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Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 224–226 

Book Review

Canadian Churches and the First World War

ed. Gordon L. Heath. Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth, 2014. 295 pages.

Reviewed by Hans Werner

This collection of essays focuses on the role of Canadian churches in the First World War, a war that has often been seen as the crucible out of which a Canadian nation emerged. In his introduction to the eleven essays, Gordon Heath, Associate Professor of Christian History at McMaster Divinity College, argues that the relationship of religion and Canada’s churches to First World War has been largely ignored in what is otherwise an extensively researched topic (4). After reflecting on the contributions in the collection, Heath concludes that the First World War left no area of church life untouched, even though the church continued to be an important part of people’s lives. Certainly, however, the trauma meant a loss of faith for some and considerably sobered the Canadian churches’ prewar “naïve optimism surrounding the efficacy of war” (11).

The book includes eight essays that essentially proceed along denominational lines. French and English Catholics each have a chapter, while Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists, and Lutherans are featured in individual chapters, and one chapter explores the experience of Quakers and Mennonites. These denominational chapters are preceded by an essay on the Boer War as a prelude to the later experience of the First World War, and are followed by two chapters on broader themes: the story of military chaplains and a comparison between Anglican and Swiss Mennonite women that offers a window on women’s experience of war.

Mark McGowan untangles the tensions faced by English-speaking Catholics whose linguistic and cultural affinities lay with English Canada while their religious ties were with French-speaking fellow Catholics. Simon Jolivet, on the other hand, focuses his attention on {225} the fracturing of the French presence in Canada as a result of the First World War. He concludes that the First World War marks the emergence of Quebec’s autonomy and the resulting damage to French speakers in the rest of Canada. The theme of changes on each denomination’s view of war wrought by the war, along with the disillusionment it brought to many parishioners, dominates the chapters on Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. The Methodist church embraced the social gospel but faced the intense disillusionment of its members and a resulting drift away from the church. Presbyterian and Baptist churches had seen a trend toward optimistic pacifism, a sense that nations could learn to deal with their differences without resorting to war. Both denominations rapidly changed their orientation to embrace the notion that the Canadian and British cause was righteous. Norman Threinen’s analysis of the Lutheran Church’s wartime experience argues that the extent to which nativism swept up everything German, labeling it “enemy” and “alien,” features prominently in Lutheran wartime experience. Although Canadian Lutheranism was multiethnic, the suspension of the German language press, the closure of parochial schools, and the general negative view toward Germans forced Canadian Lutherans to awake “out of their dream world” to come “to grips with the realities of life” (215).

Only two chapters make an explicit effort to integrate the denominational viewpoint with a larger theme. Duff Crerar’s sensitive portrayal of the disillusionment of military chaplains offers one of the most poignant challenges to reconciling Christian faith and participation in the killing that is war, while Lucille Marr’s chapter compares Mennonite and Anglican women’s experience of the First World War.

Of particular interest here is the analysis of the peace church experience during the war. Robynne Rogers Healy contrasts the Mennonite and Quaker experience using Peter Brock’s categories of separational pacifism for the former and integrational pacifism for the latter. Healy argues that while Quakers became much more active as proponents of peace rather than opponents of war, disparate groups of Mennonites were drawn into cooperation with each other even as they maintained their separational pacifist stance. Healy’s analysis of the Quaker experience displays greater depth of analysis than is true for the story of Mennonites and is based on a substantive body of primary sources. The Mennonite analysis, on the other hand, relies heavily on Frank H. Epp’s Mennonites in Canada and a few other secondary sources. Not so for the final chapter in the collection in which Lucille Marr analyzes the experience of women. Marr uses a rich diversity of sources to deliver a nuanced portrait of women as “nonconformity bearer,” “civic {226} cheerleaders,” and “official mourners.” Swiss Mennonite women bore the burden of conformity most sharply in this triad as, ironically, debates about head covering rose dramatically within their congregations during the war. As is true of the sources for many essays in this collection, Marr’s sources are primarily from Eastern Canada, and so the experience among more recent immigrants on the prairies is touched upon only in passing.

As a whole, Canadian Churches and the First World War makes an important contribution to the story of World War I—itself a vast landscape of historical writing. The story of Christian churches and the war has seen little analysis, and in that sense the collection certainly advances our understanding of what it means to be Christian and involved in a modern war. The book provides ample evidence that the Great War proved also to be a watershed faith event for denominations and churches as well as for many individuals.

Hans Werner
Associate Professor of Canadian History and Mennonite Studies
University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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