World War I

An Uncertain Trumpet

By Rev. Jeff Gill

[In this third of three articles Jeff Gill offers a reading of the mainline church’s decline over the past 50 years, specifically its roots in the social, historical, and political factors unfolding in a changing culture.  This article originally appeared in the Newark Advocate.]

In First Corinthians 14:8, Paul asks who gets ready for combat when they hear “an uncertain trumpet”?

The full King James Version verse is “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?

American churches after World War One had somewhat the opposite problem.

They had played “Charge” to their congregations, whose sons had found themselves in mud-mired trenches facing barbed-wire no-man’s-lands and artillery duels punctuated by poison gas. After the equivocal end of post-war deliberations at Versailles, many in America said “What were we doing there, anyhow?”

None of this is to say that Germany under the Kaiser was in the right, or even that America shouldn’t have joined with the western Allies. But there was a passion for battle and bloodshed on the part of the Christian churches in 1914 and after that, once the war ended, looked in retrospect rather unseemly at best, discreditable at worst.

In this third of three columns about the centennial of World War I, there’s a bit more to say about how that event shaped the role of churches in American life (and possibly European, but that’s more complex and even further outside of my skill set).

For the generation or two before World War I, church-related organizations had played a dominant role in national policy formation. The Temperance movement made Prohibition the law of the land, blue laws and other proscriptive legislation had passed to constrain and define American life, and churches – especially the so-called “mainline church” bodies, were tone and trend setters on social policy and education. Read newspapers of the era, and you can see that mark of a dominant Christendom on almost every page, on a wide variety of subjects.

The so-called “golden age” that people are talking about when they say “how things used to be” with the place of faith in civic life is, I would argue, more the turn of the last century than it is the post-war boom years. Yes, pastors and others are always hearing about how in the 1950s all the education wing was filled (or we built one and filled it) and how there was a line around the block to get in for Easter services, and those reminiscers usually blame some combination of “The Sixties”, Vietnam, and Watergate for the breakdown of respect for authority and particularly for the church.

I realize I’m committing the practice of sociology without a license here, but I would argue as a pastor myself, who is a bootleg historian of sorts, that this is a confusion borne of the fact that like so many things, the wake of World War II created a ferment and to some degree a smoke screen that hid developments already under way.

Folks came back from the common mobilization still saluting authority, and got right to work having babies and raising children (hello, Baby Boom!), and there was a surge of church attendance. But those numbers hide the decline behind them back in the Depression era, which was both financial and numerical.

My reading of the national and denominational and local records has led me to say this: in the wake of the hyper-patriotic ferment that swept church life in World War I, the manic passion for “slaughtering our foe” which became nearly mandatory *within* congregational walls, not just in the public press, there was a very strong reaction afterwards. On the one hand, churches lost moral stature in the public arena; on the other, internal hand, denominations winced and withdrew from nationalism in ways that still are being debated within congregations and among clergy to this day. It was in the 1920s that church-founded colleges & universities pulled back from their denominational heritage in a decisive manner; it was in the 1920s that arguments over a conservative/modernist worldview began to split and formally divide denominations in ways that hadn’t been seen since the 1840s over slavery.

In the 1930s, Prohibition ends to general approval, and social improvement is seen as more the province of government (New Deal programs) or secular wisdom (Jane Addams, settlement houses, social work). Churches close in record numbers, and the place of faith in social efforts becomes steadily more supplemental than central. In the African American community, the church is still central, but when the civil rights era begins the mainline bodies flinch, and that record can be read in heartbreaking full with Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

And what is the role of church & faith in the society we’re making in the 21st century? That trumpet call is yet to be played.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you think the church’s role should focus at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Onward Christian Metaphors

By Jeff Gill

[The second of three parts in which Jeff Gill offers a reading of the mainline church’s decline over the past 50 years, specifically its roots in the social, historical, and political factors unfolding in a changing culture.  This article originally appeared in the Newark Advocate.]


Perhaps “the moral equivalent of war” is a good way to go about mobilizing a culture.

William James thought so around 1900, and some sixty years later LBJ declared one against poverty.

At the same time, he was pulled into ramping up a . . . war-war, if you will. Not a moral-equivalent-of, but an actual Vietnam War. Did the use of the one metaphor cause some pushback because of the other?

I wonder about this. I’m not, as I’ve said before, a pacifist, but I don’t say that proudly. It’s pretty clear Jesus was one, and yet neither he nor his forerunner (and cousin) John the baptizer nor his leading follower, Simon Peter, condemn those who practiced the arts of war. I missed the era of the draft by a few years, but grew up in its shadow, yet I signed up for as complex a set of reasons as anyone who has enlisted. I’m proud to claim the title of United States Marine, even if I’m a bit bemused that I actually have an honorable discharge. My service was short, quiet, and stateside. Anyhow.

Obviously, I went on into ministry, and in looking at this history of that trade, I’ve seen a noticeable knot between warfare and worshipful arts back around 1914.

That’s right, a centennial this year: The War to End All War. The Great War, they called it during its terrible course in England. Or as we later, more reasonably called it, World War One. Or some might say “The First Phase of the Century Long European-Focused Conflict.”

It began a hundred years ago this summer. In late June Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, and by late July the armies were mobilized and the mortars began their steady thump, a pounding rhythm that would relentlessly beat away at lives and property until four and half years later on November 11th, still Armistice Day to many.

That conflict began without American involvement, and ended with our entry in 1917 decisively swinging the balance to the Western Allies. There’s much to say about how “The Sleepwalkers” let the war begin, and much still to debate about how it all should have ended, but the League of Nations and the Versailles treaty certainly didn’t work out the way people had hoped.

For churches, specifically American churches, there was arguably an element of their own involvement in the move to a “war footing” that didn’t work out as they’d expected, either.

A startling book entitled “Preachers Present Arms” came out in 1969, researched and written by a pastor & historian named Ray Abrams. He pulls together the myriad stands of how Christian denominations, congregations, and individual parsons all ended up marching largely in lockstep to encourage entry and celebrate taking an active role in what had been, up to that point in the US, “the European Conflict.”

It’s a hard book to read. It doesn’t matter how martially minded you are, or are feeling in that moment: the announcements and proclamations and sermons cited in this book trace a spasm of cheerleading for war and fervor for “slaughtering the Hun” as the German enemy was termed that can’t not leave you breathless.

The bloodlust was bad enough in and of itself, but the aftermath is one of a stuttering, staggering, flailing Christian community across the nation looking back and asking “what in Heaven’s name were we thinking?” The rationale for supporting the Allies entirely aside, the sheer zest for battle and blood specifically on the part of clergy safe in their US pulpits: it was appalling. And in many ways, the church bodies and institutions of ministry said “never again.” The country may go to war, but the church doesn’t have to lead the charge with fixed bayonets.

And whether you see that as a reasonable reaction or a failure of nerve, it was in my reading pretty clear that this war hysteria actually did a great deal to undermine the moral authority Christianity had in American culture. Everyday folk who may have had little heartfelt commitment to a particular church body came away from 1917-1918 with the thought “those folks are easily co-opted, and don’t mind getting us into pointless bloodbaths.”

I would argue the great loss of cultural authority on the part of Christendom that we usually associate with the 1960s actually has its basis in the reaction that began to set in after 1918.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he will have a bit more to say about war and faith next week, but tell him what you think at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Family and Faith in Formation

By Jeff Gill

[For the next three Thursdays, Jeff Gill will offer a reading of the mainline church’s decline over the past 50 years, specifically its roots in the social, historical, and political factors unfolding in a changing culture.  This article originally appeared in the Newark Advocate.] 

This month has seen a significant national anniversary which got some, but (in my opinion) oddly little attention even in forums where you’d expect it to be a dominant topic, pro or con.

January 8th was the fiftieth anniversary of Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson giving his first “State of the Union” address, where he declared an “unconditional war on poverty” with policy plans to put behind that metaphor.

That metaphor, by the way, comes down to us by way of that great figure in the history of sociology and religious studies (and psychology, and a hatful of other fields), William James. In his work “Varieties of Religious Experience,” (1902), the Harvard professor gave academic legitimacy to the phenomenological study of religion; four years later, he published “The Moral Equivalent of War” where he analyzed the drive towards world peace – the seeds of a hope for a “war to end all war” that were planted before World War I began – and pointed out the values and satisfactions people get from warfare. He makes the case that we can’t abolish human nature, but we do need and can benefit from “the moral equivalent of war” in shared values, common struggle, and the achievement of wider goals through general participation in that struggle.

In that sense, LBJ was an heir of William James; he had seen warfare from both the security of Washington, and out in the field in the Pacific. He knew the positives and the negatives of warfare between nations, and he came back all the more committed to building up the spirit of national effort in ending the kind of desperate poverty he had known growing up and teaching school, in the Texas hill country outside of Austin, and down along the Rio Grande.

Much of LBJ’s legacy has been overshadowed by his anguished continuation of the Vietnam War. You can find volumes of debate over what Kennedy would have done had he lived past 1963, and what Johnson could have done and didn’t after he came into office following the assassination. It’s hard to say for sure.

What can be said with some certainty is that Johnson already had more of a record of putting himself publicly on the side of civil rights before 1960, let alone 1964, and his “accidental” accession to the presidency meant he could use both the martyred predecessor’s memory and his own considerable political skills to get a Civil Rights & Voting Rights Act through, but also to put alongside a suite of social legislation which he gave the caption “War on Poverty.”

That legacy, itself, is still debated, but in ways that left the usual suspects on cable news and talk radio largely mute. It’s an article of faith on the left that it was too little and not fully deployed, accomplishing less than it might have; equally so the right sees the so-called War programs as having done more harm than good. The impacts on family in particular are decried, in politics and not infrequently in churches.

I think you can see where some factors of family decline were reinforced unintentionally, but with no less harm, by AFDC (as one example), but the problem was building before then -- the curve really doesn't begin to bend in 1964, it bends through it. And we're still trying to figure out what was loosening those ties to start with, that AFDC gave some unfortunate momentum to. That's part of my morbid fascination with "Mad Men": I think that show is trying to get at some of the same questions in a way. The War on Poverty becomes an early goalpost for the Sixties, but the game had already begun.

Somewhere in the post-war era, we started down a road of no-fault divorce, delayed marriage, and general acceptance of birth control as an unspoken expectation. Oddly enough, poor people having more children than "they can afford" goes back to rural culture and a certain cold logic of farm life, and again, the first generation up from the South and into cities -- Appalachian & African-American -- was digging that hole for themselves years before "the Pill" and "the Check" started contorting social norms.

This is where reading Daniel Patrick Moynihan is so startling: we could have known this in 1963, but it was not politically palatable to talk about, so we didn't. And part of the resistance was due to what I would call an overemphasis on the problems of the “black family” as Moynihan put it, without realizing the social shift was much broader than any one ethnic group. “There are some mistakes only a Ph.D. can make,” he said, and mistakes we can make listening to groups of Ph.D.’s in sum.

And at the same time, we see the role & centrality of churches change dramatically. Cause, correlation, or coincidence? There may be a further column here…


Jeff Gill is a storyteller, writer, and pastor in Licking County; he’s ordained in the same tradition from which came LBJ, Ronald Reagan, & James Garfield. Tell him about your views on the sacred & the secular at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.