A Conflict of Biblical Proportions? Scripture and the First World War

The centenary of the First World War has provided an important opportunity to re-evaluate its impact on religious faith and life.  Westcott House is one of a number of partners participating in a new project examining the influence of the Bible during World War I, as well as how views of the Bible changed as a result of the conflict.

German Bible with bullet hole
German Bible with bullet hole (Photo: Professor Dr Gottfried Geiler)

The Bible’s significance for people who lived through World War I may seem, superficially, an unlikely subject, but its influence was considerable. Many of the generation who fought in the First World War had studied the Bible at school and were more familiar with its contents than most people now. As a result, Christian nations on both sides were able to use it as a source of inspiration, motivation and propaganda. At the same time, conscientious objectors could use its message of peace to defend their refusal to fight. Wherever people stood in relation to the war, the scriptures offered a fundamental resource that could help them make sense of what they were going through.

Canadian picture of Jesus at Firing Squad of mixed European Soldiers
‘The Deserter’: Jesus faces a firing squad of mixed European soldiers (image credit: Boardman Robinson, via Wikimedia Commons)

The research project, entitled “The Book And The Sword: The Bible In The Experience and Legacy of the Great War”, is drawing together theologians and historians from around the world to look at this understudied area and for the first time attempt to pull together many potentially fascinating threads into a coherent narrative. From the controversial sermons of Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London; to General Allenby’s entry on foot into Jerusalem in 1917 in self-conscious imitation of Jesus; to the earnest debate among German theologians about whether or not the Old Testament really was bloodthirsty enough reading matter for the heroic German people; the project will aim to show how the Bible was a potent force that shaped many people’s wartime experience.

This Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project is being led by Andrew Mein, Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at Westcott House, and by Nathan MacDonald, Lecturer in Hebrew Bible in the Divinity Faculty. You can see Nathan and Andrew interviewed about the project for our local TV channel, Cambridge TV, by following the link below.

http://www.cambridge-tv.co.uk/World-War-One-Bible/

A project like this is not only about the past. The First World War still looms large in our national self-consciousness, and is called to mind every year at Remembrancetide.  To look back at the way that faith and scripture worked for people a hundred years ago can help us reflect on our current practice: how did they hold together the seemingly impossible demands of national civic religion and the Christian witness for peace?

Soldiers hearing mass in the ruins of Cambrai cathedral, October 1918 © IWM (Q 9559)
Soldiers hearing mass in the ruins of Cambrai cathedral, October 1918 © IWM (Q 9559)

How might we draw on their experience to refresh our worship and preaching in a season that clergy often find challenging?  The Westcott Foundation will be offering an opportunity to explore these themes in a study on ‘Bible, War and Remembrance’ on Wednesday 5th October 2016, led by Andrew Mein, Nathan MacDonald, and Ally Barrett. Remembrancetide is challenging for those who lead worship and preach. How do we meet so many diverse needs and expectations? How do we both remember the past fallen and speak into the complexity of contemporary conflicts?  In this study day we will reflect on current practice of remembrance, and draw on the use of the Bible during 1914-18 to find new resources for theology and preaching.  Click here to email us and reserve a place at this study day or to find out more. 

In the mean time you can read more about the project here:

http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/a-conflict-of-biblical-proportions-how-the-bible-was-used-to-turn-the-first-world-war-into-a-holy

and here:

http://www.bibleandww1.divinity.cam.ac.uk

Stanley Spencer, Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September
Stanley Spencer, Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September, IWM ART 2268  http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/25132