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Sermons of the Great War: can we learn from reading what was said from wartime pulpits?
A journey through local newspapers during the years from 1914 to 1918 makes for interesting reading. Towards the end of the First World War an Anglican clergyman in Co Down, delivered a sermon which sounds reasonable to the modern ear. Aware that the bloody conflict was coming to a close, he extolled the patriotism of his hearers, arguing that this spirit had contributed to the victory that lay just around the corner, but he added his endorsement of the sentiments of Edith Cavell, the heroic nurse who had been executed by the Germans for helping Belgian soldiers to escape. Cavell had declared that ‘patriotism is not enough’ and that one must have no hatred in one’s heart for anyone. The clergyman went on to declare that ‘the love of humanity’ is a vital characteristic for the Christian and that the ‘brotherhood of man in Christ’ is vital for healed world. However not all declarations from the pulpit make today's Christian listener comfortable. A rector in another Co Down church, speaking at the outbreak of the war, had preached a sermon in which he declared that ‘Prussian militarism must be crushed’ and ‘the fangs’ of the Hohenzollern monarchy must be ‘pulled out by the roots.’ He deplored ‘the warlike mysticism of the Teuton’ and warned everyone that ‘the Kaiser wants the world.’ Whilst historians may agree that German expansionism was a key factor on the road to war, this minister’s rhetoric is somewhat blood-curdling; he does not reflect on the possibility that British empire-building might have contributed to dangerous international rivalries. But could we have expected him to do so? After all, this was an age when local Protestant clergy tended to see the British Empire as a pure force for good and a noble force of God. As the war dragged on and war-weariness set in, yet another Co Down clergyman found it appropriate to preach about the war, arguing stridently during 1917, against those ‘anaemic advocates of peace at any price’ who advocated bringing the war to a close with a negotiated treaty. He told his hearers that this was a ‘righteous war‘ against a German nation that was ‘lusting for strife and conquest’.The people of Britain must ‘wait on the God of righteousness for help in the struggle’. Sermons such as this regularly featured in Irish Protestant pulpits, as did homilies that argued for the introduction of compulsory military service in Ireland - something that was anathema to their clerical counterparts in the Catholic Church. Protestant clergy offered opinions not just on the war but on what they perceived as its benign outcomes. The first clergyman above spoke to his congregation one Sunday evening in the latter months of the war. He said that he was delighted by the British conquest of Palestine, which had been wrested from the grip of the Caliphate for the first time in many centuries. He spoke admiringly of General Allenby’s decision to walk rather then march into Jerusalem, in deferential respect for Christ’s entry into the city prior to his death at Calvary. The sermon went on to laud the beauty of Allenby’s actions, arguing that ‘an English Christian gentleman has a sense of the fitness of things that is unequalled in Europe.’ Later in the same sermon, he expressed his belief that Jerusalem should now be ‘a Christian city’ but that ‘very careful arrangements’ would be necessary ‘so that the power of the Jew for mischief may be strictly limited.’ Examining the sermons preached by clergy a century ago is a chastening exercise. In an era of war and revolution whose reverberations are still felt today, men who had been elevated to positions of spiritual and temporal power, offered full backing for their country’s war and thought they saw a divine plan for this earth unfolding as the allied victory drew to a close. However it is all too easy to be startled or amused by the opinions of those who did not have the luxury of knowing how history would unfold. We must remember that the sermons we preach, and those sermons to which we approvingly listen, will one day be examined in the cold, knowledgeable light of hindsight. This is a sobering thought and one that should make all those who mount a pulpit, or who laud its occupant, more humble and self-aware than is often the case. Philip Orr. Philip Orr works in the fields of community development and public history