A country minister's war-time sermons

The presbyterian minster of the last century has often been caricatured but a box of Arnold Low Kemp’s hand-written sermons which survive in the National Library of Scotland reveal a kindly man attempting to give comfort to his parishioners in troubled times. For some of this period, his own younger son Arnold Kemp was missing though he did survive. (Read the story of this escape here)

 

On April 15 1934, Arnold Low Kemp gave a sermon in his parish at Longhope on Hoy in the Orkney Islands in which he condemned the treatment of Jews in Germany from the pulpit, asking people to take an interest in matters that may have seemed far away: ”There are people who cannot see beyond themselves, or their kin, or their own country… we share in the amazement at so-called Chrstian Germany ‘s treatment of Jews.”

Just days before Germany invaded Poland, on August 20 1939, Arnold, who was by now the minister at Birse in Aberdeenshire gave a sermon on the text:

 

“My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise.” Psalm Lv11, 7.

 

“The fifty seventh Psalm is ascribed to David when in flight before the persecution of Saul the King. He and his followers were in the region of Engedi familiar to him from his youth and they found shelter in one of the many caves over against where Saul and his army were…

There is the tension of the times, in the insane and bitter hostility of Saul, the King against his fellow countrymen, represented in David and his followers. There is the cave in which the latter found shelter representing their awareness of the peril in which they lived…

There is undoubted tension over, more or less, the whole inhabited world. We are getting used to the phrase we come upon in the public press, the war of nerves. …

As things are we know not from week to week to what peril from the sudden ravage of war we would sand exposed. We rearm, we dig shelters, we are provided with masks and disks for the purposes of identification are to be issued to us. Every possible provision is made for the evacuation of women and children from the great centres of population in the event of hostilities.           Our cave of Engedi is a vast one and manned against the pitiless eventualities which may befall…”

 

Two Sundays later, just two days after the invasion of Poland and on the actual day that Britain declared war on Germany, which was a Sunday, the pews must have been full of anxious faces. Fears of aerial bombardment of the cities meant a mass evacuation of mothers and children into the countryside would have been underway (Ewen Cameron). ref Impaled upon a Thistle, Scotland since 1880

 

The text was “I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they shall come.”

Ezekiel X1, September 3 1939.

 

“It is a far cry from the Townhead or Bridgeton or Denniston of Glasgow to Deeside; from the surroundings of the children there to their surroundings here; from associations which as yet are unknown, untied and unfamiliar. It is without doubt a great wrench and trial, that to be condoned and justified requires great justification. And surely there is justification enough in the escape from the modern terrors of war in the shape of ruthless attack of the enemy from the air. At any rate we have, not merely in scripture, but in the reality of our own time an example of the scattering in the divine guidance that is over us and of the comfort of the unforsaking presence of God. ..

Mungo Park was brought up in Selkirk but it wasn’t until he was on the banks of the Niger alone and sick that a flower, a wild flower, growing quietly at his elbowside spoke to him of God’s providence and God’s care, and he took heart of grace again.

We may think that it is hard on women and children to be taken from their homes and drafted miles and miles away among strangers and to what must appear to some, a strange faraway land. But to discover kindness and shelter and understanding and sympathy there is to awaken to revealings which speak surely of the divine providence and presence…We cannot see the stars until the night comes on…I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they shall come.”

 

1940 started with the tense wait of the phoney war. There was sporadic fighting at sea and in the air. The first Luftwaffe raid on the UK was on Rosyth in Fife and at Scapa Flow in Orkney, where Arnold Low had previously been a minister.

 

In Birse, on March 28, 1940, Arnold Low preached on:

 

“Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” 11 Timothy 11 3.

“Over and above the clash of arms in France and Norway; in the sea and on it and in the air fierce and terrible as these are, there is the clash over the standards of life between which there is an impassable gulf just as of old, and there can be no possible compromise….Are we to be led by the ears under the cloak of aggression by all the nonsense that has been spoken about the Nordic race and its purity and about Thor and the heaven of his Valhalla or are we to stand by at all costs the faith of our fathers?”

 

June 10 1940, the day that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned to be replaced by Churchill, and as the deportation of Jews was happening across Europe he gave a sermon on “In the Mount of the Lord it shall be Seen”, Genesis, xx11 14.:

 

“Take for instance, the holy people. I suppose there have been no people on earth so beset with criticism, searching and bitter criticism, as the Jews. The accusations, the insults that are meted out to them in many lands are almost past comprehension; they are regarded as the off-scouring of the earth by people who are not in the same street with them so to speak. There are good, bad and indifferent among all kinds of people. When we think of the people of God as reflected in the Bible we recall how the faith had failed the world had not been for them; we think of them as the channel through which the knowledge of the living God has come to man; of their heroic witness to it even amidst Titanic nations whose might often overwhelmed them; of their bearing the torch in exile….Do not let any red herring of Jew belittling be drawn across our path to make us forget the undeniable greatness of their witness of old to the power of God and to the love of God…. Let there be no mistake about the holiness of the holy people; it is forever an indisputable fact. It is written all over their ancient story. In the high places of their extraordinary witness it is written, in the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

 

France fell on May 22, 1940. On  Sunday, May 23, 1940, a few short weeks after Dunkirk, the pews would have been full of worried faces, many with family in the military.  Arnold Low may have brought a glimmer of light to the anxious eyes of his parishioners when he opened his sermon on “And I will give thee the treasures of darkness” from Isiah thus:

 

“I met a lady the other day and conversation as so many conversations in these days turned on the war. I was struck with a remark she made in the most casual way. She said, it must be had for ministers at this time to find words of help and encouragement for their congregations. We were feeling the pressure of the enemy, his increasing advance; we were retreating; we were rescuing vast forces from the entanglement of an impossible position; and all that following upon the collapse of Holland and Belgium and Norway gave the outlook very ugly appearance. It was hard for ministers, she thought, to speak a word in season…it struck me as an odd thought…”

 

He continued more gravely:

“We live in times of great gravity for the country, for the empire and for the world. In common phrase things look black. We have withdrawn our forces from Europe, save  those brave warriors, our fighting air forces, who continue to render much effective service over the lands of the enemy. We are passing through most serious times; there are demands made upon the whole civil population of the country to receive the lessons of these times calmly as possible and take what measure they can to improve them…

The treasures of darkness are in the words of the prophet the gift of God; it is teaching of St Paul that it is God who calls us to will and do that which is good and in the warfare of the faith there is no discharge. Except you take up your cross, said our Lord, and follow me ye cannot be my disciple. The jewel of the crown is the cross, the glory of the light of life is the treasure of the darkness. There can be no turning back. There can be no accommodation with the wild doctrines that set Thor and Woden above Jesus; the doctrines of brute force above those of the spirit of power and of love and of a sound mind that is in Christ….

In the faith once delivered to the saints in the days of trial, the dark days of trial are disclosing themselves as rich in the treasure which speaks hope and liberty and lasting peace in the time to come.”

 

It did come although Arnold Low lived only a short time after the end of World War Two. He retired from his parish in 1948 and moved to Edinburgh but died a year later, in 1949 aged 80.