The Book and the Sword: The Bible in World War One
When war erupted in 1914 religious observance was still a major feature of many people’s lives and the Bible a shared cultural object. How did the Bible make its presence felt in the war, and how did the war make its presence felt on the Bible? In this talk some of the diverse ways in which the Bible was used and abused will be examined.
The Bible is an inescapable part of the cultural landscape of WW1. It was perhaps the single most widely-read book during the war. It offered inspiration and consolation to soldiers and civilians alike. Preachers and politicians used it to instil national pride and fighting spirit, and conscientious objectors in defence of pacifism. It offered concepts and metaphors which helped men and women make sense of their everyday experience. Its words were quoted with pious hope on gravestones and war memorials, and recast by angry poets. It was read in every language and on all sides of the conflict by Christians (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox) and Jews. Despite the challenges of 19th-century advances in science and biblical criticism, the Bible remained at the centre of Western culture.
Yet the Bible is something of a blind spot in our understanding of the Great War and its legacy. It is a popular commonplace that the war provoked a crisis of belief across the Western world. In Britain, at least, the war has regularly been seen as the epitome of waste and futility, and a source of deep disenchantment with traditional religious values. Nevertheless, historians increasingly recognize that religious faith remained a fundamental source of identity, conviction and morale both in the trenches and on the home front. The centrality of the Bible to that faith is clear from the millions of Bibles printed and distributed each year of the war (especially to soldiers), the thousands of biblical sermons preached every week, and the continued vitality of both popular and scholarly publishing on biblical themes. The Bible and biblical interpretation therefore offer an important lens through which to examine the religious and cultural experience of a world at war, especially since it is a fundamental common point of reference across different religious traditions, institutions and national contexts.
The talk forms part of 'The Book and the Sword: the Bible in the experience and legacy of the Great War', an AHRC-funded project. More information available at www.bibleandww1.divinity.cam.ac.uk/