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RSC seminar, 16 May 2023

RSC Public Seminar Series Trinity term 2023: ‘Refugee History’

Series convened by: Dr Uttara Shahani

About the seminar

The British churches in Edwardian and post-Edwardian Britain held a unique and sometimes confused status within the wider society. The Anglican Church, the Catholic Church and to an extent elements of the nonconformist denominations were all viewed in different contexts as constituting parts of the political and cultural establishment. Yet at the same time, they were expected to represent the nation’s moral consciousness, and had the potential to act as a subversive or disruptive force within the national discourse.

This paper will examine how the British church leaderships responded to two refugee ‘crises’ in the early twentieth century; the first being the ongoing persecution of Jews in the Russian Empire, culminating in the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, and the second the displacement of civilian populations from states allied to Britain during the First World War. It will consider the contrasts apparent between the stances adopted by the churches on the events that occasioned the movement of refugees, almost always condemnatory towards oppressive regimes and sympathetic to the migrants themselves, and the far more ambiguous response to the actual physical presence of refugees in Britain itself. In the case of Eastern European Jews before 1914, the churches, sometimes in tandem with minority communal institutions, provided support and charitable relief, but also attempted proselytization, creating significant tensions between Christian clerics and their Jewish counterparts.

There was also some hostility on the part of local church congregations in areas where refugees settled towards the presence of migrants. This antipathy fed into a narrative of both physical and spiritual displacement of Christians by non-Christian arrivals. As sympathetic as the British church leaderships might be towards the refugees, they also had to address the sometimes negative responses of their own parishioners.

The second half of the paper will discuss the changed circumstances of wartime, and church provision for predominantly Christian refugees between 1914 and 1918. Although the vexed issue of proselytization was not apparent to the same extent, there were still practical and theological tensions, between different British church institutions (especially the Catholic Church and the Church of England), and between refugee clerics themselves.

Through the lens of two refugee ‘crises’ this paper will consider how bodies wielding predominantly moral authority, rather than explicit political power, can play a role, positive or negative, in the ways in which refugees are perceived and treated. This not an issue consigned to the past, as the contemporary debate on migration, asylum, and removal, in which senior church figures have become involved, indicates. 

About the speaker

Daniel Renshaw lectures in modern British and continental European history at the University of Reading. His research focuses on immigration, identity and articulation of prejudice. He is particularly interested in comparative history, examining and comparing the experiences of different ethnic and religious communities. He has published extensively on migration, political formation, and minority identity, as well as the relationship between the ‘other’ and the gothic and horror fiction of the fin-de-siècle (including a recent article looking at antisemitism in the work of Jules Verne and Bram Stoker). His first book, a comparative study of Irish Catholic and Jewish radical politics in East London before the First World War, was published by Liverpool University Press in 2018. His second monograph, published by Routledge in 2021, examined the discourse of repatriation and removal from Britain in the modern period. His current research examines British church responses to migration and minority identity between 1900 and 1981.


Photo credit: Russian Jewish refugees at the port of Liverpool in 1882.  Credit: Public domain.