Editor’s Note: The “Author Q&A” is an e-publication from the Institute for Faith & Freedom at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an author of an intriguing new book that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere. In this latest edition, we sit down for more with Dr. Gary Scott Smith to discuss his new book, “Duty and Destiny: The Life and Faith of Winston Churchill,” which is available as a print book, a Kindle book, and an audible book narrated by Richard Perry Turner.
IFF: In your earlier Q&A about your newly published book, Duty and Destiny: The Life and Faith of Winston Churchill, you discussed Churchill’s importance and provided an overview of his faith. Why did you give the book this title?
Smith: The two words, duty and destiny, are central to Churchill’s work and life. Throughout his life, Churchill strove diligently to perform his duty, as he understood it, to God, the British empire, and the world. Several of Churchill’s most memorable World War II speeches highlight the concept of duty.
From his teenage years on, Churchill had a profound sense of his own personal destiny, although who or what he believed determined his destiny—God or fate—is ultimately unclear. His seemingly “miraculous” escapes from death in Cuba, North Africa, the Boer War, and World War I convinced him that God, fate, or destiny had a special role for him to play in history. Sometimes Churchill simply stated, “I believe I am watched over.” “Chance, Fortune, Luck, Destiny, Fate, Providence seem to me,” Churchill wrote, “only different ways of expressing the same thing, to wit, that a man’s own contribution to his life story is continually dominated by an external superior power.”
Most notably, when Churchill became prime minister on May 10, 1940, during the Nazi invasion of France, he later explained that “it felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
Many others agreed. Lord Hailsham, who served in Churchill’s wartime government, declared, for example, “The one case in which … I can see the finger of God in contemporary history is Churchill’s arrival at the premiership at that precise moment in 1940.” Churchill’s powerful sense of personal destiny fueled his determination and perseverance as he dealt with numerous personal and political trials.
IFF: Tell us about Churchill’s principal theological convictions. How did he view God?
Smith: Churchill asserted that God is personal, reveals himself to human beings, greatly values justice, and provides moral standards for their conduct. God’s major attributes are justice, mercy, pity, self-sacrifice, and “ineffable love.” He argued that all people are equal in God’s eyes and that God especially cares about the “poor and downtrodden.”
IFF: What did Churchill believe about Jesus?
Smith: Most 20th century politicians in both Britain and the United States said little publicly about Jesus. In his nearly 10 million published words, Churchill said almost nothing. The five million words of his speeches contain only a single reference to Christ.
From his few public and private comments, it appears that Churchill viewed Jesus as an inspired prophet, an exceptional teacher, and an exemplary role model, but not as the Son of God. Churchill seems to have done precisely what his contemporary C. S. Lewis insisted in his famous book “Mere Christianity” that people could not logically do: profess that Jesus is a great moral teacher while denying his claim to be God.
On the other hand, Churchill agreed with Lewis that God provided transcendent standards of justice that are vitally necessary to inspire upright conduct and that God would ultimately reward good behavior and punish evil acts. “We have our faith,” Churchill asserted, “that the universe is ruled by a Supreme Being and in fulfilment of a sublime moral purpose, according to which all our actions are judged.”
IFF: How often did Churchill attend church?
Smith: While a student at Harrow, a boarding school northwest of London, Churchill went to three worship services every Sunday as well as morning and evening prayers throughout the week, and he also attended church every Sunday when he was home during school holidays. “All of this was very good,” he later wrote. “I accumulated in those years so fine a surplus in the Bank of Observance that I have been drawing confidently upon it ever since.” After his service with the British army in India while he was in his early 20’s, Churchill rarely attended worship services, even at Christmas.
IFF: Did Churchill pray?
Smith: Churchill’s nanny Elizabeth Everest prayed faithfully for him and encouraged him to pray as a youth. At the three boarding schools he attended, prayer was a regular part of daily worship services. During his death-defying experiences in military engagements in Africa while he was in his early and mid-20s, Churchill prayed fervently for his safety.
Strikingly, unlike many American presidents who declared that the immense challenges of their office prompted them to pray often and vigorously and who exhorted citizens to pray for them, Churchill said almost nothing about personally praying for God’s aid and guidance during the dark days of World War II.
IFF: Did Churchill believe in an afterlife?
Smith: This is difficult to determine. Several statements Churchill made indicate that he expected to cease to exist at death. However, he seemed very concerned that he would be required to justify before God his aerial bombing of German cities during World War II, as well as his support for dropping atomic bombs on Japan and the development of even more destructive nuclear weapons in the twenty years after the war ended. Churchill wanted to believe in heaven, but he could not do so with any sense of certainty.
IFF: Give us a final assessment of Churchill’s faith.
Smith: Churchill had little to gain politically from revealing what he truly believed. Most British citizens probably viewed Churchill as much more devout than he actually was because of his prominence at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey on state occasions; his frequent attendance at church weddings, christenings, and funerals; and his impressive ability to impeccably quote dozens of Anglican hymns, long passages from the King James Bible, and major sections of the Anglican Prayer Book.
Churchill clearly was not an atheist or an agnostic, as numerous scholars argue. He referred to God numerous times in speeches, books, articles, and private letters and conversations. Although he never referred to himself as such and had no relationship with the denomination, Churchill is perhaps best labeled a Unitarian. He believed in God and saw the essence of religion to be promoting upright morality and social service, but he did not affirm the deity of Christ.
IFF: Thank you. Your book is replete with interesting analysis of Churchill’s religious beliefs and practices.
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