Glasgow University's Great War Project

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Theology After the War

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

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

The last of my series on the chaplains of Glasgow University will focus mostly on an item in Glasgow University Library’s Special Collections entitled Theology After the War. This lecture given by Professor HMB Reid at the closing of the 1915-1916 school year to the Divinity Faculty confirmed many of my archival findings about the general temperament of the Faculty during the war, and reveals just how much of a toll the war took on the hearts and minds of these lecturers and their students.

As we have seen from the meeting minutes and lists in the University Archive, dozens of students left for the front, leaving behind their textbooks in favour of weapons and uniforms. The opening of Professor Reid’s lecture illuminates just how big of an impact the war made.

“We have watched the steady ebbing of our numbers, and to-day we are face to face with the fact that practically all our students have been armed for the national service. Nearly fifty of them are either in home cantonments getting ready, or in the field of battle.”

For the Divinity Faculty, forty students was a substantial level of participation.

We know from meeting minutes and a sermon book that the Faculty was concerned for the students and their education, and that the war was always on their minds, but this sermon clearly illustrates not only their remorse in the loss of so many of these student’s lives, but how proud and honoured they were to be their colleagues:

“Men speculated idly, how the theologians would behave. The result surprised all but those who live among our divinity men, and know their mettle. First in ones and twos, then in blocks, our best and our second best heard the call…Our men have proved their manhood. They have shown that the Divinity Hall is no refuge for slackers or detrimentals, but proportionally the most martial section of the University.”

It is a stirring and emotional lament that illustrates the patriotism and bravery of the men from Divinity, and how much pride the Faculty had for its pupils. It continues:

“The strain has not been slight. There has been real sacrifice and pain; but never has one of the finally made his choice for God and country without feeling a wonderful sense of joy. I have seen those happy, exalted looks of men who came to say—“I have attested”—or I am ordered on service.” Some of us saw the light on Robert Rennie’s face as he came up the worn stair in his new uniform, promoted from the ranks, to tell us that he was a subaltern in his old regiment, and “going out again” to France. A few weeks after, he fell. His death will preach even better sermons than he would have written had he lived. It has preached already to us in this Hall in many an hour, and with it have been mingled the voices of Monteith, Fenwick, Gordon Macdonald (most gallant soldier of Christ!) Forsyth, Macfarlan, Macgregor, Herbert Dunn, and others of our band.”

The sermon also enlightened me on how the education of theologians changed after the war. As I mentioned in my second post, Faculty meeting minutes detailed the types of classes taken by students over the years, but I had not yet been able to surmise how the war impacted theological thought at the Divinity Faculty. Thankfully, as the title of Professor Reid’s sermon suggests, this particular source provided a wealth of information on the change in education. Towards the end of the sermon, he invites his audience to question, “What of Scottish Theology after the War?” He discusses many terms familiar to a student of theology today, mentioning the influence of Schleiermacher (in Reid’s view, negative), denouncing Ritschlianism, and asserting the need for a post-war rise in Scottish systematic theology, believing that they have been too dependent on developments in German and American thought.

Reid ends the lecture passionately, lamenting the war and the students they had lost, but believed that the courage of their students would only fuel a resurgence of theological study.

“…[T]he wave of human faith and experience rolling into our classroom will give the impulse and force required. Who can ever again study the Christian ultimate with detachment, who had learned what God and Christ and Holy Spirit, what Man and Sin and Atonement, and the eternal fellowship of the Church, means for fighting and suffering souls? It needed but this tragic upheaval to throw up the Verities of the Faith into bold and arresting belief.”

He asserts that as a Faculty, they will use this remorse and memory of their fine students to get back to the “essence of religion” which is the “truth of the incarnation.” He moves to return to an emphasis on the supernatural, moving away from the “remolded basis of theology after Schleiermacher” to once again play “the Church’s winning card.” He wished to study the Living Christ through apologetic theology, an image that had been brought back into focus with such a heavy amount of wounded and dying men. It is the figure of the resurrected Jesus Christ and “martyr’s graves” that is very prevalent in this lecture, harking back to many of the Revelation lectures I pointed out in the sermon log book of my first post. It is with this vision that Dr. Reid concludes, declaring that they shall set about the task of reviving Scottish theology, which had been enriched “with the blood and sacrifice of our best and most scholarly Scotsman.”

When beginning this project, Glasgow University’s Great War Project did not know what to expect. Would we learn anything about the war through the eyes of this department? Was theological education at the University of Glasgow affected by the war at all? Would the war even be mentioned? What I have found has been beyond my expectations of the project. Not only was it very clear how much the war impacted the resources and numbers of the Divinity Faculty, but I also encountered a very moving and tragic story of a brave and patriotic group of students and their proud professors, all of whom were deeply affected by the death and bloodshed, yet were resilient in their endeavours to study religion and theology. Not only did Dr. Reid’s sermon show how determined the divinity men were to carry on educating despite the loss of almost their entire student body, but also how profound an impact the Glasgow-trained chaplains and others like them brought to the front. Dr. Reid stated in the sermon how “strangely” welcome his students were to the other soldiers, and how these soldiers sought out the company of these ministers for advice and comfort in such dreadful times. Indeed, sources on army chaplains in the Great War suggest that though belief in organised religion was remiss among the troops and would substantially decrease in post-war Europe, chaplains and ministers -university students and graduates- became well respected and liked by the masses, and in turn were inspired by the “unconscious Christianity qualities” and steadfastness of the soldiers.

This collection is quite fascinating for any of those interested in a historiography of theological study, as well as how the war affected those on the home front and in higher education. Though I only highlighted a few of the sources that I thought provided the most information on the impact of the war on Divinity at the University of Glasgow, the University Archive and Special Collections house many fascinating materials, including pamphlets for the different degrees offered, correspondence to other universities, and class lists. And if you ever find yourself in Number 4 the Square, the Theology and Religious Studies’ current home, take a look at a rather faded set of photographs hanging on the first-floor landing. You will come facet-to-face with the black and white portraits of twenty-two young men in both uniform and suits. An inscription in Latin declares that these faces are the heroes of Dr. Reid’s sermon and of University of Glasgow Theology, who died for their country in time of war. These are the men who left their studies to defend the United Kingdom, taking the education they received at the University of Glasgow to the front, bringing comfort to their fellow soldiers and inspiring their colleagues at home to carry on.

Prof sq


Edward Madigan. Faith under Fire: Anglican Army Chaplains and the Great War. [Palgrave School Print, 1 Mar. 2011]

Further Reading:

  • John Dunlop. Preaching the gospel in the midst of conflict. [Belfast: Rosemary Presbyterian Church, 1987]
  • Andrew Todd. Military chaplaincy in contention: chaplains, churches, and the morality of conflict [Ashgate Publishing Co, May 28, 2013]
  • Traditions of Theology in Glasgow, 1450-1990, W. Ian P Hazlett Edinburgh 1993
  • On the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher:
  • On Ritschlianism:
  • On the Book of Revelation and war imagery: Elaine H. Pagels. Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.

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

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