Did Winston Churchill believe in God?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Sorta. Maybe. Depends what you mean.
The question and that answer are raised in the new book “Duty & Destiny: The Life and Faith of Winston Churchill” (Eerdmans) by Grove City College historian Gary Scott Smith, whose prior works include “Faith and the Presidency from George Washington to George W. Bush.”
It’s fair to say that during World War Two Churchill saved the United Kingdom and with that the broader prospects for democracy and the defeat of tyranny. In the prior century, the Civil War President Abraham Lincoln had saved the United States and the very possibility of democracy. These two great statesmen, the subjects of an immense number of books, are rather similar — and similarly mysterious — when it comes to religion.
Lincoln’s story is well told in “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President” (also from Eerdmans) by Princeton Professor Allen Guelzo. Never a baptized church member and a youthful skeptic, Guelzo wrote, Lincoln when leading the nation through unprecedented crisis experienced a spiritual turn. This convinced him that only a moral revolution to end slavery could bring meaning to the war’s horrid slaughter.
Thus he wrought the Emancipation Proclamation, announced in 1862 and proclaimed in 1863 and then, definitively, the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery as of December 6, 1865, after he had been assassinated.
Churchill (1874 – 1965) underwent conventional baptism and confirmation in the Church of England. In the upper-crust mode, his neglectful and non-religious parents left his upbringing to boarding schools (with their mandatory chapels) and especially to his beloved nanny. Elizabeth Everest, a devout Christian, immersed the lad in prayer and study of the Bible, which through life he would quote at length by memory.
But as a young soldier in India he became a radical skeptic, influenced by such works as William Winwood Reade’s “Martyrdom of Man” (1872). He became hostile toward missionaries and wrote his mother, “I do not accept the Christian or another form of religious belief.” Nonetheless, Stephen Mansfield’s popular biography contended that Churchill “completely accepted the claims of Scripture and the teachings of historic Christianity.” Similar if less emphatic depictions of Christian belief have come from Churchill’s great-grandson Jonathan Sandys.
Smith thinks the reality lies somewhere between.
By his account, the mature Churchill did respect the church’s contribution to British culture and the same for missionaries in foreign lands controlled by the British Empire. At a time when his free nation’s survival was in peril, he repeatedly invoked God’s blessing upon the Allied cause. He regularly insisted that the survival of “Christian civilization” was a moral necessity that required Nazi defeat and, later, containment of Communist expansion. He was genuinely worried about the dangers from Britain’s growing secularism.
Was this mere realization that Christian faith helped shore up national culture and morale, or even a political ploy? That was apparently part of it. If a thriving Christianity was important for the nation, there was scant evidence it was personally important to the prime minister. Churchill was regularly seen in church, but this was for state occasions, weddings or funerals, part of the routine for the second-longest-serving member of Parliament in history (62 years, 31 of them as a government minister). Otherwise, Churchill was no churchgoer, nor did intimates report he was known to engage in private devotionals.
By today’s standards, Churchill was deeply stained by zeal for British imperialism that could take on more than a racist slant. He had major character flaws that Smith explores at some length, arrogance atop the long list.
That self-regard was all wrapped up with a sense of personal destiny that characterized Churchill from his teen years. As events developed, this was reinforced by several close scrapes with death that made him feel he had been saved for some special purpose. Who, or what, did the saving? He would sometimes credit “God” as the agent, or else a more impersonal “Providence.”
Smith disputes claims that Churchill was an atheist (we know God does not exist), an agnostic (we cannot know if God exists), or a deist (a divine creator or force is for all practical purposes absent in peoples’ lives today). He says Churchill “believed that God created and controlled the universe and cared about humanity.”
However, he sees no evidence that Churchill believed in the deity of Jesus Christ, so by that definition he was not a Christian. “Churchill is perhaps best defined as a Unitarian,” though he never had anything to do with that particular denomination. “He believed in God and saw the essence of religion to be promoting upright morality and social service,” as opposed to salvation through belief in Christ as humanity’s redeemer.
“Perhaps only the faith of Abraham Lincoln has produced such a wide range of competing interpretations,” Smith summarizes, and in the case of Churchill “assessment will forever be inconclusive.”