Thursday, June 05, 2014

Hensley Henson on the Consequences of War

As part of my duties as Ramsey Fellow, I am assisting Durham Cathedral in their preparations to observe the centenary of the First World War. Prominent among the primary sources available to us are the diaries of that renowned ecclesiastic Hensley Henson, who in 1914 was Dean of Durham Cathedral. The entries for the war years are by turns, amusing, sobering and touching. What follows (with the kind permission of the Dean and Chapter) is a portion of the entry for August 27, 1914:

What effect has war on Religion? I suspect that the effect is almost universally bad. There is no time for thinking, a vast stimulus is given to feeling. While the intellect is barren the emotions run riot. In an atmosphere of morbid sensationalism every superstition grows rankly. Death and the fear of death lie like a pall on the intelligence and paralyse the conscience. Every form of teaching and devotion which seems to illumine or affect the shadowed existence beyond the grave appeals to the bereaved, and a fat soil is prepared in which charlatanry can flourish. The prophecy-fanaticks secure a hearing & every type of wonder worker can count on a market. Besides, there is wide-spread and serious confusion of morals. War itself is hard to place in the scheme of Christian morality & patriotism is a creed which covers many sophistries. The sacred apologists of War with the New Testament as their text-book cannot be said to be an impressive company. Their embarrassment extends itself from the pulpits to the pews & everybody worships with a troubled conscience. Moreover, the daily reports of fighting & every form of violent atrocity are nowise wholesome feeling for the human spirit, which they inflame and distort.

Henson, it should be noted, was no pacifist. He willingly spoke at recruiting drives throughout County Durham and frequently preached to soldiers of the Durham Light Infantry, but it is evident that he had little time for the clerical jingoism of the early months of the War. He presciently foresaw the implications of the carnage of the Somme and Passchendaele on public opinion twenty years later, when he stood out as one of the few Church of England bishops actively opposed to Appeasement.         


Philip Wainwright said...

I imagine he would find it difficult to believe that every one of these evils has grown still worse in the 'peace' that followed that war and its completion in 1945: the intellect barren, emotions running riot, superstition abounding, charlatanry flourishing, wonder workers dominating even the church, and as for the wide-spread and serious confusion of morals...

How I envy him that he had known a society where these things were aberrations!

Jeremy Bonner said...

How true, Philip. How true.