American Crusade: Christianity, Warfare, and National Identity, 1860-1920

Americans are a religious people and, historically, we have been a Christian people (today, 64% of Americans identify themselves as Christians). When the nation goes to war, it should come as no surprise that civic leaders regularly call upon God’s help. These pleas do not always assume American righteousness. In his March 30, 1863 “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day,” Abraham Lincoln observed that:

it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.
. . . 
It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

A half century later, President Woodrow Wilson echoed this language in his May 11, 1918 “Proclamation of a National Day of Fasting.”

Presidential rhetoric is not always so circumspect. Upon winning the Philippines from Spain, President William McKinley averred that the United States had an obligation to “take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”

Benjamin J. Wetzel, an assistant professor of history at Taylor University, explores the conflation of Christianity and nationalism in American Crusade: Christianity, Warfare, and National Identity, 1860-1920. Presidents and other civic leaders play only bit roles in his fine book. Instead, he focuses on how major Protestant denominations, churches, and church leaders made religious arguments in favor of three major wars. As well, he discusses “counter-point groups” which, if they did not oppose these wars, were at least less likely to treat them as religious crusades.  

In the American Civil War, both northern and southern churches were convinced that God was on their side. Wetzel considers just northern churches, which he explores by examining three influential and representative ministers: Lyman Abbott, Henry Ward Beecher, and Horace Bushnell. He finds that they were overwhelmingly supportive of the northern cause because they were committed to “American Providentialism (the view that God uniquely blessed the United States) and Christian Republicanism (the view that Protestant theology and political liberty were inherently intertwined).” 

In their advocacy for the Union, these ministers sometimes conflated the United States with the kingdom of God in ways that should make any orthodox Christian cringe. For instance, Beecher contended that the American flag has historically “been to other nations ‘like the bright morning stars of God’—an allusion to Jesus’ description of himself in Revelation 22:16.” 

Although the African Methodist Episcopal Church was generally supportive of the Union, its denominational newspaper, the Christian Recorder, did not hesitate to criticize Union practices such as paying African-American soldiers less than white soldiers. And some authors specifically warned against “polluting the purity of heaven with the abominations of the earth, and hanging the tatters of a political piety upon the cross of an insulted Saviour.”

Wetzel argues that mainline Protestant ministers were almost unanimously in favor of the Spanish-American War because of American Providentialism, Christian Republican, and “the Social Gospel” which required “fighting on behalf of the less fortunate.” Although the last point acknowledges humanitarian considerations, Wetzel underemphasizes the extent to which America’s entry into this war was justified under what has become known in the twenty-first century as the “Responsibility to Protect” (“R2P”), as Timothy J. Demy argues in America and the Just War Tradition.

Even if America was justified in entering this war, it eventually became an imperialistic effort replete with violates of jus in bello. Nevertheless, Protestant ministers were enthusiastically in favor of it, often equating participating in it with God’s work. The Unitarian minister F.C. Southworth, for instance, observed that American soldiers were responding to “McKinley’s call to arms in the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here I am, send me.’”

Most Protestant ministers were in favor of America’s participation in the Spanish-American War, but some criticized the imperialistic treatment of Cuba and the Philippines that followed it. As well, a “significant minority” of American Catholics “resisted the force of public opinion by consistently criticizing the conflict.” They did so because they believed “America was an unrighteous nation and therefore was not to be trusted,” opposed conflating the nation with the church, and desired to defend the authenticity of Spanish Catholicism.

Although there was debate over whether the United States should enter the First World War, once American troops were on the battlefield mainline Protestant ministers were again supportive of the cause. Indeed, Lyman Abbot argued that “all Americans soldiers who perished in the great crusade would go to heaven when they died,” a position also advocated by official publications of the American Expeditionary Force. Germany was demonized, and a few ministers even encouraged hatred of the country and extinction of the German people.

Of course, not all Americans were so enthusiastic about the war. For a counter-point group, Wetzel considers the “German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States,” often referred to as the Missouri Synod. As the name implies, many members were of German heritage, although Wetzel notes that there were also “a goodly number of Scandinavians.” Prior to America’s entry into the conflict, the denomination’s major publications either favored Germany or advocated American neutrality.  After America’s declaration of war, they generally supported the United States but refused to baptize the conflict by conflating the nation with the kingdom of God. But as the war dragged, many German-Americans became vocal supporters of the war, either to avoid persecution or to prove their loyalty to their adopted country.

Wetzel concludes by observing that the three wars covered in his book represent the high watermark of mainline Protestant support for American wars. Indeed, after World War II, mainline clergy became increasingly distrustful of “celebratory Christian nationalism,” and many became critics of America’s military involvement in Vietnam and Iraq.

American Crusade offers a solid account of mainline Protestant support for three American wars—support that all too often baptized conflicts and turned them into something like holy wars. Wetzel’s treatment of counter-point groups and individuals that at least partially dissented from this mindset offer an important reminder that it is possible to be patriotic without embracing a toxic form of nationalism.

Wetzel writes primarily as a historian, but his work offers an implicit warning to Christians to always remember that we must hold our citizenship in the City of God more highly than our citizenship in any nation-state. As President Lincoln suggested above, Americans would do well to consider and repent of our national sins before we embark on crusades to eradicate the sins of others.

Mark David Hall is a Professor at George Fox University. He is currently serving as the Garwood Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s James Madison Program and a Visiting Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He is the author of Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: How Christianity has Advanced Freedom and Equality for All Citizens (Fidelis Publishing, forthcoming).