Apr 16, 2024

George W. Truett: Defending Thy Neighbor

A guest post by David T. Crum

American official photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

George W. Truett (1867-1944), a staunch Southern Baptist, served as a chaplain during World War I. He also preached during World War II and defended the idea that democracy was worth fighting for. He supported American entrance into both global conflicts for the sake of “thy neighbor." In the Scriptures, the Greatest Commandment lies at the heart of the Gospel message (Matthew 22:36-40). Christians are called to serve their God and, second, serve their neighbor. Undoubtedly, the lesson is to put one’s self, passions and desires aside for God and one’s fellow man.

To defend America’s entrance into World War I, Truett preached:

If you and I were out here in the street and saw some bullying, braggart, boastful man trampling a helpless little woman or a helpless little child, and you and I should fold our hands and say, “I don’t believe in war, I don’t believe in interfering in other people’s business,” and let the child be slaughtered and the woman destroyed, manhood has left us, that’s all. We have to have regard.

Truett felt America had to assist those suffering in Europe. Such servitude required sacrifice and the willingness to lose one’s life for the sake of others. The Bible is clear that righteousness is always the standard. Christians should abhor war, and Truett did. However, he felt the evil of humanity needed to be confronted in the name and light of Jesus Christ. 

He even challenged his followers that such a fight might take their lives. He declared, “The sanctity of womanhood anywhere is worth dying for; the safety of childhood is worth dying for; the integrity of a man’s country is worth dying for; the freedom and honor of a man’s country are worth dying for.”

Challenging a nation

While America was historically considered an isolationist nation, both world wars changed the country’s foreign policy positions, with America eventually becoming more involved in global affairs. Truett heavily criticized the U.S. for its lack of involvement after WWI because of his personal connection to those he served in Europe. In particular, the abandonment of the League of Nations disgusted him. 

In World War II, Truett was not entirely surprised by the events that developed. Firstly, he criticized American political leaders for their disinterest in foreign affairs. Truett also condemned the U.S. trade policy, particularly for trading military equipment and fuel with Japan before the attack at Pearl Harbor. He noted that such a policy resulted in millions of innocent civilians being slaughtered. Congress eventually ended trade relations, which resulted in the surprise attack on the Hawaiian Islands. 

Defending those in need

When the U.S. entered the war, Truett strongly supported the allied cause. Of note, he classified the confrontation as one of defense, preaching: 

We must find a way to end war, and our boys and girls going away now, to defend our country – as I think they ought to do – it’s a defensive war we’re waging. We’re not out for anybody’s land, we’re not out for anybody’s territory, we’re not out for anybody’s lust of gold: we’re out for the defense of our homes, and civil government is ordained of God and every man and woman should be the best citizen possible, throwing off never on the great duties of citizenship.

During the second conflict, he reminded his audience of the Scripture’s teachings on serving others.

Your neighbor is anyone on the face of the Earth who needs you. Maybe he lives next door to you in Dallas; maybe he’s the most distantly removed citizen from you in Dallas, or the most distantly removed citizen from you in the state of Texas, or in America, or maybe he’s on the other side of the world, so bedarkened and benighted and paganized that he doesn’t know there’s such a country as America, much less about you. Very well; wherever in all the world there’s anybody who needs you and me, there’s our neighbor.

Neighbors across the globe

Truett again advocated for military engagement in Europe, but perhaps not as aggressively as he argued during WWI. He emphasized the need to serve humanity. He knew people worldwide were suffering, and Christians were obligated to assist them. Whether it was mission work or military service, he taught that Christians must answer the call. He was correct, as millions of souls perished in Europe, Asia, and Africa. While the Germans continued to expand their aggressive campaign in Europe, the Japanese ruthlessly attacked Asia, most notably China, killing millions of citizens, including Chinese Christians. 

The Christian concept of one’s neighbor was not difficult to comprehend. It meant that anyone needing help served as thy neighbor. Truett underscored Jesus as the Savior for all people groups:

He was born a Jew, yet He belongs to all races. He was born in Bethlehem, yet He belongs to all countries. His challenging call is alike to Saxon, and Teuton, and Mongolian, and Slav, and Latin to come penitently to Him for His forgiving grace, and His empowering help.

Differing opinions regarding war have always come from the pulpit. As in the past, today many believers seek neutrality or isolationism. However, in examining Truett’s teachings, a Christian’s duty was to defend humanity in the name of Christ. 

Of course, Truett also connected such a defense to religious freedom in the western world. In both world wars, democracy was officially at odds with tyranny. Truett stated, “For once, autocracy and democracy met on a world scale. The law of the jungle dared to crawl out of its lair and say to the world, ‘I will trample Right and set up the law of the tiger, Might.’ But I’m thankful that I had the satisfaction of preaching Jesus Christ across the Rhine.”

In both global conflicts, Truett never shied away from his beliefs. Being named after America’s first president, George Washington, Truett felt strongly that freedom and religious liberty were worth defending, fighting for, and possibly even dying for. 

David T. Crum holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology. He serves as an Assistant Professor of History and Dissertation Chair. His research interests include the history of warfare and Christianity. To learn more about George Truett, see Crum’s previous article https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/george-truett-mission-to-the-cowboys. Also, check out issue #121 Faith in the Foxholes for more on Christianity in the world wars.

Tags George W. Truett • WWI • WWII

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