Four Chaplains Day – a date worth remembering 3 March 2014

Karen Willows discusses what an American multifaith holiday can teach us in the United Kingdom about civic religion.

On February 3rd 1943, a United States Army Transport ship, the SS Dorchester, was making its way from the American mainland to Greenland. It carried nearly 900 soldiers as well as four military chaplains. The USA had entered WW2 by now and increasingly the Atlantic Ocean became a vital strategic arena of warfare. Transport between America and Britain was a particular target of the Axis forces and German U-boats regularly patrolled the seas, working in teams that were sometimes described as ‘wolfpacks’. It is understandable that Winston Churchill wrote “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

Four Chaplains Day stamp

A commemorative stamp depicting the four chaplains

The four chaplains aboard the SS Dorchester came from a variety of faith traditions. Chaplains and the military have a long tradition, tracing back as early as the Crusades. Historically, chaplaincy was a uniquely Christian profession; however in the twentieth century it expanded to contain a large number of faiths. Part of this movement, which is also significant in Europe, began in the United States. The population of the Americas consisted of migrants from around the world, including non-conformist Christians from Britain. This meant Christianity in the United States was diverse, and existed alongside other faith traditions including Judaism. Naturally then, military chaplaincy reflected the diversity of faith of their soldiers.

Aboard the SS Dorchester was Reverend George Fox, a Methodist minister. There was also Reverend Clark Poling, a Catholic priest. From the Reformed Church of America was John Washington, as well as Reform-Rabbi Alexander Goode. The four chaplains had trained together at the Army Chaplains School in Harvard University. The Dorchester was to take them to their first assignments.

The Dorchester was someway off the coast of Newfoundland on the morning of February 3rd 1943. The ship had been on high alert since leaving port; everyone was aware of the risk involved in traversing the Atlantic and was conscious an attack could come at any time. The ship’s captain had instructed soldiers to keep life jackets with them at all times, and precautions were taken in the event of enemy attack.

As fate would have it, at 12:55, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship. The ship was sinking, its electronics and power failing. Confusion and chaos ensued. It fell upon the ship’s four chaplains to organise the evacuation. They guided men from the lower decks to safety, issuing the soldiers with life-jackets and instructing them off the ships. There were escort ships nearby, and a mayday had been issued – help would arrive soon if the soldiers could survive the bitter temperatures for long enough. Eventually, the supply of life jackets was exhausted, and the chaplains handed over their own to those who remained, resigning themselves to their fate.

Survivors of the event spoke of how they witnessed the chaplains calmly remain on the sinking ship. Each chaplain began to pray in their final moments, Latin, Hebrew and English prayers echoing over the waters.

Given the immense bravery demonstrated, the United States Government recognised the contribution of the chaplains and their sacrifice. Each chaplain was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross. The Medal of Honor, the highest award the US military offers, could not be given to the chaplains due to the strict technical criteria that were not met during the incident. Instead, the military and congress decided to establish the ‘Four Chaplains’ Medal’. This went alongside recognising the first Sunday of February as Four Chaplains Sunday.

The story is powerful, and distinctly American, but it certainly has value in Britain.

It is important that the contribution made by chaplains in prisons, hospitals and the military is recognised, perhaps not through a Chaplains’ Day, but certainly through a wider discussion of their contribution in the public sphere. In June 2013, the BBC announced that chaplaincy services were reduced by 40% in the NHS in England. In an age of austerity, it is likely that chaplaincy will face the brunt of the budget cuts unless the immense value they offer is recognised.

Another lesson we can learn from Four Chaplains Sunday is the contribution of religious minorities. It is very easy to accept a Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis and along with it the generalisations of culture and religion necessary for the thesis to work. However, by establishing national days that recognise the contribution to society made by those from minority religious traditions, there can be a more honest reflection of the diversity of society.

Four Chaplains Sunday is an American holiday, but I’ll be commemorating it and the many things it can teach us in the UK.

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About Karen Willows

Karen Willows is a researcher and freelance journalist. She has a BA in Religion and Geography and an MA in Social Science Research.

all, History, Opinion, United States