Christians at War: A Pacifist Turn?

During and after the First World War, Bethel Academy principal A.J. Wingblade made a concerted effort to keep a full list of all those associated with Bethel who had served as soldiers, sailors, or nurses during the war. As many as could be reached were invited back to campus for a special reception on December 1919, where they were to hear the leading Swedish Baptist pastor Frank Peterson speak on patriotism and Christianity.

One young man on Wingblade’s “roll of honor” who didn’t respond until after that event would likely have given a very different address than the one his former principal had in mind:

Your rather persistent endeavors to secure my war record has [sic] called forth, at length, this letter. I am delighted to say that I have no war record. I was in the army only for a very short time physically and not at all mentally, nor spiritually. Sometimes,—not very often, I became slightly enthusiastic for victory against the Germans. Now that it is over, I can say truthfully that I am ashamed that I ever had enthusiasm to see one armed force victorious over another. I have no more interest in seeing one nation lick another than I have in a dogfight. When one nation fights another both lose and both defeat the progress of righteousness.

Harvey Stallard to A.J. Wingblade, February 28, 1920

Conscientious objectors in November 1918

Conscientious objectors at Camp Lewis in Washington, a week after Armistice in November 1918. Among the four Mennonites in the photo is Orie Conrad – middle row, far right – who was nearly lynched because he refused even to wear a uniform or engage in any training – Mennonite Church USA Archives

With some important exceptions, American Christians supported their country’s participation in World War I, following the lead of their president, a Presbyterian pastor’s son whose view of his country’s role in world affairs was shaped by Calvinist notions of election, redemption, and God’s sovereignty. While premillennialist conservatives tended to be less optimistic than postmillennialist liberals about the possibility of war leading to permanent peace, they generally shared an antipathy to what the Baptist preacher John Roach Straton called Germany’s “system of autocracy and tyranny… founded upon the idea that men are not capable of ruling themselves.” (For fundamentalists like Straton, Germany was also guilty of being the intellectual home of biblical criticism and the other seeds of modernism.) The language of holy war soon seeped into American Christian discourse, as in the case of this statement from Samuel Zane Batten, the secretary of the Northern Baptist Convention’s War Commission: “This war for the destruction of injustice and inhumanity is a holy crusade and a continuation of Christ’s sacrificial service for the redemption of the world.”

Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of FaithBut in 1920s and 1930s, a similarly broad spectrum of Christians recoiled from such language. Andrew Preston, pioneer of the recent “religious” turn in diplomatic history, offers the following assessment in his seminal Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith (also the source of the quotations in the paragraph above):

…whereas Quaker and Mennonite pacifism had been unfashionable, even treasonable, in the Great War, it now found itself swimming in the religious mainstream. After 1920, war became unthinkable, its permanent banishment an obsession among the mainline that had often associated with pacifism but were not necessarily peace churches. To those dedicated to Christianity and pacifism, it was self-evident that war was unchristian, the most grievous of all sins. (p. 298)

But it was not just the liberal-internationalists of the Federal Council of Churches (let alone the pacifist absolutists of the Fellowship of Reconciliation) who strongly opposed American intervention as German, Italian, and Japanese ambitions grew into the early phase of a second World War. Their more theologically conservative brethren tended to be just as committed to American neutrality, if not pacifism in the abstract.

Preston points to the 1934 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which had strongly supported American participation in both the Spanish-American War and World War I. “The prospect for International Peace has not been promising during the last twelve months,” noted the members of the SBC’s Social Service Commission, who were disturbed by the “flaming outburst of Nationalism throughout the world….” They continued:

The nations of the world, still bleeding as the result of the great War and burdened with taxation growing out of that war nigh beyond human endurance, and unable to meet the financial obligations placed upon them by that war, are still in a mad race for armament. Far more men are enlisted in the armies of the world than were enlisted in 1914 and the end is not yet in sight.

(Of course, the same group that same year spilled more ink decrying Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to formalize diplomatic relations between the United States and the Vatican. Six years later, during “this tragic hour of struggle between the totalitarian concept of force and the democratic concept of liberty,” the Southern Baptists felt “impelled from deep conviction and from the verdict of history to register our considered judgment touching a matter of vital concern…”: FDR’s appointment of Myron Taylor as his personal envoy to the Holy See.)

What of the Southern Baptists’ Swedish cousins?

1927 photo of Bethel Seminary faculty and students

1927 photo of faculty and students at Bethel Theological Seminary – Bethel University Digital Library

Preston would find similar attitudes within the Swedish Baptist General Conference, as my former student Taylor Ferda demonstrated in his 2010 Senior Seminar paper, “For God and Country: Baptist General Conference Attitudes toward World War II.”

(Unfortunately, this paper hasn’t yet been added to our Digital Library’s collection of undergraduate research, but I hope that’s soon rectified. UPDATE: It has been — click here. It’s an ambitious, well-researched analysis that makes an important contribution to the history of the BGC — and did much to inspire our larger “Bethel at War” project.)

Drawing on the BGC’s annual reports and selected articles in its English-language publications — e.g., The Baptist Evangel and then The Standard, as well as the conference’s youth magazine and Bethel’s student newspaper — Ferda finds a denomination marked by “distrust toward worldly diplomats and politicians” and ” fervent longing for the end of war and a reign of peace….”

Now, I think he overreaches when he describes the BGC’s pre-WWII stance as one of “absolute pacifism” (more on that next time), but Ferda shares abundant evidence of Swedish Baptist “insistence on American isolationism and military noninterventionism.” Probably the strongest example of the theme came at the conference’s June 1938 annual meeting in Wilmington, Delaware, where delegates resolved to

reaffirm our position as being opposed to all wars of aggression, and state as our conviction that civilized nations should find it possible to settle their national and international problems through the medium of Christian diplomacy and arbitration. We further pray and hope that the leaders of our nation and of the world shall with increasing interest listen to His voice who still speaks to us in the unforgettable words: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

Two years later in Rockford, Illinois, at an annual meeting that began the day after France officially surrendered to Germany, BGC delegates went “on record as [being] unalterably and unequivocally opposed to any and every move on the part of the President and the Congress of these United States, and other national, state, and local legislative bodies that will in any way tend to draw us or drive us into a war of aggression on other shores, and on other soil than our own.” And if this sounds more like isolationism than pacifism, there were those in Conference leadership (like J.O. Backlund) who argued even more vehemently against Swedish Baptists taking up arms.

When this series continues, we’ll see if this interwar turn towards Christian pacifism showed up among the faculty and students of Bethel Institute — and if it survived the events of December 7, 1941.

<<Read the introduction to this series                        Read the next post in this series>>

One comment

  1. […] Over at Bethel at War… I explored the pacifist turn in interwar American churches — a movement that probably had little impact on the Bethel dean […]

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