Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Today in Church History

15 July 1099  The City of Jerusalem is captured in the First Crusade.  Thousands were massacred.  According to legend, the European Crusaders had difficulty telling Jews and Eastern Christians (whom they were supposedly “rescuing,” although they enjoyed a wide degree of religious tolerance) from the Muslim “infidels.”  Richard the Lionhearted supposedly declared, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”  And Billy Graham types wonder why Jews and Muslims dislike the term “crusade?”  Alas, the attitude still prevails in much of the church around the world. Serbian Orthodox priest-chaplains told the Serbian soldiers make the Orthodox sign of the cross (3 fingers held together) as they massacred Croat Catholics and Muslims during the Balkan wars that broke up Yugoslavia.

15 July 1606 Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), the famous Dutch painter, is born.  Personal tragedies were reflected in his art which included nearly 90 paintings and etchings of Christ’s Passion.

15 July 1704 August Gottlieb Spangenberg (1704-1792) is born in Saxony.  Spangenberg became a bishop (and successor to Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf) to the Unitas Fratrum (“Unity of Brethren”) a pre-Reformation Protestant denomination that was one of the responses to the martyrdom of the Czech reformer Jan Hus. Spangenberg founded the North American branch of the Unitas Fratrum known as the Moravian Church in North America.  He also established the Moravians in the U.K. before returning to North America. The motto of the “Unity” or Moravians is a good one for all Christians, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  Alas, anyone who has engaged in ecumenical dialogue knows that part of the disagreement is over what things are and what things are not “essentials,”–which makes Christian charity all the more important.

Also, because I didn’t blog yesterday, I didn’t get to wish our French colleagues and friends a Happy Bastille Day.  Yes, it was on 14 July 1790 that French citizens, fed up with autocratic rule, stormed the notorious prison known as the Bastille and freed the prisoners. (Unfortunately, they also killed the warden or “governor” of the prison.) This is generally considered the start of the French Revolution.  I wanted to celebrate by getting family and friends together and “setting captives free,” but my wife convinced me to do the same thing I do with Canada Day (1 July), Cinco de Mayo (commemorating the Mexican repulsion of Napolean’s troops ), and even U.S. Independence Day (04 July): barbecue meat and drink beer.

And lest we forget, 14 July 2000 was the day that the great Baptist historian  William R. Estep (1920-2000) died of pancreatic cancer.  Estep taught church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX from 1954 until 1994.  He was active in the American Society for Church History, helped to found (and was president of) the Conference on Faith and History, and several other professional societies. He was a renowned author of books on the relationship of the Renaissance to the Reformation, of the Anabaptist movement, on missions history, and on struggles for religious liberty throughout history.

July 15, 2007 - Posted by | church history


  1. Michael,
    This quote: “Kill them all and let God sort them out” is only a popularized form of a statement, “Kill them all; God knows his own,” made in another Crusade directed at the city of Beziers, not Jerusalem.

    You have misunderstood the account (if it is even true!) of Serbian Orthodox soldiers being instructed to make the sign of the cross in war. If it is true, there is more to be aware of. Soldiers may only cross themselves, only priests may bless others with the sign of the Cross, and it is certainly not a curse. As the Orthodox Church teaches its people that all killing is sin, even in war, this is hardly unexpected. Yet you imply that these soldiers are somehow blessing the killing or the killed, which is frankly scurrilous. What would be your source for such an account?

    Comment by Kevin P. Edgecomb | July 19, 2007

  2. I saw multiple accounts, from numerous different sources, of these actions by Serbian Orthodox priests during the self-destruction of Yugoslavia. It was on the BBC, CNN, etc. There were also Serbian priests who were heroic peacemakers, risking their lives to try to end the killing.

    You are right, Orthodoxy has no “just war theory” and teachies that all killing is sin. However, it does have a history of the autocephalous churches having strong nationalisms and this has led to a history in which Orthodox leaders seldom confronted or opposed military actions by national leaders–and sometimes have been used in nationalist-militarist propaganda campaigns.

    I was not singling the Orthodox (not even the Serbian Orthodox) out for special rebuke, but commenting on the continued prevalence throughout much of Christianity of the heresy that God blesses killing in God’s name.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 20, 2007

  3. Thanks for that, Michael. Still, all Orthodox soldiers are blessed before they head out to war, for the simple fact that they might not return, not that the war or their potential killing is being blessed. The men are being blessed. No doubt this ancient practice is lost on the BBC, CNN, and others, and their reportage was misleading at best, duplicitous at worst. Wars and killing are not blessed by any Orthodox priest. Soldiers who kill must confess and make penance. In the sense that the events were, not surprisingly at all, commented upon by ignorant reporters and news services, the nationalism card is not, I think, realistically in play here. Pride in a nation’s history, and pride in a nation’s young men who are bravely going out to defend it against agressors (which the Croats and Albanians certainly have been), can be misinterpreted as well, but this is certainly not precisely nationalism, ethnocentrism, or more importantly phyletism, the latter being roughly a combination of the two and specifically strongly denounced as a heresy in Orthodoxy.

    Thanks for the response.

    Comment by Kevin P. Edgecomb | July 20, 2007

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