This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the launch of the Great War. As we look back, many will cast the massive conflict in political, economic, and social terms, and they will be right to do so. But if they ignore the religious aspects of the war—as many will be tempted to do—they will fail to treat it fully and fairly. In fact, as Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, shows, religion played an essential role in the war, even as the war shaped religion worldwide.
In Jenkins’ book, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne, 2014), he transports us back a century ago to explore how religion colored the broader political, cultural, and intellectual issues driving the war. Among the major national players, Christian imagery and language infused the move toward war and sustained the military conflict. But the four years from 1914–1918 also remapped the modern world, drawing new geopolitical boundaries in ways that reflected and heightened religious tension.
In this engaging volume, enhanced by dozens of images from the era, Jenkins makes the bold claim that, “[w]ithout appreciating its religious and spiritual aspects, we cannot understand the First World War. More important, though, the world’s modern religious history makes no sense except in the context of that terrible conflict. The war created our reality” (28). And he devotes about half of his time in this substantial, 438-page book to religion during the war and about half to the way religion in the war transformed our world in the immediately ensuing years.
So the first question is, in what way was World War I a religious war? How was it construed as a “holy war”?
As Jenkins neatly summarizes his broad claim, “[t]he 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” (4–5).
In fact, those on both sides freely employed rhetoric of holy war and crusading. Few opposed the war, and many “went far beyond any simple endorsement and became vocal, even fanatical advocates” (67). Russia and Germany used the greatest religious rhetoric, and ironically, such championing of religion during the war devastated religion most in these countries afterwards. As Jenkins observes, “Christians in all combatant nations—including the United States—entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of cosmic war. None found any difficulty in using fundamental tenets of the faith as warrants to justify war and mass destruction” (87–88).
Christian imagery played a central role in the war effort. Most notably, apocalyptic and millenarian language, especially from the book of Revelation, infused discussions of the war, allowing nations to imbue it with greater significance as they believed they were approaching the end of the world and sought to give birth to a new reality.
It’s important to note that this sentiment would be muted significantly during the Second World War, which brings us to the second major question: How did the religious aspects of the war shape our modern world? Jenkins describes the outcome of the Great War as “a global religious revolution” that transformed not only Christianity, but also other major religions, particularly Judaism and Islam (5).
One of the great postwar dangers was that “religious and apocalyptic ideas … would metastasize into new and sinister forms,” which they did in the decades after the war with the rise of Nazism and Fascism (191). A renewed spiritual interest moved in all sorts of directions, especially in a proliferation of cults and religious alternatives. Perhaps the greatest change took place in Russia, where the Russian Orthodox church was decimated in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. We can only understand the interwar era of dictatorships and the Second World War, Jenkins argues, if we cast them in the light of the religious dimensions of the First World War.
What happened to Christianity? It survived but took on new forms as people like Karl Barth sought to “rediscover sources of divine authority” (218). This led to a renewal in both Protestant and Catholic circles. Other religious groups also sought to return to sources of authority, such as Jews who promoted a Zionism that was championed by Americans and Britons. But coinciding with Zionism was a spike in anti-Semitism, both in Russia and defeated Germany. Jenkins reminds us that “[t]he religious politics of the 1920s and 1930s flowed naturally from the First World War” (236).
Significantly, the events during and after the Great War totally recreated our world by redrawing maps along religious lines. The Middle East had traditionally been fairly diverse both ethnically and religiously, but World War I led to the new Middle East, which is rather homogenously Muslim today. Part of the sad story that contributed to this change was the genocide of Armenian Christians through forced population transfers and horrific crimes.
As a result of religious tensions and geopolitical ambitions, the war led finally to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire with the elimination of the caliphate in 1924. The world that the Great War created was one in which “a mainly Muslim Middle East stands against a Europe defined by its Christian heritage—and a Christianity that scarcely acknowledges its lost Middle Eastern dimension” (288–289).
All in all, Jenkins packs a lot into his study of religion in the Great War era. He examines the topic from varied angles to give an illuminating view of the impact religion had on the war and the ways that impact has shaped our world even a century later. Overall, I found this book to be an engaging read and Jenkins to have a wide grasp of the literature.
At times, I thought he pressed his argument a bit too far. I note two particular instances:
First, Jenkins makes the provocative claim that Christian approaches to soldiers dying in World War I mirrored modern Muslim ideas of jihad, that a person who dies in war automatically enters paradise. However, he overstates his case. Christians in World War I never agreed that death in war led to automatic salvation. Jenkins even recognizes that while the implication appeared in the way the media discussed soldiers’ sacrifice, many Christians opposed such an implication. Certainly, an implication made popular by media does not equate to an ideology, and while automatic entrance into paradise for those who died in jihad was part of Muslim ideology, it was not a mainstay of Christian theology.
Second, in his chapter on the rise of new churches in Africa, Jenkins seeks to make a link between the war and the rapid rise of Christianity in Africa. He persuasively argues that the war eroded the power and prestige of the white colonists and thus paved the way for Africans to indigenize Christianity in their own religious forms. Nonetheless, his link between the war and the rise of African Christianity felt a little forced and the time devoted to discussing it perhaps unwarranted.
These notes aside, Jenkins offers much valuable historical analysis, giving readers a better understanding of the First World War. I recommend the book for thinking about the broader issues involved with the war and its legacy, moving beyond simply geopolitical concerns to the very real impact of religion on the world stage.
I close with one of Jenkins’ incisive takeaways: “The most unsettling lesson may be the breathtaking speed with which a world can change, the brief moment during which a seemingly rock-solid order can be swept away. … The Great War shows how the religious world we know might indeed be turned upside down within a very short space of time” (374–375).
These are relevant words for our own time. And Jenkins’ The Great and Holy War offers a valuable perspective on the Great War, one well worth considering during this year of remembering the war that failed to end all wars, but did radically change our world.