Magazines 2023 Mar - Apr Churches and the conscription crisis, 1917–1918

Churches and the conscription crisis, 1917–1918

01 March 2023 By Gordon Heath

The Protestant press counterculturally defended French Catholics

The political battles related to Conscription in the First World War threatened to divide Canada along ethnic and religious lines. In general, English Canadians were supportive of Prime Minister Robert L. Borden’s plans to implement it while French Canadians in Quebec were not.

In fact, a riot occurred in Montreal the night the bill became law. More serious violence erupted in Quebec City in 1918. As a result, some 4,000 troops were stationed in Quebec City and 2,000 near Montreal to ensure the riots did not develop into a provincewide insurrection.

What made the matter so dangerous for the fledgling nation were the shrill denunciations of Quebec emanating from English Canada that further stoked the passions of an already enflamed populace.

Despite a long history of harsh polemics against Catholics, the Protestant religious press rose to the occasion and helped a nation in crisis. Where the Protestant press differed most significantly from attitudes among most of the secular newspapers in English Canada was in their conciliatory attitude to French Catholics in Quebec.

Severe condemnation was directed to those who promoted racial strife. Not only was fostering racial tensions considered to be unchristian, but anyone who did so was a traitor playing into the hands of the nation’s enemies. As one Baptist commentator wrote, "He who seeks to further embitter political and racial relations is as much the enemy of the nation as is the foe upon the battlefield!"

Surprisingly, the Protestant denominational press became a proponent of conciliation with Catholics in Quebec.

While the larger British-background Protestant churches supported conscription in principle, their support was conditional and circumscribed by concerns. The churches’ reaction to conscription was often quite critical and prophetic, cutting against the grain of popular and political sentiment. In many ways the churches’ reaction – in particular, commentary in their periodicals – was far more helpful to civil discourse and national unity than that of many politicians and all the secular newspapers.

While the theological self-understanding of the churches to be nation builders was central to the churches’ public and political involvement, there was an element of realism. No way a nation with such stark religious and ethnic divisions could survive if divisions were stoked and exploited by an upset public, greedy editors, unscrupulous politicians and zealous preachers. The survival of the nation was at stake, and the churches had a leading role to play in helping it survive the trials related to conscription.

anti conscription parade in victoria square

Photo: Anti-conscription parade in Victoria Square, Montreal, 1917. LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA / C-006859

Often motivated more by political reality than theological ecumenism, their reaction mirrored broader shifts within the British Empire and nation away from ardent anti-Catholicism. The same nation-building role that prompted the churches to evangelize Catholics motivated the denominational press to condemn anti-French rhetoric and encourage an understanding of French Canadian history, culture and religion. Surprisingly, the Protestant denominational press, a formidable tool to Protestantize Canada, became a proponent of conciliation with Catholics in Quebec.

As for concerns over the rights of minority voices such as conscientious objectors, the churches’ responses were motivated by a combination of principle and pragmatism. There was a recognition and concession that in a time of national crisis certain freedoms needed to be curtailed, but, at the same time, the commitment to democracy, civil rights, free speech, conscience and human dignity meant that such freedoms needed to be given up only as a last resort.

In a war being waged to defend democracy, people noted, you should not end up undermining that very democracy you are trying to save. In other words, why fight Germany just to become like Germany?

gordon l heath
Gordon L. Heath, PhD, FRHistS, is professor of Christian history and centenary chair in world Christianity at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ont. Read more at

Related Articles