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Crusade or catastrophe? The student missions movement and the First World War.

"For the vast majority of students," wrote student missions leader and historian Ruth Rouse, "the outbreak of war was a thunderclap out of a clear sky."(1) Though there had been signs of an impending catastrophe before the summer of 1914, the students and the leaders of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM) were blind to the portents.(2) Students had believed firmly that war could never be again, least of all a war that would explode from the very heart of Christendom. After a century of peace in Europe, and the birth in 1895 of a World's Student Christian Federation, whose purpose was the salvation of a pagan world beyond the West, a bitter war among the nations of the missionary "home base" was unthinkable.

Though caught off guard, most students and their mentors did not stand on the sidelines. This war, it soon became clear, was unlike any other. It was total war. No previous European conflict had demanded such complete participation by the nation. The young--students included--were remanded to the front to fill the ranks of armies that soon numbered in the millions. Civilians at home were drawn into the scramble to support those vast armies with food, supplies, and the weapons of war. Every person, every institution was expected to play a part. These were not just "nations at war," but "nations in arms."(3) And the Europeans called for help from their African and Asian colonies. This total war became the first truly world war.

World War I posed a dilemma for Christians involved in the crusade for world evangelization. They were working to unite the world under the cross. Protestant missionaries had, in recent times, made much of the "gospel of the kingdom." The missionary enterprise would usher in a new era in human history as God's kingdom was established on earth. Swords would be exchanged for plowshares in a world without war. How could the church at this critical moment in history justify a war among Christian nations? And how could Christians participate in a total war that increasingly blurred the line between soldier and civilian, both at home and at the front?

During the war the response to these questions seemed conditioned by age and by proximity to the front. For the elders, the war quickly became a crusade--the war to end war, a war to make the world safe for democracy. The young saw it from a different angle--from where earth and fire and blood mingled--and their response to the Great War brought dramatic changes to the Student Volunteer Movement in the decade after Versailles.

War as Mission?

Presbyterian mission executive and longtime SVM leader Robert E. Speer, in a wartime address to student leaders, saw in the war itself an expression of missionary values. The ethical aims of the war, Speer said, were simply political expressions of the impulses that had started the missionary enterprise and that continued to give it momentum. The missionary movement existed, he said, as an instrument of peace and international good will, as an agency of righteousness and of human service, and as a spiritual and moral force building toward some form of international organization that would someday help bring the nations together. The Protestant missionary movement had been doing for a hundred years exactly what the war was now declared to accomplish.

Though Speer saw the war as a necessary business, it was essentially negative and destructive--this "thunder of guns, the massing of bodies of men." It was only the missionary enterprise that could release the "creative and constructive spiritual powers" needed to build a new world. Unselfish missionary outreach was needed more than ever before, Speer believed. Whatever was subtracted from the spiritual outreach of the church would be a diminishing of the nation's struggle to win the war. Thousands of young Americans were going on a foreign mission to northern France, and thousands of these should be ready when the war was over, Speer said, to go forth on foreign missions of peace to Asia, Africa. and Latin America.(4)

There were, to be sure, voices of caution. Walter Rauschenbusch, whose social gospel was becoming increasingly influential in the Student Volunteer Movement during the war, did not see the conflict as a Christian crusade. Rather it was a great calamity--a "catastrophic stage in the coming of the kingdom of God."(5) But his voice was in the minority. While at war, most Protestants saw America's cause as a divinely sanctioned crusade. For those committed to the missionary cause, the war might even be interpreted as an expression of obedience to the Great Commission--"the greatest proclamation of foreign missions" ever heard.(6)

The young were not so sure. The British student movement and Volunteer Missionary Union, one of the first to be directly affected by the war, responded by an immediate call to the movement's ideals. Never, the British student movement leaders said in a statement issued in September 1914 to all Christian Unions in Great Britain and Ireland, were these ideals "more needed by the world than in this hour when the falseness of the ideals which the nominally Christian nations have pursued stand revealed through this awful horror of a fratricidal war."(7) This statement was issued when it appeared that the war might be largely an affair for professional soldiers. Then came the German invasion of Belgium. Within days, thousands of students were called into action on behalf of king and country.

Immediately the meaning of war became more personal. Most British Christian students chose to fight, believing that Germany's violation of its treaty with Belgium gave Britain no choice but to honor its commitment to the people of Belgium. A small minority of students held that under no circumstances should a follower of Christ go to war. Beyond the question of personal response to war, but growing out of these divergent responses, there was the question of the role of the movement with regard to the war. The Student Christian Movement in Britain "was urged to become a recruiting agency by some, and begged to turn itself into a pacifist society by others."(8)

In the first editorial to appear in the periodical of the British movement after the declaration of war by Great Britain, students were reminded that there was a bond between British and German, Austrian, and Hungarian students that transcended those even of an international association like the federation. The bond of "fellowship in Christ" transcends all others and must remain unbroken. When conscription came in Britain, Christian students chose divergent responses to the national claim. "At the headquarters of the movement," Tatlow recalled, "men bid good-bye to one another with affection as one went to the front and the other went to prison, each knowing that the other was honestly trying to do what he believed was right for him."(9)

Some British students were keenly disappointed that the forces of Christianity seemed powerless to stop the outbreak of war, or to bring it to an early end. Tatlow reported in 1915 that

when the war broke out there was a conviction that the Christian church ought to have had something clear and commanding to say about the subject of war, and should at least have made her influence felt as a powerful factor at this time among the nations, and it was with growing disappointment that our student class realized that the church's voice was an unimportant one among all the voices raised after the outbreak of war, and that everywhere the church seemed to have found nothing further to do than to second the demands of the state in all the countries at war. This disappointment has been shown quite as markedly among students who do not profess to be Christians as among Christians.(10)

Students in Great Britain declared that "it is the business of the Church, at all costs, to uphold the ideal of the kingdom of God, and they consider that the Church has put the major part of her strength into upholding national ideals."(11)

A few Christian students, especially at the beginning of the war, were able to see something good in soldiering. One German student wrote that the war was

a special God-given opportunity to become purified and strengthened. Our call is easy to define. The first element in it is to do our duty wherever we are; for soldiers in the field it means that to be true in strife and suffering is also to serve God. Then, however, one must also keep in mind the highest aim of battle, namely that we should in the end combat sin and not the sinner. Then we must also earnestly strike down the sin in ourselves in order that our flame may become purified; thus we give God the honor and keep ourselves free from guilt in order that the best among our enemies shall be able to recognize on which side have stood right and truth in this world war.(12)

Other Christian soldiers found it impossible to maintain such spiritual detachment from the brutal facts of a war in which battle losses were often numbered in the tens of thousands. The loss of life among French students was high, and the Protestant student movement was badly battered by the war, both physically and psychologically. Even though an enemy had invaded their homeland and their duty to fight seemed clear, Christian students were plagued by the moral ambiguities of this war.

Many of them felt to the depths of their soul the conflict between the stern duty of the moment and their Christian calling. The cleavage between the soldiers in the front line and ceux de l'arriere became more acute as years went by; a certain kind of patriotic and pious talk was unbearable to the former. Some became more and more silent; they knew that so much of what they would say could not be understood by those who had not gone through the same ghastly experience.(13)

The Dutch had a name for the soldiers at the front--frontzwijnen, "the swine at the front." From many who lived through the indescribable horrors of the trenches came the despairing cry, "Never again!"

As the war dragged on with small gains on either side and staggering losses of life for both, it became increasingly difficult for Christian soldiers to see the glory of the war or to maintain the vision of the spiritual mission attributed to the war in sermons and newspaper editorials at home. In a letter to movement leaders written midway through the war, a German Christian student reflected a spirit of disillusionment that was becoming increasingly common:

When I recall all the experiences and impressions of the past year, I come to this certainty: There is no such thing as a "holy war"; every war is fiendish. Evil has many manifestations. One of the worst of these is war, every war .... In truth, war has not produced a single atom of positive religious value. It has only annihilated these values, War is a triumph of the Devil and not a means of grace.(14)

In the call sent out to the colleges from the American SVM missionary conference in 1918, the war was said to be "a summons to penitent recognition that there has been something amiss with Christian civilization." This was Christendom's war. Christian nations were partners "in the sins that so sharply antagonized us one against the other and that at last ran their shears through the fabric of international society." Christians were at fault that war was even allowed to survive, and were also culpable for the spirit of hate in which the war was being carried out.(15)

At the 1918 Northfield student missionary conference, held in place of the usual quadrennial, there were still some of the old appeals for renewed missionary action in response to the need "out there." But there was also a new challenge. Social gospel advocate Harry F. Ward declared that the first need confronting religion in the United States was for "applied Christianity" to be extended among intellectual and business leaders at home, and among men and women working in American and European factories, mills, and mines. Few of these workers had heard the Gospel, and even if they had, the conditions in which most of them worked denied its reality. They needed a new Gospel, one that would bring real change to the injustices of their workplace.(16)

Shortly after the SVM Conference at Northfield, Channing H. Tobias, a black YMCA worker from New York, challenged North American students to consider not only German atrocities in Belgium but white atrocities against blacks in America. A play on wartime rhetoric, Tobias's article "Shall America Be Made Safe for Black Men?" was a sobering account of official violence against blacks as well as of the more familiar lynchings. He quoted congressional testimony on the recent East St. Louis massacre, alleging that more than five hundred blacks had been murdered by a rioting mob, who had been watched--or even aided--by city policemen and members of the Illinois militia.(17) It was facts such as these that had caused W.D. Weatherford, the veteran YMCA worker with black associations, to tell students and volunteers that it would be "useless to look on the far fields unless we have in our hearts and in our own colleges the spirit of Jesus Christ, so we shall have the right attitude toward the man who stands by our side."(18)

For many British students the war had demonstrated that Europe needed Christian faith as badly as India or China. Although a similar argument was heard among some American students, the Europeans pushed the point to a place of devastating clarity. If human society is really one and not many, if all people are, at least in creation, God's children, then it follows that every society is equally in need of evangelization in every generation. A second point followed on from this, one related to the evangelistic process itself. Christianity, the European students reasoned, is spread not by talking but by "contagion," by the influence of a living Christian culture. If this is true, then "only a Christian society can conduct a Christian mission." It was only too clear to the European students who fought in the trenches of the World War just how thin was the religious veneer on their society, and how serious the implications of this reality were for the missionary enterprise.

The war aggravated for British students a second, even more fundamental objection to the missionary enterprise. Many students began to doubt whether Christianity was "the one true religion." The war had brought increased contact between European youth and other cultures of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. That exposure sometimes resulted in increased racial prejudice, but among many young people it was the occasion for a thoughtful reflection on the relationship of culture and religion. Especially in the context of a war that was started and largely carried out by Christians, it was only natural that the other religions encountered by the young soldiers would seem more attractive than what they had read in the partisan pages of missionary literature. If the integrity of Christian civilization was in question, and if other religions deserved a more sympathetic hearing, then it followed that a reappraisal of the missionary enterprise was in order. If Christianity was not the only true religion, then certainly the missionary proclamation must be made--if it would continue to be made at all--with far greater humility and sensitivity.(19)

The older SVM leaders found it easy to recognize in the war familiar metaphors of the battle for world evangelization to which they had given their lives. Although a tragic interruption of the evangelistic crusade, the war would set the stage for greater achievements in the future. The young--those who survived--watched their comrades being sacrificed in the indecipherable strategies of generals who were learning the science of modern war. After the first few weeks of dramatic troop movements, the war settled into an entrenched, four-year clash of men, metal, and poison gas across a constantly exploding wasteland. In this war there was more gore than glory. For the elders at home it was a crusade; for the young soldiers in the trenches, a catastrophe.

Retreat from Idealism

In the Great War, the hero was crushed. The Student Volunteer Movement fell victim to a wariness of idealism and a weariness of crusades that followed. The war had been won, but the crusade abandoned. The SVM was a casualty in this abandonment. The account of the volunteer movement after World War I is a story that anticipates many of the themes of the following decades--the decline of religious liberalism and the social gospel, religious depression and the later revival of the social gospel by the generation that fought the war, the rethinking of foreign missions and the move from evangelism to ecumenism in mainline Protestant missions, the shift of missionary enthusiasm from the mainline to the evangelicals, and the move of the Christian center of gravity from Europe to North America and finally to the non-Western world. The story of this decade anticipates many of the changes in missionary thinking that would dominate the decades to follow. Here also, in the reaction of the young to the Great War, is a parallel to student response to a very different American war half a century later. While the context was different, much of the emotion and rhetoric would be the same.

Nathan D. Showalter has worked with the Mennonite Church in Kenya and the United States, and with World Vision International in California, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Currently he serves as Pastor of Taipei International Church in Taiwan.


1. Ruth Rouse, The World's Student Christian Federation (London: S.C.M. Press, 1948), pp. 176-77.

2. The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions was born in 1886 at a Young Men's Christian Association conference at Dwight L. Moody's New England convention center and for several decades after popularized the watchword "the evangelization of the world in this generation." Thousands of North American students were recruited for missionary service, and by 1900 the volunteer movement had forged links with students in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa in a world federation designed to build enthusiasm for the evangelization crusade among students everywhere. The SVM was organized, from the beginning, as a complementary part of the larger Protestant Christian student movement. That movement had different national expressions, and varied markedly from country to country. In the United States, the SVM--with its national office on Madison Avenue in New York City--functioned as the missionary department of the college YMCAs and YWCAs. In Great Britain, the Student Volunteer Missionary Union became the missionary arm of the Student Christian Movement, to which it had earlier given birth. In countries like France and Italy, in contrast, where the Protestant student Christian movement was not strong, the student volunteer concept remained weak or nonexistent. The student volunteer concept never became widely popular in Germany, where the crusade for world evangelization often carried overtones of Anglo-Saxon imperialism.

3. Basil Henry Liddell Hart, History of the First World War (London: Cassell, 1970), p. 28.

4. Robert E. Speer, "The War Aims and Foreign Missions," in the YMCA Intercollegian 36, no. 1 (October 1918), pp. 2-5.

5. Walter Rauschenbusch in the Nathaniel W. Taylor Lectures at Yale in 1917, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Macmillan 1918), p. 226. "The Great War is in truth a discussion of the future of the race on this planet, but a discussion with both reason and religion left out," Rauschenbusch said (p. 223).

6. Robert E, Speer, The New Opportunity of the Church (New York: Macmillan, 1919), p. 89.

7. Tissington Tatlow, The Story of the Student Christian Movement of Great Britain and Ireland (London: S.C.M. Press, 1933), p. 510.

8. Ibid., p. 515.

9. Ibid., pp. 515-16.

10. T. Tatlow, "The Student Movements and the War," Student World 9 (January 1916): 35.

11. Tatlow, Story of SCM, p. 540.

12. H.C. Rutgers, "The Christian Student Union and the War," Student World 10 (October 1917):285 (translated from the May-June 1917 issue of Eltheto, the journal of the Christian Student Union of the Netherlands).

13. Ruth Rouse, "Notes on Work Amongst Students in Europe in Wartime," unpublished document in the WSCF archives, p. 1; The World's Student Christian Federation, p.182.

14. Rutgers, "The Christian Student Union and the War," p. 282.

15. Mission Study Courses Prospectus for 1918-1929 (New York, n.d.), in the SVM archives, p. 4.

16. Harry F. Ward, "Tell Your Church People That!" North American Student 6 (March 1918): 259-63.

17. Channing H. Tobias, "Shall America Be Made Safe for Black Men?" North American Student 6 (March 1918): 266-67.

18. W. D. Weatherford, "Promoting the Spirit of Evangelism," North American Student 6 (February 1918): 225.

19. The Student Christian Movement in 1919-20 (London: S.C.M. Press, 1920), p. 23.
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Author:Showalter, Nathan D.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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