The Biblical Churchill, Part 3

The Biblical Churchill, Part 3

“Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour…”

Con­tin­ued from Part 2…

On 19 May 1940, Churchill made his first broad­cast as Prime Min­is­ter, a speech which lift­ed the hearts even of his for­mer and cur­rent crit­ics. “A tremen­dous bat­tle is rag­ing in France and Flan­ders,” he said, adding forth­right­ly that the Ger­mans, “by a remark­able com­bi­na­tion of air bomb­ing and heav­i­ly armoured tanks, have bro­ken through the French defences.”

In assur­ing his lis­ten­ers that Britain would fight on, Churchill chose a majes­tic coda, an obscure Bib­li­cal allu­sion, for the first and only time in all his writ­ings and speech­es. It proved to be exact­ly right for the occasion:

Today is Trin­i­ty Sun­day. Cen­turies ago words were writ­ten to be a call and a spur to the faith­ful ser­vants of Truth and Jus­tice: “Arm your­selves, and be ye men of val­our, and be in readi­ness for the con­flict; for it is bet­ter for us to per­ish in bat­tle than to look upon the Out­rage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heav­en, even so let it be.[1]

Even some Bib­li­cal schol­ars were uncer­tain about the ori­gins of this phrase, and with good rea­son. It is from I Mac­cabees 3:58-60, a text not found in every Bible. Fur­ther, Churchill altered the quo­ta­tion. Evi­dent­ly the writer in him could not resist an edi­to­r­i­al improve­ment. The orig­i­nal words were:

 58. And Judas said, Arm your­selves, and be valiant men, and see that ye be in readi­ness against the morn­ing, that ye may fight with these nations, that are assem­bled togeth­er against us to destroy us and our sanc­tu­ary: 59. For it is bet­ter for us to die in bat­tle, than to behold the calami­ties of our peo­ple and our sanc­tu­ary. 60. Nev­er­the­less, as the will of God is in heav­en, so let him do.

There are two Books of the Mac­cabees, also spelled “Mach­abbes,” none of which is in the Hebrew Bible but all of which appear in some man­u­scripts of the Sep­tu­agint and in the Vul­gate, since they are canon­i­cal to Roman Catholi­cism and East­ern Ortho­doxy. They are also includ­ed in the Protes­tant Apoc­rypha, which is prob­a­bly where Churchill read them.

Churchill’s first broad­cast as Prime Min­is­ter caught the imag­i­na­tion of mil­lions. Sir Mar­tin Gilbert has col­lect­ed some of those reac­tions that very evening, Trin­i­ty Sun­day, 19 May, in Vol­ume VI of the offi­cial biography.

Antho­ny Eden wrote: “You have nev­er done any­thing as good or as great. Thank you, and thank God for you.” Lord Hal­i­fax, who nine days lat­er would urge approach­ing the Ger­mans for armistice terms, was momen­tar­i­ly bowled over: “It was worth a lot,” he wrote from the For­eign Office, “and we owe you much for that, as for a great deal else, in these dark days.” The Evening Stan­dard declared the broad­cast a speech of “imper­ish­able resolve.”[2]

Stan­ley Baldwin

Per­haps the most unex­pect­ed, a note that must have encour­aged Churchill, came from his old chief Stan­ley Bald­win, who had done more than any oth­er British leader to put the coun­try in so per­ilous a state of readi­ness, but who on 19 June was moved more per­haps than at any oth­er time:

My dear PM, I lis­tened to your well known voice last night and I should have liked to have shak­en your hand for a brief moment and to tell you that from the bot­tom of my heart I wish you all that is good—health and strength of mind and body—for the intol­er­a­ble bur­den that now lies on you. Yours always sin­cere­ly, SB[3]

[1] Win­ston S. Churchill, Blood Sweat and Tears, 334.

[3] Ibid.

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