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Role of religious faith in World War I examined in new book

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Jacket illustration of “Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War,” is William Balfour Ker's "Knights of Columbus," 1917, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters.

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4/21/2010 | Sharita Forrest, Arts Editor | 217-333-2894; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Although World War I has faded from cultural memory, overshadowed by more dramatic and unambiguous conflicts that both preceded and followed it, the Great War continues to shape Americans’ interpretations of their nation, its war-craft and its soldiers today.

In a new book, “Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War,” (Princeton University Press), Jonathan Ebel, a professor of religion at the University of Illinois, examines the pivotal role that religious faith – Christianity, in particular – played in the war effort and people’s interpretations of their wartime experiences, giving birth to a religion-based nationalism that continues to loom large in American discourse.

 “I started this project back in March 2001 thinking that I was going to tell a standard World War I story about disillusionment, where people bought the Christian pro-war rhetoric, went off to fight and realized later that they’d been duped,” Ebel said. “As it turns out, I found something quite different.”

Although often perceived as a precipitant of disillusionment, World War I seems to have inspired reillusionment, strengthening Americans’ attachments to the religious framework that surrounded the war, Ebel concluded.

Ebel spent eight years combing through letters, poems, diaries and memoirs from troops, their family members and people who worked for war support agencies such as the YMCA.

He also reviewed public literature such as Stars and Stripes, which billed itself as “the official newspaper of the American Expeditionary Force” during the war and offered a public forum for letters, poems, cartoons and editorials written primarily by enlisted men. Ebel also found a trove of veterans’ perspectives on their wartime experiences in the responses of 2,500 African-American veterans to a post-war survey conducted by the War History Commission in Virginia.

In their letters, diaries and other documents many people revealed that they found the war to be profoundly religiously meaningful, despite its unimaginable horrors of death and destruction. From military recruiters trolling for volunteers during tent revivals to Stars and Stripes’ cartoons purporting the Christ-like nature of the Allied Forces to accounts of infantrymen wryly decorating their gas masks with strains of Protestant hymns – “I need thee, Oh! I need thee, every hour I need thee” – religious faith “informed Americans’ sense of duty, gave them the language, narratives, ideas and symbols to frame the conflict and to understand their part in it,” Ebel wrote.

Indeed, without the powerful influence of Christianity, America’s involvement in the war is hard to imagine, Ebel said. In the early 1900s, Christianity was being masculinized by characterizations of Christ as an active, often militant man, and Protestant leaders encouraged men to live lives of “Christian action” by becoming warriors against evil.

Religious faith lent transcendent meanings and purpose to death and suffering, elevated those who died in combat to the level of heroes and martyrs and promised them eternal salvation.

However, contrary to the adage, there were atheists in the foxholes, Ebel said. “In fact, I found a handful of atheists in my research. The war seemed to make them more explicit in reflecting on their atheism or their belief in God.”

For many, the war was all about redemption. For white men, it offered opportunity for personal redemption and ascension to roles as national leaders.

For African-American men and women, joining the fighting forces and support agencies – which institutionalized the segregation and discrimination that they experienced in American society – seemed to offer an opportunity for attaining racial equality and redeeming a nation steeped in centuries of racism.

“President Woodrow Wilson had been explicit that service to the country would bring a more full complement of the benefits of citizenship, so African American soldiers seemed to be serving with that in mind,” Ebel said. “Indeed, many of the leaders in the black community – W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Isaac Fisher – all seemed to have quite similar feelings about the war’s promise for redemption.

“And although white and black people framed things a bit differently, their experiences and belief in the redemptive power of the struggle seem quite similar.”

While black leaders such as Du Bois were disillusioned when military service failed to live up to its promise of racial equality, many people – black and white – revealed in their writings that they entered the post-war period with the religiously charged ideas that had framed their war experiences strengthened and with a renewed commitment to fighting an ongoing battle to save America from evil.

After the war, the American Legion - which was founded by Theodore Roosevelt III to “keep alive the spirit of the Great War” – vigorously promoted religion-infused beliefs about the redemptive power of struggle and war, perceptions of America as a nation with divine status and images of military veterans and war dead as saints, martyrs and imitators of Christ.

During a postwar period fraught with race riots, labor protests and violence, the American Legion appealed to Americans to subordinate their religious differences to the needs of the country and band together in an ongoing fight for survival against demonic enemies such as the Ku Klux Klan, pacifists and communists which the Legion believed were poised to destroy the country and all the values that people had fought for.

In effect, the American Legion gave birth to and manifested an “alternate religion of nationalism that gives place to religious traditions, but only to the extent that they fit within the needs of the nation,” Ebel said.

Editor's note: To contact Jonathan Ebel, e-mail jebel@illinois.edu.

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