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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a section of
The Cadet Chapel

George S. Pappas

(2nd edition)
West Point, N. Y., 1958

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 7

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p58  Religion at West Point

From the Galilee porch of the Cadet Chapel, the Sunday morning visitor may watch the Corps of Cadets march to Chapel. The gray-clad companies swing out of the barracks area, make a turn toward the hill on which the chapel stands, and then begin the climb. The companies follow the winding road to the crest of the hill, make a brief pause to realign their ranks, and then resume their march toward the Chapel. As each rank approaches the first step of the porch, the cadets in that rank remove their caps.

Sunday chapel attendance is required at West Point. Each cadet — Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish — is required to attend the services of his faith. The practice of obligatory cadet Sunday worship is almost as old as the Military Academy itself. Prior to the appointment of the first official chaplain in August 1813, visiting clergymen or the superintendent conducted services. The first chaplain, the Reverend Adam Empie, also served as Professor of Geography, History, and Ethics. Moreover, he performed the additional duties of treasurer of the Military Academy from 1815 to 1816.

There being no chapel at West Point, services were conducted in the mess hall, in class rooms, or, occasionally, out of doors. In 1815, cadets were not dismissed from afternoon parade until after evening prayer had been said, the chaplain reading the prayer before the cadets who were formed in an open square.

The chaplains of the Military Academy continued teaching ethics until the Professor­ship of Geography, History, and Ethics was abolished in 1896. They have since devoted their full time to the religious welfare of the cadets. The resultant effect of the religious direction cannot be over­estimated. This training, coupled with the emphasis placed upon integrity and honor by the officer instructors, in later years led to the formulation of the cadet honor code.

In 1836, the first Cadet Chapel was erected on the site of the present East Academic Building, next to the Library. The design of the Chapel  p59 followed the "classic style" of architecture popular throughout the country during the 1830s. The Chapel often has been referred to as a Roman basilica with a Grecian portico. The Doric columns supporting the low‑gabled roof of the porch are Greek in origin while the semi-circular ceiling of the interior and the arches over the windows and doors are of Roman derivation. Above the altar is the mural, "Peace and War", by Robert W. Weir, Professor of Drawing at West Point from 1833 to 1876. Weir also painted the famous "Embarkation of the Pilgrims" in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington. Around the walls of the Chapel are black marble tablets, each tablet bearing in gold the name, rank, and dates of birth and death of an outstanding general officer of the Revolutionary War. In an inconspicuous place in the rear of the Chapel is a plaque which carries only the rank and date of birth of Benedict Arnold, who attempted to betray West Point to the British. The plaque pays tribute to his outstanding service in the invasion of Canada and at the Battle of Saratoga; the deletion of his name and death date indicate his perfidy. Memorials to heroes of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War are also located in the old Chapel.

This Chapel continued in use until after the present Chapel was completed. Then, on Sunday, June 12, 1910, the last regular service was held in the building. The service began with music by the Military Academy Band, followed by the saying of the Apostles' Creed, a prayer, and the Doxology. The Reverend Herbert Shipman, former chaplain, delivered the address. This was followed by what has since been regarded as the high point of the service, the singing of a new song with words by Chaplain Shipman and music by W. Franke Harling. The song, with its magnificent arrangement by the former organist, Mr. F. C. Mayer, has become the hymn of the Corps of Cadets. It is appropriate that its first appearance was at the closing of the old Chapel and the dedication of the new. After this premier singing of "The Corps," the old Chapel was officially closed and the congregation moved to the New Chapel on the hill above.

The consecration service began with the processional hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers", and the reading of the official order of the Superintendent to dedicate the Chapel. The Chaplain, Rev. Edward S. Travers, then offered prayers of dedication. These were followed by the twenty-fourth Psalm, the lessons for the day, and appropriate choral music. The Benediction concluded the simple service.

The old Chapel was moved, stone by stone, to its present location in the cemetery in 1911. Today, it is used for services for Jewish cadets each Sunday, for weddings during June Week, for Sunday School, and for funeral  p60 services as required. The old Chapel is one of four chapels to be found at West Point. The Catholic Chapel of the Most Holy Trinity, erected in 1900, was patterned after an English Gothic Church, erected by Carthusian monks. Two Catholic priests administer to the needs of Catholic cadets and of Catholic officers, enlisted men, and their families. The fourth West Point chapel, the Post Chapel, is a simple red brick building located in the north sector of the post.

Since the Reverend Adam Empie was appointed the first cadet chaplain in 1813, more than twenty chaplains have taken care of the spiritual needs of the Corps of Cadets. Four of these men were later consecrated bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church: Charles P. McIlvaine; Herbert Shipman; Arthur B. Kinsolving, II; and John B. Walthour. West Point has changed greatly since Adam Empie said evening prayer with the Corps of Cadets formed around him in a hollow square. The Corps has increased in size many times; new buildings have been erected; thousands of cadets have been graduated to serve their country in all parts of the world. Wherever they are, these graduates remember the reverence and the sincerity of the men who so often led them in their religious devotions.

The Cadet Chapel Services

Occasionally some friend, parent, or new cadet will question the wisdom of obligatory chapel attendance. A former Commandant of Cadets answered this statement by saying that, should such emphasis on religion be neglected, West Point would fail in its mission. It is the Academy's task to prepare as officers men who hold "duty" as a sacred trust; "honor," a hallowed possession; "country," a treasured heritage. This type of man, the Commandant believed, can never be developed if God and His worship are left out of a man's normal life. Therefore, because the Military Academy accepts responsibility for the total development of the cadet — mental, physical, moral, and spiritual — and because biblical faith is one of the foundation stones of honor and integrity, every cadet is required to attend the chapel of his faith each Sunday.

Non‑denominational Protestant services of worship are held in the Cadet Chapel during the academic year and out‑of-doors during the summer months. Since its size does not permit the entire Corps of Cadets to attend services in the Chapel at the same time, the two regiments of cadets alternate in attending the early and late services each Sunday. Moreover, because many cadets come from Protestant religious groups whose services normally are formal or liturgical in nature, while others have religious  p61 backgrounds where informal or non‑liturgical services are normally held, it is important that an attempt be made to meet the spiritual needs of both groups. This is achieved by making the late service liturgical with the full choir, an offertory anthem, and the historic prayers of the church. The early service is shorter and non‑liturgical with extemporaneous prayers and no special choir music. In addition to these two services of morning worship, Holy Communion is held each Sunday in St. Martin's Chapel, attendance being voluntary for the communicants of the various Protestant faiths.

During the summer months, services are held at Battle Monument on Trophy Point and at Camp Buckner, the summer camp of the Corps of Cadets. The services at Battle Monument are most impressive with the Band and the cadets framed against the natural backdrop of the hills and the Hudson River.

In addition to these regularly scheduled services, many religious holidays are observed with special services. A midnight Communion is celebrated on Christmas Eve, and a special service is held on Christmas Day. Lent is marked by special devotions, culminating in a sunrise service on Easter Day. In addition to these chapel services, there is a week‑day celebration of the Holy Communion in the Chaplain's office each Thursday following breakfast. Cadets also conduct a daily devotional meeting in the Chaplain's office.

During June Week, the Baccalaureate service is held on the Sunday preceding Graduation Day. A feature of this service is the dedication of the class memorial windows. Because the limited seating capacity of the Chapel restricts attendance at this service to members of the graduating class, their families, and friends, the underclassmen attend chapel at Battle Monument. On Alumni Day, the Monday before Graduation Day, the Alumni Memorial Service is held at 9:00 A.M. in the Chapel.

All of the Cadet Chapel services follow a form approved by the larger Protestant communions. These services have been incorporated in the "West Point Prayer Book" adopted in 1948. The Prayer Book was edited by the late Bishop John B. Walthour, Cadet Chaplain from 1941 to 1947. Included in the Prayer Book are the services used for many years in pamphlet form, responsive readings, collects, epistles, and gospels, as well as services for weddings, baptisms, and burials. Included also is the Cadet Prayer written by another former chaplain, Clayton E. Wheat, and revised by Chaplain Walthour in 1947.

Many cadets serve in the choir or as acolytes, chimers, or teachers in the Sunday School. The impressiveness of the Sunday morning services is  p62 increased by the cadet choir of about 175 voices. The acolytes assist the Chaplain at observance of Holy Communion, and the cadet chimers play the chimes in the Chapel tower each evening. The cadet Sunday School teachers instruct the children of post personnel each Sunday.

Each June Week, many members of the graduating class are married immediately following Graduation Exercises. No other service in the Chapel is more beauti­ful than the weddings at which the newly-commissioned second lieutenant, with his gold bars gleaming in the candlelight, stands with his bride to recite their vows. The simple service completed, they turn to walk the length of the aisle, beneath the old battle flags, past the pews where he has worshipped for four years, out through the door and beneath the arch of sabers held by his classmates. In the years to come, his memories of cadet days will ever be enriched by recollections of the beauty and impressiveness of the Cadet Chapel.

[image ALT: A drawing of a horizontal stone sculpture in high relief: a man kneeling and bowed down; he wears a large sword, and rests his head on his hands: his forearms rest in turn on a book or a stone. Depicting a praying soldier, it is a carving on the tower stringcourse of the Cadet Chapel of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.]

Kneeling Soldier from the Tower Stringcourse

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Page updated: 23 Jan 15