When Winston Churchill was 16, he had a premonition that he would lead England in its time of need. Perceived as a failure for much of his life, Churchill was the last person anyone would have expected to rise to national prominence as prime minister and influence the outcome of World War II. His belief in divine destiny propelled him on a spiritual path to help save Christian civilization.
Bible Gateway interviewed Churchill’s great-grandson Jonathan Sandys (@jonathansandys) and former White House staffer Wallace Henley (@wallacebhenley) about their spiritual biography, God & Churchill: How the Great Leader’s Sense of Divine Destiny Changed His Troubled World and Offers Hope for Ours (Tyndale House, 2015) (@godandchurchill).
What is your relationship to Winston Churchill?
Jonathan Sandys: Winston Churchill is my great-grandfather on my father’s side. My grandfather, Duncan Sandys, married the Churchill’s eldest daughter, Diana. Together they had my father Julian and my aunts Edwina and Celia.
Historians have tended to focus on Churchill’s political and military leadership and not his spiritual dimension. Why do you think that’s the case?
Jonathan Sandys: I cannot answer for others, but my own interest was piqued when I came across situations in Great-Grandpapa’s life that, when looked at together in the context of his entire life, seem impossible feats that luck or coincidence cannot in my opinion explain.
What is the vision for this book?
Wallace Henley: Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” Our vision is that people will see through the example of Winston Churchill how God directs the course of history, and that leaders and people everywhere will learn the lessons, take hope, and trust in God.
What was Churchill’s view of “divine destiny” for himself and his country?
Jonathan Sandys: He firmly believed in it and was not bashful on the several times he spoke of it. We begin God & Churchill with one of the most unlikely and impossible declarations Churchill ever made: “This country will be subjected somehow to a tremendous invasion…and I shall save London and England from disaster.”
Alone and separated from the context of the entire story, Churchill’s statement in 1891 to fellow Harrovian Murland de Grasse Evans must have appeared very arrogant. However, almost 50-years later Britain went to war and Churchill was called upon to lead us through the crisis. Five years after his appointment we celebrated an impossible victory, and by popular demand, Great-Grandpapa was hailed as the person who saved “London and England from disaster.”
Churchill believed in ‘divine destiny’ and that’s why in 1940, though severely outnumbered, like the Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy facing the overwhelmingly strong armies across the Jordon, he stepped forward and accepted the responsibility of leadership, while others, equally ambitious, refused the honor due to their lack of faith in the possibility of a general victory.
How did Churchill view the Bible?
Jonathan Sandys: Great-Grandpapa’s essay, Moses, provides evidence that supports our belief that Churchill saw the Bible as the literal truth: “We believe that the most scientific view, the most up-to-date view and rationalistic conception, will find its fullest satisfaction in taking the Bible story literally, and in identifying one of the greatest of human beings with the most decisive leap forward ever discernible in the human story.” And: “We may be sure that all these things happened just as they are set out according to Holy Writ.”
What surprised you the most about Churchill’s spirituality?
Wallace Henley: First, that he took the Bible so seriously, and was such an avid student of it. Second, that Churchill linked history/culture to the biblical worldview to the extent “Christian civilization” and its preservation was almost an obsession. Third, the way God removed the child Churchill from the influence of his wayward parents and brought him under the primary influence of his nanny, Elizabeth Everest, who molded young Winston with biblical foundations.
What did Churchill believe about Jesus Christ and the church?
Jonathan Sandys: He believed and confessed that Jesus was ‘the Christ.’ In our book, we quote Churchill’s toast at the christening of his grandson Winston: to “Christ’s new faithful soldier and servant.” In a private conversation with Montgomery, Churchill declared that ‘Christ’s story was unequalled and his death to save sinners unsurpassed.’
Wallace Henley: Critics claim that Churchill did not focus on Jesus. Again, this reflects a secularist agenda. Churchill believed in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world.
Churchill, though not a regular churchgoer, was not anti-church. In fact, he believed it should be supported and encouraged, and said of himself that though he was not a “pillar” of the church, he was a “flying buttress.” Mary Soames, his youngest child, wrote of growing up with Churchill as a father. She speaks of frequent church attendance on her part.
Who were Churchill’s Christian influences in his life?
Jonathan Sandys: Elizabeth Everest, Churchill’s nanny. “Woomany,” as he affectionately referred to Mrs. Everest, was the earliest religious influence in Great-Grandpapa’s life. Mrs. Everest would sit reading Bible stories with him for hours. She taught him how to pray. And it was her early influence that gave him a foundation from which, while in India, he could then compare other religions and their doctrines.
Some modern writers try to present Churchill as an agnostic, and one even an atheist. In light of the proof you present in the book that he was neither, why do you think this myth is perpetuated?
Wallace Henley: Sadly in our secular age everyone has an agenda. One idea is that religion and spirituality are irrelevant. That may be the reason ours is the first truly spiritual biography of Churchill—though Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, saw the importance of Churchill’s relationship with God and personally encouraged Jonathan to pursue research. Secularists in our day want to freeze Churchill in his early doubts and agnosticism, but God & Churchill demolishes their claims.
What were Churchill’s encounters with God when he was a soldier?
Jonathan Sandys: There are several, and we mention The Battle of Omdurman (1898) in God & Churchill which, as you’ll see from our account, Churchill narrowly escaped with his life. Had he not been forced to use his Mauser pistol in that last most famous British cavalry charge, he would most certainly have been killed.
While one cannot state definitely that God intervened, in the context of other incidences, and the overall picture of the vital role it is clear from history that Churchill could have played in the survival of Christian civilization, the evidence on this matter leans more towards the intervention argument than luck or coincidence.
The Anglo-Boer War, South Africa (1899): As a war correspondent in South Africa, Churchill was captured and then subsequently escaped. Once again, the account appears in our book, and you can see that while escaping with a price on his head, ‘Wanted Dead or Alive,’ the door he was forced to knock on was the only one for 20 miles where on the other side he found a friend. Once again, one can argue luck or coincidence; however, taken again in the context of his life story, had he knocked on the wrong door he would either have been returned to captivity or, more probably, shot where he stood. There is another angle to the story that we believe also supports our argument, and this is the fact that his escape from the Boers was the springboard for his entry into Parliament. Members of Parliament needed funds not only to support themselves, but also to make donations to local charities, etc. Churchill had no money to give, and so received little support. However on escaping from the Boers, Churchill found fame as he became a household name throughout Britain. Had Churchill not entered Parliament in 1900, he might instead have joined the church, an idea he was toying with, even if not seriously.
World War I (1915): Following the Gallipoli incident, Great-Grandpapa, being the honorable man he was, resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty and then, shortly after, requested a posting to the French Front. Again, we recount the story in God & Churchill in more detail, but basically, Churchill called to visit his commanding officer and reluctantly he went. On his return to the trenches he found that 15-minutes after his departure the trench was bombed, his billet destroyed, and the servant within had been killed. Once again was this luck or ‘Divine intervention’?
How do you reconcile Churchill’s lifestyle with the Bible and Christian faith?
Wallace Henley: Churchill did not see himself as a religious man. He believed in God, and had a relationship with God, as revealed in the fact that he more often resorted to prayer than is widely believed. He was a conservative, as his essay on Moses shows, with regard to the inspiration and authenticity of the Bible; but he was not a conservative in his lifestyle.
How did a random reading of Deuteronomy 9 give Churchill reassurance?
Jonathan Sandys: Random biblical readings are great to give confidence. However, one-off readings cannot be seen as literal guides in situations. Everything must be weighed and measured in the context of how God would respond to a situation. Hitler was evil. The Nazis were evil. Their actions were un-Godlike. Their mission was to dominate, in contrast to Christ’s which was to set free. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” Matthew 7:15-16
Churchill had read the Bible throughout many times (Martin Gilbert once told me a total of 16 times). Churchill knew the character of God from the words he read. He understood that good can and will triumph over evil, and Hitler was evil. Deuteronomy 9 would have given him the answer to any doubts he had in his mind that his prediction at 16-years-old was finally becoming a reality.
Churchill’s famous “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech includes a reference to God being actively involved in people’s lives. Did he honestly believe that or was it political rhetoric?
Jonathan Sandys: The evidence strongly supports our conclusion that Churchill did honestly believe what he said.
In addition to the evidence we present in God & Churchill, there’s the remark Great-Grandpapa made to his bodyguard Walter Thompson in 1940, who was often anxious because of the danger Churchill often insisted on putting himself in. One evening while walking from St. James’ Park to Downing Street, the Luftwaffe attacked and a large explosion was heard very close-by. Thompson was very concerned for Churchill’s safety. Great-Grandpapa just shrugged the danger off. Pointing to the sky he told his trusted bodyguard, “There is someone looking after me besides you…I have a mission to perform and that person intends to see it is performed.”
The evidence supports our belief that Churchill had no need to use mere “political” rhetoric. It’s widely accepted as fact that in one’s voice you can detect both truth and lies. In 1940, Churchill was almost alone in both Parliament and the country in his belief that Hitler could be defeated. At this point, May 1940, nine months into the war, the Allies were being thrashed and it was not going to be long before Hitler would bomb London. Using the words of the Bible at this point with no actual belief in their power would have shown through in both his voice and actions. We believe Churchill’s words without faith could never have roused the millions they did and secured a victory against all odds.
What significance was it that Churchill drew on 1 Maccabees 3:58-60 for his “be ye men of valor” speech?
Jonathan Sandys: The significance in Churchill’s choice of quote from Maccabees is borne out through another Churchill quote given in Cabinet on May 28, 1940, to those who still favored surrender: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies, choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
Churchill truly believed that life without freedom was not worth contemplating and it would be better to be dead on the battlefield of some foreign land, than alive and under the thumb of the Nazis.
Further to this, Churchill knew that the task of winning the war was beyond the realistic abilities of man. By May 1940, Germany had become the dominating force in Europe and France was poised to fall, leaving Britain alone. Churchill directed the people to the only hope he knew of: God. “As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”
What did Churchill mean when he referred to “Christian civilization”?
Jonathan Sandys: Exactly that, “Christian civilization.” Through self-study in India, Churchill had made himself a student of many of the world’s religions. He confessed to believing in a ‘Creator’ and his references to and quotes from the Bible confirm the ‘Creator’ he was referring to is the ‘Christian’ Creator; God.
Further evidence of this is found in Churchill’s own words in 1941, on the matter of ethics: “We can find nothing better than Christian Ethics on which to build and the more closely we follow the Sermon on the Mount, the more likely we are to succeed in our endeavors.”
Wallace Henley: Churchill had seen the worst of what we term today “worldviews.” His early days in India and North Africa caused him to link outcomes with worldview. He was fascinated with Islam as an adventurous, romantic youth in Muslim lands, but, the more he saw the fruit produced the more he turned from it. Churchill knew well the freedoms and opportunities of a Christian-based society. He knew Hitler’s dreams of the global “Third Reich” were the antithesis of a culture with a biblical worldview, and that Hitler and the Nazis had to be destroyed for the sake of, not just Britain, but civilization as a whole. How desperately we now need leaders with Churchill’s scope of vision and willingness to articulate in the public square!
You say Churchill valued morality as being absolute, but he disdained moralism. How so?
Jonathan Sandys: Churchill believed in freedom and moralism enables governments and/or peoples to dictate what they feel is right or wrong to their fellow countrymen. Churchill believed in the innate intellectual ability of the British people to determine the difference between right and wrong. Churchill did not believe in government interference, but believed in empowering the people to stand with confidence themselves. Churchill saw the role of government as leader, not dictator. He recognized that a people that depend on a government to provide for them, could never stand alone and think for themselves, and would more easily become slaves to the corrupt governments who take advantage of their naivety.
How did you both come together to write this book?
Wallace Henley: It’s true that we’re an interesting mix for a writing team. Jonathan is 40, and I’m about to turn 74. Jonathan was born and raised in England, and I was born and raised in Alabama. Our coming together is a small example of “providential history”—a major unspoken theme of the book.
I was called simultaneously to two churches in the summer of 1986—one with more than 4,000 members and the other, in Houston, with less than 200. The whole Henley family sensed God’s leadership to Houston. Meanwhile, God was shaping Jonathan in England. He began making speeches about his great-grandfather, and decided to come to America. Jonathan married a Houston woman, and moved there. As Jonathan made more and more speeches about Churchill, he began to realize there was a spiritual element that had been neglected by historians and biographers. Jonathan began to get a vision for writing a book about Churchill and God, but needed a co-author experienced in publishing and biblical studies. A man in the Houston church where Wallace was pastor heard Jonathan speak, and realized the two had much in common, and that I might be the co-author Jonathan had been seeking. Through our mutual friend, Jonathan and I got together, and the rest, as they say, is history. We both feel God led us to Houston so we could meet and write God & Churchill.
How is Churchill a common thread between the two of you?
Wallace Henley: As Winston Churchill’s great-grandson, Jonathan was steeped in the history of his great forebear, and the family lore about him. I was born two days before America’s entry into the Second World War, and my childhood was filled with newsreel and newspaper images of Churchill and his booming voice. I awakened to the significance of Churchill’s role in history as a young White House aide. There I contemplated the enormity of leading a nation, and the load that Churchill had borne with such strength and grace. I named my home study the “Churchill Room” long before I met Jonathan.
How do your differences contribute to the writing of the book?
Wallace Henley: Just like his great-grandfather, Jonathan is an avid historian. Like Sir Winston, he does not have formal academic training in that field, but, also like his great-grandfather, Jonathan has a passion for historic detail, and a keen ability to communicate it. I began my career as a journalist, and developed skills that have been used to write more than 20 books. My White House experience and years studying the Bible as a college and seminary student, then as a pastor, equipped me to help bring the historic and spiritual streams together. We say that without Jonathan there would have been no God and Churchill, and without me there could have been no God & Churchill. That’s why we believe ours is a God-formed team.
What do you hope will be the main take-away for readers of your book?
Jonathan Sandys: It’s my sincere hope that people view God & Churchill as evidence that God is not some age-old concept that was created as a crutch or method of manipulation for mankind, but that He is present with us even today and if we are willing to humble ourselves before Him, He will be faithful to us and not abandon us. Further to this, it’s my hope that God and Churchill will inspire others to lead as Churchill did, in faith, and will renew the hope lost in this present age.
- That readers would see how God continues to work through people not necessarily “religious” to intervene in history (like God did with Cyrus the Persian)
- That readers would understand that Churchill was not the pagan some suggest he was
- That we can have hope in our time that just as God was guiding the course of events in Churchill’s day, so he is now
- That we might understand the darker side of our culture and its similarities to that which produced the Nazis
- That readers might gain insight into the kind of leadership we need in this hour.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and/or the Bible Gateway App?
Jonathan Sandys: I’m using it now and did quite heavily when researching God & Churchill, along with Tyndale House, Cambridge’s ‘STEP Bible’ (stepbible.org). The Internet has provided us all with the level of access one needs to be able to not only compare Bible translations, but also to confirm their accuracy by viewing them in the original language.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Jonathan Sandys: The only thing that remains is really for me to thank you for the opportunity to share some of the evidence Wallace and I present in God and Churchill. Thank you to our readers, supporters, friends, and family. This is the most exciting project I have ever worked on and nervous though I am awaiting my work to be ‘flung to the public,’ I’m confident that we’ve presented a good fact-based view of my great-grandfather that finally puts to rest the insinuations and declarations of others that he was agnostic, atheistic, or pagan. Winston Churchill believed in God. “I was very nearly killed two hours ago by a shrapnel,” he wrote to Pamela Plowden from South Africa. “But though I was in the full burst of it God preserved me.”
“One must yield oneself simply & naturally to the mood of the game and trust in God.”
Bio: Since 2005, Jonathan Sandys has been communicating the morals, values and leadership skills of his great-grandfather and those of the “Greatest Generation” to both young and old alike, in a vibrant and interactive way. Though born ten years after his illustrious relative’s passing, Jonathan very much credits Churchill’s legacy as a major positive influence in his life. As a result, Jonathan found the “Never, Never, Never Give In” attitude of Churchill made it possible for him to rise above the challenges of dyslexia and social isolation and achieve success. Jonathan’s life mission is to use both the experiences of his great-grandfather and his own to encourage and inspire people of all ages and walks of life to “Never Surrender!”
Wallace Henley was born in Birmingham, Alabama, December 5, 1941, two days before the Pearl Harbor attack. He has been married to his wife, Irene, for more than 50 years. They have two children, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. In 1973 the Associated Press awarded Henley for his coverage of the civil rights movement. He worked as an aide in the Nixon White House, and also as a congressional staffer. Henley is Senior Associate Pastor at Houston’s 68,000-member Second Baptist Church, and a columnist for The Christian Post, the world’s largest Christian daily newspaper. Henley has conducted leadership conferences in 22 nations. He’s a member of the board of the Center for Christianity in Business at Houston Baptist University, and is an adjunct professor in worldview studies at Belhaven University, given its top award in 2014 for “excellence in classroom teaching.” He’s authored more than 20 books, including Globequake: Living in the Unshakeable Kingdom While the World Falls Apart. He holds BA and MA degrees, and an honorary doctorate.