In the popular Netflix series The Crown, Winston Churchill first appears at the 1947 wedding of Princess Elizabeth. Two years removed from leading Great Britain to victory in World War II, the former prime minister enters Westminster Abbey to the sound of a patriotic hymn by Cecil Spring Rice: “I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above, / Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.”
Tellingly, we don’t hear the second verse, which turns from the United Kingdom to God’s kingdom: “We may not count her armies, we may not see her King; / Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering.” The Crown’s way of introducing Churchill may be one of the many liberties that series takes with British history, but it seems appropriate for a politician who was more devoted to his country’s system of government than to the doctrines of the church that Elizabeth still heads.
If you’re enough of a Churchill fan to have devoured Andrew Roberts’s magisterial 2018 biography and yet wanted to read more about religion than Roberts’s brief but trenchant discussion of that topic, you may want to pick up Gary Scott Smith’s short study Duty and Destiny: The Life and Faith of Winston Churchill, part of the Library of Religious Biography series from Eerdmans. (My own entry in the series releases later this year.) The book portrays a statesman driven both by duty to country and empire (“the service of my love”) and by what Smith calls “a profound sense of his own destiny.” Yet the answer to “who or what he believed determined his destiny—God or fate—is ultimately unclear.”
If not a groundbreaking work of original research, Duty and Destiny does manage, in Smith’s words, to synthesize “the many contradictory opinions expressed … by the army of Churchill biographers” about a story of faith that was “complex, colorful, and compelling.”
Alas, only the first of those three adjectives consistently describes Smith’s book. While the writing is workmanlike, we can expect more eloquence and verve from a biography of such a master of the English language.
In addition, readers hoping for a conventional biographical structure may be frustrated that Smith’s telling of Churchill’s life story doesn’t start until chapter 3 or that so important a topic as Churchill’s marriage appears very late, in a chapter on his retirement years. But at least some of that scene setting is necessary, in part to orient American readers to the religious and political terrain of a country that Churchill believed to be a Christian nation, though not in the way many American evangelicals would understand that phrase. (Having previously published histories of religion in the American presidency, Smith does well at several points in Duty and Destiny to draw helpful contrasts between the unconventional faith of Churchill and that of his ally Franklin D. Roosevelt, a committed Episcopalian who was the subject of an earlier entry in Eerdmans’s religious biography series.)
Far less devout than William Wilberforce, Margaret Thatcher, and the other Christian politicians sketched in chapter 2, Churchill nonetheless staunchly supported the establishment of churches whose doors he rarely darkened (save for occasions like royal weddings) and drew freely on the language of Christianity. Indeed, Smith’s analysis is most complex and compelling when it turns to Churchill’s colorful use of religious rhetoric, a hallmark both of his “locust years” in the 1930s, when he cried out from his political “wilderness” like “an Old Testament prophet,” and during the Second World War, when speeches “peppered with references to God … citations and allusions to Scripture, and images of spiritual warfare between good and evil and light and darkness” sought to “inspire, comfort, and assure beleaguered Britons of their eventual triumph.” What such public communications say about Churchill’s private convictions is harder to determine, especially when he “had little to gain politically from revealing what he truly believed.”
Yet while Smith is surely right that “we will never know definitively what anyone believes in his or her heart of hearts,” readers can expect biographers to do more than catalogue the divergent opinions of previous authors. To his credit, Smith doesn’t shy away from one conclusion that will disappoint some of his Christian readers: For all his invocations of “Christian civilization” and “Christian ethics,” Churchill did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, a figure he mentioned just once, by Smith’s count, in five million words’ worth of speeches. At most, the prime minister did “precisely what his contemporary C. S. Lewis … insisted that people could not logically do: profess that Jesus was a great moral teacher while denying his claim to be God.”
While Churchill seemed to hold shifting beliefs about the existence of God, the nature of the afterlife, and the veracity of Scripture, his views on Jesus may have been fixed as early as the late 1890s. During his military service in India, a 23-year-old Churchill read skeptics like Edward Gibbon and William Winwood Reade, debated theology and metaphysics with fellow officers, and scorned Christian missions. (That last critique, at least, didn’t last long. Just over a decade later, as a rising young parliamentarian, Churchill praised missionaries like those who had made central Africans “clothed, peaceful, law-abiding, [and] polite.”)
If only Smith would have returned more often to India, whose control by Britain Churchill “fervently defended” long after that stance became “a major political liability.” He agrees that Churchill’s commitment to the Empire “has rightly been criticized as retrogressive, racist, repressive, and repulsive” and concedes that his imperialist values “seem to clash with Christianity’s emphasis on service, sacrifice, and racial and gender equality.”
But Smith is too quick to exonerate his subject for his treatment of India. I’m not sure Churchill deserves any credit for having “correctly predicted the strife between Hindus and Muslims” that attended the independence he opposed, given that he was one of those “British imperialists who strove to create animosity” between South Asia’s largest religious groups. Smith does note that Churchill “decried [Mohandas K. Gandhi] as a seditious Hindu holy man,” but that passing comment understates the British leader’s animosity toward a man he called “a malignant, subversive fanatic” and falsely accused of faking a three-week fast in 1943.
An Imperial Creed
Of course, that’s the same year that three million Indians starved to death under British rule. Smith quotes historian Arthur Herman’s conclusion that the Bengal famine “would have been far worse” without the British aid that eventually arrived, but he overlooks Herman’s more conflicted evaluation in Gandhi and Churchill: Confronted with “the greatest humanitarian crisis the Raj had faced in more than half a century,” Britain’s wartime leader “proved callously indifferent” and “irrational.” He was “resolutely opposed to any food shipments” at a time when ships were needed for military operations against the Axis powers. Disgusted that his boss seemed to view such humanitarian aid “as an ‘appeasement’ of” Gandhi’s independence movement, Churchill’s handpicked viceroy, Archibald Wavell, had to threaten resignation to change the prime minister’s mind.
This is no tangential matter for a religious biography of Winston Churchill. “Central to many key decisions of his life,” wrote Andrew Roberts, was “this belief that Britain and her Empire were not just political entities but also spiritual ones.” Smith quotes this observation as part of his survey of writings on Churchill in chapter 1, but he doesn’t adequately reckon with it. While he’s surely right to hesitate in ascribing many traditional Christian beliefs to Churchill, Smith would have done well to wrestle more with Roberts’s conclusion that “imperialism was in effect a substitute for religion. … In the absence of Christian faith, therefore, the British Empire became in a sense Churchill’s creed.”
Christopher Gehrz is professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. His religious biography of Charles Lindbergh will be published by Eerdmans in August.