They said that the war would be over by Christmas…
This Christmas marks the 100th anniversary of the so-called “Christmas Truce” between the German and British armies along the Western Front during the “Great War.” When the fighting began in August, 1914, both sides were expecting a fairly quick outcome. But by the time the bitter cold of December set in amid the muddy trenches near the Marne River, devastated by terrible casualties resulting from the horrors of modern warfare, it became clear that the bloody end was still some years away.
But why the war in the first place? As Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins argues in the The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, the typical narrative offered by secular historians, that the war was basically a great imperial contest among European colonizing empires, fails to adequately and fully explain what happened. Jenkins maintains that “the First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict” (Wall Street Journal book review, by D. G. Hart, June 6, 2014, but also consider this review from Reformation21).
Prior to the war, the majority of Christians were optimistic about the future spread of the Gospel changing societies for the better, an essentially postmillenial view of the “End Times.” But after these supposedly “Christian nations” of the world had managed to annihilate millions of people, at least indirectly all in the “name of God,” the mood and perspective of many Christians began to change. A type of pessimism took over, so it should come as no surprise that the great “Christian nations” of Europe would eventually enter a steady decline towards apostasy. It was as though the “War to End All Wars” had compromised the witness of the church. But what was not so evident at the time was that in the aftermath of the war, the spread of the Gospel would increase rapidly across the “Global South”, where the Christian faith continues to expand even today all across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Is there anything we can learn from all of this?
For me, the event during that war that most captures the contradictions and the absurdity of “Christian nations” fighting one another, while still offering a glimmer of hope, is in that unusual truce between the German and British armies that lasted for several days beginning Christmas Eve, 1914. What started off as German soldiers singing Christmas carols to one another became a type of peaceful interchange between the warring parties.
The truce would turn out to be brief, as the fighting renewed just a few days later… Charlottesville, Virginia folk singer, John McCutcheon, tells the tale of the Christmas Truce: