Conference Report: Faith and the First World War, University of Glasgow, 21-23 July 2016

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 3 (September 2016)

Conference Report: Faith and the First World War, University of Glasgow, 21-23 July 2016

By Geoff Jackson, Ambrose University

In late July, I had the opportunity to participate in the “Faith and the First World War” conference at the University of Glasgow. The conference explored the wide diversity and significance of religious faith for those who experienced the First World War, addressing themes such as faith in the armed forces and on the home front, religion, war resistance and the peace crusade, as well as the role of religion in remembrance.

The keynote address was delivered by Michael Snape of Durham University, a leading Anglican historian, who delivered the fascinating paper “From Flanders to Helmand: Chaplaincy, Faith and Religious Change in the British Army, 1914-2014.” While commenting on the obvious differences between the ways wars have been fought from the First World War to present-day conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, he argued that the role of chaplains was largely unchanged. He demonstrated convincingly that the relationship of faith to soldiers was still as important today as it was 100 years ago. This idea of faith and soldiers was the dominant theme of the conference, and ran throughout most of the presentations.

The papers covered a broad range of themes ranging from discussion of the use of the Old Testament in mobilizing Germans for the war effort to comparative studies on how the Scottish and Irish Reformed churches participated in the First World War. Gerhard Besier of the Technical University of Dresden presented on “Harmonizing Conflicting Demands and Emotions: Christian Believers during WWI.” Cyril Pearce of the University of Leeds examined Christian war resisters and their protests during the war. Pearce has mined war documents, letters, images, tribunal records and diaries to create a list of over 16,000 First World War conscientious objectors. He has also begun mapping these names, where possible, to identify communities were conscientious objection was more prevalent.

Another excellent paper was British archivist James W. Fleming’s “‘All war being contrary to the spirit and teaching of Jesus Christ I could take no part in its prosecution’: Faith and Conscientious Objection in the First World War.” Fleming analyzed conscientious objector applications–both those that were accepted and those that were denied. This could be a valuable source for those interested in studying the topic.

My (Geoff Jackson’s) paper examined the role of Canadian chaplains as part of the larger British Expeditionary Force. It examined the role of Church of England chaplains through the optics of a transnational study to demonstrate that Anglican chaplains, as part of the same religious organization, played similar but distinct roles in various national contexts. The paper argued that, depending on which national army the chaplains were working under, they had different objectives, motivations, outside influences and pressures, all of which affected the care they were able to administer to the soldiers. It generated some fascinating debate, and I also received a book from a chaplain who saw service in Afghanistan and Iraq–a really special treat.

The third day of the conference examined the role of women peace crusaders. The opening paper, “‘If Christ could be militant so could I’: Helen Crawfurd and the Women’s Peace Crusade, 1916-1918,” was delivered by activist and historian Lesley Orr, previously of the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The balance of the day was spent on a walk to commemorate the first Women’s Peace Crusade. In its original form, the first Women’s Peace Crusade marched from George Square to Glasgow Green, drawing crowds of thousands. This Crusade grew into a mass international women’s peace movement. Since early 2016 a group of amateur women historians have been discovering some of the remarkable women involved. 100 years later to the day a similar parade was held (albeit, with far fewer participants). It was a poignant walk on a fortunately sunny day.

The people and campus of the University of Glasgow were fantastic. I had the chance to explore the university and its chapel which was built in remembrance of the students who fought and died during the First World War. This conference reinvigorated my desire to research Canadian chaplains and their roles in the First World War.