“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”
― Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
In 1914, when World War I violently erupted in Europe, most Americans wanted the United States to steer clear of the conflict, supporting President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of impartial neutrality. By April 1917 however, America, and her 28th President, could no longer remain idle as German U-boats unmercifully stalked and attacked U.S. merchant ships and passenger liners in the British Isles. President Wilson asked Congress for “a war to end all wars” that would “make the world safe for democracy.” Congress responded to President Wilson’s call for action, voting to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
The Episcopal Church War Commission
As America mobilized for The Great War, her people rallied to her defense. Among those to come to her aide, was the Episcopal Church. In September 1917, the church created the Episcopal Church War Commission to help serve the religious needs of Episcopalian men who were fighting in the service of their beloved country.
The Commission raised money to supply its chaplains with portable altars, prayer books, hymnals, vestments, and Bibles needed for ministry. Desiring to equip its fighting men with a personal reminder of their faith, the Commission called upon Mrs. James DeWolf Perry—the wife of the Rhode Island Bishop and chief of Red Cross chaplains in France from 1918 to 1919— to obtain designs for an Episcopal cross that could be worn by Episcopalian soldiers.
The Church War Cross
Mrs. Perry approached the office of renowned American architect, Bertram Goodhue, with the challenge of designing the Episcopal medallion. Mrs. Perry provided Goodhue’s designers with several guidelines: first, the pendant should avoid sharp points; second, the design should be anchored by the ancient Crusader’s Cross, which is composed of five crosses symbolizing the five wounds of Christ; third, it should have engraved upon it “Christ Died for Thee,” a quotation from the Service of Holy Communion found within the Book of Common Prayer: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.”; and fourth, “The Church War Cross” was to be inscribed across the back of the medallion.
The resulting design was then produced in mass by the medal manufacturing firm Whitehead & Hoag Company of Newark, N.J.
The Crusader’s Cross
Originally known as the Jerusalem Cross, the Crusader’s Cross first appeared in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the First Crusade state established by Godefroi de Bouillon in 1099. The kingdom’s coat-of-arms, the Jerusalem Cross, would later be carried on the shields, banners, and coats of the Crusaders from England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, and so became identified as the Crusader’s Cross.
The First Military Cross
The Church War Cross became the first cross to be approved for use by the United States military. Guarded closely by Episcopal Chaplains, the cross was only to be issued to the men of the Episcopal Church in overseas service, men who felt the Crusader spirit, to commemorate a religious experience, or to be given to wounded and hospitalized soldiers.
World War II
With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Episcopal Church established another Church War Commission. Much like it had done during The Great War, the Commission issued portable altar and communion sets, prayer books, Bibles, hymns, and the Church War Cross to all Episcopal Chaplains, and to the parish clergy of the Episcopal Church. While the design of the War Cross remained unchanged, the figure “II” was added to the reverse.
Considering the many fronts and sheer scale of World War II, thousands of War Crosses were worn by soldiers, sailors and airmen, and possibly front-line nurses. According to the Episcopal Church, more than 226,000 crosses had been given to those in uniform by mid-1943 alone.
The faithful responsibility of War Cross distribution was predominately carried out by Episcopal Chaplains, serving “God and Country” in the United States Chaplain Corps.
To become eligible for appointment as a Chaplain, a candidate had to be at the time of preliminary examination: a male citizen of the United States; between the ages of 23 and 34 years; regularly ordained, duly accredited by, and in good standing with some religious denomination or organization which held an apportionment of Chaplain appointments in accordance with the needs of the service; a graduate of both 4-year college and 3-year theological seminary courses; and actively engaged in the ministry as a principal occupation in life and be credited with 3-years’ experience therein.
Chaplains moved from unit-to-unit, praying for men, and passing words of encouragement. They also assisted battlefield medics in the care and evacuation of the wounded, and devoted countless hours listening to the words, and praying over, the soldiers whose lives could no longer be saved by medical personnel. Many of those dying men would have received The Church War Cross.
Good Coming Out of Evil
At the end of the War, the European Theatre of Operations Chaplain, summarized the spiritual highlights thus: There is no doubt that the tragedy of War and its accompanying suffering and misery has awakened in our Chaplain Corps a new spirit of zeal and sacrifice in the service of God, and has certainly awakened in the hearts of our men a keen appreciation of the value and consolation of Religion. As a result of this, a new consciousness should be evident in all who have had part in this War, and there has also been a noticeable breaking down of bigotry. Both of these qualities should be a lasting blessing to our Nation – Good coming out of Evil.
The Episcopal Church Service Cross
Following World War II, the wording on the back of the cross was changed, and now reads EPISCOPAL CHURCH SERVICE CROSS. While the wording has changed, the Cross continues to serve as a distinct mark of an Episcopalian in the United States Military.
Sources: The Church War Cross | The Numismatist, May 1943 The Living Church, Volume 107, July-December, 1943 The Living Church Annual, The Year Book of the Episcopal Church, 1944