- A War with a Silver Lining: Canadian Protestant Churches and the South African War, 1899-1902
Gordon Heath has taken up an important question first flagged by Phillip Buckner and Carman Miller on the role of churches and the missionary movement in Canadian support for the South African War. This support contrasted with the more critical response of churches in the United States and Britain, although Canadian commentators appear to have rebutted these criticisms simply by either reasserting the accuracy of their own positions, or arguing that the perceived moral gain of a British victory, directly to the non-Boer population and allegedly to the Boers themselves ultimately, outweighed the moral costs. The book's title — a quotation from one of these spokesmen — illustrates this form of moral accounting.
Publications from the four largest Protestant denominations show that their writers combined the vocabulary and reasoning of older traditions of Christian ethics with that of more recent diplomatic or military debates, as well as contemporary discourses of empire, race, and gender, though empire is the major theme of the book. In fact, longstanding military metaphors in religious discourse on moral or social struggle made it easier for denominations to support a particular side in the wars their states engaged in. Heath also shows the persistence of another older tradition in which war or particular moments [End Page 363] of a war could be providential, whether as divine retribution or as refining or purgatorial. And as in other wars, denominational writers seldom addressed intellectual contradictions such as blaming one side solely for the outbreak of the war, or seeing all the events of a war within a providential theology, or assuming that a diplomatic victory without war would also have been providential.
Heath attributes Canadian Protestant support for the British position to the timing of this war in the history of both Canadian nation-building and the nationalization of church structures for three of these denominations. Some writers explicitly portrayed the war as part of the process of Anglo-Protestant nation-building and empire-building, though some also attempted to distinguish the former from secular or morally lower forms of nationalism or imperialism, such as self-interested jingoism. Another contrast with the secular press was the historic separation of the denominational press from Canadian party politics, and its reluctance, for the most part, to attack the loyalty of Roman Catholics.
The chapters in part reflect the rhetorical and intellectual structure of the churches' arguments, which at times works well, but sometimes results in repetition, as in the duplicate use of the same quotation (96-7, 128). Probably because of the spatial limitations of a short monograph, Heath's exhaustive research is more evident from his bibliography and his earlier works than from the book's citations. His major sources are the denominational newspapers during wartime, and he follows the convention of effectively personifying them, rather than explicitly identifying the authors or presumed authors of editorials or columns. For the most part, this kind of information is left for the reader to find in the author's earlier and very useful article (' "Forming Sound Public Opinion": The Late Victorian Canadian Protestant Press and Nation-Building,' Journal of the Canadian Church Historical Society 48 : 109-50). In addition to citing poetry or accounts of local war-related gatherings covered in these newspapers, Heath also uses published denominational resolutions, which obviously required the majority support of those people attending meetings, though this evidence is underrepresented in the citations. A real strength of this accessible study is that it is genuinely national, using sources from the Maritimes to British Columbia.
Not surprisingly, the Presbyterians and Anglicans seem over-represented among the cited evidence, as both shared not only a past in which church and state were close, but also a penchant for adopting ritual addresses or resolutions concerning the state at annual meetings. This underplays the most original part of Heath's work: more [End Page 364] explicit...