Like our nation’s founding fathers, the veterans who founded The American Legion acknowledged God as the source of all our rights and freedoms. Apart from God, our history as a people has no meaning. In this faith our institutions were created, our laws enacted, and our liberties secured. To safeguard our sovereignty and our prosperity, that same belief must direct our political, social and economic paths today. Conceding the erosion of moral and spiritual values in recent years, and recognizing our dependence upon God, The American Legion reaffirms its commitment to bring all Americans closer to their Creator and remind them of His proper place at the center of the nation’s life.
“Service to God and Country” is an American Legion program whose saying describes our members’ attitude and way of life. Nondenominational and nonsectarian, the Legion’s support for religion in the public square is basic Americanism. Rather than acting independently of religious groups, the Legion desires to cooperate with and join them in reminding the American people with one voice that God is the author and architect of our beloved “land of the free.” Without God, there is no Americanism.
The American Legion’s founders believed that God and country cannot be treated as mutually exclusive if the United States is to survive and prosper. Thus, they created the office of chaplain, charging it with keeping this association high in the minds of members. As spiritual leaders, chaplains see that the Legion’s “Service to God and Country” program is carried out. This includes encouraging regular public worship, daily family prayer and the religious education of children, all in an effort to bring Americans closer to the Creator. In addition, they promote individual citizenship, service to the community, and our obligation to uphold and defend the Constitution.
"Religion and the Birth of The American Legion"
Rev. Tierian (Randy) Cash
The American Legion
The American Legion will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2019. While the organization has evolved and changed over the years, the basic foundational principles are the same, “For God and Country, we associate ourselves together…” There was little debate, if any regarding whether or not to include “For God” in the preamble to the American Legion’s constitution adopted at the St. Louis Caucus in May 1919. To the founders of The American Legion service to Country was service to God and service to God was service to Country, the two being mutually inclusive. One cannot stand without the other.
When the organizers sought spiritual leadership for the newly formed veteran’s group, it is not surprising they turned to military chaplains for guidance in religious matters. Chaplain’s had shared the hardships and suffering of the Soldiers, Sailors, and the Marines in the trench warfare of World War I. Four chaplains, one Episcopalian, a Roman Catholic, and two Baptists were instrumental in the founding of The American Legion and provided the spiritual underpinning of the new organization. These four (the first four National Chaplains), Charles H. Brent, Francis A. Kelly, Thomas H. Wiles, and John Washington Inzer, helped chart a course of service to God and Country. Representing many of the great faith traditions of our nation, these men unselfishly and in a non-sectarian manner skillfully guided the religious and patriotic principles of individual obligation to the community, state, nation, and God.
Even though chaplains had been around since the Revolutionary War, World War I found the organization of chaplains in the military still wanting. To complicate the issue there were ministers and priests from civilian organizations present in France as well. American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) commander, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing decided to create a centralized chaplain office and called on his old friend Charles H. Brent. Episcopal Bishop Brent had a long history of ministry to the military as a civilian. Now in France as a special representative of the YMCA, Brent was available and Pershing called upon him to organize the army chaplains and welfare agencies of the AEF. He was very successful in his work as Senior Chaplain of the AEF, speaking to the Paris Caucus, Brent said:
"It was a great soldier who said that the army has not merely a body but a soul and a conscience as well," he began. "I believe the conscience of the army is speaking in this committee's report. I believe the army's soul is speaking in it. I was present on Saturday, at the beginning of this caucus and I will tell you frankly that I was fearful at that moment lest you should create a great mechanism without adequate purposes. My fears have been wholly allayed and I see in the report of your committee the ideals not only of the army but of the nation adequately expressed and I wish to tell you gentlemen that so far as I have any ability to promote this great movement I give you my most hearty support. I believe that the army of to-day, when it goes back to citizen thinking and citizen acting, will be capable of contributing to the commonwealth of the United States, so as to change the character of the whole country and lift it up to a higher plane of political, industrial, and religious life.”
In every great crisis some individual appears to save the day. Two months after the Paris Caucus those stateside met in St. Louis to finalize the creation of the American Legion. They did not seem to catch on first-hand the spirit of the AEF caucus which positively refused to take action on broad questions of policy until those at home were consulted. The inability to come to consensus on critical issues threatened the very existence of the new organization. Rev. John Washington Inzer, a Baptist revival preacher and U.S. Army chaplain originally from Texas and member of the executive committee stepped up to the podium and delivered an impassioned message that saved the day. George Seay Wheat in The Story of The American Legion (1919) describes the scene. “When he had spoken just about a hundred words even the grouches were holding onto their chairs if they were not using their hands for purposes of applause. And many a man, who thought he'd talked his voice silent dug deep down in his vocal chords and brought forth something that, could easily be labeled a cheer! This preacher told everybody who might have the slightest idea of making trouble just where to get off.” The Texas preacher said:
“"Now the keyword that I want to say in the beginning is, at all costs we want to save this organization. We do not want anything to arise to-day that will in any way mar the spirit of this great assembly and the work that it is going to do in the future. While you were deliberating here these past two days some of you thought only of this hour and this moment, but, gentlemen, I had an eye cast into the future and I was dreaming dreams and seeing visions of the years that are to come and the wonderful work, the wonderful influence, and the mighty power that this organization is going to have and exert upon this nation and upon the whole world, and I want you to think of it in these terms…Gentlemen, I want to say just here, if you can only think about this Legion—the chairman spoke of it last night to me—as the jewel of the ages. I believe that is the best interpretation I know. I cannot say anything greater than this: I believe God raised up America for this great hour; I can say that the strong young man of the time is to be the American Legion in this country and in the world.”
The freedom of worship and free exercise of religion were, and are today, a keystone of our national life and a founding principle of The American Legion. Ninety-eight men have served as National Chaplain of The American Legion. Of these, sixty came from Protestant faiths, thirty-two Roman Catholics, five Jewish, and one Greek Orthodox. These figures represent the religious landscape of our nation and are indicative of the American Legion’s commitment to honoring and adhering to the freedoms of conscience. The American Legion’s stand on faith is, however, far more than years and statistics. It is a living response to the deep-rooted conviction that America’s uniqueness is linked directly to the belief that God controls our destiny. It reflects the reality that underneath are the everlasting arms and proclaims the distinctive preciousness of each one to the heart of God.
In 1951, the 33rd National Convention in Miami, Florida adopted a “Back to God” resolution that called for a continuing program of church attendance, daily prayer for Divine Guidance, and religious training of youth. This year (September 2014) the annual conference of Department Chaplains voted to revive the program under the name “Back to God 2015.” Several new initiatives will be added to the program while keeping the core concepts of church attendance, prayer, and training. Plans are to launch the program in the spring of 2015.
May The American Legion continue to serve well and faithfully in the future as it has in the past. God grant that that our cause may always be just and in accord with his will both for our nation and all the peoples of the world.