The importance that the Continental Congress placed on providing for the religious and spiritual needs of the fledgling nation’s armed forces can be seen by the prominence the issue is found in the Articles of War, announced during the session held on June 30, 1775. In the second article, we read that Congress earnestly “recommended to all officers and soldiers, diligently to attend Divine Service,” followed by a list of punishments for those “behave indecently or irreverently at any place of Divine Worship.” Just under a month later, on July 28, Congress gave this Article teeth by providing pay for Chaplains to conduct those Divine Services.

But while one of the driving forces behind the creation of the United States had been the belief that men were free to practice the religion of their choosing, this principle did not translate into supporting such practices in the military. While Congress had shown a willingness to recognize different denominations of Protestant Christianity by appointing joint chaplains for itself in 1777, this “open-mindedness” did not extend to the recognition of the need to provide for the religious needs of other faiths, including Roman Catholicism and Judaism.

This changed somewhat in 1846 when President James Polk, as Commander-in-Chief, authorized two Jesuit priests to join the Army as Chaplains to minister to the needs of the rapidly growing number of Roman Catholic troops. In spite of Protestant objections to the contrary, however, this was merely an expansion of the Christian tent, and the Army’s Jewish soldiers were still left with no official means of practicing their faith. In fact, Army Chaplains were required by statute to be regularly ordained ministers of a Christian denominations—and the fact that Jewish soldiers comprised a tiny minority of the Army’s soldiers meant their pleas didn’t carry the same weight as those of Catholics, whose numbers had grown immensely due in large part to Irish immigration.

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Legislation introduced in July, 1861 allowing Rabbis to serve as Chaplains in the Army was defeated in Congress, but the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry chose to disregard the Christian-only mandate and elected ordained rabbi Arnold Fischel to serve as regiment chaplain. Although Secretary of War Simon Cameron refused to certify Fischel as a chaplain, the move had propelled the issue into the spotlight, and it was kept there by Jewish lobbyists from the Northeast, an area of the country where they had their highest per capita residency.

The following year, on July 17, 1862, Congress passed a bill submitted by Abraham Lincoln that required Chaplains to be ordained ministers of a “religious” rather than “Christian” denomination. Just two months later, rabbi Jacob Frankel of Congregation Shalom in Philadelphia was commissioned as the Army’s first Jewish Chaplain.

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