The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War

2014 sees the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War – just out of living memory, now, but still hugely important for its impact on European history – as well as on the personal lives of many families in this country and elsewhere.

Elsewhere on the website is the first of several articles arising from the work of David Roberts and Dave Bell over the last few weeks, as they have delved into the Tyndale archives to investigate the Tyndale connections with the First World War.

Frank Hurley (1885-1962)It was, by all accounts, terrible indeed. Untold thousands from all across the UK killed; many more thousands shell-shocked, injured and traumatised and unable to speak of their experiences (often for the rest of their lives); thousands of young women seeing terrible things in battlefield nursing stations and convalescent homes; war memorials all over the country covered in the names of lost loved ones; a whole generation torn out of the lives of communities, leaving families bereft, farms, shops and businesses without a future – and with that bittersweet legacy which which we are familiar: war poems, stories of Christmas truces and football games between opposing sides and great, terrible, profound fiction, by A. S. Byatt, Sebastian Faulkes and others.

But the war also had a religious dimension. Many in churches in this country, for all that they had enthusiastically supported the idea of peace throughout the decade before, saw the war that began in 1914 in religious terms, “join the armies that are fighting for the Kingdom of God as surely as did the Puritans in Cromwell’s day,” is one example, from a September 1914 edition of the Baptist Times. The Kaiser was described in quasi-apocalyptic terms. The war was understood not just as a fight against a national enemy, but against an enemy, almost, of God – who was, of course, “on our side” (no doubt many in Germany thought the same thing).

There were pacifists – including Herbert Morgan, minister of Tyndale (see David Roberts’ article) – many of whom paid a high price in terms of ill-treatment from the authorities and public opprobrium. But many sincerely Christian people really did believe that this war had something to do with the protection, survival and indeed flourishing, of the Church. Many clergy signed up as chaplains (Woodbine Willie most famously) but a significant number of them, when they saw the horror of day-to-day life and death in the trenches, lost their faith, if not in Christ, then certainly in the trappings of the religion that proclaimed him.

The experience of the First World War is often cited as one of the factors in the rapid decline in church attendance in the 20th century. The “war to end all wars” did nothing of the kind, of course; but it did increase a sense of disillusionment with organised religion. God on the side of the victors? But at what cost? A glorious victory? So much suffering and death ended all such thoughts. Churches that had joined in with the triumphant mood before could not expect much loyalty after.

The brief hedonistic reaction of the 1920s, the spread of personalised transport and the gradual ending of deference (that dragged on in some forms right through and beyond the Second World War; though, particularly, religious authority figures were deeply undermined after the First), all exacerbated the decline.

Things are different, now. You would struggle to find a Christian church anywhere that advocated war, let alone regarded it as a necessary, even glorious, aspect of the Christian gospel. Churches in general are thankfully more realistic both about their place in society and about their responsibilities – social concern rather than political allegiance, community enhancement rather than self-aggrandisement.

One lesson of all this must be the need for humility. Non-comformist church leaders during the years surrounding the First World War were much concerned with the recognition of their denominations, particularly in relation to the established church and with the part thoses churches could play through the organs of the Liberal Party.

Power has often tempted those in the corridors of the Christian churches, and often enough they have given in to the one thing that is, perhaps, most clearly at odds with the teaching of Jesus. Yet some of the chaplains whose faith was so challenged by the war saw Christ in the dignity and suffering – and humility – of many of the soldiers in the trenches. They discerned where Christ was to be found, and they did not look amongst those who would name him while craving influence at home.

But as the story of Tyndale’s response to the war will show (see future articles), there were those in churches that recognised the need for something other than such self-aggrandisement. The challenge remains.
Our age sees the Church in a more vulnerable position in this country than it has been for much of its history. Yet around the world there are places (such as South Korea, the US and parts of Africa) where its influence is huge and the temptations similarly so. Humility (both to eschew power and to use it wisely) – and a determination to look for Christ in the most unlikely places remains the greatest challenge.

Michael Docker