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Greatest Preachers

George W. Truett

George W. Truett

1867 - 1944

George W. Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas at the dawn of the 20th century, discovered this the hard way as he attempted to lead his church through a tumultuous time in a different era when it was believed a great war could end all wars.

America's efforts in World War I, viewing the conflict in spiritual terms as God against the kaiser. He poetically described America's military as a "sword bathed in heaven. ANOTHER MEMORY: Up in the airplane, treetops swing
Although he was uncomfortable with violence, Truett was a firm believer, apologist and proclaimer of liberty. He viewed victory in the war as a necessity for the advancement of Christianity.
And so Truett used every resource available to enter the fray. He regularly preached messages presenting a theological framework for the war, and he urged his congregation to get involved, from buying war bonds to serving their country. More than 100 men from First Baptist responded to their pastor by joining the armed services.

Truett got the opportunity to practice what he had been preaching in 1918 when President Wilson chose 20 ministers to travel overseas to serve the troops. In light of Truett's support of the war, it was no surprise he was sent an invitation. Truett took little time to respond, gladly donning the uniform of the YMCA as one of their chaplains. With determined resolve to help, Truett announced the decision to his church June 2, 1918. His sermon appeared in the Baptist Standard under the title "Why is America a Participant in this World War?"

"Because there was no other course for her to pursue except at the damnation of her soul," Truett wrote in answer to his question. "In the other days, my own heart was pierced with the poignancy of anguish concerning the war. War is hideous! War is horrible! War is unspeakable in its atrocity and suffering! But there are some things far worse than war, and America is in this world war to make war against war, to make a war for real peace, a peace based on righteousness, and a peace to last."

Fortunately for us, Truett kept a diary of his experience as he sought to put feet to his theology. His enthusiasm for the war waned as he experienced its darker side.
Though he never wavered on the necessity to fight the evils of tyranny, he clearly grappled with the human cost.

Although Truett's journal entries at the beginning of his journey evoke the excitement of a boy going to summer camp, when he crossed the ocean and arrived in England, a transformation in his soul took place. This is seen most clearly when he visited a hospital run by the Canadians, where he witnessed for the first time the trainloads of wounded soldiers arriving from the battlefields.

He wrote: "Language human cannot describe my emotions. ... (I spoke) to a curly haired, sweet-faced boy of 19. I fairly took him into my arms and petted and loved him, and he so clung to me. They were so brave and uncomplaining. Surely, surely, I shall know better than ever to be a murmurer any more, about the little things, when men by the myriads are dying without a murmur, for me, and my family, and my country, and for liberty and civilization."

Later, Truett had booked passage to cross the Irish Sea but barely missed the boat. Soon after, he received word that the craft had been torpedoed and all the passengers had died. Truett visited the hospital and saw the "American boys drowned."
"Oh, the gruesome sight!" he wrote.

The next day, he boarded another ship that passed by the sunken vessel. Truett could see the flag just above the water. He reflected on his brush with death and wrote in his diary, "God moves in a mysterious way! How great is his goodness!"

Soon after this episode, Truett witnessed the battlefields of
France for the first time. His entries clearly express horror and rage. In the news, he heard of the peace negotiations and he uncharacteristically wrote of his desire for vengeance.

"After seeing the long, long rows of trenches, blood-sodden, and the dugouts, and the mud and blood of them all, and the mutilated cities, some utterly obliterated, and the horribly furrowed fields, and the dying and the dead, and then thinking of the millions who have been banned to the dust by this war, it is idle and irrational and criminal to think of any unworthy peace. God lead our Allies on to do his will!"

While in France, Truett became more somber and serious about his ministry to the soldiers. One of his most endearing habits was to write to the mothers of each of the Texas soldiers he met.

"I have written to many parents about their blessed lads at the front. Just today, I have written a Texas mother, telling her all about her son's death, and about his valorous deeds, and the high esteem in which he was held by all his associates. Maybe my letter will help the little mother back at home."

As the holidays approached, Truett became more melancholy. He was homesick, and day after day was filled with witnessing more of the ravages of war as he crossed into Germany. On Christmas Eve, he was especially despondent. Outside his window he heard church bells ringing. The contrast between the purity of their tones echoing over fields still reverberating with nightmarish memories was too much to bear.

Truett penned: "There should be a better way of settling difficulties than by the arbitrament of the sword and poison gas and death-dealing bombs. The nations that believe in this better way should now so fix matter that there can never again be a repetition of the recent worldwide bath of blood. Carelessness at this point will be a sacrilege against every grave of all the millions made by this war."
As an exclamation point to this sentiment, the following day Truett found himself at a train station, sitting on a bench, waiting and pondering. A 4-year-old stranger approached him.

They stared at one another for a moment. Truett attempted to communicate, but the boy couldn't speak English and the pastor was unfamiliar with the boy's language. For once in his life, the great pulpiteer found himself in an awkward situation where his words were powerless.

So he opened his arms, and the boy crawled into his lap. The two embraced for a timeless moment. Truett saw the boy's mother in the distance, dressed in black, indicating she was a widow. The full weight of the moment sank in as he realized he held in his arms one of the great consequences of all his talk about "swords bathed in heaven."
Suddenly, war didn't seem so glorious.

Truett's personal journey into war began as it did with many of his generation, with visions of bands playing, flags waving, colorful words, grand ideas and a naive sense that this was the war to end all wars. Truett returned still believing America did what it had to do; but now he viewed war as something deeply disturbing--something even in victory not worthy to cheer about.

For in a non-descript train station in the heart of a war-torn land, snuggling a victim of national rhetoric, Truett learned that in war, everyone loses.


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