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Notes from the Back Row: Kentucky Baptists and the Great War

 

One hundred years ago, the resolve of Kentucky Baptists, along with the rest of the nation, was tested by America’s involvement in World War I. Baptists in Kentucky generally supported Woodrow Wilson and the war effort. The war proved to be a turning point, however, for H. Boyce Taylor, the influential pastor of Murray Baptist Church and the architect of the newly minted cooperative budget plan adopted by the Kentucky General Association of Kentucky Baptists in 1915.

Elected as moderator of the General Association in 1917 following his high-profile role as chair of the “Committee of Nine,” a committee instructed “to consider, give publicity to, and promote the unification plan,” Taylor “was conspicuously absent from the presiding officer’s chair” when messengers “overwhelmingly passed a strong resolution supporting the war” at the annual meeting. Taylor had been distressed when a resolution stating that “Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount should govern a Christian’s behavior during wartime” was voted down by messengers at the 1917 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In Murray, Taylor’s antiwar views eventually led to a public enquiry held by a committee of the Kentucky Council of Defense. Following his acquittal, Taylor resumed his leadership role in General Association affairs for a time, but a pattern of controversy prevented him from regaining the statewide influence he had enjoyed before the war. He remained a powerful figure in western Kentucky. Even after his death in 1932, his legacy cast a long shadow over Baptist life in the Jackson Purchase.

For the vast majority of Americans, the Great War “provoked intense feelings,” but feelings decidedly different from those displaced by H. Boyce Taylor. For intellectuals within the Southern Baptist Convention, “Germany had presented a philosophical challenge that had to be met.” For many Baptist thinkers, the “godless ravings” of Friedrich Nietzche symbolized “Germany’s alleged combination of atheism and militarism.”

For A. T. Robertson, the formidable Greek Scholar and theologian at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Germany presented the choice between “Kaiser or Christ, Napoleon or Jesus, Corsica or Galilee.” Robertson believed that Germany, by “exalting brute force” and scorning “Christian love, kindness, and compassion,” left Christians “with no choice but to fight for their faith.”

Whatever the degree that individual Baptists supported the involvement of the United States in the war, it was evident that the war had brought change and that the end of the war was also the beginning of a “new era.” At war’s end, A. T. Robertson wrote in his book, The New Citizenship: The Christian Facing a New World Order, that “the old world has passed away when Belgium took her stand in front of the Kaiser’s hosts. Modern history began on that date.”

The Baptist scholar’s vision anticipated the works of later secular historians. Modris Ecksteins wrote in “The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age that out of all the death and dying of the Great War grew our modern consciousness. Ecksteins wrote that “for all our preoccupation with speed, newness, transience, and … to have taken hold, and entire scale of values and beliefs had to yield pride of place, and the Great War was … the single most significant event in that development.” Ecksteins wrote in 1989. Robertson made his prescient observation 70 years earlier in 1919.

What are the lessons of the Great War for us today? As surely as Christ was in the trenches with the dead and the dying from 1915 to 1919, we can be sure that we are still these hundred years later experiencing the legacy of the Great War in 2017.

This column is drawn from Duane Bolin’s book, “Kentucky Baptists, 1925-2000: A Story of Cooperation.” Bolin teaches in the Department of History at Murray State University. Contact Duane at jbolin@murraystate.edu.

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