Baptists in Florida during World War II (1)

By Rathel, Mark | Baptist History and Heritage, Summer-Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Baptists in Florida during World War II (1)


Rathel, Mark, Baptist History and Heritage


During World War II, Baptists were at work around the world in ways that met human and spiritual needs. Much of this ministry was behind the scenes. It consisted of doing what needed to be done but doing it for Christ.

Sunday, December 7, 1941, marked the symbolic and official beginning of the Florida tourist season. The early-morning, December 7 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed dramatically the nature of the tourists who came to Florida for the next several tourist seasons. Navy blue, olive drab, and khaki military uniforms replaced the beach resort wear of the era as 2,122,100 servicemen and women trained in Florida. One-fourth of all Army Air Corps officers and one-fifth of all Army Air Corps enlisted men received training in Florida. The state became an armed fortress as the United States established 172 military installations in it. Military personnel in Florida experienced the unique privilege of housing in the great beach resort hotels. (2)

World War II produced dramatic economic, demographic, and cultural shifts in Florida. Laborers earned three and four times their prewar wages. The state built up a surplus of cash reserves that lasted until the next decade. During the 1940s, the population of the state increased 46.1 percent, far exceeding the 15 percent growth of the U.S. population.

Florida Baptists, unfortunately, lacked the vision, leadership, and means to capitalize on these sociological developments. At the beginning of World War II, Baptists were the largest denomination in Florida as a percentage of population. (3) In northern Florida, Baptists exercised a religious hegemony. Because of the explosive population growth of the war years, Baptist church membership declined as a percentage of state population from 8.55 percent in 1940 to 8.28 percent in 1946. The economic prosperity engendered by the war produced statistics that are more impressive: total gifts to Baptist churches increased from $1.5 million in 1940 to $5.4 million in 1946, a 71 percent increase. (4) Yet, most of Florida Baptist churches remained rural and small. In 1945, out of 835 churches, 176 were half-tithe and 220 were quarter-time. (5)

Florida Baptist Attitudes Toward War Prior to World War II

No strong pacifist tradition developed in Florida Baptist life before American involvement in World War II. (6) Beginning in 1937, however, reports from the Social Service Committee repeatedly condemned war as evil and non-Christian. According to the committee, the moral chaos America experienced from 1920 to 1935 resulted from America's involvement in the First World War. (7) Florida Baptists condemned Franco's disregard of human rights, Mussolini's butchering of Ethiopia, the Japanese assault on China, Russia's invasion of Finland, Hitler's aggression against smaller nations, and the United States' selling war materials to Japan. (8) Florida Baptists expressed alarm at the battle between democracy and concomitant religious liberty and the totalitarian states. Unlike the neighboring Baptist conventions in Georgia and Alabama, Florida Baptists failed to condemn Hitler for his treatment of Jews. (9)

C. M. Brittain, corresponding secretary-treasurer of the Florida Baptist State Convention, traveled to Berlin for the 1934 Baptist World Alliance. Brittain thought Hitler gave evidence of being a Christian believer and expressed praise for the "fuhrer" (which name Brittain interpreted as "guide") because of his abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, clean living, and his successful fight against Communism. (10)

Charles A. Powers provided the strangest interpretation of prewar world events. Powers interpreted the events associated with Hitler's rise to power as a time of displacement. According to Powers, the events of 1934 signaled the end of the times for the people of Judah and a shift to the times of Israel. Israel would now come to the position of world leadership; however, he defined Israel as the Celto-Anglo people. …

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