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Glasgow University’s Great War: Chaplains and Theology Students

By Alicia Henneberry, postgraduate student, Theology and Religious Studies, University of Glasgow

This is the first of a series of posts on Theology at the University of Glasgow during the First World War.

The Glasgow University’s Great War Project is remembering the many men who fought and died bravely on the front lines in World War I. For this particular facet of the project, I focused on an aspect of this war that took place much closer to home for those of us on the University of Glasgow campus. I endeavoured to uncover aspects of the lives of those who studied and served from the University of Glasgow’s Divinity Faculty – the Chaplains and Theology Students of World War I. Still a major part of the British Armed forces, military chaplains are ordained members of various denominations, including the churches of Scotland and England, who hold commissions in the army, ministering to soldiers in times of war and peace. Though the University Archives’ theology and religious studies collection does not contain information of the war service of these men specifically, they have illuminated their educational background. This project was a unique opportunity to delve into the lives of these men before they went to the front, and study how the war affected religious belief and education.

The collection itself is comprised of several items, three of which I will be featuring in my consecutive blog posts that I feel were the most telling of the education and life at the Faculty of Divinity during World War I. The particular item that I will focus on for my first post is the Register of the Preachers before the University (University of Glasgow Archives Reference: CH 2/1). As the name suggests, this is a logbook listing the names of all those who gave sermons or lectures to Divinity students during the first half of the twentieth century. Along with the names is included the date upon which the sermon was given, the title of the sermon, and the relevant Bible verses that the speaker referenced. At first glance, this source seems particularly straightforward and simple, listing no more than names and titles with no specific mention to the war raging to the south. However, once I looked closely at the titles, Bible texts and verses, as well as the dates and who was speaking, I was able to gain a lot more information.

University of Glasgow Archives Reference: CH2/1

University of Glasgow Archives Reference: CH2/1

Generally, these sermons appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary of a divinity lecture, with titles such as “Commentary on the Romans” and the “Gospel of St. Mark.” However, once we look past August 1914, when Great Britain declared war on Germany, we can detect from the titles alone a marked increase in themes that are undeniably war-related. Given by a variety of speakers, the sermon titles all allude to themes such as courage and duty, as well as morality and steadfastness. One example was given on November 1st, 1914 by Haller Mursell, the Minister of the Coats Memorial Church of Paisley at the time, who spoke on the “Duty of Courage” quoting Joshua 1:5, a verse which speaks on the unwavering strength of God. These themes become only more pronounced once looking at those sermons given towards the end of the war. Dr. HMB Reid, one of the Professors of Divinity and one-time Dean of the Faculty, gave many in this theme, such as “The Bad Dream of War” on Oct. 19 1919. The chaplain to the Clyde Defences, W.W. Beveridge, appears to have given a similar lecture February 3rd 1918, entitled “The Spirit of our Fighting Men.” The Bishop of Durham even came to address the Glasgow Divinity men, speaking on what was most likely the aftermath of the war in a sermon entitled “Christian Duty in Difficult Times” on October 24th 1920.

1 November 1914: The Duty of Courage. University of Glasgow Archives Reference: Ch2/1

1 November 1914: The Duty of Courage. University of Glasgow Archives Reference: Ch2/1

A prominent topic of the sermons during the wartime was the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible that infamously speaks of the end of the world and the rewards and punishments awaiting the good and the wicked. Though obviously this section of the Bible could be and is discussed at many different periods of time, not just in war, Revelation is a theme that is largely alluded to in times of crisis and death, and is a theme that again crops up in the last of the sources I will be covering in the third post. There were many sermons to the Faculty, which, towards the end of the war, alluded to Revelation. “The souls under the altar” was one such sermon, which is a reference to Revelation 6:9 that described the murdered, innocent souls rising to be in the Kingdom of God; an image that could be applicable to the thousands of dead boys and men on all sides of the conflict.

Even though there is no actual recording of these sermons to be found in this ledger, and we are left with only the title and Bible verse alluded to by each speaker, it is clear from many of these titles that the war was prominent in the minds of these men and important to Divinity in order for so many of the talks to be focused on it. For the next piece of my project, I will be focusing on the meeting minutes of the Divinity Faculty.


For more about belief during the First World War, see the AHRC-funded project, Voices of War and Peace blog.

1 Comment

  1. […] first post about the education of University of Glasgow chaplains and theologians for the Great War and the […]

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