History of Non-Christian Chaplains

History of Non-Christian Chaplains

A Brief History of Non-Christian Chaplains in the U.S. Military

by Chaplain (Major) Daryl W. Densford

It has not been until relatively recent history in our military that faith groups other than Judeo-Christian have been officially recognized. Up until 1862, a chaplain was required to be endorsed by a “Christian” denomination excluding any chaplains in other faith groups from being officially recognized by the government.

Civil War Jewish Chaplain

A likely set-up for Jewish worship during the Civil War, on display at the National Civil War Chaplains Museum.

About 6500 Jewish Soldiers served in the Union Army during the Civil War, (The Chaplain Kit 2016), but at the beginning unable to be ministered to by a Jewish chaplain. However, in 1861, the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry elected a Jewish chaplain, pushing their case to Congress until the law was changed. (Norton 1977, 91-91) In September 1862, “the first rabbi was commissioned as a chaplain” to serve as the hospital chaplain in Philadelphia for the military hospitals located there. (Norton 1977, 93)

Similarly, Catholic priests were not commissioned until the Civil War when Catholics among the Union troops reached one sixths of the total. “Although two priests provided religious services in the Mexican War under special presidential appointment, and three others were employed as post chaplains, it was not until the Civil War that priests actually received Army commissions as chaplains and served in any sizeable numbers” (Norton 1977, 93) though still not sufficient enough to cover the number of Catholic Soldiers that were serving at the time. Since the Civil War, the number of Catholic chaplains have continued to increase, though not able to keep pace with the number of Christian service members due largely to the lack of priests in general.

Between the World Wars of the 20th Century, there was a negligible number of Jewish Soldiers, so the demand for Jewish chaplains was minimal. More influential in the number of Jewish chaplains however, was the lack of interest in rabbis to serve in the military. “The history of Judaism in Europe was such that they perceived soldiers as instruments of the enemy. A military career was not an option chosen by many Jews. Families encouraged sons to enter nearly any other line of work.” (Gushwa 1978, 40) World War Two did see an increase in Jewish men serving in the armed forces along with Jewish chaplains to accompany them.

NBC-AJC broadcast of the first Jewish religious service from Germany since the rise of Nazism. Third from left, Pfc. Max Fuchs who served as cantor; Chaplain Sidney Lefkowitz who led the service, with microphone NBC reporter James Cassidy, October 29, 1942.

In fact, in 1941, Jewish soldiers served as an example for religious tolerance which spread to other posts when, “at Camp Robinson … a group of Jewish soldiers presented an unusual petition to the commanding officer; they requested duty during the Christmas holidays … to permit more Catholic and Protestant soldiers to spend time with their families” during this Christian religious holiday. (Gushwa 1978, 124)

It was not until following the end of World War Two that any consideration of faith groups other than Protestant, Catholic and Jewish were seriously considered. Suddenly finding themselves with a large number of Japanese prisoners of war (POW) facing trial for war crimes, American forces discovered that Judeo-Christian chaplains could not adequately care for the religious requirements of Buddhists, of which 90% of the Japanese POWs were. The Japanese government was requested to provide a civilian Buddhist priest to provide religious support. While not a military chaplain, the priest worked alongside the American chaplains to meet the religious needs of the Japanese POWs. (Venzke 1977, 12)

In the mid-1970’s when the United States was dealing with race issues of their own, the Army Chaplain Corps was also exploring the needs of minorities within their ranks. “Additionally, religious groups other than Judeo-Christian began to clamor for recognition.” During this time, the Chaplain Corps also addressed dietary needs for religious groups. (Brinsfield 1997, 34) What grew from the conflict and recognition of minority groups, both religious and racial, was an annual meeting of chaplains “to identify needs both of minority chaplains and their constituents, to recommend initiatives and to evaluate the success of ongoing programs.” (Brinsfield 1997, 34)

The Army Chaplain Corps found themselves in unfamiliar territory when in the late 1970’s non-Judeo-Christian groups continued to push for recognition and representation in the Chaplain Corps, so it “commissioned a study to produce a handbook on less familiar religions” which resulted in two pamphlets issued to commanders and chaplains to help navigate the increasing religious diversity in the Army. (Brinsfield 1997, 71)

The diversity of religion that was making its way into the Army was recognized beyond just the Chaplain Corps. A study group was created by the Department of Defense “to grapple with the problem of how the free exercise of religion could be respected while at the same time maintaining good order, discipline and morale” which after several years of meeting came up with the “principle of ‘accommodation.’” (Brinsfield 1997, 130)

The thrust of this policy was to allow free expression of religious beliefs unless they impinge on such things as readiness, good order and discipline. The local commander maintained authority to make decisions regarding individual situations on a case by case basis, with the individual having the right of appeal to higher headquarters. This was not a major change in the way the Army operated, but it did affirm, on a policy level, the right of soldiers to freely exercise their religious beliefs. (Brinsfield 1997, 130)

The 1980’s ushered in a military with a larger number of service members who were not Judeo-Christian, leading to more attention needing to be given to religious issues and better representation by chaplains. “The issues concerned a variety of topics: accommodating religious practices, proper terminology to use when describing faith groups, assignment policies, recruitment and retention policies, and even the question of what would be appropriate insignia for a pluralistic, multi-faith, and multi-cultural Corps of Chaplains.” (Brinsfield 1997, 243)

Lt. j.g. Jeanette Gracie Shin

Chief of Navy Chaplains, Rear Adm. Louis V. Iasiello, left, watches with Commander, Naval Reserve Force, Vice Adm. John Cotton as newly commissioned Lt. j.g. Jeanette Gracie Shin signs her Oath of Office paperwork in the Pentagon.

Since chaplains were the main advisors to commanders on religious accommodation, and many did not possess sufficient knowledge to intelligently advise on these matters, “the [Army] Chaplain School reinstituted a course in World Religions … for chaplains in the Basic and Advance courses.” Printed materials on other religions were also developed and distributed to chaplains to help them better understand the needs of other faith groups so they can better advise their commanders on courses of action when religious accommodation was requested. (Brinsfield 1997, 243)

By the end of the 1980’s, Buddhist Churches of America, “The Church of Ancient Wisdom, The Universal Life Church, The Hare Krishna’s, the B’hai, The Center for the Study of Islam, and the Echankar” were all seeking recognition as endorsing agencies for chaplains. In 1987, the Buddhist Churches of America became the first among them to receive such recognition making them the first group other than those within the Judeo-Christian tradition to receive the ability to endorse chaplains for Army service (Brinsfield 1997, 244), though their first chaplain would not be commissioned until 2004.

Chaplain Dharm uniform

Army Combat Uniform (ACU), OIF, 2000s, (belongs to Capt. Pratima Dharm, Chaplain, USA. Photograph of display at the Womens’ Memorial Museum, Arlington National Cemetery

In the mid-1990’s, the Army Chaplain Corps finally changed its regimental crest to reflect the more inclusive nature of the Corps. Removed were the cross and tablets which for so long had represented the Christian and Jewish traditions, the only chaplains to serve the nation’s Soldiers since its inception.

After nearly two decades of considering the religious requirements of military members outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Army commissioned its first non-Judeo Christian chaplain in 1993 when Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad was sworn in as the first Muslim chaplain. (Goodstein 1993) In 1996, the Navy commissioned its first Muslim chaplain. (Trevett 2003)

It wasn’t until 2004 when any of the military branches commissioned a Buddhist chaplain, when the Navy received Jeanette Shin into their ranks. (Dickson 2004) The Army followed in 2008 with the commission of Thomas Dyer (Little 2011) then in 2017 the Air Force commissioned Brett Campbell as their first Buddhist chaplain. (Holden S. Faul 2017)

The military’s first Hindu chaplain was Pratima Dharm when she was commissioned in the Army in 2011. (Doyle 2015) Dharm is the only Hindu that has served in the military services as a chaplain.


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Doyle, Megan. The Chaplain Kit. March 5, 2015. https://thechaplainkit.com/history/women-chaplains/women-in-the-chaplain-corps/ (accessed April 19, 2018).

Goodstein, Laurie. The Washington Post. December 4, 1993. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1993/12/04/for-muslims-in-the-military-a-chaplain-of-their-own/2bb23aa4-2c5b-493e-aef2-356f29585639/?utm_term=.55c4201d9604 (accessed April 22, 2018).

Gushwa, Robert L. The Best and Worst of Times: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1920-1945. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Chaplians, Department of the Army, 1978.

Holden S. Faul. May 19, 2017. http://www.buckley.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1187428/1st-buddhist-chaplain-meditates-on-future/ (accessed June 9, 2017).

Honeywell, Roy J. Chaplains of the United States Army. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Department of the Army, 1958.

Little, Vince. U.S. Army. December 15, 2011. https://www.army.mil/article/70976/armys_first_buddhist_chaplain_serving_11th_engineer_bn (accessed April 19, 2018).

Norton, Herman A. Struggling for Recognition: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1791-1865. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Department of the Army, 1977.

The Chaplain Kit. September 19, 2016. https://thechaplainkit.com/history/army-chaplaincy/first-army-jewish-chaplains/ (accessed April 19, 2018).

Trevett, Jason. America’s Navy. February 13, 2003. http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=5814 (accessed April 22, 2018).

Venzke, Rodger R. Confidence in Battle, Inspiration in Peace: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1945-1975. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Department of the Army, 1977.

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