On 6 April 1917, as the Latter-day Saints met in General Conference in Salt Lake City, the United States formally entered the Great War, the unfathomably deadly and destructive war that had been raging in Europe and in the overseas possessions of European powers since the summer of 1914.
President Joseph F. Smith rose to address the Saints on their responsibilities as Saints during that awful time:
In speaking of nationalities we all understand or should that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there is neither Greek nor Jew nor Gentile; in other words, there is neither Scandinavian nor Swiss nor German nor Russian nor British, nor any other nationality. We have become brothers in the household of faith, and we should treat the people from these nations that are at war with each other, with due kindness and consideration.
It is nothing but natural that people who are born in a land, though they may have emigrated from it, who have left their kindred there, many of them, that they will naturally have a tender feeling toward their fatherland. but the Latter-day Saints who have come from England and from France and from Germany and Scandinavia and Holland, into this country, no matter what their country may be involved in, it is not our business to distinguish them in any way by criticism or by complaint toward them, or by condemnation, because of the place where they were born. They could not help where they were born, and they have come here to be Latter-day Saints, not to be Germans, not to be Scandinavians, not to be English or French, or to belong to any other country in the world. They have come here to be members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.1
He very clearly drew distinctions between the people of the nations and the political leaders who sent them to kill and die for national goals:
You must not condemn the people, however much you may judge and condemn their leaders, who place their people in jeopardy, and demand their life blood for their maintenance in positions of prominence and power. Their leaders are to blame, not the people.
The people that embrace the Gospel are innocent of these things, and they ought to be respected by Latter-day Saints everywhere. Treat our neighbors, our brethren and sisters that have come to Zion for the purpose of worshiping God according to the dictates of their conscience, like Latter-day Saints, not as English, or French, or Scandinavian, or German. They are Latter-day Saints. They are our brethren and our sisters, our neighbors. … We must respect them and uphold them in the purest kindness, love and compassion; and with sorrow that their native countries are in the terrible plight that they are, for which they are not responsible.2
Even when called to battle, Latter-day Saints must remember the law of the gospel:
I exhort my friends … to maintain above all other things the spirit of humanity, of love, and of peace-making, that even though they may be called into action they will not demolish, override and destroy the principles which we believe in, which we have tried to inculcate, and which we are exhorted to maintain; peace and good will toward all mankind, though we may be brought into action with the enemy. I want to say to the Latter-day Saints who may enlist, and whose services the country may require, that when they become soldiers of the State and of the Nation that they will not forget that they are also soldiers of the Cross, that they are ministers of life and not of death; and when they go forth, they may go forth in the spirit of defending the liberties of mankind rather than for the purpose of destroying the enemy.3
Obligations to nation did not overrule obligations to God:
We should always stand loyal and true to the cause of freedom and be willing to take up arms in the cause of right. However, no matter how wrong we may consider the cause of our enemies to be, we should not go forth in the spirit of hatred. Neither should we indulge in such feelings if we remain at home. … [W]hile strife and commotion fill the world it is the duty of the Latter-day Saints to stand steadfast in the truth with full confidence in their Redeemer, united in the bonds of love for each other, and with love for the whole world working to the end that all men may repent and be cleansed and redeemed through the blood of Christ. Let us live constantly in the spirit of truth, ever praying for the triumph of right over wrong, but withal in the spirit of love and hope for the redemption of fallen man.4
Contrast this attitude with that of the young Captain, not a Latter-day Saint, who spoke to the Mutual Improvement Association in the Tabernacle a year later while on a fund-raising tour:
And then in language blunt and almost brutal he clearly detailed before his hearers the absolute joy with which the men of the Allied fighting force “beaded” the Germans … and of how they never missed a possible chance to “send a German west” … The captain declared that he had traveled 12,000 miles to kill Germans and that every one killed rather than taken prisoner, so much the better.5
Some Keepa readers may be concerned about the attention being given to the German side of World War I. I understand that such an emphasis may be jarring, particularly because it comes immediately after Remembrance Day in Great Britain and Veteran’s Day in the United States. We can’t help the timing – Volkstrauertag arose from the same timing – the end of the horrific Great War – that causes Veteran’s Day and Remembrance Day to be commemorated now.
We do not forget the sufferings and sacrifices of our grandfathers – ours because Keepa readers are overwhelmingly American/Canadian/British – and their family members. Neither do we endorse the political aims nor the militaristic goals of the Germany of 1914-1918.
Rather, we do something that I think Joseph F. Smith would approve: We remember these men not because of the politics of their nation, but because they were Latter-day Saints – fully Latter-day Saints, in every sense that men and women are or were Latter-day Saints in any other part of the world at any time. We are less familiar with their stories than with the stories of American and British servicemen and the families who too often lost them – unfamiliar in secular history because our schooling naturally focused on our own nations, and unfamiliar in sacred history because language proves a barrier to most of us. “We have become brothers in the household of faith,” President Smith said, and we – I, at least – want to learn about them and remember them just as we do any other Latter-day Saints of the past. This calls for not only telling their personal stories, but also for giving some cultural context, as this morning’s post does where Amy tells us about Salt Lake’s German memorial and the men whose names are there.
Should any Keepa reader want to propose a commemorative day or week for the Latter-day Saints of any other nation, or era, or demographic, and be willing to help provide material for posting, Keepa’s editorial door is always open. There may be “neither Scandinavian nor Swiss nor German nor Russian nor British, nor any other nationality” in the household of faith where nationalism divides us and pits us against each other, but where birth or culture or experience makes a convenient grouping to celebrate our Latter-day Saint heritage in greater detail than Keepa’s usual every-day-a-different-topic format permits, bring it on.