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Methodist Ministers at War: Wesleyan Chaplains of World War I

Dr Gareth Lloyd writes:

On 4 August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany starting the countries involvement in what became known as the Great War.

Chaplain writing letter
Army chaplain writing a letter home for a casualty. Wikimedia Commons image.

Every aspect of British life was affected by the sudden descent into global conflict. The response of the Wesleyan Church, the largest of the several Methodist denominations, was sharply divided. In the days after the outbreak of hostilities, there was profound shock and dismay – the official Church newspaper referred to the crisis as “the horrible nightmare of a restless sleeper”.

Some ministers and laymen became conscientious objectors, but the majority opinion regarded the war as a just cause and Methodists volunteered in their thousands for military service. By the summer of 1917 more than 200,000 Wesleyans and tens of thousands more from other Methodist denominations were serving in the armed forces.

Owen Spencer Watkins
Methodist Chaplain Reverend Owen Spencer Watkins. From Methodist Magazine, March 1915, page 160.

The Wesleyan ministry was quick to answer the call to duty. Approximately 330 ministers served as army and navy chaplains for the duration of the conflict. Most were volunteers from the civilian circuit ministry, who were appointed honorary chaplains to the forces to distinguish them from the small number of regular serving chaplains. Other ministers and candidates for ordination waived exemption from conscription to serve in the ranks as ordinary soldiers and sailors.

Meeting of the synod of Australian Imperial Forces held on 7 August 1918 at Wesley’s Chapel, London. From Minutes of Two Methodist Synods: Methodist Church of Australasia, 1918, page 4 (reference MAW Pa 1918).

While classified as non-combatants, chaplains shared the dangers and privations of the battlefield. They lived under daily shellfire and accompanied the infantry as they launched or defended against attacks. Often employed in dressing stations and field ambulances, the chaplains provided comfort to the seriously wounded and dying as well as their comrades in the trenches. Many chaplains were decorated for bravery, typically for trying to help others. Reverend Spencer-Watkins, for example, whose photograph and service record is featured in this blog, was mentioned in despatches five times. By the war’s end in 1918, thirty Methodist ministers had been killed and many more wounded.

“When I reached my billet, I sat down and, putting my aching head between my hands – bedaubed with trench mud, iodine and human blood – I wept.”
“Stories from the Front by United Methodist Chaplains” (London: 1917), p.21

“Mine’s a pretty bad job at times, but I’m damned glad I haven’t yours. The best of luck to you”
The commanding officer of a front-line unit to a Wesleyan chaplain, quoted in “Reflections on the battlefield: from infantryman to chaplain, 1914-1919” Robert. J. Rider, ed. Robinson and Hair (Liverpool University Press: 2001)

Chaplain preaching
Army chaplain preaching from the cockpit of a plane. National Library of Scotland image licensed for reuse CC-BY.

To commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War, the Methodist Church in Britain and the John Rylands Library have collaborated to digitise a volume containing the service records of Wesleyan chaplains who served between 1914 and 1919.   Details typically include the individual’s pre-war and post-war ministry, commissioning and promotions, unit attachments, decorations, wounds, dates and location of frontline service and additional comments. Some of the names have no record attached and it appears that the details recorded in the volume are exclusively for attachments to the army, including the Royal Flying Corp, the predecessor of the Royal Air Force. Similarly, the document only appears to cover service in a theatre of war or supporting UK base establishment as opposed to a peacetime garrison.

This unique document provides a vivid and moving insight into the faith, courage and self-sacrifice displayed by Methodist chaplains who ministered to and served alongside the soldiers, sailors and airmen of World War I.

Service Record of O S Watkins
Service record of Reverend Owen Spencer Watkins. Ref. MA 1999/1, p. 309 of the volume of service records.

The Methodist Armed Forces Board services records are available online via Luna at The above images and digitised chaplaincy records are reproduced with the permission of the Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes and the John Rylands Library. They are made freely available to the public for non-commercial usage under the terms of a creative commons licence held by The University of Manchester Creative Commons Licence Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).


5 comments on “Methodist Ministers at War: Wesleyan Chaplains of World War I

  1. Rev Dr Peter Howson

    IN ‘Muddling Through: The Organisation of British Army Chaplaincy in world War One,’ I explore the Wesleyan attitude to accepting War Office Commissions for their chaplains both in august 1914 and in the post-war world. Much of the research for the Wesleyan content of the book was carried out in the John Rylands. I am grateful for the assistance I received. The full story of Wesleyan chaplains, and also of the Wesleyan response to World War One, remains to be told.

  2. Great news for all interested in the Army Chaplains of the Great War and particularly those with an interest in Wesleyan history. The records at John Rylands Library were invaluable with my research into ‘The Half-Shillling Curate, A personal account of war & faith 1914-1918’. There were many other records in the collection which were very useful and interesting.

    In a letter to his parents from the Western Front, my grandfather, Rev. H.B. Cowl M.C., Wesleyan Army Chaplain wrote:

    ‘A doctor in the mess had said, “he had never been near enough to a parson to touch him with a barge pole before”. However, at the end of the altercation, “the doctor rose to his feet with angry flush, and as he left he said, “I don’t care what you fellows say; but the chap who has got religion is a damned lucky chap”!’’

  3. Andrew Pickering

    Delighted that the service of these ministers to their country, their church and their men has been recorded and recognised in this way. I found the John Rylands library very helpful indeed for my research for an M.Phil.into Wesleyan Chaplains during the First World War. I am now looking at Methodist ministry to the British armed forces from 1740 to 2000 for a PhD and will be looking to use the library again.

  4. Pingback: Methodist Ministers at War: Wesleyan Methodist Chaplains of World War I – Ecclesiastical History Society

  5. Do you know if the Rev Owen Spencer Watkins deposited any of his papers in the Rylands archive? I am a number of articles he may have published in the Methodist Recorder, you mention the Methodist Magazine in your blog, is this a different publication?

    David Blanchard

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