The interaction between religious and non-religious beliefs in Australian society is complicated. It is often obscured by a public debate which in recent times has been punctuated by simple slogans, such as “Australia is a Christian country” or “separation between church and state”. Passion about these issues has periodically run high through Australia’s post European-settlement history. To gain a better understanding of secularism and religion in Australia we need to dig under the gushing of rhetoric to examine the actions of Australians.
Education is an important arm of the state in Australia. As I’ve noted in my review of the recently published book about religion in schools by Marion Maddox, Australian children learned about God in their public school classrooms even in the times of allegedly “free, compulsory and secular education” in the late nineteenth-century. We continue to have religious education in our public schools and now we have significant funding of religious schools as well as religious chaplains in our public schools.
Michael Gladwin’s new book, Captains of the Soul, brings attention to how religion is embedded in another important arm of the Australian state. Chaplains have been part of the defence forces during every major overseas war in which Australians have been officially involved. Gladwin tells of how the New South Wales government “bowed to significant public pressure” and allowed two chaplains to accompany the troops to Sudan in 1885, one from the Roman Catholic Church and the other from the Church of England. Eighteen chaplains accompanied colonial forces to the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century.
Captains of the Soul is a broad survey of the history of chaplains in the Australian Army. What is striking is how the position of the chaplains in the Army became more, not less secure during the twentieth century. During World War I chaplains received no training and some struggled with the culture clash between their experiences leading a polite parish at home and the profane behaviour of soldiers which they encountered on service. There was little guidance which World War I chaplains could follow. They had to work out what their role was themselves. This led to criticism of some chaplains for becoming distracted from their core work in their efforts to entertain troops. Terms of service for professional army chaplains after the War were problematic, with promotions applied inconsistently, poor pay and no training to prepare them for life in the army.
By the 1970s army chaplains were a small, but integral part of the Australian Army. They had a clearer idea of their role, received training and were appreciated by the army hierarchy. “One of the most influential developments in chaplaincy during the post-war period was the creation of a comprehensive system of moral and Character Training for soldiers”, remarks Gladwin.Two teams of chaplains supervised the development and delivery of courses undertaken by thousands of soldiers from the late 1950s as part of their basic training. Today people in the Australian defence forces are offered courses such as ‘Faith Under Fire‘ which is described on the website of the Vice Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as “an opportunity to investigate spiritual fitness and its relevance to ADF personnel, regardless of rank, belief or religious persuasion… Although Faith Under Fire focuses on a Christian model of spiritual fitness, the influence of other religions and beliefs on our society is also acknowledged by Defence.”
A reader from a non-religious background might be perplexed as to why a modern Australian army has chaplains. Captains of the Soul explains that chaplains have been a feature of European armies since ancient times. However, in his wide-ranging book Gladwin does not explore why a population which supported the removal of funding from church schools demanded that chaplains accompany the troops to Sudan in the late nineteenth century. During World War I it seems that the Army command understood a chaplains role as leading weekly church services and burying the dead, but not much more.
The important role of the Army chaplain emerged gradually through experience. Over 750 chaplains were employed by the Army in World War II. Gladwin quotes the Leader of the Allied Forces at El Alamein, Lieutenant-General Montgomery:
The most important people in the Army are the Nursing Sisters and the Padres —the Sisters because they tell the men they matter to us — and the Padres because they tell the men they matter to God. and it is the men that matter.
It is interesting to see the connection Montgomery makes between the services of nurses and chaplains. This is the era before the development of professional welfare services such as psychologists and social workers.
But Montgomery is not limiting chaplains to welfare, important as that is. He is seeing the importance of the spiritual connection they provide for troops. Montgomery was the son of the former Church of England Bishop of Tasmania, so we might dismiss his statement as the point of view of just one believer amongst thousands of troops.
Yet Captains of the Soul demonstrates that many commanders and soldiers have valued the spiritual services provided by the chaplain even as Australian society increasingly became a community of doubters. “I was never without people seeking instruction in the Catholic faith”, reflected a chaplain who served in Vietnam. “This was not the experience in parishes at that time.” At the same time an Army report in 1966 noted with concern that only 10 per cent of soldiers were attending religious services. However, chaplains observed that attendance increased as the troops were located closer to the front line. “In the crucible of battle, soldiers in Vietnam were… reduced in extremis to the bedrock concerns of life and death”, says Gladwin. Chaplains found that their services were in constant demand in Vietnam and this appreciation of the services of chaplains has continued today.
Noting the increasing number of soldiers since 1965 who did not profess any religious affiliation, Gladwin comments:
It was not that they declared themselves atheists or agnostics: those numbers within the Army have always been miniscule… but this did not necessarily mean that either was less interested in spirituality… The ministry of chaplains was valued by soldiers and officers although fewer people could identify why.
However, Gladwin says that chaplains have noted a decline in the attendance of religious services since the 1970s. Many younger soldiers have not considered the big questions of life and death. One chaplain notes that of the minority who are interested in spiritual questions there are few who are interested in hearing about Jesus Christ. Gladwin is upbeat in his analysis of the future relevancy of the ADF chaplaincy service, but the chaplains currently serving are mindful of the growing number of non-believers in Australia’s armed forces.
Captains of the Soul is the first broad history of chaplaincy in the Australian Army. Other histories of the chaplaincy service have focused on one particular war or the services of chaplains of one particular denomination. This book notes the service of Jewish chaplains but focuses on the work of the greater number of chaplains representing the Anglican and Catholic churches as well as other Protestant denominations. The number of chaplains for each religion/denomination is determined on the basis of the number of believers revealed in the census of the armed services. The continuing existence of the Royal Australian Army Chaplains Department is recognition of the value the Army sees in the service Chaplains provide to troops.
Gladwin covers a great deal of ground in Captains of the Soul which results in little room for detailed analysis of issues relating to particular wars. It opens up a fascinating chest of questions which researchers should explore. Throughout the book Gladwin notes that a minority of chaplains were found unsuitable for this service but concludes that generally the work of most chaplains has been valuable and appreciated by soldiers and their commanders.
Captains of the Soul intrigues me because of what the presence of the Army chaplaincy program says about the principle of the separation of church and state in Australia. Like in the United States, this principle is observed in rhetoric but is often absent in practice. In an essay written in 2001 but still well worth reading, political scientist, Michael Hogan, argues that Australia follow a principle of pragmatic neutrality between church and state, not separation. The Australian state seeks to accommodate different belief positions rather than exclude religion from our public life.
The principal role of Australian Army chaplains is to provide for the needs of the Australian armed services personnel. Gladwin demonstrates that those who serve value the work of chaplains even though most of them do not observe formal religious obligations such as attendance of church services. Gladwin concludes:
… some historians have too easily taken the ostensibly blasphemous digger at his word. Australian religion and spirituality, like the digger, has been observed as notoriously taciturn. One Great War padre likened the digger to a ‘camouflage artist’… Historian Manning Clark likened Australian spirituality to ‘a whisper in the mind and a shy hope in the heart’.
…the digger, it would seem, doth protest too much. And others, perhaps, have made too much of these protestations.
Captains of the Soul is not only an interesting book to read, it also raises some profound questions us to ponder.
All the photos that accompany this post are from the website of the Australian War Memorial.
From the Australian Defence Force and their chaplains:
- Australian Army Chaplaincy Journal
- ‘Faith Under Fire‘, Vice Chief of the Defence Force.
- The website of The Royal Australian Chaplains Department.
- The Catholic Diocese of the Australian Defence Force
- Defence Anglicans, website of Anglicans serving in the Australian Defence Force.
- Padre’s Ponderings: Ponderings of a RAAF Padre.
I attended Michael Gladwin’s presentation of his work at last year’s Australian Historical Association conference. You can read about that and other interesting research on the history of war presented at the same session in my post, Fresh Observations of War and Military.
ADF chaplaincy in the media:
- Banham, Cynthia, ‘Pentecostal soldiers to get their own chaplain‘, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11/7/2009.
- Banham, Cynthia, ‘Spiritual soldiers‘, The Age, 11/7/2009.
- Downie, Graham, ‘Wartime army chaplain who saw his role as serving everyone in need‘, The Age, 16/6/2008.
Separation of Church and State and secularism (unless otherwise stated these are mostly posts on Stumbling Through the Past):
- Hogan, Michael, ‘Separation of church and state?‘, Australian Review of Public Affairs, 16/5/2001.
- Book Review: Secularism of Democracy by Veit Bader?
- Religion is not Dead – and Neither is Secularism
- What is Religion? What is Secularism? Religious History Association Conference Part 1
- Secularism and History: Religious History Association Conference Part 2
About secularism in the history of Australian schools (unless otherwise stated these are mostly posts on Stumbling Through the Past):
- Campbell, Craig, ‘Free, compulsory and secular Education Acts: Australia 1850-1910‘, Dictionary of Education History in Australia and New Zealand.
- Perkins, Yvonne, ‘MARION MADDOX Taking God to School: The end of Australia’s egalitarian education?‘, Newtown Review of Books, 15/4/2014.
- Religion in State Schools
- The Transformation of a Word
Updates to This Post
This post was updated 15/4/2014 to include a reference to my review of Marion Maddox’ book, Taking God to School, which has been published by the Newtown Review of Books. One sentence in the second paragraph was altered and a reference to this review was included in the ‘Further Reading’ section at the bottom of the post.