Simon Barrow

How the First World War changed religion and challenges Christianity

By Simon Barrow
November 12, 2014

Philip Jenkins is an American writer, academic and commentator who first came to prominence with his book The Next Christendom, which looked at how the axis of world Christianity shifted radically in the last century, such that its new centres are outside the West, in a partial historical return to an earlier geography of the faith that has been accompanied by some huge divergences both from both ancient and recent history.

That book was the first in a trilogy on the 'Future of Christianity' which has stirred up debate worldwide, not least about the place of religion in conflicts across Africa and Asia. Jenkins' central themes (like the re-centring of Christianity) are not new to missiologists and others, but his ability to pitch them to a wider (if not mass) audience has been decisive. There is much to argue with in his perspective, but also much to be grateful for in his narrating and provoking.

Now the ground-breaking author has turned his attention to a piece of history with continuing resonances (acknowledged and unacknowledged) relating directly to the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the burgeoning interest in Remembrance.

The Great and Holy War: How World War I changed religion forever (Lion Hudson 2014) is a must read. It is ably and helpfully summarised by John Moffatt SJ here (

Those who thought that Vincent Burke's video linking twentieth century wars to the blessing of the church was unfair or exaggerated ( might have pause for thought as they plough through Jenkins' documentary analysis of the enthusiastic blessing of battle. It is easy to be judgemental with hindsight, of course (the author is not, and clearly adheres to a just war approach to these issues), but this book is a stern reminder of the way in which Christendom – the allying of the church with power in a variety of ways – distorts the Gospel of peace; peace not at any price, but at the price of crucifixion re-understood through the vindication of resurrection (gratuitous life-giving).

Moffatt summarises the way Jenkins covers the issues as follows:

The first part of the book (Introduction – Chapter 6) explores the war years themselves, largely from the European perspective, and the role of religion as motivator and consoler. The more extreme language shocks us now: ‘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… I look upon it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr’ (p. 71 – British). Or, ‘World war, you transfigure our nature, like the Word and the Spirit… Come, Sword, you are to me the Revelation of the Spirit’ (p. 77 - German). Compare also a prayer of praise to God, who reigns on high above "Cherubinen und Seraphinen und Zeppelinen" (p. 12).

Jenkins’ range of references shows that Christian leaders who fused theology and a call to arms were found in all denominations on both sides. Nor was it just about Christianity. As the Ottoman Empire entered the war, the sultan-caliph declared: "there is no doubt that the Divine help and assistance of the just God and the moral support of our glorious Prophet will be on our side to encourage us" (p. 8).

Meanwhile Muslim subjects of the Allies would fight with as much devotion on the other side. Jenkins quotes a German Jewish voice: "the German people played a historical role as God’s people at a time of world crisis and divine judgment" (p. 240); and British and French Jews were vigorously patriotic, though avoiding holy war rhetoric (p. 243).

The language and imagery of scripture allowed already-committed believers to integrate their personal religious sensibility with the national cause – and often drew those committed to the national cause back into the practice of religion. Britain experienced a "run on the bank of God" (p. 71), Churches in the German-speaking world suddenly filled with secularists (p. 74), while a new entente between Church and State in republican France was ushered in by President Poincaré’s vow and commitment to a new "union sacrée" (p. 89). America and Russia experienced similar outbreaks of martial and religious fervour.

The wartime religiosity was pluriform. At the more theological end, there was biblical language of salvation, purification and martyrdom. The Apocalypse became a central text, framing the war as a cosmic battle between good and evil and making generals into messiahs. The book’s lurid imagery offered a religious language for the carnage on the battlefield and the end of a world order. As the horror and the human cost mounted, the narrative of Jesus’s sacrificial death "for his friends" took on a central role, both for combatants and their loved ones.

But there was also the folk piety. This ranged from the uncontrollable spread of stories of visions and miracles to the development of new apotropaic practices – the hammering of nails into a giant wooden stature of von Hindenburg is a particularly striking example (p. 130). Though more naturally at home in Catholic and Orthodox cultures, these were as prevalent amongst Protestant Christians.

Jenkins also looks at the rise of spiritualism on the home front and the growth of other occult beliefs and practices, particularly among the intelligentsia – signs of the religious fragmentation to come. He explores how a post-Christian apocalyptic narrative came to underpin both Bolshevism and National Socialism, and charts the toxic rise of political anti-Semitism in the latter years of the war.

Part two of Philip Jenkins’ book looks at the aftermath of the First World War and the fate of institutional Christianity, from revolution and a near annihilation in Russia, to reformation, secularisation and new, radical movements in Western Europe and America.

For reference, Philip Jenkins is now the Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University in the USA (appointed in 2103) and co-director for Baylor's Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion. He is also the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Pennsylvania State University (PSU). He was Professor (from 1993) and a Distinguished Professor (from 1997) of History and Religious studies at the same institution; and also assistant, associate and then full professor of Criminal Justice and American Studies at PSU, 1980–93. Something of a polymath and cross-disciplinary operator, therefore.

Jenkins is also a contributing editor for The American Conservative and writes a monthly column for ecumenical and generally liberal Christian Century magazine. He has also written articles for Christianity Today (a major US evangelical periodical), First Things (a traditionalist philosophical and religious journal with a Catholic slant), and The Atlantic magazine.

Whether you agree or disagree with his particular emphases, The Great and Holy War is essential reading for the understanding not just of this slice of European and world history, but in order to get to grips with profoundly problematic history of Christendom in relation to war, empire and violence – and the alternative, post-Christendom perspectives and understandings being promoted by Ekklesia and others.

This book paints a picture of faith, and especially Christian faith, mired in blood. Is there a way out after Christendom? That is one of the key issues in Ekklesia's current and future work on anamnesis: in theological terms, costly remembrance that mirrors Bonhoeffer's anti-dote to 'cheap grace'.

* More from Ekklesia on Remembrance here:

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia. He is a member of the International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS) and is co-editor of Christian Mission in Western Society (CTBI, 2001).

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.