About John 'Bert' Brocklesby
John Hubert (“Bert”) Brocklesby was born and grew up in Conisbrough, near Doncaster in Yorkshire. Brought up as Methodist, Bert had been drawn to both Quakers and Baptists, but had remained with the Wesleyan Methodist Church and become a lay preacher, only later becoming a Quaker.
As an eleven-year-old during the Boer War, he was confused when he realised that both sides were praying for victory to the same God. Bert was 25 when the war broke out.
Loving your enemies
The war that began in 1914 was expected to be over by Christmas. By the beginning of 1915, the reality of war was becoming clearer and calls to introduce conscription increased. Some of the early cheerleaders for war became more cautious and others organised campaigns against compulsory military service.
John ‘Bert’ Brocklesby, a 25-year-old Methodist lay preacher in Yorkshire, found himself preaching in his own church just after the beginning of the year. He wrote about the response he received.
I chose for my text "If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:20–21).
I affirmed that war was against the teachings of Jesus. I quoted two contemporary leaders on opposite sides of the Christian Church. Cardinal Bourne of Westminster had said that as the Church had sons on both sides of the conflict all they could do was to pray for a speedy end to the war. Dr Salter, a Quaker, had asked, "Can you imagine Jesus sticking a bayonet into a German?" The answer is obvious.
What a bombshell I had unwittingly dropped! It all seemed so axiomatic to me. I noted in my diary of the time a variety of comments; these will help one understand some of the reactions:
- "I never heard a sermon so much discussed at the pit. It has modified my views." - Jos Westby
- "I endorse every word of it." - Tom Stacey
- "Bert has ruined his career." - Harry Smethurst
- "You had no business to quote a Catholic in a Methodist church." - Bosdin J. Clarkson
- "He is without a spark of patriotism in his soul." - Sam Roebuck
- "He has only preached it because he is frightened to go himself." - Mrs Harry Appleyard
I was buttonholed in the lobby by William Wilson, who was my own class leader:
WW: You had no business to preach that sermon here tonight.
JB: Why not?
WW: There have been many here tonight whom that sermon would grieve very much.
JB: Is it not according to the Gospel?
WW: It is not Methodist doctrine, and this is a Methodist Church.
JB: Is this a church of Christ?
WW: It is a Methodist Church.
JB: But it is a church of Christ?
WW (exploding): No! It is a Methodist church!
Holding an unpopular opinion is one thing; speaking about it in public is quite another. Yet it's worth noting that not all the reactions were hostile. Jos Westby said the sermon was discussed in the pit and it had affected his views. It's easy to avoid controversy for the sake of staying united.
How important is it to challenge majority opinions if you hold a different view? Are there times when it is easier to keep quiet rather than speak out?
This is an edited extract from Escape from Paganism, the unpublished memoirs of John 'Bert' Brocklesby. Used by kind permission of his daughter, Mary Brocklesby.
Bert's brother Philip visited him shortly before his sentence was confirmed. Bert describes what happened after the sentence was read out.
On arrival at Boulogne, Bert and his comrades from Richmond Castle discovered that another group of conscientious objectors had also been sent to France with the threat of being shot if they continued to refuse orders. They did not know whether the other group – which included Howard Marten – had given in or been executed.
Bert was concerned that campaigners in Britain should hear about what was going on and know that they were in Boulogne. He described what happened next.
Bert was sent to Richmond Castle where a unit of the Non-Combatant Corps was based. Within a few days he was on his way to France.
facing arrest for refusing to join the Non-Combatant Corps, Bert handed himself into the police station.
Bert Brocklesby was called before a tribunal in Doncaster when he claimed a conscientious objection to joining the army. He wrote out a transcript of the hearing.
Bert seems to have preached less often as he became more involved in campaigning against the war. He described how he came to know Quakers through the anti-conscription campaign.
A week after his bruising experience in Conisbrough, Bert found himself preaching in another church. He took a more cautious approach, but delivered the same message. He later wrote about the experience.
To Bert, war required either hatred or callousness. Writing about the early days of the war, he linked his convictions with a rejection of hatred – and a question about prayer during wartime.
How did Bert come to be such a strong pacifist? Unlike Howard, he did not grow up in a pacifist family. His brothers Philip and Harold joined the army shortly after war broke out.
The beginning of war saw thousands of men rush to enlist. Those who chose not to do so faced criticism.