“The Chaplain Can Teach the Church,” by Chaplain Edward L.R. Elson

Churchmen recently have proposed that upon their return to civilian status, chaplains be afforded the opportunity of attending a theological seminary. Such a plan is intended to provide a “bridge” for the chaplain in his transition from a ministry to parishioners in uniform, to a ministry to parishioners in civilian dress. The implication seems to be that the chaplains will have lost something and will need the renewal provided by the seminary. There is the hint that ministers who retained their civilian status will be prepared to bring spiritual and intellectual rehabilitation to the uniformed clergy.

Official portrait of the Reverend Edward L.R. Elson, former Chaplain of the United States Senate, wearing ribbons representing the military medals he wore as a US Army chaplain. Source: National Presbyterian Church, via Wikimedia Commons.

But it ought not be forgotten that a bridge must be anchored on both ends—that this is a two-way movement—that there is much for the chaplain to teach the church, as well as much instruction to be received from the church. If the church is to be relevant in the post-war years it ought to exploit fully the chaplain’s observations in the age of “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” For mark it well, in the development of public life and the creation of the future American norm, the veteran with whom he has served will have a vastly greater influence than the permanent civilian. And the discerning chaplain should have some sound conclusions to share with the church. What are some of the things the chaplain can tell the church?

1. We have had a generation of inadequate parents in America in the last quarter of a century. This was suspected for a long time but has become clear in World War II. When the first World War ended there emerged on the American scene what came to be called the “flapper and flask generation.” Here was a group of adults seeking a belated adolescent fling. They jazzed their music and syncopated their thinking. Faith in and worship of God as the Sovereign Ruler of a moral universe had fled them. Lacking in personal spiritual disciplines, they were incapable of transmitting spiritual resources to their children. These children are now in the armed forces, and their pathetic but wistful and eager quest for vital religion is genuine even though sometimes inconspicuous.

We can expect to be confronted with an unstable home life in the years immediately following the war. There is likely to be a heavy epidemic of post-war divorces. This may not be surprising, but it should be cause for great concern. The divorces may arise from various causes—general moral sag, highly accentuated pace of life during war, disruption of normal home life, too brief courtships, and indiscriminate practices of civil officers and some clergy in marrying couples. In general, chaplains being intimately acquainted with soldiers have been more cautious and discreet than civilian officials in marrying members of the armed forces. But one thing is clear, that in the strategy of the church, there must be a dynamic plan for stabilizing the home and preventing another spiritually sterile generation of parents.

2. It is clear that in vast areas of the church there has been a pitifully inadequate type of religious education. Much of it appears to have been destitute of theological content and did not include the great and robust historic conceptions of Christian faith and life. Sometimes in its ardor for pedagogical correctness (appraised by secular standards) and its zeal for psychological orthodoxy, the church failed to inculcate basic Christian convictions. Many young people brought up in a society of the church have been permitted to substitute a Sunday evening club or Sunday School for the corporate worship of the church. They have been bound into a fellowship without an understanding of the basic truths which make Christian fellowship possible and real. And there is an amazing ignorance of the great liturgical heritage of the church, in the frequent use of which there is in itself a sound element of Christian education. It may not be uniformly true, but it certainly appears to many chaplains, that those churches which have relied upon the pedagogically ancient methods of catechetical instruction have succeeded in imparting a more enduring brand of faith and a no less sensitive social conscience than have the denominations which adjusted their teaching methods to the transient practices of secular education.

It appears that Protestantism has concerned itself primarily with developing Christians without due consideration to the kind of Christian being developed—in his theological doctrines, in his practices of worship and in the qualities of his character. The church must once again be permeated with an understanding of the Protestant heritage and be committed to its basic tenets. People, both young and old, need to be taught what is unique in the Protestant way of faith and life and why it is, for them, the supreme interpretation of Christianity. It appears mandatory that the church re-think its strategy of religious education.

3. It also appears that the curriculum in theological education could be revised with profit to the church. To be sure, constant improvements are being made in many divinity schools, and many are advanced beyond anything the chaplain can suggest. The areas of instruction in need of reinforcement would seem to be Church History, Apologetics (from the Reformed or Protestant viewpoint), Liturgies, and Pastoral Psychology. Since the Sacrament of the Word is central in Protestant Worship, preaching must remain supreme. But the clergyman is also pastor and shepherd of souls. For this purpose thorough instruction in psychology, pastoral psychiatry, and plenty of practical experience is imperative. Men skillful in pastoral counseling and the priestly functions of the minister have proved to be superior chaplains. The proposal of some seminaries whereby students can spend a year of internship in a hospital, social center, or parish before their final year and ordination is promising.

4. The chaplain may also help the church in its understanding of the veteran. In so doing he will remind the church that nothing comparable to this has ever happened in our national history. Not since the war between the states has so large a percentage of our population been in the armed forces. At first the question will turn on the civilian’s attitude toward the veteran. Then the veteran will be in the ascendency and the question will turn on the veteran’s attitude toward the permanent civilian.

It must be admitted that no one, no matter how sensitive a spirit or tropical an imagination he possesses, can possibly understand the soldier if he has not been with him. But the veterans will understand each other and will tend to ally themselves together. For this reason it might be well for chaplains to become part of veterans’ organizations in order to exercise a motivating influence from within.

The veterans will return as men—not boys. No matter where they have been or for how long, they will be changed men. Their personalities, motivations, and emotions will have been altered. They will be older men than their years indicate, and those who have been long in combat will be older than all other adults; for mark it, age is related to life-crises, to death and suffering, and not to years. One who has lived constantly with these grim facts will be old. But there will be vast untouched areas in the veteran’s personality which the church must reach.

The veteran has been trained as a killer. With awesome candor and without pride he may confess: “I know twelve ways to kill a man, six of them silently.” He has learned to eliminate his adversary with dispatch. It should not be shocking then, if at times he reveals a spontaneous belligerency.

Many will have violent prejudices, and will be impatient with those who stayed home. There will be resentment against too large profits and too high wages and the idea of “blood money” may be felt even if not expressed.

The veteran will feel his sacrifice has been greater than anyone’s else. It has been his life which has been asked—to say nothing of an interrupted career or education. His life has been requisitioned whether or not it has been exacted.

He will expect human understanding and appreciation but not sentimentality. Even if he is presumed to be abnormal, it would be devastating to treat him so. Deal with him as a normal human being as capable of assuming the responsibilities of civilian life as he has managed the disciplines of military life.

There will be special problems, too. There will be the young officer, well enough educated to survive the exacting Officer Candidate Schools and get a commission, but yet not professionally prepared or old enough to have been established as a civilian. For many such persons the only social or cultural achievement of life has been that they became “officers.” Most of these men have rendered excellent military service. Many have become heroic leaders and superior gentlemen. They have been in the “professional” category in the army and navy. But where do they fit in the scheme of civilian life? And what about the superior gentlemen, who by their selection of the air corps or paratroops, have been inflated to believe they are the “elite”— or at least so the doughboy reflects. There are potential tensions here to engage the best thought and wisest insights of the church.

5. The veteran will be more religious in a rather naive and untutored way. He will require a masculine brand of religion if he is to be permanently committed to the church back home. He will want a robust and manly ministry. The minister who is merely chaplain to a glorified Ladies’ Aid Society will not attract him. The cloistered theorist, insulated from reality, sitting in his parochial swivel chair, spinning lacy verbiage from his homiletic spindle or engaging in ecclesiastical polemics about trivialities, will not move him. Poetic pastels, however beautiful, may not be sermons to him. He has been brought face to face with grim and awesome realities. He will want to find God in church. He will want to be led in offering his praise and worship to a deity great enough to be God. He will want a church which calls for repentance and provides moral renewal. There is so much which needs to be salvaged he will want a church where salvation can be found. He will want a church where personality is remodeled and character reconstructed. He will want a church where the means for receiving and retaining the grace of God are specialties. He will want a society of believers which assures the nurture of his family in Christian faith and life.

During these years the chaplain has not vacated the ministry. He has been only in a different kind of ministry where life is intensified as civilian life is not. He is no more of a warrior than his civilian brother; he is no more a protagonist of the martial spirit than the town pastor; he is no more an exponent of war than any other minister. He is no more sinful than the clergy who remained at home; he has only been a bit nearer the sin. He has watched the penalties and amenities of a society at war in ways which others have not. For the most part, he has walked in the majesty and dignity of his office as a minister of Christ’s Church. And he will return home having been faithful in conveying the sacred ministries of our holy faith. He will be grateful for every opportunity to strengthen his own life. Let him go to school or conference or convention. But let the church be prepared to listen—as well as to speak to him.

Edward L.R. Elson (1906–93) was a Presbyterian minister who resigned his position in the church in 1941 and joined the US Army. After arriving in France in December 1944, he served as General Frank Wilburn’s representative at the execution by firing squad of a soldier who deserted, and he interviewed members of the clergy whom Nazis imprisoned at Dachau. After the war, he became pastor of Covenant-First Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, and oversaw that church’s transition into National Presbyterian Church. As the pastor of this church, he baptized President Dwight D. Eisenhower on February 1, 1953. He then served as the chaplain of the United States Senate from 1969 to 1981, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.