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Christian History Home > News > 2004 > Compassionate in War, Christian in Vision

Compassionate in War, Christian in Vision
The man behind the Geneva Conventions knew the heights of success and the depths of failure.
David Neff | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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Compassionate in War, Christian in Vision

This year I read the Geneva Conventions for the very first time. The photos from Abu Ghraib prison made me want to read the classic international agreements about the treatment of prisoners in time of war, and I needed to write an editorial for Christianity Today about the implications of the abuses there.

Reading those documents—as well as the other conventions about the treatment of the wounded, those shipwrecked at sea, and civilians under enemy control—I had a profound sense that a Christian vision undergirded these texts.

Unfortunately, when I went to the website of the International Committee of the Red Cross, I found just the barest hint that the man behind the ICRC and the first Geneva Conventions might have been motivated by a Christian vision. The ICRC web page devoted to founding visionary Henry Dunant (1828-1910) says only that he "came from a very devout Calvinist family that practised charity."

Further research on the Internet and a summer vacation visit to ICRC headquarters in Geneva expanded my understanding of Dunant's Christian vision. Here's what I found:

According to Pam Brown's Henry Dunant, the only English-language biography of Dunant I found at the ICRC bookstore, Henri Dunant's parents left the "official church" and joined the "Church of the Awakening, a group which insisted on active charity." I have found no other mentions of an organization by this name in Switzerland in the 1830's and '40s, though I have found plenty of references to an evangelical awakening inside and later outside the Reformed church in Switzerland.

The Swiss website of the Henry Dunant Society reports that Dunant, who failed miserably in his studies at Geneva's Collège Calvin, had nevertheless won the piety prize in school and was an avid listener to the sermons of evangelical preacher Louis Gaussen at the Oratory. Gaussen had been suspended for his revival activities by Geneva's Venerable Company of Pastors and subsequently took part in the formation of the Socié;té; Evangé;lique, the Free Faculty of the Oratory, and the Evangelical Church of the Oratory (Free). Under Gaussen's preaching, says the Dunant Society website, young Henri "literally nourished himself on the 'Awakening' of the Protestant church." (Beware of machine translations on French websites about spiritual renewal, since the French word for "awakening" also means "alarm clock" which can produce amusing—and alarming—translations.)

Organization man

As a young man, Henri Dunant participated in the kind of free-wheeling association that seems to be typical of evangelical religion everywhere. In about 1848, at age 20, he organized a group of like-minded young men known first as the Thursday Meeting, and soon after as the Union of Geneva. Their aim was to be "more effective in Christian charity," "to heat up the lukewarm" believers, and to "convert those who had not met God" (Socié;té; Henry Dunant).

In the years that followed, the young Dunant showed tremendous organizational ability, and soon built bridges between his group in Geneva and likeminded groups elsewhere—including the Young Men's Christian Association, which had been founded in London in 1844 by George Williams. Dunant suggested that these groups should cooperate internationally, and as a result representatives met in Paris in August 1855 and formed the World Alliance of YMCAs.

Dunant's vision is captured in these quotations from a YMCA website: "Leading up to the World Conference, Henry Dunant … reflected in 1852 on the international and ecumenical dimensions of the YMCA, considering the imperative of 'one body, many members': ' … Be persuaded that we are members for each other, with solidarity for each other; we are only one and the same family, destined to glorify Jesus … ' In the same line, in 1855, he lay the foundation of what was to be the World Alliance of YMCAs: 'Let each therefore bring his stone towards the building of the edifice; be it ever so small, it must help towards the construction of the mansion.'"

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