Ernest Hemingway lived and breathed American religious nationalism. But the experience of war caused him to lose his faith in the American nation he inherited from the progressive Protestant establishment.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson breathed a sigh of relief. A passionate progressive and Presbyterian elder committed to using the United States to change the world, Wilson confidently told Congress that American involvement and a potential victory of the Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) would make “the world safe for democracy.” Furthermore, the president confidently predicted, American involvement in the bloody conflict would ensure that this indeed would be “the war to end all wars.” [1]

World War I, of course, did not end war forever. A far more horrible conflict began barely two decades after the ink dried on the Treaty of Versailles. In the moment, however, the war appeared a triumph of Progressivism. The great American democracy triumphed, saving the Old World from itself and apparently proving once for all the superiority of American-style democracy and American capitalism. American liberal democracy, capitalism, and Protestantism, fused into broadly American nationalism since the Civil War, marched triumphantly into the third decade of the twentieth century. Protestant liberals understood that fought and won a “war of righteousness.” They believed that the United States’ duty to enter World War I stemmed from messianic duty. The United States should, in the mind of a prominent Protestant divine, be a “Christ Nation to the other nations of the world.” One Protestant novelist unabashedly declared that the American Army in France was “the army of the liberty-loving world. Its blood is the blood of humanity, the humanity of Jesus.”

Protestant progressives issued these messianic pronouncements throughout the first three years of war. Worldwide enthusiasm for the war at its outset gave way to introspection and then outright horror as the names battlefield dead continued to flood newspapers in Britain. Americans by 1916 knew first-hand accounts of the murderous nature of World War I’s battlefield combat. Still, calls for a triumphant American army, manned by vibrant young American men, continued. The delusion of Protestant progressives appears more senseless when faces with the reality that battle-hardened and seasoned British commanders deemed the battles they fought as not war, but something far worse. The brutality of the trenches left Lord Kitchener, Britain’s Defense Secretary and a veteran soldier, paralyzed with emotion and indecision. Stunned by the gore, Kitchener told King George V and Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, “I don’t know what is to be done.” He added a haunting coda. “This isn’t war.” [2]

Despite the bloodshed occurring in Flanders, Americans believed that bloodletting, especially their own, provided a sort of atoning sacrifice for the imperfections of other peoples. The sacrifice of American men would provide both example and salvific force to show Europeans the glories of the American democratic ideal. The American nation, in the minds of Civil War Era theologians like Horace Bushnell, transmuted from a political vehicle for secular liberty into an organism able to affect the will of the Divine. The redemption of the soul, according to Bushnell and other Protestant thinkers such as Theodore Parker, was merely one piece of the elevation of humanity. The will of the divine, according to Bushnell, Parker, and others, was that the rest of the world might be saved from its Pagan or Catholic dissolution and conformed into the American nationalist ideal. That ideal, consciously and subconsciously embraced by millions, stood at the confluence of American capitalism, nationalism, and progressive Protestantism. The hallmarks of American unity after the Civil War became societal salvation not just for Americans, but for all the world’s peoples. The American show of salvific force eventually took the form of 1.3 million American “doughboys.” They landed in France in buoyant spirits. American soldiers, noted one historian of the war, arrived lighthearted, cheerful, and enthusiastic. Dismissive of the realties of war and overconfident, the American soldiers cockily told their British and French comrades not to worry, for the American Army would “soon settle this.” [3]

Soldiers, both Catholic and Protestant, enlisted en masse in the U.S. Army. But American Catholics in the public sphere notably distanced themselves from the frenzied conflation of messianic religiosity and pro-war sentimentality. Historians have often attributed American Catholics’ more tepid response to World War I to ethnic and religious kinship networks. Irish-Americans obviously struggled to embrace the United Kingdom as the war’s protagonist. American Germans, especially German immigrants of the latter part of the nineteenth century, hailed from the Catholic monarchies of Baden, Bavaria, and Württemberg and communicated with relatives in pre-war and wartime Germany. Yet by the second decade of the twentieth century, American Catholics worked increasingly diligently to integrate the Church into broader American society. In doing so American bishops earned the ire of their conservative European counterparts who indicted American bishops as creeping liberals. Pope Leo XIII condemned “Americanist” teaching in 1899. American Catholics redoubled their commitment to orthodoxy, but that commitment to orthodoxy accompanied increasingly socially integrated Catholic ethnic populations in American cities. American Catholics became less European, more Catholic, and more American simultaneously. [4]

Substantial theological reasons existed to substantiate Catholic unease over the bloody conflict. Catholic conceptions of societal order and the reliance on the observation on sacraments to affect atonement in the life of believer created an intellectual reliance on cultural and social stability to further the Gospel. This distinguished Catholic views of Christian atonement from the moralistic progressivism practiced by Liberal Protestants. The confluence of Protestant moralism and American nationalism guided the culture of the United States for nearly sixty years following the American Civil War. Protestant thinkers accused Catholics of having a sedated approach to societal change. Catholic preoccupation with hierarchy—charged Protestants—kept Catholics from affecting immediate moral change on a societal scale. This nationalism never became an absolute consensus, however, and educated Protestants occasionally turned against the self-actualizing platitudes uttered by celebrity minsters such as Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher.

James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore never denied the right of the United States to national defense; he expressed outrage at the sinking of the Lusitania and urged the government to make preparations for war. But Gibbons and other church leaders fell far short of the passion displayed by Protestant clergymen. They publicly hoped Wilson’s war preparations would lead to peace, not to war. Gibbons had little stomach for a messianic conflict. Even after the sinking of a passenger ship in August 1915, he remained unmoved. The sinking, warned Gibbons, “weighed like a feather against the awful calamity of war.” Catholic journalists displayed even more circumspection than Gibbons. The Fortnightly Review featured an article titled “Why All the Warring Nations Think They Are Right.” The journal hoped the United States might show “fairness toward all nations engaged in the awful struggle. However paradoxical it may sound, they are all in the right.” The Cincinnati Catholic Telegraph spoke with more simplicity and accuracy when it argued that “the diabolical sacrifice of human life” provided more than enough reason for American neutrality and non-involvement. Archbishop John Glennon thundered from his pulpit in Saint Louis’ yet unconsecrated Cathedral Basilica: “Christian civilization has no place for war; and war between Christian nations is a scandal and a crime.” [5]

Glennon and other Catholic divines undoubtedly enjoyed familiarity with Thomas à Kempis’ well-known work of fifteenth-century religious devotion, The Imitation of Christ. Author of a popular and well-known Late Medieval Catholic text, Kempis provided a model of Christian discipleship that denied the urgent global and national societal redemption American Protestants seemed intent on actuating. Kempis’ work offers a theoretical conversation between Christ and an anxiety-ridden disciple. “Always attend your own business and watch what you say and do. Direct your every effort to this end, namely, to seek only to please Me and desire nothing other than Me.” Kempis urged the Christian to “judge not rashly the words and deeds of others nor meddle in what does not pertain to you.” [6]

The impulse exemplified by Kempis never gained currency among American Protestant progressives. Unity over war aims only reinforced already rising Protestant ecumenicalism. The Federal Council of Churches, founded in 1908 and patronized by such luminaries as John Rockefeller, provided a platform for progressive Protestantism crusading homilies. Christianity, according to liberal Protestants, needed the experience of war to weed out its tenacious reliance on traditional forms and sacramentalism. An increased social consciousness and social relevance created by experiences of the war would inevitably elevate the Protestant Church in the United States to a better understanding of humanity. Some Protestants, however, warned that the war’s aftermath might mean a downturn in piety. Protestant thinker Samuel McRae feared that Protestant churches could not maintain its passion for righteous action for the war. He proposed activities that created the moral equivalency of war—missions, moral crusades, and political activism—to maintain the heightened sense of righteous obligation.[7]

American soldiers saved by battlefield doctors and nurses often returned from the war with mutilated bodies and even more mutilated spirits. The American public offered little praise for their sacrifice. Douglas MacArthur lamented that “no one, not even children,” greeted his division’s transport ship when it returned to the United States. MacArthur’s 42nd “Rainbow” Division “marched off the dock, to be scattered to the four winds—a sad, gloomy end of the rainbow.” The sadness and gloom began in earnest for young veterans when they tried to reintegrate into postwar American society. Their struggles for normalcy created an atmosphere of thoughtful reflection, and also powerful resentment. This “Lost Generation” quickly jettisoned their former religious beliefs, seemingly exposed as maniacal naiveté. Long caught up in the heady religious nationalism of the Progressive Era, many returning veterans could no longer stomach to triumphal platitudes pronounced from Protestant pulpits. The American populace at large reevaluated their accepted liberal Protestantism during the 1920s. The most elegant voices from this brooding generation emanated from the quickly developing literati composed of men, often veterans, who shirked off American hopefulness for a more emotionally manageable ennui. [8]

Among the writer-veterans of the 1920s, few earned the enduring fame granted to Ernest Hemingway. Born and reared in the affluent Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Hemingway lived and breathed American religious nationalism. Hemingway later commented on the religiosity of his hometown. “Oak Park’s other name was Saint’s Rest. So many good churches for so many good people to go to, I suppose.” Wealthy and white Protestants of Oak Park brought their children up in the cultural mix of capitalism, liberal Protestantism, and American nationalism. Oak Park, in fact, maintained a reputation for being a “particularly Puritan” suburb that gladly distanced itself from increasingly Catholic Chicago. Smug, self-righteous, and prosperous, Oak Park fed Hemingway and young men his age the nationalist rhetoric of the age. Hemingway, for his part, enthusiastically consumed the Protestant nationalism espoused by his minister Dr. William E. Barton. A Congregationalist luminary and vocal proponent of American intervention, Barton preached America’s mission to redeem the world. Although not always engaged in the more prosaic forms of liberal Protestant devotion, Hemingway appeared to embrace the exciting ideal of progress and liberation that accompanied Barton’s preaching. At the beginning of 1918, Hemingway volunteered and received an officer’s commission. He arrived in Paris ebullient, cheerful, and confident: a picture manifestation of the American nation. “He is like a wild horse,” a comrade said of Lieutenant Hemingway. “Proud” and “free as all outdoors,” Hemingway quickly learned the stark reality of war.

Hemingway fought at the front of the Italian theater. He distinguished himself for his bravery and earned the affection of Italian soldiers. He spent most of his time as an ambulance driver, and on July 8, 1918, a mortar round exploded in front of Hemingway. The mortar killed two other men and critically injured Hemingway. Taken to a field hospital, Hemingway convalesced and his body healed. His mind, and his conception of morality, remained wounded. Scarred by the reality of war, Hemingway rethought his conception of morality he inherited from the Congregationalists of Oak Park, Illinois. Disappointment proved demoralizing for Hemingway. One of his biographers noted that Hemingway seemed “to have genuinely believed all the war propaganda.” Hemingway differed from many veterans in that he did not lose his faith in just causes or even in war. He later volunteered to fight for Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. But he lost his faith in the American nation he inherited from Bushnell and the progressive Protestant establishment. In losing his belief in the aims of the American nation, he likewise lost his religiosity, so entwined were the two. [9]

Hemingway’s novels, particularly A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, included resentful references to sacrifice and religion. In A Farewell to Arms, the protagonist Frederic Henry’s lover, Catherine Barkley, dies shortly during childbirth of hemorrhage. This triggers a diatribe from Henry, clearly an autobiographical image of Hemingway.

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice. . . . We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.

Hemingway extended his anger not only to religious rhetoric, but also to the institutional church as well. A character in For Whom the Bell Tolls casually remarks that people fell away from the Church because the church was in the government and the government had always been rotten. Although spoken by Catholic characters, Hemingway here vents toward the conflation of American nationalism and religiosity so apparent during his childhood. Anselmo, a character in For Whom the Bell Tolls, remarks on the sin of killing and believed that the Church was well-organized for the sin of killing. Although again spoken by a Catholic character, Hemingway’s conflation of the church with killing undoubtedly has its roots in his experience of the failure of American religious nationalism during World War I and not exclusively in his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. [10]

Hemingway represented a broader trend among progressive Protestants. Renamed “mainline” Protestants in popular nomenclature, progressive Protestants redoubled their efforts at societal transformation in the decade following the Great War. Not content to save Europe from despotism, American Protestant progressives began a crusade to help individuals achieve emotional and social self-actualization at the expense of clerical authority, confessionalism, and orthodoxy. Such deviations from Protestant orthodoxy met resistance from conservatives and populist “fundamentalist” split American Protestants. One such schism rent Princeton Seminary, the heart and soul of American Presbyterianism. Orthodox Presbyterians, led by J. Gresham Machen, founded Westminster Seminary as an orthodox alternative to Princeton, but the damage had already been done to the social, religious, and numerical prestige of American Presbyterianism, once among the most powerful protestant denominations.

American Catholics firmly confronted similar progressivism in their own ranks following World War I. Monsignor John A. Ryan, a professor at Catholic University with known liberal views on the economy and social justice, gained influence from his participation in the National Catholic Welfare Conference. But Ryan’s views ran into the powerful opposition led by Boston archbishop William Cardinal O’Connell, who viewed Ryan’s liberalism as nothing more than the creeping Americanism reprimanded by Leo XIII a generation earlier. Conservative Catholic bishops ably contained any real deviations from Catholic orthodoxy during the 1920s, because unlike liberal Protestant leaders, they refused to perjure their religious offices by extolling militant nationalism. Conservative cardinals and archbishops made loyal, submissive lay Catholics proud. Catholics emerged from the 1920s happy to “pray, pay, and obey.” Hemingway emerged from the postwar 20s talented, brilliant, individualistic—and angry.[11]

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1. John Milton Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 387; John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 38-39.

2. Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 142.

3. Mitchell G. Klingenberg, ‘“Without the Shedding of blood there can be no remission:’ The War Theology of Horace Bushnell and the Meaning of America, 1861 to 1866,” Connecticut History 51 (Fall, 2012): 147-171; Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union: Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847-1852 (New York: Scribners, 1947); Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 6-7; John Keegan, The First World War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 372-375.

4. Jonathan H. Ebel, Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 5.

5. Edward Cuddy, “Pro-Germanism and American Catholicism, 1914-1917,” The Catholic Historical Review 54 (Oct., 1968): 427-454; John Tracy Ellis, The Life of John Cardinal Gibbons (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1963), 189; Arline Boucher Tehan and John Tehan, Prince of Democracy: James Cardinal Gibbons (Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1962), 285.

6. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ.

7. Richard M. Gamble, The War For Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, ).

8. Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), 512, 519.

9. Thomas Putnam, “Hemingway on War and Its Aftermath,” Prologue Magazine 38 (Spring, 2006).

10. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929); Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).

11. D.G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Co., 2003), 58-83; Chester Gillis, Roman Catholicism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 68-72

The featured image is a photograph of Ernest Hemingway (1918) and is in the public domain. It has been brightened for clarity and appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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