The War and the Bible
“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.
George Sinclair Bible memorabilia
Miniature WW1 Bible