Brown presidents until 1926 were ordained Baptist ministers, and Brown's religious life until the 1950s was largely concerned with compulsory chapel attendance (or the lack thereof) and the ad hoc organization of various religious groups. In 1952, a special committee of the Corporation recommended the formation of a formal chaplaincy, thus recognizing that the chaplain was "an important official of the University, a spiritual counsellor [sic] to the entire student body, and an overall supervisor of all religious activities of the University including the chapel services and relations with neighboring churches."
The title of Chaplain was created in 1942 for Dr. Arthur L. Washburn, who for some years had been performing the duties of the office. Dr. Washburn, rector of St. Martin's Church in Providence, had been living among the students in Brunonia Hall, which was a privately operated dormitory. He was invited to remain after Brown purchased the dormitory. He gave up his parish and began to teach modern languages at Brown in 1929. He was a regular attendant at Chapel every morning and every day acquired a list of sick students and visited them in the infirmary or hospital. He became a Resident Counsellor in 1935 and Chaplain in 1942. When Washburn retired in 1947, his place was assumed by William J. Robbins, a Baptist minister, who joined the faculty of the Department of Biblical Literature and became its chairman in 1950. The Office of the Chaplain was created in 1952, and in July of that year Edgar C. Reckard, a Presbyterian minister, was appointed chaplain and assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies. The recommendations of a special committee on religion appointed by the Corporation at this time perceived the chaplain as an important official of the University, a spiritual counsellor to the entire student body, and an overall supervisor of all religious activities of the University including the chapel services and relations with neighboring churches. The Brown and Pembroke Christian Associations were brought under the Chaplain's office with funding from the University. Reckard was succeeded in 1958 by Charles A. Baldwin, a 1950 graduate of Illinois College with a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale, who came to Providence as assistant minister of Central Congregational Church.
In 1954 Bishop John S. Higgins appointed Rev. Samuel Wylie the first full-time Episcopal chaplain to Brown and other local colleges, forming the Episcopal College Church. With his office at St. Stephen's Church Reverend Wylie served until 1958, and was followed by Canon Crocker from 1959 to 1969, and Rev. Sheldon Flory from 1970 to 1974. Church services were held at an appointed hour at St. Stephen’s Church. In 1971 the Episcopal College Church merged with the Protestant congregation of Manning Chapel to form the University Church, which continued the services in St. Stephen's. A difference over the ecumenical nature of the services caused the removal of the services to Manning Chapel in April 1974. Reverend David Ames became the new Episcopal chaplain in 1974 and brought the University Church back to St. Stephen's in 1975, where it remained until 1980. Leaving this time because the facilities were needed by St. Stephen’s at the time appointed for the University Church, the student group returned once more to Manning Hall.
Catholic priests Edward Mullen and Daniel Kehew served as chaplains before 1967, when Father Howard V. O'Shea became the first full-time Catholic chaplain. He was given office space in Faunce House, living quarters in the Graduate Center, and a small budget provided by St. Francis Chapel in Providence. Local alumni founded the Thomas Beckett Foundation to raise funds to meet a challenge for a grant from the Diocese of Providence. In 1975 Miriam Wolcott was the first laywoman to be a full-time Catholic chaplain in Rhode Island. Later Catholic chaplains were Rev. David Inman, who came in 1976 and Rev. Richard Perry since 1991. Sister of Mercy Mary Lomax came to supply the Catholic chaplaincy in 1983, while David Inman was acting director of student activities. Gwen Hofmann became a Catholic lay chaplain in 1989.
Nancy Simons, who was director of religious activities at Pembroke, became assistant chaplain in 1965. Other chaplains who were appointed with special interest in women's issues were Beverly Edwards, who was appointed a lay chaplain in 1969 and was ordained a minister of the United Church of Christ in 1976, Rabbi Cathy Felix appointed assistant chaplain in 1980, and Flora A. Keshgegian, an Episcopal priest, who was named associate chaplain in 1984.
Julius Scott, an ordained minister of the Methodist Church, came to Brown in 1963 as executive secretary of the Brown Christian Association, became assistant chaplain in 1965, and was acting chaplain during Chaplain Baldwin's leave of absence in 1965-1966, and left in 1967 to become assistant director of the Southern Fellowships Fund for Negro colleges. Rev. Bennett Owens was acting chaplain of the Episcopal College Church during Canon Crocker's leave in 1965-1966. Richard A. Dannenfelser, a Presbyterian minister, became assistant chaplain in 1967 and associate chaplain in 1970. He took an active part in protests against the Vietnam war and taught a course in topics of human sexuality. After he was terminated in 1980, when the staff of the Chaplain's Office was reduced, he worked for a brief time in the office of the dean of student life. In 1971 Rabbi Richard Marker became an additional Jewish chaplain with his appointment financed by Brown, National Hillel, and the Jewish Federation in Providence. He was succeeded by Rabbi Alan C. Flam, who became director of Hillel and assistant chaplain in 1982.
The first chaplain for minority students was Geoffrey Black, appointed in 1974. In 1968 Reverend Herbert O. Edwards, then an assistant in the Religious Studies department, had informally served as a chaplain for black students. Later minority chaplains were Reverend Darryl Smaw, a Baptist minister appointed in 1978, and Daphne Wiggins, also a Baptist minister, from 1985 to 1991.
In 1983 a report on the chaplaincy concluded that the position of coordinating chaplain should be established and supported by the University, and that the University seek funding for chaplains with special responsibilities. A capital campaign under the leadership of Joseph Ress raised $1.5 million for endowment for both the University Chaplain and also for Episcopal, Jewish, and Roman Catholic chaplaincies. Chaplain Baldwin's successor, Janet Cooper Nelson, ordained in the United Church of Christ, was appointed in 1990, becoming the first woman University Chaplain in the Ivy League.