The Church and the Civilian Young Man

THERE seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether or not the war has had a good or bad spiritual effect upon those who received in it the experience of battle. At one extreme are observers like Donald Hankey and Ian Hay. At the other are not a few of my own correspondents, — officers, chaplains, ‘doughboys,’ and ‘gobs,’ — who seem to agree rather with Stephen, in Mr. W. L. George’s Blind Alley, when he says, ‘War-books make me sick. Fighting like gentlemen! The English Tommy as nature’s gentleman! Idealistic bank clerks! Temporary gentlemen out there, temporary fools here! Don’t let’s pretend. They don’t fight like knights in a beastly tournament, but like rats in a common drain; that’s more like it — bayoneting men in the back instead of the front, because its safer; that’s more like it — hitting below the belt when you get a chance, because it’s softer.’

A few of the men who have been really in it grow mystic-eyed when one mentions God and battle; but the disquieting majority seem to grin with unpleasant amusement. Possibly one chaplain hit it off when he said, ‘Battle is to a man what developing solution is to a photographic plate. It brings out what’s already in him. It gives him nothing new.’

This much has been said because we need to recognize that the average spiritualized veteran is, just possibly, as big a myth as that Puritanical, unsexed saint in khaki painted by the advertising department of the Y.M.C.A. That some men have seen God during the war as never before, few doubt. That a majority of our fellows have done so, most of the men themselves deny. All agree that it has been only battle itself which has illuminated even those who have spiritually grown.

It is not with the men who have been baptized with fire that this paper deals. Almost all that has been written about religion during the war has dealt with them. They are, however, so far as the United States is concerned, a minority fraction of our armed forces. Most of our men never left our shores. Most of those who were over never saw a man die and never stood face to face with danger to themselves.

The lads who did suffer and endure — all honor to them — do not constitute our spiritual problem. In estimating religious forces and the religious task, the really important people to consider are those who had all of war’s dreariness and none of its excitement, the boys who never got into the thick of it at all. They remained essentially as they were. It is with a feeling that the religion of the returning veteran is not so much the thing about which church people should worry as is the religion of the civilian young man as the camp revealed him, that this article is written. For the former, the church deserves neither praise nor blame. To the alarming condition of the latter, she should speedily turn her concentrated attention.

First let me say why I dare to make the sweeping statements which follow. They are not conclusions evolved from preconceptions. Some of them go dead against my former notions. Nor are they the patter of one who has gone hither and yon on preaching trips through the camps, or spent six months as an overworked, overworried, and overabused Y secretary. They are the cool, calm synthesis of some thousands of careful observations of men.

For eighteen months I acted as civilian aide to the Senior Chaplain at Great Lakes Naval Training Station. For a year of this time I superintended all chaplains’ work in ‘Detention,’ where the men spent the first three weeks of their stay. I took a religion registration of nearly every man who came in. How many there were, I do not know exactly; but my records show that I gave the chaplains’ instruction on religion and morals two hundred and forty-seven times to groups composed of eighty-one thousand men. Almost all of these who were of my own communion were looked up by myself or my assistants. Several other communions looked up their men, too. Card-records of over four thousand men are available, all Episcopalians; and conversations with other pastors and chaplains have given me the results of work done by them among the men of eight other communions, Catholic and Protestant. It is safe to say that the observations leading to the following conclusions covered at least twenty thousand individual men, studied one by one by nine clergymen of various faiths.

Now that the source of evidence has been revealed, it is possible to state seven things upon which the vast majority of those with whom we talked seem to have been in essential agreement.


Most modern American young men care little or nothing about organized religion. They are not anti-religious. They render to the churches a formal respect. Only two per cent ’who entered the station denied a preference for some church or other. For the most part, however, this connection had been purely nominal. Religion as a real motivepower, it is safe to say, is unknown to at least eighty per cent of them. Spirituality as presented by the churches has impressed them as not mattering much. With a majority of them church-going is a thing done almost solely for family reasons, or, in smaller places, for social reasons. In many little Western towns the church is the only rallying-place for young people. Many fellows go because they want girls, not because they seek God. When they leave home, they naturally stop going. Despite all the Sunday schools, young peoples’ societies, clubs, guilds, parish-houses, and the rest, the churches ought to recognize that they have never gained the interest and the enthusiasm of eight out of ten of the generation just coming to maturity. As far as vital motivations go, these fellows are not Christians at all, but merely more or less decent young pagans.


Most of the men themselves are none too proud of their irreligion. After work in camp one realizes as never before that ’man is an incurably religious animal.’ When asked why the churches have failed to touch them, they are, naturally, for the most part at a loss. Few of them have thought much about it. They try hard to put it into words, however, glad to find parsons who admit that possibly all is not well in Zion. They are very frank, yet kind enough withal.

It is interesting to note what are some of the things which they do not mention as alienating young men. Rarely does one hear that the ancient creeds are difficult to believe. Apparently the healthy, simple man in the street shares little of the intellectual doublings of the musty browser among books. Few cite the selfish inadequacy of a faith which bids men save themselves from hell. That quaint and fearsome Calvinistic motive, so bothersome to Mr. Wells and Judge Lindsay, has, apparently, save in a few rural neighborhoods of the Southwest, never been presented to most young men of this generation. The disunity of Christendom bothers almost no one. Partly with regret it must be said that apparently the need for a reunited Church is felt at present chiefly by the clergy.

Most of these young men had no fault whatever to find with the churches as such. All their criticism was leveled at church members. They had a notion that they did rather like Christianity — little as they know of it. They were sure that they did not like Christians at all. Their feeling came to this in most cases — that, if Christian people would only endeavor to be Christians, the ordinary young fellow would like nothing better than to come along and try it with them; and that, if Christians wanted them to be interested, those Christians might well stop criticizing the Church and start criticizing themselves.


The men believe that those who have the Church’s teaching in hand are largely to be blamed, in that the instruction given, both from the pulpit and in classes, is either over the head of the average man, or hazy and indefinite, or both. People justifiably desire a religion the basic principles of which they can clearly comprehend.

In this respect the ordinary Sunday school seems quite to have failed. It has imparted a certain number of disconnected Biblical stories, more or less interesting, about people long dead, and a few moral maxims; but most boys seem to pass through it with little knowledge gained of who or what God is, of how to get power from Him, of how and why to worship Him. Part of this is no doubt due to inadequate teachers; but much of it can be laid to the modern tendency to substitute ethical culture for religion, which bewilders and bemuses the ordinary man.

This same tendency, combined with clerical overestimate of the intellectual complexity of the man in the street and clerical thinking in terms of abstract ideals rather than in those of personal relationships, seems to be the explanation of a common resentment at sermons. Men hate them, not because they are uninterested in God, but rather because most sermons tell them nothing much definitely about God.

The Christian religion is not at all a difficult and complex thing, requiring great intellectual gifts for its comprehension. The Apostles were unlettered and untraveled men. Most of the saints have been quite simple folk. It must be, then, if men to-day so generally find it hard to discover what Christianity is, that the preachers are not good preachers and the teachers are poor teachers.

After much talk with the men, the following simple line of thought, was propounded to a Roman Catholic priest and to Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Disciples, and Episcopalian clergy, all at Great Lakes, and inquiry made as to whether in their judgment it was a correct expression of the essence of Christianity.

‘Man grows great by sacrifice willingly undertaken, and small by selfish acquisitiveness. To succeed, a man must, become an unselfish sacrificer. To live a sacrificing life is difficult, since it requires power to control a body inherited from the beasts and full of selfish impulses, and also an ability to tell the canny, cautious, compromising world that its wisdom is folly. In fact, this is so hard to do that the ordinary man cannot accomplish it unless he is conscious of God, the Great Heart of Things, back of him, with him all the way. To know and feel God is necessary for moral achievement, at least with most men. Some exceptional people get this contact with Deity by a sort of subjective mysticism; but most men find this normally impossible. God, therefore, knowing that man must have a Deity expressed in those human terms which alone are comprehensible to him, became man. Jesus Christ is God, the only God that can be real to most people. In the light of Him and through Him, alone, are the eternal Creator, called the Father, and the mystical God who speaks within human hearts, called the Holy Spirit, understandable and knowable. The Father, the Christ, and the Spirit are One God, and the point of contact is the Christ, met in prayer and sacraments.'

The various ministers consulted all agreed that this was, in very essence, the Christian religion. Admitting that it is, why have the great mass of young men never grasped it? Apparently our teachers are to blame, in that they have beclouded the simple faith in mazes of intellectual liberalism and oceans of words. If we are not to continue to lose young men, we must return to the teaching, in concrete definite terms, of the essence of Christianity.


There is among the men a widespread resentment of sentimentality in worship and ‘the cult of the pretty-pretty.’ It is hard, but not impossible, to get particulars. To put it in somewhat more philosophic terms than they use, it would seem that they condemn contemporary worship on two grounds: first, that it is vicarious; second, that it is introspective.

They do not like choirs, complicated canticles, elaborate anthems, or sweet solos. Though they may do it badly, they like to sing their own praises to the Most High. The minister does too much, also, and they themselves too little. They miss the corporate note in devotion.

Since they are healthy-minded young things, they resent having their spiritual attention turned inward. Their interests are in things outside themselves. The God they want is a friendly Deity from Somewhere Else, who comes to meet and help them. The immanence of God is not to them so helpful a truth as his transcen-dance combined with his willingness to meet them. This is probably the reason why the men in service, Protestant as well as Catholic, love the Holy Communion, and want it. However they may explain it, they feel that it is one act of worship where God comes from Out There to strengthen, and be reverenced by, men Down Here.

The externalizing of God and the congregationalizing of devotion seem to be the best ways of desentimentalizing worship and fitting it to the desire of young men for virility in the services of our churches.


Lack of friendly fellowship in the churches is another great difficulty. The men feel that many congregations are maintaining religious clubs for their own pleasure, instead of houses of prayer to God and places of spiritual inspiration to all men. These clubs are of two sorts, equally to be avoided. One variety gives the chance visitor the impression that the people who belong to it resent his coming in without first giving them the chance to ‘black-ball’ him if they desire. The other sort is so anxious for more members that it effusively canonizes him the instant he enters the door. When he goes to church, he would like to have people make him feel that, as a child of God, the place is his to use — that he is already a member of the congregation simply by virtue of his desire for worship and instruction. Of course, he does not like rented sittings. They are to him patent evidences of the club idea. He misses that casual, quiet friendliness which he instinctively feels is what Jesus Himself really stands for. He wishes that with God’s people, as with God, there were less respect of persons in God’s House.


Probably the most difficult criticism to meet is that professing Christian people are not really in earnest in their desire personally to imitate Jesus. It seems to many men, and those the most worth while, that the moral standards of church people are too low. Not that men desire more negative morality, more ‘Thou shalt nots.’ Far from that! It is positive morality that seems to them defective. Christians do not strike them as conspicuously more kind, more charitable, more loving, and more sacrificing than other men and women — particularly, more sacrificing. They see prominent church people quite content to live in luxury, to enjoy the good things of the earth, earthy, even while thousands of well-meaning, honest, hard-working men, women, and children have too little; carefully and cannily to take thought for the things of to-morrow.

Clergy as well as laity seem to them equally guilty. That a minister should live at ease while his neighboring fellow minister half starves seems strange to them. That a clergyman should ask and get six weeks or more in which to play in the summer does not to them seem an evidence of zeal for souls. They find ‘gentlemen-parsons’ somehow incongruous with the worship of a penniless Christ.

Of course, a good deal of this criticism of ministers and people is harsh, cruel, unjust. Most of it, however, is honest and ineradicable.

No one thing, save simple teaching, is so necessary for the holding of young men to Christianity as the revival, in very real, apparent, and concrete terms, in the twentieth century, of the spirit of Franciscanism.


Last, but not least, young men wonder why it is that Christian people are unwilling to tell to others the strength and joy that there is in their faith. Does one who finds a new brand of very good cigars at the canteen keep the discovery to himself? On the contrary, he gladly commends the brand to his comrades. If he sees a good show while on liberty, he passes the word along. If indeed Christians have discovered the greatest thing in life, a faith which makes God real and kind and near and human and helpful, which makes, with power from Him, weak men strong to attain to real manhood instead of mere educated beastliness, how can they keep quiet about it ? To professing Christians their reticence may seem an evidence of reverence. To the man in the street it signifies merely disbelief.

Such are the charges leveled at church people by actual young men. Some of them were college men. Others could scarcely more than write their names. They came from every profession and trade — and from none. Most of them were from seventeen to twentyfive years of age. Some were from great cities, some from small towns, some from villages, some from farms. They were a cross-section of American civilian young manhood.

They were not irreligious. They were pathetically ready for spiritual leadership. They threw no bitter slurs at the faith that has made saints and heroes of men like them in the ages past. One could not help but feel that many of them might become simple and happy Christian men, and that their younger brothers might never drift away at all, if only Christians might with penitence reconsecrate themselves, clergymen and people, to definite preaching of the fundamental faith, social worship of an objective Jesus, quiet fellowship in devotion, humble seeking to live a Christlike life, and unaffected utterance of the faith that is in them.