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This Day in History: George Washington goes to bat for his chaplains

On this day in 1776, General George Washington notifies his troops of a new policy regarding chaplains’ pay. He’d set out to get better treatment for his chaplains—and he’d succeeded.

Yes, you read that right. Washington wanted MORE public money to be used for religious purposes. He did not want to skimp on something as important as military chaplains.

Hmm. So much for separation of church and state?

Depicted is the “Fighting Chaplain,” James Caldwell. At the Battle of Springfield (1780), the Patriots were running out of paper wadding, which was needed to load bullets into their muskets. Caldwell ran toward a church and grabbed some Isaac Watts hymnals. As he ripped out pages to be used as wadding, he yelled at the soldiers: “Give ‘em Watts, boys!”

Washington first assumed command of the American army during the summer of 1775. Soon afterwards, the Continental Congress approved its first act regarding chaplains: It set chaplains’ salaries at $20 per month. Color Washington unimpressed! He soon wrote the President of Congress, noting that the pay was “too Small to encourage men of Abilities.” He asked that a way be found to increase chaplains’ salaries.

In other words: He knew that you get what you pay for! If we want good, worthwhile chaplains, then let’s make sure they are paid appropriately.

Congress approved Washington’s request. The new policy gave chaplains responsibility for more than one regiment, but it also increased their pay to $33 per month. Washington announced the change on February 7, 1776.

After a few months, Washington decided that the system (unfortunately) did not work for logistical reasons. If regiments were separated due to the demands of war, one regiment might find itself without a chaplain for a while. Washington wrote Congress again. He asked that chaplains be assigned one per regiment, with a salary “competent to their support.”

At first Congress agreed, but the new policy did not last. Fiscal concerns eventually caused chaplains to be assigned one per brigade. A brigade was a much larger unit of the army; it could be composed of several regiments. In other words, there were fewer chaplains, overall, in the army.

Washington objected again. Interestingly, his main concern at this juncture was about religious liberty. He wanted many chaplains of a variety of faiths. If there were fewer chaplains overall, then, by definition, there were fewer choices for his men. They were more likely, he wrote Congress, to be compelled “to a mode of Worship, which they do not profess.” Washington preferred the old system, with more chaplains and a greater likelihood that the men could have “a Chaplain of their own religious Sentiments.”

Congress was never able to implement Washington’s vision fully, but the episode is at least important in demonstrating Washington’s views: He valued the presence of chaplains in his army. He thought they served a critical function, and he advocated for them consistently. Washington, you may remember, often faced shortages of supplies and funds. Yet he thought it important to spend some of these valuable funds on chaplains.

What an interesting statement about Washington’s priorities.

More information on George Washington’s views can be found HERE.

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