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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.

Notes:
[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.

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