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“I Love America”: Fundamentalist Responses to World War II

This chart depicts the second coming and subsequent judgment by God.

This chart, from Clarence Larkin’s Dispensational Truth: Or, God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages, exemplifies how believers in dispensational eschatology approached the future. The vision of the future presented in Larkin’s charts loomed large in the minds of Word War II-era fundamentalist leaders. Image from Clarence Larkin, Dispensational Truth: Or, God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages (Philadelphia, PA: Rev. Clarence Larkin, 1920), 13.

After the Scopes Trial in 1925, fundamentalism seemed to be in decline. Many Americans in the late 1920s and the 1930s believed that, as a correspondent for The Guardian declared, “the wave of ‘Fundamentalism’ in America has passed its crest.” Fundamentalism, which George Marsden succinctly defines as “militantly antimodernist Protestant evangelicalism,” was both innovative and atavistic, calling for a return to the “old-time religion” and nineteenth-century social norms while advancing new schemes for eschatology and biblical interpretation. Correctly, The Guardian observed that “the literal interpretation of the Bible” was a central tenet of fundamentalist belief, and that fundamentalism was “an attempted defence against a sudden and supposedly formidable peril” – that is, “modern geological and biological science.” The anti-evolution movement, however, was only one aspect of fundamentalism. A whole constellation of issues, ranging from prohibition and campaigns against theaters, dancing, and gambling to theological “modernism” and Communism, animated the movement even after the public relations disaster of the Scopes Trial. Precisely because of this broad and related cluster of concerns, fundamentalists, instead of being relegated to the dustbin of history, emerged in the 1950s as members of an organized movement that would shape American society and politics into the late twentieth century (and beyond). As Joel Carpenter argues in Revive Us Again, fundamentalism’s resurgence in the 1950s was largely because the previous two decades were spent building institutions, para-church organizations, and media empires. World events, too, provided fundamentalists with opportunities to rebuild their movement. The Second World War played an important role in fundamentalism’s resurgence in two key ways: by allowing fundamentalists to define and assert their ideological and theological identity, and by associating fundamentalism with unabashed, unambiguous patriotism. [1]

First, World War II provided fundamentalists with opportunities to develop and refine their message and identity. The horrors of global war gave new urgency to fundamentalists’ calls for revival and lent credence to dispensational eschatology.  The war allowed fundamentalists to redefine themselves as relevant, patriotic, and, perhaps most importantly, mainstream. Dispensationalism, which divided human history into “dispensations” and interpreted both past and current events according to that scheme, was a core belief for most fundamentalists. As Matthew Avery Sutton argues in American Apocalypse, fundamentalists, as part of a movement he defines as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism,” were convinced “that the world was going to end. Imminently. Violently. Tragically.”[2]

Apocalyptically-minded fundamentalists viewed World War II as the fulfillment of divine prophecy. Two fundamentalist pastors from Texas, John R. Rice and J. Frank Norris, who each edited and wrote for fundamentalist newspapers, The Sword of the Lord and The Fundamentalist, respectively, provide insight into fundamentalists’ interpretations of the war. Norris, the so-called “Fundamentalist No. 1,” led the revolt of fundamentalist delegates from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1939 and threatened to leave the SBC with five thousand churches. Norris had gained some notoriety in 1926, after he shot and killed a wealthy businessman who had threatened to kill him. Rice, Norris’s less controversial protégé, had become a leading figure in fundamentalism by the 1940s through a career as a pastor of a large fundamentalist church in Dallas (the Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle), an evangelist, and an author. The Sword of the Lord, which Rice edited, had a circulation between 10,000 and 15,000 by 1942.Rice believed that “surely the end of the age is near at hand,” since “many, many Scriptures are being fulfilled.” Norris asserted that the Bible taught that Europe, Asia, and Africa would be “under the dictatorship of one man,” and that the signing of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939 was a sign that this prophecy would soon be fulfilled. Similarly, Rice argued “the dictators of the present time . . . are rapidly clearing the way for the Antichrist.” Fundamentalists joined many Americans in asserting that Hitler or Mussolini was the anti-Christ. During a defense rally held at Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta in February 1943, Brigadier General Eric Fisher Wood described Hitler and Hirohito each as “the Anti-Christ,” and by the end of the war, DeWitt MacKenzie, an Associated Press correspondent, argued that Hitler, as a “throw-back to barbarism” was an “Anti-Christ.” By insisting that Hitler and other Axis leaders were anti-Christs and therefore harbingers of the apocalypse, fundamentalists shaped public opinion on the war and helped to make dispensationalist theology mainstream.[3]

Furthermore, World War II prodded fundamentalists to emphasize their roots in revivalism and provided a reason for Americans to follow the fundamentalist creed, as leaders such as Rice, Norris, and Bob Jones, Sr. (of Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina) threatened that global war was only the beginning if Americans failed to repent. Rice warned that “America is due to begin reaping what she has been sowing.” The only remedy, he asserted, would be “a revival of old-fashioned . . . Christianity.” To fundamentalists, the war also served as evidence that “modernists” were indeed the threat that fundamentalists claimed they were.  At the Southwest Prophetic Conference in Dallas, Texas at Scofield Memorial Church, Jones blamed “modernist leaders,” who had “turn[ed] the younger generation into . . . pacifists.” Jones urged revival, Christian education, and militarization, declaring that he was “in favor of having the biggest Army and Navy in the world.” For fundamentalists, World War II served as both validation of their worldview and as motivation for further evangelistic efforts.[4]

Initially, some fundamentalists, like Rice and Norris, resisted the United States’ involvement in the war. They opposed intervention because they believed that the United States would be taken advantage of by European powers and because an alliance with the “godless” Soviet Union was unthinkable. The events of the war, however, soon convinced fundamentalists that war was necessary. For example, Norris’s resistance to the United States’ involvement in World War II evaporated after a tour of Europe and Asia in the summer of 1939. He came the conclusion that “war is inevitable,” since “Hitler is Satan incarnate.” Norris called on the U.S. to begin providing arms and war materiel to the Allies and to quadruple the size of its military. Norris became an enthusiastic supporter of increased U.S. involvement in World War II, hosting a defense rally with Elliott Roosevelt on June 9, 1940 at Temple Baptist, his church in Detroit. Norris remarked that “it is very comforting to have the representative and son of the Administration to come to my pulpit and . . . join me in helping rout the radicals out of this country.” He came to support the war effort, not only because of his belief that the Axis powers threatened American security, but also because it provided a way for him to expand his campaign against alleged radicals and Communists in labor.[5]

Fundamentalists became enthusiastic patriots, unlike mainline Protestants, who, as Gerald Sittser contends, were only “cautiously patriotic.” Fundamentalists embraced patriotism with abandon, holding bond drives, encouraging military service, and characterizing the United States’ enemies as pagan and godless. Both Rice and Norris taught that military service in defense of a righteous cause was divinely sanctioned. Rice argued that “real Christianity involves Christian patriotism,” and described American soldiers as “the agents of government and the agents of God.” Fundamentalists contributed to the war efforts in more tangible ways than sacralizing military service. Norris encouraged his readers to “buy bonds, gather scrap [and] support the Government.” Norris argued that buying war bonds was a way for Christians to preserve their spiritual heritage, explaining that an American victory depended on both money and morale, which could both be raised by war bonds. Additionally, in the pages of The Fundamentalist Norris praised buying war bonds as a way for fundamentalists to invest in schools, mission boards, and churches. Fundamentalists also supported the way the Allies waged war, believing that America should devastate its enemies. Norris exclaimed that “America should absolutely burn Tokyo to the ground! And we should give Germany some of her own medicine.” Fundamentalists were patriotic, and, at times, even jingoistic. Norris, in particular, was especially outspoken against Nazism, announcing that his primary goal was to “arouse the American people to the Nazi dangers,” and, in an act of political theater, burned a Nazi flag in his Fort Worth church in October 1939. Fervent fundamentalist patriotism helped to lay the foundations for the movement’s successes in the postwar years.[6]

World War II is an important part of fundamentalist history. Instead of retreating from public life, fundamentalists seized on wartime opportunities to re-establish their place in American society. By becoming enthusiastic patriots, fundamentalists won popularity and power. Fundamentalists also saw the events of World War II as confirmation of their view of history, which added new urgency and vitality to their attempts to form a community of faith and to extend their movement through evangelization. Fundamentalism’s postwar “boom” was in part a result of the actions of fundamentalist leaders during the war. Furthermore, fundamentalists’ patriotism and their eventual, but enthusiastic support for the war helped to cement fundamentalism’s place within popular religion. Unlike mainline Protestant denominations, fundamentalist churches and leaders eschewed “cautious patriotism” and instead favored a kind of jingoism, which could justify violence against German and Japanese citizens as deserved, divine judgment. World War II allowed fundamentalists to re-enter public life, by offering new ways for fundamentalists to make their beliefs relevant to Americans.

Anderson Rouse is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at UNC Greensboro. His dissertation focuses on the rise of the Christian Right in the South between 1885 and 1985.

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[1] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York, 2006); “‘Fundamentalism’ in the United States: A Failing Cause,” The Guardian (Manchester, UK), July 11, 1927, 10; Joel Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), xi.

[2] Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 3.

[3] The Windsor Daily Star (Windsor, Ontario), December 24, 1940, sec. 2, p. 1; “Baptist Church Split is Fought in Convention,” Nevada State Journal (Reno, NV), May 18, 1939, p. 10; “Dr. J. Frank Norris and State Ready for Pastor’s Trial in Murder Charge,” Austin American-Statesman (Austin, TX), October 31, 1926, p. 8; “Dr. John R. Rice Author-Evangelist at Central C & MA,” The Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star (Lincoln, NE), November 15, 1942, C9; John R. Rice, “Can America Keep Out of War?,” The Sword of the Lord, March 31, 1939, p. 1; J. Frank Norris, “Bible Prophecies that Show that One Man Will Rule All Europe,” The Fundamentalist, April 7, 1939, p. 2; Norris, “What Will The Hitlerites Now Say and Do?,” The Fundamentalist, September 22, 1939, p. 1; Louie D. Newton, “Hitler Called Anti-Christ in Defense Rally,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 22, 1943; DeWitt MacKenzie, “Parallel of War and Armageddon Drawn by Analyst,” The Austin American, January 24, 1945. MacKenzie repeatedly described Hitler as an “anti-Christ” throughout the war – see DeWitt MacKenzie, “Hitler Unquestionably Enslavement of World,” The Herald-Press (St. Joseph, MI), July 28, 1942.

[4] “Rice, Will American Get in World-Wide War?,” The Sword of the Lord, June 8, 1940, p. 1. “Modernists Blamed for Today’s War,” The Dallas Morning News, March 30, 1943; Ruth Taunton, “Christianity, Not Warships, Can Save Civilization, Says Fighting Educator,” San Diego Union, March 21, 1939; “Dr. Jones Urges Return to ‘Old-Time Religion,’” Asheville Citizen, May 18, 1940, 7.

[5] Norris, “War Conditions Changed Our Route. War is Inevitable,” The Fundamentalist, July 21, 1939, p.1; “Calling America to Christian Patriotism and to God: Elliot Roosevelt, Convention Hall, Detroit, June 9, 7:30 P.M.,” The Fundamentalist, June 7, 1940, p. 1; Norris, “Difference Between Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson,” The Fundamentalist, June 28, 1940, p. 4-5.

[6] Gerald L. Sittser, A Cautious Patriotism: The American Churches and the Second World War (Chapel Hill, 2010), 2 and 10. Rice, “Duties of Christians Concerning Hitler and World War,” The Sword of the Lord, August 22, 1941, p. 1; “First Baptist and Temple Baptist in Fifty Thousand Dollar U.S. Bond Campaign,” The Fundamentalist, November 13, 1942, p. 1; Norris, “War Bonds and Our Spiritual Heritage,” The Fundamentalist, January 30, 1942, p. 1; Norris, “What Hitler Will See in Hell Before 1943,” The Fundamentalist, January 30, 1942, p. 3; Norris, “Can the Leopard Change His Spots or the Isolationist His Colors”, The Fundamentalist, June 19, 1942, p. 2; Norris, “Why the German Bund and Red Rats Should Not be Permitted to Hold a Meeting Under the Stars and Stripes,” The Fundamentalist, December 12, 1939, p. 1; “J. Frank Norris Going to Europe to Get Information,” Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light (Corsicana, TX), September 5, 1941, p. 6; “J. Frank Norris to Burn Nazi Flag,” Austin American-Statesman (Austin, TX), October 1, 1939, p. 17.