By Linda Parker.
Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy became one of the most famous army chaplains of the Great War. He gained a place in popular imagination as ‘Woodbine Willie’, a popular and brave chaplain who gave our cigarettes with bibles and had a tendency to use colourful language in sermons.
Although Studdert Kennedy was a good example of an army chaplain, ministering to his troops in the front line, having the knack of communicating with them and winning a Military Cross, there was much more to his whole life and ministry and he achieved much in the years before his early death in 1929. Archbishop Temple said of him; “Many of us regard him as one of God’s greatest gifts to our generation.”
There had not been a biography of Studdert Kennedy since the 1970s and having recently completed a biography of the Revd Phillip ‘Tubby’ Clayton, with the encouragement of Duncan Rogers, I decided to use previously unused sources to tell the story of this remarkable priest at war and in peace. The structure of the book is mainly chronological but I departed from the narrative for several chapters describing particular parts of his ministry, such as his career as an author of vastly popular poems and books, his theological ideas of a suffering God and his fame as a charismatic and sometimes controversial speaker and preacher.
Although writing biography is difficult, I felt there was enough interesting material about Studdert Kennedy’s life to please readers who were interested in the life of poor parishes before and after the war, in military chaplaincy, inter war church and society and the popular literature of the war.
An author of biography has to be careful not to paint too rosy a picture of the subject. There were certainly those who criticised Studdert Kennedy in his life time. His speeches and written work were controversial in his attitudes to war, pacifism, socialism and marriage. He has also been criticised along with other Great War chaplains for helping to sustain military morale, a criticism which recent scholarship has disproved. Although I hoped I kept an open mind I agreed in many ways with his friend and theologian Canon Mozely who described Studdert Kennedy’s gifts as those of “Prophet, pastor and teacher.”
Information on my previous books on military chaplaincy can be found on the Helion website and my own website linda-parker.co.uk. My next projects involve the role of army chaplains in the Second World War.
A Seeker After Truths: The Life and Times of G. A. Studdert Kennedy (‘Woodbine Willie’) 1883-1929 is now in stock and available here.