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He Makes War to Cease: Canadian Lutherans and World War I

July 16, 2014 No Comment
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“Canadian Gunners in the Mud, Passchendaele” (1917) by Alfred Bastien.

by Norman J. Threinen

On June 28, 1914¸ Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was killed in Sarajevo, Serbia, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. The assassination of the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire set in motion decisions that culminated in multiple declarations of war including a declaration by Britain against Germany on August 4. When Britain declared war on Germany, the entire British Empire, including Canada, was also at war. The total cost in human life of the war would eventually be estimated to be eight million dead and twenty-one million wounded.

How did Lutherans in Canada fare during the war? What effect did the war have on the development of the Lutheran Church in Canada? These are questions on which we do well reflect as we observe the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I—the “War to End All Wars.”

How did Lutherans in Canada fare during the war? What effect did the war have on the development of the Lutheran Church in Canada?

The war was initially only of passing interest for most Lutherans in Canada. It was far away and everyone expected it to be over by Christmas. But most Lutherans soon recognized that the war put them into a very difficult position. On the one hand, they did not generally support the militarist sentiments of Germany but on the other hand many of them were German-speaking and proud of the contributions which Germans had made to the world in a number of important areas. Those who weren’t German-speaking generally also had an appreciation of Luther and the contributions of the 16th century Reformation. On a personal level, recent immigrants also often still had family members back home in Germany or in one of the provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with which Canada was at war. As well, a number of pastors had come to Canada from German lands to serve immigrant communities and still had strong ties to their homeland; one pastor chose in June 1914 to make a four month visit to Germany and was prevented by the outbreak of the war from returning.

Prior to 1914, there was a general tendency for English-speaking Canadians to regard their Lutheran neighbours of various ethnic stripes highly. Most of them were thrifty, intelligent, and industrious.  Some had become part of the business community. Others had pursued higher education and were teachers; a couple even university professors. In Ontario where Lutheranism had been established for many years, some individuals had even been elected to political office. They were highly esteemed for their contribution to the prosperity of the nation.

However, almost immediately after war was declared, this perception changed drastically in the minds of average Canadians. Both Germany and the Austrian Empire had conscription for military training followed by long-term reserve service. These reservists were now called upon to return and honour their commitment. Under the terms of the War Measures Act, such persons were identified by the Canadian government as enemy aliens—the enemy in our midst. The fact that many had come to Canada from these countries in the years prior to 1914, had been naturalized, and had no desire to fight in the war for the Kaiser made no difference. This label on some immigrants from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire cast a shadow of suspicion in the minds of the general population on the loyalty of all Germans in Canada and, by extension, of all Lutherans. The enemy was German and anyone who had sympathy with anything German was suspect.

Anti-German sentiments

Members of the 118th Battalion, C Company (1916). The 118th Battalion was based in Berlin (later renamed Kitchener), Ontario. Slow recruitment for the battalion resulted in accusations that the local population was disloyal to the British Crown.

Members of the 118th Battalion, C Company (1916). The 118th Battalion was based in Berlin (later renamed Kitchener), Ontario. Slow recruitment for the battalion resulted in accusations that the local population was disloyal to the British Crown.

This anti-German sentiment was particularly strong in areas where there was a high concentration of Germans such as Berlin, Ontario, which changed its name to Kitchener during the war. Recruitment for the war service was difficult in such areas. Many of the Germans were Mennonites, who were conscientious objectors, and when the German Lutherans volunteered for war service they generally lacked the great enthusiasm of the British; their response was out of a sense of duty rather than patriotism. Lutheran pastors were accused of using their position to support the enemy war effort: accepting money to send to Germany; praying for the success of the German army; celebrating the sinking of the British Ocean liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat.  What didn’t help matters was that, prior to the United States entering the war in 1917, some American Lutheran Church leaders spoke openly in support of Germany and questioned the motivations of the British in entering the war.

Some Canadians continued to address mail to "Berlin" rather than "Kitchener" after the city's name change. In reaction, a number of cities petitioned the government to cease delivering such letters. This petition—from Kingston, Ontario's city council—accuses those who still referred to Kitchener as "Berlin" of "expressing their disloyalty in every way possible."

Some Canadians continued to address mail to “Berlin” rather than “Kitchener” after the city’s name change. In reaction, a number of cities petitioned the government to cease delivering such letters. This petition—from Kingston, Ontario’s city council—accuses those who still referred to Kitchener as “Berlin” of “expressing their disloyalty in every way possible.”

Lutheran pastors and influential lay leaders tried to provide a balance by speaking out publicly on behalf of Germans in Canada. They pointed out that German-Canadians did not support the Prussian militarism of Germany against which war was being waged. To publicly affirm their patriotism, Lutheran Church conventions passed resolutions affirming the loyalty of their members to the British Empire and to the flag. They supported the war effort through financial contributions to various patriotic and relief fund drives. Lutheran pastors resisted the government’s efforts to use their worship services and to influence the content of their sermons to promote the war directly but editors of church papers were not hampered in doing so.

After the War

Since the anti-German sentiments did not diminish after peace had been proclaimed, the task of countering these sentiments continued. To counter false accusations and innuendos in the public press, pastors responded that such unjust charges tend to stimulate persecution against a church which is loyal to the state against anarchy, rebellion, and sedition. Alfred M. Rehwinkel, a pastor and later professor in Edmonton, was probably the most pro-active Lutheran in attempting to counter the hate propaganda of the war. He organized the German-Canadian Association and conducted mass meetings in different localities to discuss the problem. He met with government officials to secure their cooperation. He contributed articles to the press and carried on an extensive correspondence with people throughout western Canada. He also translated “O Canada” into German for use in public meetings and carried on a vigorous campaign for a fair and equitable treatment of all citizens.

Anti-German sentiment affected mission growth among Lutherans in a substantial way. In the decade before the war the bodies serving German Lutherans had tripled in membership; the war deprived them of growth which might have occurred through further immigration. Mission congregations in the cities were severely hampered by members having to accept lower-paying jobs or losing their jobs entirely. In a number of locations, promising city mission starts had to be abandoned as members moved to rural communities where they could take out a homestead and better survive. The opening of a preparatory school which later became Concordia University College of Alberta and the development of new Missouri Synod districts in Western Canada was postponed until after the war because of the uncertainty of war-time.

Anti-German sentiment also led to the closing of all of the Lutheran parochial schools and indirectly resulted in legislation being passed by many provinces to require attendance in public schools. The legislation made it difficult to re-open these church schools even after hostilities had ceased. In as much as this action strengthened the education of the next generation for responsible citizenship and hastened the transition of the German immigrant population to function more and more in English, it might be seen as a positive result of the war. However, the loss of the parochial school in all but a very few instances was a substantial blow to ability of the Lutheran congregations to properly indoctrinate succeeding generations in the basics of the Lutheran faith.

While the war was largely negative in its effect on the development of Lutheranism in Canada, it did cause Lutherans in this country to begin to recognize their unique identity. The anti-German sentiment among the general population resulted from their identification of Canadian Lutherans with Germany. Church leaders in Canada made statements to correct such erroneous notions. However, since the United States was neutral in the war prior to 1917 and some American Church leaders supported Germany, there was also the need for the Canadian Church to distance itself from its American officials. This led to an awareness that Canadian Lutherans were not merely a northern branch of North American Lutheranism but had an identity uniquely Canadian.

There was a need for the Canadian Church to distance itself from its American officials. This led to an awareness that Canadian Lutherans were not merely a northern branch of North American Lutheranism but had an identity uniquely Canadian.

The war confronted Lutherans in Canada to take seriously the fact that they lived and functioned as church in a different country from the vast majority of Lutheranism in North America. Before 1914 almost all theological training of pastors had occurred in the United States. During the war, many German Lutheran students from Canada were denied visas to do so. Another case in point was the military chaplaincy. When the Lutheran bodies organized one central board for Lutheran war service in the United States, a corresponding agency had to be organized comprised of leaders of the regional units of the Lutheran Church to serve the chaplaincy needs of Lutheran servicemen in Canada.

For German Lutherans—indeed for all Lutherans in Canada—the First World War was a coming to grips with the realities of life in their new adopted country. Much has happened over the past century in Canada and in the Lutheran Church. But the turning point may well have been the War to End All Wars!

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Rev. Dr. Norman J. Threinen is Professor Emeritus at Concordia Lutheran Seminary (Edmonton). He is a contributor to the 2014 book Canadian Churches and the First World War, edited by Gordon L. Heath and published by McMaster Divinity College.