Winston Churchill is not remembered as a particularly religious figure. He did not attend worship services regularly, choosing rather to grace the cathedrals only for state occasions and rites of passage. The Bible he read merely “out of curiosity” and discussions of Church dogma were, safe to say, near the bottom of his to-do list. Furthermore, Churchill entered into a period of anti-religious fervor during his early twenties. His attitude mellowed as he aged, but the skepticism he adopted then never fully dissipated. It would appear fair to say that, on a strictly intellectual level, Churchill was an agnostic.
On the other hand, he remained sympathetic to religious belief and, in particular, to the Christian faith, and tended sincerely to draw on its resources as needed, irrespective of any logical contradiction with his formal doubts. The hymns and worship that Churchill imbibed in his youth embedded in him an emotional and spiritual connection with the Church of England—albeit one that stood at arms’ length to its teachings. He once described his relationship with the Church as a buttress: he supported it from the outside. He was an adamant defender of Christian civilization and earnestly advocated the need for Christian ethics in a democratic society.
Moreover, despite his religious skepticism, Churchill had a deep-seated belief in divine providence—especially as it cradled his personal destiny. (He famously quipped, “We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glowworm.”) In short, the paradox of Churchill’s faith is that although he did not believe in God, he nevertheless thought that God believed in him.
On November 30, 1874, Winston Spencer Churchill was born in a bedroom that was once reserved for the family chaplain. Just after Christmas, he was baptized into the Church of England, which marked one of the few religious experiences Winston received under his parents’ direct supervision. Like many other upper-class Victorian families, Churchill’s parents did not play an overly active role in his upbringing. Churchill reminisced of his mother that he “loved her dearly—but at a distance.” Nearer to Winston was his beloved nanny, Elizabeth Everest. It was she who showed him attention and love and in whom the boy found comfort. She also imbued in the young Churchill her religious preference for Low Church principles and a general disdain for anything inclining toward Rome.
A young Winston Churchill with his mother Lady Randolph Churchill. From the History Channel’s Winston Churchill (2003).
Churchill’s formal education confirmed him in these influences. He first attended the fashionable St. George’s School at Ascot. His first day included memorizing the first Latin declension. Churchill’s confusion as to why anyone would speak to a table (using the vocative case) was interpreted by the form master as blatant disrespect. Impertinence was met with harsh punishment at St. George’s. Several times a month the student body was brought into the library where disobedient pupils were flogged in an adjoining room until they bled freely. The remaining students listened to their screams. This form of punishment, Churchill recalled, “was strongly reinforced by frequent religious services of a somewhat High Church character in the chapel.” In addition to deriving little spiritual comfort, Churchill performed poorly in his classes. He then fell gravely ill.
For the sake of his health, Churchill’s parents moved him to Brighton. The school there was not as strict and allowed Churchill to pursue subjects that interested him more such as history and poetry. To his dismay, however, he could not escape High Church worship. In the chapel the students were ushered into pews that ran north and south. At the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, everyone turned toward the east, that is, except for Churchill. Keeping faith with his beloved Mrs. Everest, Churchill thought it was his duty to refuse to turn. “I was conscious of having created a ‘sensation,’” Churchill recollected, “I prepared myself for martyrdom.” However, his defiant witness did not produce the results he expected. In fact, nothing happened at all; no one said anything to him about it. Churchill became disappointed and sought out other occasions to display his...