As usual, I am beginning this article with a confession.
I love the cleric class. I like the idea, I like the design, I like the role, and some of my favorite characters are clerics - and not just my characters! Kazare the 6th//8th dual-class fighter//cleric from my high school group (run by Dave Ridgway); Aurelius the historian with a mace (mine); Ophiuchus of the Church Militant (Lew Pulsipher), Claire the Stern, the cleric so Lawful Good she never met a paladin she could trust (Sue Pulsipher), Andune, a Cleric/Magic-user and balrog-slayer (mine); there are more.
Second, the cleric class is near the bottom of the list of classes I have fiddled with. I did adopt Lew's idea of Double Memorization - a cleric can memorize twice as many spells of each level as he can cast then picks which to cast at the time of casting. And in my 1e campaign clerics can pick one unusual weapon (sword, axe, etc) to use. So I don't necessarily think they are perfect or the best.
Having run and played in 3-4 campaigns in high school where the cleric was a cornerstone of the party, then played in Lew Pulsipher's campaign where the cleric is considered perhaps the most critical member of a party, and then encountered more campaigns since that likewise count of the cleric I was surprised to find so much internet hate for the cleric. A quick search on the interwebs shows me over 300,000 results for "OSR hate the cleric" and the complaints boil down to about four big ones that seem to have similar solutions;
1) They can't use swords/specialize/fight as well as a fighter.
Solution - make them fighters
2) They can't cast Fireball/Lightning Bolt/Magic Missile.
Solution - make them magic-users
3) All they do is heal people.
Solution - get rid of them and give their spells to magic-users
4) I don't like religion in general/Christianity in particular/making gods is hard.
Solution - get rid of them and give their spells to magic-users.
And a fifth problem that is less common but far from zero;
5) There's Conan for fighters, the Grey Mouser for thieves, Ningauble for wizards, even Holger Danske for paladins, but no archetype for clerics.
Solution - get rid of clerics and give their spells to wizards.
Part of the real problem here is a misunderstanding of the role of the cleric. To repeat something I said earlier, the roles of the Big Four are - fighter is physical offense, magic-user is magical offense, thief is scouting and intelligence, and the cleric is physical and magical defense.
Or, to put it another way, the role of the cleric is to free up every other class to focus on their own unique role during adventures. Let's think about this;
1) Ties with the fighter on having the best A.C. potential
2) Second best in melee combat
3) Second best hit points.
4) Limited or nil ranged combat ability
5) Melee combat limited to 'second-tier' weapons
6) Spells focus on healing, reversing negative effects, decision making, improving the entire group, weakening the enemy, and supplies
7) Turn Undead, an almost unique ability, is focused on avoiding both hordes of scum (skeletons) and surviving top threats (liches, demons) by avoidance
Of, to see this another way, where does the cleric often end up in the marching order? Right next to the magic-user to both fill a similar role AND to protect the squishy mage.The fighters can focus on offense knowing that there is a high A.C. fairly high hit point character that can at least keep the bad guys off the wizard. The thief can risk traps and the things that like to eat lone rogues knowing that Slow Poison, Remove Poison, and Cures nearby. The wizard can focus on spells like Lightning Bolt, Fireball, and Magic Missile because he knows there is someone with Resist Cold, Cures, etc., nearby.
What happens when you remove the cleric? In the games I have seen without clerics the party is forced to be more timid and have more of everyone else to make up for the gap.You need another melee type to ensure that nothing can get through the defensive line, you need another spellcaster to pick up the defensive slack, and if you give magic-users healing spells you need another spellcaster to focus on healing. Oh, and another rogue to help with scouting.
And you can also completely lose two aspects of the cleric that are far too often completely overlooked - spells that help with decisions and spells that help with supply.
By 'spells that help with decisions' I am referring to spells like Augury, Know Alignment, Speak With Animals, and such. Spells that don't make decisions for you (no, not even Commune is that good) but helping supply key data. On a time limit? Augury can help you avoid time sucks. That guy in the corner of the inn? Know Alignment. I once saw the Slavers' Stockade module completely short-circuited by a cleric with Speak with Animals, Locate Object, and Know Alignment - the party tracked down a secret entrance, avoided the traps and ambushes, and spotted the big bad before any combat or other scouting.
By 'spells that help with supply' I mean Create Water, Purify Food and Drink, and Create Food and Water. Yes, I use encumbrance. Yes, I track time in the dungeon and the campaign. Yes, I track food usage. Ask players in games like that how critical these spells are when a shifting wall trap got you lost on level 5, or when you get lost in the Bleak Wood, or when you free the kidnapped royal family who have been starved for weeks and you have to leave soon. Surprisingly important spells in campaign games, in my opinion.
Can you give these spells to the magic-users? Sure, of course. But that just means you need more magic-users in that 5th level party, meaning you need more fighters to protect them, right? And if turning undead is now a spell, guess what?
As you can see, when you realize what clerics are for (magical and physical defense plus decision support and logistics support) you can answer objections #1, #2, and #3 - they are defensive, they are defensive, and they are for much more than healing. That last point, 'they are for much more than healing' is why I adopted Lew Pulsipher's double memorization idea that I mentioned earlier. When a player actually has Augury, Snake Charm, and Create Food and Water written down on their spells list they more viscerally understand what clerics are capable of.
So what about objection #4? 'I don't like religion in general/Christianity in particular/making gods is hard'. Well, considering this is a game about wizards flipping the laws of physics the bird, fighters than can take on hordes and never need a glass of water or a bathroom break, talking magical swords, and demons wanting to eat your soul and then kill you - if the fact that 'the imaginary people in this game might be religious!!!!' is your hangup, you need to think about why. After all, in the Real World the overwhelming majority of people are religious and I am unaware of a single instance of a talking magical sword or a dragon.
If it is the obviously Christian basis of the overwhelming majority of early D&D well - what do you expect? Gygax was a devout Christian living in a culturally-Christian nation basing the majority of his work on archetypes that came from often-explicitly Christian sources. This is akin to complaining about how Oriental Adventures has an obviously Shinto basis.
BTW, I read a lot of complaining that 'this game based upon medieval Europe is too Christian' but have yet to see anyone complain that OA or Bushido is 'too Shinto/Buddhist'. Let me know if you have encountered that.
As far as those two related aspects go, and the third of 'all those individual gods are hard' well - be generic. Just say that 'the Gods reward you and give to orphanages' and move on. Are you explicit in where each fighter received the training that sets him apart from other 0-level warriors? A lot of detailed information on where each magic-user learned spells and the secret handshakes they all know? Is the thieves' guild your rogues go to for gear nailed down as to the day and time of the guild meetings? If the rest of them are kinda' vague, kinda' nebulous, why not the church(s), too?
I can't give us more time to create or satisfy every player request but we can all use the same dodges for clerics we use for paladins and rangers, right?
So there is objection #4.
And I want to discuss complaint #5 a bit. Of course there are archetypes of the fighting priest and no, they weren't the Knights Templar!
Friar Tuck who is the obvious first choice. In the old songs and literature he was much more active in combat than we see in movie and TV adaptations and is described as skilled in sword and buckler.
Bishop Odo fought at Hastings and is prominent in the Bayeux Tapestry.
[As a matter of fact, this is the origin of the urban myth/fiction trope that 'priests fight with blunt weapons' - since Bp. Odo was depicted on the tapestry as fighting with a club it became common in literature to do the same with fictional fighting priests in some circles and even led to a myth that priests could only fight with blunt weapons. This myth, very popular in the 19th Century is the very obvious source of D&D's weapon restrictions for clerics. And since in the tales of Charlemagne priests use swords and such I allow one non-blunt weapon to a cleric].
And the really obvious example/archetype is Archbishop Turpin of Charlemagne's Paladins. The Archbishop went into battle with the paladins as their spiritual leader but was also described as a fierce fighter who was as feared as the paladins themselves.
The amazing thing is Bishop Odo and Archbishop Turpin were real men and real priests who did real fighting (well, some argue that Turpin didn't do much but rather his predecessor Archbishop Milo was the fiercer warrior). But the stories of Turpin are amazing and a rich part of the Matter of France.
But these stories, which until about the last century were far more popular than the stories of Arthur, clearly show clerics fighting alongside knights and paladins and the difference between them.
And there are historical sources for the idea of fighting priests. Princess Anna Comnena, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor, described a Roman Catholic priest who fought alongside the crusaders thusly,
"The Latin priest stood along with 12 other men in the midst of the battle. These knights alongside him were replaced as they suffered wounds but the priest, although he, too, took many a sore blow, held firm and fearless as he streamed with his own blood.
"For the priests of the West do handle sacred things with their shield in their other hand, and put down the Body and Blood of the Savior to pick up the spear."
In short, the idea of a fighting priest who is NOT a paladin is very old, very strong, and based on historical examples.
And that puts paid to objection #5.
"But Rick," I hear you ask, "how do you handle religion in your campaigns?"
Two ways. When 2e Skills and Powers (and especially Spell and Magic) came out I experimented with a pantheon of 14 good gods, each with a specific custom priest design and 'generic clerics' were the priests that worshiped the pantheon as a whole. It was interesting, I tried it for about a year or two ,and I let it drift away since it didn't seem to add much.
The older way which has always largely been true of my 1e campaign is - there is the Church for all good folks while evil clerics, etc. get their power from demon princes, devil lords, etc. Druids get their power more from the magic that is inherent in the trees and the rocks and from elemental lords and such.
The Church is LG and followers can be from LN to CN but priests must be Good to get spells. There is a pope, bishops, etc. I have the NPC only class of Religious Brother/Sister to represent parish priests, cloistered monks, and nuns (well, those who aren't 0-level).
Evil clerics make pacts with devil lords, demon princes, etc. Only 1 or 2 evil priests anywhere anytime can access any 7th level cleric spell (most are limited to 5th level spells or below) but they may have some magical power or servant, instead, making evil clerics mysterious and unpredictable.
Feel free to disagree.