How Historical Events Have Impacted the Christian Church – Part 5 of 7: World War I

The Response of the Christian Church to Significant Changes in World History

Introduction: One of the themes in world history is continuity and change over time. The Christian Church emerged during the first century during a time when the Roman Empire was flourishing during the Pax Romano. The first centuries of the early church were faced with persecution, death, and a deliberate effort by the government to prohibit it.  In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan ending the persecution of Christians. The Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., the Roman government recognized Christianity as an official religion. Historical events lead to change and the Christian Church is now in the third millennium of historical time. However, the Christian Church is not static or passive; instead its role is one of change in response to world events.

In the first part of the 21st century, the world is experiencing an historic event that will likely change the lives of humans around the world in a significant way. This event is the arrival of a powerful and pervasive virus, COVID-19, which is already changing government budgets, the way people respond to information, educational institutions, and our consumer economy. The global pandemic will also change the institution of the Christian Church (and other religious institutions) and may also affect the way people respond to the message of the Christian Church. There is no “normal” for the coming years and likely the “new normal” will evolve over a decade or longer. After the Attack on America on September 11, 2001, the way people traveled changed dramatically.

This point of view essay may be used as a discussion with small groups interested in the evolution of the institution of the church over time.

World War 1

20th Century (1900-1945)

Church service in Alabama circa, 1925

The house of horrors that tormented the world during World War I resulted in unprecedented injury and death of 40 million people.  The flu pandemic took the lives of approximately another 500 million people infected and 50 million deaths.  The significance of this turning point event challenged the Christian Church with an alienated population, the philosophy that God was Dead, and a conservative reaction to the lifestyles of urban populations. Friedrich Nietzsche inserted the phrase “God is Dead” into his book, The Gay Science, in 1882, before World War 1 but it became popularized after The Great War. He understood the culture wars at the time and favored the truths of science over the morality of the values of the Christian faith.

It is unlikely that Nietzsche literally proposed that a monolithic or Triune God had died but rather that religion, and more specifically the Christian Church, was becoming a failing institution. Nietzsche’s core thesis is what would the world look like without any religious faith. Would the masses turn to nihilism, anarchy, and immorality.

This was the age of exploration and scientific and technological discovery as a result of the industrial Revolution.  Darwin’s theories of evolution challenged the Biblical teachings of creation which received international scrutiny in the Scopes Trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The Christian Church had to respond to the new morality of the Jazz Age which led to the migration of Black Americans to northern cities, the expression of the modern woman, income inequalities, prohibition of alcohol, and the freedom of the automobile.  Many churches became more concerned about preventing women from smoking cigarettes, sexual and reproductive ethics, social security, and the threat to institutionalized religion by totalitarian governments, than the gospel of God’s grace. The two decades between World War 1 and World War 2 were some of the most challenging to the Christian Church and they will form the catalyst for the direction of some evangelical groups in the second half of the 20th century.

The voices who spoke on behalf of the church were Norman Vincent Peale (positive thinking), Father Charles Coughlin (social justice), Billy Sunday (Born Again evangelism), Paul Tilich (existence of God), and Rheinhold Niehbur (nature of man and God’s unconditional grace).  The radio became a popular medium to communicate quickly with the masses. In the years after World War I, the Christian Church struggled with its relationships with people and society. It is estimated that 43% of the population in the United States belonged to a Christian Church during this time.

The Christian Church faced two major challenges as the result of the Great Depression.  First, churches were heavily indebted because of construction projects initiated during the prosperity of the 1920s. With the depression, church revenues declined sharply making it difficult to repay loans and to support their staff.. The second challenge was in the area of social ministry as people in their churches and communities became unemployed. The ministry of Christian churches was to provide for the basic needs of people.

The worship of Christian Churches closely followed liturgical forms.  The singing of hymns was popular in Protestant denominations during this period.  In the southern churches gospel and spirituals became popular. The Roman Catholic Church followed liturgical forms of worship in Latin. They had a significant presence in urban areas, with immigrants and union workers, and parochial schools. The nomination of Al Smith for president of the United States in 1928 supports to popularity of the Roman Catholic church. However, the fear of papal influence divided Protestants and Roman Catholics.

How responsive has the Christian Church been over the centuries to the suffering of people as a result of persecution, war, and genocide?

Do you agree or disagree with the statement that the first half of the 20th century was one of the most challenging for the Christian Church throughout world history?

How might the Christian Church have made different decisions regarding its ministry in the years after World War I?


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