Seventy years after the end of World War II, we can look back with admiration for those who led the resistance against the human-killing, society-destroying machine that Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) built. Perhaps the most legendary and beloved leader resolved to end Hitler’s reign of terror was Winston Churchill (1874–1965). But what made Churchill so great?
Jonathan Sandys and Wallace Henley point to several aspects of Churchill’s greatness, from his character to his leadership style. But they contend that at the core of his greatness was his sense of divine destiny, which ultimately points to God’s sovereign use of Churchill as his instrument to bring the world back from the brink of disaster.
Their argument, however, goes further. This paradigm of divine intervention not only explains our past but also speaks to our present, extending hope in our own times, plagued by wars and brutality such as that manifested by the Islamic State. Thus they title their book God and Churchill: How the Great Leader’s Sense of Divine Destiny Changed His Troubled World and Offers Hope for Ours (Tyndale Momentum, October 2015; source: publisher).
To speak of Churchill and God is rather unconventional. To be sure, even Sandys and Henley acknowledge that Churchill was “not an overtly religious man” (167). His faith was “personal and private” (168). He was no regular church attender, and he didn’t pretend to be pious (75, 79). But yet, the authors argue, despite an early “anti-religious phase” (14), Churchill was “a man of faith” (167). And this belief in a providential God involved in human events gave him a distinct approach to the problems of his day, helping him to lead Europe out of its pending destruction.
So what are the key pieces supporting their argument? First is his nanny, Elizabeth Everest, who spent far more time with Winston as a boy than his parents did and who held a “decidedly Christian” influence during his early years (6). In addition, Churchill experienced a number of “miraculous survivals” in his scrapes with death (12). Churchill also possessed an uncanny sense of divine destiny from as early as age sixteen, when he had dreams that he would one day be in a position to save London and the British Empire (3–4). Furthermore, he spoke at various times of God, Christ, and Christian civilization, revealing the debt he owed to the generally Christian influence on his thought. Finally, his character—to which they devote substantial time—supports the idea that God empowered Churchill for this role and protected him so he could carry it out.
The book is an engaging treatment of Churchill, not only for the details it conveys about the man Churchill, especially regarding the religious element of his life, but also for the potential ways it can lead the reader to change his or her view of the future. In fact, that is one of the authors’ stated goals: to offer hope to readers in today’s tense context.
The logic goes like this: just as God raised up Churchill in his day, so God raises up Churchills in other days and can in our day too. Here the authors’ theological viewpoint shines through. Theirs is an interpretation not so much of Churchill’s personal religion but of God’s sovereign work to save society through unexpected figures like Churchill. In this way, the esteemed British prime minister appears more like a Cyrus or a Lincoln (cf. 192); none of these three professed strong outward devotion to the one true God, but God used all to accomplish his broader redemptive purposes in the world, and all had some sense that they played a role in it. Thus the authors conclude “not that Churchill had particular beliefs about God but that God, in his wisdom, was able to use this ordinary human being for extraordinary purposes” (191).
And this caveat is important for the book—in part because the authors do make suggestive comments about Churchill’s faith. For example, they note a time when Churchill stated briefly that a passage in Deuteronomy “seemed a message full of reassurance” (38). From this they propose that, “[r]eading in Deuteronomy, Churchill may have found his reassurance in the overwhelming power of God” (38). Yes, he may have, though Churchill didn’t say this explicitly. Later they comment that Churchill “intuitively grasped the ancient truth of Solomon” (166), but “intuitively” suggests that he could do so without necessarily reading Proverbs. And in describing Churchill’s ability to deal with large-scale issues without ignoring the small things, they apply the words of the prophet Zechariah to him: “he did not ‘despise the day of small things’” (173). In the latter two examples, the authors do not prove the direct influence of Scripture on his thinking (or his character) but rather present Churchill’s patterns of life and leadership alongside passages from Scripture to make suggestive connections. This is not to say that Churchill had no knowledge of the Bible; Sandys and Henley show that he in fact did. But some of their suggestive links, like those above, remain a bit tenuous.
Ultimately, readers will want to know that the authors point to Churchill as an example to be followed. This is not surprising since one of the authors, Sandys, is Churchill’s great-grandson. Said another way, the book has an inspirational purpose: they write largely to encourage readers facing uncertainties in our own days with hope and lessons for living based on how Churchill addressed his own turbulent times.
Put succinctly, the book aims not so much to understand Churchill on his own terms as to present Churchill as a model for living a life of character and leadership, one that is shaped by a broad sense of divine purpose and involvement in the world. Read in this light, God and Churchill functions well as a theological argument that God is sovereign in every era, including ours.
Winston Churchill was certainly a remarkable man who uniquely responded with poise to a most difficult and terrifying enemy. And this treatment of Churchill offers engaging anecdotes that illustrate a life of integrity and character-based leadership, which can stimulate thinking about how to live and lead today. And in an age when brutality continues—frequently in unconventional forms—it is fitting to remember that God often confounds the ways of those who are wise to this world to accomplish his own redemptive purposes.
*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary advance reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.