Gospel in WW1

An evangelistic talk based on this year’s centenary

Gospel in WW1

Army chaplain conducting a service in France during WWI | photo: Creative Commons (David Mclellan / National Library of Scotland)

(view original article here)

This year, of course, sees the centenary of the start of the First World War.

It began on July 28, 1914 – and lasted until November 11, 1918. It brought into conflict the ‘Triple Entente’ of France, Russia and the United Kingdom with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was, perhaps, the most terrible conflict the world had ever seen and perhaps will ever see. On the Allied side some 22 million were killed, missing or wounded and on the German side the same statistic was around 16 million. And although the war is associated with cheerful songs such as ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’ and ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, actually it brought death on an industrial scale and traumatised most of those who survived.

Uncle Harry

When I was a lad, some of those men were still around in my town. I had an old uncle who lived across the road from us in a very sparse cottage, uncle Harry Johnson. I will always remember his gaunt features, the grey stubble on his chin and his grim attitude. He still wore his puttees from the trenches – those bandages the WWI soldiers used around their lower legs. He was a hard, sad man who, I think, spent most of his money on drink to drown the memories.

The conflict left a deep scar on our nation, not just because of the vast numbers of lives lost, but the feeling that the generals on both sides had carelessly squandered the lives of thousands of men who they sent into hopeless battles with little chance of survival.

Where was God?

It was absolutely horrific. Understandably people ask: ‘Well, where was God?’. The Bible’s answer is two-fold. First, the cause of war lies with human beings (James 4.1). It is human greed, pride, jealousy and sin which starts wars. And part of God’s judgment on a sinful world is that he ‘gives us up’ to reap the fruits of our own sinfulness (Romans 1). He does this in the hope that we might come to our senses and turn back to him.

But the second part of the Bible’s answer is the gospel. Into our war-torn, foolish and selfish world, God has sent the gospel – the promise of eternal life through his son, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. And it seems that in the midst of the terrible conflict of WWI, God was actually greatly at work bringing many men to personal salvation in Christ – so that though they might die, yet they would have eternal life which no one could take away from them.

There is a striking photo of an army chaplain, standing in the observer’s cockpit of an early bomber, preaching to the troops. I don’t know if this padre was preaching the gospel (rather than the nationalistic nonsense of ‘God is on our side’) – but much gospel work was done in those years. For example, an organisation called Scripture Gift Mission (SGM, now SGM Lifewords), who gave out thousands of Gospels and New Testaments to troops, has recently published some of the letters they received 100 years ago from troops and they say: ‘All across Europe, soldiers were turning to Christ in their thousands. There was a longing for God, and an appetite for the Bible that church ministers had not seen before’.

Letters from the war

Here is an example: ‘When your small Testaments were distributed on the Common at Southampton, I, among others, accepted one in a more derisive than complimentary manner. I little dreamed that I should use it and find in it great consolation in lonely hours… I have learned to realise the great personality of the Saviour. When at night I have been on duty alone with him by my side, and the Germans but 30 yards away, I realised that I needed more than my own courage to stand the strain. When the shells of the enemy have burst periodically at my feet I have marvelled at the fact of still being alive’.

Jeremy Williams of SGM Lifewords says: ‘While many soldiers may well have received the Gospels and New Testaments with scant interest, or even as a ‘lucky charm’, for many they became treasured possessions, read and re-read in times of loneliness, boredom and fear. Some were brought home and kept. Others were posted home with the personal effects of those who died. One sad letter in SGM’s archives was passed on by a clergyman in Manchester. ‘Perhaps you may remember speaking to two young men at (censored ). They were starting to join their regiment, and you kindly gave them copies of Mark’s Gospel. One of them is still in training, but the other – my only son – was killed in action last month. The contents of his pockets were returned this morning. Amongst them was the little book, well thumbed and stained with his blood.’’

Cynic’s view

The Bible holds out the promise of eternal life. For example, the Apostle Paul speaks of ‘the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and at his appointed season brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me’ (Titus 1.2).

Amid the great tragedy. many were turning to Christ, believing such promises. Now, some might react scornfully and say: ‘Well, the soldiers were frightened and they swallowed a lot of pie in the sky to calm themselves’. The cynic might say: ‘There is no eternal life and to preach such things to men in that situation is just a sick joke’. But Paul’s text speaks of ‘the hope of eternal life’, given by ‘God, who does not lie’. Paul insists that God is reliable – a ‘man of his word’.

Captain Robert Campbell

Last autumn, in the Daily Telegraph, a story from WWI came to light about a man of his word. He was Captain Robert Campbell – an officer with the East Surrey regiment who was captured during the Battle of Mons early in the war, in August 1914, and kept as a prisoner in Magdeburg Prisoner of War (POW) camp.

In 1916 he received news that his mother, at home in Gravesend, was dying. What he did was to write to the German Kaiser, asking to be allowed to go and see his mother before she died and absolutely promising that if he was allowed to go he would come back. Incredibly the German emperor granted his request, allowing him two weeks leave. The only bond he placed on Captain Campbell was his word as an officer. Captain Campbell returned to his family home in December 1916 and, sure enough, kept his promise to go back to Germany and back to the POW camp.

Though the temptation must have been great to stay, he kept his word. Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that the British Army let him go back. After all, here was another officer they could have sent back to the front.

God will keep his promise

Now here is the point. If a mere man like Captain Campbell was someone who, no matter what, kept his promise, and if a human institution like the British Army was so concerned to show itself honourable in making sure that one of its officers kept his promise, we can be more than assured that God, who is far more truthful than any man, will keep his promise.

The Bible tells us that God is one who is jealously concerned for his own glory, his own honour. Through Jesus Christ, he promises the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. He will not, he cannot, let his promise in the gospel fail. The gospel is no trick. It is ‘the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and … has brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me’, says Paul.

In the middle of tragedy

Amid the tragedy of WWI God was at work giving many eternal life. You may have many troubles in your life. Many people sadly have to view their own lives as a tragedy. But in the midst of that tragedy God offers salvation – eternal life.

The Bible says: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved’.

SGM Lifewords gave away 43 million items of Scripture between 1914 and 1918. This year they are re-issuing the Active Service John’s Gospel as a replica edition for churches, schools and remembrance events. For more information or a sample copy, visit www.sgmlifewords.com


This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online www.e-n.org.uk or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

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