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Collections Cameo, March 2015

William Mather Lewis, "Place of the Church in the War," 1917

William Mather Lewis was born in Michigan in 1878 and graduated from Lake Forest College in 1900, eventually becoming a professor of oratory and debate in 1903. He founded the college’s current drama club, the Garrick Players, for which he wrote multiple plays and acted as its first advisor. In 1905, at the age of 27, Lewis was asked to become the new headmaster of Lake Forest Academy, a title he held until 1913.

As headmaster of Lake Forest Academy, he stressed the importance of current events and cultural literacy to his students through the introduction of “general knowledge tests” beginning in 1911. Lewis believed that schools should focus more attention on “fundamental knowledge of the world rather than just the rhetorical window dressing that was too common at elite institutions” (from Many Hearts and Many Hands: The History of Ferry Hall and Lake Forest Academy, p. 86). Under Lewis, the Academy’s athletics grew tremendously with the construction of the gymnasium in 1906, which led to the introduction of basketball to the school.

W. M. Lewis understood the seriousness of the conflict escalating in Europe and was quick to teach his boys at LFA that war was not something to be idealized, but something to be thoroughly understood. Following his resignation from LFA in 1913, Lewis spent a year in Germany at the University of Berlin studying politics and history. Upon his return in 1914, he became a champion for the so-called “Preparedness Movement,” which called for every American to ready his or herself for war against Germany.

Under the direction of Captain William A. Moffett, the Commandant of Great Lakes Naval Station, Lewis joined the Minutemen, a civilian corps that promoted preparedness and the purchase of war bonds across the country through rallies, parades, and speeches. Lewis himself was a great orator and was vital to the success of the Minutemen. In addition to his work for the Preparedness Movement, Lewis served as mayor of Lake Forest from 1915 to 1917 before being called to Washington in 1917 to serve as the president of the National Committee of Patriotic and Defense Societies.

This pamphlet, entitled “Place of the Church in the War” was reprinted from The Continent from May 24, 1917. In it, Lewis highlights “how the church can be of real service in this hour of the nation’s need.” He first states that the foreign population in the country needs to become more Americanized through the adoption of the American lifestyle and through mastering the English language. “From the pulpit there should be constantly preached the need for breaking down the lines between American born and foreign born people. Night schools where English branches, American government, etc., are taught should be established for men and women in every church…A corps of church workers should be organized to carry this education to those who have not the opportunity to come to the church….Let us make every church a melting pot.”

In addition to providing education to the immigrant population, Lewis stresses the importance of food conservation and production. He states that every empty church yard should be put to good use through the establishment of gardens. “Here is an interesting suggestion for the Sunday school superintendent. Let him organize the school into an army of production, giving every child a chance to ‘do his bit’ and at the same time instilling lessons of industry.” Churches should also teach how to can garden products and these food products should be distributed to hospitals, charitable organizations, and to the families of soldiers.

Lastly, Lewis states that the biggest duty of the church is to take care of the soldiers, and also the families of the soldiers, because they too were making the ultimate sacrifice by giving up their loved one. “Every married man who goes into the army or navy should go with the full knowledge that his church will look after the wife and children while he is gone…Let us see that every boy who goes out from our community carries a copy of a Testament, the gift of the church he honors.”

Lewis concludes by encouraging churches to organize acts of patriotism and to continue to raise money for the church. “America is proud of the gospel which is being proclaimed from her pulpits, a gospel of patriotism, a gospel of optimistic certainty that through this Great War the soul of the world will be cleansed, that because of it the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God will be recognized as never before.”

Following WWI, Lewis continued his work in Washington in the Treasury Department before returning to education. He became president of George Washington University in Washington D.C. at the age of 45 before going on to become president of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Lewis passed away suddenly in 1945 after suffering a heart attack on his drive home.