Monthly Archives: November 2014

16. Righteous war and religious renewal, September-October 1914

The last post examined how the narrative covering the invasion and occupation of Belgium dominated newspapers from August 1914 and was used to prove to readers that the Empire’s declaration of war with Germany had been justified. This post pursues the theme of the righteousness of the Empire’s position by looking at the unqualified support offered by the Church. While there was broad support from all faiths, including (Roman) Catholicism, it was the Protestant Churches that took on, and were expected to take on, the formal role of justifying the Empire’s involvement. It was Protestantism that presented itself as the religion of the Empire.This arrangement was reflected at the local level in Alberton Shire where the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, during August and September 1914, devoted considerable copy to pronouncements made by clergy from both the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church.

On 4 September (p.2) the local paper published the pastoral letter from the Church of England Bishops of Victoria that outlined the Christian response to the War. This was followed immediately by the sermon delivered by Rev. George Cox of Yarram on the same theme. Neither the pastoral letter nor the sermon expressed any doubt about the righteousness of the Empire’s position. There were numerous references to ‘imperial duty’ and the ‘justice of the Empire’s cause’. The basic line was that the Empire, because of what it was, had to be supported: The Empire, which is the home of freeborn citizens and fosters throughout the world the spirit of righteousness, calls for our help. The enemy, by contrast, was driven by …the spirit of aggressive military despotism.

While there was absolute conviction in the righteousness of the cause and total determination to support the Empire there was also a sombre tone. In the pastoral letter, the bishops called for a Christian response to the fighting:

The time of war is a challenge to the Christian Church to use her faith and influence to the uttermost extent, so as to minimise the evils of war and render assistance to its victims. … We trust that the clergy will, in their sermons, never forget how unfitting is all boastfulness of power or pride. … we cannot forget the untold misery which, from the very first, must accompany this great conflict of nations.

For his part, the prescient Rev. Cox was clearly challenged by the apparent incomprehensibility of the situation:

When we consider that the nations now engaged in this awful strife are the foremost in civilisation, enlightenment and religion; when we realise that both sides claim that their forces are engaged as the instruments of God for the overthrow of the other; when we think of all the fiendish inventions of mankind that are being used in the slaughter of his fellow-man in the cause of righteousness; when we ponder upon the untold and unthinkable suffering and misery and wretchedness and waste which the whole civilised world will be called upon to face for many a year, we may well stand appalled.

For Cox, the fundamental dilemma of two Christian nations going to war against each other was resolved by the conviction that one of them – Germany – while still claiming to be Christian, had in fact betrayed the very principles of Christianity:

Christianity stands for three things, amongst others – righteousness, justice and truth. But a great and powerful nation, professedly Christian, has substituted in place of righteousness military despotism, for justice arrogance, and for truth hypocrisy and blasphemy.

Importantly, both the pastoral letter and Cox’s sermon called for religious renewal. The view was that at such a time of crisis people had to turn again to God in prayer, and renew their religious life. For the Empire to prevail everyone had to take their religious obligations more seriously. As the bishops put it, penitence was the moral order of the day:

To all, in every Parish of the Province, we make our solemn appeal for repentance from past sins and for a whole-hearted surrender of our lives to the care and providence of the Eternal Father, through our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Cox gave a practical illustration of just how skewed people’s current priorities had become, and how far they had strayed from God’s true path and were testing His goodness. Cox noted:

How little we, as a nation, recognise this duty [our duty to God] so far may be judged by a comparison of the attendances at our football matches and the interests taken in them, and the attendance to our churches, and the recognition of our duty of praying for our troops.

Football was being set up to become the whipping boy of WW1.

This call for religious renewal was to take two very important directions over the course of WW1. One was the conviction that the War called for a moral as much as a military response, and that long-term social causes such as temperance had to be pursued with renewed vigour. Australian society had to become more religious, more morally pure and less vulgar. Hopefully, the defence of the Empire and the attendant turning to God could be employed to force people to confront the spiritual poverty of their lives. The other direction, even more extreme, was the attempt to portray those who answered the call of the Empire as, literally, soldiers of Christ. This latter direction was always going to be a big ask with the AIF but, as we will see in future posts, clergymen like Cox certainly did pursue it. Cox certainly saw his own enlistment as an extension of his Christian life.

Like the Rev. Cox, the Rev. F Tamagno of the local Presbyterian church was another Protestant preacher who had sermons published in the local paper at this time. His first sermon was reproduced on 4 September 1914 (p.2). As was common at the time, he employed the text, Render unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.The conventional treatment of this text highlighted the difference between duty owed to the divine as opposed to any temporal power. However, in Tamagno’s sermon there could be no conflict and therefore patriotism and religion were fused in the interests of the Empire. For Tamagno, it was inconceivable that the British King could ever be an unbelieving, despotic Caesar. Nor could the glorious history  and achievements of the Empire ever be challenged. There was therefore no conflict of duty and the Empire was in the right:

Patriotism is upon our lips. Once more in the history of our Empire, and its King, we are being called upon to manifest that spirit of patriotism, so characteristic of our race. We all realise how momentous shall be issues of this war of the nations. It will not do for us to lean upon our forces only, but upon God. I believe that at heart our Empire and King are depending upon God for an honorable and triumphant victory. The nation that tries to conquer Britain, has before it a Herculean task – so great and so bloody, that one would think that Germany, even now would pause, and honorably decide to go no further. Tennyson has well said – “This England never did, and never shall, lie at the proud foot of a conqueror.” The stirring memories of our past are sufficient to awaken throughout our Empire that spirit of indomitable courage so characteristics of Britishers. The path by which we have come has been stained with the blood of heroes and heroines. We hoped that the nations had learnt to settle international disputes no longer by trained brute force, but by the calm and light of reason. Our Empire’s duty is plain; our conscience is clear; out hands are clear of the blood of thousands.

It is also interesting to note Tamagno’s Empire-centric view of the War. World events were only seen through the filter of the British Empire and so for him the War was fundamentally a conflict between the British Empire and Germany. The reality, particularly at that point, in the first few months of the War, was that the conflict was decidedly a European one, and British involvement in this unprecedented European upheaval, at this stage at least, was only an expeditionary force.

Tamagno also saw the potential of the War to turn people back to God. In a sermon reported in the local paper on 7 October 1914 (p. 4) he made much of the recent reports of how the French – infamous for their hardline separation of Church and State, secularist tendencies and socially radical intellectual tradition – were turning back to God: They are becoming devout once again, filling the church, and valuing the ordinances of the religious life.

For all the sermons – set within the particular theological boundaries imposed by the British Empire – on the righteousness of the Allies’ cause in WW1, there was much additional evidence published in the press that pointed to German guilt and perfidy. As indicated in the last post, the brutal invasion of Belgium, and the subsequent repression and exploitation, certainly made it easier to promote the righteousness of the Empire’s stance and convince people that this was a conflict between forces of good and evil. This was a dominant narrative in the local press. At the same time, there was also a wealth of contemporary German political writing that could easily be employed to cast that nation as the aggressor. In the sermons of both Cox and Tamagno referred to above, references to the spirit of aggressive military despotism and trained brute force were code for what was seen as incontrovertible proof of German militarism. The commonly held view was that by the early twentieth century  Germany had created a new form of political state and civil society, committed to the ruthless and scientific application of military power to achieve political ends. It had become a military state. Proof for views such as these was there in abundance. For example, in the local paper on 28 August 1914 (p.6) under the headline, Modern German Ethics. Bernhardi’s Famous Chapter. A Cry For Bloodshed readers were treated to an extensive extract from General Friedrich von Bernhardi’s book Germany and the Next War (1911). The text had been published widely and well publicised. People reading the material published in the local paper would have learned that Germany, far from being reluctant to go to war actually saw war as a scientific necessity and moral duty:

War is a biological necessity of the first importance, a regulative element in the life of mankind which cannot be dispensed with, since without it an unhealthy development will follow, which excludes every advancement of the race, and therefore all real civilisation. “War is the father of all things.” The sages of antiquity long before Darwin recognised this.

Without war, inferior or decaying races would easily choke the growth of healthy budding elements, and a universal decadence would follow.

They would also have read of Germany’s determination, and assumed right, to acquire new territories. Ironically, there was nothing here that British Imperialists could have faulted:

Strong, healthy and flourishing nations increase in numbers. From a given moment they require a continual expansion of their frontiers, they require new territory for the accommodation of their surplus population. Since almost every part of the globe is inhabited, new territory must, as a rule, be obtained at the cost of its possessors, which thus becomes a law of necessity.

War, they were also informed, served to replenish and renew:

All petty and personal interests force their way to the front during long periods of peace. Selfishness and intrigue run riot, and luxury obliterates idealism. … Wars are terrible, but necessary, for they save the State from social petrification and stagnation.

They would have also picked up that Germany had no commitment to international bodies set up to promote world peace, and was inherently suspicious of nations, such as the United States, that promoted this approach.

The German position even presented Christianity itself as a religion that promoted war: Christ himself said: “I am not come to send peace on earth but a sword.” His teaching can never be adduced as an argument against the universal law of struggle.

‘National character’ and ‘military tradition’ had to come together to create the optimum society, one geared for war.

Overall, readers would have been confronted with the inescapable reality that Germany was committed to war:

Reflection thus shows not only that war is an unqualified necessity, but that it is justifiable from every point of view.

Taken at face value, all such claims – made within the formal context of German military and strategic planning, and reflective of Germany’s determination to assert its rightful position in Europe and the World – could not but cast Germany as a ruthless, aggressive and almost super-human foe.

For those reading newspapers and going to church over the first few months of the War there would have been little doubt that the very existence of the British Empire was threatened. Fortunately, God was most definitely on the side of the Empire; even if He was calling for significant religious renewal.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative