George W. Truett, pastor
of First Baptist Church of Dallas at the dawn
of the 20th century, discovered this the hard
way as he attempted to lead his church through
a tumultuous time in a different era when
it was believed a great war could end all
America's efforts in World War I, viewing
the conflict in spiritual terms as God against
the kaiser. He poetically described America's
military as a "sword bathed in heaven.
ANOTHER MEMORY: Up in the airplane, treetops
Although he was uncomfortable with violence,
Truett was a firm believer, apologist and
proclaimer of liberty. He viewed victory in
the war as a necessity for the advancement
And so Truett used every resource available
to enter the fray. He regularly preached messages
presenting a theological framework for the
war, and he urged his congregation to get
involved, from buying war bonds to serving
their country. More than 100 men from First
Baptist responded to their pastor by joining
the armed services.
Truett got the opportunity to practice what
he had been preaching in 1918 when President
Wilson chose 20 ministers to travel overseas
to serve the troops. In light of Truett's
support of the war, it was no surprise he
was sent an invitation. Truett took little
time to respond, gladly donning the uniform
of the YMCA as one of their chaplains. With
determined resolve to help, Truett announced
the decision to his church June 2, 1918. His
sermon appeared in the Baptist Standard under
the title "Why is America a Participant
in this World War?"
"Because there was no other course for
her to pursue except at the damnation of her
soul," Truett wrote in answer to his
question. "In the other days, my own
heart was pierced with the poignancy of anguish
concerning the war. War is hideous! War is
horrible! War is unspeakable in its atrocity
and suffering! But there are some things far
worse than war, and America is in this world
war to make war against war, to make a war
for real peace, a peace based on righteousness,
and a peace to last."
Fortunately for us, Truett kept a diary of
his experience as he sought to put feet to
his theology. His enthusiasm for the war waned
as he experienced its darker side.
Though he never wavered on the necessity to
fight the evils of tyranny, he clearly grappled
with the human cost.
Although Truett's journal entries at the beginning
of his journey evoke the excitement of a boy
going to summer camp, when he crossed the
ocean and arrived in England, a transformation
in his soul took place. This is seen most
clearly when he visited a hospital run by
the Canadians, where he witnessed for the
first time the trainloads of wounded soldiers
arriving from the battlefields.
He wrote: "Language human cannot describe
my emotions. ... (I spoke) to a curly haired,
sweet-faced boy of 19. I fairly took him into
my arms and petted and loved him, and he so
clung to me. They were so brave and uncomplaining.
Surely, surely, I shall know better than ever
to be a murmurer any more, about the little
things, when men by the myriads are dying
without a murmur, for me, and my family, and
my country, and for liberty and civilization."
Later, Truett had booked passage to cross
the Irish Sea but barely missed the boat.
Soon after, he received word that the craft
had been torpedoed and all the passengers
had died. Truett visited the hospital and
saw the "American boys drowned."
"Oh, the gruesome sight!" he wrote.
The next day, he boarded another ship that
passed by the sunken vessel. Truett could
see the flag just above the water. He reflected
on his brush with death and wrote in his diary,
"God moves in a mysterious way! How great
is his goodness!"
Soon after this episode, Truett witnessed
the battlefields of
France for the first time. His entries clearly
express horror and rage. In the news, he heard
of the peace negotiations and he uncharacteristically
wrote of his desire for vengeance.
"After seeing the long, long rows of
trenches, blood-sodden, and the dugouts, and
the mud and blood of them all, and the mutilated
cities, some utterly obliterated, and the
horribly furrowed fields, and the dying and
the dead, and then thinking of the millions
who have been banned to the dust by this war,
it is idle and irrational and criminal to
think of any unworthy peace. God lead our
Allies on to do his will!"
While in France, Truett became more somber
and serious about his ministry to the soldiers.
One of his most endearing habits was to write
to the mothers of each of the Texas soldiers
"I have written to many parents about
their blessed lads at the front. Just today,
I have written a Texas mother, telling her
all about her son's death, and about his valorous
deeds, and the high esteem in which he was
held by all his associates. Maybe my letter
will help the little mother back at home."
As the holidays approached, Truett became
more melancholy. He was homesick, and day
after day was filled with witnessing more
of the ravages of war as he crossed into Germany.
On Christmas Eve, he was especially despondent.
Outside his window he heard church bells ringing.
The contrast between the purity of their tones
echoing over fields still reverberating with
nightmarish memories was too much to bear.
Truett penned: "There should be a better
way of settling difficulties than by the arbitrament
of the sword and poison gas and death-dealing
bombs. The nations that believe in this better
way should now so fix matter that there can
never again be a repetition of the recent
worldwide bath of blood. Carelessness at this
point will be a sacrilege against every grave
of all the millions made by this war."
As an exclamation point to this sentiment,
the following day Truett found himself at
a train station, sitting on a bench, waiting
and pondering. A 4-year-old stranger approached
They stared at one another for a moment. Truett
attempted to communicate, but the boy couldn't
speak English and the pastor was unfamiliar
with the boy's language. For once in his life,
the great pulpiteer found himself in an awkward
situation where his words were powerless.
So he opened his arms, and the boy crawled
into his lap. The two embraced for a timeless
moment. Truett saw the boy's mother in the
distance, dressed in black, indicating she
was a widow. The full weight of the moment
sank in as he realized he held in his arms
one of the great consequences of all his talk
about "swords bathed in heaven."
Suddenly, war didn't seem so glorious.
Truett's personal journey into war began as
it did with many of his generation, with visions
of bands playing, flags waving, colorful words,
grand ideas and a naive sense that this was
the war to end all wars. Truett returned still
believing America did what it had to do; but
now he viewed war as something deeply disturbing--something
even in victory not worthy to cheer about.
For in a non-descript train station in the
heart of a war-torn land, snuggling a victim
of national rhetoric, Truett learned that
in war, everyone loses.