Faith, belief and superstition

Originally posted 2016-03-01 14:38:03. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

From organised religion to visions of angels on the battlefield, Curator Dr Matthew Shaw explores the profound impact of World War One on religion, belief and superstition for individuals and communities around the world.

The closeness of death made belief – and its opposite – a pressing issue for the millions of men serving on the front and for those left behind at home. The society of the day was a profoundly religious one, with faith integrated into all aspects of life. Yet the religious picture of pre-war society was also a complex one, with a dense range of belief and superstition varying from village to village and region to region, as much as from one soul to the next. Russian serfs, Welsh coalminers, Punjabi volunteers, Lyonnais republicans differed in their belief, unbelief, conformity and commitment as much as they shared a common view of life and death.
The experience of the war also shaped people’s belief. For some, the futility and brutality of the lethal conflict destroyed any vestige of faith, while others found refuge in their religion. Often, the pain of war altered, but did not erase, faith. Letters from Punjabi Muslim soldiers reveal that they wrote home, asking for people in India to save them and ‘that He may stop this calamity’. Superstition was also rife in the trenches, with lucky charms or routines offering some small measure of comfort and control at a time when life and death seemed random and out of control. For those on the Home Front, and for the survivors and the bereaved after the war, contact with the afterlife offered some gleam of comfort. Organised religion attempted to rise to the challenge of the war, and tried to meet the social challenges of demobilisation, economic depression and political strife that accompanied the war and its aftermath.
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  1. From the cradle to the grave, popular religion formed a necessary and vital, if analytically messy, part of the human experience of the Great War.

    The war had the potential to atomize and alienate religious believers, but lived religion had the power to deepen traditional bonds of identity and provide comfort, hope, and meaning. This article examines popular religion in terms of the variety of religious beliefs and practices of large numbers of people.

    Often contrasted with “official” religion, popular religion was not inherently antithetical to authority, as demonstrated by the large numbers of faithful who, in their moments of deepest personal need, used official prayers, like the “Our Father” (the Lord’s Prayer), or liturgical aids, such as rosaries. Popular religious beliefs were essential to the hearts and minds of billions of people across the globe.

    • Hi Vicki, I was surprised to find few original documents reflecting on such belief systems. I have searched the WW1 London archives with a few references, but spartan to say the least.

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