By Laurence M. Vance [A shorter version of this essay was presented at the 2015 Austrian Economics Research Conference at the Mises Institute.]
Since the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, two words that have rarely been seen together are “Baptist” and “pacifist.” We have instead been subject to things like high-profile Baptist leader Jerry Falwell writing a defense of the Iraq war titled “God Is Pro-War,” Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, writing to President Bush that his “policies concerning the ongoing international terrorist campaign against America” were “both right and just,” and the Southern Baptist Convention passing resolutions expressing appreciation for President Bush, U.S. troops, military chaplains, and the war effort.
I have stood against this nonsense from the very beginning. At times virtually alone. I recently discovered a kindred spirit in the Baptist pacifist Joseph Judson Taylor.
Taylor was born in 1855 in Henry County, Virginia. He was named for his maternal grandfather, Joseph King, who had served in the Virginia Legislature, and Adoniram Judson, the famous Baptist missionary to Burma who died five years before Taylor’s birth.
Taylor attended Richmond College from 1875-1880, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He was chosen valedictorian for the commencement. He was ordained a minister in 1876. The Southern Baptist Convention met in Richmond that year, and Taylor attended the meeting for the first time. He first attended as a delegate in 1881, and was elected vice-president for the first time in 1906. He also served on many denominational committees over the years. He married the college-educated Anna Hinton in 1882. After graduation from Richmond, he attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, but never took the examinations necessary to graduate. However, in 1889 Taylor received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Howard College in Alabama (now Samford University), and in 1904, a Doctor of Laws degree from Union University in Tennessee.
Taylor pastored churches in Lexington (1881-1887), Mobile (1887-1899), Norfolk (1899-1903), Knoxville (1907-1915), Savannah (1915-1917), Leaksville, North Carolina (1918-1922), and Jasper, Alabama (1922-1927). During his successful pastorates, he baptized over 1,000 people. From 1903-1907 he was president of Georgetown College in Kentucky. Taylor was a theological conservative. He was an outspoken proponent of the literal interpretation of the Bible and the separation of church and state and opponent of evolution and modernism. He believed that evolutionary thought was linked to unbelief. He also considered the position of theistic evolution to be “utter and dangerous nonsense.” He even published a book against evolution in 1926 titled Evolution Theory: Plain Words for Plain Folks. Taylor openly criticized the liberal Baptist Harry Emerson Fosdick for denying the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Like any good libertarian, Taylor opposed state laws that forced businesses to close on Sunday. He also consistently opposed violence, whether it was the lynching of blacks, the death penalty, or war.
It is why Taylor left his pastorate in Savannah that is of special concern. After three days of discussion with Taylor in Knoxville, the pulpit committee of the First Baptist Church of Savannah introduced him to the congregation in glowing terms: “He stands among the foremost of our preachers in a Southern pulpit. In doctrine he is sound, clear, and conservative. As a man he is scholarly, yet genial; aggressive, but prudent; commanding the respect of the world as he wins the hearts of all.” All was well and uneventful during Taylor’s first two years in Savannah.
The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was held in New Orleans on May 16-21, 1917. It would probably have been uneventful as well were it not that the United States had just declared war on Germany the previous month and officially entered World War I on the side of the Allies to end all wars and help make the world safe for democracy.
On the first day of the meeting, J. W. Porter of Kentucky offered a resolution pledging the support of Southern Baptists to the war effort:
Resolved, That we, the representatives of 2,744,000 Southern Baptists in Convention assembled, pledge to our President and government, our prayers, our loyal and sacrificial support in the war which we are engaged. To this end, we pledge our property, our lives and our sacred honor.
A request was made to table the resolution as it was not the proper time to discuss it since the custom of the Convention was “to reject all resolutions and motions that did not bear directly on the work of the body.” But Porter was applauded when the said that “he could not conceive of men from the land of Lee and Jackson being opposed to such a resolution.” The motion to table the resolution was voted down and the resolution was passed.
Taylor later said that he was at once “impressed with the impropriety of the resolution, and refused the unanimous consent requested.” He charged the Convention with violating its own constitution in adopting the resolution, for the purposes of the Convention “certainly do not include the raising of armies and the gathering of funds to wage a carnal war.”
On Friday afternoon, Taylor presented to the Convention for consideration a peace resolution:
WHEREAS, There has come upon the earth a spirit which has plunged the nations that have been considered foremost in the lines of advancing civilization into a war more ruthless and more destructive of human life and human happiness than the world has ever before known; therefore be it
Resolved, (1) That we deeply deplore the awful and sorrowful calamity which has caused these leading nations to drench the earth in the precious blood of their own loyal citizens.
(2) That we affirm our faith in the righteousness of the Sermon on the Mount, and our confidence in the infallible wisdom of him who taught us to love our enemies, to bless them that curse us, and to do good to them that despitefully use and persecute us.
(3) That we desire a stronger faith in the God who maketh wars to cease even unto the ends of the earth, and we shall rejoice if our own people, and all of every name who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, shall find it in their hearts to pray for kings and all that are in authority that we may live quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty.
The resolution failed with only 112 votes in the affirmative out of over 1,500.
On Saturday evening, the Convention heard a report from the Committee on World Crisis that offered a message for adoption. It read in part:
We cannot close this message without reminding our people that it is their Christian duty in a time like this to support heartily in every way possible the men whom we have called to the leadership of the country. Many of us cannot bear arms, but every one of us can do his part, as, in the providence of God, it is disclosed to him.
It is of special significance to Baptists that the issues involved in the great war concern fundamental human rights and liberties. The cause of democracy is at stake. While we would not voluntarily claim for ourselves any superior devotion to this great cause, yet we cannot forget that democracy is peculiarly a part of our religion, that it is interwoven with all our common and cherished beliefs.
Deeply as all of us deplore war, ardently as we longed and labored to avert or avoid it, we may be cheered and heartened in remembering that we are moved in entering it, neither by lust nor hate, but by the love of humanity.
Taylor opposed the adoption of the message. He “deplored the gloating and hand clapping over human beings being shot to death.” He said “the Convention had too much of Caesar and too little of God.” Nevertheless, the report was adopted.
Taylor’s remarks were branded as “seditious,” “unloyal,” and “treasonable.” The incident was said to be “the stormiest scene that was ever enacted on the floor of the Convention.” Taylor wrote later that he was “hooted and hissed and threatened with personal violence by honourable members of the body.”
Taylor then returned to his church in Savannah and preached a message titled “The Divided Kingdom” in which he expressed his views on war and peace. He proclaimed that the church “is not called to usurp the place of Congress in declaring war, nor is it appointed to gather arms or even to sell bonds to put money into the national treasury.” The church was not “to give formal sanction to the shedding of blood.” He publicly argued that his address at the Convention with the presentation of his peace resolution “did not contain one single treasonable or disloyal utterance.” He expressed in an August 1917 letter his objection to the church in which he belonged “taking formal part in this orgy of butchery and blood.”
Because Taylor’s “pacifism” was at odds with the church’s support of the war effort, the breach between the pastor and the congregation only widened. At a deacon’s meeting on November 3, a motion was approved that declared:
Whereas the Pacifist views expressed recently by our pastor . . . at the Southern Baptist Convention at New Orleans and the expression of views of a similar nature, both in private to the members of the congregation, and in the pulpit of our church, have in the opinion of the Board of Deacons, greatly weakened his influence, now therefore be it resolved that . . . he tender his resignation to the church, believing that by so doing he will save both himself and the church further embarrassment and will strengthen the work of the church in this community.
Taylor responded to the deacons two days later:
The disquieting affairs of the First Baptist Church were submitted to a full meeting of the official Board of the church July 8th last, with the assurance that I would cheerfully conform to any course the brethren might agree upon. Since then the whole question has been in the Board’s hands. Many individuals have expressed their opinions pro and con, and many rumors have been afloat. Only recently has the Board reached an agreement and it is the first authoritative statement that has been made. This preamble states my position fairly and fraternally. I am a pacifist both for church and state. I regret that what seems to be my best interests in a secular way does not meet my convictions of duty in this case. But I in no wise admit that a pacifist is not a patriot. As our country is in war, I am absolutely loyal to the country’s interest in every fibre of my being; and I am confident that the pacifist will be more popular later than he is today.
Taylor was forced to resign as pastor and retreated to Leaksville, North Carolina. Nevertheless, he resented being called a pacifist and sought vindication from the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention on allegations of disloyalty and lack of patriotism.
Things only got worse in American Christianity as the war continued. It was bad enough that in battle after senseless battle, Christian soldiers in World War I shot, bombed, torpedoed, burned, gassed, bayoneted, and starved each other and civilians until twenty million of them were wounded and another twenty million lay dead. But the actions of Christians at home in the United States during the Great war was shameful as well. Churches became willing servants of the state, contributing to wartime hysteria and propaganda. Clergymen in the pulpit and their followers in the pew both succumbed to war psychology and societal pressure just as most other citizens. One Baptist pastor said that he looked “upon the enlistment of an American solider” as he did “on the departure of a missionary for Burma.” Not Taylor. During his time in North Carolina, he wrote a powerful book that was published in 1920, The God of War, that traces the folly of war from ancient times to World War I. I have never read such a radical treatise against war from the pen of a Christian minister.
In his foreword, Taylor explains that the views he sets forth “are the result of studies that have extended intermittently through thirty years, and of work similarly through four.” He sends the volume forth “with the devout desire that it may confirm in the faith of the gospel the hearts of all who name the name of Christ, and that through their renewed fidelity to the truth it may hasten the day when the demon of hatred and deadly strife shall be driven from the whole world and men of all nations and tongues shall be brought into brotherhood and into peaceful and happy harmony with the will of God, as it is set forth in Jesus Christ.” The book itself, in nine chapters and 255 pages, is a tour de force. A notice in a local newspaper, the Clinch Valley News, in April of 1922, said of the book:
A book written by Rev. Dr. J. J. Taylor, pastor of the First Baptist church of Leaksville, N. C., should have a wide circulation. To read Dr. Taylor[’s] “God of War” is to have one’s eyes opened to the folly, wickedness, infidelity and devilishness of wars. The first war was started and led by the devil, and he has been at it ever since, and will still do business at the old stand. Every nation under heaven is either prepared or preparing for war, else why navies and standing armies? A million people should read Dr. Taylor’s book, and we sincerely believe the dawn of universal peace would be hastened.
In “Among the Gods,” Taylor points out how the ancients all had a war god in their pantheon of gods. The brutal Teutonic conception of Valhalla, where the war god awaited his faithful servants, was at least consistent, “Certainly it did not present the absurdity which some preachers have lately proclaimed, that men who hate and kill one another in battle are welcomed to the Better Land, where they forget the animosities which they have cherished and the wounds and deaths which they have inflicted, and together praising the Prince of Peace.” In Rome the war god was called Mars. But not only did the war god eventually assume the supreme place in the pantheon, “in some important respects he has kept it to this day.” Indeed, “history records no case in which warring peoples have failed to call upon the god of battles for his blessing on their bloody deeds.” Taylor notes that during the Great War some American ministers “proceeded to preach and to pray in terms quite as provincial and profane as anything heard in England or Germany.” But in all these utterances, “none of them mention the name of Jesus, who forbids violence and commands non-resistance and love.” Instead, they “all alike appeal to a provincial god, who in each case is supposed to favour one class of his creatures in their fell desire to hurt and to kill and to destroy others of the same blood and so to fill the world with additional bereavement and woe.” And furthermore, “each assumes that such a god will side with him and against those whom he wishes to destroy, or even to send to hell.”
In “The War God Honoured,” Taylor explains how the war god is honored “in the honours accorded his servants.” In Homer’s day, as now, “men distinguished in battle became the people’s idols.” Taylor points out that “men distinguished with the title Great have invariably been men of blood, who ruthlessly crushed out the lives of their fellow-men.” Men known in history as Alexander, Constantine, Charles, Peter, and Frederick the Great, and those less conspicuous like Xerxes, Attila, and Napoleon, were “high priests in the service of the god of carnage and destruction.” In one of the few quotes in The God of War from other writers, Taylor sounds like he is describing the year 2015: “Public sentiment is so perverted that military service is regarded as the all-sufficient qualification for any office or position; and no rewards, pecuniary, professional, civil, are adequate compensation for having been connected directly or remotely, usefully or as a drone, with an army.” Taylor relates how “all the forms of literature glorify the war god in glorifying his servants.” And “the public press is true to form, when it announces the names of those killed in the effort to kill others as Our Heroes.” “History,” concludes Taylor, “is largely a story of the wars which states and nations have waged.”
In “The War God a Saviour,” Taylor mentions the cliché we still hear today about a boy joining the military and coming out “a manlier man” who is more self-reliant and courageous. This, of course, on the assumption that he comes out, “otherwise the helpless parent can think about how much more precious the soil is made by the dead boy’s blood.” “The war god’s supreme glory,” declares Taylor, “is found in being a saviour of souls.” Taylor asserts that the Muslim idea that every man killed in battle “secures the favour of Allah and an abundant entrance into his presence” is likewise held in Germany, England, France, Belgium, Canada, and America where “the idea widely prevails that the service of the war god saves.” Those who die in battle are ushered into God’s presence as his faithful servants. But, as Taylor explains, “If such service was sufficient to save them and take them home to glory, there is no place for the doctrine of atonement through the blood of Christ.”
In “The War God’s Pleas,” Taylor relates how the war god “usually inspires his servants with some sort of excuse for any particular war which he leads them to undertake.” Conquest, revenge, liberty, patriotism, religion, slavery, and peace—all are used by the war god in his pleas for war. Taylor marvels that “under the domination of the war god the man who loves his country too well to want her plunged into the maelstrom of war is not considered a patriot.” And it is not just the religion of paganism that is used by the war god. “Various corrupted forms of Christianity” have also been used “to kindle strife and spill blood.” But Christians who serve the war god and have “resorted to carnal weapons and physical force in a vain effort to dethrone evil and establish righteousness in the earth” have forgotten that “spiritual weapons under the power of God are mighty enough to overthrow every stronghold of Satan and bring complete conquest.” The war god so warps the minds of men that “they trample the law under foot, and go forth hating men and working desolation and death, and are yet able to look the world in the face and say they are doing their dreadful work in the interest of life and peace.”
In “Temples and Sacrifices,” Taylor points out that “from times remote the god of war has instigated the erection of massive and ornate temples in his honour.” Just imagine what Taylor would say about the Pentagon. But even in nations that have not erected such structures, “they have conceived and establish institutions for the avowed purpose of diverting young men from the paths of peace, filling them with the spirit of class and caste, obliterating the idea of equality and brotherhood, teaching them to dominate their fellow-men and to lead them out to waste their lives in camps and barracks or perchance to destroy themselves in the effort to destroy others.” Taylor avows that “the god of war has no concern for the welfare of his subjects.,” and that “his demands extend to every form of material wealth and every treasure of sacred sentiment.” But because these demands are “insatiable,” the sacrifices in the end “represent absolute and irreparable waste.” Throughout history, “desolation followed every army, whether in victory or defeat.” The “herding of men together in the service of the war god inevitably produces filth and foulness and all the conditions that induce pestilence.” Taylor laments that “in modern times the genius of man has been taxed to the utmost to invent more effective means of destruction, and these are cited as evidences of advancing civilization.” Taylor calls World War I a “crime.” He denounced the draft. He condemns the Espionage Act and the prohibitions on freedom of speech and of the press that were enacted by the United States during the war. He criticizes chaplains who profess to believe in the “doctrine of separation between church and state” but “ask and accept commissions to preach under government control and for government pay.” He chastises Christian bodies that “formally commit themselves to the work of wounding and killing their enemies by all the devices of modern warfare.” Mothers love the service of Molech more than they love their sons when they glory in sending them off to war.
In “The War God Identified,” Taylor relates how the war god is a god of lust. He sees a connection between war lust and sex lust. The early conquerors “rose to power, and forthwith established harems.” Down through history, “armies have been full of filth.” Venereal diseases “have always been in the armies of nations the dominant cause of disability.” Taylor agrees with another writer who says: “Wherever there are troops, especially in war time, there are bad women and weak women, and the result is inevitable: a certain number of both officers and men go astray.” The attitude of soldiers toward women is “immodest, unmoral, objective, evaluating and experimental.” Taylor also charges the war god with being a god of cruelty and crime who “has gripped the minds of the best educated people on the globe, and driven them to do his barbarous work.”
In “God and the War God” Taylor points out how “the servants of the war god make a general appeal to the Bible, especially the Old Testament, in justification of what they call their glorious work.” But, explains Taylor, “the mere fact that the Bible says much about wars and rumours of wars in no wise indicates God’s approval; nor does the record of wars waged by good men, such as Abraham or Moses, Joshua or Caleb, justify the conclusion that God approves of wars waged by men whom he has not authorized to make war.” Taylor criticizes the practice by “savage militarists and devotees of the war god” of appealing to the nuances of Hebrew words in the Old Testament in their attempt to limit the meaning of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” to murder, as if war is not murder on a grand scale. Nothing has changed. This is exactly what modern evangelical warvangelicals do. Modern war lords “presume or play the hypocrite when they claim that God has sent them to kill thousands.” Taylor points out, as I have done many times, that “God never commissioned any other nation or people to make war” other than Old Testament Israel.
In “Jesus and the War God,” Taylor argues that Jesus “eschewed the methods of the war god” and did not at any time resort “to violence to enforce his will.” Indeed, Jesus “chose to die rather than resort to violence and the shedding of human blood.” Taylor recounts how the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus “fiercely assailed Christianity for its adherents’ “lack of patriotism” and refusal “to take up arms and kill men over political questions.” He mentions the pacifism of the early church and the Church Fathers. Christian militarists have against them “not only the teachings of the Scriptures, but also the protest of eminent Christian men through the centuries.” Christian militarists “are renouncing their own moral principles” and betraying their Lord when they “voluntarily give themselves up to the foul work of war and willingly partake of its cruelties and crimes by offering their means to make it effective.” Taylor mocks Christian militarists who believe that although the “entire spirit of the New Testament is the spirit of peace,” they are not yet ready to quit and follow Christ. Referring to the men in Luke chapter nine who said they would follow the Lord but only after they buried their dead and bid farewell to their family, Taylor has Christian militarists say to the Lord: “Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go and stifle my wicked enemies with poisoned gas and smash them with exploding shells and wreck them with machine guns and send them to hell, so the world may be safe for democracy.”
In “The War God Repudiated?,” Taylor goes after the “money grubbers, who rush for government contracts” and “are ready for the thousands to be ground in the war god’s cruel mill, if thereby they can pile up larger wealth.” He points out how nations, “however averse to war on the part of others,” claim for themselves “the right to wage war” and in every case judge their wars “to be just and righteous.” And like the nations, “the churches also stand for war.” Taylor mentions the submission and rejection of his peace resolution at the 1917 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention and how he was “hooted and hissed and threatened with personal violence by honourable members of the body.” He laments that “not a single great religious body made any protest against the crimes of war, or expressed any regret for the desolation and misery it caused.” To the contrary, “Many of them warmly endorsed it and pledged it their hearty support.” During World War I, to the shame of Christianity, “Thoughtful men outside the Church, Agnostics, Jews, unbelievers of various schools, quietly noted the failure of Christianity, and were confirmed in their unbelief.” Combatants in the Great War, with their “thin veneer of Christianity,” “conformed more to Mohammed’s teaching rather than to Christ’s.” They fought with fury equal to their pagan allies as they went forth “to establish righteousness and peace by violence and blood.” In America, where the Church “boasted of its freedom from state control,” it participated voluntarily, leaving Jesus “out of its war councils,” and rendering “unto Caesar the things it had dedicated unto God.”
I am pleased to report that Taylor was vindicated. He apparently did not attend the meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1918. But after attending the annual meeting in 1919, 1920, and 1921, Taylor was elected vice-president of the Southern Baptist Convention at its meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1922. He was nominated by J. W. Porter, who had clashed with him at the 1917 meeting. A report by the Commission on Social Service praised the participation of the United States in a conference on disarmament.
At the 1923 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, Taylor offered, and the Convention adopted, a resolution which described war as “one of the most ghastly and grievous burdens that afflict the human family” and resolved that members of the Convention who attended the upcoming meeting of the Baptist World Alliance urge that group to “make a clear and concise deliverance on War, which shall be in full harmony with the spirit and teachings of our Lord Christ, as set forth in the Holy Scriptures.”
At the 1924 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, Taylor moved that a Peace Committee be appointed to “prepare and present at the next annual meeting of this body, a paper setting forth the Christian teaching with reference to war.” Seven men were appointed, including Taylor. The Committee on Resolutions recommended that two anti-war resolutions be referred to this Peace Committee. Because the newly adopted 1925 Baptist Faith and Message included a three-paragraph section on “Peace and War” at the instigation of the Peace Committee, the Peace Committee felt it “unnecessary to make further recommendation” to the Convention.
The three paragraphs read as follows:
XIX. Peace and War
It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war.
The true remedy for the war spirit is the pure gospel of our Lord. The supreme need of the world is the acceptance of his teachings in all the affairs of men and nations, and the practical application of his law of love.
We urge Christian people throughout the world to pray for the reign of the Prince of Peace, and to oppose everything likely to provoke war.
I am not pleased to report that this last statement was removed beginning with the 1963 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message. If you want to know what happened to the Southern Baptists see my article “What Happened to the Southern Baptists?”
Taylor died in January of 1930. His memory has been kept alive by Bill Sumners of the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, whom I am greatly indebted to for some material on Taylor and for his own writings on Taylor. For my part, I have reprinted Taylor’sThe God of War as part of my Classic Reprints series.
Joseph Judson Taylor is what all Baptist ministers should have been during World War I. He is what all Baptist ministers should be today. He is what all ministers of any denomination should have been and should be. Although Taylor and his pacifism have been long forgotten, they are an antidote to the militaristic climate that exists throughout Christendom today.