The War and the Bi­ble

The Church of England - - Feature - By Hazel Southam

“It is hard to un­der­stand Bri­tish so­ci­ety at the time of World War 1 if you sub­tract the Bi­ble from it.”

So says Dr Michael Snape, Reader in Re­li­gion, War and So­ci­ety at the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham.

The Bi­ble was ‘the defin­ing in­flu­ence’ on work­ing class cul­ture, he adds. At the time, 90 per cent of chil­dren went to Sun­day school. A quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion went to church ev­ery sin­gle Sun­day. The Bi­ble was in the blood of Bri­tish people.

“It was seen as a mark of a good ed­u­ca­tion, the sign of a re­spectable back­ground, to know your Bi­ble,” says Dr Snape.

When war broke out on 4 Au­gust 1914, ev­ery mem­ber of the Bri­tish Armed Forces re­ceived a New Tes­ta­ment as a stan­dard part of his kit: uni­form, gun, boots, Bi­ble.

Bi­ble So­ci­ety was among sev­eral or­gan­i­sa­tions that worked tire­lessly to pro­vide Bibles to soldiers, sailors, air­men, pris­on­ers of war, con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors, and those in­valided out of the front line.

Over the four years of the war, it printed and dis­trib­uted some 9 mil­lion Bibles in 80 dif­fer­ent lan­guages.

This was done against a back­drop of paper ra­tioning, sub­ma­rine block­ades and the sink­ing of mer­chant ships that were trans­port­ing the Bibles across Europe and be­yond.

Made with a khaki cover, most New Tes­ta­ments were the size of a small mo­bile phone to­day, and fit­ted into the left-breast pocket of a uni­form.

But some were even smaller. There were inch-sized copies of the whole Bi­ble that could only be read with the aid of an ac­com­pa­ny­ing mag­ni­fy­ing glass and pre­sum­ably very, very good eye­sight, as well as tiny copies of the gospels and the Psalms.

Very rarely some­one had a copy of the whole Bi­ble – of­ten a gift from a rel­a­tive – and in one story you’ll read here this saved a sol­dier’s life, when he was just 18 years old.

Un­like to­day, Bibles weren’t dis­trib­uted by planes, trains and lor­ries. Men known as col­por­teurs walked the length and breadth of Europe and the Mid­dle East car­ry­ing packs of New Tes­ta­ments to sell or give away to the troops that they met on the road.

One, a 71-year-old man in Ser­bia, con­tin­ued to sell Bibles in Bel­grade, de­spite bom­bard­ments that vir­tu­ally de­stroyed his shop.

Later, Wil­helm Licht­en­berger re­ported that Ger­man troops turned a blind eye to his sales.

“When an or­der for­bade sales in the open street, the Ger­man ma­jor said to me, ‘Never mind that or­der, you may qui­etly sell your Bibles’,” he said.

Bibles linked soldiers to home phys­i­cally, spir­i­tu­ally and emo­tion­ally, as well as giv­ing hope for the fu­ture. They also of­ten acted as a tal­is­man, says Dr Snape from Birm­ing­ham Univer­sity.

“Soldiers were happy to have some­thing sa­cred with them in case it stopped bul­lets,” he says.

“It also con­nected soldiers with their loved ones emo­tion­ally and de­vo­tion­ally as they may have been read­ing the same texts.

“And it was hugely con­sol­ing for in­di­vid­ual soldiers.

“There are poignant sto­ries from the Bat­tle of the Somme of bod­ies be­ing re­cov­ered of men who had the New Tes­ta­ment in their hands. They read it as they bled to death.

“What else would you do if you were go­ing to meet your maker?”

Ac­cord­ing to Dr Snape the Bi­ble was also used to jus­tify the war. “One of the clas­sic texts used was the story of the Good Sa­mar­i­tan,” he says. Bel­gium was seen as the vic­tim of at­tack who needed sup­port.

The Kaiser was of­ten de­scribed as the bi­b­li­cal anti-Christ and the war seen in ‘apoc­a­lyp­tic’ terms as the end of the world.

Per­haps people would be sur­prised to know that in 1910 the Kaiser had do­nated £25 to Bi­ble So­ci­ety say­ing, “I read the Bi­ble of­ten and with plea­sure.

“A Bi­ble lies be­side me at night in which most of the pre­cious thoughts are un­der­lined. I can­not un­der­stand how so many men ex­ist who do not busy them­selves with God’s Word.

“In all my thoughts and ac­tions I ask my­self the ques­tion, ‘What does the Bi­ble say on the point?’

“The Bi­ble is the source from which I draw strength and light in hours of trem­bling and fear I lay hold of this trea­sure of com­fort.”

Dr Snape adds that many soldiers saw their own sac­ri­fice through their read­ing of Christ’s sac­ri­fice.

“It was con­sol­ing [for soldiers] to feel that you were tak­ing up your cross. There was an idea of pur­pose­ful suf­fer­ing.”

But for most soldiers the Bi­ble rep­re­sented some­thing fa­mil­iar and re­li­able. It gave hope and con­so­la­tion dur­ing times of ex­treme suf­fer­ing. It was a link with home, hap­pi­ness, the past and a longed-for fu­ture.

“There is no other book that was as widely-read in the trenches,” he says.

* Over the next four months The Church of Eng­land News­pa­per will bring you the sto­ries of soldiers and those at home who found so­lace in the Bi­ble dur­ing World War 1.

Bi­ble So­ci­ety

Ge­orge Sin­clair Bi­ble me­mora­bilia

Bi­ble So­ci­ety

Minia­ture WW1 Bi­ble

Bi­ble So­ci­ety

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