Not long since, I posted about my current book project on the First World War, and especially its supernatural and apocalyptic dimensions. That grew out of a long-standing fascination with the period roughly between 1890-1920, and a host of writers I loved – from Conrad, Joyce and Kipling through Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, Jack London and Frank Norris, G. K. Chesterton and H. G. Wells, John Buchan and W. B. Yeats, Robert Chambers and E. F. Benson, M. R. James and Willa Cather … and a great many others. The Great War, of course, marked a radical transformation in that whole cultural scene, as well as so much else.

I’m delighted now to announce the publication of the book itself, under the title The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

The Great and Holy War offers the first look at how religion created and prolonged the First World War. At the one-hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the war, historian Philip Jenkins reveals the powerful religious dimensions of this modern-day crusade, a period that marked a traumatic crisis for Western civilization, with effects that echoed throughout the rest of the twentieth century.

The war was fought by the world’s leading Christian nations, who presented the conflict as a holy war. Thanks to the emergence of modern media, a steady stream of patriotic and militaristic rhetoric was given to an unprecedented audience, using language that spoke of holy war and crusade, of apocalypse and Armageddon. But this rhetoric was not mere state propaganda. Jenkins reveals how the widespread belief in angels and apparitions, visions and the supernatural was a driving force throughout the war and shaped all three of the major religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—paving the way for modern views of religion and violence. The disappointed hopes and moral compromises that followed the war also shaped the political climate of the rest of the century, giving rise to such phenomena as Nazism, totalitarianism, and communism.

Connecting numerous remarkable incidents and characters—from Karl Barth to Carl Jung, the Christmas Truce to the Armenian Genocide—Jenkins creates a powerful and persuasive narrative that brings together global politics, history, and spiritual crisis as never before and shows how religion informed and motivated circumstances on all sides of the war.

I’m hoping to post on different aspects of this topic in the coming weeks.


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  • JIZ

    I’m really looking forward to reading this book. Do you happen to discuss in your work any of the leading Christian voices for peace? (I think particularly of Pope Benedict XV and his peace encyclicals, especially his moving first encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum.)

  • philipjenkins

    Ah, how could I not discuss Benedict? As I say, “By far the most significant center of Christian antiwar activism was the Vatican.” Benedict stands out as a particular hero because so many other Christian leaders fell short of his anti-war fervor.

  • HistoryReader

    Dr. Jenkins,

    I enjoyed reading the book the great and holy war. I paid special attention to the chapter treating the demise of christianity after the war. I noticed you treated the demise of liberal/progressive protestant theology prevalent in Germany (without treating the conservative theologies of evangelicalism in germany). The progressive theology led the christians to be captured by nationalist sentiments without questioning or opposing the state. You observed that after the war, theologians like Karl Barth reacted to liberal theology and wanted to go back to the roots/creeds of christian faith (thus he started the movement called neo-orthodoxy within the liberal/progressive protestantism.

    What are your thoughts on the following:

    1) were conservative evangelicals in germany also captured by nationalist sentiments and supported the state in WW1? if yes, why they did that, since they usually hold to roots/creeds thus they are less prone to be swayed by extreme nationalism like progressive protestant were swayed.

    2) did the catholic church in germany actually disobey Vatican in WW1, thus supported the german state?

    3) regarding the discrediting and decline of christianity in Europe, your explanation is shedding light why the mainline protestants declined in numbers in europe. But what about the conservative evangelicals’ decline in europe? conservative catholics’ decline? can the reason go back to the enlightenment and a reaction to the galileo-type affairs? a reaction to medieval iron rule and abuses of the catholic church? or what about the religious wars in france and 30 years war in germany between protestants and catholics? and the english civil wars of 1640s between protestants and protestants?

    my observation of history is that it takes only 100 years for a major war between christians to discredit christianity in a culture (I’m counting 100 years after each war I mentioned above, also we can add to the list the american civil war). Is this observation valid?