Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Alabama Baptists and the Second World War

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Alabama Baptists and the Second World War

Article excerpt

As the half-century remembrances of the Second World War fade into memory, Americans finally fully appreciate the accomplishments of what some now describe as the "greatest generation." Even in that most remote and Baptist-dominated region known as the South, the war left few lives or institutions untouched. Three recent historical works have argued convincingly that the years from 1940 to 1945 constituted a more important watershed in southern history than even the Civil War. (1)

If that be so, it stands to reason that a region so overwhelmingly Baptist would have absorbed the shock of war both overseas and on the home front in distinctive ways. Alabama as a case study makes that point plainly, though in general the experience of Southern Baptists elsewhere in the South differed only slightly. (2)

Before moving to specifics, I need to emphasize several generalizations. First, the belligerent religious nationalism of the late 1930s and 1940s was not the exclusive legacy of Alabama Baptists. The run-up to the First World War found the state's white Baptists deeply divided. The complex origins of that war, the lack of clear villains at least in the initial stages of the conflict, America's late entry into the war, the influence of the Social Gospel and even Socialist ideas about the responsibility of wealthy corporations in causing the war, all these factors complicated reactions to the conflict. Even theologically conservative, rural Baptists often expressed reservations about the morality of war as an instrument of foreign policy. Nonetheless, Alabama Baptists generally rallied `round the flag and after the war enthusiastically supported President Woodrow Wilson's vision of internationalism as embodied in the League of Nations. (3)

Secondly, Baptists were more numerous in Alabama than in most other states. By 1945, white Baptists numbered 426,000 and black Baptists nearly as many. Among whites, Baptists constituted slightly more than one-half of all church members, and together with black Baptists they claimed nearly a third of the state's total population. (4)

A third generalization concerns black and white Baptists who processed historical events in quite different ways. Among white Baptists, winning the war and preserving democracy was the sole object of fighting. Among black Baptists, the battle for freedom began overseas, but by no means ended there. Thus, Alabama Baptist civil religion concerning the war differed markedly according to whether one was a black or white Baptist.

Finally, a warning that is axiomatic among those interested in Baptist studies. Baptists disagree about almost everything, and no generalization about even white Alabama Baptists, the focus of my study, fits all of them.

With these preliminaries out of the way, I can periodize the response of Alabama's white Baptists to international affairs between 1920 and 1950. The first two decades after the First World War were characterized by criticism of war and antinationalism. Then beginning in the mid-1930s, the state's denominational leaders grew ever more anxious about Fascism, Nazism, Japanese imperialism, and anti-Semitism. But even as some leaders wrestled to justify war as Christian, others held on tenaciously to pacifism. Finally, Alabama Baptists emerged from the Second World War with a more ecumenical and internationalist perspective.

Antiwar and Antinationalism

Throughout the interwar years, one figure dominated state Baptist life, former pastor and longtime editor of the Alabama Baptist (1919-50), L. L. Gwaltney. Accepting the predominant view of American reformist intellectuals that the "Great War" largely had been the product of scheming corporations bent on self-aggrandizement, Gwaltney criticized the conformist nature of the church. By refusing to denounce war, the church had compromised its legitimate complaints about all other evils because war was the chief sin of modern civilization. …

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