Remembrance Day, T.T. Shields and war

War Memorial Ottawa

On the eve of Remembrance Day, I attended a Brahms concert in the century-old Dominion Chalmers United Church in Ottawa. As I walked around during the intermission, I found myself looking at memorial plaques on the walls to honour the church’s young men who died in the First and Second World Wars. Coincidentally, the church’s first service was offered in 1914, the year in which the First World War began. I tried to imagine the scene that year and particularly what might have been said about the war from the pulpit in Canadian churches. I recalled a series of sermons by the Reverend Thomas Todhunter Shields that I had discovered while researching my book Great Canadian Speeches. It was all fire and brimstone in favour of the fight.

When Britain declared war against Germany in August 1914, Canada and the other members of the Empire were automatically involved even though they had not been consulted beforehand. Canadians of British origin were decidedly in favour of supporting the war, saying that Canadians had a duty to fight on behalf of Motherland and Empire. Many people who lived in Quebec and others such as my grandparents, who had emigrated from Central Europe, were much less enthusiastic.

That kind of sentiment was anathema to Rev. Shields, the pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto. He was a hot-headed preacher who championed all things British and launched frequent verbal attacks on liberal Protestants, Catholics and French Canadians. Early in 1915 Shields preached a series of eight sermons about the war. They were later collected in a book called Revelations of the War, which was published in 1915 and has long been out of print.

One of the sermons was called The Kaiser and Beelzebub, which in Christian and Biblical sources is another name for the devil. Shields uses crude but powerful propaganda techniques to equate the Kaiser with Satan and to attack Germans as evil at worst and dupes at best. He also uses scripture to exhort young men to fight.

According to Shields, the Kaiser is both devil and mad dog:

But the devil is not yet gone; or, if he were, I do not know how such a monster as the Kaiser is to be accounted for. The only satisfactory explanation of such a mad and blood-costly ambition as the Kaiser’s is found in the Biblical doctrine of a personal devil . . .  You cannot reason with a mad dog. Eloquence is wasted on a tiger from the jungle. The only effective argument is a gun of the largest possible calibre, an army of the maximum striking power . . .

Shields is harshest in his description of  the Kaiser, but he also excoriates a population that he says, lost its way through accepting godless Enlightenment philosophy:

[Germany’s] scholars professed a passion for the truth. Nothing was to be accepted as true until it was proved. Old theories of life must be abandoned. Nothing must be allowed to escape her searching scrutiny. Even the Bible must no longer be taken for granted. The truth must be known at all costs. But after all this loud profession, did the sun ever look upon a land more afraid of the truth than Germany?

Shields then insists that the young men of his congregation (and by extension others) go off to fight. He ends with a rousing scriptural justification for his call to arms:

There is no other way. And now let me enlist you for this war. I tell you, you must be trained, and disciplined, and armed, to the highest possible state of military effectiveness. What is the panoply, the whole armor? What are its elements? Truth, righteousness, preparation of the gospel of peace, faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the spirit, all-prayer. But where are all these elements to be found? I give it you in one word, “Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might.”

War to end war?

The First World War was described by its proponents as the war to end all wars. It was also sold to young recruits and citizens (on both sides of the conflict) as a classic struggle between good and evil. Much of that selling was done from the pulpit. In reality, the War was a conflict for power and control among Europe’s colonial powers.

The war was to claim at least 36 million military and civilian casualties — more than 16 million of these were deaths and 20 million wounded. Among those casualties in the battlefields and trenches of Europe, were 62,000 Canadian dead and 152,000 wounded.

As we know, rather than being a war to end wars the 1914-18 conflict was rather a mere prelude to the Second World War, in which as many as 78 million people died, more of them civilians than military.

One might be tempted to consign T.T. Shields and his demagoguery to the past but it is not so different from a recent program that I saw on CTS Television. Preacher Jack Van Impe was fulminating about Iran and its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, describing them as evil and calling Ahmadinejad “a Hitler.” Van Impe talked almost longingly about war with Iran and of how it would fulfill a prophecy about End Times.

In the real world and in real time, there is no war to end all wars, just wars that lead to more wars. Those mounting the pulpit today — in churches or in television studios — should abandon their demagoguery and leave congregants and parishioners with that truth.



10 thoughts on “Remembrance Day, T.T. Shields and war

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  1. I think perhaps it goes a bit beyond the enlightenment in general to, specifically, higher criticism (if I use the term correctly)? I am not theologian, but I think of all the reference to German Biblical scholarship in late nineteenth English literature as a new, dangerous or exiting (depending on the point of view) and Godless trend. Quite something to read of a pastor calling for war against Germany in part because of the existence of critical Biblical scholars in German universities. I agree that we have not really improved that much, but it really suggests that Shields was perhaps a bit too much engrossed in theological debate. As my wife would say, a sign perhaps that he suffers from an occupational disease.

    Beyond that, my grandfather was presumably attending another church, Walmer Road Baptist church, at just this time. Both of his older brothers went to the trenches, although he kept out because he was, fortunately, much too young. I wonder if there was any difference between the two Baptist churches.


    1. Thanks for you comment Adam. You ask if two Baptist churches may have presented a differing message about the First World War. That is quite possible although I would think it unlikely that any opposed the war per se. It may well be, however, that Rev. T.T. Shields was more volatile than most other ministers. He was later expelled from the the Baptists convention of Ontario and Québec in 1927. That had nothing to do with his position on war but rather his vociferous opposition to liberal theology and his decision to create his own seminary. There may be Baptists or others out there who know all about this. If so, I would be happy to have them comment.


  2. I should mention, concerning my previous comment, that when I write “enlightenment” I am referring to the passage above in which you say, ” population that he says, lost its way through accepting godless Enlightenment philosophy.” In any case, I am not disagreeing with you by any means. This is a fascinating post.


  3. Dennis– You gave all of us something to think about.

    Too bad that T.T. Shields is no longer around to note that his war to end all wars has not worked out.

    For Jack Van Impe, I would suggest that he avail himself of a little book, published in 1935 titled, “WAR IS A RACKET”, by Brigadier-General Smedley Darlington Butler. He served 33 years in the Marines. At the time of his retirement from the military in 1931, he was the most decorated soldier in the history of the United States of America.

    The following are his own words on the title page of his book. ” I spent 33 years in the Marines, most of the time being a high- class muscle man for big bisiness, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism.”

    Butler spent the last 7 years of his life talking at meetings organized by veterans, pacifists and church groups.

    He died of cancer in 1940.


  4. I’m struck by how little “remembering” actually goes on in our Remembrance Day ceremonies, either the official ones or in the churches. Its all sweeping generalities about “preserving our freedom” and “support the troops.” Today the propaganda may be a little less crude than in T. T. Shields day, but its just as thick.


  5. My own response to what you write is sadness. However I think more people are aware of the lies they are being told but have no power to stop their governmet from sending our young people off to war.


  6. There’s not a lot of difference between the Rev. Shields and many preachers in ersatz Christian communities today. Whatever else it may or may not be, war is a direct repudiation of the teachings of the man known to history as Jesus of Nazareth and, to Christians, as Jesus the Christ.

    Indeed, our Parliament is chock full of those who think the shedding of blood is an acceptable way to pursue foreign policy, increased profits, and other objectives about as far from the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself as one can get.

    A foreign policy built on joining in the military crusades of other nations dove-tails very nicely with Harper government’s purging of Christian churches from its overseas development programs, and it’s abandoning of human rights in its the great god Trade,

    Of course, it is usually ideologues in three-piece suits, applauded and the hard of thinking, who celebrate war – and they will celebrate any war, even one that took place 200 years ago.

    There’s no shortage of politicians beating the drums of war these days and Rev. Shields, were he still around, would probably be celebrated too. His spirit, however, lives on in those who think spending billions on fighter jets is a good idea while about one in five Canadian children live in poverty.

    I guess when those kids in poverty grow up, they can get jobs as soldiers … just like poor kids who came of age during the Great Depression preceding the last world war.

    Perhaps we should have a rule in Canada that whenever our Parliament or Privy Council commits Canadian soldiers to war, the Members of Parliament who approved such action must accompany our soldiers into combat. Let those who think going to war is a good idea be the first to actually fight!


  7. Dennis,
    Read your article … fascinating! Would love to read the speeches by Shields, who actually officiated at my parents wedding in 1930. Would loved to have seen T.T. Shields & J.S. Woodsworth debate the topic of war & peace at that time. Did a ‘reflection’ on fading public memory & history as ‘contested terrain’ on Nov.11th at an Anglican church in my community.


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