The Great War of 1914-1918 emptied villages, towns and cities of their young men as they went to France to fight against the aggression of the German Kaiser. But what effect, if any, did this have on the nonconformist revivals that began a decade earlier?
The great revival of 1904 to 1905 in Wales, under the testimony and preaching of such men as Evan Roberts, resulted in more than 150,000 people professing conversion and being added to churches and chapels.
It is reported that, at the time, crime dropped to a record low; the number of illegitimate children fell to nearly zero, and pubs were emptied as church pews filled night after night. Just ten years later, these chapels were used to encourage these young men to take up arms, to fight in a ‘just war’ — a war that would ‘be over by Christmas’.
The late US preacher, Dr Edwin Orr, claimed that the Welsh revival had been maintained until 1914 — the outbreak of that war — and that its converts had been ‘the choicest segment of church life, even in the 1930s’.
Yet, by the 1930s, many of the men converted before 1914 lay dead in France or Belgium, while others who had once crowded into chapels became disillusioned by a church that had used the pulpit to encourage men to sign up, and now turned to modernist thinking or rampant secularism.
The Belfast-born C. S. Lewis, who fought in the Great War, had no doubt that this war was a waste. His memories of this time cemented his belief, until he later converted to Christianity, that there is no benevolent, loving God.
With numbers of Christian men dead or struggling with their faith, many nonconformist churches failed to recover their crowds or the missionary impetus the revivals had achieved. In Wales especially, chapels suffered a dearth of men training for the ministry. The fire and fervour of many revival preachers became tainted with modernist thinking and shifts in doctrinal stance.
Preacher and author Warren Wiersbe, quoted on the US-based Salina Bible Church website, wrote: ‘With its economically depressed economy over the decades, Wales has often sent its brightest, most able sons and daughters to other countries. Schoolteachers and college lecturers, pastors and professional workers have taken up good work in England, the US and other nations. One cannot estimate the impact of the revival purely on the basis of those left behind; though even on that scale, an immense amount of good was created.
‘Then, the Great War began in Europe in August 1914, decimating populations and destroying the flower of British manhood. Many potential leaders of churches were killed in the trenches, and Christianity in Britain never really recovered from that devastation’.
Former pastor John Field is to give a paper in September at the Kent Evangelical Ministers’ Fraternal on the subject of nonconformity and the effects of the Great War.
He says, ‘The legacy of the Great War had long-lasting effects on the nation as a whole, including the nonconformist churches. There were several areas affected by the war, including numbers in church attendance, social concern, modernism, the rise of feminism and a general loss of authority’.
And with so many men, fathers, husbands and sons having been conscripted or volunteering, it was ‘obvious that there would be far fewer men in the churches. For probably 100 years before the war the UK had been Christianised, but not Christian, and now the veneer would shortly be stripped off’. A ‘considerable number of the volunteers were nonconformists, who were frequently given directions to join up from the pulpit.
‘Nonconformist churches lost the best of an entire generation and, not infrequently, those who returned from the war could not face church attendance. Hence, from the start of the war and afterwards, most churches suffered a great decline in male attendees’.
However, despite these negative effects, many Christian men who did go into the trenches took with them a Christianity that infected their fellow soldiers.
In a recent article in the Evangelical Movement of Wales’ Evangelical Magazine, Meira Evans spoke of her father, Meirion Davies, who was converted in Bala in 1904 during the revival.
When the war broke out, he signed up to join the Royal Engineers, and was employed destroying bridges to prevent the German advance and constructing others to assist the Allies.
During one destructive mission, with shells exploding around him, Mr Davies was so filled with the presence of God that he was able to continue his work calmly. Meira said, ‘For his coolness under fire, he was awarded the Military Medal in 1918’.
She wrote: ‘It was my father’s practice to kneel by his bedside in the barracks, irrespective of the presence of other soldiers. At first they threw boots and other things at him, but with no effect. Eventually this stopped, and others joined him on their knees’.
When hiking through Bala one year, the author came across a turn-of-the-last-century chapel set in woodland, with saplings growing around it. There was no discernible path and the windows were nearly covered over with ivy.
Peering through, I saw pews, as if recently abandoned, with hard-backed hymnals set down in a patina of dust. The numbers of the last hymns sung were still displayed on the wooden hymn board.
Would that chapels and churches were filled again with worshipping men, women and children, as God visits his church in Britain again with great blessing!