Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Chaplain B.H. Roberts Pleads for the Lives of His Men

Chaplain B.H. Roberts Pleads for the Lives of His Men

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 21, 2008

Lenard Valess Dewey (1895-1981) was born in Idaho and eventually settled in Arizona, where he served as an LDS bishop. In between those milestones, he lived in California, earned an M.A. from the University of South Dakota (1924; his Master’s essay was a consideration of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”), and wrote at least two dozen articles for LDS publications. In 1917 he enlisted in the 145th Field Artillery, a Utah unit made up largely of Mormon men, which trained in California as part of the 40th Division (composed generally of non-Mormon men from California and Nevada), sailed to Bordeaux, France for further training. The war ended just as the 145th was heading to the front; except for a large contingent of their men that were transferred to another unit before they left the States, the men of the 145th saw no battle.

60-year-old Brigham Henry Roberts (1857-1933), a member of the First Council of the Seventy, former president of the Southern States Mission, elected to represent Utah in Congress (but not allowed to take his seat due to his polygamy), had been a major in the reserves before the war. His age exempted, even disqualified, him from active service, but the Utah legislature passed a special act calling him with the rank of lieutenant to serve as chaplain to the 145th (the entire unit, serving non-Mormon as well as Mormon), the first Latter-day Saint to serve in the Chaplains’ Corps of the United States Army. Despite his age, Roberts kept up with his men throughout training, and sailed for France with them in September 1918.

L. Valess Dewey, writing in 1939:

During the World War of 1914-18 it was the privilege of the writer to be associated, as a soldier, with the late Brigham H. Roberts, who was then Chaplain of the 145th Field Artillery (1st Utah). Having enlisted in the service of my country at Salt Lake City shortly after the 145th field Artillery was mobilized, it was my good fortune to see and experience at first hand the reaction of a great man of God to the horrors of war.

I sat in the Mormon Tabernacle at Salt Lake City during the memorable October conference of 1917, and listened to chaplain Roberts as he preached his good-bye sermon to those representatives of the Church which he loved so much. I heard him bear his marvelous testimony to the truthfulness of the restored gospel, standing in full uniform as only a great and true soldier of Cross and country could stand. I heard him assure the parents of those hundreds of soldier boys over whom he presided as chaplain, that those boys should have his humbly devoted efforts and support – both in life and in death, if necessary. And those vows were faithfully kept.

During the training days of the 145th Field Artillery at Camp Kearney, near San Diego, California, it was the privilege of the writer to be associated with Chaplain Roberts in several capacities. I used to go over to his tent and spend many happy minutes with him. He never failed to smile as he returned the salutes of his devoted soldier boys. particularly did I enjoy my labors with him as a group leader in Bible class work. He was always planning and carrying out something different for the good of his boys.

But perhaps the outstanding contributions of Chaplain Roberts as a soldier of Cross and Country came on ship-board and after our arrival in France. Our first Sunday at sea on the broad Atlantic was a memorable one. At the announced hour for our church service, a few soldiers – including the writer – sang an opening song without the aid of an instrument. then chaplain Roberts offered the opening prayer and launched immediately into a sermon. He chose for his text a portion of the 14th chapter of the Book of Revelation. He read concerning the message of the Revelator’s angel – the one “flying in the midst of heaven” which should have the “everlasting gospel to preach to them that dwell upon the earth.” He especially emphasized that portion of the angel’s message which commands the worship of “Him that made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and the fountains of water.” and he put great stress upon the fact that this special command to worship should come in the “hour of God’s judgment.” The setting was perfect. And the response was electrical. If the religious service had been a strictly protestant one, undoubtedly many would have come forward and confessed their sins. As it was, many eyes were wet; and several expressed themselves afterwards as being more profoundly moved than ever before in their lives.

In France, however, an experience yet more impressive was to come to us. We had almost finished our extra period of training, and were about to leave for the front line trenches, – when that terrible sickness, the “flu,” struck our camp. Chaplain Roberts did not hesitate to minister among his stricken boys almost day and night. Nevertheless, the terrible disease continued to grow worse. In a few days there were hardly enough well soldiers to take care of the sick ones. Within three days thirteen of our finest soldier boys had died; and had to be buried in common holes in the ground – wrapped only in the stars and stripes.

It was a case of an unusual situation calling for an unusual remedy. and Chaplain Roberts was quick to meet the challenge. he called a special sacrament and testimony meeting. It was the first and only one of its kind held in the regiment. For it was strictly a Latter-day Saint service, with all the soldiers – Mormon and non-Mormon alike – invited to attend.

And what a service it was! When the bread and water, blessed by Chaplain Roberts and passed to the soldiers also by him personally, was offered to those boys and men, toughened by the thoughts of war, – very few of them declined the sacred emblems. Then Chaplain Roberts opened the meeting to testimonies, inviting all to take part. I was mildly surprised when some of the soldiers, considered to be rather careless and rough, began to take a part in the service. But I was positively astonished when several of the soldiers, known by all to be – at least outwardly – tough and bad, arose and bore their testimonies. They testified concerning spiritual manifestations which they had witnessed – and even had part in. Many of the soldiers shed tears; and all were exceedingly sober.

Then Chaplain Roberts bore his own testimony and offered a prayer. What a powerful testimony! And what a mighty prayer! Long and earnestly this devoted servant of Cross and Country pleaded with the great God to spare the lives of his soldier boys. “Our Father,” said he, “if it be necessary that any more of the lives of our boys should be taken, then let them die in battle, and not at the hands of this terrible disease – away out here, thousands of miles from home and loved ones!”

It was enough. The great God heard and answered. And no more soldiers of our regiment died – either by the “flu” or in battle.

Such is true patriotism. And such the approval of an all wise and an almighty God of patriots who “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

[L. Valess Dewey, “True Patriotism,” Liahona: The Elders’ Journal, 12 September 1939, 152-153]

In my due diligence to verify this story before repeating it, I find that the B.H. Roberts Papers at Marriott Library Special Collections, University of Utah, include this item:

“The Men Who Died of Spanish Influenza in the Camp of the 145th F.A.,” Remarks made by Chaplain Roberts at Camp De Souge, France. Includes a list of fourteen names with rank and date of death.

which, with what is generally known about the 145th, appears to corroborate Dewey’s story in broad outline. I will report on (and publish, if the U’s rules allow) the “Remarks” when I have an opportunity to get up to the U.

[photograph: Chaplain B.H. Roberts, 1917]

Update, 22 August: Part of the memorial speech given by B.H. Roberts in November 1918 at the graves of the fourteen (rather than Dewey’s thirteen) flu victims has been posted as Chaplain B.H. Roberts Leads Memorial Services, following a lead given by Justin in comment 11.

Update, 7 October: The eulogies given by B.H. Roberts for each of the men who died in his unit have been posted as Chaplain Roberts Eulogizes the Dead. I’ve also learned that the discrepancy between Dewey’s tally of 13 dead and other records listing 14 dead can be accounted for by the fact that one of them, Milton L. Haddox, died in a hospital away from the camp. Since he was newly transferred to the 145th, Dewey may not have been aware of him.



  1. This is wonderful. Thank you, Ardis.

    It’s interesting. We know a lot about B. H. Roberts. But this incident, and the one when he dressed in disguise in order to retrieve the bodies of the elders at Cane Creek, seem to reveal the man and give us a better picture of him than reading the thousands of pages he left behind.

    Comment by Mark IV — August 21, 2008 @ 8:32 am

  2. Ardis:

    Thanks so MUCH for reminding me that B.H. Roberts served as an Army Chaplain. And, I do hope the U’s rules will allow you to post more. I am going to link this post on my site.

    Comment by S.Faux — August 21, 2008 @ 8:38 am

  3. Once again a lovely post. It made me feel rather sad, though, that my great-great grandpa didn’t leave any record of his service in that war. The only things we know about his service are from his mother: that he almost died in the flu pandemic and that he spent most of his time in France and was called to the Russian front on the day the Armistice was signed. From his son: his time in Russia was very eye-opening for a farm boy from Arizona.

    That’s it.

    Thanks for providing this insight into Roberts’ experience during the war. He was a fascinating (and handsome) man.

    Comment by Researcher — August 21, 2008 @ 11:23 am

  4. Another eye-opening post. Thanks Ardis.

    One underlying message that’s hinted at in the account you quote: more American soldiers died of non-battle causes than in battle in World War I. Many of them died of influenza.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 21, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

  5. This is an awesome write-up, thanks Ardis. I was going to quibble about the first chaplain claim, thinking that Seymour B. Young was a chaplain, but upon checking I can’t verify that. On going through his papers, I found the “Ritual for the Grand Army of the Republic.” As there was a role for a chaplain in the ritual, I assumed it was him…but I guess that was wrong.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 21, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

  6. JS,

    SB Young is my wifes ggradfather. His records that are in my possesion do not show he served as a chaplain.

    Comment by bbell — August 21, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  7. Great post, Ardis. I have long been a fan of B.H. Roberts because he lived in Centerville, Utah where I grew up. I was not aware of this part of his life.

    Comment by Maurine — August 21, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

  8. J. Stapley,

    Seymour B. Young could have been a chaplain in the Grand Army of the Republic no matter what his MOS during his time in the service. (I know, MOS–Military Occupational Specialty–is an anachronism. The Army didn’t use that term in the 19th Century.) Still, he could have been in the cavalry or the infantry or the artillery or the quartermasters corps, and then he could have been elected/appointed chaplain (local, state or national) of the GAR.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 21, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  9. Very interesting post, Ardis.

    Re #5, I gather that Elias Kimball was a chaplain of some sort during the Spanish-American war.

    Comment by Justin — August 21, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

  10. Elias Kimball, and probably others in different units and at different times, was chaplain of a volunteer corps (engineers?) during the Spanish-American war. The 145th was regular Army, with Lieut. Roberts holding a regular army commission. That’s probably a clarification that needs to be made, although the distinction probably doesn’t matter except to military people or those like me who grew up around the military. (Volunteer units were raised to serve for as little as 30 days or as long as the duration of an emergency; they appointed their own officers, outfitted themselves, and may have been quite skilled and faced all the same dangers as the regulars, but regulars were the professional soldiers, with long-term training and career intentions. Maybe somebody like S.Faux or another military-experienced reader can elaborate.)

    Certainly I don’t mean to slight the service of any man!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 21, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

  11. Ardis, I noticed that Madsen’s bio mentions that the Deseret News (Memorial Day 1932) published BHR’s final address at Camp De Souge. I wonder if he mentions this story.

    Comment by Justin — August 21, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

  12. I’ll look it up tomorrow, Justin, and let y’all know. If it’s a different speech, it would probably be worth posting on its own. Thanks for the pointer.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 21, 2008 @ 6:09 pm

  13. Wow, this is so inspiring! Thanks for posting these things, Ardis.

    Comment by Tatiana — August 22, 2008 @ 1:03 am

  14. 11: This DesNews article is only a fragment of BHR’s speech, and it sounds more like one made as the unit was leaving that place for the last time than the one that Dewey describes — a formal farewell, rather than a prayer for deliverance. It’s interesting, though, and I’ll put it up by tomorrow.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 22, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

  15. Wasn’t Seymour B. Young a physician by training and occupation, or do I have him confused with someone else? The man I have in mind was sent to Columbia Medical School in NYC and treated B.Y. in his last illness in 1877. I think he was a great-nephew or similar relative. Re B.H. Roberts, I’m happy to hear of this chapter in his varied life for the first time. My first experience with LDS history was in 1958 reading his multi-volume “Comprehensive History” in the stacks of the Yale Library. I was impressed by his study’s objectivity (as I remember it), and the elegance of its printing/binding; the plates had tissue-paper guards. This study made such an impression on me that I bought a set of the 1930 volumes a few years ago from Hugh McKell, then at Benchmark Books. Upon re-reading one volume, I found B.H. Roberts persuasively debunking the old folktale that B.Y. had entrapped U.S. Army Brevet Lieut. Col. E.J. Steptoe in a sexual indiscretion on Christmas day 1854. a myth accepted and merchandised by many Mormon and even non-Mormon historians such as Nels Anderson in “Desert Saints.” Not B.H. Roberts — he got to the root of that story, examined its origins, and did Steptoe justice in a way that many less careful historians have not. I’m not carrying water for Steptoe, but I do have a lot of admiration for B.H. Roberts, his dispassionate defender. Ardis’s post only adds to my admiration for this leader of the old school.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — August 22, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

  16. Bill, there were two Seymour Bicknell Youngs. One was Brigham’s nephew (son of Brigham’s brother Joseph), and the other was the son of the first Seymour Bicknell. The older one (1837-1924) was an academically trained doctor (University Medical College of New York, class of 1874) and treated Brigham during his last illness. The younger one (1868-1941) was the veteran of the Spanish-American War.

    I really like B.H. Roberts’s history. His wording may be a little quaint now, and certainly more sources are available which would require adjustments to his history in many places, but he did seem to tackle everything head-on, regardless of its difficulty, while still being unqualifiedly faithful.

    I haven’t acknowledged most comments individually, but I enjoyed and appreciate each of them — more proof for my claim that Keepa has the best group of regular commenters in the bloggernacle!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 22, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

  17. Ardis (#16), if Keepa has high-quality commenters (commentators?), it’s because of our leader-blogger, Auntie Audacious. You consistently come up with the most interesting posts told marvelously in such a way that we are all led down the path — continuing to read your threads much as we eat peanuts…It’s nice to be out of the lane marked “Ego/Put-Down/Finger-Pointing/Vitriolic.”

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — August 22, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

  18. Dear Auntie Audacious, I just want to use that term as I tell you how much I enjoyed this post.

    Your Humble Nephew

    Comment by Ray — August 22, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

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