Evening Prayers: An Ancient Naval Tradition

by Elizabeth M. Collins, Defense Media Activity
20 April 2018 For some Sailors, it's a deeply meaningful religious experience. For others, the echo over the intercom, "Tattoo, tattoo." Stand by for evening prayer," is simply a sign that another day at sea has passed, and that they're that much closer to going home.
Some Sailors start their prayers by making the sign of the cross; others join hands in fellowship. Some Sailors simply pause for a moment of quiet reflection. Still others might kneel down on their prayer rugs, facing Mecca from the distant port or ocean where the Navy has carried them.

The history of evening prayers aboard ship is as old the Navy itself. It dates from Nov. 28, 1775, when the Continental Congress adopted the second article of the Rules for the Regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies of North America: "The Commanders of the ships of the Thirteen United Colonies are to take care that divine service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays, unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent it."
VIRIN: 180406-N-YQ369-001

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."

To learn more about the role of Navy chaplains click here.
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