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Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 2 of 9: Religious Justification of War

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In the previous article [Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 1 of 9: How Religious Leaders Fuel the Flames of War in American History], the first in this series, the premise of this discussion  series of articles

The history of the clergy is filled with images of church fathers anointing kings with the blessings of God, verifying the authority of the monarchy as approved by God, and representing God on earth. Humankind, communities, and political leaders looked for inspiration and validation from their religious leadership before going into battle against a perceived enemy. Religious leaders have often played a political role in the establishment of social mores and standards, advising the ruling class in matters of justice and, in some cases, enforcing the will of their god through force. This article takes a brief look at religion’s justifications for armed conflict. 

The Western world did not have to look far to find justification for conducting war. Judeo-Christian philosophy and literature interpreted by learned clergy (the communities’ religious leadership) provided the holy authority to take action against another person or group. These religious leaders, as did leaders of other religious faiths, provided justification, vision, and inspiration for war and aggression. All sides made the claim that it was “they” that fought with God and with Scriptural authority.  

God the Father

Motivated by the Fear of God

The passing down of faith-based teachings usually began at the earliest age of a child. For the majority of Europeans and the new Americans, these faith-based teachings were primarily founded on Judeo-Christian concepts and were instilled soon after a child’s birth, becoming a part of the culture and the moral fabric of both the individual and the social order. The fear of God and the loss of the soul were enough to influence the behavior of most of the citizenry. Clergy, as the interpreters of the old law, natural law, or God’s law, were in the position to mold and sculpt the social mores and values of their followers. Faith and obedience to natural law and God’s law or teachings can be and often are stronger than allegiance to civil law. 

The Clergy

The role of the clergy has always been that of interpreters of the law of God as the guiding force for personal behavior, community behavior as the civil and social law. Occasionally religion and politics bumped heads especially when it came to social or rules of society. Politicians and other leaders (non-cleric) were the makers and enforcers of the social/civil laws, the civil laws. Religious leaders viewed civil law as temporary and flexible, as well as changeable, but ultimately civil law needed to be consistent with God’s law in order to justify moral obedience and standards. If the followers or common people felt that a civil leader was unjust and not in keeping with religious law, then the people felt justified in rejecting and fighting against an unjust civil leadership. Civil law may be changed, however, religious law or the law of God and the Bible never changes. This again returns us, of course, to the exception of the many interpretations of those religious texts. Each cleric of the time would say that there was only one correct reading of God’s law, and the words to justify aggression were clear.

Scriptural Justification For War

Religious leaders found their justification for supporting armed aggression in the words of their religious texts. According to Henry Thompson, the idea that God blesses war exists very early in records of Hebrew tradition (14).[1] St. Augustine created a just war concept, based on the Old and New Testament, of war being valid under certain circumstances. Those certain circumstances were that any perceived violation of God’s law, was in itself justification for war. 

Five Part Series on Just War Doctrine according to St. Augustine.

Taught at All Saints Anglican Church, Charlottesville, Virginia, recorded Sept. 28, 2008


The Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, are full of stories of the Israelites and their fight for freedom as God’s chosen people. The Book of Numbers (31:21, 31:28, and 32:27) tells of Moses commanding his people to fight in the name of God.[*] The author of Deuteronomy clearly saw God’s approve of war when he wrote:

When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the LORD thy God is with thee, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. (Deut. 20:1)

And shall say unto them, Hear, O Israel, ye approach this day unto battle against your enemies: let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, neither be ye terrified because of them. (Deut. 20:3)

In Joshua 6:17 Israelites destroy and kill in the name of the God of all men and as a sacrifice to God. Even taking someone else’s land was approved for the chosen people, as the Israelites battled to take the lands of the Canaanites.  The New Testament closes with war, not peace, describing Jesus on a white steed wearing a white garment dripping with the blood of his enemies (Rev. 19:11).

As stated in the first article of this series, the idea that war has deep roots in religion is inarguable. Wars designated as holy wars had the strongest religious connection and as such brought with them great rewards and gratitude from God. The notion of holy war in the Christian world, as James A. Aho informs us, reaches as far back as the “ancient rituals and myths of Teutonic (including Frankish) warriors” (80).[2] He further explains that holy war was a sign of God’s wrath, “symbolically reestablishing God’s justice in history while preserving a sense of the orderliness of human existence” (148).[2] Thus, the holy war is conducted on God’s behalf as “an act of rebellion against injustice” to punish the “sinful-heretics, blasphemers, and apostates ¾ thus restoring God’s kingship on earth” (148).[2] The religious leaders of the time, as the great interpreters and definers of whether or not a war was holy or not, sometimes took up the sword in a more active role as warriors and holy war leaders. 

Roots of Warrior Priests and the Chaplaincy

Societies often adapt their religious rules to fit current social and environmental circumstances, just as they did for the role of the religious leaders in warfare. Often these leaders were pacifists, yet sometimes they found it necessary to accept the role of the warrior. Before the reign of Constantine, from 306-337 C.E., religious leaders were absolutely forbidden to bear arms under any circumstances. Then, by the time of Augustine (354-430 C.E.), the Church permitted Christians to “engage in just wars, [as long as they] fought for the right causes as determined by proper authorities” (83).[2]

The Baptism of Constantine

Clergy desiring to participate in acts of war found their justification in the Old and New Testaments. The following are just a few of the more common Scriptural references used by religious leaders during times of war:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (Rom. 13:4)

And it shall be, when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people. (Deut. 20:2)

And when Judah looked back, behold, the battle was before and behind: and they cried unto the LORD, and the priests sounded with the trumpets. (2 Chron. 13:14)

As for the idea behind the Chaplain as a non-combatant cleric participating in war, the book of Deuteronomy provides what Eugene Williams calls “the first official statement concerning the chaplaincy in the Hebrew army,” whereby the priest is to intercede with God and encourage the troops (13).[3] “And it shall be, when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people”; furthermore, as was stated earlier in this article, Israelites were not to let their hearts be faint and to “fear not, and do not tremble, . . . for the Lord your God is he that goeth with you. . . .“ (Deut. 20:2-4).

The chaplaincy as an institution provided the clergy a formal role in the military, positions usually considered non-combative roles. The colonial chaplaincy had its origin in “the persons of Franciscan friar, Jesuit priest, Anglican cleric, and Puritan divine” (Williams 30).[3] Their official mission was to tend to the souls and spirit of the soldiers as a physician tends to the body. These “soldiers of God” (to use Eugene Williams’ term) were responsible to “teach the soldiers proper motives for fighting” and to “help them achieve their peace of mind and confidence in God” so that they could better fulfill their duties in war (15).[3] Chaplains were originally forbidden to bear arms in battle, a restriction that grew out of a law as agreed to by the Council of Ratisbon in 742 C.E., thus preserving the traditional non-combatant status of clerics. They were permitted to accompany the army only for religious purposes and functions. The canon approved at Ratisbon reads:

We prohibit the servant of God in every way from bearing arms or fighting in the army or going against the enemy, except those alone who because of their sacred office, namely for celebrating of mass and caring for the relics of the saints, have been designated for this office; that is to say, the leader may have with him one or two bishops with their priest chaplains, and each captain may have one priest in order to hear the confessions of the men and impose upon them the proper penance (Williams 15).[3]

During the period of feudalism, as Williams describes, some abbots and bishops found it necessary to assume responsibility for the defense of the persons and the land over which they (religious leaders) had been given oversight. This resulted in many taking up the dual role of religious-military leader for their community. As a result, many of these defender clerics “died with sword or axe in hand” (Williams 15).[3] Clergymen of this time in history very likely found their dual role and responsibility quite challenging personally; especially given their role in teaching peace forgiveness and non-violence. The military situations in which clerics found themselves challenged the idea that a clergyman must not fight for the same cause that he was to support with prayer (Williams 15).[3]


The concept of the Christian knight-as-minister or warrior-priest evolved over centuries beginning, arguably, during Augustine’s time. Aho more particularly credits this to Pope Gregory VII, who reigned 1073-1085 C.E., when he “proclaimed the concept of militia christi” providing “general absolution” prior to battle (84). Although the idea of militia christi existed prior to this period, Pope Gregory expanded this to include the idea of minister-warrior. The Knights Templar organized in 1118 C.E. for all intents and purposes were warrior monks and were given the authority to kill all evil in the name of Christ wherever they found it. And if that evil took the form of a government or other nation, then even these ministers of war took up the cause of resisting or destroying that same organized and governmental evil.

[*] Scriptural references made throughout this study are taken from the King James translation of the Bible (Old and New Testament).

Puritan Influence

Puritan ministers believed that there was a contractual character to God’s covenants. This covenant existed between His people and those placed over the common people. If a king violated God’s commands in a serious and sustained way, his people had a religious duty to resist the monarch. Nancy Rhoden suggests that when these ideas are adopted and or modified by a faction, they provide the justification for rebellion. Justified rebellion for the colonies was a concept, an outcome of the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century and Glorious Revolution of 1688 which, as Rhoden proposes, “helped to define the appropriateness of both obedience and resistance,” and the limits of both (64).[4]


God and the Scriptures approved war. The religious leaders were free, indeed required, to assist in the pursuit of justified Holy War in accordance with God’s law.  The law of God was to be the guiding force for civil law and the clergy were the interpreters of those higher laws, and this is a powerful position to be in. Faith and obedience to natural law ¾ God’s law and teachings ¾ is often stronger than allegiance to civil law. Furthermore, to ensure that only one interpretation of those laws existed, the idea that only one faith should exist became essential to civil order. And for those that took up the call to act as ministers of God and enforcers of God’s will, the Bible and religious-historical examples provided the justification and validation of their efforts, for whatever role they chose.

Although out of scope for this series, I would like to bring things forward to current events for a moment. It is arguably the failure and inability of the major religions born from Abraham’s belief: Christianity, Judaism and Islam – to mutually agree on what the one true interpretation of God’s word should be, have directly caused much of the constant battling between nations. This does not mean that war and conflict would not exist; it does mean that religion would not be used as an excuse or justification to motivate citizens to enlist and warriors to fight.  

Next article in the series: Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 3 of 9: Pre-Revolutionary War




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  1. Henry O. Thompson World Religions in War and Peace. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 1988.
  2. James A. Aho Religious Mythology and the Art of War: Comparative Religious Symbolism of Military Violence. London: Aldwych Press, 1981.
  3. Eugene Franklin Williams Soldiers of God: The Chaplains of the Revolutionary War. New York: Carlton Press, 1975.
  4. Nancy L. Rhoden Revolutionary Anglicanism: The Colonial Church of England during the American Revolution. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

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