Anzac Spirituality: The profound dimension of Australia’s most significant national story

Associate Professor Daniel Reynaud.

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A new book by an Avondale academic challenges the myth Australians and their Anzac soldiers are not interested in matters of the spirit.

Daniel Reynaud’s Anzac Spirituality explores the spiritual beliefs and experiences of the Anzacs largely through their own words. In light of Anzac becoming the spiritual core of what it means to be Australian, the book asks, “What of the spiritual core of the Anzacs themselves?”

Avondale College of Higher Education Public Relations Officer Brenton Stacey asks his colleague, an Associate Professor in the Discipline of Humanities and Creative Arts, about the book and its historical context.

Nearly 60 per cent of the soldiers’ personal correspondence you accessed online through the Australian War Memorial records evidence about religion. And about one third of the 1000 soldiers you studied provide some indication of their attitude toward religion—most of it positive. So, why do we, as Australians, continue to perpetuate the Anzacs-were-not-religious myth?

Australia has developed and perpetuated an Australians-are-not-religious myth. A number of historians have commented on this. In Anzac Spirituality I quote historian John Hurst, who argues Australians kept religion out of public life and the national conversation to avoid the unseemly conflicts that bedevilled the Old World, with its history of religious wars and social fracturing over doctrine and ritual. Since Anzac represents the epitome of Australian virtues, we have created an Anzac legend shorn of religious associations to ensure the broadest possible acceptance.

And the Anzacs themselves? Superficially, they were not religious, but underneath they exhibited a profound interest in spiritual things. In fact, Anzac Day rituals were begun and promoted by churchmen, and there was early conflict over the inclusion of religious ceremonies, which were eventually dropped so as not to offend other groups, religious or otherwise. For instance, Catholics were forbidden from attending meetings where Protestant clergymen preached or prayed; having any formal religious element in Anzac Day would have excluded Catholic Anzacs.

You describe our memorialisation of Anzac as a “national schizophrenia”—we religiously celebrate irreverent secularity. As a man of faith, how do you respond to this ironic disparity?

I find it fascinating we have such a huge blind spot. There is a religious intensity about the way we celebrate and tell the Anzac story, but the widespread refusal to acknowledge any religious component to Anzac history bothers me. We edit out inconvenient elements. [pullquote]

Academic historian Bill Gammage in The Broken Years writes most Australian soldiers “found little in war to prompt consideration of a higher divinity”. I can understand, particularly if you struggled reconciling the goodness of God with the evils of war. But some did consider matters of the soul and the human spirit. What about the war prompted them to do this?

Most men’s first confrontation with battle prompted reflections of a spiritual nature. There’s plenty of evidence that soldiers grew thoughtful in the days leading up to their first battle. However, the vagaries of war meant those who prayed died at the same rate as those who didn’t. Over the long term, war did not make men more religious; indeed perhaps the opposite can be traced. Men, even those identifying as Christian, became more fatalistic. While war led some to consider the divine for the first time, it also led some to lose their faith because they couldn’t reconcile belief in an all-powerful God with the evident evil and random destruction before them. Some observers noted the net effect of war on spiritual reflection was at best neutral, if not negative.

How reliable are diaries and letters—written under stress for private audiences and by soldiers with limited language skills—as historical sources?

I ask many questions when using diaries and letters. Who is the writer? To whom are they writing? What is their purpose? Do they write of their own experience or do they write about generalised experience? But diaries and letters form a rich source of information. When you use them with appropriate caution, they offer a lot of evidence about the experience of the soldiers.

You’ve written a biography of an Anzac chaplain and seven documentaries about the Anzacs and religion. What do the experiences of soldiers tell you about what appears to be an intrinsic need to understand matters of the soul and of the spirit?

A common theme emerging from my work is the Anzacs exhibited a deep but often well concealed interest in matters of the spirit, which I think is reflective of broader Australian society. It’s sad that in Australia we seem reluctant to admit our interest in matters spiritual. It’s encouraging, however, that our most significant national story—that of Anzac—has a profound spiritual dimension.

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