Alabama Baptists and the Second World War

Alabama Baptists and the Second World War

Wayne Flynt

As the half-century remembrances of the Second World War fade into memory, Americans finally fully appreciate the accomplishments of what some now describe as the “greatest generation.” Even in that most remote and Baptist-dominated region known as the South, the war left few lives or institutions untouched. Three recent historical works have argued convincingly that the years from 1940 to 1945 constituted a more important watershed in southern history than even the Civil War. (1)

If that be so, it stands to reason that a region so overwhelmingly Baptist would have absorbed the shock of war both overseas and on the home front in distinctive ways. Alabama as a case study makes that point plainly, though in general the experience of Southern Baptists elsewhere in the South differed only slightly. (2)

Before moving to specifics, I need to emphasize several generalizations. First, the belligerent religious nationalism of the late 1930s and 1940s was not the exclusive legacy of Alabama Baptists. The run-up to the First World War found the state’s white Baptists deeply divided. The complex origins of that war, the lack of clear villains at least in the initial stages of the conflict, America’s late entry into the war, the influence of the Social Gospel and even Socialist ideas about the responsibility of wealthy corporations in causing the war, all these factors complicated reactions to the conflict. Even theologically conservative, rural Baptists often expressed reservations about the morality of war as an instrument of foreign policy. Nonetheless, Alabama Baptists generally rallied `round the flag and after the war enthusiastically supported President Woodrow Wilson’s vision of internationalism as embodied in the League of Nations. (3)

Secondly, Baptists were more numerous in Alabama than in most other states. By 1945, white Baptists numbered 426,000 and black Baptists nearly as many. Among whites, Baptists constituted slightly more than one-half of all church members, and together with black Baptists they claimed nearly a third of the state’s total population. (4)

A third generalization concerns black and white Baptists who processed historical events in quite different ways. Among white Baptists, winning the war and preserving democracy was the sole object of fighting. Among black Baptists, the battle for freedom began overseas, but by no means ended there. Thus, Alabama Baptist civil religion concerning the war differed markedly according to whether one was a black or white Baptist.

Finally, a warning that is axiomatic among those interested in Baptist studies. Baptists disagree about almost everything, and no generalization about even white Alabama Baptists, the focus of my study, fits all of them.

With these preliminaries out of the way, I can periodize the response of Alabama’s white Baptists to international affairs between 1920 and 1950. The first two decades after the First World War were characterized by criticism of war and antinationalism. Then beginning in the mid-1930s, the state’s denominational leaders grew ever more anxious about Fascism, Nazism, Japanese imperialism, and anti-Semitism. But even as some leaders wrestled to justify war as Christian, others held on tenaciously to pacifism. Finally, Alabama Baptists emerged from the Second World War with a more ecumenical and internationalist perspective.

Antiwar and Antinationalism

Throughout the interwar years, one figure dominated state Baptist life, former pastor and longtime editor of the Alabama Baptist (1919-50), L. L. Gwaltney. Accepting the predominant view of American reformist intellectuals that the “Great War” largely had been the product of scheming corporations bent on self-aggrandizement, Gwaltney criticized the conformist nature of the church. By refusing to denounce war, the church had compromised its legitimate complaints about all other evils because war was the chief sin of modern civilization. Gwaltney consistently championed arms reductions and deplored nationalism. (5) Gwaltney chose Mohandas K. Gandhi as the model for Christians because of the Indian leader’s campaign of civil disobedience against British imperialism. Americans had neglected the Sermon on the Mount and adopted the spirit of modern militarism, and there were “no Christian nations in the world except in name.” Gandhi, by contrast, was more Christ-like in “outlook, in his method of overcoming evil, in his relationship with men,” than were Christians. (6)

The editor was not alone in expressing such opinions. Long after Gwaltney succumbed to war hysteria, other Baptist pastors promoted his earlier ideals. Rev. Montague Cook of Montgomery wrote in April 1941 that the use of armed force constituted not so much the preservation of order as the physical, economic and political destruction of a nation. He contended that advocacy of U.S. entry into the European conflict denied Christ either by asserting that his pacifist teachings were not applicable to modern conditions or by dishonestly dodging the plain, literal intent of what Jesus taught. Another influential state Baptist pastor, H. Ross Arnold, argued that secular citizens and governments could wage wars, but Christians should not participate. How could a soldier with nothing but love in his heart for his enemy take a life? Even after Pearl Harbor, numerous pastors defended the rights of conscientious objectors. Such opinions, however, seldom went unchallenged after 1938 and usually triggered an avalanche of angry denunciations. (7)

Changing Opinions

What altered such opinions was not so much new theology as new events. As late as 1934, pacifist Gwaltney, recently returned from the meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in Berlin, praised German efficiency, denied that the Nazi party was persecuting evangelical Christians, and accused many European Jews of being Communists. (8) But the Nazi assumption of power in 1935 quickly changed the editor’s opinions. By early 1937, Gwaltney compared Communism and Fascism as similar, ruthless, political dictatorships. The following year, he denounced the Munich Agreement as a temporary postponement of war which would likely make the ultimate conflict even worse. By the end of 1938, virtually every issue of the Alabama Baptist contained a Gwaltney editorial on chaotic world events. He reminded readers that at the signing of the Versailles Treaty a quarter-of-a-century earlier he had predicted turmoil, depression, an arms race, and war. By 1940, Gwaltney was in full retreat from his earlier pacifism, writing that although war was “godless,” “antisocial,” “wicked,” and would someday be abolished, “obviously that time is not yet.” German aggression against Poland, the USSR, France, and Britain caused him to link the survival of democracy with preserving religious liberty. Praising President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his preparedness program and support of Britain, Gwaltney called 1940 a bad year for pacifism. U.S. isolationists could not protect America from a world on fire, and, although prayer might affect the outcome of the war, Christianity would not restrain Hitler. In an important 1941 speech to the Birmingham Civitan Club, Gwaltney rejected isolationism and pacifism and blamed the war on economic injustice imposed at the end of the First World War (“Men sing much of liberty but doubtless the German people felt that a liberty to starve to death could be improved upon and, as a matter of fact, most all men when put to the test will swap patriotism for pancakes and freedom for fritters”). (9) Gwaltney and other state Baptists also redeemed their earlier flirtation with anti-Semitism by a series of attacks on Nazi persecution of Jews. (10)

As Gwaltney changed his opinions, he moved into line with a suddenly militant Baptist mainstream. A deacon at Greenville Baptist Church argued in 1940 that although Christianity might be theoretically opposed to war, there were times when nations must take up arms. The pastor of Central Baptist Church in Decatur preached a sermon six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor entitled “What If Germany Wins?” The war was a death struggle between two ideologies, totalitarianism and democracy. “The reason I bring these messages from this pulpit and in God’s house,” he announced, “is because I know this church is in danger, her members are in danger, and I am the watchman on the wall. I must warn them.”

E. E. Johnson of Ashford explored various Christian attitudes on war before concluding that the issue was not whether to fight, but the proper attitude while waging war. L. E. Barton, pastor in Jasper, tweaked the Sermon on the Mount a bit, arguing that one had the right to turn his own cheek, but not his wife’s. One could sacrifice himself to aggression, but not the weak, defenseless, and helpless. The model of Jesus was irrelevant concerning “the right and duty Of constituted civil government to maintain order and punish offenders.” The pastor of First Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa, introduced a resolution at the 1941 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention declaring both Baptist abhorrence of war and willingness to fight when “criminal tyrants” threatened human rights and liberties. (11)

Although much less obvious, an important factor in shifting Baptist opinion about international aggression came from Alabama missionaries in China. In a steady stream of reports to mission agencies, denominational newspapers, individual churches, pastors, and women’s missionary societies, China missionaries denounced Japanese aggression, described atrocities against Chinese Christians, and condemned the U.S. government for selling strategic war materials to Japan. Such reports influenced even so pacifist a professor as legendary missiologist W. O. Carver of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who in April 1940 attacked U.S. policy makers for refusing to declare an embargo on Japan. Birmingham pastors responded to these entreaties by joining the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression and denouncing Japan as “an Oriental highwayman out for booty and plunder.” (12)

Waging War

Once war began, Gwaltney ironically became the denomination’s chief apologist for it. He condemned “peace-at-any-price pacifists” who failed to understand that Christianity was powerless to influence nations that rejected its teachings. The war had united Americans and proven the error of theologians such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, who had significantly influenced seminarians toward pacifism (and who incidentally Gwaltney had himself lavishly praised a few years earlier). The editor even penned an editorial entitled “The Patriotism of Christ,” arguing that the “lover of mankind” was also a “lover of His little country” (Israel). Conveniently forgetting his own positions during the 1920s, Gwaltney contrasted the moral toughening required by war to the flabby lassitude of the 1920s, when wealth, ease, isolationists, and “peace-at-any price pacifists” (one of Gwaltney’s favorite phrases during the war) had weakened the nation. When Russian soldiers stopped the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad, the editor attributed victory partly to their belief in God. Only a few Russian leaders were actually atheists, he claimed. When the war ended in Europe, returning Alabama Baptist soldiers recounted the grisly details of death camps where bodies “were stacked like cord wood.” Only when U.S. bombers dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did Gwaltney pause for reflection. Acknowledging that 85 percent of Americans approved using the bombs, Gwaltney warned that such retaliation placed America on the same level with Japan and “made the way of the cross of Jesus much harder for the Japanese people.” His associate editor had no such qualms, calling the end of the war “a Divine deliverance.” (13)

Even during the cataclysm, some pastors refused to surrender their idealism. The most notable example was Charles R. Bell Jr., who pastored Parker Memorial Baptist Church in Anniston where he had grown up and where his banker-father was still an influential deacon. Bell was not only a lifelong pacifist, but a Socialist and critic of racial segregation as well. He was a courageous, prophetic preacher respected by other pastors, one of whom wrote of Bell: “While I disagree with Charlie, I believe that if Jesus Christ were to return to Anniston tomorrow, he would spend the night at Charlie’s house.” In sermon after sermon, in editorial after editorial, Bell scolded his denomination for “parroting in vain repetition a religion that suits our conveniences in a materialistic age.” At the 1941 Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Bell led the floor fight to reject his fellow Tuscaloosa pastor’s call for armed U.S. intervention. When Bell objected to an American flag in his pulpit on the day of the Normandy invasion, that act sealed his fate. He resigned and left the SBC for a Baptist pastorate in Madison, Wisconsin. When he resigned, many parishioners and fellow pastors privately praised his courage if not his opinions. (14)

Lessons Learned

Making sense out of historical calamity has long been a chief task of theologians. The Second World War was no exception. In one of his books, L. L. Gwaltney wrote that the Second World War disproved the thesis that conflict never solved anything: “Wars have at least settled that great wrongs and evils and tyrannies which wicked men have imposed on others should not permanently prevail.” (15)

But he insisted that other lessons must be learned from wars as well, that permanent peace could only be constructed from international justice and understanding. After the war, he opposed peacetime conscription, denounced British neocolonialism, praised the United Nations, and criticized congressional isolationists. He led the statewide Baptist effort for world relief to prevent starvation in war-ravaged Europe and China. Although nationalism was an improvement over feudalism, he wrote, it was inferior to a world federation of nations that would vanquish war. (16) He warned against postwar policies of revenge and even doubted the wisdom of the Nuremberg war-crime trials. Future peace depended on economic justice, and Gwaltney favored tariff reductions and rejected “racialism, nationalism, selfish interests and the supremacy baloney.” (17)

Charlie Bell’s old church, Parker Memorial, reluctantly rejected his pacifism but overwhelmingly endorsed his internationalism, contributing both the genesis and funding for an International House at Jacksonville State University where students from around the world would congregate to study and live in peace. (18)

Like any great event, the Second World War had unintended consequences. Wartime prosperity paid off Depression-era debts and left Alabama Baptist churches flush with money. (Cooperative Program contributions for 1945 alone increased by 47 percent over the previous year.) War also created a better educated laity of men and women who attended college on the G.I. Bill. It bequeathed the denomination a generation of less docile women who had left home for military, factory, and mill work. Many pastors returned from chaplaincies where they not only had made friends with ministers and soldiers of other faiths, but even decided that Christians of different denominations had much in common. C. M. Haygood, a Navy chaplain from Greenville, was deeply affected by a funeral service he had conducted for three men killed in a crash. One was Catholic, another Protestant, and the third Jewish. The ecumenical lesson he took from that occasion might well be the epitaph for an entire generation: “A little risk of life itself can do a lot to clarify the meaning of faith … as nothing else can do.” (19)


(1.) Numan V. Bartley, “World War II and the Postwar South,” The New South: 1945-1980 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995), 1-37; Morton Sosna, “More Important than the Civil War? The Impact of World War II on the South,” in Perspectives on the American South: An Annual Review of Society, Politics and Culture, ed. James C. Cobb and Charles R. Wilson (New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1987), 145-61; and Remaking Dixie: The Impact of World War II on the American South, ed. Neil R. McMillan (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997).

(2.) For comparisons with Kentucky Baptists for instance, see James Duane Bolin, Kentucky Baptists 1925-2000: A Story of Cooperation (Nashville: Southern Baptist Historical Society and Fields Communications, 2000), 109-136.

(3.) Wayne Flynt, Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998), 300-01.

(4.) Alabama Baptist, May 24, 1945; January 10, 1946; December 18, 1947.

(5.) Ibid., June 29, 1939; March 6 and April 17, 1930; January 3, 1935; July 29, 1937; August 5, 1943.

(6.) Ibid., April 30, 1930; May 7, 1931.

(7.) Ibid., February 6, April 3, 17, 24, 1941; January 1, 1942.

(8.) Jimmy Harper, “Alabama Baptists and the Rise of Hitler and Fascism, 1930-1938,” Journal of Reform Judaism (Spring 1985): 1-11.

(9.) Alabama Baptist, January 7, 1937; September 29 and October 13, 1938; January 12 and July 6, 1939; January 25, March 28, May 9 and 16, June 6, July 4, September 12, 1940; September 25 and October 16, 1941; “Background Conditions,” text of speech to Birmingham Civitan Club, in L. L. Gwaltney Papers, Archives, Samford University.

(10.) Alabama Baptist, November 17 and December 1, 1938; December 14, 1939; January 30, 1941.

(11.) Ibid., November 28, 1940; March 13, May 22, June 19, July 3, 1941.

(12.) Wayne Flynt, Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1850-1950 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 310-11; Alabama Baptist, September 16, 1937; December 22, 1938; April 18, 1940.

(13.) Alabama Baptist, December 11, 1941; January 1, August 13, September 3, 1942; June 3, 1943; January 20, 1944; May 3, August 16 and 23, September 6, 1945.

(14.) Ibid., June 12, 1941; March 19, 1942; November 18, 1943; October 19, 1944; January 20, 1949; see letters of support in Charles R. Bell Jr. Papers, Archives, Samford University; Flynt, Alabama Baptists, 404-06.

(15.) L. L. Gwaltney, A Message for Today on the Chariots of Fire or the Triumph of the Spiritual (Birmingham: Birmingham Printing Company, 1941), 22.

(16.) Alabama Baptist, January 4 and 18, May 24, June 21, July 5 and 19, September 13, October 18, 1945; February 21, March 7, August 1, September 12, 1946; January 2, 1947; April 13, 1950.

(17.) Ibid., June 10, 1943; February 10, March 23, May 4, June 29, July 13, 1944; February 7, 1946; November 4, 1948.

(18.) Harry M. Ayers to B. Locke Davis, March 20, 1954, in B. Locke Davis Papers, Archives, Samford University.

(19.) Minutes, Executive Committee of the ABSC, 1943-46; Alabama Baptist, May 16, October 3, 1940; February 24, July 13, 1944; April 5, July 5, 1945; August 21, 1947; July 20, 1950; “Some Unusual Experiences in the Chaplain’s Corps,” in C. M. Haygood Papers, Archives, Samford University.

Wayne Flynt is Distinguished University Professor, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.

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