Monday, August 27, 2012

Church Call at West Point United States Military Academy


By William  Roe.

In the olden time there was nothing in the bugle call to worship for a cadet at the Mil­itary Academy that was in the slightest degree devout or rev­erent. To the classes of the middle of the nineteenth century those stirring strains meant no more than, candidly, another, and unusually irksome, military duty. In those days Sunday mornings brought the extremely exacting weekly inspection. From reveille to the first drum it was for all of us, especially for the heedless and unmilitary, a time of hard work, of the week's hardest work—cleaning guns, polishing accouterments, setting ourselves and our quarters in camp or barracks in such order as we could, to avert "demerits" and con­sequent extra tours of punishment guard duty.

Too often we were unsuccessful, the keen eye of tactical officer or command­ant discerning something lacking, to be followed by a merciless "Report Mr. —" for this, that, or the other fault or failure. No wonder that, inspection over, we found attendance at chapel burdensome. But the time had come. Old Bentz, the bugler, appeared upon "Professors' Row," at first in the far distance, then near and nearer, trilling out the notes of " Church Call."

Unless—as happened, happily, some­times, to a convalescent just out of hos­pital—excused from "all military duty," we fell into ranks again, answered "Here!" to the first sergeant's glib rattle of names, and, in full dress with side arms, marched to services. It was thus for the majority of the corps of cadets. For a few others the matter of attend­ance upon public worship was arranged differently, The Federal Government, painfully paternal in most matters, pru­dently declined to coerce the conscience of even a "plebe." A cadet might avoid attending chapel, but only that "on honor " he pleaded scruples. In those days—chiefly for the benefit of the en­listed men—Methodists and Roman Catholics had a little church of their own down under the hill in Camp Town. It speaks well for men of such diversity of opinion that these two dwelt together under the same roof in utmost harmony, though the Methodists, for afternoon service, carefully covered and boarded over such "papistical” things as altar and candle, cross or crucifix, and a few not very artistic pictures.


Because of having services in the afternoon — when cadets were permitted to "make down their bedding" and enjoy themselves lazily — few of the corps affected Methodism. There were some good Roman Catholics among us, and these, we all thought, had a little the best of it on Sundays, mass being observed very early in the day. This form of devotion, being exceedingly brief, and so quickly ended, proved in many cases too strong a temptation for others—not "good" Catholics—who marched with the really devout across the plain, to come back smiling, and openly glad to have it over.

Old Chapel at West Point
I have known several rank Protestants who did this thing—on its face rather shameless—fine, honest fellows, with no thought of having denied their faith. Certainly none lost caste thereby.

Perhaps this one incident, and the fact that what might have passed for sacri­lege in some communities was utterly ignored, tells enough of the state of religious feeling in the corps of cadets. And yet, even in those "dark ages" of the sixties, a few were found loyal to their inheritance of devotion, whether of political and patriotic creed or religious ritual.

Far further backward in the history of West Point is it possible to go without discerning anything approaching. gen­uine religious life among the cadets. Here and there, glittering amid' a dull indifference to things spiritual, certain names flash forth, distinguished beyond their fellows for something higher—Polk, militant bishop of the Confederacy; Vinton (1830), of old Trinity; Deshon (of Grant's class of '43), Paulist priest in New York; and Parsons (of June, '61), dying on the field at Memphis, facing the yellow peril of the South's malignant fever. These are a few names of the olden time that I recall.

Something in the nature of a revival of orthodox religion occurred in 1829, while Dr. Francis Vinton was in the corps, but the results were hardly dis­cernible when the classes that partici­pated had left the Academy. While General Oliver 0. Howard, who was graduated in '54, was instructor in the mathematical course, he organized what was known as "Howard's prayer-meet­ing" among the cadets. He found little to encourage him, not over a beggarly dozen ever attending. The General (then a lieutenant) conducted the services, consisting of a hymn, reading from the Bible, and a prayer. Of the few cadets who came to these meetings several became greatly distinguished during the Civil War.

Catholic Chapel at West Point
Such, in most meager outline, is the religious record of the United States Military Academy. Matched by that of almost any other of our universities, many good people, "exemplary Chris­tians," will find it altogether deplorable. There are some who will find in these facts confirmation of a theory concern­ing war and peace. They will find evidence in support of a fine idealism to exalt tenderness at the expense of strength. To such I think no better answer can be found than that of the Christ to the Pharisees: "How can one enter into a strong man's house, except he first bind the strong man?" It is one thing, with nations as with indi­viduals, to seek strength for aggression; another to prepare for defense by be­coming strong.

But there is another aspect to the pic­ture of old-time life at West Point. To account for the somewhat remarkable absence of the outward tokens of religious experience, it is not enough to say that in the very choice by a young man of the trade of war is found evidence of unfaithfulness to the nobler nature. The youths who came to the Academy were from every section of the country, of all grades of society, of vari­eties of character as diverse as any of similar age admitted to any college; they were no better, no worse, than others. The individual characteristics which collegiate life barely touched (or even assisted to maintain) were at once grasped, somewhat rudely perhaps, but with amazing efficiency, to modify, alter, or even radically change. The routine of instruction seized the young fourth ­classman relentlessly; the discipline pressed upon him from the beginning without an instant's relaxation, and—more potential than either instruction or discipline—the constant, intimate, close contact with the upper classes gripped him like a steel vise.

While, as we have seen, the sectarian life of old West Point was quite absent, the young plebe found himself con­fronted by a moral atmosphere, an envi­ronment of faithfulness, far more rigorous and exacting than that of any churchly connection. The code of honor prevail­ing at West Point, while lacking in what so many regard as tokens of spirituality, was yet most wonderfully effective in the way of training. Doubtless it was more efficient than any church organization for molding and assimilating character.


Barracks at West Point
It toned down the brutal and toned up the shy and timid; it made evident to all who entered the Academy that, to survive, it was essential to "endure hardness;" that the course of instruc­tion must be not merely gone through, but mastered; that discipline must be conformed to, not only in some things, but in everything; and—more vital still—not one jot or tittle of the law of honor could be even smirched, much less broken.

The code of honor, it may be admit­ted, neither sought nor required the stimulus of heavenly reward or any higher or nobler motive than its own maintenance; it was perhaps a mere mechanical substitute for a pure faith; but its prescriptions, demanding truthfulness. Integrity and courage, few and easily comprehended, were enforced impartially and utterly without mercy. For the liar, the thief, the coward, there was no repentance; his offense could not be forgiven, and was condoned only by his quick and usually grossly ignominious departure.

To get the exact point of view of the West Point system it is essential that one should abandon entirely all precon­ceived notions as to customary methods of dealing with bodies of young people. Schools, colleges, and universities enforce order by authority. In them the in­former—the tale-bearer—is despised and ostracized. But at West Point the informer is an essential part of the edu­cation; "tattling" is reduced to a science; in effect, instead of the press­ure of authority from without, cadet discipline is maintained by a constant and consistent influence from within. For certain purposes and at certain times every cadet is in authority, not only over his mates of the corps, but over himself, bound "on honor" to report another's or his own dereliction. In no place in the world is communism so practical, nor in any place are the rights of private property better respected or safer. Among classmates such things as tobacco (when it was permissible to smoke) or clean linen, collars, cuffs, and especially white "pants," were always common property, but woe to him who presumed upon this sort of anarchism and purloined by stealth, or took what he knew was needed or wanted.

These conditions, which have prevailed so long that the memory of the oldest living graduate "runneth not to the contrary," still stand in all their integrity, perhaps more firmly founded now than when simpler and more primitive cus­toms existed. Among these customs, now happily of the past, was that savage one of "hazing." While I have called this custom "savage" in due fairness I must give my testimony, that in my time there was nothing that went beyond a certain hardening experience. So much has been said (probably because the military academies of both West Point and Annapolis have focused in the lime­light of publicity) as to the brutality, that I feel impelled to say how far short of anything really brutal were the expe­riences that I not only patiently suf­fered, but diligently and conscientiously assisted in inflicting.

Edward S. Travers, Chaplain at West Point
The very first attempt by the Federal Government to restrain the pranks of old cadets as exhibited towards the new happened the second year of my own cadet course. Authority at Washington hit upon a certain expedient which it fondly imagined would put a stop to these so-called "outrages." An order was issued to the effect that no cadet, should have his full furlough unless he signed a declaration that he had "not harassed or molested" a new arrival. This order, at first striking a chill to the very soul of the chivalry of the corps, proved an entire failure. There were fewer among the upper-classmen who "harassed and molested," and the acts perpetrated partook less than formerly of the quality of public "orgies;" but this was the sole effect. Many of the class kept the full spirit of that order; others (in the endeavor to serve both fun and furlough) were scrupulous to ask a plebe if it would harass or molest him to make up a bed or clean a gun, or go to the tank for a bucket of water. Of course the newcomer, willing to ingratiate himself with his associates, had his prompt reply that nothing would please him better than to do those things. Besides these two, another faction existed, few in numbers, but full of energy and determination, the  “black sheep" perhaps of the yearling class, who, from the first, scorned to accept amnesty, " hazed " as of old, and accepted cheerfully the con­sequences.

As to this matter of maltreatment of new cadets, the outcome is worth telling. It had always been dangerous, but the danger was only an incentive. The War Department sought to make it unprofita­ble; a certain number of reckless souls were always found in every class to dis­dain profit. Then came a time when the integrity of the Academy and its credit in the eyes of the Nation were at stake. Fortunately, a big, brave man, General A. L. Mills, was at this time Su­perintendent. He appealed to the corps; and the corps of cadets itself, rising splendidly to the occasion, volunteered to end the custom, and they did end it, the classes uniting to decree that hazing at West Point should end forever.

At West Point, as elsewhere, the old order has largely changed. In the sixties the fare at the mess-hall and many other essentials were poor and meager; now these are ample and excellent. The bar­baric code—inheritance from the South­ern cavalier—of dueling, during the earlier years of the nineteenth century conducted with un-tipped foils, or even by pistols, was in time interpreted "in terms of " fists. Under the shadow of Kosciusko's monument in Fort Clinton (once Fort Arnold) seldom a week passed that two did not face each other to settle some score. There were seconds and a referee, and the affair was settled accord­ing to the methods of pugilism, as estab­lished by that eminent authority, the Marquis of Queensberry.

With the abolition of hazing many causes of irritation have been done away with, and the progress of civilization, to which even the most ultra-conservatism yields, has almost entirely obliterated this last blot upon the 'scutcheon, whose motto is, "Duty, Honor, Country."

The government of West Point cadets, by themselves, for themselves, and of themselves, has so largely justified itself that, if the old order had continued un­changed, few (among graduates at least) would not be content to leave the matter of personal religion to the individual. As I have seen the sentiment written, "Honor has no religion, unless Honor itself be a religion."

In the year 1870 Miss Susan Warner, whose religious stories, beginning with "The Wide, Wide World," were at one time so popular, began a series of Bible is readings for the families of wonder ­officers on the post. Miss Warner, aided by her sister Miss Anna, came weekly from their secluded home on Constitution Island, holding these meetings at different houses, but chiefly, I ­believe, at the old Washington's Head­quarters, the residence at that time of the Misses Thompson. To these readings a few cadets came. At first a mere "corporal's guard," their numbers grad­ually increased. After the death of the elder Miss Warner these meetings were continued by her younger sister, are being still held, and are now attended by a large number of cadets.

Washington's Headquarters at Newburgh
The next step in religious matters at con ­the Academy was a direct consequence of the Intercollegiate Bible Study move­ment, initiated and forwarded by the Young Men's Christian Association. This stimulus incited one cadet, Charles T. Leeds, of Massachusetts (now in the Corps of Engineers), to begin, in the fall of 1890, the first Bible class exclusively for members of the corps of cadets. About fifteen men, all of the class of '93, attended. The success of this experi­­ment—a marked departure from prevailing custom—was so great that during the encampment of the summer of 1901 ­a Bible Study Rally was held, the out­come of which was the formation of two additional classes for the following win­ter. The average attendance for the ­year 1901-2 did not exceed thirty; but before the year 1902 closed the move­ment had acquired so great an impetus that eleven more classes were formed, into the average attendance being over ninety. In 1904 two additional classes were formed, and the membership had risen to a hundred and forty.

It was perhaps inevitable that so sud­den and large a growth should give rise to many perplexing questions. A cadet's time, it must be remembered, is seldom his own; hours of study, constant roll calls, recitations, and an un-intermittent round of military duties leave him almost entirely without leisure. Naturally, the few and brief intervals of freedom from the grind of tasks, military or educational, find the average cadet in no mood for anything save rest or recreation. Under such difficulties it some of the more than extraordinary—it is wonderful—that progress was made at all. But it was made slowly during the next two or three years; but by 1907 all the vex­ing problems of administration had been successfully solved, and the organization for Bible study established upon a sure and safe basis.

­At present the average weekly attendance is upwards of a hundred and twenty. The Young Men's Christian Association have now a large and commodious hall of their own, and here are found papers and magazines in abundance. During the summer encampment the Association has at its disposal a special tent with facilities for writing, etc., more convenient than in Kendrick Hall, which is in barracks, at a considerable distance across the plain.

The work for the study of the Scriptures is conducted by the Cadet Young Men's Christian Association. This branch of the Association is solely for cadets, and the management is entirely in the hands of cadets, the chaplain of the post exercising no authority, and yet standing always ready to give encouragement and help when necessity arises. A committee of members of the three upper classes, with a first-classman as chairman, controls the organization. At the beginning of every academic year—in September, when the corps moves out of  camp and studies are resumed in bar racks—a thorough canvass is made, especially of the fourth class (the so-called "plebes"), with a view to enrollment. The Bible-study classes are divided groups, classmates being always together, each class being led by one of its own members, except that the fourth-classmen have for leaders some upper-classman.

There is also a leaders' class, which meets every Sunday morning at eight o'clock. This was formerly under the guidance of the post chaplain, but is at present led by a former Young Men's Christian Association president, Lieu­tenant C. L. Fenton, now detailed as instructor in the academic department. To this officer is due in great measure the increasing success of the work during the last year.

The history of the chaplaincy at West Point shows a rather peculiar paradox—a certain inconsistency (at least it would appear to be inconsistent to an outsider) between the office as a part of the mili­tary service, and the religious obligation of one "in holy orders," that specific duty, to be defined each for himself and not for another, but to which the phrase "cure of souls" may apply. From an intimate acquaintance with a number of former chaplains it is no more than just to state how faithfully these men endeav­ored to achieve an influence among the members of the corps. These four—Sprole (Presbyterian), French (Episco­palian), Forsythe (American Reformed), and Postlethwaite (Reformed Episco­palian)—ministered at West Point for over half a century. They were all Christian gentlemen, in the best sense of the phrase, earnest, devout, desirous of doing their full duty, as they esteemed that duty to be; but their best endeavors failed utterly to produce any change whatever in the attitude of the corps of  cadets towards orthodoxy. Public senti­ment at the Academy was not that of indifference to religious essentials; it was not prejudice against any form of expression of faith; still less was it "infidelity."

It has been stated that in the sixties a very few held faithfully to their inher­ited credence’s. I remember, in '66 and '67, a small congregation of such en­gaged in occasional, or regular, prayer-meetings, and these fell out of ranks on the first Sunday of the month to partake of the Lord's Supper. For these men there was no condemnation, not even disapprobation; but there was also no sympathy. They were not sneered at, but several, I think most, of them were alluded to in strict privacy, and with a certain good-humored pity, as "Miss."

Warner Homestead on Constitution Island
Favoring circumstances have given to the present chaplain opportunities which many of his predecessors entirely lacked. Former chaplains (all of those who have been mentioned) have been men well advanced in years. The Rev. Edward S. Travers is a young man, earnest, energetic, sympathetic, uniting the qual­ities of zealous devotion and exceptional intellectual attainments. He is greatly favored also in that his singleness of pur­pose is not hampered by other and con­flicting duties. In bygone years the chaplains were not only accountable as "divines;" they were charged with the responsibilities of a professorship—that of the department of "Ethics," includ­ing law, National, international, and military. From such onerous duty Dr. Travers is wholly free. His time is, however, not less fully occupied. He is not only chaplain of the Academy but also rector (of the Protestant Episcopal Church) of the parish of West Point, having under his supervision not only cadets, but officers and their families, many enlisted men of the garrison, and numerous civilians—upwards of two thousand souls.

The Episcopal Church, so tenacious of privilege for "churchmanship" and the historic priesthood, has always at West Point relaxed the rigid rules of caste. Always—and now more than ever—the chapel pulpit welcomes all qualified by ability and character. The ritual of the Church is recited, as befits the due conduct of service by a parish priest; but the tone and sentiment—the very atmosphere—" expanded by the genius of the spot, has grown colossal."

Perhaps the greatest test of true liber­ality is that it holds itself so high in charity as to "condescend to men of low estate"—to be liberal even to illiberal­ity. There may be some, men high-minded as they are devout who may think that in the wide influence of the Christian Association at West Point is found evidence of a certain reversion to conventional standards of religious observance. That any old-time graduate can so regard it is impossible. 'The spirit of West Point remains what it has been for almost a full century. The sentiment of uprightness and honor, founded in academic life long ago by the controlling influence of the South—by cadets of Cavalier families—was no more than a revolt from the austerity of men of the Root and Branch. The creed of West Point, unvoiced, but no less commanding, professes (as I have heard it expressed by a graduate) truth for authority, not authority as a substitute for truth. There are no "spheres of influence" in the religious life of West Point, but rather the "open door." In matters of conscience it is as with the discipline of the institution, self-reporting "on honor," self-respecting, the influence within.

The School of the Soldier belongs to the people, and they are entitled to know of the moral progress that the last few decades have brought. The casual visi­tor to West Point, to whom the destinies of his country are dear, may well take heart that her defenders—the men of tomorrow—are here being cast in such patriotic mold, loyal to the Nation and themselves.

Some Sunday morning, turning -from the historic relics of the days of the War of the Revolution, the progress of recent years may be in part realized. One slender shaft rises high upon the plain, upholding a martial figure—the spirit of War. Another—in the planning of the design for the new and greater West Point, soon to be erected near it—will bear aloft an image symbolizing Peace, in Lincoln's admirable language " the better angel of our nature."

Then upon the still air, un-vexed by any marring martial discord, the bugle notes of the Church Call are heard. Following the gray' battalion to the old chapel—soon to be supplanted by one far more magnificent upon the hillside—may be seen, at the head of the chancel, a grand piece of decorative art, the work of the artist Weir. It symbolizes, as the shafts upon the plain, the same ideal, with this ascription: "Righteousness Exalteth a Nation, but Sin is a Reproach to any People."

From The Outlook Magazine, 1908