Religious Opposition to World War I

2014
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Religious Opposition to World War I

A few isolated individuals voiced their religious opposition to the war and the issue of conscription. With the exception of a small number of Quakers who opposed conscription as trampling on the inalienable right of freedom of conscience, and a few Independents and Methodists, the Protestant churches whole-heartedly supported the war and the conduct of the government. According to Leslie Jauncey, 'From the commencement of the war, pulpits became draped with the Union Jack and it was difficult at times to distinguish much difference between sermons and calls for recruits.' [1] Writing in 1915 the Reverend W H Beale deplored the attitude of the churches. He noted:

That conception and ideal of peace which has been clothed and garlanded in the Christian thought with every fantasy of attractiveness and beauty has been so completely thrust into the background that, by almost common consent, it is now held to be untimely, if not unpatriotic and disloyal, for even Christian teachers to sound its praises, bemoan its absence or insist upon efforts for its restoration. The pulpit has become as belligerent as the press, with the added blemish that war is being justified and apologised for in terms of religion and morals, at the peril of inducing that most fatal condition of moral obliquity when men call evil good and good evil. [2]

While the Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne took a decided and fulsome stance against conscription, most of the leaders of the Catholic Church either supported it (such as Archbishop Kelly in Sydney) or remained mostly silent. [3] Reflecting back in 1921, Marian Fleming Harwood was another who was fiercely critical of the churches attitude to the war during the years of turbulent conflict. Of their quiescence on the subject of Christian peace she noted:

…though the clergy always pray 'Give peace in our time, O Lord', as a rule they refrain from preaching much about it, and during the war left the 'Sermon on the Mount' severely alone. The few who ventured to do otherwise ran the risk of losing their pulpits, as some of them actually did. [4]

Some individual religious men did indeed suffer for their faith. Bernard Linden Webb was one such pacifist Christian minister. Born in Bathurst in 1884 he graduated from the University of Sydney before studying for the ministry at Newington College. During the war he was the Methodist minister at Hay in southern New South Wales. In 1915 he preached three lengthy sermons on the topic of Christian pacifism and later published them as a pamphlet entitled, The Religious Significance of War. [5] The small congregation at Hay accepted his pacifist sermons throughout 1915 until some members of the church committee began to disagree with his 'idealistic' and 'impractical' views. The dispute resolved but in October 1916 Webb felt morally compelled to resign because his pacifist ideals 'were not those accepted by the Methodist Church as a whole, and therefore he felt he could not consistently remain a paid agent of the Church'. [6]

In Sydney, the Congregationalist and champion of the underprivileged, Albert Rivett, also espoused the pacifist cause. He edited a religious monthly, The Federal Independent, which was both pacifist and anti-conscriptionist. He was a prominent member of the Peace Society of New South Wales and also a popular and regular speaker in the Sydney Domain. [7] Like Webb, his growing differences with church officials over his attitude to World War I meant that he resigned from the Whitefield Congregational Church in Sydney in 1915. For the next two years he was a trenchant and vocal critic of conscription and after the war remained an active member of the Peace Society of New South Wales and the Australian Peace Alliance. [8]

Other clerics who spoke of peace and against the war in their church sermons were prosecuted under the Wartime Precautions Act. In June 1918 the Reverend Thomas Bede Roseby, Congregational minister at Orange, New South Wales, caused a riot at his own church. [9] Roseby was a well-known pacifist and anti-conscriptionist and had 'caused much stir in the community' during the referendum debates with his call for an immediate armistice. [10] Both on street corners and inside his church he preached this message. On 5 June 1918 he refused to stand, take off his hat and sing the national anthem during a church service; he was attacked by a number of returned soldiers together with some members of his congregation who still had family members at the front. [11] Considerable damage was caused to his church and in August he was found guilty on three counts and fined under the War Precautions Act. He was not charged with disloyalty but rather (somewhat vaguely) was 'liable to the same penalty as if he had done something likely to cause disaffection or made disloyal utterances'. [12] Roseby, like Webb and Rivett before him, refused to march to the 'patriotic' church drum and he tendered his resignation soon after instead. In a final ironic incident, a few weeks after the riot in his church, a Labour meeting was held at the Oddfellows Hall in Orange. The topic of the evening was 'Freedom of Speech.' The owners of the hall agreed to lease the building out only on the condition that Roseby not be permitted to address the audience. [13]

Social divisions

The intemperate, intolerant and often vitriolic reaction to words or deeds deemed 'unpatriotic', disloyal, pro-German or remotely pacifist, seems rather extreme today. But the deep divisions within society at this time, and the strain of the war, meant that these were certainly not the polite days of the earlier Victorian and Edwardian eras. That a religious minister might be assaulted in his own church was a very real possibility.

During the weeks leading up to the conscription referendums in October 1916 and December 1917, polite and civil conventions were regularly flouted. Campaigns were bitter and volatile episodes between 'pros' and 'anti's' divided into 'rancorously hostile groups'. [14] At fiery meetings in Sydney, speakers in the Domain and elsewhere were confronted with violence and riots; eggs were regularly thrown, platforms and banners pulled down, brawls, fisticuffs and 'a good pummelling' were increasingly used and effigies of the Prime Minister were also burnt. [15]

Within the wider community, Protestant-Catholic sectarianism was rife. Australia's Irish Catholics were utterly outraged by the British Government's brutal and deplorable suppression of the 1916 Easter rebellion in Dublin that had shown to the world 'the ugly side of British Imperialism'. [16] Yet this only led to confirming Protestants' suspicions and doubts over the loyalty and patriotism of Australian Catholics, 'a dangerous situation as they comprised nearly a quarter of the community.' [17]

As the war progressed and war-weariness set in, Sydney found itself very much divided and conflicted over both the war and the conditions of the home front.

References

John Barrett, Falling In: Australians and 'Boy Conscription' 19111915 (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1979)

Joan Beaumont, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 2013)

James Bennett, Rats and Revolutionaries: The Labour Movement in Australia and New Zealand 18901940 (Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago Press, 2004)

Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee (eds), Staining the Wattle: A People's History of Australia since 1788 (Fitzroy, Vic: McPhee Gribble, 1988)

Frank Cain, The Wobblies at War: A History of the IWW and the Great War in Australia (Victoria: Spectrum Publications, 1993)

Charles Manning Hope Clark, New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, vol 6, A History of Australia (London; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Joy Damousi and Marilyn Lake (eds) Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, UK; New York; Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Eric Fry (ed), Rebels and Radicals (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1983)

Mrs Septimus Harwood, 'The Peace Society: Its Origins, Work, Difficulties and Mistakes' (paper read at the 14th Annual Meeting of the Peace Society, NSW Branch, Royal Society Hall, Elizabeth Street, Sydney December 13, 1921)

John F Hill, 'Vigour', Child Conscription, Our Country's Shame (Adelaide: Burmeister and Co, 1912)

Leslie Cyril Jauncey, The Story of Conscription in Australia (London: Allen and Unwin, 1935; reissued Melbourne: MacMillan, 1968)

Marilyn Lake, Mark McKenna and Henry Reynolds, What's Wrong With Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2010)

Michael McKernan, Australian Churches at War: Attitudes and Activities of the Major Churches 19141918 (Sydney and Canberra: Catholic Theological Faculty and Australian War Memorial, 1980)

Michael McKernan, The Australian People and the Great War (Sydney: Collins, 1980)

Eleanor M Moore, The Quest for Peace: As I Have Known It In Australia (Melbourne: Wilke and Co Ltd, 1948–49)

The Peace Society, Pax: The Monthly Organ of the Peace Society

Australian Workers' Union, The Worker

Sydney Labour History Group, What Rough Beast? The State and Social Order in Australian History (North Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1982)

Notes

[1] Leslie Cyril Jauncey, The Story of Conscription in Australia (London: Allen and Unwin, 1935; reissued Melbourne: MacMillan, 1968) 204. Likewise, in his study Australian Churches at War, Michael McKernan seriously criticised the churches for their lack of moral and spiritual leadership. By blindly following 'the politicians and imperial loyalists…clergymen added to the rhetoric of hysteria when they might have helped to control it'. Michael McKernan, Australian Churches at War: Attitudes and Activities of the Major Churches 1914–1918 (Sydney and Canberra: Catholic Theological Faculty and Australian War Memorial, 1980), 172

[2] William Henry Beale, 'Foreword' in Brendan Linden Webb, The Religious Significance of War (Sydney: Christian World, 1915), 3

[3] See Joan Beaumont, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 2013), 380–82; James Griffin, 'Mannix, Daniel (1864–1963),' Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mannix-daniel-7478/text13033, published in hardcopy 1986, viewed 27 February 2014

[4] Mrs Septimus Harwood, 'The Peace Society: Its Origins, Work, Difficulties and Mistakes' (paper read at the 14th Annual Meeting of the Peace Society, NSW Branch, Royal Society Hall, Elizabeth Street, Sydney December 13, 1921): 5

[5] At the council meeting of the Peace Society in June 1915, a donation of £5 was given from the funds of the Society to the Reverend William Beale for the purchase and distribution of Webb's pamphlet. Marian Harwood also bought 100 copies for private distribution to Europe and America. Pax: The Monthly Organ of the Peace Society 35 (15 July, 1915): 21

[6] Michael McKernan, Australian Churches at War: Attitudes and Activities of the Major Churches 1914–1918 (Sydney and Canberra: Catholic Theological Faculty and Australian War Memorial, 1980), 147

[7] As with Rose Scott, Rivett often promoted the teaching of peace in schools. At the council meeting of the Peace Society in July 1915 it was reported that on Empire Day the Lord Mayor of Sydney had offered prizes to the value of six guineas for essays on war to the children attending Bourke Street Public School. As a contre-coup, Rivett offered two prizes 10 guineas to the same children for essays on peace. His actions met with 'full sympathy at the meeting and a member of the Council paid the amount at once.' See Pax: The Monthly Organ of the Peace Society 36 (15 August, 1915): 22

[8] Rivett's life was dedicated to preaching and supporting the underdog yet his work in life has been somewhat overshadowed by the nature of his death. He died dramatically on 18 November 1934 immediately after addressing a crowd of about 5000 in the Sydney Domain. See CB Schedvin, 'Rivett, Albert (1855–1934),' Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rivett-albert-8218/text14381, published in hardcopy 1988, viewed 27 February 2014

[9] Roseby was the son of the Reverend Dr Thomas Roseby formerly of the NSW Peace Society

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, 8 June, 1918, 14

[11] Sydney Morning Herald, 8 June, 1918, 14

[12] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August, 1918, 6

[13] Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July, 1918, 7. During the war years, many anti-war and anti-conscription groups were not permitted to hire halls for their meetings. Some meetings were permitted but were closely spied on by undercover police who took notes and watched out for any words or sentences that might be deemed prohibited under the War Precautions Act. Other meetings were permitted but not advertised in the press. Indeed, throughout the war years, the Peace Society 'strongly disapproved' that the daily newspapers gave 'very meagre notices' to all their meetings, refusing to advertise them in advance or report back on proceedings. See Pax: The Monthly Organ of the Peace Society 35 (15 July, 1915): 21

[14] Russell Ward, A Nation For a Continent: The History of Australia 1901–1975 (Victoria: Heinemann Educational Australia, 1977), 113

[15] Violent anti-conscription meetings occurred in the Domain on 9 and 23 July and on 3 September 1916 when speakers were attacked by returned servicemen

[16] Charles Manning Hope Clark, New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, vol 6, A History of Australia (London; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 17. See also Leslie Lloyd Robson, The First AIF: A Study of Its Recruitment 1914–18 (Melbourne, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 1982), 12; Alan D Gilbert, 'The Conscription Referenda, 1916–17: The Impact of the Irish Crisis,' in Historical Studies 14, no 53 (October, 1969): 54–72

[17] Michael McKernan, The Australian People and the Great War (Sydney: Collins, 1980), 32

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