By the following year, the Navy had official pay rates for chaplains. The first chaplain known to have served in the Continental Navy was the Reverend Benjamin Balch, a Congregational minister. A decade and some later, the 1789 U.S. Book of Common Prayer
even offered prayers to be used on ships at sea.
In fact, the fledgling country was following an ancient tradition. According a 1942 issue of the English magazine Spectator
, there is evidence of chaplains aboard British ships as early as the days of King Edward I in the late 1200s, and sailors have probably been praying to the gods of the sea since time immemorial.
"I remember the Old Testament story of Jonah when Jonah was on a ship and was kind of the root cause of the storm, or he felt that he was, and many of the sailors were reaching out to their own gods and praying," said Lt. Cmdr. Carl Rhoads, a chaplain with Carrier Air Wing 17, attached to USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). "So I can only imagine that as long as people have put oars to the water or sails to the wind, there's been prayers on ships."
When that tradition formalized millennia later, in America, at least, early naval chaplains like Balch would have been almost certainly Protestant. Today, that's far from the case. Navy chaplains are as diverse as their Sailors and Marines, and are charged with ministering to all, from Christians to Jews to Muslims to Buddhists.
"As a chaplain, we're not only chaplains for Catholics, we're not only chaplains for Protestants, we're not only chaplains for Muslims or Buddhists, but we're chaplains for all," said Lt. Long Nguyen, a chaplain aboard Roosevelt. "Whether man or woman, we're all human. We have human needs. We have emotional breakdowns. That's the reason why we pray for all."
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