Religion - From the civil war to world war i

Religion From The Civil War To World War I 4123
Photo by: NMaverick

The Civil War era affected the American religious life in important ways. What some scholars consider a third Great Awakening began in the 1850s and continued during the war itself. Indeed, the conflict looked much more like an evangelical Protestant war than had the Revolution, the War of 1812, or the Mexican War. Union and Confederate clergy called upon God to aid their respective causes, military camps hosted revival meetings, and soldiers sometimes marched into battle singing hymns. Thoughtful supporters of the Union from President Abraham Lincoln on down framed the war as a time of testing. For many northerners, victory in 1865 proved that the test had been passed and that God truly blessed America and its mission in the world.

The consequences for Catholics were mixed. On the one hand, service for the North and South brought new legitimacy; on the other hand, erstwhile Know-Nothings found a home in the Republican Party. Although Jews served disproportionately in both the Union and Confederate armies, rising evangelical fervor combined with venerable stereotypes about Jewish profiteering to provoke notable anti-Semitic incidents and accusations. Finally, except for the historic peace churches, the war decimated the organized antiwar movement as even fervent pacifists were tempted to acquiesce in violence to end slavery.

Important as these developments were, the Civil War affected the religious scene much less than the powerful trends of the following four decades. Starting in the 1880s, millions of poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants began to arrive from eastern and southern Europe. Although the population remained predominantly Protestant and the elite institutions overwhelmingly so, politics and popular culture were soon affected. For the Catholic and Jewish minorities, the problem of defining and defending their Americanness acquired fresh urgency. Moreover, the "new immigration" coincided with a rapid industrialization rivaled only by that of Germany. Both the benefits and liabilities were obvious. On the one hand, unprecedented wealth was available to a few Americans and upward mobility possible for many. On the other hand, the gap widened between the rich and poor, frequent economic busts interrupted the long-term boom, and violent social conflict escalated. Perhaps God was once again testing rather than blessing America.

Worse yet, perhaps God did not exist at all—or at least His mode of governing the universe may have differed from what Christians had taken for granted since the ebbing of the Enlightenment. Amid the social turmoil, Protestants in particular faced serious intellectual challenges. The Darwinian theory of evolution undermined the Genesis account of creation. Modern science raised doubts about all biblical miracles. Less known to the praying public but especially distressing to educated clergy, archaeological discoveries and "higher criticism" of the Bible suggested that Scripture was in no simple sense the word of God.

The religious responses to this social and intellectual turmoil included insular bigotry and cosmopolitan reflection, apocalyptic foreboding and millennial optimism, intellectual adaptation and retrenchment, withdrawal from the world and expanded efforts to perfect it. The choices made by individual men and women involved anguish, ambivalence, and inconsistency. In the aggregate, their decisions transformed American religious life.

By the 1890s Protestantism was entering a fourth Great Awakening, which, like its predecessors, was marked by heightened emotions, stresses and splits within existing denominations, and the founding of new faiths. Among believers in new faiths were the followers of former Congregationalist Charles Taze Russell (known since 1931 as Jehovah's Witnesses), whose teachings required separation from a world ruled by Satan. Other spiritual searchers, convinced that God's grace brought a second blessing with such signs as the gift of speaking in tongues, formed their own Pentecostal churches. Doctrinal differences strained relations within the major denominations. Theological liberals, who often called themselves modernists, viewed the Bible as a valuable but not necessarily infallible book, emphasized Jesus's humanity and moral example, and aspired to build God's kingdom on earth. Theological conservatives, most of whom called themselves fundamentalists after World War I, championed the "inerrancy" of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, and the expectation that God's kingdom would be established only after His miraculous return. While staunch modernists and conservatives occasionally confronted each other in heresy trials, moderates from both camps usually continued to work together until World War I.

Although theological conservatives were not necessarily politically conservative, they emphasized that the church as an institution must above all else save souls. While modernists stressed the church's role in improving this world, their earthly version of God's kingdom fell far short of twenty-first-century political liberalism. Indeed, sophisticated religious ideas coexisted in the typical theological liberal's worldview with routine affirmations of laissez-faire economics. A few theological liberals preached an explicitly "social gospel" in support of workers' rights, a regulatory state, and (occasionally) moderate socialism. Yet even social gospelers were susceptible to anti Semitism, anti-Catholic nativism, and ostensibly scientific theories of "Anglo-Saxon" superiority.

By the 1880s affluent and assimilated American Jews experienced growing social discrimination. By that point, too, anti-Catholic activism was again on the rise. The American Protective Association (APA), founded in 1887, attracted 100,000 members who pledged not to hire or join strikes with Catholics. In countless tracts, efficient, fair, and democratic Anglo-Saxon Protestants were celebrated at the expense of tricky Jews, drunken Irish, sullen Poles, and impulsive Italians. Despite this emphasis on racial or cultural superiority, religious motifs were not absent from this latest form of nativism. Jewish chicanery came naturally, many Christians believed, because Jews had crucified Jesus. Ignorant Catholic peasants from eastern or southern Europe, like the Mexicans defeated in the 1840s, looked dangerously susceptible to clerical manipulation. The affirmation of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1869 and 1870, the increasingly insular papacy of Pope Leo XIII, and the Holy See's suspicion of the American Catholic Church suggested that Protestant fears were not entirely fanciful.

The behavior of Jews and Catholics was much more complicated than even tolerant Protestants supposed. On the one hand, many immigrants were rapidly acculturated and their native-born children considered themselves Americans. On the other hand, rivalry among "nationalities" within the same religious community was commonplace. Sephardic and German Reform Jews viewed Judaism as a religion akin to liberal Protestantism; for the Orthodox eastern European Jews who outnumbered them by the early twentieth century, Judaism was central to cultural identity. Catholic bishops disagreed among themselves about their religion's place in a democracy devoid of a state church but nonetheless dominated by an informal Protestant establishment. Nationalists like Cardinal James Gibbons and Archbishop John Ireland expected Catholicism to thrive in such circumstances. They warned, however, that strict Vatican control would only fuel Protestant animosity.

All of these developments not only affected the immediate relationship between faith and foreign policy, but also left a long legacy of beliefs and institutions. Most obviously, sermons, articles, and books by mainstream clergy put a religious imprimatur on post–Civil War expansion. In 1885 the Reverend Josiah Strong's Our Country, the most widely read of these tracts, was published. The book itself was a mixture of nativist themes, popularized Darwinism, apocalyptic fore-boding, and millennial hope. Our Country also reflected Strong's participation in both the home and overseas mission movements. Strong believed that authoritarian religions threatened the political freedom and "pure spiritual Christianity" that Anglo-Saxons had nurtured in the United States. Echoing Lyman Beecher's earlier "plea for the West," he considered the heartland particularly vulnerable. Not only were ignorant European Catholics settling there, but the Mormon heresy was also firmly established.

If the peril was great, so were the opportunities. Despite his ethnocentrism, Strong did not consider eastern and southern European Catholics inherently inferior. If converted to Protestantism and Americanized in the public schools, these ersatz Anglo-Saxons would make the country stronger than ever. "Our country" could then fulfill its destiny. As the fittest nation in the international struggle, the United States would easily impress its institutions on the world.

Beyond tracts and sermons, the fourth Great Awakening sparked a resurgence of overseas missions, which had been suffering from a lack of recruits. In 1886 the cause struck a nerve among hundreds of young people attending a conference under the auspices of Dwight L. Moody, the fore-most evangelist of the day. The next year some of those present took the lead in founding the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM). The Reverend Arthur Pierson, a theological conservative who expected an imminent Second Coming, gave the group a millenarian motto: "The evangelization of the world in this generation." John R. Mott, a Methodist layman, became SVM executive secretary and master organizer. Mott recruited educated missionaries, built a network of supporters on college campuses, and fostered interdenominational and international cooperation. Ties to Canadian Protestants were particularly strong.

The SVM was only the most striking manifestation of growing interest. Once again, diverse religious groups founded mission boards, auxiliary societies, and umbrella organizations. Between 1890 and 1915 the number of overseas missionaries rose from roughly one thousand to nine thousand. This was the largest group of Americans living abroad on a long-term basis. By 1920 Americans and Canadians together made up half of the Protestant missionary force worldwide. Equally important, the campaign to "evangelize the world" became a vivid presence in thousands of congregations. Many Americans first learned something about life in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East, however ethnocentric the perspective, from a returned missionary's Sunday sermon.

The expanding movement reflected general social and cultural trends. Appropriating the military analogies that abounded for two generations after the Civil War, missionaries framed their task as a religious "war of conquest." In an era of scientific racial theories, legal segregation, and disfranchisement of African Americans, denominations led by whites ceased sending black missionaries to Africa. As middle-class women sought to bring the benefits of "social housekeeping" to a corrupt and sinful world, some found careers—as well as adventure and fulfillment—in missionary work. By 1890, 60 percent of overseas missionaries were women. Confined to working within their own gender, they focused on such "female" issues as seeking to end the crippling binding of women's feet in China.

The expanding movement also reflected prevailing religious animosities. Isolated Westerners in alien lands, American Protestant and European Catholic missionaries now occasionally fell into ad hoc cooperation during medical or military emergencies, but suspicion continued to characterize their relations in calmer times. The international missionary war of conquest led to increased cooperation among Protestants in other areas. At the same time, the doctrinal differences spreading within most major denominations produced disputes about what exactly overseas missionaries were supposed to do. Theological liberals, especially those with a social gospel bent, emphasized the improvement of living standards both as an ethical imperative and an effective evangelical strategy. According to theological conservatives, preaching of the unadorned gospel was both a Christian duty and a better way to attract sincere converts. Ironically, the cosmopolitan modernists usually sanctioned greater intrusion on indigenous ways of life. A few of them, however, edged toward the position long held by Quakers and Unitarians that no people should be evangelized into surrendering their historic religion.

Indigenous peoples were not passive recipients of the missionary message. In many cases, missionary activity responded to local demands for medical care and education. As early as 1885, eight colleges had been founded in the Ottoman Empire; by the 1910s a majority of missionaries in China were no longer involved in directly spreading the gospel. Moreover, Western learning was sometimes seen as a way to resist further Western encroachments.

As was the case before the Civil War, missionaries sometimes significantly influenced the countries in which they served. A few did so by switching from religious to diplomatic careers. No one followed this path with greater success than Horace N. Allen, who arrived in Korea as a Presbyterian medical missionary in 1884. After tending to a wounded prince, Allen became the royal family's favorite physician and began giving a wide range of advice to the king and queen. After representing Korean interests in the United States, Allen served as secretary to the American legation and then as minister to Seoul from 1897 until 1905. Often evading State Department instructions against meddling in Korean affairs, he secured mining and lumbering concessions for American investors as well as contracts to install trolley, electric, and telephone lines. And while warning missionaries against offending Koreans' sensibilities, Allen used his influence at court to protect them.

Allen's career underscores a major development in late-nineteenth-century foreign policy: an intensified interest in Asia by merchants and missionaries alike. Indeed, religious leaders now frequently stressed the confluence of conversion and capitalism. Lecturing on the "Christian Conquest of Asia" at Union Theological Seminary in 1898, the Reverend J. H. Barrows, president of Oberlin College, envisioned the Pacific Ocean as the "chief highway of the world's commerce." By the 1890s missionaries in the Far East outnumbered those sent to the Middle East for the first time.

The convergence of evangelism, commerce, and politics should be no surprise. Much as merchants sought foreign markets to relieve economic stagnation, and as political leaders thought expansionism an antidote to real class conflict or alleged cultural decline, Protestants looked overseas to solve their particular domestic problems. Indeed, well-publicized missionary campaigns did reinvigorate the churches at home.

Symbolic of an era marked by strong religious hopes, fears, and tensions, the two major political parties in 1896 nominated the most devout pair of presidential candidates in American history: Methodist Republican William McKinley and Presbyterian Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Two years later, McKinley, the winning nominee, ushered in a new phase of "manifest destiny" (a term then still in common use) when he reluctantly led the United States to war against Spain.

As the United States moved toward war, religious leaders followed the general trajectory of opinion with two notable variations. They worried less than businessmen about the domestic side effects and kept a watchful eye on the interests of their respective creeds. Even after the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor, most urged caution, though some Protestant editors could not resist openly coveting Spanish colonies as mission fields. Catholics felt special misgivings because Pope Leo XIII was actively seeking a peaceful settlement. The church hierarchy and press found Protestants altogether too bloodthirsty. Despite his devout Methodism and opportunistic flirtation with the American Protective Association, McKinley was no more eager than Polk had been to start an anti-Catholic crusade. He made at least a show of pursuing papal mediation. Archbishop Ireland, McKinley's emissary to the Vatican, believed that patient diplomacy could have preserved the peace. Pressed by Republican hawks, however, the president decided on war in April 1898 and told Conegress that intervention in Cuba was the duty of a "Christian, peace loving people."

Clergy and laymen outside of the peace churches joined in the patriotic surge. As had been the case with Mexico five decades earlier, Protestants frequently framed the war as a symbolic battle against the Spanish Inquisition and a few warned of treacherous Catholic soldiers. Catholics once again rallied to the flag, urged on by bishops who kept doubts to themselves. In the end, many citizens joined McKinley in viewing the quick victory with few casualties as a gift from God.

Nationalists in the Catholic hierarchy thought they saw a silver lining in the war clouds: now that the United States had clearly emerged as a world power, the American church would have to be respected by the Vatican and allowed to adapt to its special situation. The reaction in Rome was just the opposite. The U.S. military victory provided an additional reason, if any were necessary, for the Vatican to curb these bishops before their tolerance of democracy and religious pluralism spread to Europe. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII condemned an incipient "Americanist" heresy that challenged Vatican authority. Although the Pope did not explicitly accuse any churchmen of "Americanism," his encyclical signaled a turn toward tighter control over Catholic institutions and intellectual life in the United States.

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the major Protestant denominations supported the wartime annexation of Hawaii and acquisition of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines via the peace treaty. Except among white southerners, qualms about ruling nonwhites deemed unfit for citizenship were generally overshadowed by a sense of missionary duty. Congregationalists and Presbyterians expressed the fewest reservations; Methodists tended to trust their coreligionist in the White House on this issue.

Religious adversaries quickly exported their conflicts to the Philippines, the most Christian land in Asia. While Protestants viewed the over-whelmingly Catholic population as potential converts, Catholic editors asked with sarcasm if they planned to replicate the Hawaiian pattern of bringing disease and disruption. Catholics credited priests with protecting the indigenous population; Protestants portrayed "greedy friars" clinging to their estates. This controversy subsided after the McKinley administration negotiated with the Vatican to purchase the land. Another followed when the superintendent of the new public school system hesitated to hire Catholics. On other fronts, Protestants assailed the army for distributing liquor, sanctioning prostitution, and acquiescing in polygamy among the Muslim minority.

These struggles for religious influence paled beside the squalid little war to defeat the Filipinos seeking independence. Yet only a handful of prominent clergy joined the antiwar movement. The Reverend Leighton Parks, a noted Episcopalian, repeatedly denounced atrocities committed by the American military. Although the Catholic hierarchy sought primarily to evade this controversy lest its church appear unpatriotic, Bishop John Spalding broke ranks to address an antiwar meeting. Protestant expansionists considered suppression of the insurrection a necessary evil on the way to spreading Christian civilization to Asia. The Philippines looked like an ideal base for capturing the great China market in souls.

During the late nineteenth century Christian missionaries, including the substantial American contingent, became the largest group of foreigners in China. Increasingly, too, they were subject to attack as flesh-and-blood symbols of Western intrusion. In 1900 the secret society of Boxers rose up to kill hundreds of missionaries and thousands of Chinese converts. An attack on the legation compound in Peking followed. A combined Western and Japanese military expedition marched to the rescue, engaging in murder, rape, and looting en route. A few missionaries joined in the looting; most at a minimum justified the brutality with the familiar contention that the Chinese only understood force.

The use or threat of force became commonplace during the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Indeed, both presidents illustrate that the American pursuit of world power required no evangelical Protestant motivation. Roosevelt was a pro forma member of the Dutch Reformed Church who may have doubted the existence of God and an afterlife. Yet no president sounded more fervent calls to enforce "righteousness." His endorsement of overseas missionaries was grounded in what he considered practicality. For example, he believed, mistakenly, that missionaries brought stability to China. Taft's Unitarian rejection of the Trinity elicited criticism from grassroots theological conservatives, but he felt none of his denomination's doubts about forcing American ways on others.

Taft's administration was marked by one of the most successful instances of religious activism in the history of American foreign relations: the campaign by Jews and their gentile allies to abrogate a Russian-American trade agreement that had been on the books since 1832. The State Department often investigated and sometimes politely complained about the anti-Semitic acts that increased abroad in the late nineteenth century. The motives behind these diplomatic initiatives were mixed: humanitarian concern; protection of American citizens; responsiveness to Jewish voters; and fears that victims of persecution would immigrate to the United States. The results were mixed, too. Benjamin Peixotto, a Jewish consul appointed to Bucharest in the 1870s, negotiated a temporary remission in Romanian anti-Semitism. The Russian situation grew steadily worse. In 1903 a pogrom in Kishinev left dozens of Jews dead while police stood aside. Similar outbreaks followed elsewhere. Still, the Russian government blandly rebuffed Roosevelt administration inquiries and refused to receive a petition of protest forwarded by Secretary of State John Hay. Nor would Russia guarantee the safety of visiting American Jews.

After discrete lobbying failed to secure action by Taft to revise or abrogate the commercial treaty, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) led an effective public mobilization. As had been the case with the Damascus blood libel persecution in 1840, anti-Semitism abroad inspired cooperation among American Jews, who were now more diverse in national background than ever before. The AJC stressed the "sacred American principle of freedom of religion." Amid widespread hostility to czarist autocracy, thousands of gentiles in civic organizations, state legislatures, and Congress joined the call for abrogation. In December 1912 the Taft administration informed the Russians that the treaty would be allowed to expire the next year.

During the two decades before World War I, religious leaders helped to build a new peace movement—a peace movement adapted to an era in which the United States assumed the right to enforce righteousness. Almost all participants in the proliferating peace groups shunned pacifism, a term just coming into general use, often as a slur; many celebrated American and Christian expansion as the best ways to assure global amity in the long run. They typically emphasized prevention of war between "civilized" countries through arbitration and international law. Although a handful of noted Catholics and Jews joined secular peace societies, the religious wing of the movement was overwhelmingly Protestant and disproportionately modernist. For instance, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (FCCCA), formed in 1908 by thirty-three liberal-leaning denominations, sponsored both the Commission on Peace and Arbitration and the Church Peace Union.

The notion that religion influenced the actions of President Woodrow Wilson and his first secretary of state, fellow Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan, is familiar to students of American diplomacy—too familiar. Standard accounts stress their respective religious styles, often in caricature, at the expense of substance. In fact, their lives illustrate the divergent responses to the Protestant intellectual crisis of their time. Equally important, their disagreement about World War I underscores the peril of tracing an unambiguous American conception of mission from John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" to the early twentieth century and beyond.

Both Wilson and Bryan felt some religious skepticism during their college years. Wilson's father, a modernist Presbyterian minister, urged him to cease worrying about doctrine and simply love Jesus. Thereafter, Wilson lived comfortably as a religious liberal, sometimes poking fun at orthodox assaults on Darwinism and at visions of hellfire. Along with other liberal Protestants, he saw the world improving under the amorphous guidance of "Divine Providence." With few exceptions—notably, his own election as president—he rarely credited God with direct intervention. As the "people's book of revelation," the Bible inspired human action to achieve high personal and social standards but contained little practical advice. Among the actors Wilson lauded were "my missionaries." Unlike Roosevelt, he sensed their role as agents of change rather than stability. China, a republic after the revolution of 1911, had been "cried awake by the voice of Christ," Wilson said.

Although Bryan followed the theologically conservative path, he was initially undogmatic on many doctrinal issues. For example, he corresponded with Leo Tolstoy, whose heterodox Christianity he thought compatible with his own conception of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Like many of his fellow citizens, Bryan was torn between peace and world power. As secretary of state he both negotiated "cooling-off" treaties with two dozen countries and supported military intervention in the Mexican Revolution. Bryan resigned in 1915 because he considered Wilson's strictures on German submarine warfare a lapse from neutrality. Yet Bryan went beyond the secular crisis at hand to affirm a restrained sense of American mission at least as old as the president's internationalist activism. Rather than descending into European-style power politics, the United States should "implant hope in the breast of humanity and substitute higher ideals for the ideals which have led nations into armed conflict."

After Congress declared war in 1917, religious leaders supported the cause at least as strongly as did other elites. With customary flamboyance, conservative evangelist Billy Sunday declared that Christian pacifists should be left to the lynch mob and the coroner. Although usually less blunt, liberal Protestants maintained that German militarism must be destroyed as a prerequisite for international peace. With customary prudence the Catholic hierarchy stepped carefully from neutrality to "preparedness" to patriotic cooperation. Cardinal Gibbons dutifully forwarded Pope Benedict XV's peace proposals to the White House, fended off plausible allegations of a papal tilt toward the Central Powers, and headed an interfaith League for National Unity. All of the major denominations mobilized to offer religious and social services to their men in uniform. Churches and synagogues conducted war bond drives and disseminated propaganda for the Committee on Public Information. Few discouraged the zealous rhetoric that sometimes did lead to the lynch mob and the coroner.

Grassroots skepticism was greater than might be inferred from the behavior of mainstream clergy and congregations. Pentecostals, still on the fringe of theologically conservative Protestantism, were especially unenthusiastic. Roughly 65,000 draftees claimed conscientious objector status; overwhelmingly, these men came from the peace churches. In the Selective Service System and in the courts, Jehovah's Witnesses fared worse than the less strident and more familiar Quakers and Mennonites.

Other articles you might like:

Follow Founder
on our Forum or Twitter

Also read article about Religion from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: