Episcopal Bishop Charles Henry Brent featured among chaplains in WWI ‘Sacred Service’ exhibit

By Melodie Woerman
Posted May 24, 2024

A photo of an unidentified chaplain giving Communion to soldiers on a World War I battlefield in Austria-Hungary is part of the Sacred Service exhibit at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service — Kansas City, Missouri] The work of Episcopal and other chaplains during World War I is highlighted in a new exhibit at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.

Sacred Service, which opened in time for Memorial Day on May 23 and runs through Sept. 7, 2025, explores chaplains’ ministry through panels highlighting 19 men from Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. The panels are surrounded by photos, letters, diaries, vestments, Communion kits and other artifacts that help tell the story of clergy who served those who were fighting across Europe between 1914 and 1918.

“Sacred Service is a window into an experience in war that wasn’t really looked at for the past 100 years,” Patricia Cecil, the museum’s specialist curator for faith, religion and WWI, told Episcopal News Service during a May 22 guided tour. Chaplains played a unique role during the war, she said, not only because they were there to bring faith but also were noncombatants. “They are there just to help people,” she said. “What can that teach us about World War I?”

Episcopal Bishop Charles Henry Brent served as a chaplain during World War I while he also was missionary bishop of the Philippines. He later became bishop of Western New York.

Among the featured chaplains is the Rt. Rev. Charles Henry Brent, The Episcopal Church’s first missionary bishop to the Philippines who is remembered on the church’s calendar on March 27. He also is the author of a prayer for mission that is part of the Morning Prayer service in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. He later served as bishop of the Diocese of Western New York.

Brent was asked by Major General John J. Pershing, who was in charge of the American Expeditionary Forces, to become the AEF’s senior chaplain and he charged him with creating a systematic approach to military chaplaincy. Brent knew Pershing from the Philippines, where he baptized and confirmed the future general.

Three Church of England clergy also are among those featured: the Rev. Edward Montgomery Guilford, who served troops during the First Battle of the Somme, one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the war; the Rev. Neville Talbot, senior chaplain of the 6th Division of the British Expeditionary Force who founded Talbot House in Belgium as a place of respite and Christian hospitality; and the Rev. G.A. Studdert Kennedy, who helped wounded soldiers during an attack on the German frontline and later became an author and poet.

Cecil said it was important to feature not only chaplains from a variety of faiths but also those who were affected by the war in different ways. “There were chaplains who felt that war strengthened their faith, chaplains who felt they lost their faith to war and chaplains who kind of didn’t know what they were doing,” she said.

The three Anglican chaplains embodied that. Talbot went on to have a storied ministry as bishop of Pretoria in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and later as the assistant bishop of Southwell in England. Kennedy became a fierce advocate for the poor and working people through his work with the pro-worker Industrial Christian Fellowship. Guilford had a different experience.

A field Communion set used by an Anglican chaplain during World War I is on display in the Sacred Service exhibit. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Episcopal News Service

He witnessed troops in his unit take heavy casualties, and he lost faith in the church and questioned his faith in God. Despite saying he was fighting an inner war that he must try and win, he remained a chaplain out of duty and for the sake of his friends.

Many chaplains emerged from the war with a new understanding that faith should be accessible to more people, Cecil said. “They wondered what the practice of faith should look like in the world in which they now were living. How do we help people? How do we acknowledge that life is hard?”

Some were emboldened to embrace modern, progressive ideas and causes. It also prompted some to see the need for people of different faiths to work together.

That was the case for Brent. He became a proponent of ecumenical cooperation and helped implement the Faith and Order Movement. He presided at a world Faith and Order conference in the summer of 1927 in Lausanne, Switzerland, which placed him on the cover of TIME magazine and helped make his name recognizable to many Americans outside The Episcopal Church.

For others, it changed the way they saw how the church should respond to the world and especially to people in need. Cecil said that chaplains began to see that faith’s purpose was to help other people. “They asked questions like, what does it mean to be a human, and how do I live out my faith?”

The reverberations of those questions would last for decades.

A priest’s stole from the Anglican Diocese of Toronto archives was found on the ground by a soldier during the Battle of the Somme in France. The chaplain wearing it was likely killed in action. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Episcopal News Service

Father Angelo Roncalli, who served in an Italian medical corps as a stretcher-carrier as well as a chaplain, came to see that his calling was to support peace and human rights. He worked to save thousands during the Holocaust, and in 1958 he became Pope John XXIII. He oversaw major changes in the life of the Roman Catholic church in the Second Vatican Council.

Theologian Paul Tillich served as a Lutheran chaplain in the German Army. His witness to death and suffering caused him to leave behind a notion of a God that makes “everything work out for the best.” He was forced from Germany by the rise of Naziism and moved to the United States, where his teachings and writings as a systematic theologian sought to bring together faith and culture.

Tillich’s work had a profound influence on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., especially his description of sin as separation. King went on to expand that concept to describe the inherently evil nature of racial segregation that undergirded the Civil Rights movement.

“It’s a direct thread,” Cecil said, not only between Tillich and King but between the experience of many of these chaplains during the war and “how they go on to build the world we are living in now.”

More than a century after what was known as the Great War, the ministry of chaplains remains a critical part of military life, the Rt. Rev. Ann Ritonia, The Episcopal Church’s bishop suffragan for armed forces and federal ministries, told ENS. “They help ensure that soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are spiritually ready to carry out their duties, and they also help them through the trauma of war,” providing both spiritual care and emotional support.

Service members often seek out chaplains for their mental health needs, she said, because they know what they say will be held in confidence. Chaplains also help those they serve develop resilience, which can help reduce suicides. Many service members feel isolated, she said, especially those aged 18-26.

A field of “Flags of Forgotten Soldiers” on the front lawn of the National World War I Museum and Memorial for the Memorial Day weekend recognizes the veterans who die every day by suicide. Photo: National World War I Museum and Memorial

Each Memorial Day weekend, the front lawn of the World War I Museum and Memorial is filled with a field of American flags, known as Flags of Forgotten Soldiers, each representing the approximate number of veterans who die by suicide every week. This year there are 140 flags. Additional information is available in the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.

Ritonia said she needs more Episcopal chaplains, who serve not only across the U.S. Armed Forces but also in Veterans Administration medical centers and federal correctional institutions. Episcopalians especially are needed, she said, to provide ministry in an accepting and nonjudgmental way to everyone and especially to those in the LGBTQ+ community.

Acts of Congress in 2006 and in 2014 designated Kansas City’s Museum and Memorial as the National WWI Museum and Memorial. Next to it stands the Liberty Memorial, a monument to Americans killed during the war was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in 1926.

A World War I memorial also stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where it honors the 4.7 million Americans who served and the more than 116,000 who were killed. It was dedicated in 2021, and later this year a sculpture wall depicting soldiers’ experiences will be installed.

—Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.