Philip Jenkins interview on his book for the WWI Centennial

A flood of books, DVDs and TV specials are marking the centennial of World War I. The war has been a major theme on Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge. But you may never guess from most of this media that the war had anything to do with religion.

That’s why—if you care about religious diversity and the role of faith in global war and peace—then you must get a copy of Philip Jenkins’ new The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. ReadTheSpirit online magazine highly recommends this unique and important look at how the First World War reshaped global conflicts we are still wrestling with a century later.

Jenkins writes this in the opening pages:

“The 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. Not in medieval or Reformation times but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world’s Christians were indeed engaged in a holy war that claimed more than 10 million lives.

“Acknowledging the war’s religious dimension forces us to consider its long-term effects. In an age of overwhelming mass propaganda … nations could not spend years spreading the torrid language and imagery of holy warfare without having a potent effect. … The war ignited a global religious revolution. … It transformed not just the Christianity of the main combatant nations but also other great faiths, especially Judaism and Islam. It destroyed a global religious order that had prevailed for the previous half millennium and dominated much of the globe. The Great War drew the world’s religious map as we know it today.”

What readers will find in the book’s nearly 400 page are stories that will surprise and, in some cases, utterly shock contemporary readers.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Philip Jenkins. Here are …


DAVID: The fact that religious fervor was at the heart of World War I will come as a surprise to many of our readers, who largely see TV shows about the patriotism that drove men to enlist. So, I’m going to start our interview by quickly listing just a few of the historic religious events that took place on the eve of this war:

There’s no wonder that people around the world thought the End of the World might be at hand, right?

PHILIP: And there are so many more dates you could include in that list! Certainly you could include in 1917 both the Russian Revolution and the appearances that are known to Catholics around the world as Our Lady of Fatima. Then, if you add General Edmund Allenby capturing Jerusalem in 1917—well, when people picked up their newspapers, it began to seem as though they were reading a direct commentary on the Book of Revelation.

By 1917, all the nations involved in this war were deep in despair. It had begun to seem as though this terrible war might carry on until every man in Europe was killed off. If you were alive in that era, then you were reading all of these headlines in the newspapers—including stories out of Portugal about these apparitions of the Virgin Mary and the sun dancing in the sky. Some of this news becomes absolutely baffling. If you don’t believe the Apocalypse is imminent, then you don’t have much imagination.


DAVID: We’ll return to some of the amazing spiritual visions from World War I in a moment, but I want to ask you right away about some of the really shocking Christian perspectives you’ve documented in this history. And let’s start with Lyman Abbott, one of the most famous theologians and writers in America in that era. Earlier in his life, before the Civil War, he fought against slavery shoulder to shoulder with Henry Ward Beecher. He was a progressive who backed Theodore Roosevelt. And yet when World War I came around?

PHILIP: Like a lot of the leading Protestant clergy of his day—including a lot of the liberal and progressive clergy—Lyman Abbott entirely accepted that the war was necessary. But, then, he went far beyond that to see the war as a crusade. He had a vision of the war in which the Allies represented absolute good and the Germans represented absolute evil.

DAVID: I found an online link where people can read Abbott’s most infamous publication about the war, “To Love Is To Hate.” But give us just a brief summary of his message.

PHILIP: In today’s terms, we would say that Lyman Abbott declared the war a Jihad. He didn’t use that term, of course, but he was declaring this a holy war. In that piece you mentioned, “To Love Is to Hate”—and in other pieces he wrote—Abbott said that anyone who died in the war was a martyr. Fighting in this war was a matter of sacrificial Christian good. Fighting in this war was sacred.

DAVID: He called the German leadership murderers, pillagers of churches, violators of women and he declared, “I do well to hate.”

And, Abbott certainly wasn’t alone. Let’s talk about another figure in your book over in the UK: the Bishop of London Arthur Winnington-Ingram. I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that Abbott may have been an odd exception in this era. The Bishop of London went much further than Abbott and declared that this was “a war for purity.” He told young men in the Allied armies to “kill Germans … kill the good as well as the bad, kill the young as well as the old.”

PHILIP: He was making statements so outrageous that there were even people at that time who considered his statements outrageous. Before the war, he had been fairly pro-German. But, during the war, he accepted the idea that this was a crusade and, in today’s terms, he talked about the war very much like we would describe a “Jihad” today.

DAVID: But those voices weren’t the worst—as incredible as that may seem. Some major religious leaders—including the famous Brooklyn preacher Newell Dwight Hillis—said that the Allies should practice eugenics. Today, after the Holocaust and so many other tragic attempts at genocide around the world, we now regard “eugenics” as an ugly word. But here was this highly respected preacher calling for “the sterilization of the ten million German soldiers, and the segregation of their women, that when this generation of German goes, civilized cities, states and races may be rid of this awful cancer that must be cut clean out of the body of society.”

PHILIP: Hillis was taking eugenics ideas and, by 1918, he was saying that the only way to deal with the Germans was to eliminate the race chiefly through sterilization. What’s especially interesting about him is that he’s not some crazed writer off in some corner. His pamphlets and books were circulated in the millions. This was an age of mass circulation of printed and visual media. However crazy he seems to us, he had a major impact. Abbott, Ingram and Willis cannot be easily dismissed. In their time, they were widely heard around the world.

DAVID: It’s amazing to think that they could play with this kind fire in their preaching and writing. Of course, the world hadn’t experienced the Holocaust, yet.

PHILIP: No, but the Armenian Genocide took place in World War I in 1915. If you were an American reading the daily newspapers, you were aware of that. And here was Hillis arguing that genocide isn’t bad, as long as you direct it against the right people and, for Hillis, it was the Germans.

Of course this is chilling to read today.


DAVID: Within your nearly 400 pages, there is so much more that readers will discover! “Lawrence of Arabia” is in this book as well as General Allenby’s battle at Megiddo, which led people to call him “Allenby of Armageddon.” There’s his historic march on Jerusalem. You take us to Hollywood and report on some of the blockbuster movies that were produced about the war. I found your book to be a real page turner with one intriguing story after another.

Just as Allenby’s forces clearly bought into the religious fervor of the era, I want to ask you about a couple of the most famous battlefield “miracles” of World War I. The religious zeal around this war wasn’t limited to preachers on the home front. The men in the trenches often were telling about the importance of their faith in the midst of these terrible battles. And, in a number of cases, some of the men were claiming miracles.

I think the most startling story in your book is about “The Angel of Mons.”

PHILIP: It started when a Welsh fantasy writer, Arthur Machen, wrote a short story about the Battle of Mons, where a small and heavily outnumbered British force had won a victory against a much larger German unit. In Machen’s short story—which he called The Bowmen and which he didn’t claim was true—the Battle of Mons is won when these thousands of British soldiers from the Middle Ages suddenly arise and fight off the Germans with arrows. Machen was well known as an author of fantasy stories.

But, Machen soon was amazed to find people telling him that the story is true! People begin saying they were there at Mons and saw these bowmen arising. Then, as the story was retold, the vision of the bowmen morphed into a vision of angels coming to defend the British. This story of angels coming to the defense of the British—”The Angel of Mons”—becomes one of the central, defining stories of the First World War.

But that story Mons isn’t the only one about angels or about the dead rising. You find these stories absolutely everywhere you turn. Many people saw apparitions in this era. These stories like the “Angel of Mons” fit into this larger Apocalyptic narrative about the war.


DAVID: No one seems to have counted the cost of these extremes to which they were going during the war. The same could be said of the Second World War, too. But we end your book shaking our heads that no one could envision what titanic forces they were setting in motion during the 1914-1918 conflict.

PHILIP: A very large proportion of the participants in World War I believed that they had been involved in a Holy War, even after the war. Then, this poses two questions: If you’ve just won a holy war, then what are you supposed to do? And the other question is: If you’ve just lost a holy war, what do you do? The winners then encounter even more questions because they thought they would enter an age of perfection and, soon, it was obviously not the case. Even worse, the losers wanted to find the scapegoats who led to their defeat. This sets up the rise of Naziism and other Fascist and nationalist movements.

Very soon after the war, there was a sense that this was just one phase of worldwide conflict and another one would come along.

DAVID: One of the interesting post-World War I perspectives you include in the book is the fear of writers like C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer that the world is moving into an increasingly pagan era. While a lot of Christian leaders, during WWI, were saying that this was a Christian crusade—Lewis and Bonhoeffer and others realized that something much more troubling was spawned by the war.

PHILIP: I describe this as a “Christian war,” but many orthodox Christians are very troubled by what they see in this era. Many evangelicals are troubled by the idea that, if a soldier fights and dies in a national cause, then the soldier gets a straight pass to heaven no matter what else he’s done in his life. That’s the most extreme and vulgar expression of holy war. And, as you’ve just pointed out, a lot of the ideas that arise during this war are occult. Spiritualism runs riot throughout the war and afterward, especially among the families of the millions of dead, hoping to speak to their loved ones again. The religious spectrum in that era is as extreme and bizarre as the array of religious movements we saw in the 1970s.


DAVID: Most of our readers, I assume, know that the end of World War I contained the seeds of World War II. The popular version of this story is that the Allies forced such draconian terms on Germany that a second war was inevitable. Your book points out that there were other evil seeds beyond the terms of the final peace treaty. One of the worst outcomes of the WWI era was a rise in antisemitism.

PHILIP: When the First World War starts, there is almost an era of good feeling among the major nations fighting on each side. Everyone thinks: We’re in this together. We have a common citizenship. We will fight together and then, after the war, we will be one united nation. Jews believe this wholeheartedly as World War I begins and, in Germany, many Jews see their service in the war as a final emancipation. They’re becoming fully German as they fight for their nation.

But, by about 1916, the question already is arising in many places: If we’re fighting a holy war and we’re God’s greatest nation—then why aren’t we winning this war? We must have missed something. There must be someone within our gates who is causing this problem for us. Some very troubling things begin to happen regarding Jews, especially in Germany and Russia.

By the end of the war, there was this widespread search for scapegoats. Naziism arises in the 1920s as a veteran’s movement aimed at preventing another failure like what happened in World War I. But, this scapegoating process begins during the war. And, as we know, the Jews come out of this era as one of the most-blamed groups. The war marks a decisive stage in reshaping antisemitism. The two most important things in 20th-century Jewish history are the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel and neither of those could have happened without the First World War.

DAVID: At the very end of your book, you describe the dramatic redrawing of the world’s religious map that was a result of that era, a century ago. One major impact was the explosion of Pentecostal movements worldwide. Today, that’s a huge population often estimated at a quarter of the world’s 2 billion Christians. You also point out how dramatically the First World War reshaped the Muslim world, literally redrawing international boundaries and setting up future conflicts.

You describe the scope of this change in a dramatic way. You write that, while the entire war lasted only four years, the scope of religious changes in that era was like moving from the 1850s to the 1950s in just a few revolutionary years. I’ll close our interview with your book’s last line: “Only now, after a century, are we beginning to understand just how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another.”



ReadTheSpirit online magazine has been publishing many perspectives on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, because we are moving through the 150th anniversary of that war. Starting this summer, we are publishing a series of unique stories, columns and historical profiles to mark the centennial of World War I.
Here are some we already have published …

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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