Unsung Methodist Personalities: Biographies from the history of New Zealand Methodism by Donald Phillipps

'Sweet is War'

‘War is sweet to them that know it not.’ Thus wrote the great Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, 500 years ago.
There was a new Pope at Rome, and Erasmus was pleading with him to make St Peter’s Chair a source of peace after centuries of war. Our own age is little different.
How many localised wars have been fought since 1945! Thirty? Forty? How many times have New Zealander gone overseas to engage in ‘peace-making’, as it is sometime euphemistically called? And how many times has a lasting peace been established?
As we remember the horror and the heroism of WWI we would do well to recall the high hopes of those who left these shores and did not return. We also need to honour those who did return shattered in mind and body.
The scars were deep and the memories could never be erased. The idealism that had sustained them at the Front was, for some, a sham. Could the new generation of political and military leaders be trusted.
In his lecture to the Wesley Historical Society at the Methodist Conference 2014, Dr Allan Davidson spoke of the nearly 60 ministers, home missionaries, and theological students who served in WWI. Five of them lost their lives. The majority of them returned to ministry deeply affected both physically and mentally by their experiences.
When, for example, Francis Harris died in 1933, his obituary said: “In 1915 he commenced three years strenuous war service, during which time he had several periods of severe illness and was dangerously wounded in the head. Since then he did not know what robust health was. An inflexible will, however, kept this from others and drove him to his labours.”
This particular story is about another young minister whose war experience led him into a totally different world. Joseph Richard Sullivan was born at Bluff in 1889 of Irish parentage, and the family later moved to Inglewood where his father died when Joseph was three.
His younger brother, William Sullivan, (or 'Big Bill’) was knighted for his services as a National Party cabinet minister. Joseph was, for a time, a schoolteacher in New Plymouth and was very much involved in the St Aubyn church. He was received on probation in 1914 and spent six months at Kensington, Timaru.
He then volunteered for active service with the NZ Expeditionary Force and was at Gallipoli where he was wounded in the throat. He returned to New Zealand late in 1915, but by mid-1916 had returned to England, this time as a chaplain to the forces at Sling Camp, where the NZ troops were preparing for the battle on the Western Front.
He was ordained in 1918 but left without pastoral charge. By then he had married and he remained in England, where he completed a Masters Degree in economics at London. He went to South Africa in 1924 for health reasons. He was principal of the Commercial High School in Johannesburg, and then vice principal of the technical college in Durban. He was Member of Parliament for Durban from 1943-1953. He died at Durban on February 12th, 1962.
The point of this brief account of Joseph Sullivan’s life is not to question or to theorise about his motives. It can be said, however, that the experience of many who served overseas led them to call into question all the old values, and those of the Christian faith as much as any.
What place was there or is there, for the ‘Lord of Hosts’, the Lord of the armies? How is the world to be made a better, safer, more just, more peaceful place?
Maybe Joseph Sullivan, the economist and the educationalist, had a different vision, from that of Joseph Sullivan the Methodist minister and chaplain.

Joseph Sullivan


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Last updated on 30 September 2020, 8:00 PM