Remembering, studying, learning
Linking Hands with the Front is an account of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in 1914 - 1918. Based on the church's magazines from the period, it tells the story of the "Bloomsbury Batallion's" service overseas and on the home front. Many of the issues it raises are pertinent to today, write authors Jonathan Barr and Janice O'Brien
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, situated in the centre of London, has always attracted a diverse community of members and friends. In the years preceding the First World War, young men and women flocking to the city for employment found within its walls a “home from home” and a church family. They came from all over Britain; some from Baptist congregations, while others were introduced into the church through friendships or an interest in the wider activities and societies offered by an institutional church.
With the outbreak of war Bloomsbury was immediately in the spotlight. The church’s minster, Thomas Phillips was well-known as a pacifist who hated war but now he was confronted with the reality of seeing a substantial number of his congregation make the choice of how to respond to the crisis. Many joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, others the YMCA, but a substantial number took up arms. In December 1915 he wrote:
“As to the number who have enlisted we are in danger of losing all count - there are over 300 connected with our different societies and taking the men who have passed through Bloomsbury during the last ten years there must be over a thousand - that is there is a Bloomsbury battalion in the field.”
We first looked at some of the names of the "Bloomsbury Battalion" in 2014. The church magazines are missing for half of the war years, but with the starting point of the surviving magazines and church yearbooks we began our search. Gradually we were able to build biographies around a few of those names. They began to take on a new reality as we found out their personal stories. It was an emotional journey, as they had been part of a church where we too had worshipped, debated, grown and made friendships.
We studied the Home Front and found issues pertinent to today. Refugees, traumatised, displaced human beings were arriving from Belgian. How would Bloomsbury respond ? The Zeppelin raids over London, some within sight of Bloomsbury, leaving the congregation at times stranded in the church basement until the “All Clear” was sounded. The feeling of terror in the midst, sadly not unknown in London today.
With people pulled in many directions by the war and all the social and heartbreaking implications, how to preach the Gospel; the Good News of Jesus Christ, to a congregation in the midst of war? This was to be the constant focus of Thomas Phillips amidst the pastoral care needed by the congregation:
The pretty August wedding conducted by Phillips and reported of in the church magazines of 1913 held such high hopes for Christian service in the union of a couple dedicated to that calling - only to see it end in death of a conscript on a parched Greek hillside.
The young RAMC doctor, whose ambition in life had been to alleviate pain and suffering, killed by a shell whilst tending wounded soldiers in a dug-out in France.
The young man whose call for mission service was interrupted by war, suddenly realises that the whole world is a mission field: ‘’It is an opportunity for a Christian that seldom comes … My personal aim has been to endeavour without much talk or forcing, to quietly, without fear, live consistently in their presence, and the response has been wonderful, proving that ‘Down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter, Feelings lie buried which grace can restore'."
Alongside the heart-breaking news of death in the stories we also found optimism as the church rallied to support the neighbouring military hospital. It organised a social which was so successful that the news travelled across to the “Bloomsbury battalion” serving in France.
Then there was the middle-aged lady member who rushed off to France in early 1915 to start a military hospital which would become famous in paintings and literature. She was also unafraid to face her critics after having bravely stood up and declared that certain tactics used by Britain were contrary to humanity and the spirit of Christ.
At the helm of Bloomsbury throughout the war years and indeed between 1916 and 1917 when he also served as President of the Baptist Union, stood the Revd Thomas Phillips, who kept his central focus on preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ.
“Europe has got into a bad plight," he wrote in November 1915. "The causes are many, and complicated, but they can all be traced back to selfishness.”
Why do we remember? Why produce yet another book on the First World War ?
It is surely in remembrance that we learn of the futility of war. It is only in the study of war that we learn and pass on that learning to the future generations that they might know the cost of war. We give thanks for those who have sacrificed their lives for the freedoms we enjoy. For those who did what they felt was the right thing in the context of the times in which they lived, a world war which is now consigned to history but still has vital lessons for the world today.
“War always comes as disaster. Most people work to prevent it, hoping it will never happen. If it comes then it is an expression of our moral failure, our inability or unwillingness to face differences and desires without killing one another… ” The Revd Dr Brian Haymes: Foreword - Linking Hands With The Front.
Janice O’Brien and Jonathan Barr are authors of Linking Hands with the Front - A London Baptist Church responds to the 1914 - 1918 War, which will be published by the Baptist Historical Society. It is soon to be available for £12.99 (plus postage and packing) from baptisthistory.org.uk
The authors and Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church would be delighted to hear from anyone reading this who has copies of the 1916-1919 Bloomsbury magazines hidden away in their attic or shed.
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