Ministry within the armies takes place in a number of ways, with chaplaincy as the most traditional of military ministry roles. Whether occupied by active soldiers, former soldiers, or men who have not borne arms in the conflict, the office of chaplain has precedent in wars of the past.
Whereas chaplains are a formal part of given regiments, the position of army missionary is independent, less structured and rather inconsistent in regards to length of service. Missionaries, often area pastors, may serve a week or two, or perhaps months, before returning home. Their duties often include holding revivals, leading prayer meetings, talking with soldiers one-on-one, and visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals.
A third type of minister found in army camps is that of the colporter, a minister serving as the agent of a religious publisher. Colporters expressly distribute tracts, bibles, newspapers and other Christian literature to soldiers, often free of charge. Reading material in army camps is often scarce and many soldiers eagerly consume whatever literature is available. Although the extent of the readership of Christian materials among soldiers is unknown, it is likely that many read such material simply because it is available.
Collectively, army chaplains, missionaries and colporters have contributed to the revivals within army ranks, spiritual awakenings in which thousands have purported to have been converted.
Nonetheless, within the Confederacy, there is some debate among Southern Baptists as to the effectiveness of army ministers in reaching the unconverted and ministering to the saints. Adding to the controversy is the fact that Baptists remain woefully underrepresented among both chaplains and missionaries. Addressing these concerns this week is an article written by an anonymous army missionary and published in this week’s Georgia Baptist Christian Index.
Bro. Boykin–Will you permit one who has been in the army since May ’61, who has been both Chaplain and Missionary, and who has had a pretty fair opportunity of judging of the workings of the two systems to say a few things with reference to them?
I will endeavor to state fairly the advantages and disadvantages of both. The Missionary has–1, The advantage of a freer locomotion and wider field. He is not confined to one Reg’t but may go from Regiment to Reg’t as there may seem most need for his services. 2. He is not subjected to petty annoyances which an irreligious Colonel will sometimes subject his chaplain to. 3. He may go at pleasure from the hospital to the field as the weather or the circumstances of the army may indicate that he may be more useful. In a word he is his own man–free to pursue whatever plan of labor his conscience may dictate, while the chaplain is under military regulations which may sometimes seem antagonistic to his work.
The disadvantages are: 1, He has no regular “mess” arrangements, but must either board in the neighborhood of the army, which is frequently very inconvenient and expensive, or share the hospitalities of some officer or private to whom he may be burdensome.–2, He has no transportation for either his baggage or himself and when the army moves he must go to the rear, or else trudge along thro dust or mire until he is too much worn out to render much service in his calling. These two disadvantages may be sometimes obviated where one has friends at head-quarters.–But there is another and much greater disadvantage under which the missionary labors. 3, he is a comparative stranger to all of his congregations. He does not know their wants and consequently cannot adapt himself to them. He loses all the power which a minister of the gospel may exert in private intercourse with those whose religious status he knows. In a word he is all the time a visiting minister instead of a regular pastor.
The advantages of the chaplaincy are, 1st, The chaplain has his regular house in the army. He pitches his tent amongst his charge, has his “mess,” lives with (not on) his congregation.
2. He has ample transportation for his bedding, books, &c,; and while the law on the subject is somewhat indefinite and the privilege has been sometimes denied, I’ve known very few instances in which a chaplain has been denied the privilege of keeping a horse. He can move whenever and wherever the army moves, and thus avail himself of preaching along the march. This latter may be esteemed of little moment since it is the general impression that not much can be done during an active campaign, but I am satisfied that some of the most impressive sermons that have been preached in the army have been during the most active campaigns, and by the faithful chaplain who has stuck to his post and watched for opportunities of proclaiming the glad tidings. I remember that when the enemy first advanced to the Rapidan last summer and our army moved forward to meet them that many of our missionaries left when in a few days everything was quiet, and the chaplains and the few missionaries who remained were laboring as before in the glorious revival with which the “Army of Northern Virginia” was then being blessed. And when Gen. Lee moved forward on his “Bristow Campaign” nearly all of the missionaries went to the rear losing the opportunities of preaching along the march, ministering to the wounded, and preaching five or six times a week as many of us did after recrossing the Rappahannock and settling down to a brief season of rest.
3 But the most important advantage which the chaplain has is that he is the pastor of his regiment. The faithful chaplain by mingling freely with his charge, talking with them around their camp fires, marching with them along the weary road (while he resigns his horse to some foot-sore fellow,) sleeping under the same tree, going to them on picket or in the trenches that he may speak words of cheer, ministering to the sick and the wounded, in a word, by sticking to his post and doing his duty–can acquire an influence over them and a power to do them good which a transient visitor, however competent and faithful, can never attain. I know a brother who came out as private in a Ga. Reg’t, young and of but little experience, as a preacher, who as chaplain exerts a far greater influence for good than the ablest missionary I have ever met in the army could command.
The disadvantages of the chaplaincy are sufficiently indicated in the advantage of the missionary work, but it may be remarked that these can be greatly obviated. The chaplain can do a great deal of missionary work without interfering with his own immediate duties–e.g. I have known a chaplain to preach from fifteen to twenty sermons per month outside of his regular duties. And then if a chaplain deports himself properly he has a sufficient freedom of commotion and meets with all necessary respect from his officers (unless they happen not to be gentlemen.)
On the whole, I am thoroughly persuaded that the best method by far of supplying the army with preachers is to fill up the vacant regiments with chaplains. Some brother may say that it would be best to have permanent missionaries, but besides the difficulty of sustaining them, the fact is that the Government provides for chaplains, and if we as Baptists oppose chaplaincies the result will be that the regiments will be filled by brethren of other denominations and there will be no opening for our missionaries. Our denomination has been sadly delinquent in this matter. We have in this army only about half as many chaplains as our Methodist brethren, and not near so many as our Presbyterian brethren.–And we have also been content to send to the army the young and inexperienced (with honorable exceptions,) while the ablest and most useful of our ministers stay at home. Now this ought not to be–the army has claims upon the very best pastors in the land. If it is right that the flower of the land should be in the army is it not equally right that our best preachers should be their pastors? And now that our Va. Board, (which by the way has always led the way in our army work) has removed a standing excuse, I trust that Georgia Baptists will send to the army brethren who shall be worthy to labor amongst the noble veterans of the “Empire State.”
I will not be understood in what I have said to oppose the sending of missionaries to the army–I would have the number greatly increased–but I only mean to say that it would be as wise to dispense with all pastors at home and attempt to do the work by means of Evangelists as to dispense with chaplains, (our army pastors,) and attempt to supply their places with missionaries.
And I trust that I will not be misunderstood in the remark that we have not our “ablest” men in the army. I bear willing testimony to the fidelity and success of most of our Baptist chaplains, but it is still true that our ablest men are at home. Brethren, you are needed in this great work–will you not come?
Camp, near Orange C. H., Va., Dec 31, ’63
The veteran minister’s words are ultimately unheeded, as Baptists, holding to their church state heritage in this particular instance, generally remain opposed to government-salaried army chaplains.
Source: Christian Index, February 5, 1864