Divided sunburnt country: Australia 1916-18 (25): The Free Religious Fellowship: anti-conscription – and unexpected family history

The ‘Divided sunburnt country’ series

Chris Wade’s article, ‘Practical idealists: the Free Religious Fellowship, the Great War and conscription‘, reminds us of the breadth and depth of feeling against conscription in Great War Australia: the cause was taken up by gentle (and muscular) Christians, trade unionists, international socialists, and the spectrum in between. The pro-conscription side was just as adamant and almost as diverse. (Joy Damousi’s chapter in The Honest History Book describes the efforts of Cecilia John and Jessie Webb on opposite sides of the battle. See also the recent collection edited by Joy Damousi and others.)

s106-sinclaire-frederick-duho-1Frederick Sinclaire (Encyclopedia of New Zealand)

Wade’s article tells the story of the Free Religious Fellowship from its founding in 1911, focussing particularly on its opposition to conscription during the war. The Fellowship’s leading light was Frederick Sinclaire, New Zealand-born and a former Unitarian minister, and among its members were Maurice and Doris Blackburn and Frederick Eggleston. From its beginnings, the Fellowship represented a progressive, free-thinking approach to Christianity.

When the war began, the Fellowship did not at first oppose it explicitly but wanted to build international understanding. When the Australian Peace Alliance formed in October 1914 as a national coalition of anti-war groups, however, the Fellowship joined it as a founding member. By the end of 1915, Sinclaire was presiding over a service on Melbourne’s Yarra Bank with Christmas carols from the Children’s Peace Army.

By the last quarter of 1916, the Fellowship, led by Sinclaire but not without some internal disagreement, was strong for the anti-conscription cause. Its members fronted meetings, printed pamphlets, and agitated, with a marching song ‘Onward Anti Conscripts’, to the tune of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, and a poem, ‘Peace talk!’, written by Doris Blackburn. After conscription for overseas service was defeated at the first referendum, Sinclaire said: ‘Never in my life have I been surer of being on the right side’. This was despite the majority of clergymen being pro-conscription.

Sinclaire again led the Fellowship in opposition to the second conscription referendum and he and his printers were charged with offences under the War Precautions Act. At this time, the Labor Call newspaper praised Sinclaire:

Mr. Sinclaire played a great part in the fight against the conscriptionists, and unlike the clergy as a whole, he is always right there with a word of advice or hearty cheer when the wage-slave is in sore straits. In fact, he preaches Christ and practises what he preaches.

On the family history front, the author of the present note was surprised to see that one of the founders of the Fellowship was his great-uncle, Sydney James (Syd) Campbell, born 1887 into a prosperous Presbyterian and political family (his father, HJM Campbell, was the local member of the Victorian parliament), of Portland, Victoria, Geelong Grammar, Ormond College, MB BS, from late 1914 Captain in the 1st AIF and medical officer of the 8th Light Horse. Syd died almost exactly 102 years ago (15 July 1915), of wounds received at Gallipoli. His will left the then substantial sum of two hundred pounds to the Fellowship. His final letter to his sister, Hettie, written two weeks before his death, hints at why he had become involved in the Fellowship, even though what he saw as his duty had taken him to war:

We have seen enough and lost enough to realise what a horrible, disgraceful thing war is. Sometimes when one sees some fine young chap with a ghastly wound one wonders whether any quarrel between any nations is worth bothering over to the extent of killing even one human being … What awful foolishness it seems, and the individual only counts as an instrument to direct and pull the trigger of a rifle or some other machine.

Syd did not, of course, live long enough to be faced with a choice about conscription for service overseas, though his father, the Nationalist politician, supported conscription at the first referendum.

Wade’s article is in the open access La Trobe Journal, published by the State Library of Victoria. The citation is: Chris Wade, ‘Practical idealists: the Free Religious Fellowship, the Great War and conscription’, La Trobe Journal 99, March 2017, pp. 95-107. Notes to the article (pp. 140-41). Wade has a BA (Hons) in history. He is a librarian who has worked in a range of roles at the State Library of Victoria for 14 years, and is currently an advisor in the human resources department.

David Stephens

14 July 2017

pennyKing’s or Dead Man’s Penny for SJ Campbell (Author)


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