The first Black chaplains

Military: past and present

Henry McNeal Turner. Credit:

Late in 1863, Henry McNeal Turner, a man born free in South Carolina in 1833, became a Union Army chaplain in the midst of the United States Civil War. Turner was educated, a well-known “race leader,” and pastor to one of the most politically engaged and largest Black churches in Washington, D.C. Traveling from this prestigious pastorate to the battlefront, Turner joined lobbying efforts to convince President Lincoln to enlist freedmen in the Union Army. Commissioned as an officer alongside 13 other Black chaplains, Turner served in thirteen battles involving Black troops.

At a time when most Blacks were denied access to basic literacy and all-Black regiments were commanded by white officers, Turner’s commissioning was met with public derision. Turner carried the political weight of progress during and after the war. President Andrew Johnson and the African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop, Daniel Payne, appointed Turner as chaplain of the Freedman’s Bureau in Georgia, and Turner was elected to Georgia’s state legislature in 1886 after helping organize the state Republican party. His service was not free of discrimination, however; white voters soon expelled Turner and other Black representatives from the legislature. As a bishop in the AME Church from 1888 until his death in 1915, Henry Turner devoted his time to providing leadership for Black Americans.


A century on

More than one hundred years later, Natalie Williams (pseudonym) and Rev. Crystal Miller-Davis shared their journeys to being called to service and challenges in their field.

Natalie Williams – another member of the AME – was ordained a deacon and assigned to lead two rural churches in her home state of Alabama. She met a military chaplain at a conference who told her that young men and women of color in the military needed to see more chaplains of color and encouraged her to consider it. She did, becoming ordained as an elder, working through the process of ecclesiastical endorsement, and eventually being stationed on bases in the United States and around the world. As one of a few Black female chaplains in the Navy, and the only female chaplain on a base that sees 20,000 patrons a day, she  has had difficulty finding mentors – “most of the chaplains are white males” – and has responded to inappropriate comments about race from her superiors.

Rev. Crystal Miller-Davis

Rev. Crystal Miller-Davis serves as the Deputy Endorser of Chaplains for the Church of God in Christ, Inc. (COGIC) She assists the Endorser in policy, mentoring and advocacy for military and institutional chaplains. Rev. Miller-Davis is a 4th generation COGIC minister, serving at the local, state, national, and international levels. In 2019, she was appointed Assistant Supervisor of Women for COGIC’s 2nd Jurisdiction in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A career Air Force Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel Miller-Davis is stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. Her assignments include The United States Air Force Academy, The Pentagon, Walter Reed Medical Hospital and overseas tours.

Rev. Miller-Davis came to the Air Force from her calling as an associate pastor leading community outreach in her parent’s church in inner city Philadelphia. The Air Force Chaplain recruiter she talked to was a clergy woman from a sister denomination, and appealed to her on the community of clergy sisterhood, the overall team ministry approach in Air Force Chaplaincy, the desire for ethnic diversity, and the pastoral focus of the Air Force Chaplain to the entire military community.

One of her proudest career moments came in 2019, when she had the opportunity to participate in the installation service for a female associate minister she mentored, an Air Force veteran and military spouse who now serves as a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church with responsibility for 67 churches and 71 pastors.

Rev. Miller-Davis described: “In many of the institutional chaplaincy spaces, people of color find ourselves as the only one of our kind at the table. This often brings extra responsibilities, grief for as well as insight into minority populations and staff.  This “dual hatted-ness” can become wearying and isolating. I encourage people of color going into chaplaincy and spiritual care as a vocation to “draw the circle wide.” Make sure to stay connected to those in your faith tradition as well as other people of color in the institution that may not be in spiritual care. Be open to divine connections that are life giving and be intentional about maintaining them…Be as committed to the spiritual care of yourself as you are to the spiritual care of others.”


Past to present

Historical Black newspapers carried the image of a Black man in uniform, clothed in the symbols of his religion, his duty, his respectability, his citizenship, and his work toward racial equality to herald progress and spar with inequality. We link historical images from this tradition with contemporary ones to name and highlight the entry of Black women into the profession, and the yet unexplored stories of chaplains of color. For new stories and resources specifically built to support BIPOC chaplains, please visit Chaplaincy Innovation Lab’s Fetzer Institute-sponsored Spiritual Care Provider Networks page. Chaplaincy researchers, please especially see the call for submission (abstracts due June 1, 2022) to the special forthcoming issue of Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy, “Chaplains of Color: Histories and Practices.”

Jiaying Ding, MDiv, is a program coordinator at the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. She is an incoming MPH student in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of California, Los Angeles.


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