Like many other naval customs the use of a church pennant was probably inherited from the British Navy. A British signal book of 1796 describes the church pennant as “a common British pendant” but does not illustrate it. The instructions state that the pendant is flown from the mizzen peak “to denote that the Ship’s Company are at prayers.” Further, when flown from the ensign staff it denoted “that a man is fallen overboard.” It is hoped that in those rough and hardy times this original use of the church pennant was not a sarcastic jibe at the unfortunate victim in the water. A later British “Signal Book for the Ships of War” (1799) contains the same instructions and in addition illustrates the church pennant by means of a water-color drawing. This design is similar to that used in the British Navy at present. (See sketches.) It is interesting to note that it is still used to indicate man overboard ( from a different point of hoist than the above), as well as during divine services.
In an effort to trace the use of the church pennant in the United States Navy all available signal publications have been consulted.
The early pamphlet form of signal book for the use of individual squadrons (1807 and 1812 editions) makes no mention of the church pennant; neither does “A Code of Signals, by David Porter, Commanding Naval Officer, New Orleans Station, Adopted there by authority of the Navy Department, 1800”; nor does the first Navy Department signal book for general use, “Signals for the Use of the United States Navy as adopted by order of the Navy Department, August, 1813.” However, the church pennant probably existed long before 1844. There is said to be on file a requisition of that date from a certain commanding officer for a church pennant. As there are available no signal books from the period 1813 to 1858 the original design and use of the church pennant are unknown. In the signal book of 1858 appears the earliest illustration of the church pennant which has been located to date. As shown it is a blue Greek cross on a white pennant. (See sketches.) However, there is no text to describe its use or point of hoist. An error of contradiction exists in a French flag book, also printed in 1858 (“Album des Pavilions, Guidons, Flammes de toutes les Puissances Maritimes”) which illustrates, on the U. S. Navy page, a church pennant bearing a blue Latin cross, with the long arm horizontal and the short arm extending clear across the pennant. (See sketches.)
In the “Code of Flotilla and Boat Squadron Signals for the U. S. Navy, 1861,” the illustration appearing in the Signal Book of 1858 is shown (blue Greek cross), but again without explanatory text.
Also at this time there exists in “Signals for the Use of the Navy, Confederate States, 1861,” an illustration of a church pennant bearing a red Latin cross, long arm vertical, on a white pennant, but there is no text explaining its use. (See sketches.)
The earliest record of the actual use of the church pennant is in a general order of Admiral Farragut, appointing an hour of thanksgiving.
U. S. Flagship Hartford
Off the City of New Orleans, April 26, 1862.
Eleven o’clock this morning is the hour appointed for all the officers and crews of the fleet to return thanks to Almighty God for His great goodness and mercy in permitting us to pass through the events of the last two days with so little loss of life and blood.
At that hour the church pennant will be hoisted on every vessel of the fleet, and their crews assembled will, in humiliation and prayer, make their acknowledgments therefor to the great Dispenser of all human events.
D. G. Farragut,
Flag-Officer Western Gulf Blockading Squadron
This order does not specify the point of hoist nor the manner of flying the pennant, indicating a commonly understood knowledge of current practice, whatever it may have been. The “Signal Code of the U. S. Navy, 1864,” contains neither a plate nor text concerning the church pennant, but in the signal book of 1867 is found the first record of instructions: “The Church Pendant will be hoisted immediately above the Ensign at the peak or flagstaff at the time of commencing, and kept hoisted during the performance of divine service on board all vessels of the Navy.” Although the first printed instructions are contained in this book, the plates (which are dated 1866) do not include an illustration of the church pennant.
“The Naval Signal Book of the United States of America, 1869” illustrates the church pennant with the blue Greek cross, and under the plate is found the following: “To be hoisted at the peak above the Ensign during the performance of Divine Service.” This is amplified in the text by repeating the instructions in the 1867 book, excepting that the word pennant is used rather than pendant.
The “General Signal Book of 1876” uses the same plate as the 1869 book with the note below the illustration, but the text states that the church pennant will be hoisted above the ensign during the “continuance” of divine services on board all vessels of the Navy.
Another copy of this book with new plates, dated 1883 and pasted in, shows the church pennant still bearing the blue Greek cross, but a curious error was published in 1872 in Captain Preble’s book Our Flag. He states that the “Church pennant is a white pendant without swallowtails charged with a blue Latin cross, to be hoisted at the peak, during divine services, over the ensign, the only flag to which the national ensign shows such submission.” Although the above quotation states that the cross is a Latin cross the available signal books preceding and following 1872 show the pennant with a Greek cross, and contradicting its own text, the illustration in Our Flag also shows the Greek cross. It is to be noted that none of the signal books state in the text what type of cross is used but all illustrations up to this time show the Greek cross, except the plate appearing in the French flag book which cannot be considered authentic when it does not agree with our own official publications.
From 1883 to 1898 no signal books are available. The “General Signal Book of the United States Navy, 1898” does not illustrate the church pennant, but states: “Church Pennant. This pennant is to be hoisted over the ensign during the performance of Divine Service on board of every ship in the Navy.”
Another gap in the record follows, until the “General Signal Book of the United States Navy, 1908,” which shows the church pennant bearing the present blue Latin cross (see sketches) and the text, quoted: “The Church Pennant is to be hoisted over the Ensign during the performance of Divine Service on board vessels of the Navy.”
The “General Signal Book of the United States Navy, 1913,” also shows the present blue Latin cross, with the following text: “The Church Pennant shall be hoisted at the same place of hoist and over the ensign during the performance of Divine service on board vessels of the Navy,” still in effect, appearing in the “Signal Manual, 1920.”
Thus, two facts are not known about the church pennant, one of design and one of use. The date and reason for changing from the Greek to the Latin cross is indeterminate. While it may have been that the design of the Latin cross lent itself more decoratively to the shape of a pennant, it is, according to Webster, “the chosen symbol of Christianity”, and those who are in doubt concerning the church pennant should not confuse the Latin cross with other crosses of more limited symbolism, such as the patriarchal cross, the papal cross (see sketches), or the hundreds of other forms of cross which exist in heraldry. As used in the Navy the church pennant is of course entirely nonsectarian. It merely indicates that church services are actually in progress and the same pennant is flown regardless of the particular denomination which the chaplain may represent.
The origin of the practice of flying the church pennant above the ensign is also lost in antiquity, but as th« printed records are available from 1867 on, the custom may be considered as a time-honored one. It is not impossible that in initiating this custom, the pious, though often plain-spoken seamen of preradio days, realized, as they tossed in cockleshells during a terrific storm, that guidance and deliverance, if any, would come from Divine hands and not from organized governments.