A nuanced portrait of a great historical figure considered everything from a “God-haunted man” to a “stalwart nonbeliever”
What did faith mean to Winston Churchill?
Churchill was far from transparent about his religious beliefs and never regularly attended church services as an adult, even considering himself “not a pillar of the church but a buttress,” in the sense that he supported it “from the outside.” But Gary Scott Smith assembles pieces of Churchill’s life and words to convey the profound sense of duty and destiny, partly inspired by his religious convictions, that undergirded his outlook. Reflecting on becoming prime minister in 1940, he wrote, “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.” In a similarly grand fashion, he described opposing the Nazis—and later the Soviets—as a struggle between light and darkness, driven by the duty to preserve “humane, enlightened, Christian society.”
Though Churchill harbored intellectual doubts about Christianity throughout his life, he nevertheless valued it greatly and drew on its resources, especially in the crucible of war. In Duty and Destiny, Smith unpacks Churchill’s paradoxical religious views and carefully analyzes the complexities of his legacy. This thorough examination of Churchill’s religious life provides a new narrative structure to make sense of one of the most important figures of the twentieth century.
Table of Contents
Introduction 1. Competing Conceptions of Churchill’s Faith 2. Setting the Scene 3. Seeds of Spirituality, 1874–1894 4. Soldier and War Correspondent, 1893–1901 & 1914–1918 5. Political Roles, 1901–1931 6. The Wilderness Years, 1931–1939 7. Statesman and Wartime Prime Minister, 1940–1945 8. Cold War Warrior and Peace-Promoting Prime Minister, 1945–1955 9. Retirement Years, 1955–1965 10. Conclusion
Gary Scott Smith is professor of history emeritus at Grove City College where he taught from 1978 to 2017. Smith was named the 2001 Pennsylvania Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He is the author or editor of fifteen books, including Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents and Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush.
“Winston Churchill ‘was not a deist, an agnostic, an atheist, or a Christian.’ What, then, was he? Gary Scott Smith, an authority on religion and American presidents, here turns his discerning eye to the role that faith played in the life, work, and character of one of the most monumental political figures of the twentieth century. The result is a model of critical investigation and nuanced judgment. Religion is too important to overlook in political analysis—and too easy to exaggerate or get wrong. This volume shows how to do it right.” — James D. Bratt coauthor of A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt
“Gary Scott Smith, with detail and good research, tackles the complicated relationship between religion and politics in Churchill’s thought. We learn that Churchill was a believer in a faith—which was at the heart of his appeal in the Second World War—but not necessarily a practitioner. His book confirms Churchill’s quip that he accumulated in youth ‘so fine a surplus in the Bank of Observance that I have been drawing confidently upon it ever since, [never making] enquiries about the state of my account. It might well even be that I should find an overdraft.’” — Richard M. Langworth senior fellow, Hillsdale College Churchill Project
“So much of Winston Churchill’s life and character defies simple classification, and his religion is no exception. In this meticulously researched and authoritative study, Gary Scott Smith goes beyond the public rhetoric—steeped, as he shows, in biblical and liturgical allusions—to discern the elements of the private faith which underpinned much of Churchill’s life. He argues persuasively that while Churchill was neither the unbeliever nor the orthodox Christian that different writers have claimed, his faith, although in many ways an enigma, was nonetheless real and important. It is indeed, as the author says, a ‘complex, colorful, and compelling’ story.” — Andrew Connell Cardiff University
The Living Church “This is all we ever look for in a biography: the truth in all its strange appearances. Smith’s book helps us know Churchill better than ever, and we do not love the great man any less for the revelations.”
Catholic World Report “Kudos to Gary Scott Smith for giving us something far more measured and thoughtful about the person of Winston Churchill than the narrow caricature being framed by today’s cultural revolutionaries.”
Law & Liberty “Gary Scott Smith should be commended for making available all the crucial evidence regarding Churchill, religion, and the life of the soul. I think he is right that the great Churchill was, in the end, neither an atheist nor an orthodox Christian.”
CHOICE “A detailed chronological treatment of expressions of religious belief or sentiment from Churchill’s school days to the end of his momentous life. . . . Recommended.”
The Christian Librarian “This book makes a significant contribution to the scholarly literature on Churchill’s life and religious views, yet it is written in a way that is accessible to the general reader as well. The book would make be an excellent addition to the collections of libraries not only of faith-based institutions, but also of other academic libraries and public libraries as well.”
AudioFile “Richard Turner does a splendid narration of this well-written and meticulously researched biography of Winston Churchill.”
Journal of Church and State “[Duty and Destiny is] a helpful attempt to contextualize Churchill’s beliefs within the attitudes to religion that prevailed within British society during his lifetime. . . . This book raises important questions about religious life in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain and stimulates interesting reflection.”
Fides et Historia “In making a convincing case for viewing Churchill as a Christian statesman, albeit one of an unorthodox kind, Smith has rendered a valuable service to scholarship and a useful corrective to wholly secular readings of his life and career.”
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