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Faith at the front

Curator of the Museum of Orange Heritage, Dr Jonathan Mattison, looks at how the sacrifices we are being asked to make today to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pales into insignificance when you consider the sacrifice of people during two World Wars and other Conflicts.

The role of faith was extremely important at these times, bringing comfort and inspiration.

Just over 100 years ago thousands of families from Ulster were praying for deliverance from a worldwide catastrophe. The Great War had raged for almost two years with no end in sight. Every aspect of life was impacted - thousands of men were serving in a variety of theatres of the conflict, their loved ones at home were doing their part, and the various medical corps, volunteer nursing divisions, hospitals and general practitioners were trying to mend the broken and comfort the dying. It was a National Effort in the face of terrible times.

Amidst the maelstrom one truth remained constant - the love of God.

There are many stories of Orangemen taking refuge in their faith as destruction and chaos raged around them. The Grand Orange Lodge of England – who held the stewardship of the military warrants during World War I – launched an appeal to fund Bibles and New Testaments for soldiers. By August 1916 this appeal had raised over £1,000.00. In at least one case the provision of a Bible was a physical as well as a spiritual help. Bro. J. Pye of Birmingham wrote to the Orange Standard in February 1916 that a New Testament with which he had been presented had stopped a bullet. The bullet lodged at Philippians Ch2 v15&16:

“That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world. Holding forth the Word of Life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain.”

As with all periods of crisis, there was comfort found in the Lord. In the weeks leading up to the Somme offensive one Orange Chaplain wrote about Bible-classes at the front: “Last Friday I was having a Bible-class in a dug-out, not 150 yards from the German line. The men stuck their bayonets in the sand-bags which formed the wall, and then stuck a candle on the flat of the blade. We could not sing, but we read, prayed, and discussed the chapter. Once or twice the bullets from a German machine-gun pattered so incessantly against our parapet that we could not hear ourselves speaking….”

Matters of faith were incredibly important to the men of the Ulster Division. O­ften the presence of lay preachers in the ranks was of greater impact than the many army Chaplains embedded with the battalions.

Impromptu prayer meetings and lodge meetings were held along the trenches of the Ulster Division in the hours leading up to the attack on 1 July. One such prayer meeting was led by Lance Corporal David Johnston, pictured right, a member of Belleisle True Blues LOL No. 1314 in Fermanagh. Johnston was killed in action on 1 July 1916.

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