Global War and World Religions

The current literature on religion and the First World War is patchy. Some subjects are quite well served. There is significant literature in English, French and German on military chaplaincy in the Western armies, recently joined by an important study of the Hapsburg forces. There is decent literature in English and French on Benedict XV and Vatican diplomacy. Folk religion and superstition are very well covered for France, have some good literature for Britain and have recently been addressed in English for Russia. There is some decent ‘church history’ for the United Kingdom and for Germany. These countries also have some literature on religion and pacifism, as does the United States. The USA also has some useful work on the religion of ordinary soldiers, and on the relationship between religious ideas and international relations. There are a few works that have addressed the social history of religion on the home front. There are studies of aspects of Judaism and Islam during the War, although there is as yet no overview of either religion. The War is given some role in the literature of twentieth century theological thought but rarely a central one.

But there are as yet few proper transnational, comparative or global histories of the First World War and religion. The role, if any, that religion plays in motivating, sustaining and transcending the War is poorly understood; and the impact of the War on the historical trajectories of religious organizations, practices and beliefs remains vaguely perceived and contentious.

This Oxford research group aims to generate monographic literature based on primary research, and to collaborate in constructing the bigger picture. Oxford offers a good location for such research initiatives because there is significant expertise in place on both the history of religion and the history of the First World War (both within the History Faculty and beyond). It also has excellent library facilities for work in this area, and can act as an attractive destination for international scholars. It is anticipated that this research group will intersect with an interdisciplinary network on war and religion.

Dr. Adrian Gregory, Prof. Derek Penslar, Dr. Faisal Devji and Dr. Eugene L. Rogan are among those available to offer supervision in this research cluster. They would be especially enthusiastic about research projects exploring one or more of the following topics:

  • The Roman Catholic Church and the War: This research might examine the relationship between the Papacy and the churches within the combatant and neutral nations, in particular the reception and rejection of Benedict XV’s peace initiatives. It might consider the varieties of religious experience of civilians and combatants, laity and clergy, as well as looking at certain specific wartime phenomena and events (the Fatima apparitions, Claire Ferchaud). It would also consider the longer term consequences of the War for Catholicism.
  • Islam and the War: Topics here include the Ottoman Fetwa of November 1914 and its global ramifications (as well as its failures). Research might also explore the use of religion in the Arab Revolt. It might consider the variety of religious experiences of Muslim combatants and civilians. It would also examine the extent to which War was a definitive modernizing moment for Islam, creating a newly powerful sense of global Muslim identity through the fall of the Ottoman caliphate.
  • Judaism and the War: This might involve a consideration of the impact of the War on the various transnational Jewish religious communities (Orthodox/Reformed, Sephardi/Ashkenazi) and the varieties of religious experience of Jewish combatants and civilians. It might examine the impact of the Balfour Declaration (1917) on the Jewish faith, as well as the influence of the rediscovery of Hassidic mysticism on subsequent Jewish (and later Christian) theology.
  • State churches, the War and revolution: This would look at the impact of the War on state churches — ‘Lutheran’, ‘Anglican’, ‘Presbyterian’ and/or ‘Orthodox’. It might investigate ‘clerical nationalism’ as well as the varieties of religious experience of civilians and combatants. It might examine the breakdown or strengthening of international ties (e.g. the foundation of the World Council of Churches by the Bishop of Upsalla), and the crisis in church-state relations in wartime and revolution (especially in Russia, Greece and Germany).
  • Protestant and Other ‘Sects’— Consent and Dissent: This would consider non-established religious groups, some with a prior history of persecution (e.g. Syrian Christians, Mennonites, Old Believers), as well as the wide variety of religious groups in North America. The focus would be on the problematic relationship between religious and political obligation, and on the issues of pacifism, resistance and objection. Consideration might also be given to some of the millenarian movements which emerged during the war (such as Chilembwe).