Beliefs Culture Politics

World War I at 100: New books examine the battle of beliefs behind the ‘Great War’

"Church Service Before Battle" depicts a group of World War I-era soldiers kneeling to pray at a church service before going into battle.

RNS photo courtesy Julie Maria Peace

“Church Service Before Battle” depicts a group of World War I-era soldiers kneeling to pray at a church service before going into battle.

(RNS) Some called it “The Great War.” Others called it “The War to End All Wars.” History proves it was neither.

As the world marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I — a conflict that left 37 million dead or wounded and reshaped the global map — a number of scholars and authors are examining a facet of the war they say has been overlooked — the religious framework they say led to the conflict, affected its outcome and continues to impact global events today.

More than that, they argue, today’s religious and political realities — ongoing wars, disputed borders and hostile relationships — have their roots in the global conflict that began when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.

Communion services for soldiers on the battlefront was the cover story of the Nov. 12, 1914, edition of the "Christian Herald."

RNS photo courtesy Julie Maria Peace

Communion services for soldiers on the battlefront was the cover story of the Nov. 12, 1914, edition of the “Christian Herald.”

“You can’t understand the war fully without investigating the religious dimensions of the war,” said Jonathan Ebel, an associate professor of religion at the University of Illinois whose “Faith in the Fight: The American Soldier in the Great War” has just been issued in paperback.

“I would be the first to tell you the Great War was not a war of religion, but I think a big part of people’s understanding of what they were doing in the war, or why the war made sense to them, comes from religion.”

“Faith in the Fight” explores how American soldiers, field nurses and doctors and other aid workers used their religious experience to face the war. Reading through letters, memoirs and other contemporary accounts, Ebel discovered that rather than disillusioning those who fought the war, it somehow reinforced their ties to religion.

“The experience might have been something that knocked people off their beliefs, made them question,” Ebel said. “But based on the material I was able to draw on, the war for many Americans was not a disillusioning experience. Rather, it confirmed the illusions — if you want to call them that — of why they entered the war.”

Ebel draws a line from the “masculine Christianity” of the early 20th century (evangelist Billy Sunday’s enormously popular revivals often included military recruiting tents) to the way combatants and support workers thought of the war. Soldiers scribbled lines of Scripture on their gas masks, marked their calendars with a cross for each day they survived combat, and opened the pages of the Stars and Stripes military newspaper to read poems comparing them to the heroes of the Old Testament.

“The culture of pre-war America gave America images, ideas and beliefs perfectly tailored to war,” he writes.


That is echoed on a global stage in “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade” by Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religion at Baylor University. The book pulls the lens back from individual Americans to highlight the religious imagery, rhetoric and symbolism used by all sides in the war to further their goals.

Typical religious postcards sent to loved ones during World War I.

RNS photo courtesy Julie Maria Peace

Typical religious postcards sent to loved ones during World War I.

Several countries — especially Russia and Germany — saw the war as a fulfillment of their unique destinies as the kingdom of God. But Europe did not have room for so many countries with the same aspiration.

“You can toss a coin as to which country to blame, but their two clashing visions made war inevitable,” Jenkins said. “If you do not understand the messianic and apocalyptic imagery used by all sides, and how wide-ranging those images were among all classes, all groups, all nations, you cannot hope to understand the war.”

Jenkins gathers numerous examples of biblical images of angels, demons, apocalypse and righteousness and shows how both sides in the war used them to justify the fight and rally support at home. It is no wonder, he writes, that the war was frequently referred to as “apocalyptic,” or even as Armageddon, the final battle the New Testament says will restore a heavenly kingdom.

“I could almost rewrite my book in terms of angels,” he said, citing one of the most frequently used — and believed in — images of the war. The most famous example are the so-called “Angel of Mons” — ghost soldiers from the 15th-century Battle of Agincourt led by St. George who supposedly appeared on the the British lines in France.

But the ghost soldiers were the post-Mons invention of Welsh poet Arthur Machen. Yet when he pointed out they were a fiction, people accused him of suppressing the truth.

Typical religious postcards sent to loved ones during World War I.

RNS photo courtesy Julie Maria Peace

Typical religious postcards sent to loved ones during World War I.

“You don’t get anything like that in World War II,” Jenkins said of the belief in angels on the battlefield. “In World War II, there were hundreds of depictions of angels, but they were all in films and books that were clearly fantasy and fiction. But the angel stories in World War I were taken seriously.”

But if the angels were fictions, the new realities established at the end of the war in 1918 were very real and still affect global religion and politics today, Jenkins writes. After the war, Jenkins said, Jews felt a more urgent need for a land of their own. The push for a Jewish homeland gained momentum and led to the establishment of Israel in 1948 — and to the conflicts between Israel and some of its neighbors today.

Adolf Hitler, too, latched on to the widespread humiliation that permeated a defeated Germany to establish his Third Reich, sowing the seeds for the Holocaust that would leave 6 million Jews (and millions of others) slaughtered.

Jenkins also traces the contemporary push for an Islamic caliphate — or Muslim kingdom — by contemporary groups such as The Islamic State and al-Qaida to World War I. In many ways, the Middle East map we know in 2014 has its origins in the aftermath of World War I.

“The end of the caliphate (after World War I) removed the certainty of faith and state for Muslims,” Jenkins said. “It was an uncharted wilderness. And what most of them have tried to figure out for the last 90 years is how do you live in that wilderness?”

He also tracks the rise of African Christianity to World War I, which he said exposed the previously isolated continent to new ideas and new faiths as they fought alongside or supported their European colonizers in the war.

“This was an era of mass movements, healings, religious risings, nationalist Christian restructuring, Marian visions,” Jenkins writes of Africa in 1918 and beyond. “When the newer churches write their history, they will give pride of place to those critical years after 1915, when believers tried to make sense of a world plunged into destructive insanity.”

World War I and II books


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • Very nice article.

    I see so many direct parallels to today. Its really sorta sad. I wish we could do better.

  • Jesus was a promoter of peace and love among humans, and not of hate and war. He instructed us to return the sword to its place and acknowledged that those who use the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52).

    Armageddon will be the war to end all wars on earth and leads to the millenial rule by God’s son, Jesus.

    As prophecied at Micah 4:3, “He (God) will render judgment among many peoples and set matters straight respecting many nations far away. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more.”

    What a grand blessing to look forward to!!!

  • “They did not repent of their murders”
    Revelation 9:21

    Another Yeshu`a from the one in the Bible is a false Christ and most people throughout history have worshipped one of these false images. Same today, perhaps even more so.

  • There is no Santa, but there is Almighty God (Yahweh or Jehovah) and his son, Jesus. They will both make the earth the best place to live.

  • Missing from this analysis are the reasons why WWI and WWII were so different: they were fought by different Generations. WWI was fought by the Lost Generation (with generational attitude similar to today’s Gen X). The social environment was similar to our 1980’s to 2000’s – social institutions unraveling, a turn for answers to Right Wing Authoritarian religion, stupid little wars that incinerate lives and treasure. WWII was fought by the GI Generation, who rejected authoritarian Fundamentalist dogmas of fear and hate in favor of secular idealism. No sky fairies on the battlefield for them. They saw too clearly the fruits of right wing authoritarian religion in every country where Fascism was embraced. The Gen Ys are similarly rejecting the Culture Wars in favor of secular solutions. History may not exactly repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

  • “Santa”: Bishop of Nicholas of Myra (in present day Turkey). He was a real person, Fran.

    “there is Almighty God (Yahweh or Jehovah) and his son, Jesus”

    What religion are you, Fran? Not Christian, obviously (or else you would believe that Jesus IS God: the Second Person of the Trinity).

  • @Fran,

    “Armageddon will be the war to end all wars….”

    Thank You for displaying the depravity of Christianity at its core –
    The fundamental theory that one may be completely absolved of all responsibility for ones provocations.

    You are a slave to the sickest, most disgraceful theory ever invented by men;
    A God who will destroy – for your personal benefit – all non-Christians.

    You foolishly ignore that WWI was the war that ended ALL OF CHRISTENDOM!
    WWI was the war of Christians, For Christians, By Christians TO DESTROY ALL CHRISTIANS !!

    WWI proved that Christianity is COMPLETELY capable
    of blowing itself up!

    CHRISTIANITY has no need for non-Christians to threaten them at all!

  • @Fran,

    “there is Almighty God (Yahweh or Jehovah) and his son, Jesus”

    Writing something as a fact, and actually having it exist in fact, are two different things.

    You have no evidence of a god or a jesus.

  • @Tree,

    Religion must die in order for fascism to die.
    Authoritarian Fascism is Religion – and Religion is Authoritarian Fascism.

    The only hope for the world is the spread of humanism with its emphasis on the welfare of people and practical solutions for societies.

  • What about “I come not to bring Peace but a sword”?
    How do you turn that into a peacemaker?

  • Agree that religion is to blame for many problems in this world but silly to think we can trust in humans to make things better most with good intentions once with any kind of power turn corrupt

  • Great observations about all wars, including WW I and all the wars since WW II, including the “Cold War,” Korea, Viet Nam, “9/11,” our invasion of Iraq based on the Bush/Cheney spread of lying “beliefs,” the Putin-led attempts to steal back part of Ukraine, and the Israeli invasion of the West Bank that is taking place right now.

    I do not think that the degree that other factors than religion are participant keeps wars from being wars of religion. It may be a matter of blunt degree, but when you consider masses of people large enough to be war combatants, I do not see how you can separate religious beliefs as if they had no participation.

    Even the presumed non-believer Adolph Hitler–and never allow the behavior of some non-believers to color the attitudes of all non-believers, any more than the behavior of some believers should color the attitudes of all believers–even the presumed non-believer Adolph Hitler was “religious” in the blind and passionate way he pursued his race convictions. Those beliefs/convictions were religious because they had no basis in fact.

    The same can be attributed to Ayn Rand and the selfish greed involved in her fictional, pseudo-philosophy of economics. Those were “religious” beliefs of a nature that did not involve any gods, just as were Hitler’s race convictions.

    When we consider the beliefs of people that have no basis in fact, everything is religious. That is a vital aspect of all the evil that has been part of religion and/or religious practice throughout history. Consider the cruel, ugly attitudes of the “religious right” in this country today. Consider the constant contention between Israel and it neighboring islamists ever since the State of Israel was instituted in the late 1940s.

    Belief is whatever cannot be substantiated in fact and replicated with the same results in practice. Until the time arrives for individuals or groups when they realize the difference between belief and fact and behave toward others based on fact, not personal beliefs, at least on beliefs that are informed by facts, we will have wars.

    Since we have always had wars, and wars have always been based on unsubstantiated beliefs by one side or the other of those at war, one wonders if there can ever be peace. Can there ever be a “Great War” except in the size of the atrocities? Can there ever be a “War to End All Wars?”

    War is not peace. Until we face the evil aspect of belief that leads to war, belief will be an intrinsic part of war.

  • The horror of your error is considering ancient, mythological writings in the same vein as recorded historical facts, scientific facts that can be replicated, substantiated sociological facts, and the demonstrable realities of psychology.