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Methodists and World War I

Written By: Phillip Stone - Apr• 13•17

This was my column for the April edition of the SC United Methodist Advocate

This month marks the centennial of American entry into the First World War. On April 2, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a special session to declare war on Germany, and on April 6, Congress passed a declaration of war.

The Great War, as people of that generation called it, had been raging in Europe and elsewhere for nearly three years when the United States entered the conflict. Stories of war had been on American front pages throughout that time, and Americans had been profiting from European countries’ needs to purchase manufactured goods here. South Carolinians were, in the words of Wofford history professor Dr. David Duncan Wallace, “gloating over nineteen cents cotton.”

Wallace had a regular column in the Advocate, and on April 12, 1917, he wrote, “As President Wilson so eloquently expressed it, this is a war between absolutely irreconcilable principles … those of military autocracy and democratic freedom,” and “America does not want to live in a world in which a nation with a submarine soul and with a submarine way of getting what it wants shall be accorded any right to say what the world shall be like.” Wallace, using the word “submarine,” was no doubt playing on the German campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare that was part of America’s reason for entering the war.

The war, for Wallace and for several other academics, was about the question of “whether free democratic communities, organized for peace, can defend themselves against military oligarchies.” Wallace had actually been critical of the United States for standing by for so long, noting, “The sorry spectacle has at last ended of this land of freedom standing ‘neutral’ by drinking its streams of gold, while other free nations defended with their streams of blood our and our children’s freedom against the mightiest and most infamous conspiracy of modern times.”

However, Wallace hastened to separate criticism of the German government from criticism of German people, or of Americans of German descent: “Everyone should use his or her influence to suppress absurd and cruel slanders against our fellow citizens of German blood. It is true that the country is full of German spies, but that is no reason for listening to wild rumors about persons whom you have known for years as good and true men.”

Wallace noted the next week that “the first task of the United States will be to supply the Allies with money and food.” And it was certainly true that the British and French were suffering mightily in the spring of 1917 from shortages of food and arms.

So how did South Carolina Methodists react to the country’s declaration of war? The Advocate said almost nothing editorially about the outbreak of war. Perhaps by April 1917, they had already said all they wanted to say. One guest writer, on April 26, wrote a long opinion piece about the desire for world domination among Germany’s leaders. He cited articles by German military leaders but, like Wallace, hastened to separate the American war against Germany from a war on the German people.

The next two years would be dominated by war, and South Carolina’s Methodists would be focused on family members who were sent to fight in Europe and on mission work in the state and throughout the world.

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