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JH Shakespeare and The Churches at the Cross-Roads (1918) 


The end of the Great War would lead to reconciliation and unity between churches alongside the call to peace among nations - a move anticipated, surprisingly, by a British Baptist leader. Keith Clements explains more   

JH ShakespeareFor some, the silencing of the guns in November 1918 did not just mean relief that the four-year catastrophe, consuming lives by the million, was over. It meant time for an honest, sober and repentant questioning of why such horror had been unleashed upon the world, what lessons should be learnt from it, and what a new and deeper commitment to a world order of peace and justice would entail.

Such soul-searching was particularly evident among the most percipient leaders of the churches at both international and national levels. Whatever else, the “Great War” had been bloodily fought between nations which claimed to be Christian, and which on all sides claimed to be fighting for “Christian civilisation”. Yet with their own fervent nationalisms and their separateness as confessions, denominations and sects, were they not part of the world’s disease rather than its cure?

With the call to peace among the nations went, therefore, the call for reconciliation and unity between the churches. In January 1920 there went out a letter from the most authoritative voice of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, “unto all the Churches of Christ wheresoever they be”, to form a league for peace and mutual assistance. That same year the bishops of the worldwide Anglican communion gathered at the Lambeth Conference issued an “Appeal ‘for Reunion’ to all Christian People”. Moves for international ecumenical conferences on “Life and Work” and “Faith and Order” were afoot.

But all this had been anticipated–surprisingly it may be felt–by a British Baptist leader, John Howard Shakespeare (1857-1928, pictured) whose book The Churches at the Cross-Roads. A Study in Church Unity was published in that momentous month, November 1918. As General Secretary of the Baptist Union since 1898, it was his leadership and organising ability that had created for Baptists a denominational structure fit for mission in the 20th century.

But his vision was wider. He believed powerfully in Free Church unity, and moreover by 1918 was arguing that in England only a unity incorporating in some way both the Free Church traditions and Anglican episcopacy would suffice to meet the challenge of the modern world.

“Most of us who are living to-day have been born into one world and have come to live in another”.

The opening words of The Churches at the Cross-Roads sound the tone for the entire book. If prophecy means seeing what is happening in the world and asking what God is doing and saying in it, then Shakespeare was a true prophet. The awakening of the social conscience, the advancement of women in society (in which he believed passionately), the growth of the modern mind-set and its philosophical expressions – this new world required new responses from the churches, responses which called them to unite so as to manifest in their very life what it was they believed instead of parading their differences. Shakespeare saw that these changes had been running since long before the crisis of 1914. Only, now the challenge had been laid bare and made more acute by the sorrows wrought on the battlefields.

In his lifetime Shakespeare’s far-reaching proposals for union aroused controversy among Baptists and they were largely opposed, or ignored. His legacy is still a matter of some debate in the denomination today. But the passion which drove Shakespeare’s call for unity was not a desire for ecclesiastical tidying up. It was a longing to find new ways of conveying the love of God in a stricken world. The fire that ignited the writing of The Churches at the Cross-Roads burns at its most eloquent in these sentences:


How well I remember walking up and down on a calm Sunday evening by the sea-shore with one who had lost two gallant boys, one in France and one beneath the burning Eastern sun. As he told me of the awful struggle raging in his soul, how he had prayed and prayed that they might be spared, and then of the midnight and wreckage of faith when both fell, I saw that in this coming time which will have suffered and lost so much and in which so many lights have gone out, the sects as such can do nothing at all. The things they stand for in their divisions may be true and good in so far as they go, but they do not matter. They simply and finally do not matter. If the churches can together keep one steady light burning to guide the tempest-tost to the haven, then in the name of God let them do it.

“I saw that in this coming time .. .”.  A hundred years on, we are still living in that time.

Baptist minister Keith Clements is the former general secretary of the Conference of European Churches


This article is the latest in a continuing series from Baptist Historical Society highlighting stories and moments from our past.

Earlier articles have looked at:


  • Anne Steele - marking the tercentenary of the birth of Anne Steele (1717-1778), a prolific Baptist hymn writer

  • W. T. Whitley - 'the outstanding British Baptist historian'

  • Edith Gates -  the first woman to be recognised as being in pastoral charge of an English Baptist church

  • Renewed for Mission, 50 years on - The 50th anniversary of George Beasley-Murray's presidential address 

  • Disestablishment - 'How do the churches relate to the state?'

To join the Society or learn more about our Baptist history, visit https://baptisthistory.org.uk

Baptist Times, 21/11/2018
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