Faith in Conflict
The Impact of the Great War on the Faith of the People of Britain
Solihull: Helion, 2017
Hardcover. xvi+240 p. ISBN 978-1911512677. £35
Reviewed by Timothy J. Demy, Th.D., Ph.D.
U.S. Naval War College
Newport (Rhode Island)
The centennial commemoration of the First World War has generated a plethora of books on the causes, course, and consequences of that human tragedy. Equally interesting and less frequently studied are the social and cultural dimensions of the war. Stuart Bell’s engaging Faith in Conflict studies one aspect of the latter—religion. The author’s title is aptly chosen in that the study views spiritual and theological conundrums that arose because of the war as well as the role of faith during the war. The purpose of the work is stated clearly in the beginning of the introduction: “This book is intended to offer an answer to the question, ‘How did the First World War affect the religious faith of the people of Britain?’ ” [xii].
The book’s eight chapters flow nicely and sustain a valuable and enlightening study advancing what is known of the religious belief and expressions of it during the war by British soldiers (though not sailors) and civilians. Bell examines a broad range of published and archival sources including letters, diaries, newspapers, hymns, sermons, and liturgical material to explore the effects of the First World War on beliefs of British churchgoers, non-churchgoers, and soldiers during the war. Surprisingly he concludes that the influence of faith was limited and there was not a surge of religious enthusiasm. Changes occurred within the content of the religious context but there was not great expansion of it.
The Introduction and first chapter address a popular and longstanding declaration about the loss of faith during the war and joins the ranks of those whose studies in the last two decades have brought a broader, more nuanced, and balanced perspective to the topic of religion during the war. While it is true that there were some prominent ecclesiastical and literary voices during the 1920s writing of the loss of faith during the war, their writings overstated the historical evidence. Bell notes, that “ordinary soldiers and civilians, the vast majority of them whom, as we shall see, rarely commented on their own beliefs, were highly unlikely to record explicitly any loss of faith” [xiii].
Chapter 1, ‘Setting the Scene”, marks the boundaries of the study emphasizing that its focus is almost entirely on the Protestant response in Britain. The study also goes beyond the national religious press and views local newspapers, soldiers’ diaries, and soldiers’ correspondence. The section “The ubiquity of hymnody” is also important in setting the stage for the appearance of the role of hymnody in the remainder of the work.
Chapter 2, “A Holy War and a Favoured Nation”, shows that from the onset of the war and the first Sunday after the declaration of hostilities there was broad, though not universal, acceptance of Britain’s role in the war as divinely-favored nation engaged in a holy and righteous war. The war was understood widely to be the physical manifestation of a conflict between good and evil.
Chapter 3, “God of Battles – Lord of Hosts”, provides an excellent survey of how biblical phrases and ideas were quickly and frequently adapted in rhetoric, sermons, hymns, and prayers. Just as Shakespeare’s “God of battles” (Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1 and lyrics from the vibrant patriotic song Our Country’s Call) led to victory over the French and the “Lord of Hosts” defended the Israelites of the Old Testament, so too would Britain be victorious in its endeavor.
Such adaptation of Old Testament stories of divine support and intervention for the armies of Israel would become commonplace in the Great War and was a key characteristic of the “God of battles” discourse, which had featured also in both the American Civil War and the South African wars [50-51].
Chapter 4, “Omnipotence and Providence”, studies the theological questions with respect to the attributes of God raised by the war. For British Christian soldiers on the battlefield there were spiritual struggles questioning how an omniscient and omnipotent God would permit death and destruction on such an enormous scale. Though many soldiers embraced a personal fatalism, the magnitude of the war’s tragedy and trauma gave rise to a deep personal theological crisis for many of the combatants and noncombatants. The questions and crisis were not limited to the battlefield but, also, were shared on the home front.
Chapter 5, “Sacrifice and Memorialisation”, views the quick rise and acceptance of prayers for the dead. The powerful theme of sacrifice in patriotic and religious rhetoric was coupled with a new development—“the belief that an act of heroic sacrifice in a good and holy cause was a guarantee of eternal salvation, irrespective of the faith or life-style of the fallen soldier” . The concept of salvation by death in battle frequently was bolstered by hymns expressing ideas of martyrdom for the nation. The spread of the religious practice of prayers for the dead moved beyond the traditional acceptance of them in Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism. Such prayers became commonplace in individual and corporate religious devotion.
Chapter 6, “Beyond Sacrifice to a Suffering God”, moves to the deeply theological and philosophical issues of theodicy and the nature and attributes of God. It does so by providing an overview of how popular pastor and chaplain, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy “challenged head-on the assertion that God is in control of everything and that it was his will that the war was happening” . Known to troops as “Woodbine Willie,” Studdert Kennedy’s ideas were popularized through his writings and poetry in which he rejected the traditional theological construct of an omnipotent God. However, though his prose and poetry sold widely, Bell also concludes “there is no evidence that there was any serious engagement with his advocacy of a suffering God” . The author notes that this lack of interaction bolsters the thesis that wartime religion in Britain had minimal long-term social consequence.
Chapter 7, “Ecumenism”, weaves the tapestry of limits and activities of ecumenical activities in the theaters of war and on the home front. Also viewed are those activities in the years immediately after the war, especially the 1920 Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops. Although there were conflicting tensions among the religious groups, there was also recognition of the need for unity during the war in order to minister to a nation united by loss, grief, and a desire to memorialize the fallen soldiers.
Chapter 8, “Faith at the Front”, personalizes the religious experience during the war by studying the diaries and letters of five soldiers and argues that they represent the median between fervent faith and complete rejection of corporate and personal religious activity.
A very helpful glossary of ecclesiastical and military terms addresses church denominations, church structures and clergy titles, army units and officers, and the development of the British Army. The appendix, “The Commemoration Service for Lieut. Hugh Valentine Gamble, 13 May 1917”, offers a sample of the structure of such church services during the war. Illustrations and photos enhance the work bringing to it a fullness that otherwise would be absent. Before the very helpful bibliography the author provides readers “A Note on Secondary Sources” giving a good overview of the historiography of the British Churches and the First World War.
Religious responses to the war were not uniform. However, on the home front, from pulpits to pews to pubs there was an underlying belief that God was on Britain’s side in the war. Even deeper was a conviction that God had providentially chosen Britain for ultimate victory.
Bell’s work stands among the books that should be “first reads” for any who are interested in the subject of religion and the Great War. It is exceptionally well-documented and well-written and readers will not be disappointed.
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