The History of NZ Army Chaplains – Some Surprises


Today I picked up a second hand copy of Men of Faith and Courage: The Official History of the Royal New Zealand Chaplains Department by J. Bryant Haigh (1983). As one would expect of an official history it is full of boring lists of names and events. But certain passages are revealing of the assumptions concerning Christianity’s relationship to issues of war and peace.

An early chapter opens with this:

The motto of the Royal New Zealand Chaplains Department (RNZChD) as carried on their badge is In This Sign Conquer, a saying attributed to the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, who legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 … He was the first commander to realise that soldiers could be Christians, and his adopting of the cross on his standard in battle was the first formal connection of Christianity with the profession of arms. Since then Christian countries have always expected their soldiers to profess Christianity and pay some attention, outwardly anyway to their faith. (p. 18)

RNZChD badge
The RNZChD badge

Then after some history covering the NZ Land Wars and WWI, we finally get to WWII and a passage reads as follows:

In the years following the First World War, New Zealand, like other countries, suffered a strong wave of pacifism as a backlash to the slaughter of that conflict. Pacifist books and societies appeared, and well known politicians and clergymen were speakers on pacifist platforms. This affected the recruitment of young chaplains as, even before this time, there had always been a strong differences of opinion as to whether Christians should take part in war even as noncombatants. (p. 104)

What I find interesting about these quotes is that we start with the presumption that Christians can be warriors, and only later is there an aberration, indeed the curse of pacifism, which made recruiting chaplains difficult. While obviously this is an official history, it is surprising to see pacifism (often based in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount) as the later inconvenience, and not Constantianism as the new deviant form of Christianity.