Christians at War: The “Moral Welfare” of Soldiers

When I began this series, I suggested that there is an inherent tension in followers of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, going to war. Whether resolved by the pacifist’s refusal to take up “the sword,” the just warrior’s willingness to engage in deadly violence under certain strict criteria, the crusader’s belief that God sometimes ordains killing, or some other stance, I assumed that the central problem was the taking of human life. What I’m starting to sense is that most people at Bethel and in its denomination reluctantly accepted the need for some wars — but remained concerned about another difficult question:

Can one live a distinctively Christian life within the military?

Fletcher actually beat me to the punch on this subject, in the 1968-69 installment of his series on BGC responses to the Vietnam War:

While it’s true that the BGC never saw the military as an unalloyed force for good (there had always been an acknowledgement that the armed forces were a challenging environment to faith), it seems clear that at least by early 1968, the Conference had completed a shift in the language it used to describe military life, if not in toto, in emphasis. The military was now a dangerous place for the Christian faithful, full of temptations and populated by drug users and the promiscuous.

I don’t know if this became more or less true over our century of warfare, but I’ve found some hints from 1917-18 and 1941-45 that Swedish/Conference Baptists, including those who attended and worked at Bethel, had indeed seen the military as “a challenging environment to faith.”

"Shall chaos triumph?" - WWI-era Presbyterian poster showing Jesus

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-9656

I’ve recently begun to explore a fascinating file within the papers of former Bethel president G. Arvid Hagstrom: correspondence between former Bethel students serving in WWII and the school’s administrators. Leafing through the ‘A’ folder, I was struck by this sentence from a young G.I. training at Camp Carson in Colorado:

I’m glad I found [my savior] before I came to the services of my country as there are so many trials and temptations to overcome that if it wasn’t for my Christian background, I wonder what I would be today.

Private Duane Anderson – June 22, 1944

By “trials,” Anderson might have meant the rigors of his training, or he might have been anticipating combat like the fierce battles then being fought by other Americans in Normandy and on Saipan. But “temptations” suggests another kind of moral hazard than that involved in the act of killing another person, particularly for a young man who one sentence earlier had alluded to his conversion experience in a Baptist church. (Also worthy of notice here: at the previous year’s meeting of the Swedish Baptist General Conference, delegates from Michigan had urged that greater attention be paid to the care of servicemen, who were “subjected to conditions which are not conducive to spiritual growth and moral stability.”)

To unpack such concerns, let’s go back to the First World War. As Robert Zieger explains in his history of America’s participation in that conflict:

Military service was notoriously associated with dissolute behavior. Soldiers were legendary fornicators, drinkers, blasphemers, and general hell raisers. Communities adjacent to military posts were almost by definition sites of saloons, gambling dens, and brothels.

Into such an atmosphere, the United States was about to send four million young men “[b]rimming with eagerness and enthusiasm” and possessed of a “keen sense of schoolboyish anticipation and excitement,” in the words of historian David Kennedy. Perhaps making the problem worse, Secretary of War Newton Baker “consciously strove to model training camps on ‘the analogy of the American college,'” with one trainee describing Illinois’ Fort Sheridan (where the ill-fated Bethel alum August Sundvall trained) as being like a “college campus on the eve of a big game.”

Newton Baker drawing the first number in the July 1917 draft lottery

Secretary of War Newton Baker drawing the first number in the July 1917 draft lottery – U.S. National Archives

So, writes Kennedy, “[e]ven more than college boys, the young men in the Army were to be protected from wickedness and vice” (Over Here, p. 185). Dismayed by the behavior of American soldiers campaigning in Mexico in 1916 with “a good deal of time hanging rather heavily on their hands,” Baker decided that the American Expeditionary Force ought to “be a virtuous, democratic army, different in recruitment, composition, and most importantly, moral stature from any previous army” (Zieger, America’s Great War, p. 89).

American churches and parachurch organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) were enlisted as partners in the cause, via the Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA), a military-sanctioned private group headed by philanthropist Raymond Fosdick (brother of the great liberal pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick).

I’m not sure yet to what extent the Swedish BGC actively cooperated in that initiative, but its 1918 “war resolution” made clear that Bethel’s denomination was wholly sympathetic to the CTCA’s aims. After pledging “allegiance to the President and government of the United States” and affirming “loyalty to those principles for which our country and our noble allies stand,” delegates reserved an “especially” clause to underscore their “support of the measures for national prohibition and for those agencies and organizations which promote the moral and spiritual welfare of our military and naval forces.”

I’ve already noted how the sin of intemperance was a particular concern, for the military as much as denominations as “dry” as the BGC. But this was not the only vice threatening the “moral welfare” of recruits and draftees.

French WWI poster encouraging civilians to save wine for soldiers

“Save wine for our soldiers”: during WWI the French and American governments took very different attitudes towards regulating their soldiers’ lifestyles, whether it came to drinking or sex  – University of Illinois Library

Though it was understandably overshadowed by losses on the Western Front, France suffered an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the first eighteen months of the war, with the number of syphilis cases rising a total of 50% over prewar levels. On the home front that figure rose by two-thirds, as infected soldiers on leave spread the disease to their wives and other sexual partners. The French government responded by tightening the regulation of state-sponsored brothels, a solution that the U.S. government quickly declined when their Gallic allies offered to make such maisons tolerées available to doughboys in early 1918. Instead, the Wilson Administration had taken a more puritanical tack.

"A soldier doesn't have to prove he's a man! / Remember: there's no medicine for regret" - 1942 anti-VD poster

The campaign to limit the spread of STDs in the military was revived during World War II, as seen in this 1942 poster (a relatively subtle example of the genre) – U.S. National Library of Medicine

The same May 1917 legislation that banned the sale of alcohol to servicemen also created prostitution-free zones around military bases. (“A German Bullet is Cleaner than a Whore,” warned one CTCA poster common in Army camps. “A Soldier who gets a dose [of venereal disease] is a Traitor!”, announced another.) Hand in hand with military intelligence officers and local law enforcement officials, the CTCA investigated saloons and brothels. “In community after community,” observes Zieger, “this combination of moral outrage, patriotic sentiment, and federal power closed down saloons, scattered prostitutes, and created a cordon of vicelessness around army posts” (p. 90).

The public side of this partnership was motivated by pragmatism (militaries on each side of WWI feared that STDs would reduce the number of “effectives” available for combat) and, among Progressives like Baker and Fosdick, a desire to use the war as a massive experiment in social engineering. (See Nancy Bristow’s Making Men Moral, especially ch. 4.) But for pietistic Swedish Baptists, having sex outside of marriage and getting drunk had implications more significant than whatever detrimental effects such behavior had on military efficiency and civic virtue.

For example, in a discussion of the importance of sanctification, Bethel founder John Alexis Edgren concluded that

No one will be finally saved who has not kept faith and earnestly striven for holiness. All true children of God do that…. Many who have professed to be Christians, have experienced the call of the Holy Spirit and have enjoyed many happy experiences in listening to the glorious truths of the gospel, turn away from the way of truth, but thereby they reveal that they have never been truly born again and that they have never in reality been children of God.

Without singling out any vice in particular, Edgren did emphasize that the “church should be made up out of true Christians” and “should also keep watch on members whose lives do not correspond to their profession, and withdraw from them and exclude them from their fellowship” (Fundamentals of Faith, pp. 152, 163 — J.O. Backlund’s 1948 translation of Edgren’s 1890 work Biblisk Troslära).

That the true church was a voluntary, visible gathering of regenerate converts living holy, disciplined lives remained a popular theme among Conference Baptists well into the second half of the twentieth century. From Gordon Johnson’s popular My Church, first published by the denomination’s press in 1963 and reprinted several times: “The New Testament Christian was marked by a life distinct from that of others about him. Certainly those in the modern church also ought to be marked by a distinct life because they belong to God…. The strength of the church must be guarded by constantly emphasizing purity of life. If the church is too tolerant in the matter of Christian living, decay will go on until the church will not tolerate a ministry that preaches the complete gospel—the gospel that deals in sin” (p. 65 in the 1982 edition). Edgren’s longest-serving successor as Bethel president, Carl Lundquist, believed that the college was obliged to train its students in “the distinctive Christian life as one of voluntary self-discipline,” with not only drinking and extramarital sex but smoking, social dancing [insert Baptist joke here], and most movie- and theater-going discouraged.

<<Read the previous post in this series                   Read a mid-series recap and preview>>

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