Between 1899 and 1902 that peace was broken. The British Army was engaged in an unexpectedly costly war with the two Boer Republics in South Africa: The Transvaal and The Orange Free State. This conflict between British imperialism and Afrikaner “nationalism” is generally termed the “Boer” War. The term, “Boer,” is simply the Dutch and Afrikaner word for “farmer.” The war was a struggle for the expansion and defense of empire on the part of the British and the right of political self-determination on the part of the Boers. The Boers were predominantly Dutch, but included many French Huguenot, German, and Swiss settlers, who having developed a distinct language (Afrikaans) and strongly Calvinist culture, considered themselves to be a separate nation and people and desired to maintain their independence from the British Empire. The Boers fought valiantly, but were eventually overwhelmed by the vastly superior numbers and munitions of the British.
In March of 1899, the twenty-five-year-old Winston Churchill resigned his commission in the British Army and lieutenancy with the 4th Hussars in India and returned to England to take up a career as a writer and journalist. When the Boer War erupted in October of 1899, he became a war correspondent for a leading London newspaper, The Morning Post. It was under these circumstances that the young Winston Churchill entered into a providence that would eventually propel him to the leadership of the British Empire during World War II, perhaps Britain’s most grievous trial, but also its “finest hour.” It was Churchill’s reporting and articles on the Boer War, and especially the account of his capture and escape from the Boers, that gave him initial fame in Britain.
Churchill was captured when Boer cavalry ambushed a British armored train. He later managed a harrowing escape from a high walled prison compound in Pretoria and headed on a long trek through Boer held territory toward the freedom and safety of the British lines. Churchill described these events in his articles and two short books, which were eventually combined into a single volume, The Boer War.
Churchill is often depicted by the liberal dominated publishing industry as not very religious and at times a bit irreverent, but a close examination of his writing and speeches contradicts this. He was, after all, the Prime Minister that so often used the term, “Christendom,” with an obvious sincerity. It was a concept very much a part of his worldview. A more down-to-earth view of Churchill’s religious feelings is recorded in his description of his escape from the Boers in December 1899. His fugitive trek to the British lines, during which he was being hunted day and night by every Boer commando and civilian, reveals a Churchill in sharp contrast to the secularized version of the liberal press and publishing houses. The day after his escape from the Boers, he wrote:
“The elation and the excitement of the previous night had burnt away, and a chilling reaction followed. I was very hungry, for I had had no dinner before starting, and chocolate, though it sustains, does not satisfy. I had scarcely slept, but yet my heart beat so fiercely and I was so nervous and perplexed about the future that I could not rest. I thought of all the chances that lay against me; I dreaded and detested more than words can express the prospect of being caught and dragged back to Pretoria. I do not mean that I would rather have died than have been retaken, but I have often feared death for much less. I found no comfort in any of the philosophical ideas which some men parade in their hours of ease and strength and safety. They seemed only fair-weather friends. I realized with awful force that no exercise of my own feeble wit and strength could save me from my enemies and that without the assistance of that High Power which interferes in the eternal sequence of causes and effects more often than we are always prone to admit, I could never succeed. I prayed long and earnestly for help and guidance. My prayer, as it seems to me, was swiftly and wonderfully answered. I cannot now relate the strange circumstances which followed, and which changed my nearly hopeless position into one of superior advantage. But after the war is over I shall hope to lengthen this account, and so remarkable will the addition be that I cannot believe the reader will complain.”
In this passage, the account of Churchill’s prayer is very similar in context and tone to the prayer of King Asa in 2 Chronicles 14:11:
“And Asa cried to the Lord his God, ‘O God, there is none like you to help between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you and in your name we have come against this multitude. O Lord, you are our God; let not man prevail against you.”
God answered Asa promptly and Judah routed and completely destroyed a far larger and more formidable invading Ethiopian army. This event occurred about 911 BC.
As did King Asa, Churchill realized that he could never succeed by his own abilities against the odds he faced. He turned to his Almighty God in earnest prayer, and God heard and answered. Apparently Churchill’s help came in providential human form, with a name that could not be revealed without endangering the life and welfare of his benefactor
It is improbable that Churchill had Asa specifically in mind in formulating his own prayer of desperation. However, as a keen student of military history, Churchill may well have been familiar with the Biblical account of God’s acting in behalf of Judah in defeating a far more formidable Ethiopian army. Moreover, Churchill had recently written a book on the British expedition in East Africa, The River War. In any case, the principle of God’s hearkening to the desperate prayers of his people is found throughout Scripture.
Besides Churchill’s quickly answered prayer of desperation, it is possible to see some other workings of God’s providence in his account of the early days of the Boer War. In January 1900, Churchill was given a lieutenancy in the South African Light Horse yet was allowed to continue as a war correspondent for the Morning Post. Churchill had several narrow escapes and survived some near hits by Boer artillery. In his April 22 letter to the Morning Post, he described another narrow escape. During a small cavalry skirmish while on a scouting expedition, he lost his horse and was nearly left behind to rapidly advancing Boer cavalry. He later reminisced on his many narrow escapes in South Africa:
“But the hazards swoop upon me out of a cloudless sky, and that I have hitherto come unscathed through them, while it fills my heart with thankfulness to God for His mercies, makes me wonder why I must be so often thrust to the brink and then withdrawn.”
In the course of the war, Churchill gained a profound respect for the Boers. He often noted their fierce determination, endurance, and courage, and also their remarkably humanitarian treatment of prisoners. He grew more and more to respect their simple and generous piety and strong Calvinist faith. He does not airbrush the failings of the Boers or British but gives moving accounts of the courage and nobility displayed on both sides.
Years later after a career of many remarkable successes, but also some devastating failures, Churchill would be called upon to instill in the British people, in their darkest and most desperate hour, the courage and determination that he witnessed and praised in Boer commandos as well as British soldiers. On November 30, 1954, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, he spoke to the British House of Commons about those dark days from 1939 to 1945, which on upon looking back, were indeed, perhaps Britain’s “finest hour.” He said to them: “It was the nation and the race dwelling all around the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be allowed to give the roar.” But it was God’s providence woven in intricate and mysterious patterns that set the pattern to save Britain. One of Churchill’s favorite English poets, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his famous poem, The Death of Arthur, speaks these words through the dying Arthur: “The world little dreams the things that are wrought by prayer.”
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist
a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs
Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.
He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.
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