The Religion of Winston Churchill

Craig Schwarze

I’ve just returned from my honeymoon. We spent two weeks driving around Tasmania, and had a terrific time. While there, I picked up a second-hand copy of “My Early Life” by Winston Churchill, a memoir describing his experiences to the age of about 30. I’m quite a fan of Churchill, and I found the book entertaining and fascinating. I was especially intersted to learn about his religious views.

Like many of his era (he was born in 1874), Churchill grew up never doubting the doctrines he was taught in the Church of England. However, his travels about the British Empire as a cavalry officer exposed him to many other religions. He and his fellow officers came to accept what he called “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness”, which concluded that “if you tried your best to live an honourable life and did your duty and were faithful to friends and not unkind to the weak and poor, it did not matter much what you believed or disbelieved.”

He retained a soft-spot for Christianity, however, especially as presented by the Church of England. But his reading included authors such as Reade, Gibbon and Lecky who taught, “the depressing conlcusion that we simply go out like candles.” He was initially offended by this idea, but was gradually won over to it. He then passed through a “violent and aggressive anti-religious phase”, feeling very resentful of having been told so many “untruths” by schoolmasters and clergymen. He was in his early twenties at this time.

His unbelief was cured by his exposure to battle. Churchill found himself frequently praying at these dangerous moments, and found the practice helpful. His reason told him that prayer was absurd, however, “...the practice was comforting and the reasoning led nowhere. I therefore acted in accordance with my feelings without troubling to square such conduct with the conclusions of thought.” He recommends that people believe as they wish, so long as belief “cheers your heart and fortifies your soul.”

Churchill is neither the first nor last to suggest such a dichotomy. It’s an attractive option for those struggling to reconcile their biblical beliefs with our modern understanding of the world. Yet I believe this dichotomy is fatal to faith, as heart and mind will ultimately collide. We need to work hard at addressing the intellectual challenges thrown up against Christianity, so that no-one will be forced, like Churchill, to choose between reason and faith.