Women of History: Janet Horton

December 16, 2018

Military portrait of Janet Horton in Korea, 1979. Unknown photographer.
Image from Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling by Janet Horton.

In the mid-1970s, the United States Army was instructed to integrate women into the regular forces, eliminating the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). The Chaplain Corps, part of the army since World War I, was one of the last branches to comply. Janet Horton was the first woman to enter the military chaplaincy as a Christian Scientist.1

Horton was born in Crystal, Michigan, and as a child began attending Christian Science Sunday School in the nearby town of Alma, after both of her parents had experienced healing.2 She felt a strong relationship with her faith from that early age, crediting study of the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy’s writings with overcoming severe shyness as a teenager.3 A talented student, she attended Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa, and planned to teach school.

At college she had an experience with a fellow student who was a Vietnam veteran, which foreshadowed her path to the chaplaincy. When she first met him, he had accidentally cut his finger. As she prayed for him the bleeding stopped immediately, which led to several conversations about the Bible and Christian Science. Eventually he told her he’d been dealing drugs to pay tuition and wanted to stop—something she was able to help him to do.4 Later she elaborated in an interview: “…since he was a Vietnam vet, when people would hear me give that testimony [her account of the student’s healing], they would say, ‘You need to interview for the military chaplaincy.’ I didn’t know what that was, and this was the 1970s and the military was only just starting to integrate women…as chaplains.”5 Friends in her dormitory nicknamed her “chaplain” as a result of that event.6

While she was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, the Christian Science church (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, known as The Mother Church) asked Horton to interview for its Military Chaplain Training Program.7 She remembers, “…I left Iowa with one suitcase…. I had no job and no place to live…. I just felt I was on the right path for my life.”8

Christian Science chaplain trainees must enter a rigorous program before they can be appointed, including three years of seminary, usually at the Boston University School of Theology. Horton had additional monthly training sessions at The Mother Church. After training, a graduate receives a chaplaincy assignment in a branch of the US Armed Forces—either the Army, Navy, or Air Force.9

In 1976 the idea of women in the military was met with skepticism, and in some cases outright derision. Many believed women would never succeed in the chaplaincy. Horton was the third woman to enter the army chaplaincy; the other two had been accessioned into the army in 1974 and 1975.10 On entering the Chaplain Officer Basic Courses, she was told her gender and religion already amounted to two strikes against her.11 But she wasn’t deterred:

We all [women chaplains] chose to put on the whole armor of God in the army. In the days ahead, it was the caring family values I learned as a child, the marvelous education God had provided for me, and a deep and certain sense of God’s calling me to “comfort his people,” that would be the foundation for my ministry….12

That faith and willingness to serve others would drive a 28-year career. The work took her around the world, from South Korea to Germany to the Pentagon, and eventually she climbed to the rank of Colonel.

Along with her commitment to ministry, Horton wanted greater equality for women in the military. In 1979 she advocated for an accommodation allowing female chaplains to wear pants with their dress blue uniforms, after finding that the A-line skirt wasn’t designed for climbing into helicopters and military vehicles:

I had a Korean tailor design a pair of plain blue pants to match the jacket. I also contacted a woman chaplain in the DC area. She began to work a uniform accommodation for us. Military policewomen were just becoming gate guards at Arlington Cemetery. Women chaplains also did graveside service outdoors in freezing cold climates. We received the accommodation, and eventually the women’s dress blue uniform would include standard issue two-tone blues pants like the historical cavalry soldiers wore. Finally there would be one recognizable and functional uniform for all.13

Horton has stressed that she was never consciously trying to be one of the first women to serve in the chaplaincy. She looks at the path she walked in terms of fulfilling God’s purpose.14 One opportunity came on September 11, 2001, when she was in the forefront of a response to the terrorist attacks on the United States. She ministered to injured workers at the Pentagon, where she was stationed, after the explosion of American Airlines Flight 77. Nobody refused her prayers15:

When I recall the events of September 11, 2001, and the immediate days following, the most striking and vivid difference that stands out to me would be comparison between what the architects of those events intended the events to be, and what, indeed, was the result. The presence of love, from God and reflected in a multitude of human ways, guided so much of what happened when hatred attempted to dominate our nation…. What we saw was the truly amazing response of the American people. Countless acts of heroic courage would transform the dire circumstances in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. into defining events of love for those affected by the events.16

In September 2011 the Alpha Chapter of the Boston University Association of Alumni honored Horton as a Distinguished Alumnus of Boston University’s School of Theology, recognizing “her unrelenting and demonstrated devotion to her faith through leadership in the Armed Forces of the United States” and observing, “she is known for principled action and selfless love.”17

In the course of their careers, Horton and other women paved a new road in the chaplaincy for future generations. Discussing the opposition they faced, Horton remarked, “we hoped as we did our duty that it might help our nation understand we simply wanted to serve.”18

Listen to “A great religious experiment—Christian Science and military chaplaincy,”—a Seekers and Scholars podcast episode featuring Dr. Ronit Stahl.

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  1. Janet Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, (Carmel, Indiana: Hawthorne Publishing, 2017), i, 14.
  2. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, 13.
  3. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, 14.
  4. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, 79–80.
  5. “Practitioners in Uniform: The Ministry of a Christian Science Military Chaplain,” The Christian Science Journal, January 2017, 8–15.
  6. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, 80.
  7. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling,14.
  8. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, 44–45.
  9. “Practitioners in Uniform: The Ministry of a Christian Science Military Chaplain,” The Christian Science Journal, January 2017, 8–15.
  10. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, 33.
  11. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, 33.
  12. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, 14.
  13. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, 41–42.
  14. “Practitioners in Uniform: The Ministry of a Christian Science Military Chaplain,” The Christian Science Journal, January 2017, 8–15.
  15. Horton, “What I Learned in the Pentagon Courtyard,” Christian Science Sentinel, 9 September 2002, 6–7.
  16. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, 149.
  17. “Christian Science Chaplain Honored by Boston School of Theology,” Christian Science Sentinel, 19 September 2011, 4.
  18. Horton, Cracking the Camouflage Ceiling, 43.