Baptist Attitudes toward War and Peace since 1914

By Hinson, E. Glenn | Baptist History and Heritage, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Baptist Attitudes toward War and Peace since 1914


Hinson, E. Glenn, Baptist History and Heritage


Baptist attitudes toward war and peace have fluctuated widely at different periods of history.

Although a few Baptists have opted for pacifism on occasion, most fit better into the category known as pacificism by which is meant they regard war as a horrible option for resolving disputes between nations but still concede its inevitability on occasion. Sometimes, human beings must pay the supreme price to preserve freedom, eliminate oppression and injustice, or end other evils.

As pacificists, Baptists have diverged little from the Christian mainstream. Despite inheriting some of the same genes as Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers, Baptists have not offered a consistent peace witness. In the period under consideration here, Baptists wavered from enthusiastic support of American participation in World War I (once the nation chose to enter it) to post-war pacifism to somewhat qualified support of World War II as a horrendous but necessary option to mixed opposition to and support of the war in Vietnam to cautious opposition to further escalation of nuclear arsenals. Threat of nuclear annihilation has spurred thorough reexamination of attitudes in all Christian traditions and produced some curious alignments across denominational lines. Nuclear pacifists claim supporters not only in the traditional peace churches but also in virtually every major communion, just as "peace through strength" advocates list comrades even in the traditional peace churches.

In the United States, where Baptists have experienced their greatest success, pragmatism has characterized their attitudes toward war and peace as it has their general outlook. Baptists benefited immensely from hearty support of the American Revolution, for, as the colonists emerged victorious, they had reason to appreciate the formerly despised sect. In that conflict Baptists sensed they had nothing to lose and much to gain by separation from England. (1)

Between 1780 and 1820, Baptists enjoyed growth unparalleled by any other denomination save Methodism, increasing their churches from 456 to 2,700. (2) Because their views on religious liberty and separation of church and state suited the popular mood, they soon became "a truly American church." (3) Small wonder they have seldom distinguished popular sentiment on such matters as war and peace from their own.

Although Baptists in the United States are divided into more than fifty denominations, they have not differed much from one another on attitudes toward war and peace. Because Northern (now American) and Southern Baptists issued the most formal pronouncements, I will rely on them to indicate the mainstream of Baptist thought. Individuals who diverged from this stream will be called on to document diversity, but they should not be counted representative of Baptist thinking.

Pacifism and Pacificism, 1914-1934

The First World War boosted pacifism among Baptists as well as among other Christian communions. Since the late third or early fourth centuries, rigorous opposition to the use of military force and even to service in the army has had consistent expression only among Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers--three relatively small groups. Periodically, however, pacifist movements have washed over people and nations, thus touching virtually all communions, as they did during the onset of hostilities in World War I. In a flurry of organizing efforts on behalf of peace, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation came into existence in England in 1914. Pacifism, nevertheless, gained few adherents outside the peace churches until after the war. A Baptist Pacifist Fellowship did not develop until 1934.

World War I gave greater impetus to what was called "pacificism." Pacificists supported World War I but objected to war in general, opposed conscription for military service, and affirmed the right to conscientious objection. Pacificism grew during the 1920s, reaching a flood tide in the twelve years after the war.

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