By Their Side
Lutheran Military Chaplains
NLCSSW, Camp Sevier, Revs Julius Deckman and John W Link in automobile View Slideshow
“Chaplain, I believe in God today.” These are the words of a World War II doctor spoken to his unit’s chaplain after a night of combat during which he successfully administered plasma to a badly wounded soldier in a foxhole in the dark of night.
American Lutheran efforts to minister to service personnel began in 1917 with the creation of the National Lutheran Commission for Soldiers' and Sailors' Welfare. Its mandate was to organize and direct the provision of spiritual care to World War I Lutheran servicemen. While its creation was the result of the United States’ entry into the “war to end all wars,” its legacy would be to establish a framework in which Lutheran church bodies in the United States cooperatively ministered to service personnel during times of conflict as well as peace.
In January 1941, the National Lutheran Council (NLC), a cooperative body comprising eight Lutheran church bodies in the United States, created the Service Commission. This commission served as the official military agency of the council and worked to provide spiritual ministry to service personnel. Funded largely through the generous giving of Lutherans in America to annual appeals, the commission established service centers at sites of military camps and establishments around the U.S., the first being in Alexandria, Louisiana. In addition to providing for the spiritual and moral well-being of American service men and women, the centers provided “wholesome recreation,” and the opportunity to experience home away from home. Every service center had as its centerpiece a chapel. Private and general services were conducted as well as weddings, baptisms, and Bible discussions. While the service centers began as an effort to provide spiritual care to Lutheran service personnel, they welcomed men and women of all faiths and creeds and were just as popular with non-Lutherans.
One vital component of spiritual care for World War II service personnel was the ministry provided by a unit’s chaplain. The chaplain provided spiritual care to those men and women with whom he served at home and in the theaters of operation in Europe and the Pacific. He served as a spiritual advisor to the men in his unit, conducted worship services and morning devotions, and provided comfort to wounded soldiers. In addition to these activities, the chaplain also provided advice and counsel to soldiers on a variety of topics. A familiar phrase in units became, “tell it to the chaplain.” Among those areas chaplains provided counsel were marital and service trouble, homesickness, and emotional conflicts about war and its ramifications. Chaplains served in all types of units, from those providing combat support to those serving on the front lines. One constant found in all chaplains’ work was that the care and counsel they provided were not just for Lutherans. They ministered to all soldiers in their units regardless of faith or creed. They welcomed all who desired to hear the Word of God and receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
After World War II, the NLC created a permanent unit known as the Bureau of Service to Military Personnel highlighting the importance the council placed on the continuing need for spiritual ministry in the armed forces. This bureau replaced the Services Commission and coordinated the work between individual Lutheran church bodies, their chaplains and the federal government. This bureau would continue to coordinate chaplains’ work as the Korean conflict erupted in 1950 and American service personnel were called to duty. By 1966 with the creation of the NLC’s successor agency, the Lutheran Council in the USA, the bureau was replaced with the Division of Service to Military Personnel. This division continued with the work of its predecessor and once again during the Vietnam conflict, chaplains were there to provide much needed spiritual ministry.
The legacy of the work that began in earnest at the start of World War II lives on today. Lutheran chaplains continue to serve in all branches of the armed forces and are at present serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as providing support to service personnel stationed at other bases around the world and in the United States. With the Bureau of Federal Chaplaincies, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America maintains an active role supporting the work of Lutheran chaplains in the armed forces.
The ELCA Archives seeks to document the work of U.S. Lutheran chaplains during wartime and peacetime. The archives is seeking records documenting the ministry of individual chaplains including diaries, correspondence, sermons, and photographs. If interested in donating records to the archives, please contact us at email@example.com.
The following are some of the collections at the ELCA Archives pertaining to ministry to military service personnel:
- Lutheran Council in the USA Division of Service to Military Personnel Collection
- National Lutheran Commission for Soldiers’ and Sailor’s Welfare Collection
- National Lutheran Council Service Commission Collection
- National Lutheran Council Division of Service to Military Personnel Collection
- The Rev. Arthur Carl Piepkorn Papers
- The American Lutheran Church Committee on Service to Military Personnel Collection
- United Lutheran Church in America Consultative Committee on Military Chaplaincy Collection