World War I and the Fall of Christian Empire, Part I

Nobody can come to grips with the drama of history unless he recognizes that most of the evil done in this world is done by people who do it for good purposes.

Krister Stendahl (1921-2008)

In a world gone pagan, what is a Christian to do? For the world is gone pagan. Members of the body of Christ are tearing one another, and His body is bleeding as it once bled on Calvary, but this time the wounds are dealt by His friends. It is as though Peter were driving home the nails, and John were piercing the side.

William Temple (1881-1944)

In this series, we are tracking hard-won truths about the Gospel that the church has learned through the course of the 20th Century. In the next two articles, we will be looking at the Mainline Churches’ central learning after the end of the First World War: how easily the Christian faith can be corrupted by nationalistic fervor.

One might hope that the churches would be a voice for peace and reconciliation in a world gone mad. In fact, there were notable voices for peace leading up to World War I (1914-1918). For instance, Pope Benedict XV pleaded with the nations of the world to turn back from madness. He wrote,

“The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror. There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain. Who would imagine as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society? Who would recognize brothers, whose Father is in Heaven?”

He pleads with them for peace on earth and good will to all. But voices like his were a minority. Most churches were at best quiet supporters of their various countries’ war efforts, or at worst, enthusiastic supporters.

The Devastation of Modern Warfare

Benedict was right; the war was a blood bath. Through the advent of modern mechanized warfare, armies were able to slaughter soldiers and civilians in numbers unimaginable before this time. In some battles, it was not unheard of for armies to lose over 60,000 soldiers in a day. By the end of the war, there were 8 to 10 million military deaths and over 2 million civilian deaths.

The battlefields, by all accounts, were a nightmare. From the overwhelming smell of putrefaction to the constant ear-splitting sound of the artillery, it was a wonder anyone stayed sane. Even the future Fuhrer of the Third Reich, when he arrived at the battlefield of the Somme, encountered a scene ‘more like hell than war.’

World War I soldiers

The Gospel and Nationalism

Why did the churches support this war? On all sides, Christians saw it as a righteous cause blessed by God. Each side did not differentiate between the demands of the Gospel and the demands of nationalism. In 1914, they were the same.

German Churches at the Beginning of WWI

Austrian postcard promoting war bonds

Before 1914, Germany believed for decades that God had chosen it as an exceptional power. The influential philosopher Georg Hegel saw Germany as a ‘world-historical nation.’ This meant that he believed that God was using Germany to work out God’s purposes in the world by influencing and dominating other nations, much as God had used the Israelites millennia before.

By 1914, this had become a hallowed idea in Germany. Theologians pointed to the German Reich’s quick rise and domination of other powers as evidence of providence. They saw the German Reich as the highest accomplishment of the Christian political order. Lutheran theologian Friedrich Gogarten wrote in 1915, “The German people and German spirit [Geist] are, in our most sublime conceptions, the revelation of eternity.” The year before, twenty-nine of Germany’s most respected theologians had signed a statement to foreign Protestants to convince them of Germany’s right to defend itself.  

Allied Churches at the Beginning of WWI

On the Allied side, Christian interpretation of the war’s importance ran along a continuum. Some leaders of the Church of England, for instance, were restrained in their opinion of the war. Those who supported the war justified it with secular ideas like honour and humanitarian value, viewing it through the lens of Just War Theory. However, these moderate views were a minority.

A French propaganda postcard showing German soldiers in World War I pillaging a church

At the beginning of the war, it was common to hear clergy describe it as a holy war or a crusade. One Anglican bishop wrote that the Allies were “predestined instruments to save the Christian civilization of Europe from being overcome by a brutal and ruthless military paganism.” At the worst, the Anglican Bishop of London called on Allied soldiers to “kill Germans—do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends.”

Churches in the United States at the Beginning of WWI

Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, standing at a pulpit made of artillery shells, featured in a British propaganda postcard

In the United States, the pre-war years were a time of revival. As churches experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they saw it as a mark of the end times. This revival, mixed with dispensationalism, created an atmosphere of expectation for the Second Coming of Christ. They believed that the European conflagration was the beginning of the final conflict leading to the battle of Armageddon. One Pentecostal journal put it: “The nations of Europe battle, and unconsciously prepare the way for the return of the Lord Jesus.” The popular revivalist Billy Sunday also saw the war in apocalyptic terms: “It is Bill [Kaiser Wilhelm] against Woodrow [Wilson], Germany against America, Hell against Heaven.”


The old adage says that hindsight is 20/20. From our perspective, the apocalyptic language seems absurd. Jesus did not return; the war did not unleash Armageddon. It turned out that the Kaiser was not in fact the Antichrist. The crusade language is also painful to read today.

It is difficult to see how someone who reads Jesus’ words about love of enemies can turn around and call for the killing of the good and the bad, the young and the old. That sentiment is bloodthirsy and un-Christian. But even the secular appeal to honour, humanitarian values, and Just War seems hollow in light of the 12 million dead. Many soldiers walked away seeing no honour whatsoever in the. In hindsight, the only Christian voice that spoke with Gospel power was that of Benedict XV, along with a few others who agreed with him.

An Ancient Dilemma Is Still With Us Today

This is not an argument for Pacifism, though I do have a lot of sympathy for it. Rather, I am pointing to an ancient dilemma in the church going back to the end of the Roman Empire. Why do churches again and again fall sway to nationalism? Why do Christians allow their faith to be corrupted by nationalistic fervour? I wish I could say we have learned this lesson. We are very much still wrestling with it.

However, I want to suggest that World War I started a new cycle of questioning the Christendom model. In this vein, next time we will look at perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, and his call for Christians to break from Christendom.

Sources and Further Reading

For this reflection, I drew on The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade by Philip Jenkins. You can find a review of the book here if you are interested.

For a general history of the War, I have come back again and again to A World Undone by G. J. Meyer. Not only does it tell the story clearly, but it has frequent interludes that give important background information.

Please follow and like us:

3 Replies to “World War I and the Fall of Christian Empire, Part I”

  1. The apocalyptic mood at the end of WW1 had other results. David Lloyd George, the coalition British Prime Minister from 1916–18, had been profoundly influenced by Old Testament teachings in Sunday School in his native Wales. (His torturously manipulative life indicates that he picked up little else). But LG saw the British conquest of Jerusalem as the chance to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Lord Balfour, the Tory Foreign Minister, had long been very sympathetic to Zionism, as was the third man in the government, Winston Churchill. So the unbelievably fraught decision to create Israel was made. The arrogance with which they proceeded may be illustrated by Churchill’s boast that he created the state of Jordan by scrawling a map on the back of an envelope during a cab ride.

  2. I think the Old Testament, especially the conquest of Canaan, has shaped much of the Christian imagination about war. When God chose Abraham and his descendants to inherit the Promised Land and to bless the world, did that include permission for the military conquest of Canaan?

    Jesus and Paul, who could have clarified the issue, failed to offer their opinions on Israel’s military adventures.

    Today, the Mennonite (pacifist) church my daughter attends is not sure what to make of Paul’s “Armour of God” passage (Eph. 6:10-18). And the Psalms I pray teach me Israel’s vocabulary of military triumph and defeat.
    You are my King and my God
    who decrees victories for Jacob.
    Through you we push back our enemies,
    through your name we trample our foes.
    But now you have humbled and rejected us,
    you no longer go out with our armies. (Ps 44:4-5,9)

    1. This is a really good point. I think the church has used the Old Testament war passages. I would agree with the Mennonite church actually that we have to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus.

      And I have a personal theory that one of the Gospels speaks about this issue. Matthew 15: 21-28. This is the story of Jesus going to Tyre and he meets the Canaanite woman who asks to have her child healed. The interesting thing here is that ‘Canaanite’ is an anacronism. Luke I think calls her a Syro-phonecian woman which is more accurate. There had not been Canaanites around for centuries. I think Jesus here is recaputulating Israelite history, and instead of attacking the ‘enemy’ of Israel he recognizes faith in her, and blesses her with the healing of her child.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *