Book Review: The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

By Philip Jenkins


Often, textbooks and broad history literature summarise World War One in two points: the number of lives lost (16 million) and how it marked a turning point for Western Civilisation. However, distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, and renowned historian Philip Jenkins reveals in The Great and Holy War how religion played an important role in shaping the direction and outcome of the Great War, and how it directly impacted the entire 20th century and the state of the world today.

RRP: £39.99
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication Date: April 2014
ISBN: 9780062105097
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This book reveals how the world's leading Christian nations utilised a steady stream of patriotic and militaristic rhetoric with religious connotations to enlist soldiers and keep them fighting; and shows how belief in angels, visions, and the supernatural was widespread throughout the trenches. The notion of angels and Armageddon were already deeply embedded in pre-war culture, but in the context of overwhelming death, the need for faith intensified for soldiers during the first world war. Similarly, for those whom the war had ravaged, the thought of a vengeful God provided consolation many needed to believe that a higher power was on their side, and that there was purpose to their death and suffering.

Not only did the states of the Tsar and Kaiser glorify in the language of divine providence in justifying their aggression, but the church leaders in the West also employed violent language involving Christian duty and honour to save Christian civilization from “God’s enemies,” the barbaric Germans. World War I erupted during a time when religious themes still resonated powerfully with rural and peasant societies, and medieval imagery of battling knights and angels was used frequently in propaganda. For Protestant Germany, the war heralded God’s special mission for the nation. Yet rumours of German atrocities unleashed tales of Christ-like suffering. Spiritual calls to sacrifice and martyrdom underpinned the militarism and nationalism of the embroiled nations, and as the grisly slaughter grew, shocking people with the numbers of dead—the French lost 27,000 men on Aug. 22, 1914, alone at the Battle of the Frontiers—so did the use of the language of the apocalypse.

The spiritual upheaval during the years of war had lasting consequences. Christian Database states that the world in 1914 had a global total of 560 million Christians; however once the war started, the definition of Christianity changed rapidly. Aptly termed "Christendom's ultimate civil war", World War One was about Christians fighting Christians, and became a landscape in which Christianity took on new forms. The skeletal separation and independence between Church and State that we have today was initiated during this time, due to the replacement of the ancient Church-State alliance. Jenkins also explains how these changes affect the global landscape of Christianity, stating that "in the Middle East, the war was a near-terminal experience for Christian communities that could trace their religious roots to the Roma Empire - the Armenians, but also Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Maronites. As remaining Christians struggle to survive in the new environment, they developed new political ideologies that would dominate the politics of the region into the current century".

Furthermore, for those student readers looking to this work for research, you will be pleased to find the author also focusing on some key global after-effects; how the war transformed the world's great religions. that war shaped Christianity, Islam and Judaism as they have existed over the past century, how the United States emerged as a super power and how the new global political climate gave rise to Nazism, totalitarianism and communism.

The Great and Holy War presents a powerful and persuasive narrative that brings together global politics, history and spiritual crisis on all sides of the battlefield.