One prisoner’s quest: a story for VE Day
Friday 8 May 2020 marks 75 years since ‘Victory in Europe’ or VE Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe. In 1945 alumnus David Read was a prisoner of war with a Christian purpose.
Professor David Fergusson, Professor of Divinity, writes:
David H. C. Read (1910-2001) graduated MA at the University of Edinburgh and BD (1935) from New College, during which time he studied in Germany.
In 1938, he was inducted to Greenbank Parish Church in Edinburgh but left the following year on the outbreak of war to serve as an army chaplain in the 51st Highland Division.
Failing to reach Dunkirk, he was captured in Normandy and spent the entire war in a series of prisoner of war (PoW) camps.
Many years later, in one of his sermons, The stones cry out, Read remembered a service he conducted in a vast concentration camp on Palm Sunday, 1945. He stood in a wired-off compound, before a congregation of men half dead from exhaustion and starvation.
“The only note of hope that morning,” he said, “seemed to be the distant organ voluntary that was played by the guns of the Third Army advancing towards us from the West.
“What do you preach to such a congregation at such a time? Jesus… You speak about one who rode into the darkness unafraid, one who submitted his stainless life to the obscenities of men, one who let the whole tide of pain, absurdity and desolation wash over him – and one who lets it all happen to him for our sake.” 1
During these years of hunger and deprivation, he developed with an Anglican colleague a programme of adult Christian education entitled 'Quest'. And, being fluent in German and French, he played an important role in communicating with camp guards and commandants.
A collection of his writings was smuggled by German guards and sent to his wife in Edinburgh. These were published in 1944, raising public awareness of life in a PoW.
Return to parish ministry
At the end of the war, he was released and returned to parish ministry in 1946, establishing a youth group, also called Quest, that attracted 150 people in south Edinburgh. Yet, after his wartime experience, he found the return to civilian life challenging and remarked that he felt alienated from his parishioners in two ways; he had lost the art of small talk and could not share their animosity towards Germans.
Chaplain to the University and the Queen
In 1949, David Read was appointed the first chaplain to the University of Edinburgh. He and his wife showed much hospitality to students in their home and he successfully ministered to a post-war generation of undergraduates.
He was appointed a Chaplain to the Queen in 1952.
Four years later, he moved to New York to become senior minister at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. One of the finest preachers of his generation, Read attracted a large following in New York. He broadcast regularly on the radio and published around 30 books of sermons and talks.
Prisoners' Quest (SCM, 1944) remains a moving evocation of faith and community in a time of intense struggle.