Remembrance Day, T.T. Shields and war
On the eve of Remembrance Day, I attended a Brahms concert in the century-old Dominion Chalmers United Church in Ottawa. As I walked around during the intermission, I found myself looking at memorial plaques on the walls to honour the church’s young men who died in the First and Second World Wars. Coincidentally, the church’s first service was offered in 1914, the year in which the First World War began. I tried to imagine the scene that year and particularly what might have been said about the war from the pulpit in Canadian churches. I recalled a series of sermons by the Reverend Thomas Todhunter Shields that I had discovered while researching my book Great Canadian Speeches. It was all fire and brimstone in favour of the fight.
When Britain declared war against Germany in August 1914, Canada and the other members of the Empire were automatically involved even though they had not been consulted beforehand. Canadians of British origin were decidedly in favour of supporting the war, saying that Canadians had a duty to fight on behalf of Motherland and Empire. Many people who lived in Quebec and others such as my grandparents, who had emigrated from Central Europe, were much less enthusiastic.
That kind of sentiment was anathema to Rev. Shields, the pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto. He was a hot-headed preacher who championed all things British and launched frequent verbal attacks on liberal Protestants, Catholics and French Canadians. Early in 1915 Shields preached a series of eight sermons about the war. They were later collected in a book called Revelations of the War, which was published in 1915 and has long been out of print.
One of the sermons was called The Kaiser and Beelzebub, which in Christian and Biblical sources is another name for the devil. Shields uses crude but powerful propaganda techniques to equate the Kaiser with Satan and to attack Germans as evil at worst and dupes at best. He also uses scripture to exhort young men to fight.
According to Shields, the Kaiser is both devil and mad dog:
But the devil is not yet gone; or, if he were, I do not know how such a monster as the Kaiser is to be accounted for. The only satisfactory explanation of such a mad and blood-costly ambition as the Kaiser’s is found in the Biblical doctrine of a personal devil . . . You cannot reason with a mad dog. Eloquence is wasted on a tiger from the jungle. The only effective argument is a gun of the largest possible calibre, an army of the maximum striking power . . .
Shields is harshest in his description of the Kaiser, but he also excoriates a population that he says, lost its way through accepting godless Enlightenment philosophy:
[Germany’s] scholars professed a passion for the truth. Nothing was to be accepted as true until it was proved. Old theories of life must be abandoned. Nothing must be allowed to escape her searching scrutiny. Even the Bible must no longer be taken for granted. The truth must be known at all costs. But after all this loud profession, did the sun ever look upon a land more afraid of the truth than Germany?
Shields then insists that the young men of his congregation (and by extension others) go off to fight. He ends with a rousing scriptural justification for his call to arms:
There is no other way. And now let me enlist you for this war. I tell you, you must be trained, and disciplined, and armed, to the highest possible state of military effectiveness. What is the panoply, the whole armor? What are its elements? Truth, righteousness, preparation of the gospel of peace, faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the spirit, all-prayer. But where are all these elements to be found? I give it you in one word, “Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might.”
War to end war?
The First World War was described by its proponents as the war to end all wars. It was also sold to young recruits and citizens (on both sides of the conflict) as a classic struggle between good and evil. Much of that selling was done from the pulpit. In reality, the War was a conflict for power and control among Europe’s colonial powers.
The war was to claim at least 36 million military and civilian casualties – more than 16 million of these were deaths and 20 million wounded. Among those casualties in the battlefields and trenches of Europe, were 62,000 Canadian dead and 152,000 wounded.
As we know, rather than being a war to end wars the 1914-18 conflict was rather a mere prelude to the Second World War, in which as many as 78 million people died, more of them civilians than military.
One might be tempted to consign T.T. Shields and his demagoguery to the past but it is not so different from a recent program that I saw on CTS Television. Preacher Jack Van Impe was fulminating about Iran and its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, describing them as evil and calling Ahmadinejad “a Hitler.” Van Impe talked almost longingly about war with Iran and of how it would fulfill a prophecy about End Times.
In the real world and in real time, there is no war to end all wars, just wars that lead to more wars. Those mounting the pulpit today — in churches or in television studios — should abandon their demagoguery and leave congregants and parishioners with that truth.