Philip Jenkins
The Great And Holy WarHow World War I Became a Religious Crusade (also How World War I Changed Religion Forever)
Lion Books, Oxford, UK, 2014
ISBN: 978-0745956725

"Densely written, the book provides a reasonably comprehensive survey of some of the major changes that occurred in religious belief during and as a result of the conflict."

A scholarly yet readable account of how World War I forever changed religion, Philip Jenkins’ book makes a timely contribution to discussions on the impact of the war in a sphere often overlooked. 

Densely written, the book provides a reasonably comprehensive survey of some of the major changes that occurred in religious belief during and as a result of the conflict. While the focus starts off in Christian Europe and the US and the realignment of religious faiths that took place there, it does move on to other areas – among them the end of the Ottoman Empire and its impact on Muslim belief and the rise of the church in Africa (from a purely selfish geographical standpoint, it would have been good to have some specific information on the impact in Australia).

Dr Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University in the US where he is also co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion, examines how the war was framed through religious belief on both sides of the conflict and finds a particular focus, not surprisingly given the sheer scale of the war thanks in large part to new military technologies, on the apocalyptic and the supernatural (the appearance of the Angel of Mons is just one example of the latter).

There’s also some interesting reading – particularly in the context of where the church stands with regard to conflicts today – on the role the clergy played in advocating war - especially through the notion of the war as a crusade or holy war - and promoting peace. The idea of martyrdom is also examined in some detail as is the notion of belief on the battlefield – “there are no atheists in the foxhole” – and the rise of superstitious practices on the homefront – such as the hammering of nails into a statue for good fortune in Germany which became a lucrative money-making scheme for authorities.

Dr Jenkins also includes a look at how the war meshed into other historical events spanning the period including the devastating impact of the Spanish flu epidemic which started in the US in early 1918 and ended up, according to conservative estimates, killing at least 50 million, a figure far above the the estimated 10 million who died in the four years of the war – and how such events further shaped beliefs, particularly those concerning the end of the world.

Given this year is the 100th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, chapter 11 was particularly useful in providing a detailed picture of this horrific event while chapter nine examines how the war impacted calls for a Jewish homeland.

Not a light read, The Great and Holy War is nonetheless worth the effort and not just for the sake of historical interest. For, as Dr Jenkins’ points out, we continue to wrestle today with the ramifications of the war’s influence on religious belief across the world.

Follow this link to buy this book, The Great and Holy War.