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Military chaplains: a rich history of more than just blessing the cannons

An interview with Doris Bergen, a scholar of clergy in the military

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From the biblical high priest Aaron to the handpicked chaplains of the World War II Nazi military to the conflicted American chaplains of the Vietnam war era, the role of the clergy in the military has not been merely to bless the cannons and prop up the troops. Actually, says University of Toronto historian Doris Bergen, the role of the chaplaincy often has been to stand outside that central role.
Professor Bergen, who edited the book 'The Sword Of The Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century,' was interviewed in connection with the Monitor’s six-part series of profiles, ‘Tour of Higher Duty.’ Excerpts of the interview follow.

Where and when did military chaplaincies begin?

You can find evidence of [what] you would call military chaplains in the ancient Roman military. There it was usually the military leader who also had religious functions. The idea was that somehow God or the gods were extremely important forces behind military success, but it was usually one and the same person, a general or a military commander, a leader who also had religious responsibilities and duties.

You can look at Biblical times... the high priest Aaron – the idea that you had a religious figure who traveled together with the military really has ancient roots.

You can find, back to the armies of Charlemagne, pretty remarkable consistency in the Christian West the idea of the military chaplain.

Were chaplains used just during war?

Yes, really until World War II and sometimes later. Chaplains were particularly important in combat because the idea of the chaplain is both to bring the blessing of the God or the gods to the cause of the army, but also to strengthen the fighting power, the morale, of individual soldiers [and] of providing the sacrament to soldiers who are prepared to kill other people.... And also soldiers who are risking being killed themselves – the idea that they go in a blessed state to their death.


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