The Seeds of the Chapliancy

It is doubtful that marine Chaplain (1LT) Carey H. Cash reflected upon the early beginnings of the chaplaincy as he moved across the Iraqi desert with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment; however, much of his duties today found their birth in the armies of the first through sixth century Roman empire. By examining the pre and early chaplaincy of this period, we find what might be considered the foundation of the chaplaincy as it exists today. 
Ralph W. Mathisen argues that religion was primarily a state function in the first century, often carried out by the Emperor and military commanders through a variety of ceremonial acts. “As pontifex maximus, or chief priest” states Mathisen, “the emperor had supreme responsibility for maintaining the pax deorum (peace of the gods) and ensuring that the gods who oversaw the welfare of the state continued to do so.”[1] While the role of religion by modern government officials and commanders is not as supreme as it once was in the Roman empire, and many of the religious duties have been delegated to the chaplain, we still see officials presiding over, or consuming an important role in ceremonially religious occasions, most prominently as key participants and speakers at military funerals.[2]

The third century saw the adoption of other popular cult religions among the regular soldiers of the Roman empire. With these new systems of faith came requirements for priests to perform specific ceremonial duties. Early on, these priests were civilians traveling with the military. Occasionally, soldiers performed religious duties for fellow soldiers, although these duties were not their primary military role.[3] It was this period when ideas of being close to the front lines and caring for the diverse religious needs of individual soldier started to develop.

But nothing more deeply planted the seeds of the modern chaplaincy than Constantine’s famous vision to paint a cross, a symbol of Christianity, on each soldier’s shield before entering an important battle. Michael McCormick states, “It is clear that Constantine connected his commitment to the new God with this and subsequent military successes; that commitment launched the Christianization of the empire as a whole, and the Roman army in particular.”[4] Constantine called upon priests to perform specific duties as members of the military. From this point forward, we observe priests entering the military in what may be seen as the dedicated role of the Christian chaplain.
Examining the present century, we find that the chaplain, as both a member of the military and as a religious cleric, is serving the needs of the soldier on the battlefield in an official capacity. Chaplain (1LT) Cash writes this of his 2003 experience in Iraq:
I was in the section called the “combat train.”  We were fifteen vehicles strong and consisted of the battalion’s surgeon, medical corpsmen, ammunition and food re-supply personnel, vehicle maintenance personnel, nuclear/biological/ chemical experts (NBC folks for short), and the battalion’s chaplain and RP.  The combat train’s job was simple: follow directly behind the lead combat elements of our battalion with ready re-supply materials.  It was the perfect place for me to be.  I was almost always within sight and sound of our front-line troops, yet back far enough to monitor the situation on the communication channels and able to drive immediately to any platoon or augmenting unit that needed me.[5]
Clearly, Chaplain Cash’s opportunities as a chaplain today grew from seeds planted by the pre-chaplains and chaplains of the Roman Empire.

[1] Doris L. Bergen, ed., The Sword of the Lord  (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2004), 29-30.
[2] See Hamza Hendawi, “Emotional memorial for victims of Chinook downing.” The San Diego Union Tribune (November 7, 2003) (accessed January 17, 2009).  Notice CSM Caldwell’s taking Role Call and the COL Teeples’ position as speaker; neither of which are chaplains or religious clerics.
[3] Bergen, 31-39.
[4] Bergen, 48.
[5] Carey H. Cash, A Table in the Presence, (Nashville, Tennessee, W. Publishing Group, 2004), 12.

*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.