Christendom’s Ultimate Civil War

by John E. Phelan, Jr.

The Great and Holy War

Philip Jenkins

HarperCollins Publishers,

New York City, 2014

One hundred years ago this August, the First World War began. It is difficult to overestimate the impact that the conflict had on the modern world. One could argue, in fact, that the world is in the midst of another Hundred Years’ War. Not only did the First World War result in conflicts, revolutions, and counter revolutions that killed millions well after the signing of the treaty of Versailles, it also led within twenty years to the Second World War that slaughtered millions more. As empires gave way in the wake of both World Wars, former colonies engaged in bloody exercises of nation building. The many conflicts in Africa and Asia (including the Vietnam War) were clear aftershocks of both World Wars, but especially the first. Certainly the ongoing bloody conflicts in Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East may be traced to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the cupidity of the great powers as they sought to carve up that empire’s corpse. Both victors and vanquished suffered irreparable harm during those four brutal years. While the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was not surprising, who could have predicted that the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the German Empire would disappear? Although victorious, the British Empire was severely damaged and saw its possessions and power disappear.

Philip Jenkins suggests that while the political impacts of the war have been and will continue to be fully explored, the impact of the war on the world’s religions has not been as fully considered. He argues, the “war destroyed one religious world and created another” (377). As a result of the war both Christianity and Islam were impacted and changed in surprising ways. The full meaning of these changes continues to unfold to this very day. To cite two changes, Jenkins connects the outcome of the war with both the dramatic growth of Islam and Christianity. He suggests that the significant de-Christianization of the Middle East may also be traced to the war and its aftermath.

The war broke out among nations deeply rooted in Christendom. The relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Russian Czar could not have been closer. In Germany, the relationship between the Kaiser and the Lutheran church was so close that he “occupied the political-clerical role of summas episcopus, ‘highest bishop’” (67). The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a conservative Catholic realm (the last emperor Charles I was beatified by John Paul II in 2004). In England, the Anglican Church still played a significant role in the life and administration of the state. Secular France had a large and vocal Roman Catholic Church and community that still considered the country a part of the Christian world. It was not difficult to find in each of these countries strident voices among the clergy insisting that not only was God on their side, but the war was a “Holy War” or “Crusade.”

Consider the words of the Anglican bishop of London, Arthur F. Winnington-Ingram in 1915:

Kill Germans—do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends . . . As I have said a thousand times, I look on it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr. (71)

It is easy to imagine such words in the mouth of an ISIS commander in northern Iraq. Unfortunately, one does not need to look too hard to find equally blood-curdling statements from German pastors and religious leaders. Even Americans eventually entered the war of words. Prominent ministers and Christian intellectuals like Oberlin’s Henry Churchill King, Yale’s Henry Hallem Tweedy, and Congregationalist preacher Lyman Abbott came to the defense of the war. Perhaps the spirit of many was summed up in the worlds of Methodist minster George W. Downs: “I would have driven my bayonet into the throat or the eye or the stomach of the Huns without the slightest hesitation” (94).

While the war brought out the bloodlust of many clergy, others were appalled both by the war and the response of their colleagues. Pope Benedict the XV tirelessly worked against the war and protested its brutality. He was appalled by the “spectacle of this war that his filled the heart with horror and bitterness, observing all parts of Europe, devastated by fire and steel, reddened with the blood of Christians.” (65) Benedict, Jenkins observes, “spoke and acted as modern observers might have expected a Christian leader to do” (65). At the same time, Benedict had the freedom other Christian leaders did not. He was not associated with any nation-state in the conflict. The Vatican was an autonomous entity in Italy. He could consider the whole European picture. “Generally,” Jenkins continues, “when religious leaders had a primary identification with a state—as most did—they not only abandoned words of peace and reconciliation but advocated strident doctrines of holy war and crusade directed against fellow Christians” (66).

Jenkins also points out that it was not only conservative and traditional Christians in states like Russia, Germany, Great Britain, Austro-Hungary, and France that rabidly supported the war. Some of the most distinguished, liberal, German scholars joined the fray. Legendary figures like Adolf von Harnack, Wilhelm Hermann, and Ernst Troeltsch enthusiastically endorsed the German cause. A young Karl Barth was shocked:

I discovered almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated [had signed a document supporting the war]. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time, I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, nineteenth century theology no longer held any future. (217)

For Barth the easy acquiescence of the greatest liberal voices of his era to belligerent nationalism undercut the entire liberal enterprise.

It is also not too difficult to see how the failures of van Harnack, Hermann, and others in the first war, led to the even great failures of the likes of Althaus and Kittel in the second. The efforts of von Harnack and other nineteenth century and early twentieth century worthies to disconnect the Christian faith and, indeed Jesus, from Judaism led to the Aryan Jesus and the German Christians of the Third Reich (209-213). Consider these words of von Harnack published in 1921:

To reject the Old Testament in the second century was an error the Church rightly resisted; to maintain it in the sixteenth century was a destiny the Reformation could not yet escape; but still to preserve it in the nineteenth century as one of the canonical documents of Protestantism is the result of religious and ecclesiastical paralysis. (211)

As a Jewish friend remarked when I read him this quote, it is a short step from dispensing with the Jewish Scriptures to dispensing with the Jews altogether. Jenkins would go on to argue that the Barthian revolution in theology, so-called Neo-Orthodoxy, can be traced to Barth’s distress with the failures of his teachers and nineteenth century liberal theology. Having said this, the more right-wing theologians and traditions throughout Europe were every bit as enthusiastic for the war as the sophisticated left-wing thinkers in Germany.

It was also not difficult to see the impact of apocalyptic and millenarian thinking on the war. Apocalyptic imagery was everywhere. The brutality and butchery of the war, not surprisingly, brought to many minds the grim images of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic, especially the book of Revelation. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear over and over again. Armageddon is frequently alluded to—especially as the British approach Jerusalem and engaged the Ottomans on the actual plains of Meggido. The various rulers of the opposing states were considered anti-Christ. The opposition is characterized as beastly and brutal in its apocalyptic fury. With the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration in Great Britain promising the Jews a homeland in Palestine, Christians of every stripe wondered if the last days were in sight.

The war as also a time of apparitions, visions, and prophecies. Angels protected soldiers on the battlefield. Jesus joined soldiers to offer comfort, protection and support. In a famous incident “a French lieutenant in 1915 reported being surrounded by Germans when a wounded comrade shouted [Let the dead arise!]. Several badly wounded men stood to arms and fought off the foe. Soon enough the story evolved to claim that dead French soldiers had arisen to join the fight” (126). The war was also a boon for superstitions and the occult. Soldiers on all sides took all sorts of charms and talismans into battle. German families sought to protect their loved ones by driving nails into a giant statue of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg! (130) In England, séances during and after the war were enormously popular as grieving families sought to contact their dead. Only twenty years later, during the Second World War, much of this would have seemed exceedingly strange to ordinary soldiers.

It would be an overstatement to say that the First World War was the death knell of the Protestant church in Europe. Certainly there is still a great deal of vitality and hope even in the most secular of countries. The Great War certainly changed forever the relationships between the churches and their respective states. It also had a dramatic impact on the Roman Catholic Church.

The Vatican was appalled at how quickly the church was destroyed in Russia in the wake of the Russian revolution. A church deeply rooted in the Russian consciousness and united in purpose with its imperial partner largely perished. The strongly anti-communist position of later Popes can be explained by the grim object lesson of Russia. As secular democracies began to dominate in Europe the political and social power of the churches waned. Theological questions raised by the war also cannot be ignored. While many saw angels and Jesus on the battlefield, others reflected on God’s evident powerlessness in the face of such brutality.

Finally, Jenkins argues that the war reshaped the Middle East and the global south producing the conditions of conflicts that are ongoing today. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the image of a unified Muslim world was shocking to many. The war led to the removal of Christians from Muslim lands beginning with the horrendous Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turks. Christians who had lived in relative peace alongside Muslims in many countries were driven out during and subsequent to the war. They were either seen as potential fifth columnists who would support the Christian imperial powers or as risks to the purity of the Muslim world. The greed of the European states in the wake of the war also created outrage and enmity. The clumsy division of the former Ottoman lands into European spheres of influence led to the conflicts and antagonism occurring this very day. “Fundamentalist” Islam was a predicable result of the humiliation of an ancient people. The collapse of colonial powers not only led to the creation of many new African nation states, it enabled the rapid expansion of charismatic African Independent Churches that Jenkins argues are largely responsible for the dramatic growth of Christianity in Africa.

“Not only,” he concludes, “did the First World War show how calamity can transform the world, but it also suggested just how long it takes for the results to become apparent. Observing a revolution is quite different from comprehending it. Only now, after a century, are we beginning to understand how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another” (377). And the final shape of that world is still very much in question. I highly recommend this stunning and challenging work.

John E. Phelan, Jr. is Senior Professor of Theological Studies at North Park Theological Seminary where he previously served as President and Dean for 14 years.

See all articles by John E. Phelan, Jr.