Canadian churches and World War I

Canadian war graves at Vimy, France
Canadian war graves at Vimy, France

Canada followed Great Britain into war with Germany and its allied powers 100 years ago this week. Tens of thousands of young Canadians, most of British descent, enlisted either voluntarily or due to prevailing social pressures. By 1917, however, others had to be conscripted by the wartime government. Canada had a population of five million at the time. By war’s end 420,000 Canadians had served in the military overseas and 60,000 of them died. Author and historian Gwynne Dyer says that loss of life would be comparable to Canada’s losing one million dead in the recent war in Afghanistan.

In a commemorative ceremony held at the War Museum in Ottawa, the Prime Minister has celebrated the sacrifice of those who went off to fight in the trenches in 1914. This is a quote from his speech: “Justice and freedom; democracy and the rule of law; human rights and human dignity. For a century, these are the things for which our fellow citizens fought. And this is the ground on which we will always take our stand.”

Unfortunately, this is not true, at least not as applied to the First World War. It was not a war for justice, freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It was a war about the competing empires of Europe and the arrogant stupidity of the monarchs and rulers of the day. Their bungling led to the death of 17 million people and the wounding of 20 million others. That is a number roughly equal to the entire population of Canada today.

War from the pulpit

I mentioned above the social pressure exerted upon young Canadian men to enlist in 1914 and the following years. That pressure came from every corner, including the pulpit at a time when churches were more powerful forces in society than they are today. One of those preachers – and among the most extreme — was Rev. Thomas Todhunter Shields, the pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto. He was a fiery orator who championed all things British and had little tolerance for liberal Protestantism, Catholics or French Canadians. Early in 1915, as the war dragged on, Shields preached a series of sermons, using scripture to demonize the Germans and to exhort Canadians to enlist and fight.

What follows here are excerpts from his sermon of February 21, 1915. He called it, “The Kaiser and Beelzebub” – comparing the German Kaiser to a “mad dog” and to the devil.


I must tell you plainly that I am not now and never have been a pacifist. In respect to my British citizenship, the perpetual clanking of the Kaiser’s sword forbade the intellectual somnolence essential to sweet dream of peace; and in respect those deeper considerations which concern the prime source of all human envy, and jealousy, and strife, I never have been able, and am not now able, to see how war can be banished from the earth while anywhere in the universe “the strong man armed keepeth his palace.” The Kaiser and Beelzebub, and they are not unrelated, forbid my crossing out of my Bible this word of Him with Whom they both are at war. “And he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one”  . . .

Satan is more than a religious philosophical abstraction . . . 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.

Oh, we all have failed here. We have argued with the devil: we have made speeches to principalities and powers! Young men, you have parleyed with the wolves of hell, with the devil’s dogs of war. You have thought to match the devil with diplomacy! Your only safety is in fighting!

In this moral and spiritual warfare Paul was no pacifist. He did not recommend disarmament. He said, “Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” 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 . . . Take Christ and He will clothe you with Himself, His righteousness, and truth, and peace, and faith. The strong man armed keepeth his palace and his goods are in peace only until a stronger than he cometh upon him. Satan has beaten everybody but Christ. He is our only hope in this war. “Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(Source: Revelations of the War: Eight Sermons, T.T. Shields. Toronto: the Standard Publishing Co.1915).

War as tragic folly

The First World War is best understood as tragic folly. It is easier to argue on behalf of Canada’s involvement in the Second World War, when justice and freedom, democracy and the rule of law were much more arguably at stake. Sadly, that same list of worthy attributes cannot be used to describe our participation in most other wars of the past century – the Boer War, the Korean War and that in Afghanistan.

One does not have to be a pacifist to be reluctant, very reluctant, to support wars foisted upon us by leaders who are vainglorious and corrupt.


3 thoughts on “Canadian churches and World War I

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  1. Good work, Dennis. Harper’s speech was disgusting for its ignorance. I have come to realize that war begets war. Young men get sent off to kill and they see terrible mayhem. They come back and seem to need to be assuaged with the nonsense about valour and democracy and freedom. If we reject the nonsense, they take it as undermining their sense of themselves. So the willingness to begin wars remains, despite the lessons of history.


  2. Harper’s speech was the usual nauseating mix of historical fantasy laced with a disturbing infatuation with armed conflict and bloodshed. Alas, for our federal government and it’s ‘wanna-be soldier’ PM, rhetorical flights of fancy about justice, peace and reconciliation are only pathetic attempts to rationalize an idolatrous worship at the altar of vainglory.

    Of course, draping oneself with the mantle of religion to justify the most appalling conduct is nothing new, and has been a favorite ruse of the rich and powerful since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. Scripture tells us that Jesus “came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11; KJV). Indeed, first the Romans crucified Christ, and then they proclaimed him their God too, and, in the process, turned Christianity into a religion of imperialism for the rich and powerful, and of pie in the sky when you die for the victims of their perversion of the gospel.

    Today, history repeats itself. We should not forget that our Prime Minister was most anxious for Canada to join in the illegal invasion of Iraq which had nothing whatever to do with peace, justice or democracy, and everything to do with power politics and oil. Then our PM had our troops troop off to Afghanistan to support a corrupt and unpopular regime there. I cannot think of one instance where, behind the embarrassing and jingoistic sloganeering of his spin doctors, our Prime Minister has taken a firm stand for peace.

    World War I was a travesty in which millions of people – civilian and soldier alike – died in the death throes of European Empires that were themselves every bit as wicked as were the Romans in their day. The war itself neither proved nor settled a thing. Twenty years later, the world was at war again because the issues arising out of World War I had never been resolved, and the peace imposed on Germany in 1918 was both vindictive and placed all the blame, and the cost, of that war on Germany itself. And thus the victors in World War I made World War II inevitable by means of the so-called peace treaties they authored.

    This year Canada marks the 100th anniversary of the so-called Great War. It was the ‘war to end all wars’ and all the usual fictions about peace and democracy were attached to what was, essentially, just another tawdry conflict between European Empires already doomed by their failure to recognize a world changing before their very eyes. Our Prime Minister has so far only demonstrated that he has learned nothing from history and is more than willing to make the mistakes of the past yet again in our own time. And next year Canadians will go to the polls to decide if they want to keep on making those mistakes collectively as a nation, or if they would like, perhaps, to try an approach that is more in line with the politics of peace and non-violence practiced by the founder of Christianity, who has been all but forgotten in the culture of death some seek even now celebrate and seek to perpetuate.


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