Nazi officers, WWII.

A few months ago, Europe was a prosperous country, full of wealth, comfort, and enjoyment of all kinds. Its many millions were engaged in quiet occupations which employed their energies happily. “They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded.”

Fathers and mothers and children, families young and old, cities and villages were in the enjoyment of plenty, and full of hope for the future.

There was much hope that the wants and sufferings which were still the lot of too many among them might be gradually removed by benevolent legislation and mutual help; but, on a sudden, at a few days’ notice, this scene of happiness, and hope, and well-being is overthrown as if by an earthquake.

Some parts of it are overwhelmed by “blood and fire and vapour of smoke,” and the whole of it, from the extreme west of the British Isles to the east of Russia, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean is transformed into a vast barracks, in which sons and fathers are torn from their families, leaving behind them too often the lamentation and mourning of wives and mothers, weeping for those who are not.

I ask you, is not such a sudden and disastrous transformation the most clear proof we could have of some deadly evil being at work in human nature? What else, but some deadly, inherent evil could in a few weeks or days blot out all peace in Europe and let loose a sort of hell in human society and human life.

We were proud of the growth of civilization, and were constructing all sorts of schemes of social and political development, when, on a sudden, our civilization explodes, and we find ourselves surrounded by its wrecks in fire, and ruin, and carnage, and hatred, and violence of all kinds.

All this explosive force of evil must have been there. There must have been corruptions, and sins, and vices at work which we did not surmise; and fair as the life of Europe seemed outside, it must really have been in some respects rotten to the core. This war has not been imposed upon Europe from without, as it was when the great barbarian invaders poured over it fourteen hundred years ago.

All this horror, and misery, and bloodshed, and ruin has sprung out of the materials—out of the civilized materials—provided by Europe itself, and it must be some internal disease, some original vice and corruption which is revealed to us in the ghastly spectacle which is now presented by so large a part of the most favoured lands of the world.

If the life and civilization of Europe has ended in this great catastrophe, can we honestly stand aside and claim to be free of all blame, and to have had no share in the tendencies and evils which have produced so horrible a result? Can we honestly claim to have repudiated them at their source, so as to be free from any part or lot in sins and errors which have led to so hideous a result?

We are all distressed and grieved by it, and are all saying what a horrible thing it is that war—and such a war—should be possible in a Christian Europe. The one question it would be well for us to put to ourselves is whether it has not been the chief wickedness, and the growing wickedness, of Europe at large, and of ourselves in particular.

This war is stirring the deepest thoughts of our people. The curse of this violence and bloodshed is being inflicted, day by day, upon innumerable homes; and day by day we each apprehend it for our own families. In order to stay the curse, the blood of our own brothers and sons is being poured out like water, and the desolation of our homes is becoming more and more appalling.

On the principles of the Christian faith, in short, there is one certainty amidst all our perplexities in this matter. The war and all its miseries reveal to us the fact that great injustices and moral evils were prevalent in Europe, and the greatness of the misery may be taken as a measure of the greatness of the evil.

We think we see these moral and religious evils in the state of our enemies, and particularly in the state of German life and religion. But we shall make a fatal mistake if we allow ourselves to think that all the evil and unrighteousness has been on their side. The very vice with which we now charge the Germans has been more than a temptation among ourselves.

We are discovering more clearly, day by day, that if we are to meet the terrible dangers by which we are threatened, we must revive, both in public and in private, the standards of self-denial, self-control, truth in word and deed.

In proportion, as we succeed in these efforts shall we find that the problems of “religion and the war” are much simpler, better understood by our fathers, and more easily grasped by ourselves, than is supposed in the discussion from which we started.

There is no reality in the world which can be compared to this. It must be brought home to us, by the experience which is thrust upon us by war, that everything else with which we have to do, everything else in the world, passes away from us.

Adapted from The War and the Gospel (1917), by Henry Wace. Photograph courtesy of Avram Meitner. Published under a Creative Commons license.