“We have among us very many Christian softies…”

In his posts on the Vietnam War, Fletcher has noted that Bethel-educated chaplains like Kenneth Carlson received a great deal of publicity from the Baptist General Conference. In the pages of the BGC’s chief publication, The Standard, these uniformed pastors were both “the primary mediators of the war to Conference laity” and “front-line soldiers in the global struggle against atheistic communism.”

1943 image of Lt. Del Kuehl (JC '39)

One of the “jumping chaplains” who ministered to American paratroopers: Lt. Delbert Kuehl (JC ’39), as pictured in a 1943 Bethel Bulletin story

Chaplains played a similarly important role in the Second World War. (Before too long, I’ll need to share the story of Del Kuehl, the most famous Bethel alum to serve in this capacity in WWII.) The Bethel Bulletin made sure to report when former Bethel students entered military chaplaincy. These men received special praise from Adolf and Virgil Olson when they wrote the Seminary’s 75th anniversary history in 1946. The Olsons counted three dozen former Bethel seminarians who had been military chaplains in 1941-45, or

about one to every 1,175 of our whole membership as Conference Baptists. This is a high percentage. And the message of God’s redeeming grace which these chaplains have brought to the young people in the armed forces of our country—who can fully evaluate that? Without boasting it may be said, for truly God must be praised, that practically all Bethel trained men and women have been true to the Word of God as it is commonly understood and interpreted by evangelical and conservative Baptists. They have preached Christ crucified and have gone out to win lost sinners for Him. Bethel has always been a strongly conservative school with a balanced message and a deep Christian spirit.

Those thirty-six (and those, like Kuehl, who had graduated from Bethel Junior College and pursued theological education elsewhere) made up a tiny percentage of the approximately 12,000 pastors, priests, and rabbis served as military chaplains in World War II. Even considering that they theoretically served a massive flock of 16 million Americans recruited into the armed forces, it’s a remarkable number. There were only 137 Army and 102 Navy chaplains on active duty when the U.S. entered the war; fewer than 900 were in the reserves. That so many more were added to those paltry numbers is somewhat astonishing. By law, the military could not recruit chaplains directly; it needed to rely on denominations, and I’ve already noted that the interwar turn towards pacifism cut across theological boundaries. (It’s a fairly uncritical history, but for a readable survey of how chaplains experienced World War II, see Lyle Dorsett’s Serving God and Country. I am relying on Dorsett for the figures given above, but I should note that other sources put the number of clergy recruited as chaplains at something more like 9,000.)

Nor could the government compel military service from clergymen. Although the Selective Service Act of 1940 created the country’s first peacetime draft, ministers — and those studying for that profession — received a “4-D” exemption. (Ministers and seminarians had also been exempt from the World War I draft.)

Worship service on the U.S.S. South Dakota, June 1944

Chaplain leading worship on the deck of the battleship USS South Dakota, around the time of the Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 1944) – U.S. National Archives

For most Americans, this exemption had little effect on how they viewed clergy. In 1942 opinion surveys, ministers placed third highest among groups “doing the most good.” No doubt this reflects the high view the public held of chaplains, whose casualty rate per capita was higher than all branches save the Army Air Force. But it might also hint at the important role played by clergy back home, since they counseled those who lost loved ones, helped the public wrestle with questions of ethics and theodicy, and generally sustained the spirits of parishioners going through a period unlike any in American history since the Civil War. By 1947 clergy ranked first in the “doing the most good” survey, and America was entering a new phase of religious revival, with church membership surpassing 50% of the population for the first time in U.S. history.

But one Bethel administrator was less than enthusiastic about the fact that ministry offered an alternative to military service:

We have among us very many Christian softies, individuals who know what is right and what is wrong on the standards of Christ, but just do not have the stamina to stand up when the test comes. They want personal approval, public approval, they want to be popular with the crowd. You mentioned individuals who have received a call from God before they receive a call from the draft board. We have too many of them back home.

State senator and Bethel Junior College dean Emery Johnson in 1943

Emery Johnson also served as a Minnesota state senator during the war – Minnesota Legislative Reference Library

So wrote Bethel Junior College dean Emery Johnson in April 1944, to an alum serving as an air force officer. (This and another letter quoted below are part of the extensive correspondence between Bethel leaders and alumni collected in the papers of G. Arvid Hagstrom, who continued to teach at the school after concluding his long term as president in 1941.)

Johnson lamented that he’d had to preach “across my desk on a number of occasions to young men who have come into see me, that their duty is just as much duty towards their country as to their God, and I have questioned the sincerity of their calls into the ministry.” (He grumbled that seminary enrollment was increasing while that of his wing of Bethel was falling off. But according to the statistics provided in Norris Magnuson’s Missionsskolan, the seminary was down a little over 10% from 1941-42 to 1944-45, while the Junior College was already starting to turn things around by the end of the war.)

We’ll need to return to Johnson’s understanding of duties to country and God as my series on Christian responses to war continues. Here I’ll just note that he was concerned that pastors who had not experienced the war would struggle to minister to those who had:

I have tried to point out to the boys who have come into my office that if they are going into the ministry they ought to first go into the armed forces, because if they don’t they won’t become acquainted with the attitudes and experiences of the men with which they will have to deal… when the war is over.

One of the first things which a returned service man will say to any individual who has held a 4-D classification: “You were too good to fight along with us when we had to get into the front-line trenches. Now you are too good for us, so we won’t have anything to do with you.” A number of the boys appreciate the attitude which the service men are building up and they are entering into the armed forces. We have had several these past few weeks who have decided to go in. God bless them and may they gather strength and courage and experience and information to make them worth-while Christian ministers when the war is over.

But it’s likely that Johnson was also sensitive to the fact that he was no more a part of the military than new seminary students. In letters written to alumni-servicemen the month after the war ended in Europe, he closed, “The greatest regret which I have for these years of war is that it was not my privilege to fight along the boys. I can truthfully say that I wish it had been possible for me to be a part of the great American force which so notably changed the course of the struggle. But it was not my fortune to go, and what little I might have done here at home is my contribution. With that I must be content, for it was not myself who decided on my place of activity.”

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One comment

  1. […] impact on the Bethel dean who thought wartime revealed that “We have among us very many Christian softies….” And Fletcher considered the moon landing (forty-five years later) as public […]

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