Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Problems of the Age: 5: Religion and the War

Problems of the Age: 5: Religion and the War

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 18, 2011

For links to other parts of this series, see this chart.

For a statement on the unofficial nature (i.e., personal interpretation for discussion purposes, not necessarily representative of church doctrine) of these lessons, see this notice.


Dealing with Religious, Social and Economic Questions and Their Solution.
A Study for the Quorums and Classes of the Melchizedek Priesthood. 1917-1918.

By Dr. Joseph M. Tanner

V.– Religion and the War

Fear.– There was a very general belief throughout the world that the war would bring a new devotion to religion. Observations of ministers and members of the Y.M.C.A. do not bear out such an expectation. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It was not the fear of the Lord so much as it was fear of consequences on the battlefield that in the beginning awakened a movement toward prayer. It is said soon to have died out. Interviews with French soldiers indicate a sort of philosophy about life and death that bordered somewhat on fatalism. It was called the philosophy of good cheer, a sort of reconciliation to whatever might happen. It was French optimism put into aphorisms. The Christian World Pulpit, of July 25, 1917, contains a sermon on the subject of fatalism by George Lawrence, in which he says:

A soldier said to me in a dugout in the trenches, ‘If I am born to be drowned, I shall not be shot.’ The subject under discussion was fatalism. It is because I recognize the subtle danger of this doctrine that I venture to combat it. Under its influence, soldiers have been known to invite danger, run unnecessary risks, and even to play with the chances of death. They believed, until they were hit, the bullet intended for them had not yet left the munition factory. You can readily understand what havoc a doctrine like this can work. It is criminal to tell soldiers going to France that their death on the battlefield is decreed for them by fate. It undermines their security in themselves, destroys their self-confidence, and renders them unfit for the pr9oper discharge of their duties. I wish to convince you there is no such thing as fate. Our destinies are not controlled, nor our death decreed by it. If they are we must then excuse the ruthless submarine murders, the barbarities, and horrible atrocities of the enemy.

Much has been written of the Russian predisposition to fatalism. It is doubtful whether the British have a really crystallized belief on the subject. It is rather an abandonment to despair, perhaps an effort to meet a dangerous situation in a spirit of indifference. Whatever you call it, it represents the antipode of true religion. It is worthy of notice that in this extremity the scales tip away fro religion. The thoughts and feelings of such have in the past been schooled away from a working belief in God. Such an abandonment, or fatalism, if you choose to call it such, reveals a total lack of conviction about the most important thing in the world. Religious convictions at the front would be rather an effect of the previous beliefs and practices than the sentiments which the war would create. That, as a rule, has been the history of religion in war. War itself does not have a very moralizing effect on soldiers. It invites too many vices, and is surrounded by too many temptations and evil influences. It tests human life in its weakest places, and it is the scene of too many horrors. There will of course be those whose early training and habits are conducive to a prayerful attitude in the presence of eternity. Such wars usually indicate a decadent period in the life of nations. The enormous number of rejects clearly prove a physical and moral deterioration. That, too, is the belief of those who have given the matter study and attention. Rev. Elmer F. Clark of the Y.M.C.A. discusses the question of the church in England and France. Speaking of England, he says in the Literary Digest, Sept. 8, 1917:

Conditions at the Front. – She has the most evangelical type of religion in Europe and has long been proud of her Sabbath-keeping scrupulosity and her religion generally. In the first four months of the war all signs pointed to the fact that the church’s expectation was to be abundantly fulfilled. The people flocked to the churches, resorted to prayer, and gave all evidences of a quickening religious life. In these months it appeared that a great religious revival was imminent.

But this early religious awakening was founded in fear, and fear is a motive that cannot long support an intelligent faith. * * * Today the average person traveling through Europe would certainly see no signs of renewed interest in things religious, and even the specialist who investigates intensely and studies all known signs and evidences, will discover but few. In London and Paris, as well as in all other towns and cities I have visited, vice is as rampant as ever, the general population are as little concerned with eternal matters, and the church faces the same problems of sin and indifference.

In France there are encouraging signs, but in England there are none. Those signs in France appear here and there in the fact that the Roman Catholic Church is adopting a more modern attitude and presenting a more vital and evangelistic message.

What about prayer? People never prayed so much as they did at the beginning of hostilities. Yet what did their prayers avail? The war went right on, and men were killed just the same. And there was no distinction. The son of the man who prayed for the boy’s safety night and day was killed as quickly as the son of the man who recognized no God to whom one might pray. The prayers were not answered in the least. What, then, was the good of prayers, and where was God? Perhaps there is no God after all.

This doubt and uncertainty affected many people, from the clergyman to the Tommy.

Importuning God in a perilous hour is an almost universal human trait. But what is the actuating spirit? Too often it is fear and not love. What a different prayer from that of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

Such a prayer is not fatalism; it is a sweet resignation to the will of God. The false premise of it all is that death is a calamity. Who shall say it may not be after all a divine favor? Death is not the end, but it is the aim of all life. The time and manner may not be the important thing about death. We are dealing with divine purposes which are largely hidden from the world. The important thing about death is that we are prepared to go,t hat on the other side we may give a good account of our stewardship here.

Nature God. – Then there is that other vital question, – what kind of God are we imploring?> There is nothing in the world very clear about the God of nature – not the God of nature but the nature-god. The soldier sees man making great headway into the realm of such a God. That makes the human a super-man – a little above the nature-god.

Disintegration. – Mr. H.G. Wells, a celebrated English writer, discusses The God of the New Age. Mr. Wells would do away with church edifices, as well as rituals and creeds. Ex-President Roosevelt takes issue in the following number, October, 1917, of the Ladies Home Journal. I quote:

It is perfectly true that occasional individuals or families may have nothing to do with church or with religious practices and observances, and yet maintain the highest standard of spirituality and of ethical obligation.

but this does not affect the case of the world as it now is, any more than exceptional men and women under exceptional conditions have disregarded the marriage tie without harm to themselves interferes with the larger fact that such disregard if at all common means the complete moral disintegration of the body politic. * * * Therefore, on Sunday go to church. Yes, I know all the excuses; I know that one can worship the Creator and dedicate oneself to a good living in a grove of trees, or by a running brook, or in one’s own house, just as well as in church. But I also know, as a matter of cold fact, that the average man does not thus worship or thus dedicate himself. If he stays away from church he does not spend his time in good works or in lofty meditation.

Mr. Wells sees a general breaking away from the world creeds. He sees that the world will need something different after the war – a new religion. But will the world accept Mr. Wells’ new theories? Really there is nothing new about them. It is the old story that man can worship any way, anywhere he pleases. Authority in religion, especially in the protestant world, is breaking down – if it is not entirely gone. Reconstructing old religious practices and theories will not answer in the future. In the new world to come there must be a new revelation. When the new conditions or worship come, it will be because God’s Spirit moves the hearts of men and shows them the way of his will. Will sobriety come after the war, will men give heed to religious thought and living? If not, the end of sorrow will not come at the end of the war. It begins to look as if the grinding process would go on. There is something to hope for from the war. Its end must come in the not far distant future.

If it has no sobering effect upon the religious life of the world it will be because of the hardness of men’s hearts, because the voices of anguish and despair have not penetrated them. Humility is one of the corner stones of religion. Will war bring humility? To whom? Not to the victors. They will exalt themselves in their own pride. With them God will be on the side of the heaviest artillery.

Hatreds of War. – When men fight they are not usually in a mood to pray. Too often their suffering brings hatred. They are not like Job. In their agony they are ready to curse God and die. Their deaths are not saint-like – not offered up in the spirit of sacrifice. From all human experience and from history, it may as a general rule be said that war destroys religion. There will of course be exceptions, and men may go to battle from the loftiest motives and a holy cause. Wars have their well-defined history; indeed, history is made up chiefly of wars. As we look back upon it, we need not doubt that in most of them there has been a “handwriting on the wall.” There is reason to pray before the battle, and those who do so will not be left without the spirit of prayer, which may be of more value to them than life or death. The blessings come to those who earn them, and they may be earned in war as they are earned in peace.

Revelation. – “And this gospel shall be preached unto every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people.

“And the servants of God shall go forth, saying, with a loud voice, Fear God and give glory to him, for the hour of his judgment is come.” Doc. and Cov. 103:37, 38.


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