In a pretty small field, Gerald Sittser runs away with the title for author of the best book on the response of American churches to World War II. In his 1997 monograph, A Cautious Patriotism, Sittser argues that American church leaders were neither as jingoistic as they’d largely been in 1917-1918 nor unwilling to support the war effort:
Their heritage and the nation’s, their destiny and the nation’s, were too tightly interwoven to make disloyalty a reasonable option for the vast majority of Christians. Most Christians in America had grown up believing that America occupied a special place in God’s plan for history. It would have been difficult—virtually impossible, really—for the churches to be unpatriotic.
But the churches did not gravitate to the other extreme either. They were not blindly and fanatically patriotic. They attached certain conditions to their patriotism. These conditions grew out of a belief in the global fellowship of the church, the possibility of international peace and cooperation, the cultural significance of vital religion, and the relevance of biblical standards of justice. Christians were committed to the allied cause but refused to call it a holy crusade or to caricature the enemy. They believed that America had a divine destiny, but only insofar as the church was spiritually vital and the nation was morally good…
What resulted is what Sittser calls a “cautious patriotism,” a posture that
enabled the churches to rally their resources to fight the war on the side of the allies and yet maintain biblical fidelity and spiritual integrity. They tried to strike a balance between nationalism and internationalism, political realism and religious idealism, priestly concern and prophetic criticism. They wanted to walk the thin line between labeling totalitarianism as the absolute enemy and viewing war as the ultimate evil, between striving for total victory and seeking peace at any price. Throughout the war they kept affirming belief in a transcendent God, in an independent church, and in an authoritative religion. They tried to minister to the needs of the nation, but not at the expense of their commitment to justice and peace.1
When Sittser says “the churches,” he primarily means the Roman Catholic Church and Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, and other mainline Protestant denominations. The “peace churches” make important cameos, but do not fit the thesis. The nascent neo-evangelical movement — like the older fundamentalism with which it was breaking — is similarly relegated to a supporting role.2
And what of the Swedish Baptist General Conference (which dropped the ethnic modifier near the end of the war)? Does Sittser’s “cautious patriotism” thesis fit the BGC’s experience of WWII — or that of its college and seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota? Did the people of Bethel try to “fight the war on the side of the allies and yet maintain biblical fidelity and spiritual integrity”? Did they try “to strike a balance between nationalism and internationalism, political realism and religious idealism, priestly concern and prophetic criticism”?
The first issue of The Standard to arrive in Swedish Baptist mailboxes after Pearl Harbor expressed the hope that “we shall not hate those who have chosen to be our national enemies” and attempted to distinguish between Japan’s rather “small group of war-minded militarists” and the “unwilling nation of peace-loving people” they were leading, “as sheep to their slaughter.”3 Days later, Bethel’s student newspaper advised those students called to arms to “fight because you must, and not because you find a gun in your hand and your mind red with hate.”
But that Augustinian caution came at the end of a letter that concluded, “And ‘it’s our country, right or wrong!’” The Clarion’s editors were even less cautious in echoing one Marine’s call for the USA to “K.O. Japan”:
A week ago last Sunday, Japan in launching an attack against possessions of a nation with whom she was negotiating, broke all the rules of noblesse oblige, and with that treacherous stroke forfeited all rights of quarter and honorable terms.
However, Japan never asked them; nor has she ever fought under terms we of the white race term “honorable.” It is altogether possible that we shall have to undergo and withstand atrocities of behavior that we cannot conscientiously associate with “civilized warfare.”4
At year’s end The Standard editorialized that Japan seemed committed to fighting a war it couldn’t win: “Perhaps their defiance against half of the world is a gesture of face-saving. We do not know, who can fathom what is moving in the brain of an oriental?”5
Within a couple months of Pearl Harbor, The Clarion’s editors were questioning the patriotism of their classmates. While the school and its faculty were investing in war bonds, they wrote, “the students’ record doesn’t bear such close scrutiny. An average of $25 a week for ice cream and candy, not counting coffee and rolls and a very slim $5 a week is spent for defense stamps.” Another article on war bond sales on campus concluded with words that (perhaps unconsciously) echoed similar rhetoric from 1917-18: “May it never be said that Bethel is not a patriotic school, loyal to the last of her Swedish Baptist blood to the United States.”6 The following month the paper announced a concert at the end of the school year that promised to “prove interesting and inspiring to every patriotic American, since a patriotic emphasis will be placed on the whole.”7
Meanwhile, one of Bethel’s most entrepreneurial leaders was finding a new use for nationalism. In July 1942 H. Wyman Malmsten, who assisted Pres. Henry Wingblade with fundraising and public relations, sent out copies of a special “Victory Number” of Bethel’s bimonthly Bulletin.8 The cover flew a large American flag and proclaimed that Bethel was “A Baptist School — Loyal to God and Country.” Indeed, “Loyalty” formed the last word in an acrostic of “Bethel” on the issue’s back cover — but it was defined as loyalty to Christ, “our churches,” and “the Baptist cause.”9 As the war went on, that concept was increasingly used in such a way that loyalty to country and loyalty to God were put in service of loyalty to Bethel, and its desire for better facilities.
That fall, the Bulletin announced that the following February — “Bethel Loyalty Month”10 — would kick off a campaign to raise the money necessary to build a new men’s dormitory in time for Bethel’s 75th anniversary in 1946. Readers were encouraged to “Buy a Bond for Bethel boys.” Loyal Baptists concerned that such fundraising would interfere with one’s financial responsibility to the church were offered a tidy solution: give 5% of their income directly to their church, buy bonds with 10% of income, then give half of those bonds to their church, denomination, and/or school. The Bulletin held up the example of the Baptist youth of Dalton, Michigan, who had raised enough to buy an $18.50 war bond for Bethel “under the leadership of aggressive Virgil Olson,” a recent Seminary grad later to become a professor and dean at his alma mater and the leading historian of the Baptist General Conference.11
Perhaps trying to capitalize on the growing sense that an Allied triumph was inevitable — German officers had attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Paris had been liberated, the Red Army had reached East Prussia, American island-hopping in the Pacific had reached Guam and the Marianas — the September 1944 issue of the Bulletin showed four examples of “Victory.” Oddly, none of them had anything to do with the war. Instead, the Bulletin trumpeted Bethel’s victories in maintaining attendance, promoting the men’s dormitory campaign, and nearing its 75th anniversary. The highest victory, of course, was spiritual:
The prayer life and faith of the faculty and student body create a deep sense of responsibility for the spiritual welfare of each member of the Bethel family and victory after victory is claimed in the lives of our student body that only eternity will reveal.12
Not too far beneath the surface of campus patriotism, a basic disinterest in the larger world seemed to prevail. That, at least, was the perhaps jaundiced view of those students who would edit a junior college newspaper. In March 1943 the Clarion editors complained that “average college students are so obtuse in regard to national affairs,” in spite of the fact that a democracy’s leaders “must be backed up by an intelligent, international-minded group of people.”13 Similarly, a January 1944 editorial bemoaned that “that our vision has been narrow…. How many of us are aware of the tremendous issues at stake in the conflict?—Or of recent political, social or economic trends in our country— or in our hemisphere?”14
Nor is it clear how actively faculty were encouraging and assisting students to struggle with such issues. On the one hand, Enid Platts had her speech class debate the “role of the Christian in the present conflict,” with students concluding that “hate is hard to avoid, but we should hate a belief and way of life, not the individual. The Christian attitude, dictated by Scripture, should be of love—love for homes, country, church, and for the lost souls who have no chance to hear the Gospel. The motive of fighting is to establish freedom of religion, democracy, and win the peace.”15 But on the other hand, one distinguished Bethel alum recalled receiving “no direct help from the Bethel staff and administration” as he wrestled with whether a Christian could take life in wartime. “Apparently good citizenship outweighed any direct efforts toward informing us about Conscientious Objection or other alternatives to praying for victory by the Allies.”16
Here we might reiterate the methodological problem that introduced our final World War I essay. While the record for 1939-1945 is fuller than that for 1914-1918, there are huge holes in what evidence remains, so the meaning of any silence is up for interpretation.
What do we make, for example, of the utter absence of commentary on the Holocaust in The Clarion? Even before the U.S. entered the war, The Standard informed BGC readers about the T4 euthanasia program and the desperate plight of those Jewish refugees who could escape imprisonment and death. But Bethel’s student newspaper published nothing about such atrocities. On November 25, 1942, one day after Rabbi Stephen Wise called a press conference to share evidence that the German regime was deporting Jews to mass slaughter in Poland, the front page of The Clarion announced the formation of a girls’ group to pray for the conversion of Jews.18 The following month, political science professor C.E. Carlson’s piece encouraging greater attentiveness from students appeared under the truly terrible headline “Is Bethel a Concentration Camp?”19 The term “holocaust” was used early in 1944 — to describe the attack on Pearl Harbor.20
If anything, reporting and commentary on national and international news grew less frequent as the war wore on, so perhaps the silence simply reflects the choice of editors — or the advice of faculty advisors like Platts — to cultivate a certain lightness of tone. Or perhaps they trusted that students received information from newsreels, radio reports, letters home from the war’s many fronts, and other sources.
Whatever the explanation, one other silence is especially noteworthy. Throughout the run of its wartime issues, The Clarion was free of the debates over strategic bombing that rippled through the churches of Sittser’s account, and the decision to use atomic bombs had taken place during the quiet of summer break.21 But in an issue published three months to the day after the fateful bombing of Nagasaki, students read this description of postwar Japan from a former classmate serving as an interpreter with military intelligence:
Aomori city itself was just about 98% wiped out—it was really appalling. We stayed about two days at the 8th army headquarters in Yokohama…. It was just about wiped out too—just like Aomori. When one remembers its former grandeur, it’s really frightening what a bombing raid can do—just about level off a modern city.22
Even more remarkably, the correspondent was Stan Yamashita, one of at least five students of Japanese descent who attended Bethel during the war.
Four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made a point of meeting with a group of Japanese-American women in Los Angeles. That encounter helped inspire the December 16, 1941 installment of her syndicated newspaper column; recalling the mistreatment of German-Americans during World War I, Roosevelt called on Americans to “meet the challenge of fairness to our citizens of every nationality….”23
But just three months later, her husband signed Executive Order 9066, which empowered the U.S. Army to do as it saw fit with the 110,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast: about 40,000 immigrants from Japan (Issei) and 70,000 of their American-born, American-educated children (Nisei). By the end of March, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt ended a brief period of voluntary evacuation and had soldiers force Issei and Nisei to leave the coast and relocate, first to fifteen temporary “assembly centers” and then, by the fall of 1942, to ten “relocation centers” — what Roosevelt himself admitted were concentration camps.24
While Sittser documents protests from a variety of churches, Swedish Baptist publications were silent about the fate of the internees, many of whom were Christian.25 And it would not seem that an ethnically homogeneous junior college and seminary in the Midwest would play any role in the story of Japanese internment. But the histories of the Nisei and of Bethel unexpectedly intersected in 1943.
After university presidents and political leaders warned of the importance of continuing “the education of those who might become influential leaders of the loyal American born Japanese,” the government allowed college-aged Nisei to leave the camps and attend schools in the Midwest and East. Over four thousand young men and women did just this, including three who began their studies at Bethel Institute in 1943-1944.26
Kanshi Stanley Yamashita grew up in Terminal Island, a fishing village near Long Beach, California. He and his family, who learned of Pearl Harbor while attending church, were sent to Poston, the largest of the ten concentration camps. A high school senior when he arrived in southwestern Arizona, Yamashita remembered the staggering heat:
Those hot summer days and the things we learned! Self-appointed experts in the art of keeping cool, that’s what we are! Saturate the floor with water, take off all clothing, dump all available bath towels in a bucket of water, drape them on oneself à la Gandhi, and there we were, just as hot.27
When given the chance to leave Poston and attend college, Yamashita chose to apply to Bethel. He arrived in the fall of 1943. “Bethel has made a new Swede,” joked The Clarion: “Stan Yamashita, newly christened, Johnson.”28 Yamashita later trained at the Army Intelligence School at Fort Snelling and was deployed to postwar Japan, where he witnessed the devastation of the American bombing campaign and the food shortages that left civilians on tight rations months after the Japanese surrender. He ended up staying in the Army for three decades, earning multiple graduate degrees along the way. Yamashita testified in the 1980s Congressional hearings on the internment program and helped found the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.29
L.A. native Paul Nagano was finishing his bachelor’s degree at Chapman College and preparing for ministry when he joined Yamashita and thousands of others at Poston. Although he was ordained through the Los Angeles Baptist City Mission and acted as a pastor at multiple camps, Nagano’s request to serve as a chaplain with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the legendary all-Nisei unit that would fight with distinction in Europe — was refused because he didn’t have a seminary degree. Invited to the Twin Cities by Minnesota Baptist Conference leader Reuben Nelson, Nagano founded two Nisei Christian fellowships and served as a minister to trainees at the Fort Snelling intelligence school. In the fall of 1943 he began to attend Bethel Seminary; in his memoir, he recalled that Japanese-Americans like Yamashita and himself “were adjusting to a community that was predominantly white, and they were curious to know how to treat us.” Nagano stayed at Bethel for two years, but was unable to complete his degree because he was called back to California to start a Japanese Baptist church for people returning from the concentration camps.30
While Nagano later said that his experience of being interned confronted him with fundamental questions of faith, justice, and personal identity, none of his spiritual and intellectual struggle emerges from the mentions of him in Bethel’s student newspaper and yearbook.31 But when The Clarion ran a profile of one of their new student-reporters in November 1943, Bethel’s community received a brief, jarring glimpse of the injustice experienced by Japanese Americans.
After being moved to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, Kiyoo Shimatsu was working at a local sheep ranch when he had the opportunity to apply to colleges in the Midwest. His application to the University of Minnesota was rejected (“because of his ancestry,” claimed The Clarion, all too plausibly32), so he switched to Bethel and threw himself into campus life, serving as vice-president of the freshman class and working on the yearbook, The Spire, in addition to writing for The Clarion.
Although, like Yamashita, he left Bethel early to serve in the Army, Shimatsu didn’t hide his bitterness at the treatment he’d received from his own government. “The barbed-wire fences, guard houses, and soldiers armed with machine-guns and bayonets sickened him and made him very bitter,” ran The Clarion’s description of Shimatsu’s initial internment in Pomona, California. “I damned everything and everyone,” he recalled in that profile. “I lost all the faith I ever had… Only one word adequately describes it all: Hell!”33
(At least two other Nisei attended Bethel during this time: Eddie Shimatsu and Frank Shindo, who returned to Bethel for seminary and served on the pastoral staff at Elim Baptist Church in Minneapolis.)
Just a month later, The Clarion hinted at the injustice experienced by another minority population during what was purportedly a war for democracy. At the same time that Bethel welcomed three students of Japanese descent to campus, the college enrolled its first African-American student, Wichita native LeRoy Gardner. “My ambition through a selfless consecration of my capacities to the will of God,” he told The Clarion, “is to champion the cause of a misunderstood and oppressed race; to better the condition and status of my people, the Negro, mentally, spiritually and socially.”34 Gardner graduated in 1946 and eventually became a pastor, founding North Central Baptist Church in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood in 1957.35
While the record for Bethel suggests only passing, oblique critiques of the racism that marred the American war effort, it contains another silence that is notable for a different reason. In many Christian denominations, Sittser notes, leaders “believed that the American people could not allow war to drive or draw women away from their domestic duties.”36 But if such concerns were held at Bethel or in its denomination, they were rarely voiced. Instead, Bethel and BGC publications at least occasionally spotlighted the participation of Swedish Baptist women working in military auxiliaries or war industries, though themes of domesticity never disappeared. The 1945 issue of the BGC illustrated annual Ebenezer featured Navy nurse Dorothy Erickson’s celebration of how, in this and every war, “women have shown their cooperation in hastening victory by taking on increased responsibilities. They have done much to maintain the moral and spiritual values of the home, and through increased employment they have helped in industries of various kinds.”37 Earlier in the conflict, a Thanksgiving editorial in The Clarion contrasted the image of Pilgrims at prayer with that of “the other of factories pouring their smoke into the skies, while within are whirring lathes, glowing rivets—work, by men and women—for guns, bullets, bombers, battleships—one a scene of peace, one of war.”38
The student paper duly reported not only the departure of male students recruited or drafted into military service, but that of young women who left Bethel for a variety of war-related reasons. In January 1943, it named Lorraine Carlson, Helen Force, and Bertha Sprenger among other students who didn’t come back from Christmas vacation: the three women had had to return home to help out while their brothers fought overseas.39 The following month brought news that Inge Larson and Ruth Mentzer had enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (soon to drop the third word from its name) . They were sent off by dozens of classmates, reported The Clarion: “About fifteen minutes before the train came in, the crowd moved en masse to the gate where actual exressions [sic] of farewell began. All goodbyes being spoken, the group began to sing ‘God Be With You Till We Meet Again’ which brought forth many tears previously held back.”
Other women left Bethel to serve in churches, to the delight of Bethel student Evelyn Sundberg:
Just as Uncle Sam is calling out men and women to serve our country—another call is being sounded from God’s lips. He is calling for men and women with real backbone and broken hearts to serve Him in the fields that are white unto harvest. Many, since coming to Bethel, have answered this call and are preparing for His service.41
Sundberg hinted at what may be the overriding theme in the response of Bethel and the BGC to the Second World War. While most of our subjects didn’t hesitate to commit themselves to defending America against its enemies, they did not abandon themselves to unfettered patriotism for a simple reason: as devout Baptists, they understood themselves to be citizens of another, heavenly kingdom, one whose mission superseded the secular purposes of any state.
For such Christians, the war simultaneously underscored the sin-sickness of the world and held open the possibility for winning souls, not just battles. For many at Bethel and in its denomination, the war itself was something like a missions field.
— Chris Gehrz
1 Gerald L. Sittser, A Cautious Patriotism: The American Churches and the Second World War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), pp. 12-13.
2 Southern Baptists do play an important role in Sittser’s story, but they did not align more closely with neo-evangelicalism until later in the 20th century.
3 The [BGC] Standard, Dec. 13, 1941.
5 The Standard, Dec. 27, 1941.
9 Bethel Bulletin, July 1942.
10 While February as “Loyalty Month” dates back at least to 1940 in Bethel history, that designation no doubt took on new implications in the middle of a war that saw Japanese-Americans — and, to a much smaller extent, German- and Italian-Americans — interned because their loyalty was in question.
11 Bethel Bulletin, November/December 1942 and January 1943.
12 Bethel Bulletin, September/October 1944. Malmsten’s most creative reappropriation of wartime images for Bethel fundraising came in November 1943, when the Bulletin cover featured an iconic image of a young man taking a train to war: “The Kid in Upper 4.”
17 The Standard, July 19, 1941 and July 26, 1941.
20 The Bethel Clarion, Jan. 19, 1944. The first time The Clarion dedicated any significant space to the genocide of European Jews was when it published a column on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in its Apr. 27, 1961 issue. (And even then, the writer used “holocaust” to describe the use of atomic bombs against Japan in August 1945.)
21 On American Christian debates over Allied bombing of civilian populations, see Sittser, A Cautious Patriotism, pp. 216-22.
23 Richard Reeves, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2015), p. 31.
24 The use of this terminology in placed of “relocation centers” or “internment camps” has been controversial, with some Jewish groups protesting a 1998 exhibit at Ellis Island called “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese-American Experience”; New York Times, Mar. 10, 1998. However, the phrase is widely used among historians and other scholars and will be employed here as well.
25 Sittser, A Cautious Patriotism, pp. 169-78. On the complicated question of religion in the camps, see Gary Y. Okihiro, “Religion and Resistance in America’s Concentration Camps,” Phylon 45 (Summer 1984): pp. 220-33.
26 Reeves, Infamy, pp. 116-17. The quotation is from California governor Culbert Olson, who advocated for this change in policy on behalf of the University of California.
27 Quoted in ibid., p. 128.
30 Paul M. Nagano, Transformed by Love: The Spiritual Journey of Paul M. Nagano (Alhambra, CA: Council for Pacific Asian Theology, 2009), pp. 29-33; the quotation is from p. 32. Additional biographical information is from Karen Yonemoto, “Paul M. Nagano,” The Densho Encyclopedia, online.
31 For example, while Nagano and “several Japanese-American young people” played featured roles in a Missionary Band meeting in April 1945, all the student paper reported is that he “gave a very stirring missionary message”; The Bethel Clarion, May 2, 1945.
32 Among others, Princeton and MIT outright refused to admit students of Japanese ancestry, and the government wouldn’t allow Nisei to take courses at universities with ROTC and other “secret” military training programs; Reeves, Infamy, p. 117.
35 Bethel’s news service published a brief obituary of Gardner on his death in 2011. On Gardner’s contribution to the Minnesota Baptist Conference and that body’s continuing struggles with racial prejudice after the war, see Truett M. Lawson, Our Times & Our Stories: The Minnesota Baptist Conference, 1858-2008 (St. Paul, MN: The History Center, 2014), pp. 53-54, 166-67.
36 Sittser, A Cautious Patriotism, p. 196.
37 Dorothy Erickson, “Women in the War,” Ebenezer, 1945, p. 25.