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World War I remembered as ‘stand for liberty’ 100 years later

NASHVILLE (BP) — Though Southern Baptists didn’t want America to enter World War I when it broke out, they came to see it as a necessary fight to preserve liberty and morality, historians have noted at the war’s 100th anniversary. One scholar added that America’s victory may have helped inspire the Cooperative Program.

“Prior to America’s entry into the war, there is a strong antiwar sentiment (among Southern Baptists) that ‘we don’t need to get involved,'” Bill Sumners, director of the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, told Baptist Press. But when President Woodrow Wilson, “who was favored by Southerners and Southern Baptists,” recommended that America enter the war, Baptists “pretty well supported him. You find very little — though there’s some — dissent about entry into the war. For the most part Southern Baptists rally to join the conflict.”

In its final annual meeting before the war ended in late 1918, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a report from its Committee on World Crisis that deemed military conflict the only way to stop Germany from suppressing democracy.

If America’s “entrance upon this vast enterprise had been dictated by lust of power, or gold, or land, or could be attributed justly to hate or vengefulness, the only notice which this Convention could properly take of it would be in the way of disapproval and condemnation,” the report said. “But the world has never witnessed such a situation as this in which our people are placed at this solemn and critical hour. Peace-loving, coveting nothing which belonged to Germany or her allies, living in good-will with all the peoples of the world, we are now challenged to use all the measureless resources of our country, that we may help to overcome, at any cost of blood or treasure, the hateful menace of German domination of the world.”

If Germany prevailed, the report warned, “the whole world will thus fall into moral chaos.”

Opposing the war

The war began on July 28, 1914, a month after the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungry was assassinated by a Yugoslav nationalist, provoking a series of diplomatic maneuvers and threats. Tensions escalated in Europe as both sides called on their allies for support. Within weeks, the world’s economic powers were aligned in two opposing groups with Germany and Austria-Hungry on one side and the United Kingdom, France and Russia on the other.

The next four years saw 70 million military personnel mobilized for war and more than 9 million soldiers killed, including more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers following America’s entry to the war in 1917.

Initially President Wilson issued a proclamation of neutrality declaring that the conflict was not America’s business. Most Southern Baptists agreed.

The 1915 SBC adopted a resolution praising Wilson, a Presbyterian with a reputation for personal piety, for “the firm stand he has taken for the ideals of peace, and at the same time the requirements of international law.” The convention “rejoice[d] in” Wilson’s “restraint,” “discrimination,” “judicial fairness” and “courage.”

The resolution was consistent with sentiments expressed in the SBC Social Service Commission’s 1914 report, issued two months before the war began.

“War, whether economic or political,” the commission said, “is the enemy of the life of man, and the Christian Church is called to leadership in its ultimate abolition.”

North Carolina Baptists’ Biblical Recorder newsjournal editorialized in 1915, “We believe that the incessant talk of war is little short of a high crime against civilization.” Similarly Georgia’s Christian Index urged America to remain on good terms with all nations fighting the war, and Virginia Baptists recommended at their 1915 annual meeting that “the United States maintain, in act and in utterance, the tone and attitude of neutrality as to the belligerent nations.”

During the war’s first two years though, Germany repeatedly sunk passenger and cargo ships, some with Americans aboard. The Germans deemed such attacks necessary because the ships carried materials to be used in the war effort. But Wilson demanded in 1916 that Germany recognize the “incontrovertible rights of neutrals.” He also asked the U.S. military to establish “reasonable preparedness” for war.

The military escalation made some Southern Baptists uneasy, with the Christian Index warning that if “preparedness” continued, Americans would “soon find ourselves involved in disastrous wars.” Baptists elsewhere likewise cautioned that military escalation might lead to war. One pastor wrote to the Alabama Baptist newsjournal asking Baptists to contact their Congressmen in protest of the “war madness which is about to sweep our country into a career similar to that which has deluged Europe in blood.”

In January 1917 Germany announced unrestricted warfare against all shipping in volition of its pledge that no ocean liners would be sunk without warning and that the safely of all non-combatants would be guaranteed. With Germany demonstrating a seemingly aggressive and autocratic impulse to control Europe, the U.S. declared war in April. Most Southern Baptists had come to believe that the use of military force was regrettably needed.

“Americans were very isolationist and didn’t want to get involved in other people’s conflicts,” Lloyd Harsch, professor of church history at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP. “But when the United States entered the war and understood that it was not just European powers fighting themselves but a war of the autocrats against liberty, then to stand for liberty was something that was necessary. As people who stood for religious liberty, there was a connection” for Southern Baptists.

Accepting the war

Antiwar activists were few at the 1917 SBC annual meeting. A proposed resolution pledged to Wilson and the government “our loyal and sacrificial support in the war in which we are engaged.” When J.J. Taylor, a pastor from Savannah, Ga., spoke against the resolution and urged prayer for the enemy, other messengers shouted him down and the resolution was adopted. Taylor later resigned his pastorate after agreeing with the congregation that his pacifist views caused disruption in the church.

There have been “elements of pacifism” in the SBC, “but it’s not very prominent in our heritage,” Sumners said. The majority of Southern Baptists “are reluctant for this country to go to war but know that sometimes it’s necessary.”

J.B. Gambrell, president of the SBC in 1917 and a leader among Texas Baptists, wrote America had to enter the war to defend the New Testament principle of individual liberty from the “absolutism of the (German) Kaiser.”

“We did not wish to go into the war; everything was done to keep out of it that could be done in honor,” Gambrell wrote in the Baptist Standard. “But, when Autocracy set out to bestride the world, the spirit of liberty was aroused, and America is in with the other great democracies, to fight the war out to a finish and make it possible for the people of the earth to come into the liberty wherewith Christ makes people free. It is pretty clear that in this conflict of ideas the best idea will win the field.”

In support of the war, Southern Baptists established a military training center on the campus of Wake Forest University, an institution then connected with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. George W. Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, toured hospitals for wounded troops. In a letter to his wife, Truett recounted his visit to a military hospital in England, where he met men willing to die “for me and my family, and my country, and for liberty and civilization.”

“Tonight I spoke in a hospital — Canadian — that has some American boys,” Truett wrote. “The chapel, holding perhaps 1,000 was packed, and, oh, they did give me such a welcome, some with one hand, some with a foot, some with one eye etc. Never, never, never can I get away from the impressions of such a visit. I saw them unloading a trainload of new arrivals of wounded. The sight of it all is seared into my brain, I think, forever.”

Wartime challenges and opportunities

At times the war effort presented Baptists with moral dilemmas. A 1918 Biblical Recorder article explained some wartime charities supported by Southern Baptists purchased cigarettes and hosted dances for soldiers — both of which seemed morally objectionable.

The Recorder noted, “There has been a tremendous letting down in our attitude toward certain moral questions since the war began. Who would have dared suggest before the war that our preachers urge their people to give money to buy cigarettes for our boys, or to provide dances for their pleasure? … Those things show a sub-normal state which the churches and preachers should set about correcting.”

At other times Southern Baptists saw the war as an opportunity for evangelism among soldiers. The convention voted unanimously in 1918 to assign all troop ministry to the Home Mission Board and urged the military to guarantee religious freedom for soldiers.

When World War I ended on Nov. 13, 1918, Baptists turned their attention to plans for establishing a League of Nations — a precursor organization to the United Nations — with most supporting it as an important peacekeeping tool. But the war also led to an even more important discussion for the future of the SBC: how to reach the world for Christ.

Although the war was over, Southern Baptists’ sense of triumphalism “continued with the idea that they wanted to win the world for Christ,” Harsch said. “Within months of the end of the war, Baptists in the North and the South were putting together five-year campaigns to raise money for missions so that the Gospel could go to the ends of the earth.”

The SBC’s 75 Million Campaign, though it collected only about $58 million of its $75 million goal, showed Baptists the value of a unified fundraising effort for all of the convention’s missions and ministries. In 1925, the 75 Million Campaign was the basis for Southern Baptists’ Cooperative Program, which still serves as the convention’s chief avenue for funding Kingdom work.

In a sense, World War I helped spawn CP, Harsch said.

To say the war “was the direct cause” of the 75 Million Campaign “I think would be an overstatement,” he said. “But the campaign did grow out of the triumphal view that the war has been won, now let’s push forward with bringing the Gospel to the rest of the world.”
David Roach is the chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).