC Annual. The work was to occur in cooperation with state Baptist conventions.

The HMB's assignment of chaplaincy oversight ended a 50-year period in which the HMB and the SBC "performed no chaplaincy ministries," according to former HMB chief executive Arthur Rutledge's book "Mission to America."

Because the U.S. government had asked the Federal Council of Churches to help coordinate chaplain selection for the military, HMB representatives worked with the FCC, according to the 1918 SBC Annual, though the SBC never joined the coalition of mainline denominations.

Initially, Southern Baptists adopted a multipronged strategy of ministry to troops, with chaplains partnering at military installations with civilian "camp pastors" and YMCA secretaries, who ministered at designated YMCA buildings, according to reports in multiple state Baptist newspapers.

The HMB's 1917 report stated, "Facing the stern and terrible realities of war, men will turn their thoughts instinctively and inevitably to God. There will be in the training camps and in the trenches and in our communities, opportunities for bringing men to Jesus such as we have never known."

A camp pastor speaks to American soldiers while passing out New Testaments and tracts during WWI. SBHLA photo SBHLA photo
Notable volunteers for ministry to troops included George Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, who volunteered in 1918 to spend six months overseas ministering to troops, according to a June 6, 1918, report in Texas' Baptist Standard newsjournal. Click here to read a previous BP report on WWI that included details of Truett's visit to a military hospital.

So many men answered the call to ministry among troops that the SBC's Education Commission reported an 11.4 percent decrease in enrollment at theological schools nationwide in 1918 and said one of five churches were pastorless in some regions.

The ministry proved fruitful. Among reports of troops' professing faith in Christ was one published in the Baptist Standard Sept. 13, 1917, noting a worship service hosted by a Wharton County, Texas, church at which "more than 100 of our soldiers came forward and said they would put their trust in Christ as their Savior." Two were baptized the same night.

When the War Department ordered in July 1918 that the civilian camp pastors be removed from military installations, according to an Oct. 31 report in the Biblical Recorder, chaplains in the armed forces assumed even greater responsibility.

The Biblical Recorder's call for chaplains a year earlier on July 18, 1917, took on added significance: "Virile and vigorous men are needed; they should possess an adequate educational equipment; men with several years' experience in the pastorate or social work are preferred."

Chaplains' duties continued to expand following the war, Carver said, noting military chaplains were "instrumental" in addressing the "spiritual damage" inflicted upon young men in battle.

"President Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker, in consultation with U.S. religious leaders from all the major denominations, focused on the military chaplaincy as a key resource to provide spiritual direction, religious training, emotional healing and character guidance classes for members and veterans of the Armed Services," Carver said.

Still today, Americans continue to benefit from the ministry tradition established by WWI chaplains a century ago, Carver said.

"Our churches should look for ways to thank our SBC military chaplains for their unique ministry calling and welcome them back home to the local church ministry setting once they have completed their military duties," he said.

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