“Shall Christians Go to War” by J. W. McGarvey (1861)

The August 1861 edition of the British Millennial Harbinger was themed “The American Civil War”, and contains the following article, as well as a very interesting reply from Alexander Campbell. The entire edition is available online here.

Our Heavenly Father has ever governed the world according to this maxim, “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted; and he that exalteth himself shall be abased.” A few months ago, the citizens of the American Republic were the proudest people under heaven. They boasted of a present grandeur, a historic renown, and a future glory, such as had not fallen to the lot of any nation. Christians shared in this pride, forgetting that a love of country is but a refinement upon self-love. The God of heaven has never been pleased with such pride, and when it has swelled itself too high, he determined to abase it. It was while King Nebuchadnezzar was in the very act of looking from his palace upon the lofty walls, the splendid buildings, and hanging gardens of Babylon, and saying to himself, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of my kingdom, by the might of my power and for the honor of my majesty?” that the hand of the Lord smote him with an insanity that made him think himself a beast, so that he herded with cattle, and ate grass like an ox, thill his hair was like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws. So it was in the midst of our national pride and glory, that the Lord has smitten the people with a similar madness, and like ferocious beasts, they have fallen into butchering one another. God grant that when their understanding is returned to them, they may be able to adopt the language of that unfortunate monarch, at the close of his dreadful aberration:

I blessed the Most High and I praised and honored him that liveth for ever and ever; whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom from generation to generation… I praise and extol, and honour the King of heaven, all whose ways are truth, and his works judgment; and those that walk in pride, he is able to abase.

Daniel 4:34, 37

I think I will never feel proud of my country again. If so, I shall be better able to sympathize with Paul when he exclaims: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world is crucified to me, and I unto the world.”

He who uses famine, and pestilence, and war, to scourge the nations, is now scourging us. The call for soldiers is sounding through the land, and Christians are urged, like others, to join the red ranks of war. The pulpits, presses, and prayers of sectarian churches are strangely mingling with the strains of martial music, and the turbulent eloquence of partisan leaders and recruiting officers, to heat up the blood of the people and drive them to the battlefield. The din of preparation and the whirl of passion are surging so wildly around us, that the coolest head grows dizzy, and we scarcely know where we stand. In such an hour the heart of the true disciple instinctively turns back to the Great Teacher, and seeks repose under the yoke of his authority. Shall no we, who have discarded all human traditions, and assumed before heaven and earth that the New Testament is our only and all-sufficient guide, be true to it in this trying hour? If we do not, then we deny the Lord who has bought us, and he will certainly deny us.

When we ask the question, “Shall Christians from either of the contending sections go into this war?” remember the question is not, “Which section is in the right?” With that question, as religious teachers, we have nothing to do. Neither do we ask whether it would be justifiable, according to the honor and the law of nations. Nations and mere men of honor are governed by this code, but Christians by one far different. It is not even a question as to whether a Christian may, under extreme circumstances – such as the immediate protection of the lives of his wife and children – use deadly weapons. But the question is the one right before us, “Shall Christians take part in the war that is now raging? Will we be justifiable in so doing by that Book which is to judge us in the day of eternity?”

One thing is absolutely certain, and that is, that nothing short of a precept or precedent from Christ or the Apostles, can give us the warrant which the case demands. If we go into this war contrary to the will and word of Christ, the blood of the slain will cry out against us, and the curse of heaven will fall upon us. Do the will and word of Christ, then, justify it? I presume that there is no more decisive method of determining what Christ would have us do under given circumstances, than to inquire what he himself would do if he occupied our place. If he were alive and among us now, as he was in Judea, and teaching in either section of the country, what would be his conduct and advice? To ask this question is to answer it. No man who knows his history – who knows that at his birth exulting angels shouted, “Peace on earth, good will among men” – that his name is the Prince of Peace – that “when he was reviled, he reviled not again – when he suffered, he threatened not” – can for a moment doubt that, if here now, he would once more say, “Put up thy sword, for they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” It were not less that blasphemous to suppose that he who taught us to love our enemies, and to forgive as we would hope to be forgiven, would now tell us to butcher our kindred, or urge us to battle with his prayers. But he is our example, and if we take not up our cross and follow him, we cannot be his disciples.

But the inspired Apostles are also our example, for they followed the footsteps of their Master. Suppose, then, that the twelve were all alive today, and here in our country – six of them in the South, and six in the North. Would they, like the hosts of sectarian preachers on both sides, be urging their brethren to the war? How degrading is the thought! And yet the men who claim to be the successors of the Apostles, are openly, before heaven and earth, exulting in this impiety. The soul of one who has been taught by Paul and Peter sickens at such a scene, and well does he know that he who wrote to the Christians in the city of Rome, who were groaning under the cruelty of Nero, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath. If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink” – would now say to us, “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” He knows that, unless Peter has greatly changed for the worse since he left the body, he would still urge us to:

Be pitiful, be courteous – not rendering evil for evil, nor railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing, knowing that you are thereunto called that you might inherit a blessing. For he that would love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile. Let him eschew evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open to their cries; but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.

1 Peter 3:8-12

May the “very God of peace” be with us all, and the “peace of God, that passeth all understanding, keep our minds and hearts through Jesus Christ.”