The Crimean War, fought from 1854-1856 between an alliance of France, Great Britain, Piedmont and Turkey against Russia was the result of a “churchwardens squabble” over who should control the keys to the Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The French, on behalf of the Catholic Church, had had control over them since the Crusades, but following the French Revolution had rather lost their religiosity leaving a space for Russia on the behalf of the Orthodox Church to step-in. Thus when Napoleon III re-asserted his ancient right to protect the Holy Places and to place a silver star bearing the French coat of arms over the supposed site of the Manger of Christ in Bethlehem, an international incident was in the offing. In France and Russia, therefore, the Crimean War was viewed as a Crusade to rescue the Holy Places from heretics; to the Turks the Crimean War was a fight for survival: they had recently suffered a crushing defeat to the Russians in the 1820s and the Ottoman Empire was in the process of falling apart. Indeed Turkey had reluctantly gone to war with Russia to avoid an Islamic revolution at home, so great was the pressure from hard-line Moslem clerics and students and their call for a Jihad (Holy War) against Russia. In Britain, the Crimean War had all of the religious overtones it did to her allies; Protestant Britain was standing up to the ‘bully’ of the Tsar and the un-reformed Orthodox Church. The leitmotif of the war was ‘the Crusade of civilisation against barbarism’ and religious liberty. Thus it is rather ironic that in Britain the ‘crusade of civilisation’ and religious liberty resulted in the persecution of religious minorities, such as Unitarians – a religious position only legal in Britain since 1813.
The Unitarian belief has its origins in the ‘Arian Heresy’ of the 2nd century CE, and until the mid-19th century Unitarians were known as Arians or Socinians after the Polish theologian Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) who declared that he could not find any evidence for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Bible. He had been joined in this by Michael Servetus (1511-1553), who was executed for his ‘heresy’ by John Calvin; Arianism or Socinianism became the principal religion of Poland until it was extinguished by a Crusade implemented by the Pope in 1658 and also the dominant religious group in Transylvania. Socinians, and later, Unitarians, denied the divinity of Jesus as well as the doctrines of original sin and hell. They stressed reason as being of the greatest importance in the understanding and study of the Bible, the equality - ‘Universal brotherhood’ - of all people and promoted the separation of Church from the State. They also asserted the immorality and illegality of taking human life, either in war or through capital punishment. In Britain, Unitarianism grew out of the Protestant Reformation and increasingly from the Puritans who wanted to purify the church from not only Roman Catholicism but from superstition and dogma associated with both Papal authority and clericalism; the ability to read the Bible in English and to interpret by the individual became the dominant theology. Human reason was considered to be the final arbiter of religious truth. It is no surprise, therefore, that Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Erasmus Darwin were all Arians or Socinians. Mid 19th century Unitarians were characterised with an optimistic outlook, both social and religious. For them ‘the truth’ was a real, tangible and a shining beacon of hope. Truth meant freedom from the oppression of tyranny, corrupt political, social and religious systems. They earnestly believed that they had been tasked by God to bring reform and to see and bring out the best in all people. Unitarian theology of the period suggested that God was all-loving and benevolent, that ‘eternal damnation could not possibly exist’ because it went contrary to God’s purpose of promoting human progress and therefore happiness. People were not considered inherently evil but Sin was believed to arise from when mankind fell into the ignorance of God’s supreme moral laws; heaven was also a very real place – hell, of course, was not - which had to be built on Earth and not waited for in any afterlife. Many of the great Victorian social reformers and thinkers such as Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale, were inspired by, but not necessarily were, Unitarian values of freedom, tolerance and equality.
Unitarians and Islam
In order to ‘sell’ Britain’s new alliance with the Turks, the Government and elements of the Radical Press went out of their way to stress that the Turks were ‘not infidels’ but ‘in fact Unitarians’. Likening the Turks to Unitarians in the Press gave the impression that they, like the Unitarians, were reasoned, tolerant and enlightened. Radicals pointed to the political and social reforms in Turkey as evidence of Turkish liberalism and some Protestants went as far as to suggest that the Turks promoted Protestantism in the Near East - an idea largely based on the fact that the Moslem Turks were forbidden on the pain of death of converting to another religion, so Christian missionaries had concentrated instead on Catholic and Orthodox communities. Lord Shaftesbury concluded that Turkish rule was relatively more beneficial to Protestants in the Near East than Russian, as in his opinion the Orthodox Church would not allow any dissent, whereas under the existing system there was a variety of Christian expression. Anglican Protestants had, since 1850, been protected under Turkish law something which would likely be lost under Russian rule. Many Anglicans also drew a sympatric picture of the Turks compared to the Catholics or Orthodox as their quiet, prayerful, and dignified worship seemed more in keeping with their religious ideals than those of the Orthodox or Catholics. Upon the declaration of War, the Vicar of Trinity Chapel, Conduit Street, London preached a sermon in which he claimed the war with Russia was ‘promoting the cause of Religious Liberty and the highest interests of Christ’s Kingdom’. The Minister at Brunswick Chapel, Leeds described it as a ‘Godly war to drive back the hordes of the modern Attila, who threatens [the] Liberty and Christianity….of the Civilised World’ whilst the Vicar of St John’s Church, Keswick, saw the war as a Crusade: ‘we area religious people, we are Bible-reading, church-going people, we send soldier-missionaries to the end of the earth’.
Not everyone was convinced by pro-Turkish press, of course. One Evangelical Royal Navy Lieutenant wrote:
The result of our interference…will be…the conversion (for such it will certainly be as Christians the poor people cannot be) of all Russia. I have a strange feeling about this war…from its proximity to Jerusalem…I have a very strong feeling that the Hand of God is visible in this war more than in any other.
The same officer regretted that the British had been ‘leagued with Infidels, I mean the French and Turks. The French are but perverted Christians, and the Turk knows no better.’ Sergeant Timothy Gowring, 7th Royal Fusiliers, the son of a Baptist Minister, could not understand why Britain was allied to the Turks either. One Evangelical from Leicester wrote that ‘the Turk believes in the Divine Mission of our Lord Jesus Christ more than Quakers or Unitarians’. Neither group could call themselves Christians, and furthermore their pacifist stance ran contrary to the Bible. The conservative Nottinghamshire Guardian agreed that the Turks were like the Unitarians as neither believed in the ‘one true God, Jesus Christ’, and stated that Unitarians had ‘like the German Rationalists … found a half-way house to Infidelity’. A similar anti-Turkish and anti-Unitarian sentiment was expressed through a series of public meetings organised by Evangelicals in Sheffield in August 1854. The Rev. George Croly, Vicar of St Stephen’s Walbrook, saw the war as nothing less than a crusade to convert the Turks to Christianity. Queen Victoria and other conservative Anglicans like Lord Aberdeen and Gladstone were suspicious of the Turks, and indeed the Queen hoped that the Turks ‘would in time all become Christians’.
Britain’s ally, Napoleon III was also attacked by the Evangelicals; George Stanley Faber had in 1852 published a lengthy discourse entitled The Revival of the French Emperorship as Anticipated from Prophecy. Here he used the Bible to prove that Napoleon III was destined to rule France and bring ‘the end times’. To Faber Napoleon III was the ‘whore of Babylon’ who would deceive ‘true Christians’ as to his real intentions. Napoleon III, and by extension, the Catholic French were not to be trusted. Similar sentiments had been expressed by some elements of the Church during the period 1800-1815 when Napoleon I was attacked by the some Evangelicals as the anti-Christ, that the world was ‘entering the End Times’. Other Evangelicals also interpreted him as bringing a ‘punishment’ on Britain for her greed and ignoring the plight of the industrial working classes. Unitarians, of course, had taken the opposite view: they had welcomed the French Revolution of 1789 and Napoleon I was viewed not as a war-monger but a liberal prophet spreading enlightenment, sometimes by force, to the old European aristocracies. In 1801 the Unitarian clergymen Rev. Robert Aspland and Rev. Dr. Joseph Toulmin had described Napoléon I as the ‘fount of liberty’, for which they were arrested and one fellow minister was even transported to Australia for his political sympathies with the French. During a lecture cycle in Britain during 1848, Ralph Waldo Emerson described Napoleon I as a ‘great man’. Emerson defined him as being ‘the man of the nineteenth century’ and the figurehead of all those who sought ‘liberty’. Napoléon III was considered by British liberals to not only be the ‘Napoleon of Peace’ but to be continuing his uncles’ work of social reform.
From 1850 to 1854 there had been a series of international peace conferences organised by the ‘Manchester School’ of politics (ostensibly Unitarian, pacifist, and free-trade), Quakers and allied Churches and organisations across Europe ostensibly to promote disarmament and European free-trade. Napoleon’s statement in 1852 that ‘The Empire is Peace’ (L’Empire c’est la Paix) was cautiously welcomed, as were his suggestions that the map of Europe should be re-drawn on lines of ethnicity instead of might. Unitarians supported Napoleon III’s idea that Poland should be resurrected as an independent nation-state following years of division under Russian and Prussian rule. The Unitarian congregation in Glasgow, led by Rev. Mr Crosskey, their Minister, started a mass-petition to be presented to the Government ‘For the Liberties of the Continent and an Independent Poland’ in January 1855. Following the destruction of the Turkish fleet by the Russians at Sinope in 1853 a Quaker Peace Mission was sent to Russia in an attempt to avert a war that was obviously brewing. So popular in Britain was the push for war with Russia in popular opinion that one hysterical correspondent in The Times in February 1854 wrote that pacifists, Quakers and Unitarians had no place in the House of Commons and were more dangerous than one hundred Russian spies at the Horse Guards. The Russians were at least preparing for war whilst pacifists were an enemy within. The Morning Advertiser (the ‘red top’ of its day) accused pacifists and anyone who was ‘foreign’, including Prince Albert, of being traitors and pro-Russian. They even called for the execution of the Prince! The editor of the Huddersfield Chronicle agreed, openly attacked Unitarians and their pacifist view, suggesting cynically that they were only pacifist because war upset their ‘sacred notion’ of Free Trade. The most famous members of the ‘Manchester School’ were Richard Cobden and John Bright. Both men were ‘folk heroes’ through their support of the repeal of the Corn Laws, and it was Cobden who having met Napoleon III, first coined the term ‘Entente Cordiale’ to describe an ever closer relationship with France. They and their particular school of politics were blamed during the Governmental crisis December 1854-January 1855 when the government of Lord Aberdeen fell, to be replaced by that of Lord Palmerstone, for the run-down state of the army.
‘National Humility and Prayer’
Early in 1854, Oldham Unitarian Chapel held a tea for ‘the Friends of Peace’, whilst other Unitarian congregations appear to have ignored or not become involved in the ‘Eastern Question’. Cross Street Chapel, Manchester, was debating the compulsory closure of its graveyard and the congregation of Upper Chapel, Sheffield, under the Ministry of Rev. Thomas Hincks were more involved with the issue of Abolition in the United States than war with Russia and in Manchester the Rev. John Relly Beard and his congregation at Strangeways were involved in a major public controversy with local Evangelicals over the nature of the Holy Spirit. The Archbishop of Canterbury declared April 26 1854 as a ‘National Day of Humiliation and Prayer’. At Upper Brook Street Chapel, Manchester, ‘in compliance with the express wish’ of the congregation they fasted for the day and Rev. J. H. Hutton preached a special sermon. A collection was held for the families and wives of soldiers sent to the Crimea. On the same day, the Rev. Hawkes of Portsmouth preached two very lengthy sermons in the High Street Chapel. In the morning his sermon was based on Isaiah 11, v. 17-18 and during the evening Matthew 5 v. 45-46. He described the Crimean War as being in the defence of Christian sympathies, that protecting the Turks from aggressive Russia was ‘loving ones enemies’ but overall war was ‘a dreadful thing’ and ‘evil’. He urged his congregation to pray not only for British soldiers but those of the French, Turks and Russians. At Preston, the Rev. J Ashton preached on Psalm 47 whilst in Belfast, the only Protestant place of worship not to observe the ‘Day of National Humiliation’ was the Unitarian Chapel for which they were much criticised. The Minister, Rev. John Porter, defended himself and his congregation in the local press the following week, on the grounds that in opening the Chapel for the ‘National Day’ would have meant opening the Chapel and holding worship on six consecutive days and that the Trustees felt they could not warrant this. He did not mean any disrespect to the ‘Sovereign who had ordained’ the ‘National Day’ and pointed out that the Chapel had been busy organising a sewing bee to make comforts for the troops and held special collections to raise funds for the wives and children of soldiers. Similarly, the Chapels in Liverpool were not open for the ‘National Day of Humiliation and Prayer’, a controversy which reached the national press. Not all Unitarians were opposed to the war: the Rev. John H Thom of Liverpool published a pamphlet to coincide with the ‘National Day of Humiliation and Prayer’ which stated that ‘the Religious Spirit which pervades this Crisis is not the Spirit of Humiliation; War with Russia being the Nation’s Highest Sacrifice to God and Duty’ whilst another Unitarian pamphlet took the opposite line, saying that ‘war inflames the grosser passions, and tempts men what they may have begun with the noblest of intentions to carry on something with the thirst for vengeance or for gain’. The writer urged its readers to pray for peace and concord.
Helping the Ordinary Soldier
Despite their disagreements over war, Unitarians were united, however, in responding to the plight of the common soldier. They quickly set about trying to improve the condition of the troops at the front; in Chorley the Rev. Mr Clark at Park Road Chapel organised an ecumenical sewing bee to raise funds for soldiers at the front and in Rotherham the children of the Sunday School held a special collection for the same purpose. In Wakefield, the congregation of Westgate Chapel were active in the ‘Wakefield Patriotic Society’, which was part of the ‘Patriotic Fund’ that had been established in London and then rapidly grew across the provinces to provide comforts for the troops at the front and provide for their wives and children at home. The ‘Wakefield Patriotic Society’ was chaired by Rev. Thomas Kilby of St John’s Church and by the end of September 1854 had raised some £150 through subscription. Unitarian congregations in Manchester (Upper Brooke Street), Hyde and Sheffield were also actively involved.
Power of the Press
The Times newspaper famously sent Thomas Chenery and William Howard Russell to the front to report back to the eager masses at home the progress of the war and indeed it was Russell’s despatches which did much to change the public’s view of the British soldier as being a human being rather than as the Duke of Wellington had said the ‘scum of the Earth’. But other newspapers sent their own ‘Special Correspondents’, including the Daily News who sent the Unitarian journalist Edwin Lawrence Godkin who’s despatches from the front were far more damning of the establishment than those of Russell. Godkin, unlike Russell, was also critical of Britain’s new allies the French and the Turks; to Russell the French could do nothing wrong, despite the French army suffering as badly from the freezing cold and misadministration during the winter of 1854-1855 as the British. The Daily News had been founded in 1846 by the Unitarian journalist, Charles Dickens and amongst its regular contributors were Harriet Martineau, G B Shaw and H G Wells. Godkin later covered the American Civil War and founded the newspaper The Nation that promoted the very Unitarian ideals of free trade, pacifism, liberal reform and attacked
political corruption. A Unitarian, John Lalor, edited the Morning Chronicle, the only major rival to The Times. The Morning Chronicle been described in the 1840s as ‘a Dissenter’s organ’. This is not surprising as Lalor also edited The Inquirer, the major Unitarian newspaper. Criticism of the conduct of the war also came from the provincial press, notably the Unitarian owned and edited, Manchester Guardian.
Godkin and Russell were singularly unwelcome by the British high command and their despatches considered ‘really deliberate lies’; the response of the common soldier, was, not surprisingly, the reverse. Russell et al became popular figures, someone to whom the ordinary soldier could air their grievances and expect to get them heard. And heard they were.
On the back of the horrifying reports from the front over the treatment of the British soldier, Harriet Martineau, the sister of Rev. James Martineau exposed the deficiencies of the British Army in caring for its men in a series of lectures across Britain. In this she gained much support from Rev. William Gaskell of Manchester and his wife, Elizabeth. She later wrote her damning attack on the establishment entitled England and her Soldiers. Colonel George Bell of the British 1st Foot received a copy whilst on service in the Crimea and stated that she ‘deserved the Legion d’Honneur’ for exposing the ‘want of system, neglect and red-tapism’ in the British army which was killing its soldiers quicker than the Russians. Martineau analysed the effect of sanitary arrangements, hygiene and nutrition on the ordinary soldier and claimed that the British army was starving its soldiers to death. She concluded that Britain was losing her flower of youth and that mothers, like Emperor Augustus of General Varus, be asking ‘Where are my legions? Give me back my legions’. Harriet Martineau was in regular correspondence with her like-minded friends Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale.
Charles Dickens, founder and editor of Household Words led a literary campaign against the British government’s treatment of the ordinary soldier before and during the two years of the Crimean War. He condemned all wars other than those, which were fights for national survival – and the Crimean War was definitely not one of those. To Dickens it was a rather pointless and bloody conflict and showed the folly of government taking a policy based on public will (the clamour for war 1853-1854) rather than policies based on public good. The British army system was satirised in his series of short stories entitled The modern “Officer’s” Progress tracking the life of a young British subaltern, Ensign Spoonbill, exposing the nepotism and lack of professionalism of the British army, especially compared with that of her ally, France.
Enter Florence Nightingale
Despite being considered a Unitarian by Unitarian-minded historians, Florence Nightingale was by the time of the Crimean War a Communicant of the Church of England. Her family were of impeccable Unitarian heritage but in order to advance socially the family had converted to Anglicanism, and because nonconformists were still discriminated against under English law. Nightingale was described as being highly intelligent, but something of a spoiled, snobbish, selfish brat. She flirted with lesbianism during her twenties and broke many men’s hearts, turning down several suitors and offers of marriage, including that of Richard Monckton Milnes, remaining a spinster all her life. She had a very advanced knowledge of mathematics and statistics, and worked in 1853-1854 for the government analysing the outbreaks of Cholera in London examining where it broke out, its methods of treatment, their efficacy and mortality statistics. She and had been sent to the Crimea by her friend Sidney Herbert whom she had met in Rome in 1848 during his Honeymoon. She was sent to assess British armies’ hospital system based on the terrible reports sent back from the front by Godkin, Russell et al. Florence was hailed by the Radical Press and by the common soldier as an ‘angel of mercy’ whilst the powers-that-be saw her presence as an unwelcome intrusion whose presence was unnecessary. Nightingale was openly attacked in the Protestant, non-conformist press for being non-Trinitarian or for being a Roman Catholic. Together with Sidney Herbert (the British Secretary at War) she was thought to be in league with ‘Anglo-Catholics’ and ‘Romish Nuns’, and as a result put wounded British soldiers in ‘danger’ of being converted to Roman Catholicism by the French ‘female ecclesiastics’ as the French nursing sisters (Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Saint Paul who had accompanied the French armies on the battlefield for 300 years) were dubbed. Also dangerous were the British ‘Sisters of Mercy’ who were there to minister to the Catholic members of the British army, much to the chagrin of the Evangelicals; at least one-third of the British army was Roman Catholic, it being mostly recruited from Ireland. So vehement had become the debate surrounding Florence and her religious leanings that Elizabeth Herbert (the wife of Sidney) wrote a public letter which was published in all the major London ‘papers defending her and stating that ‘she is a member of the Established Church of England, and what is called rather low-Church’. Even this did not stop attacks from the Evangelicals, who took the opportunity to attack the Herberts not only for their high-Church faith but Sidney’s Russian relatives. To the Evangelicals, that Florence, despite being an Anglican, could be described variously as Unitarian, Roman Catholic or Anglican showed how ‘not very distinct’ her doctrines were and that she and her nurses should be re-called in favour of ‘true’ Christians of the Evangelical persuasion. One correspondent to the Daily News even claimed she was ‘an infidel’, a Muslim. Unitarians and Catholics came to her defence; the former saying her family had historically been Unitarian but no longer, and the latter respectfully saying Florence was quite definitely not a Catholic. The Manchester Times urged Christians of all persuasions to work together as their constant squabbling did little to enamour them to their Turkish allies and was rapidly eroding their moral high ground. But this did little to stem the fierce domestic criticism of Florence Nightingale’s religious beliefs and being a woman at the seat of war. For her part, Florence Nightingale did not trust the Catholics sisters nor members of the ‘High’ Anglican Church for that matter. She thought the French Sisters of Charity merely consolatrices, there to administer comforts to a wounded soldier but primarily to exercise the Catholic duties of confession and consolation at the bedside or on the battlefield rather than any real practical nursing. British soldiers, however, didn’t care what religion the Sisters were – they were just thankful for a welcome, comforting and above all, female face. Rifleman William Muggeridge (2nd Battalion, Rifle Brigade) described the Sister of Charity who treated his wounded foot at Inkerman, as an ‘angel in human form’. That Florence and Sidney Herbert were ‘in league’ with the Catholics was confirmed to many Evangelicals as, after the death of Sidney, Elizabeth Herbert did convert to Catholicism.
Sectarianism in the Hospitals
The hospitals became the scene of many religious disputes: ultra-Protestants refused to let their congregations send out gifts of food or warm clothing to the Crimea lest, they be distributed in the hospitals by a Roman Catholic. The Bible Society sent out food and clothing to the troops but only on the condition that they accepted the [protestant] Bible sent with them. One senior Anglican clergyman, Archdeacon Brooks of Liverpool, claimed that British [protestant] soldiers were being
‘dangerously’ exposed to the ‘Catholic Douay Bible’ and also to the ‘Unitarian Bible’ (which supposedly removed any reference to the divinity of Christ) as well as the ‘heretical’ writing of Unitarians such as Thomas Belsham or Dr Lant Carpenter in the Hospital at Scutari. Revs. James Martineau and John Robberds went on the defensive saying that the Bible used in all Unitarian services was the ‘authorised version’ and that Unitarians were at liberty to distribute tracts and books as much as any other church to the wounded and suffering soldiers in the Crimea. One anonymous Unitarian correspondent to the Daily News suggested that if Archdeacon Brooks wished to ban books by Unitarian authors in the hospitals, then they would have to remove the works of Dickens, Milton, Locke and Newton. There were frequent scuffles between the French Sisters of Mercy and the French Catholic Chaplains and a group of low-church Evangelicals; the French tended to any wounded soldier irrespective of their belief and the Evangelicals screamed with outrage claiming that the French were trying to convert ‘Godly Protestant Soldiers’. On one occasion different groups of British ‘nurses’ (actually Evangelicals who openly admitted to trying to make converts) came to blows in the hospital wards with the Catholics. To the low-Church and Evangelicals the British army was a Christian army, part of the Church-Militant, and should be reformed on Christian lines. The army should only be used in the defence of [Protestant] Christianity and as such, fighting the Crimean War as allies of the Turks was anathema; Fighting with French and Italian allies was acceptable as they were at least of the same religion! One Baptist minister in Leeds urged his congregation to oppose the war because it was the wrong war: Britain, France and Italy should be allied with Christian Russia to fight ‘infidel’ Turkey. A similar view was taken up strongly in the United States. One extreme Protestant pastor published at his own expense various tracts and a somewhat incoherent book which claimed that Sebastopol was the ‘great city’ mentioned in the Book of Revelation and that the ‘End times were near’. Similarly, the appalling weather in the two Crimean winters which killed so many British and French soldiers were thought to be a punishment from God for either going to war or having the wrong war by not fighting the Turks! This was a theme that was continued in letters home from the front from soldiers who could not understand why Britain as a Christian country was fighting fellow Christians instead of the Turks. The French also shared this sentiment, with groups of French soldiers refusing to fight the Russians and being shot for Mutiny, despite the treaties of their Chaplains.