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Durham University

Department of Theology and Religion


Publication details for Canon Professor Michael Snape

Snape, Michael (2016). The Christian Churches and the Great War: England, Scotland and Wales. Revue d'histoire de l'Eglise de France 102(1): 121-138.

Author(s) from Durham


In discussing the historiography of the Great War and the Christian churches in Great Britain (for our purposes, England, Scotland and Wales), the essential point to be made is that the religious impact of the Great War on British society has been greatly misunderstood. Allied to a mutually reinforcing discourse on the futility and disillusionment of Britain’s war experience, until quite recently the dominant narrative maintained that the war dealt the British churches an irrecoverable blow. Ultimately, the physical horrors and moral contradictions of this, the bloodiest foreign war in British history, resulted in a general loss of religious faith (or, given the contemporary boom in spiritualism, at least orthodox faith) which greatly accelerated the secularisation of British society — a process that was already well advanced as a result of industrialisation, urbanisation, and the scientific and technological advances of the nineteenth century. Buoyed by the nuclear era pacifism of the Cold War, and favoured by the secularising Zeitgeist of the later decades of the twentieth century, this view held sway for generations, with church historians of the Great War (who were often clergy themselves) being keen to point a ‘prophetic’ and reproachful finger at the misguided and even reprehensible conduct of their co-religionists between 1914 and 1918. However, this interpretation of the religious effects of the Great War on British society is now being superseded. It is the purpose of this essay to show how it has been questioned and also to indicate how a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the religious impact of the Great War on British society can be achieved in the coming years.