First Army African-American Chief of Chaplains
Chaplain Matthew Zimmerman was the 18th Army Chief of Chaplains and the first who was African-American.
Chaplain Zimmerman “was born in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and educated at Benedict College and Duke University. After his graduation from Duke Divinity School where he was the fist Afro-American to attain a Master of Divinity degree, Chaplain Zimmerman served as the campus pastor for Idaho State University and later for Morris College in Sumter, South Carolina. He was ordained by the National Baptist Convention of which his father was a ministerial member also. He entered the Army Chaplaincy as a captain by direct appointment in April of 1967. Chaplain Zimmerman’s initial assignments included serving as Battalion and then Brigade Chaplain of the 3rd Advanced Individual Training Brigade, Ft. Gordon, Georgia; Assistant IV Corps Tactical Zone Chaplain, Vietnam Assistant Division Support Command Chaplain, 1st Armored Division, Ft. Hood, Texas; DIVARTY Staff Chaplain, 3rd Armored Division, Hanau; and Assistant V Corps Chaplain, Frankfurt, West Germany. His senior assignments later included service as the Division Staff Chaplain, 3rd Infantry Division; Deputy Staff Chaplain, Training and Doctrine Command; and United States Forces Command Staff Chaplain, Fort McPherson, Georgia. Chaplain Zimmerman was nominated and confirmed as Deputy Chief of Chaplains in 1989 and as Chief of Chaplains in 1990.”1
“All in all, as General Carl Vuono, the Army Chief of Staff, promoted Chaplain Matthew A. Zimmerman to Major General on 1 August 1990, there was much about which the Chaplain Corps could be pleased and proud. In his first address to the Corps on 1 August, Chaplain Zimmerman wrote:
As I assume the role as your Chief of Chaplains, I’m very much aware of both the heavy responsibility that is mine, and the many decisions which lie ahead for me. Before Chaplain Einertson stepped down and passed the mantle to me, I was quite confident that I knew the answers, or at least the directions the Chaplaincy needed to go. Today there’s a different complexion on it all.2
“Chaplain Zimmerman’s words were more prophetic than perhaps he realized, for within 24 hours of his investiture the news arrived of potentially the greatest combat operation the Army had faced since Vietnam. In the early morning hours of 2 August, some 100,000 Iraqi troops crossed into Kuwait. It would not be long before American soldiers and their unit ministry teams would be on the move and the Chief of Chaplains and his staff would be in prayer for them all.”3
“On 1 August 1990, the day Chaplain Matthew A. Zimmerman was promoted to Major General and assumed office as the Army’s 18th Chief of Chaplains, the Army was on the brink of thirteen separate operational deployments ranging from heavy combat to humanitarian relief missions. Eleven of these deployments took place within two years, from 1990 to 1992. The leadership skills required to inspire, encourage, manage, and sustain the spiritual strength of 550,000 soldiers and 1,200 unit ministry teams deployed to every continent, including Antarctica, during this period were extraordinary. Blessed with years of hard preparation and by an outstanding staff and outstanding
unit ministry teams throughout the Chaplain Corps, Chaplain Zimmerman met each challenge successfully for the spiritual benefit of soldiers, the Chaplaincy, the Army leadership, and the American people.
“Throughout his 27-year career, Chaplain Zimmerman liked to refer to himself simply as ‘a Baptist preacher.’ While that self-effacing description was true and warranted a high degree of respect as would be due to a preacher of the Gospel, it was too modest. To describe Chaplain Zimmerman as “a Baptist preacher” without further qualification would be akin to describing Benjamin Franklin as ‘a printer,’ George Washington as ‘a planter,’ or Albert Einstein as ‘a mathematician.
“Chaplain Zimmerman would be better described as one of the best preachers in the history of the Chaplain Corps, an outstanding chaplain at every echelon in the Amy, a genius at organization and conflict resolution, and a courageous and intuitive leader who rarely needed to hear the same information twice. Perhaps one of Chaplain Zimmerman’s most remarkable qualities, however, was his ability to genuinely relate to every person he met regardless of rank, gender, race, age or class. Without pretense, he enjoyed people. Throughout the Pentagon and indeed throughout the Army he was the best known chaplain in the Corps.”4
1Brinsfield, John W., “Encouraging Faith, Supporting Soldiers: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1975-1995, p. 304.
2OCCH, August 1990 Information Letter, 1 August 1990, p. 1, cited in Brinsfield, John W., “Encouraging Faith, Supporting Soldiers: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1975-1995, p. 305.
3Brinsfield, p. 305.
4Brinsfield, p. 303-304.