As part of the research for my current book project, I am reading The Great and Holy War, by my colleague Philip Jenkins. It is an absolutely extraordinary book. Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction: 

Contrary to secular legend, religious and supernatural themes pervaded the rhetoric surrounding the war— on all sides— and these clearly had a popular appeal far beyond the statements of official church leaders. If the war represented the historic triumph of modernity, the rise of countries “ruled by scientific principles,” then that modernity included copious lashings of the religious, mystical, millenarian, and even magical. Discussions of the Great War, at the time and since, have regularly used words such as “Armageddon” and “apocalypse,” although almost always in a metaphorical sense. Yet without understanding the widespread popular belief in these concepts in their original supernatural terms, we are missing a large part of the story. As Salman Rushdie remarks, “Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the facts.”

The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict. Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war. Not in medieval or Reformation times but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world’s Christians were indeed engaged in a holy war that claimed more than ten million lives.

Jenkins supports these claims with ample — and, to me, shocking — quotations. A German pastor, Dietrich Vorwerk, rewrote the Lord Prayer’s on nationalistic and militaristic lines: 

In thy merciful patience, forgive

Each bullet and each blow

That misses its mark.

Lead us not into the temptation

Of letting our wrath be too gentle

In carrying out Thy divine judgment.

Deliver us and our pledged ally

From the Evil One and his servants on earth.

Thine is the kingdom, The German land.

May we, through Thy mailed hand

Come to power and glory.

Meanwhile, as the U.S.A. entered the war an American pastor wrote, “it is God who has summoned us to this war. It is his war we are fighting…. This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history —the holiest. It is in the profoundest and truest sense a Holy War…. Yes, it is Christ, the King of Righteousness, who calls us to grapple in deadly strife with this unholy and blasphemous power.” 

What Jenkins demonstrates beyond any question is that these were not isolated incidents but rather pervasive sentiments, powerful among political and military leaders as well as among prominent religious figures. If this story has been told before, I have somehow missed it. 

And what I’m learning from Jenkins is providing new and interesting context for what I’m writing about Christian thought in the next war. It seems that many of the most incisive Christian thinkers of that era learned something from the apocalyptic war-theology of the previous conflict. For instance, consider this interesting passage from a letter C. S. Lewis — who had fought and been seriously wounded in that previous war — wrote to his brother Warnie just after war began in September 1939: “In the Litany this morning we had some extra petitions, one of which was ‘Prosper, O Lord, our righteous cause.’ I ventured to protest against the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous — a point on which He may have His own view.”

For Lewis and for other major artists and thinkers, it was clear that their cause was better than Hitler’s — but that did not make it God’s own cause. They had to think in careful and subtle ways about what it meant to support the Western democracies in their fight against totalitarianism without falling into that earlier trap of baptizing and sanctifying nationalism or “Democracy.” Reading Jenkins’s book I have come to understand much better the context in which these figures were working and the dangers they were trying to avoid. 


  1. Alan,

    You may already be aware of it, but there is one other book I can think of that covers similar ground (although focused on America): The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation by Richard Gamble.



  2. My great-grandfather brought back from the First World War a German lighter inscribed “Gott mit uns,” on a shelf in our living room to this day. And I recently watched the 1964 BBC documentary on the war, in which the author Henry Williamson at one point describes a conversation with a German soldier in which it came as a surprise to each of them that the other believed God was on his side.

    So it doesn’t seem a revelation to me to point out that the war was cloaked in religious language. I would be more impressed to see it demonstrated that any sort of sincere religious principle animated any of the actors in the war. That is not immediately apparent in a war between alliances of Protestant England, officially secular and culturally Catholic France, and Orthodox Russia versus Protestant Germany, Catholic Austria-Hungary, and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. In fact, does not the lack of any genuine religious principle at stake suggest the hollowness of any religious rhetoric that was used? Or is that Jenkins’s whole point?

  3. Henry Miller: I'm not sure what would count as evidence of sincerity, since we can't read people's hearts and minds. But Jenkins's book shows that among leaders and common people alike, and in private correspondence as well as public pronouncements, the war was very widely (if not universally) understood as a religious endeavor through and through. Certainly people on all sides said in every possible way that they thought "genuine religious principle" was at stake. Jenkins documents this very, very thoroughly. I can't think of any reason to suspect that they were less sincere than any other religious believers.

  4. Alan Jacobs: I don't think we are in disagreement, and I probably just need to read Jenkins's book. But I guess I am thinking of “holy war,” or a conflict in which “sincere religious principles” are at stake, as one like those seen in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which the outcome would have affected how peoples would believe and worship – cuius regio, eius religio and all of that.

    It just seems to me that the aims of the various powers in the Great War were much more mundane (integrity of states, balance of power, etc.), though they may have believed them to be good, and therefore favored by God. These beliefs may have been quite sincere. But as far as I know none of the powers sought to effect changes in the religious life of any other people, including even the Ottoman Empire. This just seems more superficially religious than a “holy” or “religious” war as I would understand it. And if I read you correctly, it seems that by the onset of the next war men like Lewis were seeing how superficial the rhetoric was, even though the righteousness of the cause was clearer in that conflict.

    This is a fascinating subject to me as I think it sheds light on the extent to which the Great War was an expression of modern versus pre-modern (including religious) values, and I will certainly look forward to reading Jenkins’s book. And thank you for your reply!

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