Image: a WWI-era painting of a white man in clerical robes and stole standing in a gloomy outdoors setting, looking up to the sky as he raises a small cross in his hand. A handful of soldiers kneel at his feet. Sacred Service logo: a simplified graphic of a stained-glass window with the words 'SACRED SERVICE' in all-caps serif font underneath.

Sacred Service

Open May 23, 2024 Wylie Gallery

“A good chaplain is as valuable as a good general.”

—British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Dec. 1915

The year is 1914: In media, politics and the pulpit, leaders around the world are portraying the start of the Great War as a modern-day struggle against evil. With hundreds of thousands enlisting to fight, religious guidance and leadership become priorities. Chaplains – from many faiths – answer the call to duty.

Rabbis, pastors, monks, imams, priests and more served with the fighting nations of World War I. Many were as unprepared for the horrors of war as the soldiers they served, yet strove to bring courage, comfort and compassion to millions – on and off the battlefield.

Modern photograph of an olive-green military tunic that buttons up the front and has four pockets, displayed on a dress form.
Chaplain C. W. Mayfield's AEF tunic
United States, c. 1917-1919
Object ID: 2023.146.2

Chaplain C.W. Mayfield had his AEF tunic tailored at Goldberg's in Louisville, Kentucky while he attended the Army Chaplain School at Camp Zachary Taylor. Stitched on the interior pocket of this tunic is the maker's label: “All Measures Kept for Two Years / M. Goldberg & Sons / Louisville's Leading Tailors” with C.W. Mayfield's signature underneath.

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Sacred Service explores the rarely told, true stories of chaplains who armed warriors with inspiration and compassion through the Great War at its most hellish.

Guiding visitors on a journey through the physical and spiritual environment of war, the exhibition incorporates artifacts, documents, film, artwork, images, stories, poetry, first-person accounts and interactive 3D digital models. Visitors come face-to-face with the men of faith whose actions reflected courage on the battlefield and projected hope into hearts and souls.

Black and white photograph of two white men sitting casually on a wooden bench in a park or garden. One man is cleanshaven, wearing dark clerical robes, a collar and other religious signifiers. The other man (dressed in a simple military tunic, pants and uniform hat, with a pencil mustache) has his arm slung around the shoulders of the man in robes.
Photograph of a chaplain and soldier
Austria-Hungary, c. 1914-1918
Object ID: 2019.47.3247
Black and white photograph portrait of a white man from the waist up. He is cleanshaven and wearing a military uniform and cap.
Photographic portrait of Chaplain H. L. Reader, 110th Reg. Engineers, 35th Division
United States, c. 1917-1919
Object ID: 1926.28.497
Modern photograph of a silver sculpture depicting an elaborately stylized cross and an emaciated human figure hung from it.
Reserve trench altar crucifix
France, c. 1914-1918
Object ID: 2023.79.1

Amid the misery and suffering of the war, the image of Christ tortured to death on a cross carried new significance for many servicemembers. Roman Catholic worship services frequently featured a crucifix, whether the service was held in a trench or on the side of a mountain.

Black and white photograph of a rocky mountainside with a group of soldiers in uniform standing and watching a man in Catholic priest robes doing something at a small Catholic altar covered in white cloth
Photograph of soldiers attending a field Mass on a mountainside
Austria-Hungary, c. 1914-1918
Object ID: 2019.47.3217
Modern photograph of a brown leather case that's been opened to show several compartments inside containing folded white loth, a silver-colored plate and chalice, and various metal and glass containers.
Field communion set
Great Britain, c. 1914-1918
Object ID: 2023.148.1

Chaplains prepared men to act with courage in chaos and, if necessary, to face their deaths. Holy Communion was an essential religious sacrament for many Christian servicemembers. Recreating the Last Supper of Christ, the sacrament embodies the meaning of suffering and sacrifice, as well as the hope for redemption and eternal life. It held profound relevance to many who might die in the face of war.

This set includes a case, chalice, two patens, wine ewer, cup, pyx, two altar linens and two palls.

Discover how chaplains in WWI forged new ideas of religious tolerance and cooperation through sight, sound and story.

They were sources of friendship and comfort, leaders of worship and examples of character. Ultimately, chaplains inspired others to work together in support of each other – and the common good.

Modern photograph of an armband made of worn and aged cream-colored cloth with a red crescent shape embroidered in the middle
Hilal-i Ahmer (Red Crescent Society) Armband
Turkey, c. 1914-1918
Object ID: 2023.178.1

The Red Crescent Society is the name of the Red Cross Society in countries with a majority Muslim population. Like their chaplain counterparts in the Red Cross, many imams in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt worked with and for the Red Crescent Society during WWI, playing an important role in providing humanitarian and medical aid to troops.

Two modern photographs of the front and back of a dark bronze-colored pin shaped like two stone tablets with a star of David on top
Officer's collar insignia devices for a Jewish chaplain
United States, c. 1917-1919
Object ID: 2009.44.6

Jewish Americans (and other faith groups such as Mormons and Christian Scientists) wanted chaplains for their servicemembers in the military. On Oct. 6, 1917, Congress passed a bill opening the chaplaincy to Jewish and other faith groups. Jewish chaplains often had to confront antisemitism; AEF rabbi Lee Levinger once humorously remarked that part of the chaplain’s job was to protect soldiers from their real “tyrants and oppressors, the line officers.”

Modern photograph of a black rectangular flag with a white cross in the center
Senior chaplain's flag of the 77th Division
United States, c. 1917-1919
Object ID: 2023.146.1

When the senior chaplain of the 77th Division, John J. Allan, was reassigned to the General Headquarters (GHQ) Chaplain Office, he recommended Rabbi Elkan Voorsanger as his replacement – the first time in history a Protestant chaplain recommended a Jewish rabbi for promotion – stating he “is well liked by the other chaplains and will fit the bill.” Voorsanger carried this flag as the senior chaplain of the 77th Division.

Modern photograph of two dull silver-colored round containers soldered together. Cyrillic letters are engraved on the containers and their lids.
Sacramental oil container
Russia, c. 1914-1917
Object ID: 2023.103.1

A soldier in war was regarded as someone in permanent danger of death: in periculo mortis. Through sacraments (religious rituals imparting divine grace) chaplains offered servicemen the comfort of blessings, love and forgiveness of sins in times of anguish, hardship or death.

Find a powerful view of the Great War beyond combat tactics and troop movements: the equally intense, yet singular experiences of the chaplains – whether faithful, doubting or visionary – as they counseled their legions.

Sacred Service sheds light on how they provided care to souls in a war where sacred grounds and crumbling cathedrals confronted servicemembers of every country from Russia to the United States – transforming shared hardship into hope and helping sow the seeds for a more compassionate post-WWI world.

Modern photograph of dress form draped with a red stole trimmed with gold colored fringe. A five-point star and 'No. 9' are embroidered on the stole.
9th Field Hospital chaplain's stole
Italy, c. 1914-1917
Object ID: 2023.244.1

Chaplains often supplemented their front line service by providing spiritual and emotional support to wounded service members recovering in field hospitals. In these medical facilities, chaplains comforted injured troops and lifted spirits through ministry, letter writing assistance and compassionate conversations. The work of chaplains in wartime hospitals was just as vital as ministries directly on the battlefield.

Modern photograph of an aged and torn book opened to the first page. The inside of the front cover is stamped with a crest for 'American Bible Society / Instituted 1816' depicting an ancient oil lamp in front of a book upon which is written, 'Read The Scripture.' On the front page is written in loose cursive 'Present of Chaplain Smart, Verdun, France, 10/8/18'
The New Testament
United States, 1918
Object ID: 2023.112.1

American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) New Testament given to Sgt. George Hendrix on Oct. 8, 1918 by Chaplain Daniel Smart at Verdun. Chaplain Smart died of wounds received in action on Oct. 15, 1918 and is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

Modern photograph of a small charm shaped like a shield in the colors of the U.S. flag. In the center a cross is inside a star of David. Text engraved around the cross and star: "Comrades in Service / '17 '18 /  Neh. 4:18"
Comrades in Service charm
United States, 1919
Object ID: 2023.243.1

“Comrades in Service” was a short-lived veterans' organization conceived by AEF chaplain leader Bishop Charles Brent, "to bind Americans together as Comrades to work for a better America upon their return home.”

“Comrades in Service” lasted less than a year in 1919. When a rival group holding caucus in the Cirque de Paris proved more popular with troops waiting to return home, Bishop Brent threw “Comrades in Service” into the ranks of an organization to be known as “The American Legion."

Sacred Service will be on view in Wylie Gallery at the National WWI Museum and Memorial beginning May 23, 2024.



Sacred Service is supported by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.

Logo of Lilly Endowment Inc.

This exhibition is supported in part by the City of Kansas City, Missouri Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund.

NTDF Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund logo

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