It was a war that was not supposed to happen. Growing tensions in Europe were obvious, but recent develop- ments in international arbitration had fuelled hopes
that differences between imperial powers could be resolved peacefully.
A hundred years ago, Canadians entered the summer
with little inkling of the utter disaster looming just over
the horizon, and were unprepared when they found themselves at war on August 4, 1914. Armageddon had arrived.
The war in Europe rapidly militarized all aspects of
Canadian life as “total war” became a grim reality. The
Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) grew to be a potent
fighting force. Canada eventually sent close to 620,000
troops (roughly 8 per cent of the Canadian population)
and experienced 60,000 dead and 173,000 injured.
In one month alone at the Battle of Passchendaele the
CEF suffered 15,000 casualties. The overall cost of human
life for all combatants during the entire war was staggering – over 8 million dead and 21 million wounded – out
of 65 million mobilized.
No aspect of Canadian life was untouched by the war.
Churches were no exception. The war eventually impinged on every facet of church life related to identity,
ministry and aspirations.
As for identity, those who supported the war had no
need to prove to anyone they were “true” Canadians. Most
Evangelicals took pride in their loyalty to nation and empire. Conscientious objectors such as Quakers and Mennonites, or those who opposed conscription such as French
Catholics, faced derision, violence or even arrest for their
alleged lack of patriotism. German Lutherans encountered
hostility even when they supported the war effort.
Regarding ministry, there was no escaping the seemingly insatiable demands of total war. Pastoral responsibilities
to soldiers and their families swelled as the war dragged
on and the casualty list grew longer. The shortage of men
for leadership put myriad stresses on local parishes and
seminaries, and the theological issues raised by a God who
allowed such horrors to continue year after year gnawed
at faith in a benevolent God.
As for aspirations, the war’s supporters believed the war
evangelicals played a key role in the
Great War. What have we learned in the
hundred years that have passed?
to be fought for high ideals such as righteousness, freedom,
civilization and an end to the genocide of Armenian Christians. While there were excesses – such as recruitment from
pulpits, the language of holy war, and even jingoistic support for empire [thinking your own country is always right
and agreeing to aggressive acts against other countries] – the
churches’ support was just as often nuanced and critical,
shaped by either the classic just war paradigm of just cause
(jus ad bellum) and just means (jus in bello) or pacifism’s
outright rejection of violence. Many anticipated that the
sacrifice of sons and wealth would lead to a renewed and
reinvigorated Christianity and nation, and the “war to end
all wars” would usher in a new world order.
The war failed to revive faith. International peace was
also elusive, with civil war and military conflicts continuing unabated into the 1920s. Canada’s last known veteran
of the war John Babcock died in 2010 without ever seeing
the much-touted promise of a new world order.
Almost every conflict in the 20th century can be traced
back to the Great War. The secularization of the West and
demise of Christendom was accelerated by the catastrophe.
Despite the horrendous impact of the war, there is hope
that a century later we have learned a few lessons from
what was often portrayed as Armageddon. At the risk of
appearing to be a Pollyanna, there have been a few encouraging developments in that regard.
First, the move to the margins of Canadian life has
meant churches are freer to criticize. They have become
less trusting of politicians when it comes to war, and act
more as prophets who hold governments to account than
priests who bless.
Second, Christians on both sides of the war and peace
debate seem to be kinder to one another, a virtue not
always exhibited during the war. Pacifists have allowed
for expressions of remembering and honouring during
Remembrance Day services on November 11. Just war
proponents have come to see pacifists not as cowards or
unpatriotic, but fellow Christ followers who differ when
it comes to applying the Sermon on the Mount.
Finally, the idea of a warless world ushered in by mil-
itary victory seems to be a thing of the past. Certainly the
Great War should teach us the futility of that expectation.
It is still deemed okay to hope for a new world order – but
one ushered in not by bombs and bullets, but by the return
of the Prince of Peace. FT
gORDOn L. HeATH is associate professor of Christian
history at McMaster Divinity College, and is editor of
the recently published Canadian Churches and
the First World War (Pickwick, 2014).
HistoryLesson n BY GORDOn L. heATh