College of LAS « Illinois

Research

Faith in No Man’s Land

For many soldiers, the horrors of World War I strengthened their belief in God.

WWI photo

Years after the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman uttered, “war is hell,” which sounded all the more memorable coming from a Union Army general whose troops burned their way across Georgia in 1864. The quote spoke to the widespread impression that war disillusions and diminishes the faith of those who conduct it. But does it really?

Jonathan Ebel would argue that in many cases, it doesn’t. In fact, the assistant professor of religion at the U of I has studied American soldiers’ experiences of World War I extensively, and he believes that “the Great War” confirmed for many the belief that war is a meaningful and redemptive experience. Many Americans who helped fight World War I interpreted the war through their Christian faith, and after returning home they set about with renewed, often militant, vigor to shape the country.

Ebel, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, became interested in war and religion in graduate school, where he studied American evangelist Billy Sunday’s revival campaign after the United States entered World War I in 1917. American pulpits emitted a strong pro-war sentiment at this time—ironically most vociferously by liberal pastors, who saw the war as a chance to end war—and by then Sunday was the most famous pro-war preacher, known for waving the American flag during services and otherwise portraying the war as, in his words, “hell against heaven.”

One feature of Sunday’s revival campaign, Ebel says, is that the preacher allowed the U.S. Army and Navy to set up recruiting booths in the back of the revival tent. After the altar call, during which congregants would come forward and declare themselves for Jesus Christ, they would turn around and see the recruiting booths.

“And it just struck me that it would be interesting to follow that through,” Ebel says. “Maybe some of those guys did go to the recruiting booth and went off and fought. What would they think afterward?”

To answer that question, Ebel studied scores of memoirs, diaries, letters, surveys, and other documents across the country containing the thoughts and opinions of soldiers, nurses, and others of various religions and races after World War I. One thing he has learned is that, contrary to the old saw, there are indeed atheists in foxholes. But another thing is that World War I often strengthened faith.

The war was among the first—and to that point the most devastating—where soldiers fought an enemy they couldn’t see (according to one estimate, artillery was responsible for 67 percent of combat casualties in World War I). The distant forces dictating life and death left World War I particularly open to religious interpretation among soldiers. Ebel says many American soldiers embraced a militant Christianity and “imagined they were modern incarnations of the Crusaders.”

WWI photo

“How did [veterans] make sense of death?” Ebel asks. “There are quite a few American soldiers who thought of themselves as imitators of Christ. Suffering to redeem the world. Suffering to save the world as Christ had done.”

He found an old survey of African American World War I veterans in Virginia that included a question about how the war affected their religious beliefs. Time and again, the response was that it strengthened it, a sentiment that was echoed in other materials he found. Some did have their faith shattered, Ebel says, but he focused on those whose faith was strengthened or reanimated—and there were many of them. After the war, of about 4 million eligible veterans, a quarter of them joined the American Legion, which wielded significant political sway and portrayed the war as a religious struggle, Ebel says.

The American Legion also didn’t disregard violence as a way to improve America, at least in its early days. The organization formed to support veterans after the war, but it was also known for fighting with elements that members thought were dangerous to America—labor unions, “Soviets, anarchists, revolutionary socialists, and every other ‘red,’” declared Legion Commander Alvin Owsley in 1923.

“Not everyone comes back from war thinking that it’s awful and meaningless, or fought as Ezra Pound said, ‘for an old bitch gone in the teeth, for a botched civilization,’” Ebel says. “Clearly that sentiment is there, [but] there’s also this other sentiment that needs some examining.”

For example, Ebel says we may better understand America’s actions in the 20th century if we better understand how belief in the redemptive qualities of combat and violence—and how it was weaved into faith in America—persisted after World War I. Ebel can hear echoes of Woodrow Wilson’s American idealism (the World War I president famously called for war against Germany to make the world “safe for democracy”) even now, in the words of presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Another reason to consider this topic, Ebel says, is that the questions of faith soldiers asked themselves in World War I—Why do some die while others don’t? Who controls it? What happens after I die?—seem to be quite common in warfare. Modern wars after World War I, however, including World War II and Vietnam, largely have not been studied from the religious perspectives of the participants.

“I think most Americans think of war as a primarily secular experience,” Ebel says. “Whether it’s Yorktown or Gettysburg or the Battle of the Bulge, My Lai, you can do that by thinking about authority, about economics, about politics, by thinking about a whole range of things that don’t have much to do with religion. But I don’t think we fully understand wars if we don’t spend some time thinking about the religious dimensions of it.”

By Dave Evensen
Spring 2010