Religion during the Second World War

Between 1939 and 1945, Canada was engaged in a total war. Across all sectors of society, people mobilized. Many men, and women too, enlisted to fight overseas.

Those people unable to enlist fought the war on the home front and engaged in a variety of war work, whether it was volunteering with the Red Cross, working in munitions factories, or simply complying with rationing rules. 1  Despite the ardent patriotism of Canadians, the war spurred tremendous feelings of anxiety and apprehension about the future. Much like during the First World War, many citizens turned to the institutions they knew best to offer them security and hope in such uneasy times. Canada was predominantly a Christian nation, and Canadians turned to their churches to help weather the storm. In these places of worship, people found work to keep them occupied and to support the war effort. They found community to share feelings of joy, grief, and sorrow. They found spiritual consolation in the words of the ministers who, alongside their congregations, sought to make sense of the conflict beyond a simple understanding of it as a battle between good and evil.

Noted historian of religion John Webster Grant wrote with respect to the trend in religious observance just after the war ended in 1945 that, "What happened in Canada, as in North America generally, was so different that it remains to this day a source of wonder. Men and women who had shown no more than a perfunctory interest in the church before going off to war demonstrated on their return an enthusiasm that confounded all prognosticators." 2  The return to worship that occurred over the course of the Second World War truly was singular. Regardless of denomination or creed, an individual could find community, comfort, and spiritual solace in his or her church.

To worship, then, as now, meant paying homage or praising a god. 3  Worship went beyond mere reverence for the divine. It implied a shared sense of faith, ritual, and prayer amongst a group of individuals. Through worship, churchgoers found communion and community. While amongst different creeds the basic act of worshipping was similar, the rites and rituals associated with how one practiced their faith differed. For example, in the Roman Catholic Church it included the taking of communion or giving confession. Even while the rituals in Protestant Churches differed slightly between different denominations, the basic experience of seeking kinship in a church community and finding solace in prayer remained similar. Historians have traced the trend of people turning to their church for solace to the late 1930s. According to Michael Gauvreau and Nancy Christie, many church leaders "began to view the Great Depression as not only the result of a man-made international economic disequilibrium but also as a great spiritual crisis. 4  The Second World War only deepened the spiritual crisis.

The way people worshipped and the experience and insight they gained through such activity is reflected in a myriad of source materials. For instance, sermons reveal the way ministers tried to understand the war, and how they sought to reflect and represent the war to their congregations. Religious periodicals contain a plethora of articles, editorials, and letters to the editor that display the range of confusion people experienced with respect to the war; they illustrate the political engagement of church institutions and their members in the war effort; they reveal the social issues for which churches advocated change in order to better society for the post-war period (such as issues of temperance, gambling, sexual transgression, or juvenile delinquency); and they also demonstrate the way expressions of religion and faith were called upon to grapple with and understand the conflict. To examine these documents and other similar artefacts allows us as historians, professional or otherwise, the chance to understand better people's attitudes towards church-going, religion, and God. The study of religion during the Second World War period provides important insight into the impact of the conflict upon Canadians outside of accounts of battles, war activism, and social change. Taking note of religion sheds light on what preoccupied the hearts and minds of the citizenry, and so tells us how people coped with the experience of war.

The amount of information can be somewhat overwhelming. Numerous questions emerge from such a wealth of sources. How exactly does looking at worshipping during the Second World War change our understanding of the conflict? What does the material reveal about people's behaviour, anxieties, or hopes? Three patterns emerge fairly clearly when we look at materials and artifacts such as sermons, religious periodicals, and church activities. First, people's participation in the life of the church provided them with an opportunity to engage materially in the national war effort. Second, in theological discussions and through more simple engagement with spiritual questions, individuals were provided a basis for making sense of the conflict within a broader history of the world, and in so doing were presented a means to understand the implications of the conflict upon the future. And third, looking at church activity and religious ideas over the course of the war reveals a changing sense of purpose experienced by the churches as institutions. They needed to find a way to balance the "traditional" ideas that they believed had persevered and sustained the church since Biblical times with the pressures to modernize these old institutions in order to reflect the realities of the post-war world. Let's briefly turn to how these patterns are born out in the historical materials.

As they sent their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers to war, those people who remained behind looked to contribute to the war themselves even if they could not fight. It is not all that surprising that the churches emerged as key places where individuals could organize their war efforts. Under the umbrella of the Canadian Red Cross Society, women's groups formed to produce hampers to send overseas, collect money for victory bonds, and sew items to augment a soldier's kit. For example, in London, Ontario, both the Metropolitan and First St. Andrew's United Churches devoted a great deal of attention and effort to the creation of the boxes to send overseas. In the announcement booklets distributed at the weekly services, the various women's groups of the church placed advertisements regularly asking for donations of money, chocolate bars, tinned fruits, nuts, and other similar goods. 5  These booklets also called for donations of sewn articles to the Red Cross. The women of the Metropolitan United Church in 1944 alone knitted or sewed 7985 articles of clothing. 6  The church, here, functioned as a vital war centre that helped women participate in the war and share in a sense of community with others in similar a situation. Worship was neither exceptional nor overtly religious; instead, it was a facet of everyday life that bound people together in common cause.

The orders of service put out by the churches offer another really unique glimpse into the daily life of the churches. The weekly notes included in the programs showcased the achievements of its members and groups, as in the case of the tally of sewed items for the boys overseas. The bulletins about weekly meetings held by church groups such as the Women's Auxiliary Society or the salvage crew (which scoured and canvassed for scrap metal goods to donate to the armed forces) point to the wider community that worked together on the home front. Bulletins and other church documents such as Sunday service programs not only reveal the regular activity of church members, but also the spiritual preoccupations of a congregation, which brings us to the second theme: the way worship made people appreciate how the conflict might impact the future.

Early in the war, a short article in The Globe and Mail declared that "war will predominate tomorrow again in the subjects of sermons preached from the pulpits of Toronto." 7  Indeed, nominally secular papers regularly included articles about religious congregations and their activities. They also included articles that attempted to reach out to the public and provide lessons about the war. In a 1940 article entitled "The Second Half of Religion," a short story was related about a small group of people asking God to deliver them because life was not worth living in such tumultuous times. God asks a group of people who come before Him why they should wish for death. The group replies in unison that the war has revealed such barren human natures and such debased actions, such as the killing of mothers and children, that to go on seems unbearable. God chastises the people and asks why they would wish to be "uncreated"when He had created them in love? He admonishes the group: finding a way out of war was up to them and not achievable through suicide. People could not just run away from the horrors. War was a sign that people and nations had not learned how to "get on together;" people needed to work harder and embrace the challenge put before them of creating peace. If God's spirit infused all life, then in His spirit and strength people could find the will to persevere and forge a peace. 8  The message was clear.

The short parable related a profound message for the public: the strength and hope to carry on in the face of the atrocities of war derived from God. The responsibility for the conflict and for its resolution lay within the worldly realm, but in worshipping the divine, people could find solace and the power to combat such evil. The "second half of religion";, then, entailed a person's acceptance of culpability and responsibility for his or her choices and actions, as well as the embrace of faith and good works to better the world. Belief and action had to work together. In historical sources such as newspapers, historians can see how people thought about the present. These sources also depicted the trepidation people felt about the future. Religious stories such as the example just discussed evince the way religion permeated public media and forums. Worshipping, here, meant taking responsibility for the future peace.

Clearly, personal responsibility and duty factored prominently in discussions of the war. It was part of a Christian's duty to act in and seek peace. Popular sources such as the radio programs of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation Such echoed such sentiment. In a radio program sponsored by the War Finance Program a letter from a soldier to his father was read aloud. In it, the soldier reminds his father that "war is everyone's concern." 9  The underlying message clearly echoed the religious message of personal responsibility and duty. The government-sponsored broadcast championed duty in order to solicit support for victory bonds and for a renewed effort on the home front. Within church congregations, duty certainly meant helping with war work, but it also had a spiritual connotation. An individual had a moral responsibility to act for the country and to live as a good Christian, practicing virtues such as humanity, benevolence, temperance, and justice.  10

United Church of Canada minister Gordon Spence Maxwell preached that the Second World War, much like any war, tested the core values of society. War not only challenged the economic and social resources of a country but also the spiritual strength of its population. In a 1940 sermon, Maxwell attempted to frame the war within a sacred context in order to understand the implications of the conflict for the Canadian (Christian) community:

"It is indeed true in these days when all our energies are being mobilized for the prosecution of the war, that we are inclined to confuse the issues at stake, and to forget that the mere winning of the war may prove a dreadful boomerang unless, as victors we are prepared in remaking the world to make it a Christian world.  11

Maxwell was confident that the Allies could win the war. The real test, he foretold, would come in crafting an enduring peace. In the war, there was the opportunity to refashion Canada as a strong, Christian nation. Such sentiment offered a beacon of hope meant to bolster or inspire citizens who felt anxious about the global conflict and the threat to their liberty. In trusting God, people could weather the storm and secure anew their freedom.

Maxwell was not alone in vocalizing such ideas. His message - to focus upon hope, to trust in Providence, and to take in stride the lessons of conflict to learn and overcome real evil in the world – belied a societal preoccupation with getting to the bottom of what the war meant, and its implications on a spiritual level. It is little wonder, then, that many Canadians turned to church communities during the war to gain strength as they worked to bring their loved ones home. As people turned to their churches, different church denominations turned to each other to forge a greater, stronger religious community. This cooperative impulse was particularly true of the Protestant Churches.

The Second World War made it apparent to many church moderators (particularly within the mainline Protestant communities of the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Churches) that their institutions had to engage in cooperation and interfaith dialogue. William Gallagher, a former Presbyterian Minister who had joined the United Church of Canada in 1925, vociferously advocated for a greater sense of ecumenism in Canada. 12   Ecumenism – a belief in broader Christianity unity that prioritized denominational collaboration above doctrinal differences 13  – grew in popularity over the course of the war. In the words of British historian Michael Snape, "a shared Christian culture could at least do something to ameliorate the horrors of modern warfare."  14

In Canada, the Canadian Council of Churches was formed in 1944. 15  The CCC assembled Presbyterians, Anglicans, the United Church, Baptists, the Salvation Army, and other smaller Christian groups under a shared mandate. Together, these groups could advocate in common cause for broader social issues that affected Canada with greater authority because they represented so many Canadians. For instance, the CCC took up the cause of helping to facilitate war work with the Red Cross. After the war, it became a vocal exponent of increased immigration and public programs to educate citizens about transitioning into a new economy. The willingness of the Protestant churches to come together typifies the effect of the global conflict upon church institutions. Churches, too, had to adapt to the changing times in order to remain relevant to their congregations and to advocate upon their behalves. Worshipping, then, also worked on a broader, organizational level. The CCC's outreach and advocacy was a form of public and institutional worship. It was a body that promoted more widespread change to ensure national spiritual unity. In turn, such unity invited people to continue to trust in their church as place where they could work, worship, and affect social change. Documents like those generated by the CCC are evidence of the enlarged role that church leaders perceived for religion in the changing times. Worship could be very personal, but war made it a very public act with very public connotations and consequences.

The Second World War was frequently couched in terms of righteousness. The moral terminology employed by churches, ministers, citizens, and chaplains linked the national cause of war with a larger spiritual cause. Through worship citizens could participate in the war. They could find a purpose in their activity and a hope for the future. They could participate in institutions that were alive to modernization and adaptation. Materials related to worship, then, identify the rich religious culture in Canada. Paying attention to such materials can only enrich our understanding of the conflict. By extension, looking for religion in other (perhaps more "secular") sources deepens our historical understanding of the effect of the conflict upon Canada's citizens.

Julia Rady-Shaw, University of Toronto

Suggested Reading:

Abella, Irving and Troper, Harold. None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 (Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1982)

Christie, Nancy and Gauvreau, Michael. A Full-Orbed Christianity: The Protestant Churches and Social Welfare in Canada, 1900-1940 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996)

Costello, John. Love, Sex, and War: Changing Values, 1939-1945 (London: Collins, 1985)

-----, Virtue Under Fire: How World War II Changed our Social and Sexual Attitudes (Boston: Little Brown, 1985)

Farrow, Douglas, ed. Recognizing Religion in Secular Society: Essays in Pluralism, Religion, and Public Policy (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004)

Faulkner, Charles T.S. “For Christian Civilization: The Churches and Canada’s War Effort, 1939-1942” (PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 1977)

Fussell, Paul. Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989)

Goodwin, Daniel C. “The Canadian Council of Churches: Its Founding Vision and Early Years, 1944-1964,” in Journal of Ecumenical Studies 41/2 (spring 2004), 47-72

Granatstein, J.L. and Neary, Peter, eds. The Good Fight: Canadians in the Second World War (Toronto: Copp Clark Longman, 1995)

Grant, John Webster. The Church in the Canadian Era (Vancouver: Regent Publishing, 1972)

Hamilton, Thomas James. “Padres Under Fire: A Study of Canadian Chaplain Services (Protestant and Catholic) in the Second World War” (PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 1995)

Keshen, Jeff. Saints, Sinners and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004)

Marshall, David B. Secularizing the Faith: Protestant Clergy and the Crisis of Belief, 1850-1940 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992)

Snape, Michael. God and the British Soldier: Religion and the British Army in the First and Second World Wars (London: Routledge, 2005)


  • 1Jeffrey A. Keshen, Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada's Second World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 4.
  • 2 John Webster Grant, The Church in the Canadian Era (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1988), 160.
  • 3A Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion (New York: Continuum, 2010), 244.
  • 4Michael Gauvreau and Nancy Christie, A Full-Orbed Christianity: The Protestant Churches and Social Welfare in Canada, 1900-1940 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996), 224.
  • 5Archives and Research Collections Centre, D.B. Weldon Library, The University of Western Ontario, Records of the Metropolitan United Church, London, B5415, Western Archives, "Bulletins (1941)."
  • 6Ibid., "Overseas Mail, 1944."
  • 7"Thought of War Echoed in Sermons as Congregations Meet on Sunday," Globe and Mail [Toronto], Saturday, 16 September 1939, 11.
  • 8"The Second Half of Religion";, Globe and Mail [Toronto], Wednesday, 10 January 1940, 6.
  • 9 CBC Digital Archives, "Dear Dad: War is Everyone's Concern," National War Finance Program, original radio broadcast, 27 December 1942.
  • 10See Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 164-180. Fussell's chapter on "High-Mindedness" looks at how the war was couched in terms of good and evil, and the way support for the war was ennobled. While his examples pertain specifically to the United States and Britain, a similar pattern existed in Canada. For example, see the introduction to Keshen, Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers for a historiographical discussion of the way the Second World War has been historicized in Canada as well as how the conflict was referred to during the period.
  • 11United Church of Canada Archives, Gordon Spence Maxwell fonds, 1986.276C, file 36, Sermons, "The Opportunities of the Day," February 1940.
  • 12See the extensive correspondence on the matter, in Library and Archives Canada: Canadian Council of Churches fonds, MG 28 I 327, volume 1, General Files for documents pertaining to the formation and organization of the Canadian Council of Churches and its relationship to the international body, the World Council of Churches, of which the CCC was an off-shoot.
  • 13Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, 72.
  • 14 Michael Snape, God and the British Soldier: Religion and the British Army in the First and Second World Wars (New York: Routledge, 2005), 188.
  • 15Canadian Council of Churches fonds, volume 1, General Files, file 1, "Annual Meeting Minutes, 1944-47."