Philip Jenkins, An Interview

Philip Jenkins, An Interview January 23, 2016


Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor.  He is the author of seminal books in history and religion such as The Next Christendom and Jesus Wars.  His book, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, framed this interview.

The interview was conducted by David George Moore.  Dave blogs at

Moore: The literary landscape is glutted with books on World War I.  What motivated you to add another work to the already crowded field?

Jenkins: You are so right about the volume of books, especially in 2014, and expect another wave in 2017 for the centennial of US entry into war. But I stand by my basic point. No other book out there so stresses the centrality of religious motives in so many unsuspected parts of the war’s story. Also, I was anxious to combat the prevailing myth about the war having effectively destroyed Europe’s faith. Finally, no other book out there looks at the religious experience across the frontiers of faith – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox: Jewish and Muslim; and indeed, esoteric, “New Age” and occult.

Moore: Surely religion was not the only motivation soldiers fought in WW I, so how influential a role did it play?

Jenkins: In most cases, obviously, soldiers fought because a government drafted them and gave them a rifle. At every point too, we see the role of nationalistic sentiment, commercial rivalries, and simple greed. But can we ever separate out such motives from the religious? Was that not also true of the medieval crusades?

Religion appears in so many contexts in WW1. Religion shaped the national identities and ambitions of several of the key players, especially Germany and Russia, both of which defined themselves as messianic nations. In both countries too, secular elites delved deeply into apocalyptic and prophetic ideas, giving their nations a millenarian bent.

When the war started, religion and superstition (whatever the difference is) permeated the lives of ordinary soldiers, who lived in a thought world not too far removed from the seventeenth century. The typical WW1 soldier was not an intellectual like Ernst Jünger or Wilfred Owen, but was a peasant draftee from Galicia or Bavaria or Sicily, with all the traditional religious ideas. The hothouse atmosphere of war brought everyone into a supernatural-oriented universe of ghosts and apparitions.

It is also amazing to find just how religious and occult-minded some of the leading political and military players of the war were, from von Moltke and Ludendorff to Brusilov and J F C Fuller. Each, in his way, was deeply involved in what we would today call the occult, spiritualism, and visionary religion.

Moore: To what degree did WW I get interpreted as depicting events described in the book of Revelation?

Jenkins: Famine, plague, death and war… that’s a pretty good description of 1917-18. The war was meant to end quickly, but by 1917 it seemed to be set until the end of time. No wonder everyone dreamed of an apocalyptic intervention. We see that in popular culture, in books and films, in Intolerance and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And also in apparitions and visions, as at Fátima.

Apocalyptic expectations ran riot in 1917, and had a major influence on Allied policies towards Palestine and the Jewish people. The propaganda of all nations was amazingly religious and apocalyptic – ghosts and visions, crucifixions and sacrifice, crusaders and holy warriors….

Those apocalyptic hopes did not end suddenly in 1918, but were often channeled into secular-seeming revolutionary dreams.

Moore: Andrew Delbanco of Columbia has said that before the Civil War Americans believed in the providence of God, but after the war in luck.  Did WW I have any such impact on the beliefs of religious people?

Jenkins: All respect to Delbanco, who is a terrific scholar, but I don’t accept the remark about the civil war, as Americans still very much believed in Providence in 1917. If the civil war did have any such impact, it didn’t last that long. Americans generally were much more religious and supernatural minded in 1917 than they had been in 1860, and church membership rates (for instance) are much higher. There is also a full-fledged religious revival between about 1911 and 1917. If anything, the WW1 strengthened religious beliefs, although it broadened them immensely, by adding a lot of esoteric and New Age ideas. Only in the late 1920s do we get the start of secularization, at least in the political realm.

Moore: To what degree did WW I rally nationalistic pride of the majors powers involved?

Jenkins: It’s hard to define terms here. If you believe that your nation is divinely ordained to rule Europe, and you must struggle to establish its supremacy, is that a religious doctrine or a nationalist one? In Germany especially, the whole super-nationalist ideology of the post-1871 empire is heavily imbued with religious teaching, chiefly Lutheran, and frankly viewing the new empire as the germ of the kingdom of God on Earth. Religion shapes and forms nationalism, rather than the other way round. The war certainly stirred that religious/nationalist pride – and then left some nations struggling to find new explanations after the catastrophes of 1917-19. We se the consequences in Fascism, Nazism and Communism

Moore: You write that Archbishop Winnington-Ingram said it was the church’s solemn responsibility to “mobilize the nation for a holy war.”  How common was that sentiment?  Did he receive much pushback for that comment?

Jenkins: The main problem with what he said was that the holy war idea was so obvious, he was criticized for stating it so blatantly. And that was in England, which was considerably less active in that way than other nations, such as Russia. What is striking is how very religious the holy war ideologies were in notionally secular republics like France and the US.

Moore: What are a few lessons you would like your readers to get from your book?

Jenkins: Partly about the way we write history. Just because many modern academics are very secular does not mean that we should ignore those factors in earlier generations – and by that, I don’t just mean five or six centuries ago.       When we talk about Islam today, also, it really helps to realize just how recently Christians fought a full fledged crusade and holy war – we don’t have to go all the way back to the thirteenth century. If not exactly in living memory, it’s only a century past. Let us not pretend that Christianity has always been a religion of love and peace, without its own quota of holy war traditions.

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