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Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Unitarians and World War One

2014 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War One. A national commemoration will involve a transformation of the Imperial War Museum, a major programme of national commemorative events and an educational programme "to create an enduring legacy for generations to come". More than £50million has been allocated and the Heritage Lottery Fund has announced an additional £6million to enable young people working in their communities to conserve and share local heritage of WWI. There is support of all the major political parties for this initiative although as the New Year dawned there has been a politicalised debate about the significance of the War.

The Unitarian and Free Christian movement marked World War One by a “Tablet to the memory of fallen soldiers and sailors”, unveiled at Essex Hall by Mrs Sydney Martineau on 12 January 1921. Believed lost in the destruction of the building in 1944 during World War Two, it was designed by Ronald P. Jones, cast in bronze and made by the Guild of Handicraft, Birmingham. The Inquirer (15 January 1921) reported that Mrs Martineau, in an impressive address, spoke with great sympathy of those whose beloved were represented among the Thousand who did not return; that they might be comforted in the thought of a noble service rendered by the Dead; and might those dear ones who survived and came back “realize more and more the price paid for our liberties, and for an ever-enduring establishment of Right as the dominant factor in the lives of nations”.

She referred to 10,000 from “our little community” who served in the armed forces. A Memorial Roll of Honour was also compiled and unveiled in 1922 which actually contained 1700 names of those who died listed in alphabetical order, including congregation. This was also thought destroyed in 1944 but was later discovered by Rev Peter Godfrey at Essex Hall, and is now at Dr Williams’s Library. We are endeavouring to locate the Roll and then to place a digital copy on the web which would give congregations and individuals an opportunity to use it for research.

Many Unitarians treasure the Nightingale Centre, the Unitarian retreat and conference in Great Hucklow. The Inquirer (16 November 1918), just two months after the cessation of hostilities, carried an appeal for £10,000 for the "Florence Nightingale Home for Soldiers, Sailors and other men of our community” which had been established by the Sunday School Association as a Unitarian National War Memorial. This was designed to meet a present urgent need but no Government funding was forthcoming to erect a building, therefore Unitarians got to work.

In churches and chapels across the country will be found individual memorials to those lost. Congregations, of course, mark Remembrance Sunday in various ways. Finding out more about the individuals listed on memorial plaques could be a useful starting point to produce a local and more human story of the war.

Nationally, this will also be an opportunity to reflect upon how Unitarians and Free Christians, individually and collectively, responded to the War. Alan Ruston has written with feeling of how the nonconformist churches were forced to face large moral and spiritual issues for which they were apparently so ill prepared. This was felt particularly by liberal Christian Churches who emphasized a belief in “the goodness of man and his God”. His article on “Unitarian attitudes towards World War 1” in the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (April 1998) merits careful reading. He tellingly reveals that historians of Unitarianism had ignored the subject until he wrote in 1993 on two Unitarian ministers killed in action.

The denominational press shows that the majority of Unitarians supported the war effort, at least until mid-1917, with a notable minority taking a more critical stance. The views of some of the former are surprising; although we must be careful to assess the past in its own context not that of today. One legacy was the establishment of the Unitarian Peace Fellowship in 1916 (as the Liberal Christian Peace Fellowship) with its basis that “war and the preparation for war is unreconcilable with the teaching and spirit of Jesus”. The General Assembly in 2016 is an opportunity to remember their foundation and work for peace since then.

Alan also points out that his research found a quite different response to the war between Unitarian ministers and the laity, the latter being somewhat more sceptical including a few Unitarian MPs. Importantly, he suggests that World war One so seriously undermined the basis of the confidence of British Unitarianism that it “has not subsequently recovered its dynamism nor theological assurance”. 

Unitarians should mark this centenary. Nationally there has been concern that “2014 is being scheduled as another zenith of nationalist pride”, as Richard Seymour wrote in The Guardian (12 October 2012). I am sure that Unitarians will commemorate and remember with dignity drawing upon the best of what we are but guarding against the temptation to white wash the past.

This is an updated version of an article “How will we remember the fallen?” which appeared in The Inquirer on 19 January 2013 (Issue 7810).