SEVERAL books on religion and the First World War have been reviewed here since centenary commemorations began, but this is, perhaps, the first systematic study of the theological questions associated with the conflict.
Stuart Bell is an Honorary Research Fellow of St John’s College, Durham, and a Methodist minister. Faith in Conflict is based on his doctoral work, and it retains the defensiveness and heavy referencing that characterise Ph.D. theses.
Dr Bell, however, is effective in his deployment of arguments and examples relating to “A Holy War and a Favoured Nation”, “God of Battles — Lord of Hosts”, “Omnipresence and Providence”, and “Sacrifice and Memorialisation”. He has been busy among local newspapers and parish magazines that give accounts of sermons delivered during the War, and among archive holdings such as memorial-service sheets. Tables show important findings such as spikes in the number of wartime sermons based on Old Testament texts, from the South African War to the Second World War.
More nuanced is Bell’s analysis of the range of meanings and contexts associated with sacrifice, “arguably the dominant trope of the First World War”, but also a subject of debate. Some of the ideas preached from regional pulpits seem extraordinary today. A vicar in Torquay considered it a positive effect of the war that it forced people out of the fool’s paradise in which they had lived previously; a preacher in Newcastle argued that the British were now “a race purified and strengthened by the trouble it was passing through”.
Chapter 6 is one of the strongest, being devoted to Bell’s hero, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (”Woodbine Willie”), who was a chaplain on the Western Front, and challenged the assertion that God was in control of ghastly events. “Deliver us from cant” is his damning response to a sermon in one of his poems. God could not be left unmoved by human suffering on such a scale, he argued; and the God revealed in the suffering Christ was the God who shared in the world’s suffering.
Bell laments the fact that, although Studdert Kennedy was the best-known of the early British “passibilists” — those who advocate belief in a passible God — “his theological contribution has been understated, or even ignored.”
Less significant, although often moving, is a chapter, “Faith at the Front”, which quotes and comments on the five individual soldiers’ responses to the War. A chapter on ecumenism, on the other hand, is highly revealing on the subject of “shared altars” during the War. Bell’s broadest conclusion is somewhat surprising: evidence of his primary sources, and existing statistical work by others, indicates that “the impact of the Great War on both the faith and the religious practices of the people of Britain was very limited.” Social changes and technological developments in the 1920s had a greater impact than the loss of faith caused by the horrors of the war.
Dr Wheeler is Chairman of Gladstone’s Library, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton.
Faith in Conflict: The impact of the Great War on the faith of the people of Britain
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