By Jonathon Van Maren
To express admiration for Winston Churchill is so cliché it has become banal. After all, who doesn’t admire the British bulldog who led Great Britain through the storms of the Second World War with a cigar clamped between his teeth and his indomitable growl breathing life into his fellow citizens? In Canada, it is nearly impossible not to encounter him—there are schools named after him in Calgary, enormous statues of him in Toronto and Halifax, and streets named after him everywhere. I grew up reading about Churchill as the noble arch-nemesis of Hitler, and when I lived in Calgary, I hung a copy of the newspaper printed the day he died on my wall, with the headline “Churchill Mourned” emblazoned across the top. In my townhouse in Southern Ontario, one of my prized possessions was a small, black and white original photo of Winston Churchill, obtained from an antique dealer in England.
Churchill’s descendants have all grappled with the legacy of their great ancestor. His grandson Nicholas Soames, the son of Churchill’s daughter Mary and a Conservative Member of Parliament himself, often travels about giving speeches on his grandfather, who he grew up with at Chartwell. I spoke with him several weeks ago, and Soames recalled seeing Churchill every day until he went off to school at the age of nine. “He was interested in everything we did,” he told me. “He came to watch us swim, he liked talking to his grandchildren, and he liked having his grandchildren around him.” It wasn’t until later, Soames says, that he realized Churchill was “the greatest man of his generation.” He’s often recounted the moment he asked his grandfather if what he’d heard was true after slipping past several secretaries and finding him reading a newspaper in bed. “Is it true you’re the greatest living man, Granddad?” asked young Soames. “Yes,” Churchill replied. “Now bugger off and leave me in peace.”
Churchill’s great-grandson Jonathan Sandys—his paternal grandmother was Diana, Churchill’s eldest daughter—has also gone on the road to speak of Churchill’s legacy. In 2015, he even co-authored a fascinating book examining a side of Churchill that has often been overlooked: God and Churchill: How the Great Leader’s Sense of Destiny Changed His Troubled World and Offers Hope for Ours. Sandys, an evangelical Christian, lives in Houston, Texas. Interestingly, Margaret Thatcher’s grandchildren—also evangelical Christians—live in Texas, as well, a fact much discussed after Amanda Thatcher delivered a Scripture reading at the Baroness’s funeral in 2013. There seems to be something about Texas that appeals to the descendants of great British leaders.
God and Churchill is a fascinating read, although not quite what I expected. It isn’t a chronological history so much as it is an analysis of Churchill’s beliefs, combined with what amount to Bible studies throughout. The book received harsh criticism from Alistair Lexden, a prominent British historian and member of the House of Lords. Lexden’s review is harsh and acidic—he insists that Churchill was an agnostic, that God had nothing to do with anything, and as proof, notes that Churchill stated in the 1890s that humanity would evolve to where “Christianity will be put aside as a crutch which is no longer needed and man will stand erect on the firm legs of reason.”
Lexden’s criticism seems based not on what Churchill actually believed, but on his own disdain for the idea that God works in history. If you believe in God, after all, it makes sense that God used—or even appointed—Winston Churchill to defend Christian civilization as it came under attack from the forces of evil. All Christians recognize God’s providence in directing events. But if you are yourself an agnostic, this idea would obviously be ridiculous. Lexden’s cherry-picked Churchill quote also ignores the great man’s other statements and writings, many of them taking place after his statement on Christianity as “a crutch” and reflecting evolutions in his thinking.
In 1897, for example, Churchill wrote that, “It is evident that Christianity, however degraded and distorted by cruelty and intolerance, must always exert a modifying influence on men’s passions, and protect them from the more violent forms of fanatical fever, as we are protected from smallpox by vaccination.” He contrasted this with Islam, which Churchill thought “increases, instead of lessening, the fury of intolerance.” A close look at Churchill’s life indicates that he took Christianity very seriously—perhaps even personally—which is precisely why, when Jonathon Sandys was wondering whether there was enough on “God and Churchill” to write a book, Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert urged him to start digging, noting that there was “loads of information.”
Churchill was not introduced to the Christian faith by his parents, who largely ignored him while pursuing their own careers (as well as extra-marital dalliances), but rather by his nanny, Elizabeth Everest. Everest’s influence, Sandys writes, was life-long—in fact, when Churchill died at the age of 90 in 1965, he still had a photo of Everest beside his bed. It was through her, Sandys suggests, that he first began to treasure Christianity. Years later, Churchill wrote in an essay on Moses that the lessons in the Bible would always prove true: “Let men of science and learning expand their knowledge and probe with their researches of the records which have been preserved to us from these dim ages. All they will do is to fortify a grand simplicity and the essential accuracy of the recorded truths which have lighted so far the pilgrimage of man.”
Did Churchill believe in the truth of Scriptures, or did he simply rely on them as a unifying cultural symbol and a wealth of beautiful imagery with which to adorn his speeches? There seems some evidence, at least, that he saw the Bible as more than that. He referred to it once as “the Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture,” and he also used the Scriptures as a source of personal comfort—when Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned Churchill that if they met in Cairo they could be successfully targeted by the Luftwaffe, Churchill’s cabled response was simple and succinct: “John 14:1-4.” In 1911, when he was appointed first lord of the Admiralty, Churchill was tormented by thoughts of Germany’s military buildup, and went to the large Bible on his bedside table. Flipping it open, his eyes fell upon Deuteronomy 9:
Hear, O Israel: Thou art to pass over Jordan this day, to go in to possess nations greater and mightier than thyself, cities great and fenced up to heaven, A people great and tall, the children of the Anakims, whom thou knowest, and of whom thou hast heard say, Who can stand before the children of Anak! Understand therefore this day, that the Lord thy God is he which goeth over before thee; as a consuming fire he shall destroy them, and he shall bring them down before thy face: so shalt thou drive them out, and destroy them quickly, as the Lord hath said unto thee. Speak not thou in thine heart, after that the Lord thy God hath cast them out from before thee, saying, For my righteousness the Lord hath brought me in to possess this land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord doth drive them out from before thee. Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“It seemed,” Churchill said later, “a message full of reassurance.”
Lexden, in quoting Churchill’s thoughts from the 1890s, also seems to ignore Churchill’s own recounting of his experiences in 1899, when he was fleeing from a Boer prison camp. Walking through the South African Wilderness, surrounded by enemies and unsure of where to turn, he reflected:
I found no comfort in any of the philosophical ideas which some men parade in their hours of ease and strength and safety. They seemed only fair-weather friends. I realised with awful force that no exercise of my own feeble will and strength could save me from my enemies, and that without the assistance of that High Power which interferes in the eternal sequence of causes and effects more often than we are always prone to admit, I could never succeed. I prayed long and earnestly for help and guidance. My prayer, as it seems to me, was swiftly and wonderfully answered.
Churchill’s doubts vanished in that moment of prayer, confidence came over him, and he knocked on the door of the only house for twenty miles around that would not have returned him to his Boer captors. Later in life, he would experience many other close calls, including near-miraculous instances in the trenches of the First World War, where he seemed to be called away from the front lines at just the right moments. As prime minister, he once assured his worried bodyguard that nothing would happen to him—God still had a purpose for his life. “The old man is very good to me,” he once noted gravely to Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe. “What old man?” asked Fyfe. “God,” Churchill replied.
When recalling that Churchill had some sense of his own destiny, some sense that Providence had intended him for some great purpose, the details seem so unlikely that secular readers especially will be inclined to scoff. It was a Sunday evening in 1891 at the age of only sixteen, after all, that Churchill told his friend Murland de Grasse Evans that he saw great things in his future. “I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world,” he told his incredulous friend. “Great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger—London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London.” Years later, when this all came to pass, Evans recalled the conversation with near disbelief.
What makes Churchill’s prophecy even more exceptional is how unlikely it was that it would come about. By the time he became prime minister, he was over sixty years old. The 1915 disaster at Gallipoli that had occurred on his watch still cast a shadow over his career. He’d made scores of prominent enemies during his years in the political wilderness, sounding the alarm on the rise of Nazism and harrying the appeasers every step of the way. He’d switched political parties several times. Because Churchill looms so large in the history of the Second World War, we often forget how unlikely it was that he would ever occupy that position in the first place. We remember only his reassuring growl in his first broadcast as prime minister on May 19, 1940: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valor, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”
Regardless of whether Churchill was personally religious, he certainly saw the world through a Judeo-Christian lens. As early as 1933 he already saw the dangers of the soulless and secular statism promoted by people like the Bloomsbury elites, writing that, “Our difficulties come from a mood of unwarrantable self-abasement into which we have been cast by a powerful section of doctrines by a large proportion of our politicians. But what have they to offer is but a vague internationalism, a squalid materialism, and the promise of impossible Utopias?” A better description of today’s secular progressives, it must be noted, could not possibly be written.
Churchill reiterated this in a House of Commons debate over a decade later on October 28, 1948, noting that England had entered a mood “encouraged by the race of degenerate intellectuals…who, when they wake up every morning have looked around upon the British inheritance, whatever it was, to see what they could find to demolish, undermine, or cast away.” Churchill certainly understood the Judeo-Christian heritage of Great Britain to be of primary importance, and Sandys compiles an impressive list of examples to illustrate this fact:
-In a 1931 article in The Strand Magazine, Churchill wrote about “our duty to preserve the structure of humane, enlightened, Christian society.”
-In a speech to the House of Commons about the Munich Agreement in 1938, Churchill said, “There can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism.”
-In an appeal to Benito Mussolini in 1940 to keep Italy from joining the war on Germany’s side, Churchill said, “Down the ages above all other calls comes the cry that the joint heirs of Latin and Christian civilization must not be ranged against each other in mortal strife.”
-As he contemplated the defense of London during the Battle of Britain, he referred to the metropolis as “this strong City of Refuge which enshrines the title-deeds of human progress and is of deep consequence to Christian civilisation.”
-“It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the whole world and the hopes of a broadening civilisation founded upon Christian ethics depends on the relations between the British Empire or Commonwealth of Nations and the USA,” Churchill said in 1941.
-In October 1946, Churchill revealed to the Conservative Party leadership what he felt its “main objectives” should be. The list begins: “To uphold the Christian religion and resist all attacks upon it.”
-In a 1949 speech to scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Churchill said, “The flame of Christian ethics is still our highest guide. To guard and cherish it is our first interest, both spiritually and materially. The fulfillment 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.”
-Churchill also believed that, “the more closely we follow the Sermon on the Mount, the more likely we are to succeed in our endeavours.”
Winston Churchill realized that the battle between Great Britain and Germany was not simply a reiteration of the First World War. The Nazis, marching under the banner of the twisted cross, were now poised to destroy Christian civilization—and this was their aim. They had embraced eugenic philosophy—much of which had been developed by British elites—wholeheartedly. The carnage they would inflict on millions of innocents still defies comprehension.
Churchill was warning against these philosophies early. In 1931, he wrote that, “We have the spectacle of the powers of weapons of man far outstripping the march of his intelligence; we have the march of his intelligence proceeding far more rapidly than the development of his nobility…It is therefore above all things important that the moral philosophy and spiritual conceptions of men and nations should hold their own amid these formidable scientific evolutions.” In summary, he wrote: “There are secrets too mysterious for man in his present state to know; secrets which, once penetrated, may be fatal to human happiness and glory. But the busy hands of scientists are already fumbling with the keys of all the chambers hitherto forbidden to mankind.”
If Churchill was alive today, he would find that many of his warnings are as applicable now as they were when he first uttered them. Eugenics has resurfaced—British biologist Richard Dawkins even claimed that it was immoral to carry a child with Down Syndrome to term, and that a responsible person would “abort it and try again.” Vapid materialism, a rejection of Christian values, the trashing of tradition—Churchill’s writings are, unfortunately, of renewed relevance and prophetic once again. Churchill believed that Christian civilization was worth defending, and defending with his life and at all costs. That is hard perspective to find among today’s Western elites—it is no accident that President Barack Obama had a bust of Churchill removed from the Oval Office.
Sandys’ book has a simple thesis: God used Winston Churchill to save Christian civilization, and that Churchill himself felt that this was true. His case is a compelling one, for those with eyes to see. Churchill himself may have known he was a great man, but he also knew that truly great men were not defined by military victory or political prowess. His secretary, John Colville, once recorded a conversation between Churchill and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. Montgomery was a Christian, and as they discussed what it meant to be a great man, he wondered whether the only truly great men were religious leaders. Colville leaned in with fascination: “Churchill’s reply to that interested me, for he seldom spoke of religion. He said that their greatness was undisputed, but that it was of a different kind: Christ’s story was unequalled and his death to save sinners unsurpassed.”
Churchill was a man of his times, but his example also gives us much to ponder and much to take inspiration from. Many of the threats that faced Western civilization then also face us now, and the elites of today are as wilfully ignorant as they were in Churchill’s day. Many even rejoice at the destruction of our Judeo-Christian heritage, mistakenly believing that we can eliminate the foundations of our civilization and yet survive. Churchill knew this was a pernicious falsehood, and dedicated his life to defending what he knew was precious. It now falls to us to do the same.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.