John Broom, author of Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War and Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War, examines below Winston Churchill’s complex relationship with the Christian faith.
Historians have argued for many years about the nature, if any, of Winston Churchill’s religious belief, with Paul Reid’s recent biography The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, arguing that he was an atheist, or at most an agnostic. Whilst it would be reasonable to say that he was not an active Christian, there is much in Churchill’s actions and speeches which indicated that the pre-eminent Briton of the twentieth century had a deep appreciation of, and respect for the traditions of the Church of England.
When a young man reporting on the Boer War (1899-1902) Churchill admitted to praying often during the heat of battle, but he thought at this point it was an unreasonable thing to do. He said:
The practice [of prayer] was comforting and the reasoning led nowhere. I therefore acted in accordance with my feelings without troubling to square such conduct with the conclusions of thought.
Later he described his outlook as a generalised `Religion of Healthy-Mindedness’:
If you tried your best to live an honourable life and did your duty and were faithful to friends and not unkind to the weak and poor, it did not matter much what you believed or disbelieved.
However as Churchill was a man of deep contradictions, the Tory, turned Liberal, turned Tory, turned outcast, turned leader of a National Government, turned Tory, it is not surprising that there is plenty of evidence to suggest the importance of Christianity in Churchill’s actions.
In 1932, eight years before his accession to the Premiership he wrote an essay `Moses: The Leader of a People’ in which he had moved towards a more literal interpretation of the Bible.
We reject, however, with scorn all those learned and laboured myths that Moses was but a legendary figure upon whom the priesthood and the people hung their essential social, moral, and religious ordinances. We believe that the most scientific view, the most up-to-date and rationalistic conception, will find its fullest satisfaction in taking the Bible story literally, and in identifying one of the greatest of human beings with the most decisive leap forward ever discernible in the human story. We remain unmoved by the tomes of Professor Gradgrind and Dr. Dryasdust. We may be sure that all these things happened just as they are set out according to Holy Writ. We may believe that they happened to people not so very different from ourselves, and that the impressions those people received were faithfully recorded and have been transmitted across the centuries with far more accuracy thanmany of the telegraphed accounts we read of the goings-on of today. In the words of a forgotten work of Mr. Gladstone, we rest with assurance upon ‘The impregnable rock of Holy Scripture.
Many Centuries were to pass before the God that spake in the Burning Bush was to manifest Himself in a new revelation, which nevertheless was the oldest of all the inspirations of the Hebrew people—as the God not only of Israel, but of all mankind who wished to serve Him; a God not only of justice, but of mercy; a God not only of self-preservation and survival, but of pity, self-sacrifice, and ineffable love.
In his first speech to the Commons as Prime Minister on 13 May 1940, Churchill offered `blood, toil, tears, and sweat and announced the policy `to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us.’
On May 19 1940 he gave his major radio address, Be Ye Men of Valour. He closed with the words, `As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.’
Later, in his `Dunkirk’ speech to the House on 4 June, Churchill’s final sentence stated that the New World could rescue and liberate the Old `in God’s good time.’ This theme continued into his famous `Finest Hour’ speech to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940. `Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation’.
In his speech on 11 September 1940 at the start of the Blitz, he said, `It is with devout but sure confidence that I say: Let God defend the right’
In the `Put Your Confidence in Us’ radio talk dated 9 February 1941, the Churchill’s closing lines appealed to President Roosevelt of the USA in religious terminology, `Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well.’
On a personal note, this particular speech impressed my father, a very devout Christian. He wrote to his mother:
Thanks so much for writing in detail Corry’s extract from Churchill’s speech on the Bible. He certainly knows divine truth. I didn’t hear Geoffrey King’s broadcast. We tuned in at 9pm for the news (at Franklands) & heard Churchill’s speech. We thought it awfully good..
Churchill and Roosevelt singing Onward Christian Soldiers, 1941
In August 1941 he met with President Roosevelt on the battleship Prince of Wales. Churchill had organised a Christian service and chosen the hymns to be sung. He wrote about the event later:
On Sunday morning, August 10, Mr. Roosevelt came aboard H.M.S. Prince of Wales and, with his Staff officers and several hundred representatives of all ranks of the United States Navy and Marines, attended Divine Service on the quarterdeck. This service was felt by us all to be a deeply moving expression of the unity of faith of our two peoples, and none who took part in it will forget the spectacle presented that sunlit morning on the crowded quarterdeck – the symbolism of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes draped side by side on the pulpit; the American and British chaplains sharing in the reading of the prayers; the highest naval, military, and air officers of Britain and the United States grouped in one body behind the President and me; the close-packed ranks of British and American sailors, completely intermingled, sharing the same books and joining fervently together in the prayers and hymns familiar to both. I chose the hymns myself – “For Those in Peril on the Sea” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” We ended with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” which Macaulay reminds us the Ironsides had chanted as they bore John Hampden’s body to the grave. Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live. Nearly half those who sang were soon to die.
A clip of the meeting, including Churchill lustily singing Onward Christian Soldiers, can be seen here:-
On 24 August 1941 Churchill spoke about the hymn, O God Our Help in Ages Past `in which the brief, precarious span of human life is contrasted with the immutability of Him to whom a thousand ages are but as yesterday’.
8 May 1945, VE Day, Churchill addressed the House of Commons and ended with, `this House do now attend at the Church of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, to give humble and reverential thanks to Almighty God for our deliverance from the threat of German domination,’
Churchill wrote that the Commons, `did not feel inclined for debate or business, but desired to offer thanks to Almighty God, to the Great Power which seems to shape and design the fortunes of nations and the destiny of man….’
In 1949 he delivered a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, The 20th century – Its Promise and Its Realization
Here I speak not only to those who enjoy the blessings and consolation of revealed religion but also to those who face the mysteries of human destiny alone. The flame of Christian ethics is still our highest guide. To guard and cherish it is our first interest, both spiritually and materially. The fulfilment of Spiritual duty in our daily life is vital to our survival. Only by bringing it into perfect application can we hope to solve for ourselves the problems of this world and not of this world alone.
United we stand secure. Let us then move forward together in discharge of our mission and our duty, fearing God and nothing else.’
The week of the publishing of this post sees the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death on 24 January 1965. His funeral, sometimes seen as symoblic of the passing of the era of Britain as a global power, was laced with Christian overtones planned by Churchill himself. He promised some `lively hymns’ and the worldwide audience of 350 million heard The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a reference to his Anglo-American parentage, while his personal and political courage were recalled by Who Would True Valour See and Fight The Good Fight With All Thy Might. The coffin was carried out of St Paul’s Cathedral to, O God, Our Help in Ages Past.
Churchill’s funeral, St. Paul’s Cathedral
It is not the task of an historian to look into the soul of people of previous times. Nor is it their task to judge their religious beliefs in a binary `Yes/No’ construct. I prefer the idea of a spectrum model, whereby the depth of faith shown by an individual can vary across time and place, and have different modes of expression. Whatever Churchill’s personal relationship with God was is no concern of mine. However what cannot be in doubt is the existence of a positive relationship between Winston Churchill and the Christian faith, expressed through his speeches and writings during a time in which he had to draw on the innermost depths of his soul, and of the soul of the British people. To me, as an historian of war and religion, it is hugely significant that he chose to frame the struggle in such Biblical terms in what has for too long been seen an era of secularisation.
Perhaps the last word comes, not surprisingly, from the great man himself. When described as a pillar of the church, he interjected, `No, no, not a pillar, but a buttress, supporting it from the outside’.
John Broom is the author of Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War, published by Pen and Sword.