Britain’s men were faced with a searching choice after 1914: sign up or stand against conscription. Many Christian men believed they were fighting a Just War; others refused to accept that its killing was justified.
Earlier this year, BBC journalist and presenter Jeremy Paxman came under fire for calling conscientious objectors — men who refused to fight on grounds of religious or other belief — ‘cranks’.
Even today, 100 years on from the outbreak of the First World War (WW1), most people’s perception of those who did not serve their country enthusiastically, or at least ‘do their duty’ willingly, is still negative.
In 1914 the army was filled with volunteers but, as conscription came in, eventually most men out of school and less than 40 years old were ordered to sign up. Some, primarily Quaker or strict Baptist, believed all killing was wrong, whether or not it was in a generally perceived ‘good cause’.
Records suggest there were 16,000 to 20,000 British conscientious objectors, although there were men on both sides who did not wish to fight.
Their treatment was not pleasant. White feathers were handed out to men who had not signed up; they were branded ‘cowards’, ostracised and sometimes beaten in the streets.
After 1916, when conscription was introduced under the Military Service Act, the fate of those who refused to be conscripted was usually determined by a tribunal.
Quoted by the BBC, author Cyril Pearce, creator of a database of conscientious objectors, told of one man, Bernard Lawson, who had to explain his Christian convictions to the tribunal. When it finally accepted his beliefs, the military gave him ‘conditional exemption’, meaning he had to join the Friends Ambulance Unit in France.
Mr Pearce said, ‘Most tribunals took a very aggressive view, trying to catch men out and ridiculing them’.
While some men were allowed to work in non-combatant roles, such as medics, chaplains or stretcher-bearers, or to farm or make munitions, others served prison sentences and had voting rights revoked for five years. Others were sent to work camps across the country and were stigmatised.
Christian men who once stood shoulder to shoulder in churches and chapels were divided in their thoughts. Methodist preacher Bert Brocklesby was never invited to speak again after he preached from Romans 12:19-21 on resisting vengeance and loving one’s enemies. When he refused the call-up under conscription, he spent the war in a series of prisons and work camps.
For other pastors, the horrors inflicted on the Belgians and the Armenians were too much to bear; the war was just, and the cause worthy of arms.
The Scripture Gift Mission, now SGM Lifewords, published countless Bibles, tracts and small editions of Gospels for the hundreds of thousands of British men, many of whom were believers and even ministers, serving in the trenches.
Men could easily go to extremes. Celebrating the centenary edition of its ‘Active Service John’s Gospel’, SGM Lifewords spoke of one archdeacon, Basil Wilberforce, who reportedly preached: ‘To kill Germans is a divine service in the fullest sense of the word’.
Professing Christians could turn against each other. SGM Lifewords recounts: ‘The mainstream church had little to say about conscientious objectors, and was occasionally hostile. While in prison in Winchester, one objector wrote about a visit from an Anglican chaplain, who told him, “Christ would have spat in your face”.’
There were objectors too in the US, Germany and Italy. Yet for the Christian American, when the US joined the war it was seen as an act of divine intervention and the nay-sayers were proportionately fewer.
Although the US brought in an Act allowing conscription in 1917, the sentiment of a country once caught up in revivals was that fighting a Just War was part of a man’s God-given calling.
Jonathan Ebel, professor of religion at the University of Illinois, said Christianity played a ‘pivotal’ part in sending young men to France. In his book, Faith in the fight: religion and the American soldier in the Great War, Prof. Ebel said people found the war to be ‘religiously meaningful, despite its unimaginable horrors’.
Military recruiters went to ‘tent revivals’ looking for volunteers, while Stars and Stripes cartoons ‘purported the Christ-like nature of the Allied Forces, to accounts of infantrymen wryly decorating their gas masks with lines from hymns, such as “I need thee, Oh! I need thee, every hour I need thee”.’
Prof. Ebel added: ‘Without the powerful influence of Christianity, America’s involvement in the war is hard to imagine’.
Minds were changed either way as the war ran its devastating course. And the issues then at stake still face Christians today: how to balance the sanctity of human life with the state’s God-given right to wield ‘the sword’ in certain extreme circumstances (Romans 13:1-5), and the complex question of what constitutes a ‘Just War’.
In this more ‘tolerant’ age, Christians find the greatest intolerance is now reserved for those who adhere to biblical principle — witness Mr Paxman’s language. If we disagree with one another about taking up arms for the state, we need to remember Paul’s question: ‘Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls’ (Romans 14:4).
However eccentric or misguided in biblical application some conscientious objectors were, they were certainly not wrong to long for a peaceful way of resolving disagreements between nations, even in a fallen world.