Onward, Christian(?) Soldiers: Political Theology and Christians Taking Up Arms as Christians in the 19th Century United States

Despite a wealth of martial imagery in traditional Anglophone hymnody and in English-language religious discourse broadly, modern Americans flinch at the notion of churchmen acting in a martial manner, particularly if they do so by arguing for divine sanction to back up the decision to take up arms. Andrew Fulford notes in his Jesus and Pacificism that many Evangelicals, particularly those who confronted the Iraq War and excessed of neoconservative interventionism in the 1990s and in the first decade of the twenty-first century, became increasingly convinced that Jesus argued for de-facto pacifism in the Christian Gospels. The influence of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Richard Hays exercised considerable influence on what passed for an Evangelical intellectual class in the era. A corollary belief was that Christians could never act violently as Christians, and that military service could only be justified through the natural duties of citizenship.

Theologians often appealed to the generally non-violent reality of life to make claims regarding Christian pacifism. Fulford notes that “most Christians would have no occasion in which to be physically violent” and that “Christians who happened to follow just war principles would also refuse to revolt against the state, or to fight in wars that were clearly unjust.” This has led modern theologians, particularly Evangelicals, to “legitimately generalize, and say that Christians as a rule are not violent.” The danger with this generalization is that it can “easily slip into a different conclusion, that Christians were as a rule not violent because their teaching absolutely prohibited it.”

The supposedly pacifist reaction of early church in the face of Roman persecution often forms the foundation to objections to explicitly Christian soldiery and martial action in Evangelical circles. Fulford notes that even Tertullian, a chief source of Christian pacifist polemics, told his Roman neighbors of Christians: “We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you.”

American Protestants, particularly those in the nineteenth century, appealed to the idea of Christian soldiery. One Baptist minister in Virginia at the outset of the American Civil War wrote that the experience of war forced him to rethink his personal political theology.

I have never understood the compatibleness of Christianity with war as I see it in the present struggle for Southern independence. Never have I seen or read of greater promptness on the part of Christians, of all denominations, to shoulder the musket in defence of their homes, their families, and all that makes life desirable. I can now comprehend what is meant by the New Testament phrase, ‘a devout soldier,’ for I have seen the men for whom I have preached, with whom I have prayed, and whom I have seen presiding at Baptist associations, fully panoplied for the war.

J. William Jones, Christ in the Camp, pg. 22

This was not an appeal to theocracy, establishmentarianism, or illiberal political theology. Baptists in Virginia had been among the most enthusiastic devotees of Jeffersonian separationism. But even even separation of church and state did not annihilate the ability of a Christian to take up arms as a Christian.


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This