Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Faith in Conflict: The Impact of the Great War on the Faith of the People of Britain

By Stuart Bell
Helion & Company, 2017
Jim Gallen, Reviewer

The Great War impacted all facets of societies. Many volumes chronicle the battles, the mounds of dead, the armies of invalids, altered topography and ecology, and the economic and social outcomes. Faith in Conflict examines the effects of the Great War on the British peoples’ Christian faith, primarily within the Protestant Churches.

The early Glossary of Ecclesiastical and Military Terms is a helpful reference. The photos put names to faces. The cover, reproduced among the other photos, of the Bishop of London addressing reclining troops in France is uniquely powerful. The chapters are topically arranged. The first chapter sets the scene of the Churches, the nature of religious practice, and local jurisdictions, primarily through excerpts from diaries and letters and the ubiquity of hymnody.

I find the second chapter, “A Holy War and Favored Nation,” to be very interesting, to me at least, primarily for its parallel to the tradition of American Exceptionalism. Reports of German soldiers brutalizing Belgian civilians alleviated doubt that “it was a just war, a righteous war, and, if carried out in the spirit of our Christianity, it was a holy war” (p.41). The characterization of Britain as “A Favored Nation” and that its empire was divinely ordained for the benefit of the less privileged, struck this Irish-American as presumptuous, but to the Archdeacon of Montreal “Britain is the elect nation of the world today” (p. 46).

Chapter Three documents the use of such terms as “God of Battles”, God of Hosts” and “ God of Peace” in hymns, sermons, poetry, rhetoric and literature from before the war to the Armistice. Chapter Four examines the seeming contradiction between an omnipotent and providential God and the horror of war. One officer “doubts as to the existence of God, or, if He exists, doubts as to his power to interfere with the world-order” (p. 79), while another could believe that even slipping down “was an act of Providence” (p. 78).

The fifth chapter, “Sacrifice and Memorialisation,” studies several themes. Is supreme sacrifice human or Christian? Does one achieve salvation through sacrifice? Is a combat fatality “a martyr for his nation?” How should the fallen individually be commemorated? One change associated with the war was the extension of offering of prayers for the dead beyond Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism to other congregations.

Probably the most intensely theological chapter is the Sixth “Beyond Sacrifice to a Suffering God." In it the author draws heavily on the writings of Western Front Chaplain Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. Kennedy rejected the understanding that God willed the war and could have stopped it and posited instead a God of sorrow who shares His world’s sufferings. Adopted by a few other quoted theologians, the doctrine of a suffering God is presented as having crests and ebbs in following, but I still detect echoes in orations about a God saddened by our sin.

The seventh chapter sports a familiar term, “Ecumenism,” with a Great War perspective. As the war forced chaplains from competing denominations into military cooperation, questions of exchange of pulpits and consolidation of prayer books and hymnals led to discussion of reunion of churches. Although reforms continued for a few years after the war, their enduring power was limited.

The ultimate chapter, “Faith at the Front”, consists of quotes and analysis of writings of five Western Front soldiers reflecting their own religious views. Jack Titterton of the 200th Siege Battery wondered: Is there no Justice for this hoary world? No “God” above to pity those beneath? The 200,000-word diary published in 1964 of James Jack of the Scottish Rifles also provides insights into thoughts from the front: “I was in poor spirits most of this time. The War…loss of friends and other matters, rudely shook one’s Faith”.

Faith in Conflict is for some, but not all, Roads readers. Author Stuart Bell has crafted an intensely researched investigation of the interaction between the war and religion in Britain during the Great War. Each chapter is largely independent. This work provides insights into the religious environment of early 20th-century Britain. The reader who opens it pages should be ready to think and reflect. He will be challenged to compare his own religiosity with that of a century ago. It poses questions both contemporary and historic: “Are we to have peace at any price and allow a maniac to dominate this country and the whole of Europe?” We study history to learn how our world came to be. Faith in Conflict delivers.

Jim Gallen

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