The Biblical Churchill (3) “Be Ye Men of Valour”

The Biblical Churchill (3) “Be Ye Men of Valour”

N.B. “Be Ye Men of Val­our” is from the orig­i­nal Appen­dix IV in my book Churchill By Him­self. It was delet­ed in the lat­er edi­tion, Churchill in His Own Words, to make room for an index of phras­es. Con­clud­ed from Part 2

From the Book of Maccabees

On 19 May 1940, Churchill made his first broad­cast as Prime Min­is­ter, a speech which lift­ed the hearts even of for­mer critics:

A tremen­dous bat­tle is rag­ing in France and Flan­ders. The Ger­mans, by a remark­able com­bi­na­tion of air bomb­ing and heav­i­ly armoured tanks, have bro­ken through the French defences north of the Mag­inot Line, and strong columns of their armoured vehi­cles are rav­aging the open coun­try, which for the first day or two was with­out defend­ers. They have pen­e­trat­ed deeply and spread alarm and con­fu­sion in their track. Behind them there are now appear­ing infantry in lor­ries, and behind them, again, the large mass­es are mov­ing forward.[11]

In assur­ing his lis­ten­ers that Britain would fight on, Churchill chose a majes­tic but obscure Bib­li­cal allu­sion. It was his first and only use of it. 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.[12]

Origins: “Men of Valour”

Even some Bib­li­cal schol­ars were uncer­tain about the ori­gins of this phrase, and with good rea­son. It is from the First Book of the Mac­cabees, a text miss­ing in many Bibles. Also, Churchill altered the quo­ta­tion. He either remem­bered bad­ly, or 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.[13]

There are two Books of the Mac­cabees, also spelled “Mach­abbes,” nei­ther of which is in the Hebrew Bible but both 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 King James Apoc­rypha, which is where Churchill read them.

“Imperishable resolve.”

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, 1940,

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 an armistice, 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.”[14]

Stan­ley Baldwin

The most unex­pect­ed was a note from Churchill’s old chief and some­time neme­sis 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 May was moved more per­haps than any other:

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 [15]


11. Win­ston S. Churchill, Broad­cast, Lon­don, 19 May 1940, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Win­ston S. Churchill: His Com­plete Speech­es 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowk­er, 1974), VI: 6221.

12. Ibid., 6223.

13. King James Bible, 1611: I Mac­cabees 3:58-60

14.Martin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. 6, Finest Hour 1939-1941 (Hills­dale, Mich.: Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2011),  365.

15. Ibid.

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