Christians at War: Pacifism or Isolationism?

In contrast to the pacifist resolutions of the Swedish Baptist Conference in the interwar period, [Bethel] junior college fostered an extremely supportive attitude toward American political institutions and foreign policy. This included an intense identification with the value of democratic institutions; an emphasis on supporting a society at war; and an exploration of ways to integrate one’s religious identity with America [sic] public policies.

G. William Carlson and Diana L. Magnuson
Persevere, Läsare, and Clarion: Celebrating Bethel’s 125th Anniversary, p. 37

In the preceding post in this series, I explored the rather striking interwar turn towards pacifism that showed up in many American denominations, including the one that sponsored Bethel. At least as early as 1924, the Swedish Baptist General Conference was calling on the U.S. government “to use its influence for the reduction of armament and the final abolition of war,” calling war itself “unchristian and a direct violation of the teachings of Christ.” Then as the rest of the world returned to war, Conference Baptists opened their denominational publications to read editorials like these, quoted from Bethel student Taylor Ferda’s 2010 senior thesis on the BGC and WWII:

Backlund, A Pioneer Trio

A Backlund project from the time of WWII: a triple biography of Swedish Baptist pioneers – Bethel University Digital Library

First of all, war is in itself a deterrent to the Christian life and spirit. You cannot hate your fellowmen, and seek their death, without losing something valuable from your soul…. Christ’s Peace on Earth must sound incongruous amid falling air bombs and shattered human dwellings.

J.O. Backlund, The Standard, September 28, 1940

We are not surprised at the attitude of the world toward Hitler, but when we as Christians “breathing threatening and slaughter” against him and those who stand by him, we declare that can’t be of the Lord…. We believe men and women, who are followers of Him who commanded us to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them which despitefully use you,” should not permit themselves to become engulfed in whirlpools of hatred toward anyone.

Haddon E. Klingberg, Our Youth, March 2, 1941

…the spirit of Christ will some day prove its supremacy over the selfishness and greed and cruelty and stupidity of mankind, and reveal the fact that love is mightier than hatred and the soft hand of mercy more powerful than the mailed fist of the warrior.

J.O. Backlund, The Standard, September 9, 1941

Resolutions at the Conference’s annual meetings in 1940 and 1941 showed delegates deeply suspicious of any policy that would embroil America in Britain’s war. “On the whole, therefore,” concludes Ferda:

BGC leaders understood the New Testament ethic of love to be universal in nature, including all individuals and groups of people. It was quite simple. Just as the love of God revealed in Jesus was extended to his enemies, the church was not to harbor hatred toward any individual or nation.

As I wrote in the last post, I think Ferda’s paper is a hugely valuable contribution to the history of the BGC and Bethel; it’s well-researched and conversant with the wider literature on religion and war in U.S. history.

But I also think that it’s going to far to attribute to the denomination or its school “a stance of absolute pacifism….”

Consider some of the evidence that Ferda cites:

  • The 1938 Conference resolution affirms Swedish Baptists “as being opposed to all wars of aggression.
  • Two years later, they pronounced themselves “unalterably and unequivocally opposed” to any government policy that would “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” (emphasis mine in both quotations).

What’s opposed here is not war of any sort, but specific kinds of war: those that are not defensive in nature and those fought beyond a nation’s own shores. The Conference Baptists were simply rearticulating two old ideas, neither of which was pacifism:

  • The Christian tradition of just war, which required a cause more just than naked aggression and demanded war be fought (paradoxically) out of love of one’s enemy, not hatred.
  • The pre-Wilsonian tradition of Americans avoiding foreign entanglements, which revived in the 1930s in the form of the isolationist movement. (Which was particularly strong in the Midwest, the heart of the Swedish BGC.) In a January 1941 editorial in The Standard opposing Lend-Lease, editor J.O. Backlund warned against “dictatorial power” — and he meant not Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin, but Roosevelt.
"No foreign entanglements" sign

Frame from the “Prelude to War” episode of Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series – Wikimedia

Keep in mind that Swedish-Americans had, on the whole, been staunchly opposed to taking part in the First World War. I suspect that what we see from the late 1930s through to late 1941 is a reassertion of that preference for neutrality and isolation, undergirded by a conviction that Fletcher has already observed from later in BGC history but definitely shows up in the two world wars as well: that whatever happens in this world is ultimately less important than preparing one’s soul — and those of others — for the one to come.

Consider another piece of evidence cited by Ferda, an editorial that Henry Wingblade wrote in the denominational magazine not long before he succeeded Arvid Hagstrom as Bethel’s president:

Is it possible to war with love in heart, to carry on most strenuously with peace like a river within, to strike powerfully at the enemy with the avowed purpose of making them happy? Yes, when the warfare is spiritual and when the enemy is the enemy of mankind. That warfare is what the true Christian Church is carrying on today.

The Standard, November 29, 1940

At first, it sounds like Wingblade is about to affirm Christian pacifism, but he then elides the Augustinian question of whether a Christian soldier can love the enemy he’s trying to kill and relocates to the spiritual plane.

It should be no surprise, then, that when Wingblade was belatedly inaugurated as Bethel president in February 1943, he affirmed that “Bethel men and women are sharing in the crucial tasks and burdens which face our country and the world today… in different parts of the world for God and for country, rendering a contribution which we believe is distinctly plus.”(This is the same Wingblade who, as a Bethel Academy teacher in 1918, had celebrated August Sundvall, the first Bethel alum to die in WWI, for having made the “supreme sacrifice” in “this gigantic struggle for justice and freedom….”) And if Wingblade’s support for the war was more in the vein of the “cautious patriotism” Gerald Sittser found prevailing in American churches during WWII, others at Bethel were more fervent.

Now, this is not to say that there were no pacifists in the Conference. I suspect that one reason Ferda came to the conclusions he did is that he attached much weight to what he read in The Standard, whose editor, J. O. Backlund, we have already read, was especially suspicious of violent solutions to the problems vexing humanity. Indeed, in the opening chapter (“Kindred—Past and Present”) of his pioneering 1933 history of Swedish Baptists in AmericaBacklund wrote more about the pacifistic Anabaptists of the sixteenth century than about Baptists in either England or America. Here, for example, is how he celebrated the enduring witness of Menno Simons:

1610 portrait of Menno Simons

1610 portrait of Menno Simons – Wikimedia

From 1536 we find Menno laboring indefatigably, proclaiming the gospel as he found it in the Scriptures. Clear across Northern Europe, from France to Russia, he blazed the trail of a free evangelical Christianity. The enemies were not idle, but he stood firm for what he thought right. No compromise seemed possible to him. He remained faithful to his calling and continued to preach the gospel, urging a high standard of Christian morality, and created the Mennonite brotherhood into his own likeness, characterized by mildness of spirit, purity of morals and peacefulness in relation to their fellow-men. (pp. 12-13)

But the shallowness of Swedish Baptist interest in pacifism, such as it was, comes into starker relief when one considers how the 20th century descendants of Menno Simons’ movement responded to WWII. More on that in my next post…

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