The Great and Holy War

Elesha Coffman

Back when I taught U.S. history surveys to undergrads, I did not do a very good job explaining the causes or significance of World War I. My textbook (Tindall and Shi, Brief 7th ed.) emphasized President Woodrow Wilson's ill-informed and impractical moralism, pressure from war profiteers, and entanglements with arrogant European empires as causes for American participation, with domestic social unrest and World War II as primary consequences. OK as far as it went. According to Philip Jenkins, though, the textbook and I missed the real story.

What if WWI is best understood as a crusade, during which the powers of Christendom sought--as they had in the medieval crusades--not just wealth and territory, but the kingdom of God? And what if the consequences of the war were no less than the end of the old religious world and the beginning of the one we now inhabit?

Jenkins makes both arguments in this sweeping yet well-researched and readable book. He's gotten some pushback (see reviews here and here) on the claim that the 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" (5). Other factors were in play, certainly, but Jenkins brings to light--frequently with his own translations--sources illustrating that religious rhetoric was not just pasted over nationalism but deployed, and taken to heart, at all levels of the war effort.

This work reminded me of Harry Stout's work in Upon the Altar of the Nation, as both authors invoked sermons and popular manifestations of religion to recapture an atmosphere in which everything seemed charged with supernatural significance. I don't remember Stout getting the same complaints that sermons and popular religion couldn't really have been as important during the Civil War as he made them out to be. Perhaps a fervently religious 19th-century America is easier to accept than a fervently religious 20th-century Europe? Jenkins anticipates that reaction, writing:
 The war took place in a world in which religious faith was still the norm, even in advanced and industrial nations, and even more so in mainly rural and peasant societies. Religious language and assumptions were omnipresent, on the home front and at the front lines, as part of the air people breathed. All those religious interpretations, all that willingness to believe tales of angels and apparitions, did not spring to life overnight in August 1914. Rather, they were deeply embedded in prewar culture, to a degree that must challenge familiar assumptions about the impact of Enlightenment and scientific ideas on ordinary Europeans. And the experience of war greatly intensified perceptions of the religious dimension, in an age when death was such a familiar fact, when so much effort was devoted to analyzing the vagaries of providence and fate (14-15).
This whole, quite significant argument is still only the first half of the book. Jenkins goes on to show how the war not only redrew the maps of much of the world but also dramatically reshaped global religions (by which I mean religions that count millions of adherents in lots of places; I acknowledge that "world religions" is a problematic category). Of course, European Christendom, in both its Protestant and Catholic forms, lay mortally wounded. Orthodoxy in Russia took an even bigger hit. The Bolshevik Revolution wasn't caused only by the Great War, but the two conflicts were clearly related. I can now add to my previous failings as a teacher the fact that I never adequately connected WWI and the travails of Russian Orthodoxy.

But wait, there's so much more. "For Jews, as for Christians, the most important trends of the twentieth century [Zionism and anti-Semitism] can be traced precisely to the Great War era" (236). In far-flung colonial areas, "The mobilization of subject peoples brought religious beliefs and ideologies more centrally into the political realm, because ethnic minorities were so often defined by distinctive religious beliefs that set them against the creed of the ruling powers" (281). "In a sense, these events actually created what we today call the Middle East" (288), with devastating consequences for the region's ancient Christian churches and intensely complicated effects on its Muslims, who for the first time in centuries found themselves without a caliph (chapter 13). Meanwhile, Africa experienced a New Pentecost (chapter 12). To identify just one facet of the new religious world produced by all of these changes, "In 1914 the Orthodox outnumbered Pentecostal and charismatic Christians by better than a hundred to one; today, Pentecostal/charismatic believers outnumber the Orthodox by three to one" (21).

I realize that most of the ground Jenkins covers lies outside the realm of this blog, religion in American history. This book will have more of an impact on the church history survey courses I now teach than it would have had on the U.S. history surveys I used to teach. Nonetheless, the foreign adventures of the American Century significantly overlapped the new religious world Jenkins describes both temporally and geographically. We as historians and as American citizens need to understand this story better.


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