Peace Without Victory: Sectarian Christians and the First World War, Part II

Peace Without Victory: Sectarian Christians and the First World War, Part II

You may find Part I of this blog post here.

After questioning whether or not the label “evangelical” is a useful description in trying to understand the majority of American Christians, Gamble suggests that using the categories of Paul Kleppner would be more fruitful. Gamble thus proposes to examine the churches through a “pietist-confessionalist continuum” instead of through a lens of progressive versus conservative.[17] Gamble sees the Pietists as having an interest in perpetuating “a cultural and morally Christian America,” while the Confessionalists had less of a cultural stake in the maintenance of an American “Christian identity.”[18] Gamble suggests that if historians embrace this “pietist-confessionalist continuum,” that they might find something new. Gamble argues that if this work is done, that:

such a study might uncover a group of apolitical preachers who cared for their flock on Sunday, 8 April 1917—the Sunday after Congress declared war—much as they had done every Sunday before. . .  Perhaps they prayed with particular urgency for those in authority in a time of national crisis and met the extraordinary demands of a congregation whose sons had enlisted or would soon be drafted. But they never thought of displaying the stars and stripes on or in their churches and certainly not draped across their altars. They never included . . . “The Battle Hymn of the republic” in their order of worship. Instead, they preached on the mission of the church and not the mission of America, took care not to confuse spiritual and physical warfare, and never thought of interpreting God’s promises to Israel and to the church as if they were meant for the united states. If such a group could be found for the First World War and all the way back to the Revolutionary War and forward to the War on Terror, and that group turned out to be large, then the entire narrative of American religious history, especially of religion and war, would have to be retold. [19]

I agree with Gamble that finding such a group would require a rewriting of American religious history. However, it is highly unlikely that such a group will be found among Confessionalists.

Gamble was not the only one who came to see that his dichotomy between Progressive and Conservative Christians and support for the war effort was a false one. Andrew Preston challenged Gamble’s thesis in The War for Righteousness in a chapter that recently appeared in Beyond 1917: The United States and the Global Legacies of the Great War.[20] Preston, who apparently had not yet read Gamble’s revision of his own thesis which had appeared the year before, argued, among other things, against Gamble’s original dichotomy, demonstrating that, in fact, conservative Christians were just as much, if not more, in favor of the war effort as Progressives. In fact, Preston argues that conservative, fundamentalist Christians provided “shrill and unquestioning support for America’s cause.”[21] Preston, in a larger argument about whether the Great War caused a decline in American religion, declares that “Conservative Protestants were never apolitical, and they never separated themselves from American society to retreat into their own subculture.”[22] While Preston is correct here, that conservatives did not separate themselves from the larger culture, his argument demonstrates, along with the argument of Gamble, that historians of American religion have largely misunderstood the relationship between American religious groups, and have neglected theory which would provide greater clarity to what was occurring during World War I.

The social relations of American religious groups to the world should be measured according to Sect-Church typology. According to H. Richard Niebuhr, Max Weber, and Ernest Troeltsch, a religious group that separates itself from the larger culture and retreats into its own sub-culture is a sect. Sects are, by definition, not liberal or conservative. They instead stand apart from and are opposed to the larger political and social institutions of the dominant culture. Denominations, on the other hand, have made peace with the larger culture, and share its values. Churches, the third Weberian ideal type, are dominant religious groups that claim universality and that often see citizenship as synonymous with church membership. Churches make significant accommodations to culture. Historically, the church-type has included the Anglican Church in England, and the Catholic Church in France and Italy.[23]

Sectarian groups, which were the chief religious opponents to American participation in the war in 1917, were theological and political radicals. For example, in the Churches of Christ, a sectarian group that broke from the mainline, denominational Disciples of Christ in 1906, most members were either socialists or anarchists. Not coincidentally, the sect was also the largest pacifist group in America at the start of the war. [24]

Sectarian groups were typically anti-war. Denominational and Church typed religious groups, however, were typically pro-war. This is easily seen by dividing religious groups into their sect/denomination/church categories, and seeing who was and who was not pro-war. Sectarian groups in 1917 included Restorationists, Pentecostals, Holiness groups, and the International Bible Students Association. All four of these sects were anti-war, and members from all were arrested and prosecuted for resisting the conflict.[25] Denominational groups included Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists. None of the major denominations or churches in the United States had a significant number of conscientious objectors or war resisters.

Having dealt with the original Gamble thesis, along with Preston’s corrective, let us quickly look at Gamble’s new dichotomy, that of pietist versus confessional. Gamble’s suggestion is based upon the work of Paul Kleppner and Frederick Luebke, but while arguing that historians should examine this dichotomy more carefully, he provides no examples of this idea in action.  Since Gamble fails to apply the theory to the First World War, he leaves this work to other historians to do for him. Since I have no argument of Gamble’s to analyze, I will propose my own. A look at draft cards easily disrupts Gamble’s suggestion. According to the latest work of Jay Beaman, a sociologist of religion, Beaman has found close to 11,000 draft cards of conscientious objectors to World War I. Of this number, sectarian groups make up 84.5% of CO draft cards. Comparatively, German Pietists and Confessionalists make up just 0.6% of CO draft cards. Just due to their small numbers, it is easy to dismiss a Pietest versus Confessionalist dichotomy as being the controlling paradigm for understanding which religious Americans were for or against American intervention in the Great War.[26]

Many Restorationists of the Stone-Campbell Movement refused to participate in the war.

The correct paradigm for understanding how religious groups responded to the war is that of sect versus denomination. American religious groups on the whole, whether conservative or liberal, denomination or church, supported the war effort once Congress declared war. It was only America’s sectarian groups, including Restorationists, Pentecostals, Holiness groups, and IBSA, along with the Historic Peace Sects, such as the Mennonites, Quakers, and Church of the Brethren, who opposed American entry to World War I. Before concluding, I would like to turn to one more claim made by Richard Gamble. I quoted Gamble at length previously, where he declared that a study of the Pietist-Confessional continuum “might uncover a group of apolitical preachers,” who did not give into nationalism, did not wave the flag, and did not play the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Gamble argued, “If such a group could be found for the First World War and all the way back to the Revolutionary War and forward to the War on Terror, and that group turned out to be large, then the entire narrative of American religious history, especially of religion and war, would have to be retold.”[27] I would like to submit that such a group has been overlooked by American historians of religion due to their improper over-focus on denominations and churches. However, this group is not found among the Confessionalists, but among the Restorationist sectarians. Restorationist sectarian groups have a long heritage in the United States. The Sandemanians, a Restorationist group founded in Scotland in 1730, had congregations on the eastern seaboard of North America as early as 1750.  These Restorationists were brutally attacked during the American Revolution for being pacifists.[28] The Sandemanians, who died out in the United States in the late 19th Century, made a major impact on the thought and theology of Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Stone-Campbell Movement, which spawned the Churches of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the Christadelphians. Campbell’s Movement in the United States can be dated to 1812, and his movement absorbed many Sandemanian congregations.[29] Both the Churches of Christ and the Christadelphians maintained a fervent pacifistic theology throughout the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and into World War II. While Church of Christ pacifism has waned since World War II, the pacifism of the group still exists in some quarters.[30] Christadelphians have also maintained their pacifism. Furthermore, the events of World War I rekindled pacifism among the Disciples of Christ, and they are at the forefront of the Christian peace movement in the United States today.[31] Yet, while pacifist Restorationists have indeed existed throughout American history, they have largely been ignored by historians. Sociologist R. Lawrence Moore, in his influential book, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, has argued that the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ, while being “denominations that have recently been granted mainline status,” have “nonetheless remained on the edges of general narratives of American religious history.”[32] Finally, in regards to size, the Churches of Christ were the largest peace church in America during World War I, and the Restorationist sects and denominations, taken together, continue to be one of the largest Protestant religious groups in the United States. Based on this data, I would suggest that I agree with Richard Gamble’s analysis at least in one way: that the entire narrative of American religious history, especially of religion and war, might need to be retold.


[17] Ibid, 20-21.

[18] Ibid, 29.

[19] Ibid, 29-30.

[20] Andrew Preston, “To Make the World Saved: American Religion and the Great War,” in Beyond 1917: The United States and the Global Legacies of the Great War, ed. Thomas W. Zeiler, David K. Ekbladh, and Benjamin C. Montoya (Oxford University Press: New York, 1917), 142-58.

[21] Ibid, 147.

[22] Ibid, 145.

[23] For church and sect, see Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, trans. Olive Wyon (New York: McMillan Company, 1927), 1:331. For the denomination, see H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Henry Holt Company, 1929), 3-25.

[24] For the claim that most Church of Christ members were anarchists, and that the group was the largest peace church in the United States, see Joshua W. Jeffery, “Spies, Slackers, and Saboteurs: Federal Suppression of Religious Pacifism in the Churches of Christ During World War I” (master’s thesis, Vanderbilt University, 2015). For Church of Christ socialists, see Michael W. Casey “From Religious Outsiders to Insiders: The Rise and Fall of Pacifism in the Churches of Christ”, Journal of Church and State 44, no. 3 (2002).

[25] For Restorationists, see Jeffery, “”Spies, Slackers, and Saboteurs.” For Pentecostals and Holiness adherents, see Jay Beaman, Pentecostal Pacifism: The Origin, Development, and Rejection of Pacific Belief Among the Pentecostals (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009). FOR ISBA arrests, see M. James Penton, “The Bible Students I Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States during the First World War,” in American Churches in the First World War, ed. Gordon L. Heath (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016).

[26] Jay Beaman, “Un‐muting the Genealogy of Peace, WWI” (paper Presented at the “Remembering Muted Voices Symposium: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today, Kansas City, KS, October 21, 2017), 34.

[27] Richard Gamble, “Together for the Gospel of Americanism, Evangelicals and the First World War,” in American Churches in the First World War, ed. Gordon L. Heath (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), 29-30.

[28] For an account of the Sandemanians during the Revolution, see Jean F. Hankins, “A Different Kind of Loyalist: The Sandemanians of New England During the Revolutionary War,” New England Quarterly 31, no. 3 (1987): 223-49. For a history of the Sandemanians in America during the whole of the 19th Century, see John Howard Smith, The Perfect Rule of the Christian Religion: A History of Sandemanianism in the Eighteenth Century (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008). Also see Joshua W. Jeffery, The Glasite Political Theology Project,

[29] For a discussion of the influence of Sandemanian and Haldanite Restorationists on Alexander Campbell and the theology of the Stone-Campbell Movement, see James L. Gorman, Among the Early Evangelicals: The Transatlantic Origins of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Abeline, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2016).

[30] For evidence of this claim, see my master’s thesis, Jeffery, “Spies, Slackers, and Saboteurs.”

[31] For Disciples, see my article Joshua Ward Jeffery, “‘a Barbarous Method of Adjusting Differences’: Federal Persecution of Conscientious Objectors in the Disciples During the Great War, 1917-1918,” Stone-Campbell Journal 20, no. 1 (April 2017): 17-33.

[32] R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), xiv.

The Long Struggle: Reviewing Select Works On The Civil Rights Movement

The Long Struggle: Reviewing Select Works On The Civil Rights Movement

To the extent that most Americans think about civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. no doubt remains stationed at the Lincoln Memorial. The figure of Lincoln towering behind him, King, whose memory scores of Americans celebrated only a few days ago, declared his vision for a color-blind America. Droves of history textbooks reinforce this narrative and, without explicitly noting it, highlight a “short” civil rights movement. Until the 1990s, scholars interested in the civil rights era focused on landmark political victories, including the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Historians in recent years, however, have complicated this image. In a 2005 essay, Jacquelyn Hall rightly critiqued the “short” civil rights narrative. Emphasizing “a more robust, more progressive and true story,” Hall calls for historians to embrace a “long civil rights movement” with roots deeper than Brown v. Board of Education and one that lasted beyond the political victories of the mid-1960s (Hall, The Long Civil Rights Movement, 1234). In other words, legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did not happen in a historical vacuum. National leaders such as King did not spring up in historical isolation. Rather, the civil rights movement featured scores of virtually unknown black and white Americans, and various forms of resistance began before the 1950s. Further, suffering among black communities, perpetuated in the name of white supremacy, certainly did not vanish with the passage of various civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Scholarship in recent years has effectively pushed the geographic boundaries of the civil rights movement, making plain that the fight for racial equality is not simply a story about the southern US. Just as important, historians writing over the last quarter century place tremendous emphasis on the critical role that war—especially World War II—played in driving civil rights in the US.

 Two important works published in the 1990s, John Dittmer’s Local People and Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, helped move the emphasis of civil rights history away from a national lens toward the local, as Dittmer’s title notes. Focusing on the story of Mississippi’s civil rights movement, Dittmer’s work details the ways in which throngs of white Mississippians fought bitterly to maintain white supremacy, and the black men and women who battled, sometimes to the death, to establish basic human rights for African Americans.

More than a dozen years before the national political battles of the 1960s, black World War II veterans sought to register to vote in 1946, two years after Smith v. Allwright, a Supreme Court decision that supposedly outlawed all-white primaries. Home from fighting in WWII, 21-year-old Medgar Wylie Evers led a group of fellow black veterans to vote in Decatur only to be turned away by “some 15 or 20 armed white men” (Dittmer, Local People, 2). In the face of intimidation and beatings, hundreds of black Mississippians ultimately cast ballots in the 1946 Democratic primary. As civil rights activism mounted in the decade following WWII, Dittmer makes plain that such efforts did not simply spring onto the scene in historical seclusion; instead, activists leaped from the shoulders of black resistance that started immediately after WWII. In some instances, the same activists who faced physical threats at courthouses in 1946 became leading figures in Mississippi by the 1950s. Indeed, it was Evers who became a state field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP.

 Arguably more than Dittmer, Payne makes clear that activists in the 1960s working in Mississippi relied heavily on networks of connections carved out by black activities stretching back to the 1940s. Payne also adds two other important insights: the ways in which many activists organized—adopting a bottom-up approach as opposed to top down—and the ways in which, as the title of Dittmer’s book conveys, “local people” played crucial roles in the movement. Consider the teachings and example set by Ella Baker, something of a behind-the-scenes organizer who criticized more charismatic leaders. Mary King, a white graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University who joined the civil rights struggle through the Young Women’s Christian Association, said this of Baker’s influence: “She taught me one of the most important lessons … There are many legitimate and effective avenues for social change and there is no single right way” (Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 3).

Historians active since the turn of the twenty-first century have continued to offer important correctives. Three lessons are especially evident. First, there were other important activists besides King working during the twentieth-century to advance racial equality. Second, the struggle for equality in the “second half” of US history is not just a southern story—it encompasses northern swaths of the US, as well as the world itself. Third, the hard-fought political victories of the early-to-mid 1960s did not trigger immediate positive changes in the lives of African Americans. As detailed in Timothy Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie, the North Carolina-born Robert F. Williams, a WWII veteran who in his youth observed unspeakable acts of physical and sexual violence performed by whites on black workers, Williams articulated a simple vision for African Americans: physically fight back. Suspended by the NAACP in the late 1950s for his proposed militancy, Williams went to Cuba where he broadcast his views in English on the program Radio Free Dixie.

Tyson also situates Williams in the global context of the Cold War, a conflict that both hindered and helped civil rights activists in the US. As members of the Communist press in the Soviet Union wrote openly about US hypocrisy on race issues, Williams understood how politically powerful it could be to expose to the world the baffling ironies of the US, a country committed through many of its written documents to freedom and equality. “Because of the international situation,” Williams declared, “the Federal Government does not want racial incidents to draw the attention of the world to the situation of the South” (Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, 104). In 2000, Mary L. Dudziak put America’s race problems in a world context. Presenting American government in the 1950s and 1960s as obsessed with their foreign image during the Cold War, a range of US policymakers and diplomats worked to present the US as making steady progress on race relations. To communicate this belief to legislators in Washington, John F. Kennedy asked Secretary of State Dean Rusk to speak to Congress ahead of a vote on civil rights legislation about the ways in which domestic race relations affected America’s global image.

Placing the story of civil rights back within a national lens, Thomas J. Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty stands as a powerful rebuke to those historians who claim that civil rights-related struggles happened only in the South. Consider that in 1958, parents in Harlem, New York, kept their kids home to protest segregated schools; in the same year, black parents and students boycotted schools in Long Branch, New Jersey and staged walkouts in Hempstead, New York (Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty, 167-169). Sugrue’s work is more than a criticism of racist northern whites and the historians who have ignored them; his scholarship likewise condemns local and state governments in northern states who pushed and enforced deeply racial laws.

Recent works has made plain that even after important political triumph in the 1960s, rural black southerners lacked virtually any personal economic security. As the activist Ezra Cunningham put it, “you can’t eat freedom” (de Jong, You Can’t Eat Freedom, 52). According to Greta de Jong, the battle for first-class citizenship, deeply wed to agricultural mechanization, raged on after the passage of 1960s civil rights legislation. In other words, the rural black antipoverty struggles that happened from the 1960s through the 1980s were intimately connected to earlier civil rights struggles—though hardly part of a single, unified movement. As de Jong makes plain, droves of African Americans from the 1960s forward determined to remain in the only geographic region they had ever lived—despite white conservative desires to see these workers leave the South after mechanization shriveled job opportunities in the former Confederacy. As such, these black residents kickstarted multiple initiatives. Consider that in 1966—two years after Freedom Summer and the passage of the Civil Rights Act—evicted sharecroppers took over an abandoned Air Force base in Mississippi. The sit-in drew national attention and sparked further interest in the condition of rural poor blacks in the South. After touring some of the nation’s most depressed rural areas in 1967, US Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman noted to President Lyndon B. Johnson that scores of black families in the South and North lived “in shocking poverty … it matches in some instances the worst I have seen in less developed countries around the world” (de Jong, You Can’t Eat Freedom, 52).

Scholarship published over the last quarter century has made plain that there were many other important protagonists besides King, critical as he was, in the “long” civil rights movement. Indeed, WWII veterans such as Evers and the grassroots-organizer Baker are among the many black activists who played important, if likely underappreciated by most Americans, roles in the civil rights struggle. Further, resistance to white supremacy and a push to usher in first-class citizenship started before Brown v. Board. The efforts of black WWII veterans to vote in the Deep South is but one example. Finally, there is without question no clear end point in the civil rights movement. As de Jong makes plain, efforts for economic sustainability in places such as Mississippi raged on after the mid-1960s.

A Tome Worth Reading: Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War

A Tome Worth Reading: Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War

In this post, contributing editor OJ Early reviews Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (New York: Random House, 2014).

At least since The New York Times and The Washington Post began publishing excerpts of The Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s, the American public learned harsh realities about its government and the Vietnam War: members of the executive branch had for years methodically lied to both the public and Congress. It is a time in United States History that still elicits great interest, and writers and film producers continue to draw parallels to our own time. Steven Spielberg’s 2017 movie, The Post, is but one recent example.

Fredrik Logevall’s lengthy but beautifully written Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam demonstrates, among other things, why so many powerbrokers repeatedly lied and how the U.S.—a country born out of an anti-colonial revolt against Britain—become so entangled in a foreign war to protect colonialism. For those who don’t care much about historography, the book offers lessons to ponder as scandals roil Washington and the US maintains a military presence in the Middle East. For scholars, Logevall’s work is an example of the fruits to be gleaned from transnational history. For all readers, the book presents deeply stimulating counterfactual questions.

To deal with the complexities of the Vietnam War, Logevall considers large swaths of the globe. He writes about politics and military action in France, Asia, the Soviet Union, and, of course, Vietnam. In so doing, Logevall argues for a striking amount of continuity, entrenched in a press-ahead approach, in US foreign policy. “Even if the odds for success were long, it was always safer, easier,” writes Logevall, “in domestic politics as well as geopolitical terms—to soldier on, to muddle through” (Logevall, Embers of War, 697).

Putting the Vietnam War in an international context allows Logevall to advance an insightful contention, one it seems historians who fail to employ transitional history could not make: what Logevall identifies as “the mantra of American administrations on Vietnam” (Logevall, Embers of War, 703). For Logevall, this is a foreign policy rooted in a look-forward-and-press-ahead mentality. As such, Logevall makes a compelling argument for continuity in American foreign policy for a more than fifteen-year span beginning in the late 1940s and lasting until President Lyndon Johnson halted at least some of the bombing in Vietnam in 1968. Indeed, when Secretary of State John F. Dulles declared in the summer of 1954 that “the important thing … is not to mourn the past but to … prevent the loss of northern Vietnam from leading to the extension of Communism,” he merely reflected a stance already prevalent in US politics (Logevall, Embers of War, 613).             

Exploring the Vietnam War in a transnational context, mining multinational sources, further allows Logevall to engage gripping counterfactual questions, a useful exercise in demonstrating the profound contingency of history. Consider, for example, what might have happened had Wilson in 1919 entertained the “wraithlike and penniless scribe” named, at the time, Nguyen Ai Quoc—the same person would become one of the most powerful revolutionaries of the twentieth century (Logevall, Embers of War, 3). Ponder, too, what might have occurred in the US and abroad if the French government had kept its hope-filled promises of infrastructure funding in Indochina. Finally, think how dramatically different world history might appear if John F. Kennedy, a keen observer of the international stage who visited Vietnam years before becoming president, had acted on his apparently strong personal belief that a conflict in Vietnam was unwinnable.

Peace Without Victory: Sectarian Christians and the First World War, Part I

Peace Without Victory: Sectarian Christians and the First World War, Part I

For the inaugural post of the War and Society Blog, Joshua Ward Jeffery examines the historiography of religion and the First World War.

With the dawn of the 100th anniversary of the Great War, it is an exciting time to be a historian of Religion and the First World War. The last three years have seen a flurry of scholarship on the conflict, including several studies on the relationship between religion and the war.[1] Those studies that centered on religion and the conflict helped revive an important but somewhat forgotten discussion among scholars on the topic. However, while this conversation has been renewed, many of the conclusions have been less than fully sound. Therefore, in this paper, I will survey the dominant historiography on Religion and World War I—focused on the role of churches in the conflict—and will then argue that historians of religion and war have largely committed the same error that historians of religion have committed in American Religious History: over-focusing on mainline, traditional denominations such as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists.[2] This over-focus has led to the minimizing of the roles of sectarian groups such as Pentecostals, Restorationists, and other marginalized but vibrant religious groups in the United States. Furthermore, historians working on the role of churches in the conflict have largely undertheorized the relationship between religious groups in the United States, which has led historians to lump sectarian churches together with “conservative” or “fundamentalist” churches. This has led to a false dichotomy focused upon a divide between these conservative or fundamentalist religious groups with “modernist” or “liberal” groups. I will argue that applying the Church-Sect typology of Weber, Niebuhr, and others to the various religious groups in America in 1917 will help break this false dichotomy and will demonstrate that the majority of religious opposition to the First World War came from sectarian Christians.

Harold Gray (2nd row from the top, 1st person on the left), author of Character “Bad”: The Story a Conscientious Objector, with other COs imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth Army Disciplinary Barracks during the First World War.

Any survey of the historiography of religion and the Great War must begin with sociologist Ray Abrams’ monograph, Preachers Present Arms. Writing in 1933, Abram’s sought to fill a gap in the literature, because of the books written about the Great War up until that time, “few have been concerned with the integral relationship of the civilian population to the whole configuration of war.” To do so, Abrams chose as a sample group “the clergy and the churches of the United States.”[3] While the first part of Abram’s book focused mostly on the clergy, he carefully balanced this focus on them by showing how their actions impacted the common person in the United States, and he especially studied the effects felt by those marginalized by the nation’s war machine and propaganda.

What Abrams found and presented in his study was an unflattering picture of America’s clergy during the wartime years. Abrams found that much of the clergy was intimately involved in pushing the United States to enter the war on the side of Great Britain.[4] Abrams used the concept of social control, which are the means that a society uses to ensure conformity with societal norms, to analyze the actions of the clergy. Abrams concluded that the clergy, in collusion with the government, played an active role in extending federal hegemony over almost every facet of life in order to ensure full cooperation with the war effort.[5] In so doing, the clergy not only contributed to a rise of nationalism, but they also contributed to the general war-time hysteria and became part of the national propaganda machine.[6] Abram’s work, taken as a whole, showed generally that many of the churches put themselves squarely in the service of the government during the war.

A response to Abrams did not come until 1965, when John F. Piper wrote a dissertation to challenge Abrams’ findings. Piper argued that Abrams described the churches of the period as having whole heartedly “sold out” to the American propaganda machine during the Great War, and that most students of American religion had bought into this line of thinking. According to Piper, however, “The primary difficulty with the sell-out theory has been and continues to be that it has very little validity. In fact, there is no reason to give it any credence except as an artifact of historical interpretation.”[7] With one quick sweep in this short article that shares a name with that of his later published dissertation revised into monograph, Piper set up a caricature of Abrams’ argument and then just as quickly dismissed it as a mere historical construction.[8]

Piper, though, had more issues with Abrams’ text than just what he perceived to be its thesis. Objecting strongly to Abrams’ claim of being an objective social scientist, Piper claimed that:

he approached his subject with a strong pacifist bias and a determination to show that not only the war but all those who shared in it were morally wrong. The singlemindedness [sic] of his work helped him establish his point and also led him to misunderstand much of the churches’ ministry. The discovery of acculturation in the churches’ wartime work was like finding sand on a beach. … What Abrams missed was the work and testimony of those who accepted the war but who agonized over their roles, who sought a national wartime ministry that would lift up the Gospel, and who also gradually came to realize that the struggle had changed life for them and their institutions.[9]

While it is certainly obvious that Abrams wrote from a biased point of view, it is difficult to substantiate the claim that he “misunderstood much of the churches’ ministry.” Abrams’ interest in writing Preachers Present Arms had not been to discuss the church as a totality, but instead had been to highlight how the government was able to co-opt the clergy and the churches as instruments of social control, and also to demonstrate how the clergy had acted as a barometer for what was occurring in the culture at large. [10]

After accusing Abrams of bias and of having missed the larger ministry of the Federal Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church during the war, Piper entered into his larger project of chronicling those ministries. Piper’s focus upon war-time ministry, while filling a gap in the literature, left him with much less space to discuss the relation of the clergy to the politics and feelings of the era.

While Piper in many ways only outlined and caricatured the role of the clergy in the politics and feelings of the nation, Richard M. Gamble fully fleshed out this role in his book The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation.[11] In formulating his argument, Gamble critiqued Abram’s sociological approach to the war in one sentence and then continued on towards his thesis, stating that “The liberal clergy were not merely lackeys in the Wilson administration’s attempts at social control, nor were they caught unaware and unprepared by the outbreak of war; rather, these forward-looking clergy embraced the war as a chance to achieve their broadly defined social gospel objectives.”[12] Gamble saw the clergy as willing agents of the government, acting to secure their own agenda. Likewise, Gamble summed up Piper’s work in a single sentence as well, and used Piper’s argument to bolster his own, stating that “the Protestant denominations contributed to the war effort in some very practical and visible ways—through relief work and various ministries to the soldiers at home and abroad…”[13] Gamble would argue that this relief work and the various ministries aligned with the Social Gospel of the progressive clergy, which would allow them to baptize the conflict as a progressive war of Christian messianism to the nations.

Gamble’s agenda was to find an interventionist, crusading progressive clergy to hold responsible for the war, and this is exactly what he found. Gamble argued that without a progressive clergy that saw the Kingdom of God as synonymous with western culture, a total war in Europe could not have been waged. Gamble saw the intellectual arguments for “a war to end all wars” coming first and foremost from the clergy. Like Abrams, he saw the clergy as participating in the propaganda machine, enabling and pushing American interventionism. Gamble, however, has recently changed his mind. In a recent book chapter, Gamble argues against a liberal-conservative dichotomy, with progressives being the ones who largely supported the war effort. Instead, Gamble proposes an evangelical versus confessional dichotomy, with evangelicals all largely endorsing an American Civil Religion in the hopes that the American war effort would “be a global force for righteousness.”[14] As evidence that he was incorrect, Gamble points to an article titled “No False Peace,” which was an open letter originally published in the Outlook and which was subsequently republished in many different American religious journals. The article called on Woodrow Wilson to reject any peace that did not result from a decisive victory, and also to resist the efforts of pacifists to keep the United States out of the conflict.[15] The letter was signed by an amalgam of progressive and fundamentalist ministers and religious leaders, including the conservative itinerant preacher Billy Sunday, and progressives such as Lyman Abbot and Harry Emerson Fosdick.[16]

This essay will continue in Peace Without Victory: Sectarian Christians and the First World War, Part II.

[1] For an excellent synthetic overview of the history of religion, war, and diplomacy in United States History, see Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Knopf, 2012).

[2] The historiography focused upon the role of American Churches and the Great War includes three books: Ray H. Abrams, Preachers Present Arms (New York: Round Table Press, 1933), John F. Piper, The American Churches in World War I (Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1985), and Richard M. Gamble, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2003).  Upon the advent of the centennial of the United States entering the conflict, a series of essays in edited volumes has appeared, challenging the historiography. Richard M. Gamble revises his own thesis in “Together for the Gospel of Americanism: Evangelicals and the First World War,” in American Churches in the First World War, Gordon L. Heath, ed. (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2016), 15-31. Andrew Preston, who has written the only interpretative synthesis of religion and war that surveys all of American history, recently challenged Gamble’s work in “To Make the World Saved: American Religion and the Great War,” in Beyond 1917: The United States and the Global Legacies of the Great War, Thomas W. Zeiler, et all, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 142-158.

[3] Abrams, xiii.

[4] Ibid, 41-48.

[5] Ibid, xiv-xvi.

[6] Ibid, 95-124.

[7] John F. Piper, “The American Churches in World War I”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 38, no. 2 (June 1970): 148.

[8] Since Abrams saw his work as sociological, based upon empirical evidence, I find it quite ironic that Piper dismisses his caricaturized understanding of Abram’s thesis as a mere “artifact of historical interpretation.”

[9] John F. Piper, The American Churches in World War I (Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1985), 2-3.

[10] Clyde Penrose St. Amant, review of Preachers Present Arms, by Ray H. Abrams, Review and Expositor 68, no. 1 (Winter 1971): 144.

[11] Richard M. Gamble, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2003).

[12] Ibid, 3.

[13] Ibid, 155.

[14] Richard Gamble, “Together for the Gospel of Americanism, Evangelicals and the First World War,” in American Churches in the First World War, ed. Gordon L. Heath (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), 17.

[15] Ibid, 15.

[16] Ibid, 18.