Centennial of the establishment of the U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains

By Eric JorgensenJuly 13, 2020

Office of the Chief of Chaplains Centennial Logo
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: Paul Stamps) VIEW ORIGINAL
Chaplain (Colonel) John Thomas Axton, USA (July 28, 1870 – July 20, 1934)
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Chaplain (Colonel) John Thomas Axton served as the first United States Army Chief of Chaplains, from 1920 to 1928. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Chaplain Axton, and his son, John V. Axton, was also an
Army chaplain
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Chaplain Axton, and his son, John V. Axton, pictured together in 1925. Father and son both served as Army chaplains. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

July 15, 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains (OCCH). Although the Army Chaplaincy has provided religious support to Soldiers and Families since 1775, July 15, 1920, represented a significant point of increased professionalization for the Chaplain Corps. For the first time, Regular Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve religious support duties and functions became standardized and synchronized. This contributed to overall Army readiness by improving the provisions for the free exercise of religion, and for religious support leadership that enhanced morals and morale across the Army. The establishment of OCCH unified Army Chaplains in their calling as certified religious support professionals serving in the United States Army.

In 1921, the first annual history report from OCCH begins by stating the “exigencies of the World War had developed the necessity for professional supervision and coordination of religious work in the Army,”[1] despite suspicion that was common between the leaders of the Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant faith traditions both outside and inside the military. Prior to World War I and even through the interwar years afterward, many Chaplains feared having a Chaplain of one religious group oversee and be responsible for Chaplains of all religious groups within the Army. Chaplain George J. Waring, a Roman Catholic Priest and the author of the World War I manual, Chaplain’s Duties and How Best to Accomplish His Work, opposed the idea of having a Chief of Chaplains. Chaplain Cephas Bateman, the most senior Army Chaplain, a Baptist minister who was a highly decorated veteran of three wars and the first Commandant of the peacetime Chaplain school, also opposed having a Chief of Chaplains. But World War I changed the prevailing attitudes. With very few exceptions, World War I saw religious communities come together to support Army Chaplains, with a sincere interest in the overall religious welfare of soldiers. World War I showed the need for civilian religious communities to cooperate with the military in order to provide for their religious adherents who wore our country’s uniform.

Prior to World War I, denominational church leaders looked upon Army Chaplains with distrust, in much the same way they distrusted the leaders of other faith traditions in the civilian community. During World War I, the way the ways in which Army Chaplains cooperated with civilian religious groups and with one another, to provide religious support, was a catalyst for change, so that civilian religious groups started to cooperate with one another as well. After World War I, religious and military leaders influenced Congress to establish the authorizations and mechanisms necessary to enhance the professional capability and capacity of the Army Chaplaincy. This included the designation of an Army Chief of Chaplains and the establishment of a staff to support the Chief.

The National Defense Act of 1920 stated the following:

  • “One chaplain, of rank not below that of major, may be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to be Chief of Chaplains. He shall serve as such for four years, and shall have the rank of colonel while so serving. His duties shall include investigation into the qualifications of candidates for appointment as chaplain, and general coordination and supervision of the work of chaplains.”[2]

Chaplain (Major) John T. Axton, a Congregationalist minister, became the first Chief of Chaplains on July 15, 1920, and served in that capacity, in the rank of colonel, for two consecutive four-year terms. Axton’s staff included two other Chaplains, who were ordained with the Roman Catholic and Methodist Episcopal Churches, and three Army field clerks, one of whom was Executive Assistant Colonel Augustus S. Goodyear. Goodyear was trained as a lawyer and served in the Adjutant General branch, and he was instrumental in synchronizing religious support across the Army.[3] Goodyear remained with OCCH until his retirement after World War II.

Today’s Chaplains and Religious Affairs Specialists, and our Corps' Directors of Religious Education and other Army Civilians are professionals who serve the needs of Soldiers, their Families, and Army Civilians, under the leadership of the Chief of Chaplains. As the Army transforms to meet future global challenges and threats, the Army Chaplaincy is also transforming, as it continues to seek creative ways to deliver religious support to the diverse members of the Army. The Chaplain Corps is led today by Chaplain (Major General) Thomas L. Solhjem, who became the Army’s 25th Chief of Chaplains on May 31, 2019. Chaplain Solhjem is ordained as a minister and endorsed as an Army Chaplain by the General Council of the Assemblies of God.

[1] United States of America War Office, Report of the Secretary of War To The President 1921: Annual Reports, War Department, Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1921, (Government Printing Office, 1921), 195.

[2] National Defense Act of 1920 (41 Stat. 759, sec 13), June 4, 1920.

[3] United States of America War Office, Report of the Secretary of War To The President 1921: Annual Reports, War Department, Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1921, (Government Printing Office, 1921), 195.

This article is a condensed and edited version of the attached article by Chaplain (Colonel) Robert Nay.

OCCH NDA 1920 Article (CH Nay 06222020).pdf [PDF - 485.4 KB]