The Scopes “Monkey” Trial: A Landmark Moment in American Religion

One of the defining features of the United States both historically and today is its unique religious landscape. Particularly prominent in this landscape is the Christian Fundamentalist movement, a movement that has largely taken shape in the United States in the 20th century and has had a major effect on the United States in its political, cultural, educational, and social life during that time. One aspect of the influence that Christian Fundamentalism has had on the United States is in the debate over science education, human origins, and evolution. The so-called “Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’” is a landmark in this debate and an important case study in the ongoing struggles of communities of faith and doubt to define themselves and shape America according to their respective ideals.

While there are certain earlier antecedents in Christian thought that point towards the development of Christian Fundamentalism, its roots are most readily located in the 19th century. The 19th century was a period of rapid and profound change in both Europe and the United States. The rise of the Industrial Revolution brought about a great deal of new technology, which changed the way people lived their daily lives both at work and at home. Simultaneously, new ideas, which had simmered under the surface and had been largely the purview only of certain educated minorities until that point, began to gain popular currency. As A.N. Wilson succinctly states it in his history of doubt in Victorian England, God’s Funeral, “the ideas which undermined nineteenth-century religion took shape in the eighteenth century.”1

Among these ideas were the scathing attacks of Edward Gibbon upon the history of the Christian Church. His Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, especially in its fifteenth and sixteenth chapters, which discussed the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, became infamous for its attacks upon some of the most revered figures and sacred ideals of Christianity.2 In addition to these attacks upon the mythology that had developed around Christian history as a whole, more specific attacks were launched against the sacred center point and beginning of Christian history as it was recorded in the New Testament. David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus, originally published in German in 1835-6 and translated shortly thereafter into English, became a surprisingly popular read in England and the United States.3 Through the book, Strauss was able to popularize the ideas that had been circulating among academic circles in Germany which treated the Gospels and other sacred writings of Christianity the same as any other ancient work and led to the claim that much of the life of Christ as it was recorded in the Gospels was myth, including the miracles and the very central claim of Christianity: the resurrection. Perhaps the biggest shock of all to 19th century Christians was a new scientific theory introduced to the public in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Darwin’s theory of evolution, which posited that all species, including human beings, held common descent and had evolved through the process of natural selection, called into question the account of creation found in Genesis, the idea of a provident creator-god, and the very concept of human uniqueness. Viewed by many in the 19th century and since as “modern science’s culminating triumph over traditional religion, Darwin’s theory of evolution” was the culminating and deepest blow to 19th century Christian faith.4

The responses by Christians to these new challenges were various. The Roman Catholic Church, in an attempt to evade another affair like the 17th century trial of Galileo, a permanent source of criticism and mockery, assumed an officially moderate stance in which it affirmed both the traditional and central claims of Christianity while allowing that modern scientific theory and biblical criticism may be correct within their sphere of concern as well. The Orthodox Church, largely cut off from the currents of Western thought by a combination of geography and historical circumstance, remained largely unaffected by these new ideas and assumed no official stance, though reaction among individual thinkers within the Orthodox Church was largely consonant with the Catholic stance. It was among Protestants that these new ideas made the greatest ripples. Reactions among Protestants generally took one of two forms, either accommodation and adaptation or retrenchment and counterattack.

Those who adopted the former course of action came to be labeled “liberals” or “modernists.” This group accepted the new theories, often in their totality, and altered their central message to fit accordingly. In so doing, according to historian Harold Carl, they “believed they were rescuing religion from doctrinal bondage and obscurity” and making “Christianity palatable to modern people.”5 Many of them abandoned the belief in miracles, even in the resurrection of Christ, and the traditional Christian dogmas of sin, redemption, and salvation, in favor of a version of Christianity in line with modern science and higher criticism of the Bible. They focused instead on the social implications of the message of the Bible, such as egalitarianism and care for the poor and oppressed, often ignoring the dogmatic and doctrinal altogether. In his 1938 book The Kingdom of God in America, Protestant Neo-Orthodox theologian H. Richard Niebuhr satirically summarized the Gospel of the liberals as the belief that “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”6

Those who assumed the latter course of retrenchment and counterattack saw the liberals as traitors to the Christian faith. “It is this group,” says Carl, “—the vocal and the intransigent—who began to publicly attack liberalism in the early 1900s and who eventually took on the name ‘fundamentalists.’”7 Originally emerging from the ranks of clergy of the Presbyterian Church but later encompassing a variety of denominations, this group “would not budge on any point.”8 Even Christians who were not liberals had been willing to concede certain points of modern science and higher criticism as acceptable, but the Fundamentalists would have none of it.

A series of books published in 1910-5 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth provided the name for this movement.9 The books in the series consist of essays written by a large group of theologians, professors, and clergymen aligning themselves with this new conservative movement in Christianity. The included essays addressed such topics as “the Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch,” “Internal Evidence of the Fourth Gospel,” “the Recent Testimony of Archeology to the Scriptures,” and “the Decadence of Darwinism.”10 Nearly any perceived threat, from Darwinism to liberalism to Roman Catholicism, was attacked and the unwavering position of the authors in clinging to Protestant orthodoxy was clearly affirmed; Christian Fundamentalism was born.

The 1920s were a decade largely marked by conservatism in American politics and culture. Following the brutality and upheaval of World War I and the Progressive politics of the previous two decades, Americans longed for a simpler time. According to historian John Milton Cooper, Jr., President Warren G. Harding was elected on a platform that promised a return to the “normalcy,” a word he coined, of “pre-war quiescence and detachment in foreign policy, and of calmer times at home.”11 Manipulating the same distant memories of a better past, the Ku Klux Klan gained enormous popularity. As many as 40,000 members demonstrated in front of the White House in 1925. Christian Fundamentalism found a natural home in the minds of many American Christians of this era, including many in positions of power and influence.

Through the combination of popular conservatism and those adherents to Fundamentalism who were in positions of power, Fundamentalism was able to begin making a major effect on American culture and politics from a very early date in its history. On 13 March 1925, the state legislature of Tennessee passed a law, the Butler Act, ordering

that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.12

John Washington Butler, a Christian Fundamentalist and Tennessee legislator who had introduced the law and for whom the law was named, knew very little about the science behind evolutionary theory but was influenced to oppose it by the work of William Jennings Bryan, an influential politician who had been a presidential candidate as well as a secretary of state. Bryan, a conservative Presbyterian who aligned himself with the Fundamentalist movement, had supported a number of conservative Christian causes throughout his career in politics, including prohibitionism and pacifism; he had now turned his sights on Darwinism.

Following the passage of the law, the American Civil Liberties Union set out to challenge it. In May 1925, John T. Scopes, a high school sports coach who sometimes acted as a substitute teacher for a biology class, agreed to be charged with violating the law in order to bring it to court. Scopes, however, quickly took a backseat in his own trial. Two other very imposing figures took center stage. William Jennings Bryan agreed to participate in the trial on behalf of the prosecution and Clarence Darrow, a famous trial lawyer and self-identified agnostic, agreed to enter on behalf of the defense. Media across the country began following the trial and reporting on it if it were an epic battle between faith and disbelief; poised on one side was Bryan, the man of faith and an emerging spokesman for the Fundamentalist movement, and on the other was Darrow, the rationalistic freethinker and opponent of biblical faith.

In spite of all else that occurred during the course of the eight days of the trial, “it was a heated, two-hour exchange” between Darrow and Bryan “that, in the end, did not affect the case as much as it did the nation” that has been remembered.13 The 1955 play, made into a film in 1960, Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized dramatization of the trial, particularly worked to crystallize this exchange as the defining moment in the trial, as it portrayed the confrontation between the two as the climax of the trial. The popular record has also remembered Darrow as outsmarting Bryan during their exchange and Bryan as being narrow-minded and ignorant. This is the version of events that is presented in Inherit the Wind and it is certainly the image that Darrow sought to create in the debate.

The actual exchange, however, indicates a more nuanced and complex picture. In fact, Darrow often appears to be the narrow-minded bigot whereas Bryan appears more ready for compromise and dialogue. Darrow returns, for example, several times over to the question of the age of the earth in spite of Bryan’s willingness to concede that he does not know the age of the earth and that it may in fact be “six million years or … six hundred million years” old.14 Similarly, Darrow seems at several points in their exchange to insist that the Bible be interpreted even more literally than Bryan interprets it. For example, he questions Bryan concerning the length of the days of creation found in the opening chapter of Genesis in the Bible several times, seeming to insist that Bryan interpret them as literal days and ignoring Bryan’s clear statements that he does not believe them to be literal days. One example of this recurrent line of questioning is in this bizarre exchange:

MR. DARROW–Do you think those were literal days?
MR. BRYAN–My impression is they were periods, but I would not attempt to argue as against anybody who wanted to believe in literal days.
MR. DARROW–Have you any idea of the length of the periods?
MR. BRYAN–NO, I don’t.
MR. DARROW–Do you think the sun was made on the fourth day?
MR. DARROW–And they had evening and morning without the sun?
MR. BRYAN–I am simply saying it is a period.
MR. DARROW–They had evening and morning for four periods without the sun, do you think?15

The perception of the cross-examination of Bryan by Darrow as one in which the unbeliever outsmarted the believer, as oversimplified as this is shown to be when compared to the actual content of the trial transcript, is one that has colored subsequent understandings of the trial as well as subsequent debates between believers and unbelievers. In many ways, this misunderstanding of the exchange between Bryan and Darrow has come to characterize the entire debate between Fundamentalists and other conservative believers on the one hand and unbelievers and liberal Christians on the other hand. It has also colored subsequent debates over religion’s place in American society, politics, and especially education. The view of Bryan as simpleminded and backwards has become a caricature applied to Christian Fundamentalists in general.

A recent example of this recurring caricature and the continuation of some the themes present in Darrow’s cross-examination of Bryan, even outside of the United States, is in the recent debate between Richard Dawkins, a scientist and prominent atheist, and Archbishop Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church. The article published on the website of The Independent, a popular London newspaper, about the event is indicative of this caricature. The very title of the article, “God vs Science: Richard Dawkins takes on Archbishop of Canterbury,” implies that the Christian participant stands opposed to scientific ideas.16 During the course of the debate itself, Dawkins seemed surprised that Williams, who is neither a Fundamentalist nor a modernist, was willing to state that he did not believe in a literal Adam and Eve and that humans had non-human ancestors. Dawkins admitted that he was “baffled by the way sophisticated theologians who know Adam and Eve never existed still keep talking about it,” to which statement the Archbishop countered that the Genesis narrative is not about scientific theories but about deeper truths about God and man.17 Such an exchange is highly reminiscent of Darrow’s adoption of and insistence upon a more literal understanding of Genesis than that of Bryan and his subsequent bafflement at Bryan’s refusal to adopt that narrow, literalistic understanding.

The stereotyping of each side by the other in debates over faith and doubt continues to fall into the narrow categories represented by Darrow and Bryan in the popular remembrance of the Scopes Trial and presented by each in their accusations hurled at the other. Bryan’s claim that skeptics “have no other purpose than ridiculing every person who believes in the Bible” remains a refrain of many on the side of faith and especially in the Fundamentalist camp today, whereas Darrow’s characterization of Bryan and his party as “bigots and ignoramuses” remains the common view of many unbelievers of all believers generally but especially of Fundamentalists.18 Just as in the Scopes Trial, however, the reality is never so simple. On the contrary, as was exhibited by the remarkably cordial and thoughtful nature of the exchange between Dawkins and Williams, which nearly every media outlet that reported on the debate expressed surprise at, there are clearly intelligent and well-meaning people on both sides of the issues. As this debate which began in the Enlightenment and has run through Western popular thought and culture for nearly two centuries continues and as each side in it attempts to reshape culture according to its own view, overcoming the legacy of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial and remembering that the other side does not consist of “bigots and ignoramuses” but others who have simply reached different conclusions may be the most important thing any participant can do.


1 A.N. Wilson, God’s Funeral(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999), 19.

2 Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1(Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 179-234.

3 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 187.

4 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View(New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 284.

5 Harold Carl, “User-Friendly Faith,” Christian History, “Issue 55: The Monkey Trial & the Rise of Fundamentalism,” accessed 17 October 2012,

6 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 193.

7 Carl, “User-Friendly Faith.”

8 Ibid.

9 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 118.

10 A.C. Dixon, R.A. Torrey and Shaun Aisbitt, “The Fundamentals of the Christian Faith” (1 January 2003) accessed 17 October 2012,

11 John Milton Cooper, Jr. Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1990), 366. 

12 University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law, “Tennessee Anti-evolution Statute,” accessed 17 October 2012,

13 David Goetz, “The Monkey Trial,” Christian History, “Issue 55: The Monkey Trial & the Rise of Fundamentalism,” accessed 17 October 2012,

14 Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, “Between the Wars: The Monkey Trial,” accessed 17 October 2012,

15 Ibid.

16 Tim Walker, “Science vs God: Richard Dawkins takes on Archbishop of Canterbury,” The Independent(24 February 2012), accessed 17 October 2012,

17 Ibid.

18 Roy Rosenzweig Center, “Between the Wars.”

Just War Theory of St. Augustine of Hippo

Thinkers in the Western world have examined the ethical questions that are naturally raised by warfare since a very early period in Western history. Arguably, the greatest classical formulation of a theory of just war, including just causes for war and just conduct within war, is found in the work of Cicero, a Roman author of the first century BCE. As the Roman Empire gradually became both officially and majority Christian in Late Antiquity, Christian thinkers began to take up the same questions. While earlier generations of Christians had largely, but not unanimously, been pacifist in orientation, Christian thinkers of the fourth and fifth century, the first to live within the context of a Roman Empire in which the emperors and other government administrators as well as a majority of the population were Christians, found it necessary to reexamine the Christian stance on warfare in the light of the place of Christians in government and the need to defend the interests of the Empire from hostile forces. At the vanguard of this new generation of thinkers was St. Augustine of Hippo, a prominent bishop and a major figure in the history of Latin Christianity. The Just War Theory of Augustine is in many ways a Christian update to the earlier Roman ideas concerning just war, such as those found in the writings of Cicero, but also one that has added important new dynamics to the question of just war, including especially an emphasis on the protection of the weaker members of the societies in conflict, and stands as a landmark and a major influence in the subsequent development of Western approaches to and understandings of warfare.

Early reflections by Greek writers on warfare more often demonstrate, and sometimes applaud, the brutality of war than the possibility of just conduct within it. Homer’s Iliad, composed probably in the eighth century BCE, for example, contains almost no discussion of whether the war about which it was written, the Trojan War, was justified or of whether the participants in the war were just in their conduct. Instead, the author seems to assume warfare as the natural prerogative of upper-class Greek men and that warfare will be governed by very few rules but a great deal of brutality. In Book VI, for instance, the author records the slaying of Adrestus by Menelaus, even after the former had “caught him by his knees” and began “begging for his life.”1 Menelaus hesitated for a moment, considering the possibility of taking Adrestus prisoner in order to exchange him for a ransom later. Agamemnon, Menelaus’s brother, however, persuades him to kill Adrestus, exhorting him not to “spare a single one of them – not even the child unborn and in its mother’s womb; let not a man of them be left alive, but let all in Ilius perish, unheeded and forgotten.”2 There is no mention of any ethical concern in the slaying of Adrestus.

Even those passages of the Iliad which record a resort to mercy and justice within war focus on a sense of personal obligation from one upper-class Greek male to another rather than laws governing one’s conduct within warfare or any overarching ethical concerns. In Book XXIV, for instance, Achilles does not return the body of Hector, the son of Priam, the king of Troy, to his father because such is the ethical course, but because of his respect for the king himself, whom he praises for his “iron courage.”3 Even so, the seeds of the later ideas of Greco-Roman writers are evident. Achilles, for instance, weeps when Priam embraces him because the old man makes him think of his own father and, only a few verses later, he expresses a concern that the gods will punish him if he does not treat Priam well and hand over the body of his son.

These expressions of empathy and the belief that the gods will punish unjust behavior later became the foundation for theories of just war in Roman thought. Later Greek thought, however, did little to develop these concepts. The surviving fragments of the writings of the Presocratic Greek philosophers contain many moral aphorisms and bits of practical wisdom, but no reflection on warfare in relation to their ethical maxims, aside, perhaps, from a few scattered references, such as the saying of Democritus (460-370 BCE), recorded by Plutarch, that men “ought to be instructed in the art of war … which is a source of great and glorious things for men.”4 Other Greek literature, such as plays and histories, similarly contain little development of the idea of justice in relation to war. They do, however, often exhibit the same basic ideas exhibited by Homer and sometimes develop them further. In his play Lysistrata, for instance, Aristophanes tells a story in which the women of Greece decide to withhold sex from their husbands if their husbands do not put an end to war.5

The first relatively full reflection in Greek thought on what makes a war just or unjust is in the writings of Aristotle. In his Politics, Aristotle declares that “the art of war is a natural art of acquisition, an art which we ought to practise … against men who, though they be intended by nature to be governed, will not submit; for war of such a kind is naturally just.”6 This statement, however consonant it may be with the rest of Aristotle’s philosophy as well as with ancient Greek thought in general, does little to provide a practical basis for action or for judging the actions of others. Aristotle’s idea seems to amount to little more than saying that the conqueror was just because he was the stronger and the conquered was unjust because he was the weaker.

It was not until the first century BCE, with the Roman orator Cicero, that Greco-Roman thought had its first advocate of a fully developed theory of just war. His De Officiis contains a lengthy discussion of what constitutes a just reason for war as well as just conduct within war. Although Cicero’s reasoning and examples derive entirely from Roman history, the passage bears a striking resemblance to the fullest biblical explication of just war, the 20th chapter of Deuteronomy. The two passages present an important comparison, both in their similarities and their differences. Perhaps the most outstanding difference is the difference in date of composition. While Cicero, writing in the first century BCE, reflects a long line of development of thinking on war in the Greek and Roman worlds, the Book of Deuteronomy was, according to most historians, written in about the seventh century BCE, only a century after The Iliad and approximately six centuries before Cicero’s life. It is remarkable that the Jews developed a very full theory of just war so much earlier than their Greek and Roman counterparts; this large gap in time may be traceable to the emphasis on ethical conduct from a very early point in biblical thought.7

In spite of the wide differences in time and culture, the two passages are remarkably similar in message. According to Cicero, “we must resort to force only in case we may not avail ourselves of discussion.”8 Similarly, the passage in Deuteronomy orders that “when you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace,” and only “if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it.”9 Cicero also advises that “we should spare those who have not been blood-thirsty and barbarous in their warfare.”10 He then gives examples of past Roman conquests and shows that certain cities, because of their rebellious nature, were entirely destroyed while others were spared and sometimes their inhabitants were even made Roman citizens. Deuteronomy, similarly, commands that those who make peace should be spared while among those who fight “you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword” while sparing “the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city,” taking them as one’s own.11 It is only in those cities from whom the Hebrews fear some particular insidious influence because of “all their detestable things which they have done for their gods” that the Hebrews are told to practice the kind of total war reflected in The Iliad.12 Even in those cases, however, they are warned against scorched earth tactics and destruction of the local environment; the passage rhetorically asks, “is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?”13 Cicero offers similar warnings. Both Cicero and the author of Deuteronomy also place an emphasis on ensuring that a war has the support of the religious authorities and is consonant with religious laws, in order to avoid incurring the wrath of the divine.

Although Christianity grew out of both the Greco-Roman and the Jewish cultural traditions, early Christian thinkers largely rejected the ideas of both concerning warfare. Instead, early Christian thought exhibits a markedly pacifist orientation. A passage from the writings of Hippolytus of Rome, an early third century bishop, states clearly a line of thought that runs throughout Christian writings of this period; in discussing the occupations of those who wish to become Christians, he says:

A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.14

Included alongside soldiers on Hippolytus’s list of those who cannot receive baptism unless they leave their former occupations are pimps, prostitutes, and pagan priests. According to Peter J. Leithart, the “most vigorous and extensive arguments” by early Christian authors against participation in the military “concerned idolatry.”15 “Religion was central to the military life” and Roman paganism pervaded nearly every aspect of it.16 Participation in the Roman military, then, constituted participation in a pagan cult, and therefore apostasy from Christianity and its uncompromising monotheistic stance. The second primary reason for opposition to military service by early Christian authors was the belief in the inherent evil of killing another human being, no matter for how ostensibly noble a cause.

In spite of such strong words by early Christian leaders, there can be little doubt that there were Christians in the military from the beginning of the Christian movement in the first century CE and that their size continued to increase rapidly, just as did the proportion of Christians in the general Roman population. One tantalizing piece of evidence for a growing Christian presence in the military and government is in the beginning of the final and worst persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, which began under the Emperor Diocletian in about 300; according to the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea and other contemporaries of the events, the persecution began with a purge of Christians from the army.17

With the rise of Constantine the Great as the first Christian Roman emperor in the early fourth century, Christianity, which was also quickly becoming the majority religion of the Empire, assumed a new prominence. By the end of the fourth century, under the Emperor Theodosius, Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire. These drastically changed circumstances brought about a reevaluation of much earlier Christian thought, including thought on warfare.

The Roman Empire was increasingly a Christian empire, and every empire and nation has a need to defend itself. The question Christian thinkers of the fourth century and later had to confront was how this need for defense against invasion by foreign powers and internal insurrection could be reconciled with the ethical demands of the Christian faith. The central reason for opposition to military service by Christians, the avoidance of participation in pagan religion, was removed as an obstacle as paganism was increasingly abandoned or suppressed throughout Roman life, including in the military. The second major reason, the belief that killing another person was inherently immoral no matter the circumstances, remained an obstacle to full participation by Christians in the military, however.

This recognition of a the need for a military and even of the honorableness of military service alongside concerns about taking the lives of other people created a point of tension in Christian thought. This tension is demonstrated in the writings of St. Basil the Great, an influential fourth century Christian bishop from Asia Minor. Basil, in a letter written to a soldier, tells the soldier that “even in a soldier’s life it is possible to preserve the perfection of love to God” and urges him to “play the man” and “be strong.”18 Basil also advised, however, in a different writing, that soldiers who have killed others while at war do not receive the Eucharist for a period of three years “since their hands are not clean.”19

Out of this tension and search for answers in Christian thought, emerged the Just War Theory of St. Augustine of Hippo. The ideas of Augustine, a late fourth/early fifth century Christian bishop in North Africa, have, arguably, had a greater impact on subsequent Christian thought than nearly any other Christian thinker in all of history, aside, perhaps, from the apostle Paul. This is undoubtedly true in regards to his ideas concerning warfare. Augustine drew together the biblical, Greco-Roman, and early Christian strains of thought into a cohesive whole that allowed Christians to define a context for ethical entrance into as well as just conduct within warfare.

Augustine continued in the Christian tradition of believing all war to be intrinsically evil. He offered unequivocal condemnations of those who desired, sought, or enjoyed war, and made it clear that to engage in war justly is to engage in war by force of necessity. In Book 4, chapter 14 of his magnum opus, The City of God, he says “to carry on war and extend a kingdom over wholly subdued nations seems to bad men to be felicity, to good men necessity.”20 Later, in Book 9, chapter 7 of the same work, he states the same even more clearly:

But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars.21

In all of this, Augustine is not far from and is, in fact, probably drawing upon the ideas of Cicero and the author of Deuteronomy. He goes further than either of them, however, in his condemnation of war itself and in his refusal to allow that the aggressor may be just. For Augustine, war is never a good but only a lesser of evils, and the one who causes the war is always unjust.

Augustine also exceeds both of these earlier ideas of just war in his concern for justice within war. He spends the first seven chapters of Book 1 of The City of God, for instance, maligning the earlier commonly accepted practices of destroying and looting conquered cities, killing, robbing, kidnapping, and raping the inhabitants.22 While, as he admits, this had previously been considered the norm and the prerogative of the victor, he condemns the practice and contrasts it with the mercy and temperance exhibited by Christians in war. In this, Augustine both builds upon and significantly departs from his predecessors in both the Greco-Roman and biblical traditions, both of which allowed for circumstances, however limited, in which it was considered appropriate for the victor to destroy the conquered people entirely. Augustine, in line with earlier Christian tradition, is not willing to make this compromise.

In this blending of the Greco-Roman with the biblical through the lens of the Christian worldview, Augustine forged a new understanding of warfare and of how it can be conducted with justice and especially with an emphasis on mercy. Augustine’s views, influential in this as in all else, came to dominate the Christian understandings of and approaches to warfare. Charlemagne, for instance, the eighth century founder of the Carolingian Empire and one of the most important rulers in European history, “took great pleasure in the books of Saint Augustine and especially in those which are called The City of God,” according to his biographer Einhard.23 In the 13th century, Augustine’s Just War Theory was taken up by the Scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas and further elucidated upon by him. Through the work of Aquinas, Just War Theory became part of the official doctrine of the largest Christian organization in the world, the Roman Catholic Church. Augustine’s views were also a major influence on the ideas of the 17th century Dutch Protestant writer Hugo Grotius, whose writings on just war and international relations have influenced nearly every subsequent thinker on the subject and have contributed substantially to the development of modern international law. The modern laws of war, including, for example, the Geneva Conventions, are largely the end-product of the work of Augustine. Through his ability to effectively weave together the various contributing strands of Western Civilization and argue convincingly for his position, the work of St. Augustine of Hippo stands as a monumental achievement and defining moment in understanding war and its relation to ethics. Through his Just War Theory, Augustine’s impact on subsequent thought and conduct in international relations has been tremendous.


1 Homer, The Iliad, tr. Samuel Butler (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 40.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 176.

4 Plutarch, Against Colotes, 1126A, in Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 229.

5 Aristophanes, The Lysistrata, tr. Benjamin Bickley Rogers, in Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 583-99.

6 Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Chapter 8, tr. Benjamin Jowett, in Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., The Works of Aristotle, Volume II (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 450.

7 Huston Smith, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 275.

8 Cicero, De Officiis, Book 1, XI, tr. Walter Miller (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928), 37.

9 Deuteronomy 20:10, 12 (New American Standard Bible).

10 Cicero, De Officiis, Book 1, XI.

11 Deut. 20:14 (NASB).

12 Deut. 20:18 (NASB).

13 Deut. 20:19 (NASB).

14 Hippolytus of Rome, “The Apostolic Tradition,” 16:9-11, tr. Kevin P. Edgecomb, accessed 24 October 2012,

15 Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press: 2010), 269.

16 Ibid.

l7 Eusebius, The Church History, Book VIII, Chapter IV, 2-3, tr. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Serious: Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, Oration in Praise of Constantine, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 326.

18 Basil the Great, in Alexander F.C. Webster and Darrell Cole, The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West (Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2004), 70.

19 Ibid., 76.

20 St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 4, Chapter 14, tr. Marcus Dods, in Robert Maynard Hutchins, Augustine (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 196.

21 Ibid., Book 9, Chapter 7, 515.

22 Ibid., Book 1, Chapters 1-7, 129-133.

23 Einhard, “The Life of Charlemagne,” Book III, tr. Lewis Thorpe, Two Lives of Charlemagne (New York: Penugin Books, 1988), 78