Captains of the Soul in Sceptical Times

Captains of the Soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains by Michael Gladwin, (Big Sky Publishing, 2013).

Captains of the Soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains by Michael Gladwin, (Big Sky Publishing, 2013).

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.

A grainy photo of soldiers kneeling and with heads bowed on a hillside.

Roman Catholic soldiers attending Mass at Gallipoli, September 1915.

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.

Soldiers gather around a gravestone that has the Star of David on it.

Jewish chaplains have been part of the Australian Army for a long time. Here a Jewish chaplain is dedicating the headstone on the grave of Captain J H Samuels in November 1942. Note the Star of David on the headstone surrounded by other graves marked by crosses. Gladwin notes that Australian military cemeteries are not divided on religious lines unlike Australian civilian cemeteries.

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.

Soldiers kneeling in prayer before a chaplain in the desert.

Praying before battle – chaplains serve with soldiers on the front-line. Here a chaplain is conducting a service for troops just before the Great Battle for Egypt in January 1943. Photo by F. Hurley.

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.

Three soldiers stand full-clothed in waist-deep water watching a chaplain baptising another soldier.

Soldiers are confronted by issues of life and death when serving. Some find faith in difficult circumstances. A soldier being baptised in Papua New Guinea, July 1945.

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.

Five Chaplains-General and the Deputy Assostant Adjutant General sitting around a table with papers and a phone.

Unlike the wider Australian population, Gladwin notes that the different religious denominations worked together closely and harmoniously in the Army. Here Army Chaplain Generals from the Methodist, Church of England, Presbyterian, United Churches and Roman Catholic churches work together in 1943.

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.

Chaplain standing next to a sign saying "Regimental Aid Post & Chaplain. Looking After Body & Soul"

The sign encapsulates the attitude of the Australian Army in supporting soldiers’ welfare. It seeks to look after the whole person. An army chaplain stands outside his ‘office’ in Somalia, March 1993.


All the photos that accompany this post are from the website of the Australian War Memorial.

Further Reading

From the Australian Defence Force and their chaplains:

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:

Separation of Church and State and secularism (unless otherwise stated these are mostly posts on Stumbling Through the Past):

About secularism in the history of Australian schools (unless otherwise stated these are mostly posts on Stumbling Through the Past):

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.

8 thoughts on “Captains of the Soul in Sceptical Times

  1. Very interesting, Yvonne. I suppose that my view of it is not unlike my view about chaplains in schools and hospitals, i.e. that if resources are limited, that they not be used as a substitute for welfare and counselling, and other support services. Chaplains may feel that they can do both, but some non-believers like me find the presence of chaplains exasperating. Perhaps some believers in a different faith feel the same way.
    Whatever they say and do, chaplains have an agenda which relates to a god I don’t believe in, and (particularly in hospitals where someone is dying) all I want to do is to get rid of them before they start offering their blessings and prayers etc. (In extremis, who wants to have to be politely explaining their rejection of faith and to be having to tolerate well-meaning but profoundly irritating sanctimony from a complete stranger?) If that chaplain is the only counselling on offer, then getting rid of them means there is no support at all.
    I think the State should pay for welfare and counselling, and if churches want chaplains as well, they can reach into their well-resourced coffers and pay for it, including for the training.
    PS My opinion is based in part on what my Ex had to say about the presence of army chaplains when he was a conscript in the 1970s. The only ones he had any time for were the Salvos, because they gave him paper and stamps with which to write home. Which he did, to me, daily. He was, as the song says, only 19.
    My parents, who both served in the British Army in WW2 said the same: the only ones who were any use at all were the Salvos because they were always there at the railway stations with tea and sandwiches no matter what time of the night the transports went through.
    My view is that in both situations, the army should have provided the wherewithal and not relied on the goodness of a religious group. If a nation can afford to go to war, it can afford to look after its soldiers properly.


    • The only thing I know about army chaplaincy is from what I have read in this book. It did say that the army employs psychologists, welfare workers and doctors. The impression I gained was that the chaplains were there to look after the spiritual welfare of the soldiers, and to support but not replace the work of social workers, psychologists.

      I find it interesting that the army commanders have regarded the work of the chaplains as important to the overall welfare of the soldiers. Gladwin was looking at the chaplains world. He didn’t investigate the views of soldiers who are not interested in religion or using the services of the chaplains. He didn’t examine the views of those in the army command through history who were sceptical of the value of the chaplains. I would be interested to get a better understanding of the religious views of the defence force personnel generally. It sounds like there are a lot more Christians in the ADF than in the rest of the population. Why?

      You have raised the interesting issue of the use of scarce government funds. Gladwin makes a case that these funds are well used, but some returned soldiers from Afghanistan are concern about the poor care of veterans from that conflict.

      There are many, many questions that can be raised in relation to this book.


      • LOL I guess there’s a whole PhD in this issue, that’s what I love about history, the more one pokes and prods around, the more there is to investigate:)
        One possible reason for the presence of more Christians (whatever that means) is that the officer class would probably still mostly be drawn from independent Christian schools, especially those that promote military traditions e.g., with cadet programs?


      • I hadn’t thought of that (re private schools supplying soldiers). You are right that the more you look at history the more there is that needs research. This is what staggered me about this book. It introduced me to a world that I did not know about and stimulated so many questions for me.

        One thing that the Army seems to be trying to do is to make sure that before the soldiers go into action they have a firm idea of what they believe and hence what they are fighting for. They don’t want soldiers on the front line turning up just because it is their job. Under the horrible conditions they face soldiers who are in it just for the job will not want to keep going. Those who believe there is something of greater importance at stake will keep going.


  2. Yvonne, well done in tackling this challenging area, and your summary of the Gladwin study is very useful and excellently presented. I liked your approach in opening the debate, with what I think all scholars in this field can agree — “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'”.

    Indeed, I agree very much as a policy skeptic in this debate (see my 2007 Quadrant piece, ” The Value of the Secular”). The problem in these matters usually turns on the meaning that each party wants to bring to key terms, i.e. “Christian” and “Separation.” A point in case is the way that you have framed the debate in your own comment about Michael Hogan (who I thought could be said to be a historian as well). To take the point stated: “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.” Here, there is a confusion as it suggests that “separation” implies exclusion of religion from public life. In the American model that is obviously nonsense; in fact, the nonsense that the Christian Neo-Conservatives have argued as the motivation behind liberal and skeptical campaigns directed towards matters, such as prayer ceremonies in public schooling, and the teaching of creationism in science classes. I am sure that Hogan and you have something much more sophisticated in mind.

    The value of history detailed in ‘Captains of the Soul’ is that we can see padres and the military policy-makers becoming sensitive to the importance of church-state separation as well as the appropriate engagement of religion in public life. The two principles could be held together: “…the chaplains currently serving are mindful of the growing number of non-believers in Australia’s armed forces.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.”

    However, whether this is adequately covered in ‘Captains of the Soul’ or not (and it would be interesting to know), a fair and contested approach was not always the case in the history, and a balanced policy took some time to developed. I have no doubt that many padres in the conditions of war took a more tolerant position on the issue, but we see with several prominent religious figures what I think is reasonable to call today (and in the past) an uncontested arrogance in regards to both religious pluralism and non-belief secularism. Significantly, at this centenary of World War I, I am thinking of Canon David Garland. The model of ‘chaplaincy’, if I can take a broader meaning here, from Garland and the ANZAC civil religion contrasts strongly to the humility we see from the padres on the front line.

    I am certainly sticking my neck out and challenging the cherished Australian mythology. However, the historical evidence is clear. Garland was the key figure in the Queensland recruitment drives, sanctifying the war and its aims, in blissful ignorance of the terror that he was sending the men into. And as you dig deeper into the history, below the commemoration shield that hid much of the history, you have to confront what the war meant for Catholic Irish republicans and Lutheran German citizens in Queensland. What did Garland say or do on those accounts?


    • You have raised several deep issues Neville. Gladwin was focussing on the chaplain’s experiences and was very positive about their role. He did not examine viewpoint of non-believers in the army, neither did her explore the whole church/state issue. That would have been another book.

      Have you read John Moses’ Anzac Day Origins by John Moses and George F Davis which was published last year? I’m eager to read it to see how Garland is portrayed. I think John Moses’ work about the theology behind the enthusiasm of the churches for WWI and the religious origins of Anzac Day should be more widely known. The influence of Christianity on Australian society historically needs to be further explored.


      • I was not aware that John had produced the book last year, but it is not surprising as he had been working on Garland and the ANZAC tradition for many years. My interest has been aroused more recently because my pending book on the Junction Park community touches on their WWI experience and Garland did attend a local event at the invitation of Premier Denham, one of the local community leaders.


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