Many of the historians documenting the origins of the United States Navy’s Chaplain Corps point to dates that actually precedes that of the formation of the U.S. Navy itself: 1775 and 1778. In typical Wikipedia fashion, one contributor inserted a sentence unto itself that “United States Navy Chaplain Corps was established on November 28, 1775.”
The actual story is far more complicated.
The numerous mentions of 1775 when discussing the Chaplain Corps of the Navy is due to the fact that when the Continental Congress authorized the construction of two “swift sailing vessels”—one outfitted with ten guns, another with ten—on October 13, 1775, it overlooked the need for regulations regarding conduct, uniforms, officers, and other pesky particulars. Turning to the British Navy and its rules for guidance, Congress promulgated a second article of Naval regulations specifying that Commanders of the ships were to “take care divine service be performed twice a day on board,” and that a sermon was preached on Sunday.
But telling Commander that “divine services” had to be performed is a far cry from creating an officer corps, or even the commissioning of an officer. Strictly speaking—and entirely possible, given the ad hoc nature of the Navy at that time—a commander could simply have paid a civilian clergyman to perform those functions, and the fact that it is not recorded as having taken place is not a complete assurance that such a move was beyond the realm of possibility.
In point of fact, the word Chaplain did not even appear in association with the Naval matters until 1794, when the “Act to provide a Naval Armament” stipulated that each of the six ships the Act authorized to be constructed would include one Chaplain. With Congressional authorization in 1797, the President was allowed to equip and man three frigates—the United States, Constellation, and Constitution—with one Chaplain serving on each vessel. The pay: Forty dollars per month and two rations per day.
Even official Navy documents are vague about the date of the creation of the Chaplain Corps, though many point to year of 1863 when they were described as officers (though without grades). If one must name a specific date, probably the best one would be October, 1917, when the position “Chief of Chaplains” was established. On November 5, 1917, Captain John B. Frazier stepped into that role and firmly cemented the foundation upon which today’s Chaplain Corps now rests.