The first Sunday after the Armistice was Sunday, 17 November 1918. On the day, religious services focused on the War’s end and the promise of peace.
Protestant services on the day
The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 20/11/18 published a detailed account of the services under the headline: Thanksgiving Sunday. Crowded Churches. It led with,
In the district churches on Sunday the voice of the people was raised in thanksgiving to Almighty God for deliverance from our enemies … .
The paper’s account first covered the Church of England service taken by Rev M G Opper. Rev Melchior George Opper had only taken over the ministry from Rev Raymond in October 1918. Opper described how he intended to … give thanks to God for the mighty victories recently granted to the Allies in Palestine, Turkey, Austria, France, and for the ending of hostilities after four years of war. His second task was to … commemorate those who had made the supreme sacrifice, and to remember the bereaved.
For Opper and his congregation, there was no doubt that God had intervened on the side of the Allies. God had done so because the Allies had been … confronted by an explosion of evil. Evil was ‘rampant’. But God, as the … moral Governor of the universe… had intervened and the Allies had become … instruments in the hands of our God to save the world from the rule of a cruel, despotic foe. At the start of the War, people’s faith had been tested. As Opper said on the day, God seemed silent or powerless. But, in the end, people’s faith was ‘quickened’. Also, in the end, people saw that the War, as a time of hardship and challenge … had meaning in the world’s history. The hand of God was there.
There were also all the common references to Belgium, the Lusitania and ‘all the barbarisms’ committed by Germany.
As well as arguing that God had played a benevolent and guiding hand in the outcome, Opper also cited 3 specific occasions when he considered that God had intervened directly to change the course of the War. Without further explanation or justification, the three he gave were: ‘the retreat from Mons’, ‘the first stoppage at the gates of Paris’ and ‘the evacuation of Gallipoli’.
Opper’s religious allusions to the sacrifice of the dead were by then commonplace: the sacrifice of the men was in the spirit of Christ’s own sacrifice; theirs was the ‘noble’ and ’supreme’ sacrifice; they sacrificed themselves for others – ‘us’ – willingly; and their parents were resigned to the sacrifice. To our ears, 100 years on, it might sound like religious saccharine but for many the following would have been intensely reassuring:
Their memory is fragrant because counting the cost they offered themselves willingly, though it meant hardship, suffering, death for them. We praise God for their noble lives. We thank God for the women who gave them up, who though they rejoice with us today do so with tears in their eyes… .
Rev Walklate’s sermon to his Methodist congregation that Sunday was more nuanced. Certainly, he too was keen to offer the mandatory … expression of trust and thankfulness to God for triumph over our enemies. But he wanted his congregation to consider the tragedy of Germany in more detail, as opposed to focusing on merely the triumph of Britain and the Allies. Rhetorically, he asked his congregation to consider Germany’s predicament:
We must not forget that today millions of German people are gathering in their respective churches questioning their hearts for the reason why their prayers have been unanswered.
He noted that the Germans were very religious. In fact, he was quick to add that, as a nation, they appeared to be far more religious than Australians. As previously stated, one of Walklate’s most common wartime themes covered the religious indifference or negligence of Australians. On this occasion he noted, again, that in Australia … the spirit of public recognition of God and individual prayer has been sadly lacking. Walklate had seen the War as the nation’s chance to turn back to God. He was constantly disappointed.
Yet for all their prayers, Walklate noted that God had not listened to the Germans. Instead he had favoured the Allies, including the doubtful Australians. Walklate continued with the answer to his rhetorical ‘why?’.
Nevertheless, God has not heard their [the Germans] large cry, but has responded to the plea of our faithful few. We must ask ourselves why this is. Briefly it lies in the distinction between German and British righteousness.
In terms of what he described as ‘righteousness’, Walklate then proceeded to give an outline of German greatness, in fields such as in science, industry, education and the economy. The Germans had been able to solve ‘great social questions’. They were a ‘largely clean-living people’. ‘Physically and morally the Germans held their place… .’ The British way, on the other hand, was described as ‘muddling through’.
Walklate then resolved his rhetorical wonder with the claim that the British political system was inherently more powerful and its underpinning values more closely matched the Christian ideal:
Germany sacrificed the principle of individuality to that of national greatness. The individual only counted in so far as he helped to national efficiency. In Britain we count (the) individual and each personality as supreme. The value of each individual for his or her own sake makes for greater possibilities in our British righteousness than the German system. Christ died for the individual, and the redemption of the world lies in and through the individual.
The argument was more sophisticated than usual: the British (liberal) political tradition with its focus on the minimisation of government control over the individual, closely matched the Christian preoccupation of the fundamental relationship between God and the individual, and particularly the Protestant commitment to keep this relationship ‘pure’ and free from the corrupting influence of a formal (Roman) church. The same tradition served as a natural defence against the rise of the autocratic state – or the form of military despotism – that Germany had become. It was as if Walklate was talking up the value of a Christian (Protestant) theocracy.
Walklate also argued that Germany had been deceived by the sham prosperity that their political system – ‘military autocracy’ – had won for them before the War. However, he was quick to add that this idea of prosperity threatened all nations, including Australia:
The menace of the world to-day, and Australia in particular, is the confusion of prosperity with righteousness.
In fact, it was obvious that Walklate wanted to use the fate of Germany to drive home his message on the peril of pursuing the form of righteousness that equated to mere prosperity or a comfortable life:
You people who foregather in churches are not disturbed by the menaces of social evil, the liquor traffic, impure literature, Bolshevism and political crises so long as you enjoy three meals and a bed secure day by day. But our peril is that of Germany. Decent living Germans by the million are paying the penalty of a handful. The people always pay the price of their rulers’ iniquities. The individual must make himself responsible for his nation’s righteousness.
He even appeared to suggest that God had deliberately unleashed the War on the world to show man what truly mattered:
To me God has used this war to destroy the world’s surplus wealth, which was a barrier ever growing between man and God. In the levelled circumstances (of the) reduced wealth of the people, with clearer eyes we shall be able to see our national faults [drink, ‘impurity’, gambling etc], and remove them.
As argued, Walklate’s sermon was more nuanced than that delivered by Opper but both certainly had God intervening on the side of the Allies against the greater evil of Germany. The Allies had won because their moral cause was superior. God had made Good triumph over Evil.
The Allied victory also reinforced the correctness of the local Protestant clergy’s support of the War effort over the past 4 + years. Numerous previous posts have shown how the local Protestant clergy over the period of the War – particularly Rev George Cox and Rev Arthur Rufus Raymond (Church of England), Rev Cyril Walklate (Methodist) and Rev Francis A Tamagno (Presbyterian) – provided the local community with an ongoing narrative of the War which called for uncompromised loyalty to the Empire and presented the conflict as a clash of cultures and civilisation. They preached the lessons of patriotic duty, Christian sacrifice and Imperial destiny. They actively promoted recruiting and served on local recruiting committees. They supported Belgium Relief. They backed conscription and publicly campaigned for the Yes vote, again serving on local committees. They supported PM Hughes and the Nationalists. They spoke frequently at the local state schools on Empire and duty. They also spoke at formal farewells and welcomes home for soldiers. They all called for greater religious piety, purity and sacrifice in the cause of the War. They could now share in the victory.
Catholic services on the day
While the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – gave significant coverage to the Protestant celebration of the the end of hostilities, the (Roman) Catholic service(s) went unrecorded. Certainly, the local paper always gave greater coverage to Protestant services, particularly when the various Protestant congregations combined for joint services, but it is significant that there was no report at all of any Catholic (thanksgiving) service to mark the end of the War. Certainly, the occasion would have been marked by the local Catholic community with, at the very least, a requiem mass for those killed.
At the same time, it is possible to gain some impression of how Catholics viewed the end of the War by looking at the equivalent services held in Melbourne on the same weekend. Moreover, the significant sermon on that Sunday was preached by Bishop Phelan, Bishop of Gippsland (Sale). The weekend’s events were reported, in detail, in the Advocate on 23/11/18. They were also reported in The Tribune on 21/11/18. In terms of more mainstream papers, there was the briefest of reports on the Catholic services at St. Patricks in The Herald on Monday 18/11/18 and a longer account in The Age on the same day. The account in The Age was neutral in tone and did not touch on the more contentious aspects of Phelan’s sermon.
On the Sunday (17/11/18), ‘solemn high mass’ was sung at St Patrick’s Cathedral at 11.00am. Archbishop Mannix presided. The congregation was described as ‘an immense assemblage’. That evening there was another service ‘in connection with the cessation of hostilities’ and, again, Mannix presided. The cathedral was described as ‘densely crowded’. This was the service where the sermon was delivered by ‘His Lordship the Bishop of Sale (Most Rev. Dr. Phelan).’ On the next day (Monday 18/11/18) there was further … Solemn Requiem Mass … for the Australian soldiers who have fallen in the war.
Mannix’s sermon was covered in the article in The Age (18/11/18). It was definitely not triumphant in tone. He despaired at the folly of ‘man’ and the destruction he had brought to the world. He declared that … God had to build up again from out the wrecks that man had made. He blasted nations and kings and their … lust for power, for domination and for trade. He certainly did not see the point in glorifying the War. He was not preaching to comfort the victors:
Australia had given 55,000 of its manhood in the awful slaughter, and it was cruel to talk to the mothers and fathers of the dead of the glories of war. They hear too much of the victories and the glories that war could give; of the slaughter of which mankind should be ashamed, and which was a disgrace to civilisation.
Mannix called for prayers so that … God would never again allow man to plunge the human race into such misery. The consolation he saw was that the coming peace conference might produce … a lasting peace and a consequent happiness that men had hitherto scarcely dreamt of. But even here he called for the ‘victors’ – not mentioned by name – to be ‘unselfish’ in their negotiations with ‘the defeated nations’.
Bishop Phelan’s sermon was even more remarkable than Mannix’s for its distance from the Protestant notion of ‘thanksgiving’. Apart from anything else, not once in his long sermon was there any reference, even a passing reference, to the existence of the British Empire or its triumph over the Hun. Nor was there any reference to the Nationalist Government or PM Hughes.
Phelan even had a different take on the cause of the War. Whereas the Protestant version most commonly focused on the ‘barbarity’ of the Germans – the outrages in Belgium, the sinking of the Lusitania etc – and the indisputable ‘duty’ of Britain and her Empire to challenge such ‘tyranny’, Phelan shifted the underlying cause back to the formation of the Triple Alliance (Italy, Germany and Austria) and then its counter, the Entente Cordiale (Russia, France and England). He spoke of how at the time, Pope Leo XIII had protested and warned against such treaties. Phelan noted that because of such treaties … When the Archduke of Austria was murdered the world was like a great magazine, which was ready to explode. Two mighty combinations had gathered powder, and occasion was taken of the death of the Archduke to declare war.
Phelan also felt the need to defend the actions of Pope Pius X and Benedict XV over the War years.
He then addressed what he saw as the claim that throughout the War the (Roman) Catholic Church had been ‘on the side of the enemy’. While the War had ended, there was obviously still a powerful sense of anger on the part of Catholics over the perceived way the Church had been attacked:
A crusade of calumny was raised against the Church during the time of war by lip-loyalists and sham patriots, who tried by every means to humiliate, malign and calumniate the Catholic Church. By a servile Press and from a hostile platform and pulpit, they were told that the Catholics in the world were on the side of the enemy and that they were not doing their duty.
Phelan did not offer a detailed rebuttal of the claim of Catholic perfidy but simply made the point that Marshal Foch, Supreme Allied Commander, who … represented the Allied forces in submitting the armistice terms to the enemy … was, in fact, … a loyal and devoted son of the Catholic Church. He also insisted that … Catholics had done their duty nobly and well in the war.
When Phelan turned his attention to Australia’s part in the War now concluded, at the same time as confirming the mythical status of the Anzac, he revisited arguments that had been used against conscription:
Considering our distance from the scene of action, and the difficulties of training and transhipping troops, Australia has supplied her full share, both in quality and quantity, of the forces that have won the world’s freedom. The heroism of the Australian soldiers in forcing the heights of Gallipoli, in the face of a withering storm of shot and shell, has shrouded their names in imperishable glory.
And let us ever remember that their gift of sacrifice or life was a free gift; no cruel law dragged them from their parents and friends. They realised that, dreadful as war is, other things are more dreadful – namely the triumph of despotism, the slavery of conscience, the ruin of country, the loss of national honour. And when such evils are impending war becomes lawful, and sometimes a duty.
The argument is finely balanced: one the one hand Australia (as Australia) was right in fighting the despotism of the (unnamed) enemy but it also correctly rejected conscription, as yet another form of tyranny. Australia’s involvement in the War was of a higher quality because its soldiers made the commitment voluntarily.
When he eulogised the … the fine body of young men who answered the nation’s call to arms, and left their country to face death … Phelan referred to either their love of or sense of duty towards their ‘nation’ or ‘country’ or ‘commonwealth’ or ‘native land’ – and he even referred to their sense of ‘national pride’ – but not once was there any reference to ‘Empire’ or ‘Mother Country’. In his view, the Australians had fought as Australians. They were Nationalists not Imperialists. And when he turned to literary allusions to describe the ‘fallen’, he cited a work that covered the American Civil War. There were to be no conventional Imperial allusions. For Phelan, the Empire was some false god of the Imperialists.
Arguably, the most striking feature of the sermon came when Phelan turned to the issue of the Australian dead.
In terms of Catholic Church doctrine, not all the (Catholic) Australians would have died in the ’state of grace’. Rather, they most likely died in the state of sin. As Phelan was reported as declaring in his sermon:
But to expect that the soul of every sin-stained child of Adam is fit for the immediate possession of God at the moment of death is to expect the unattainable in a world where sin prevails to such an alarming extent.
For the liberation (‘repose’) of such souls, the Church offered the power of prayer and the ‘sacrifice of the mass’ (Solemn Requiem Mass), through the agency of the priest. And Phelan called on the faithful to follow such ritual … for our gallant fellow-countrymen, without distinction, who fought and fell for us. And it was the role of the priest that Phelan was most keen to highlight. He wanted to draw attention to this role as the defining difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.
It might appear strange that Phelan used his sermon on the end of hostilities to focus on doctrinal disputes between Catholic and Protestant but, at the time, it was probably seen, at least by the Catholic congregation, as a justified counter to the the attacks on the Church. The particular dispute is worth additional scrutiny because it highlights the extraordinary animosity between Protestant and Catholic at the end of the War.
To prove his case, Phelan proceeded to relate a rather convoluted story, set in the ‘Middle Ages’, in which he, as a devout Catholic in desperate need of the absolution of his sins, via confession, faces for the choice of confessor either St Francis of Assisi – ‘the angelic St Francis’, ‘the seraph of Assisi’ – or Martin Luther. Unsurprisingly, in Phelan’s story Luther came across as an example of the ’dreaded Hun’ of the War
His heavy Teutonic features and repulsive looks reveal his character. He is a fallen priest, a rebel against God and the Church. He has dragged millions with him on the way to destruction.
However, the doctrinal twist in this case was that whereas St Francis was never ordained as a priest, Luther had been and he still retained the power, thorough confession, to absolve sin. So, in Phelan’s story, Luther is the only one who can help:
Hence in my distress, and having no choice, I pour out the sins of my life into the ear of that wicked man; and from him I beg absolution, and he says over me: “I absolve you from all your sins.” Within an hour my soul frees itself from its house of clay, and wings its flight to the gate of heaven.
The story itself is so contrived, at several levels, that it is easy to dismiss. However, the doctrinal implications that Phelan drew from his little lesson certainly could not be dismissed. They highlight for the modern reader the intensity of the divide between Protestant and Catholic. Phelan stated:
This war, which has revealed many truths, has manifested no truth so striking as the immense difference between the religion established on earth by Jesus Christ and that form of faith propounded by the reformers of the 16th century.
When a man in a dying condition is carried from the battle field, what little use is the Bible-reading clergyman, who has no power to absolve from sins. The utter bankruptcy of Protestantism to meet the wants of the dying and the dead has been exposed in all its nakedness during this war.
Bishop Phelan’s sermon that Thanksgiving Sunday was focused and highly crafted. It reflected profound doctrinal differences between Protestantism and (Roman) Catholicism. The sermon also reflected ongoing anger on the part of Catholics at the way they perceived they had been attacked over the years of the War. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, the sermon reflected careful political positioning on the part of the Catholic hierarchy – whereas Protestantism, as the religion of the Empire, continued to locate Australia’s experience of the War within the fundamental commitment to the British Empire, Catholicism was making a bid that the experience needed to be located solely within the context of the (Australian) Nation. One of the key conflicts associated with the history, legacy and ownership of the War was underway.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative