‘Australian Churches at War: Attitudes and Activities of the Major Churches 1914-1918’ by Michael McKernan

Independent Church Melbourne Vic.

Independent Church, Melbourne (now St Michaels). The Burke and Wills statue to the right of the church is in the middle of the intersection, its original location.. It’s a well-travelled statue. SLV image

Churches tend to sprout exhortations of “Peace!” especially at Christmas time, and it’s quite a jolt to read of the bellicose and jingoistic approach taken by the major Christian (and especially Protestant) churches during the First World War.  Michael McKernan’s book Australian Churches at War published in 1980, is based on his PhD thesis and is probably not easy to find today. However, there’s a (relatively) more recent transcript of an interview with McKernan on the now-defunct ABCRN program ‘The Religion Report’ that you might be interested in here.

The 1911 census which was the closest one to the outbreak of WWI showed that 98% of white Australians claimed to be Christians at the time. Only .24% of the population claimed to have ‘no religion’.  One of the immediate responses of the declaration of Australian’s ready involvement in WWI was a call to prayer, and to the churches the people flocked. What they heard there in those early weeks of war was to become the stance of the major Protestant churches throughout the war: the view that the war was God’s way of calling people to the churches for a moral awakening.

It is the argument of this study…that churchmen had synthesised war and Christianity so that support for the war effort became an act of high Christian virtue … churchmen accepted the war as part of God’s providence for the world; through sacrifice, suffering and devotion to duty men would be renewed, lifted to a higher, more thoroughly Christian plane. Their concern was not, primarily, for the welfare of the Empire; rather they hoped that war would transform Australian society. (Ch. 8)

It was this hope for moral transformation through sacrifice that brought the major churches to the forefront in encouraging enlistment, and later conscription.

The Catholic Church, at the start of the war, also encouraged enlistments amongst their parishioners in what they saw, along with the Protestant churches, as a ‘just war’, and as a way of proving their loyalty as part of Australian society.  During the first conscription referendum in October 1916, the Catholic Church hierarchy advised that it was a political matter, and one in which the church would not be involved.  Mannix, still under the authority of Archbishop Carr, spoke out only twice.  One was a three minute speech where after congratulating Prime Minister Hughes for allowing the referendum, he said that Australia had suffered enough. The other occasion was at a fete in Preston on 22 October, where he defended his right to speak, at a secular place, at a secular function and in his personal capacity. This, he said, contrasted with the Protestant laity who spoke from the pulpit, week after week.

However, Catholic opinion hardened against the war by the time of the second conscription referendum on 20 December 1917. This is generally attributed to the influence of the newly ordained Archbishop Mannix, and as a response to the Irish rebellion, but McKernan suggests an additional theological motivation. Once  the Allies had shifted from a position of checking Germany’s aggression to one of  jockeying for economic advantage by destroying Germany’s economy and industry, Mannix no longer considered it a ‘just war’. Moreover, Mannix was enormously popular amongst working-class Catholics, and the laity pushed the church into a stronger anti-war and anti-conscription position.

Chaplains were appointed in accordance with the religious affiliations reported in the 1911 Census. They only had to serve for one year, which gave them a different perspective to that of the troops they served. Some chaplains accompanied soldiers on the ‘voyage only’, others were embedded with ‘their men’, especially in Egypt.  Catholic chaplains maintained their focus on providing the sacrament by ensuring that there was a chaplain available at each point of an injured soldier’s progress through ambulance station and hospital.  Among Protestant chaplains, sectarian lines often became blurred, and instead of  insisting on ‘moral regeneration’ as was the stance ‘at home’, many chaplains came to realize a man, outwardly irreligious, could do good things. Such chaplains were welcomed by their troops and the army hierarchy: those who wanted to maintain the sectarian divisions that were rife back in Australia were given short shrift.

There were exceptions to this generally pro-war stance amongst Protestant churches, but not many.  One of them was Rev Leyton Richards, of the Collins Street Independent Church shown above, who argued for the role of conscience.  Congregationalists, a small number of Methodists, one or two Baptists, Rev Charles Strong from the Australian Church and Rev. F. Sinclaire from the Free Religious Fellowship were among those who spoke out.  The Unitarian congregation, from whom Sinclaire had split, was pro-war (a stance I did not expect).  McKernan notes that pacifists with an appeal to conscience won the tolerance and respect of their fellow-ministers, but not those whose opposition sprang from the political realm, outside the church.  They tended to be ostracized and demoted.

Even when peace was declared, the major Protestant churches had not moved on from the ‘moral regeneration’ stance that they had adopted during the first weeks of the war. The sectarian rigidities that had emerged during the war were to grow even firmer and last for the next fifty-odd years.

McKernan concludes his study thus:

It has been the argument of this book that clergymen never broke themselves clear of the events, never gave themselves the opportunity to see events in perspective so that they were ever reacting rather than acting. Their initial response to the war determined their position until peace was declared… In 1917 and 1918 Australian clergymen took no part in the growing worldwide discussion about a negotiated peace; instead they merely repeated their belief that peace would not come until the nation had reformed. And so they concentrated on reform, personal and national. They were always spectators of the course of the war, fussing with the side issues but refusing to come to terms with the main drama. (p 172-3)

It’s impossible to know, of course, how Christian churches would respond to a world war today, especially one where the ‘enemy’ was not Christian.  As Judith Smart has noted in relation to the pro-conscription women’s movement, it’s not particularly fashionable to look at the conservative, establishment view of WWI. Probably as a reflection of my own politics, while reading this book I found myself bristling at the patronizing moral stance of the major Protestant churches, and cheering those courageous enough to really grapple intellectually and spiritually with the question of war and peace. McKernan does us a service, however sobering, in highlighting just how rare this was.

2 responses to “‘Australian Churches at War: Attitudes and Activities of the Major Churches 1914-1918’ by Michael McKernan

  1. I had assumed the Catholics were anti British rather than anti war and hadn’t considered their large working class base. I must look into one day the extent of anti war feeling amongst writers. Miles Franklin was but she was in the US.

  2. Great post, Janine! In Brenda Niall’s bio of Mannix, she says that he brought (most of) the Irish Catholic vote with him in both referenda, but I don’t remember what she attributed this to…

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