Decades after the Civil War, the South had spurred itself into creating an identity which began to incorporate the larger United States, although as author Ted Ownby writes, many continued to believe that, “Southerners… are quick to take offense, quick to go to war, and, when at war, quick to mount a direct assault.”1 Indeed, by the time the Great War began to loom on the horizon, rhetoric from the years of the South’s “Lost Cause” was quickly transforming into an even more globalized perspective.2 Southern religious leaders even began preaching that to win the Great War, service, sacrifice, and morale must be consistently upheld by the people here at home.
In Asheville, the Presbyterian Reverend Robert F. Campbell staunchly preached to his Congregation at the First Presbyterian Church of Asheville on both the importance of winning the war, as well as the need to retain one’s principles in the aftermath. Campbell spoke on the military, monetary, and moral victories that were within reach. The Reverend preached on the importance of families allowing their sons to leave for war, “And to get to this part of the victory we must pay the costs in the lives of our sons and brothers. God is calling on us today to lay our sons on the altar as he called to Abraham years and years ago.”3 Campbell advised on the importance of local spending in the war effort, “So when we buy thrift stamps and subscribe to liberty bonds we are helping win the monetary victory.” Finally, the Reverend offered a warning, “To be moral we must be religious. To stand the test which will not come until after the war. America as a nation must be religious.”4
The Reverend Campbell helped organize the Asheville Soldiers’ Fathers Club and in a letter [see Fig. 2 and 4] to the sons who were serving overseas he spoke of Club meetings where the soldiers’ fathers shared information about their sons in the war and collectively attempted, “to turn the hot blast of your enthusiasm upon the fires of patriotism in our own hearts and in the community.”5
Although Reverend Campbell was able to utilize religion to rouse those here in the mountains of Asheville to lend their support to the Great War effort, Campbell was personally vested in the war as well. Campbell’s firstborn son, William Henry Ruffner, a practicing lawyer in the city of Asheville, enlisted as a soldier and graduated as a naval seaman from a military school in Hampton Roads, Virginia. During his time in the Navy, Ruffner attained the rank of Ensign, became an accomplished marksman, and was placed on active duty while serving.6
Today, many scholars feel as though the Great War had many religious undertones. All across America, including here in Asheville, clergy rushed to preach on the struggle of Democracy against “evil”. While it should always be heeded, “how easily ideas of the church militarist emerge in times of crisis,” it should also be remembered that many religious leaders, such as the Reverend Robert F. Campbell, were able to take religious ideals and combine those with personal experience to galvanize their congregations into providing support and encouragement for those serving, as well as to remind individuals in the community of their own important part they played during wartime.7 Campbell also endeavored to keep the soldiers’ spirits elevated who were serving overseas. In a letter from the Soldiers’ Fathers Clubs to their sons, Campbell poetically writes, “In the meantime, boys, one and all, — God be with you til we meet again! Keep love’s banner floating o’er you, Smite death’s threat’ning wave before you, God be with you til we meet again!” [see Fig. 4]8
Figure 1: “Greatest Test of All Will Come After War, Dr. Campbell Declares,” The Asheville Times (September 12, 1918)
Figure 2: Letter, Robert F. Campbell Papers, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, Asheville, NC
Figure 3: Photograph of Ensign Ruffner, Robert F. Campbell Papers, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, Asheville, NC
Figure 4: Letter, Robert F. Campbell Papers, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, Asheville, NC
- Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 13.
- Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause 1865-1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980), 180.
- “Greatest Test of All Will Come After War, Dr. Campbell Declares,” The Asheville Times (September 12, 1918).
- Soldiers’ Fathers Club to Soldiers, 24 May 1918, Box 1, Robert F. Campbell Papers, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, Asheville, NC.
- “Ensign Campbell is on Active Service,” The Asheville Citizen (November 22, 1918).
- Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became A Religious Crusade (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 1-448.
- Soldiers’ Fathers Club to Soldiers, 24 May 1918, Robert F. Campbell Papers.