Did 1918 Give Us Today’s Christian World?

The Great War ended with the official Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, but arms were laid down on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. This Sunday is the hundredth anniversary of what we had hoped to be the end of all wars.

President Wilson proclaimed the following year: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”

Collin Hansen asked Baylor Historian Philip Jenkins about WWI’s influence on Christian peoples. Did the war or the end of it change the global church in significant ways?

The war destroyed ancient centers of Christianity in the Middle East, especially among the Armenians and Assyrians. At the same time, the suspension of missionary enterprises shifted the balance in Africa and Asia to native forms of faith. That movement was massively enhanced in 1918 by the influenza epidemic, which killed between 50 million and 100 million worldwide. That event showed the utter inability of Western missionaries and medics, and drove many ordinary people to seek help from healing churches, and from individual prophets and charismatic leaders. The great age of the African Independent Churches dates from this time.

As to the West, I can hardly begin! Contrary to myth, the war did not destroy the faith of ordinary people, but it did drive thought and writing by theologians, above all by Karl Barth. Barth published the first edition of his commentary on Romans in 1919, but it was the second edition, published in 1922, that according to one Catholic observer, “burst like a bombshell on the playground of the European theologians.” The book was a frontal attack on the liberal conventions that had shaped mainstream theology since the Enlightenment.

And that does not begin to talk about the great Catholic thinkers like Henri de Lubac, whose war experiences shaped their lives, and we see their lasting influence transforming the church in the Vatican Council of the 1960s.

Dare I say that the Christian world we know today is the product of 1918?

One thought on “Did 1918 Give Us Today’s Christian World?”

  1. I’m inclined to think that WW1 was the great catastrophe of European history. Perhaps it only looks that way from a distance, but I think that the stupidity and brutality of the war, carried on by supposedly enlightened governments and their supporting (often Christian) institutions cracked the foundationsof European civilization. The cracks have been widening and extending ever since.

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