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The Gospel According to Saint John, 1914 and 2014 editions

​Saint John's Gospel 1914 and 2014 editions

Rediscovering the story of the Bible in the First World War

Jeremy Williams, SGM Lifewords

During the First World War, London-based publisher Scripture Gift Mission distributed 43 million pocket-sized gospels and New Testaments. To mark the 100th anniversary of the war the charity, now called SGM Lifewords, set out to re-create one of those Gospels.

A response to the declaration of war

In 1888, a printer named William Walters relocated from Birmingham to London and rented an office opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. His great passion was to print the Bible in ways that made it accessible to ordinary people. Recognising that the poor in the East End found the Bible intimidating in its size, he began printing it in magazine format. The books of the Bible were illustrated and serialised a chapter at a time, in the same style as the ‘penny dreadfuls’ that were popular with the intended audience. The series was a success, and the initiative grew into a publishing charity, Scripture Gift Mission.

A quarter of a century later, the charity had developed into a well-established Bible publisher with a large network of supporters. They had printed New Testaments for troops during the Boer War and had good connections with military chaplains. As war was declared in 1914, they were well placed to respond to requests for materials for troops. Christians at home were concerned for soldiers’ welfare, including their souls. There was demand from the volunteers themselves too - Christian soldiers wanted something they could carry with them. Army chaplains wanted something to bring comfort to the wounded and those in distress. As the conflict escalated, demand increased. Men in the trenches were confronted with their own mortality, and many of them remembered their Sunday school years. They found themselves praying again, and they asked for Bibles.

Scripture Gift Mission prepared small gospels and New Testaments, with rounded edges so they wouldn’t crease in a pocket, and hymns at the back so that chaplains could lead services from them. They were printed in a number of languages, and by 1918, an extraordinary 43 million items of Scripture had been given away.

Rediscovering the story

That figure of 43 million has featured regularly in histories of Scripture Gift Mission, but the story hadn’t been explored in any depth until recently. As the anniversary of the war approached, the charity began to investigate just how and where those millions of printed items went.

In 2003, London Metropolitan Archives acquired the mission’s archives, and that was the first port of call. The collection takes up 20 metres of shelf space, across over 100 uncatalogued boxes, and it took repeat visits and many hours of patient searching to identify the relevant documents and letters.

What emerged was quite remarkable. Hidden away in annual reports and bulletins to supporters were dozens of extracts from letters, eyewitness testimonies from soldiers, chaplains and charity workers at the front, wartime stories that hadn’t been heard for a century.

There were stories of soldiers reading the Bible while alone at night on watch, and finding comfort and reassurance. Chaplains shared stories of comforting grieving soldiers who had lost friends. One soldier wrote to say that he had been given a copy of John’s Gospel by a German, as they both lay wounded in a ditch. Stories came in from well beyond the British Army too. The Russian royal family were big supporters of Bible distribution, and with their help millions of copies were given out across Russia and as far as the Caucasus mountains.

“When your small Testaments were distributed on the Common at Southampton”, begins one candid letter from the archives, “I accepted one in a more derisive than a complimentary manner. I little dreamed that I should use it and find in it great consolation in lonely hours.”

The mission also learned how the Gospels were distributed. As a publisher, SGM did not give out the scriptures themselves, but supplied them to others. A wide range of partners were involved, including the YMCA and the Church Army, both of whom ran rest and recreation huts just behind the front lines. Some were distributed through churches, others by nurses and volunteers along evacuation routes and in hospitals. Many were given away by London City Mission. They made an effort to reach new recruits from London and give them a copy of the Gospel or a New Testament before they left for the continent. If the soldier had a family, they would go and visit them and give the children a copy just like their father’s.

Saint John's Gospel 2014 edition with Nightwatchman print

​Saint John's Gospel 2014 edition with Nightwatchman print by Henningham Family Press.

​Recreating the gospel

To recreate the Gospel, SGM identified an ‘archetypal’ edition from the range of surviving copies, and approached Sparks Studio to handle the design and production. They took the archive copy to experts at the St Bride’s type library to identify the typefaces used. Paper merchants were consulted to establish the best paper and card stocks to get a similar effect to the original. Sparks even tracked down the country’s last supplier of brass staples to complete the effect.

The final product is not an exact replica. A modern Bible translation was used. It includes new insert pages that feature some of the soldiers’ stories that were uncovered in the archives. New artwork was also commissioned from the Henningham Family Press, who created four distinctive fine art prints.

The 100th Anniversary Edition of the Active Service John’s Gospel was launched in March, and it has been widely used at commemorative events, by forces chaplains and in schools. Several thousand were ordered by the Exeter Diocese, who gave two each to schoolchildren - one to keep and one to give to an elderly relative, while asking about their family stories of wartime. A commemorative project in Rugby saw families complete a mock enrolment at a recreated recruitment centre. They were given a medical and a first parade drill by actors in period costumes, and given a recruitment pack that included a replica gospel. The Gospels were also used at the Commonwealth Service at Glasgow Cathedral, where HRH the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister were in attendance.

So far the Gospel has sold out twice over, and half a million copies had been printed by the end of the summer.

The records at LMA (reference LMA/4461) are currently in the process of being catalogued and so are available for consultation by prior appointment only.

15 January 2015
Last Modified:
27 August 2019