The U.S. Army Institute for Religious Leadership was created out of a need to adequately train chaplains to staff the large fighting force that the United States was creating in 1917 for service in World War I. Chaplain (MAJ) Aldred A. Pruden developed the plan for the school. On 9 February 1918, the War Department approved Chaplain Pruden’s plan, and the first session of the Chaplain School commenced on 3 March 1918, at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Chaplain Pruden was designated as its first commandant and established a five-week curriculum which included courses in international and military law, first aid, drill, rules of land warfare and equitation.

During the operation of the school, 1,696 clergymen were authorized to attend. Of these 1,315 reported, 915 were graduated, commissioned, and assigned to duty; 123 were appointed to the Officer’s Reserve Corps. Thus, 1,038 chaplains or chaplain candidates were graduated, of whom 123 didn’t see active duty because they did not graduate until after the Armistice. A subsidiary Chaplain School was also established in France in 1918 near the headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force at Chaumont. The one-week course (eventually expanded to 10 days) provided realistic simulation of battlefield training including gas defense drill and identification and burial of the dead. Approximately 600 chaplains attended the school in its eight-month existence.

Although a small branch, the chaplaincy firmly established itself in the 1920s. The Chaplain School, which had been deactivated after the war, was re-established in 1920. Chaplain training became a prime factor in the professionalization of the branch. Since seminaries transformed individuals into clergy, it was up to the Army to take these civilian professionals and turn them into Army professionals. In 1919, a board recommended establishing a permanent school to conduct a basic course to train newly commissioned chaplains to minister to soldiers of denominations other than their own. The course would also prepare them to be army officers, teaching them Army regulations and customs.

On 15 May 1920, the Chaplain School opened at Camp Grant, Illinois with a staff of 15 and a student body of 15. The 21 subject curriculum included physical training and map reading. In 1921, it moved to Camp Knox, Kentucky, to Fort Wayne, Michigan in 1922, and then to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Staff and faculty wrote and distributed correspondence courses to train Reserve chaplains. Eventually, because of the low number of Regular Army chaplains to take the course, (only 125 were on active duty) and because of lack of support from other commanders, the school was deactivated in 1928. While the School was closed for resident training, correspondence programs continued. For the next 18 years, 85% of the clergy who enrolled in correspondence courses were commissioned in the Reserves, 14% in the National Guard and .4% in the Regular Army.

Two days after Pearl Harbor, the re-activation of the Chaplain School was set in motion. On 2 February 1942, 75 chaplains attended the first class at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. The 28-day session included 200 hours of instruction in military organization, customs and courtesies, military law, graves registration, first aid, military administration and chaplain activities. Gas mask drills, calisthenics and outdoor map orientation were also part of the curriculum.

After four sessions at Fort Benjamin Harrison, the school moved to Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The number of students increased from 75 to 450 and the faculty was augmented accordingly. The sessions were lengthened to five, then six weeks. An Army instructional film of this period, which was made in Hollywood and titled “For God And Country”, portrayed four chaplains being trained at Harvard as well as looking at their subsequent careers. The actor who played the part of the Catholic chaplain in the film was Ronald Reagan. By 1944, with a decrease in enrollment, the school moved to Fort Devens, Massachusetts and then to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia in 1945. Of the 8302 chaplains enrolled before the end of 1945, 8183 graduated.

Additional training generally became available after chaplains graduated. Those who were selected for duty with the Army Air Corps received two weeks of special training at the Air Corps School in San Antonio, Texas. A parallel course was set up for enlisted personnel who were to serve as chaplain assistants. In all, 1089 chaplains and 939 enlisted completed the course. Some schools conducted exercises where chaplains coordinated their activities to actual troop movements and terrain. Chaplains had to find soldiers with simulated wounds and give them proper treatment. They also selected a site for a cemetery, and they wrote burial reports and condolence letters. Chaplains entering jump school faced some of the most physically demanding training. To minister to paratroopers, chaplains needed to bond with men, and jumping with them was the most important way to form that bond.

The Chaplain School, meanwhile, moved from Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, in 1946 to Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. The basic course was extended to three months to give the new chaplain “a picture of his peacetime job and its many opportunities.” To improve readiness, Reserve and National Guard chaplains could now attend resident courses and also receive non-resident training through extension courses. Even after the establishment of a separate chaplaincy, Air Force chaplains received training at the Army School. Eventually, the Air Force established its own school. The Navy soon followed suit.

Frequently, securing qualified chaplain assistants was difficult. Commanders sometimes assigned troublesome soldiers to the chaplain. Qualified soldiers working for chaplains often requested transfers due to lack of promotion opportunities. In 1949, a study recommended that assistants be assigned on the basis of completion of a special course of instruction at the Army Chaplain School, demonstrated ability from on-the -job training for a period of not less than 90 days, or civilian training or experience in religion or music and on-the -job training for not less than 60 days. Instead, enlisted soldiers already qualified in the Personnel and Administration Career Field were trained and designated as “Qualified Chaplain’s Assistants”. In 1950, the Chaplain School instituted its first enlisted training program. Future Air Force “Welfare Specialists” were the first graduates. This program continued until 1954. After a lapse of two years, it was reinstated at Fort Dix, New Jersey and Fort Ord, California. Later operations were consolidated at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

The school’s sixteenth move came in 1996, when the Chaplain Center and School came to its present home at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, having moved from Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. The school is also recognized as the home of the Chaplain Corps Regiment since it was formally activated on 29 July 1986. The Army Chaplain Museum is also located at the school.