Change of Heart: James Gibb by Allister Lane

Allister is one of the ministers at St John’s in the City, Wellington

What are your feelings about ANZAC Day?

I’ve struggled to reconcile the sentiments commonly expressed around ANZAC Day with our central guiding narrative; The Gospel. Mostly I wince at the occasional clash of our liturgical language and symbols with what is expressed on ANZAC Day, and how many do not feel a clash but rather an agreeable synthesis.

In an RNZ radio interview, historian Allan Davidson explains his research into the way the churches at the time contributed to the development of ‘war rhetoric’ in an attempt to understand the realities of World War I.[1]  Church publications of the time reflected the theological debate that was often polarised. But, by and large, the mood of the mainstream churches settled on a rhetoric that aligned to the political and social norms in support of New Zealand’s role in the war.  And the particular (and not insignificant contribution) the churches made used the language of faith and categories of theology.  The churches deified duty concludes Allan Davidson; they sanctified sacrifice.

At St John’s in the City there is an example of such use of language from the time – the wording on the WWI memorial plaque…

“In sacred memory of
the men of this church who
fell in the great struggle
for the freedom of the nations
the rights of man and the
Kingdom of God.”

It expresses a very close alignment between God’s plan (the Kingdom of God) and the actions of the nations who fought in World War I.

I guess the motivation for employing language of faith and theology was to try and make sense of the carnage.

Pierre Berton famously wrote: “Nations must justify mass killing, if only to support the feelings of the bereaved and the sanity of the survivors.”
Those who had a different theological understanding were drowned out by this war rhetoric, along with other minority dissenters.

In reflecting on the churches’ contribution to this war rhetoric I want to share the story of one man who was about as influential on this issue as one person could be.

The Very Reverend Dr James Gibb was a predecessor of mine; the third minister of St John’s in the City. He accepted a call from the congregation of St John’s in June 1903.  He came from First Church Dunedin and had, a few years prior, been recognised for his successful influence in negotiating the union of one national Presbyterian Church of New Zealand by being appointed the first Moderator of the General Assembly.[2]
Gibb continued his demonstration of influence – both within the church and for social transformation (Bible Class Movement, Scots and Queen Margaret College, Victoria House Hall of Residence, Presbyterian Support).  Gibb’s views about the World War I was that each and every citizen had a responsibility to support the military campaign. Such views were shared by most church people at the time.

But Gibb, by his sheer personality and standing in the church, had a more influential voice that was heard by many in sermons, at Presbytery and General Assembly, and at patriotic rallies.  In his sermons Gibb denounced Germany as challenging Christ and urged New Zealanders to enlist.
In April 1915 Gibb preached a sermon flavoured with such intense patriotism he said “It is the urgent duty of all men of age and physical fitness to offer themselves at once to their country, and it is the duty of all women to surrender their men, nay, to bring pressure to bear on them to do their duty to their flag.”[3]  He even convinced the 1917 General Assembly that ministers not be exempt from military service.  Looking back on his influence at that time Gibb himself acknowledged that he was as good as any recruiting agent during the war.[4]

Change of Heart
What makes the story of James Gibb so astonishing is that at around the same time the war concluded, he completely changed his view about war.  His complete change of heart was evident after he returned from his overseas recruiting trip. With his new conviction as an anti-militarist, he threw himself into action with characteristic fervour and zeal.  If there was any theological reflection and soul-searching done by Gibb, he kept it to himself.  What was clear was his complete change of heart, as he began to strenuously denounce war.  He immediately began to take action, in line with his new conviction, to bring influence to bear on the political and social forces of the day; very much the same modus operandi – just the opposite conviction!

Much of his energy focused on the hope of peace through diplomacy in the aspirations of the League of Nations.  This was Gibb’s new message that he banged on about, upsetting those who once backed his previous views. Many from his congregation at St John’s in the City left as a result.  In 1918 the roll of members at St John’s in the City stood at 887. After he returned from his overseas trip the roll began to decline. By the time Gibb retired from St John’s eight years later the roll had dropped to 572 members.[5]  His less popular pacifist stance was one he never flinched from it until he died.[6]

WHY the change of heart?
So what caused this dramatic shift in Gibb’s attitude toward war?  No one really knows. There does not appear to be a single reason.  But research by Laurie Barber offers some compelling possibilities for this change of heart.
A significant figure in Gibb’s shift was Charles Murray, an influential Christchurch minister and convenor of the General Assembly’s committee on International Peace.  Murray had been very much opposed to Gibb’s war rhetoric, describing him in a letter to Gibb as a ‘strenuous militarist.’  This specific criticism upset Gibb, and he replied that Murray was very much mistaken.[7]  Nevertheless, Murray’s firm line with Gibb was significant …and timely.  It coincided with the death of Max Gray, the son of one of Gibb’s best friends, along with a growing casualty list from families among the St John’s congregation.[8]  In addition, there is one intriguing event of his history that has been captured, and is worth mentioning.

In 1916 Gibb appealed to the Wellington City Council to ban people playing golf on Sundays at the Berhampore Golf Course on account of the bad example it set the children at the Berhampore orphanage. That same day a Mrs R.S. Ilott also appeared before the Council in a (failed) attempt to get permission for an anti-conscription rally. Following their chance encounter as they each waited for their hearing outside the Civic Chambers she wrote to Gibb:
“Now, which, as a Christian minister, do you honestly believe would be more likely to do these children the most harm morally, to see a quiet game of golf  played on the Sabbath, or to see the troops going away at intervals with the purpose of killing their fellow men?”[9]
Between December 1917 and December 1918 Barber describes Gibb’s public utterances about the war as ‘cautious, ambiguous and less frequent.’[10]  And in December 1918 Gibb wrote to the editor of the Dominion criticising the harsh demands being made upon the defeated Germany at the Peace Conference, pointing out that this was in conflict with the ‘golden rule.’[11] As well as the obvious theological position, Gibb also seemed astute in matters of politics and power to be aware of the associated dangers in thinking that such action would bring an end to such war in perpetuity.
“…we shall find that Armageddon has not yet been fought, that another and even more dreadful war lies before us in the not far distant future.”[12]

Although, his words of prediction were sadly realised in human history, and we might want to say his position was vindicated in some way, at the time such anti-war sentiment was seen by many as a betrayal of those who had died.  We still live with the delicate tension of speaking of the war; trying not to dishonour the dead and at the same time trying not to glorify human conflict.  So we don’t completely know what caused Gibb’s change of heart, but the fact that it was a complete and decisive change, he left us in no doubt.

I can’t help reflect on how strange it must have been to preach the opposite message to your congregation – to those you had worked to convince so effectively, and who now resented your new message.  We can recognise in Gibb the ‘courage of conviction’. But what strikes me is the startling lack of accompanying humility. And this lack of humility on his part runs as a constant thread throughout this story.[13]

What does this story offer us?
I don’t feel it offers us a model to emulate.  Is Gibb an exemplar to copy? Or is he more like those figures of the Bible – very real, very human – from whom we learn about life and faith?  Such figures are as flawed as each of us, but are honest and involved in God’s adventure.

We are all imperfect.  But isn’t it precisely in owning up to that where we are able to make new discoveries and grow in wisdom?  To be prepared to honestly examine our most deeply held convictions; to share those tentative reflections with others, and to pay attention to the convictions of others…then we recognise and enjoy each other’s insights. We learn from those we have been given and enabled to journey with.

On this adventure of faith, surprise is always possible, and God may well give us a change of heart.

[1] http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/spiritualoutlook/20150419

[2] This appointment for his diligent efforts toward Church union is described in glowing terms in a Testimonial on the occasion of Gibb’s ministerial jubilee (Wellington, 20 September 1933).

[3] The Very Rev James Gibb: Patriot into Pacifist by L.H. Barber (Presbyterian Historical Society, 1973), p2.  To read see http://www.stjohnsinthecity.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/RevJamesGibbpacifist.pdf

[4] Ibid., pp1-3.

[5] St John’s Through 100 Years: 1853-1953 (Wellington: St John’s Presbyterian Church; Wright & Carman, 1953), p14.

[6] The Very Rev James Gibb: Patriot into Pacifist by L.H. Barber (Presbyterian Historical Society, 1973), p4.

[7] Ibid., pp4-5.

[8] Ibid., p6.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p8.

[13] I can’t help but conclude that the issues of the day were allowed to define this minister of the Gospel, perhaps to the extent where he has become best known for his changing views on the war – more than his commitment to proclaim the Gospel before all else.

 

3 thoughts on “Change of Heart: James Gibb by Allister Lane

  1. Excellent…a challenge to us all to be prepared to be led to a change of heart and theological understandings on many social and ethical issues. Yes God does surprise and challenge. Thanks too for your Easter sermons and liturgies. It was great to be at St Johns. Blessings
    Helen Wallis

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  2. Thanks Allister. I am fascinated by the story and your thoughts. The thing that struck me ( I know nothing about Gibb) is that you comment that he lacked humility. This comment puzzled me as I wasn’t clear why you mentioned it and where it featured in the story. It struck me that the ability to change your mind publicly requires humility. Was it the manner in which he went about his ministry? I also think its a tragedy that he didn’t explain why he changed his mind. As a preacher I find that the process of dealing with scripture has been changing my mind for years and as I do so the evidence of it needs to come out in my sermon. I feel I owe it to my congregation – not as a form of self-indulgent self-disclosure but as a form of accountability to the Word and the Gospel.

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