US NAVY CHRISTIAN CHAPLAIN CORPS SLEEVE DEVICE

When Congress mandated that “divine services” would be held aboard held aboard all ships in the United States Navy, they had unwittingly sown the seeds of a problem with roots that ultimately went back to the very Constitution the Navy was sworn to defend. The fruit, however, would not become apparent for several decades.
 
The word “Christian” does not appear in either the original documents mandating divine services or the creation of the position of Chaplain. Still, the religious makeup of the fledgling nation, and hence the Sailors that would crew the Navy’s ships, was overwhelmingly Christian, so it went without saying that Chaplains would be Christian Chaplains. But anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of Christianity understands that there are two groups—Catholics and Protestants—nominally called Christian by non-believers and people of other faiths, but which consider each other anathema. A devout Protestant would no more consider attending a Catholic Mass than a Catholic would deem a Protestant worship service within the bounds of orthodoxy.

At the time of the Revolution and for many years following it, the number of Catholics in the United States—almost all of whom were Roman Catholics—was tiny in comparison to Protestants. As late as 1854, the number of Roman Catholics stood at approximately 620,000 worshipping under 1,081 priests; for Protestants, the respective numbers stood at nearly 13,230,000 adherents and a little over 27,100 ministers.

Where this all comes to a head is directly related to the Congressionally mandated divine services: Beginning in 1799, attendance at those services was compulsory for Sailors on board ships, but voluntary for Sailor serving at shore stations. For Chaplains serving on ships, this made their jobs considerably easier—it’s much easier to “preach to the choir” when everyone in sight is required to be in the choir. On the other hand, Chaplains who went from ship to shore found that, given their druthers, a very sizable majority of Sailors would not avail themselves of “the means of grace in the Chapel” when they were “allowed to do just as they please.”

But while Chaplains preferred the standard of compulsory attendance, the growing number of Catholics serving in the Navy inevitably raised the issue of the First Amendment’s provision that the Federal government would not establish a religion or prohibit individuals from exercising their own religion. In 1862, Congress passed “An Act for the better Government of the Navy of the United States,” which specified that divine service was to be performed on Sunday, but that “officers, seamen, and others in the navy service” were merely “earnestly recommended” to attend, not compelled to do.

This obviously addressed the issue of compelling someone to worship at an altar they considered unworthy or even offensive, but it did not provide Catholics with Chaplains ordained by the Roman Catholic church to perform the rites of Mass and other Catholic sacraments. Add to this the fact that the years after the Civil War saw a considerable uptick in the number of Roman Catholics in the Navy, and the end result was the commissioning of the first Catholic Chaplain in 1888. It was a major step toward providing Sailors of all faiths the opportunity to practice the religion of their choice.

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