“At many times in the two World Wars, Britain was saved from disaster in circumstances that defied probabilities,” we read on the cover of ‘Beyond the Odds’, a new book by John Scriven with Tim Dieppe (Wilberforce Publications). “There were sudden changes in the weather, inexplicable mistakes in strategy and tactics by the enemy and other extraordinary events,” and we are taken on a journey from the ‘Angel of Mons’ in 1914, through the capture of Jerusalem in 1917, to Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain in 1940, campaigns in Malta, North Africa, and right up to the 1982 Falklands War.
Have you ever heard of the White Cavalry of Béthune? Have you ever read that British Generals read their Bibles, prayed fervently and relied on God? Did you know that British troops in Palestine successfully copied the military tactics of Saul and Jonathan, and thereby secured victory over the Turks?
Writing for The Critic magazine, John Scriven explains:
In the wartime generations of the First and Second World War, there was widespread acceptance of the Christian worldview. Callum Brown wrote in his book The Death of Christian Britain: “… what made Britain a Christian nation before 1950 was not the minority with a strong faith, but the majority with some faith.” From November 1940 through the war (and until the mid-fifties) there was a silent minute in the BBC broadcasts at 9pm every day following the chimes of Big Ben. Listeners were asked to “unite in meditation, prayer or focus (each according to their own belief) and consciously will for peace to prevail”. National Days of Prayer were called by the sovereign (nine in the Second World War) and there was concerted private prayer, such as at the Bible College of Wales.
And this is a scholarly book of military history infused with spiritual insight, as you might expect from a Cambridge historian who served a a Captain in the Territorial Army. Perhaps it avoids a few uncomfortable perspectives (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and the ethics of warfare itself (‘Just War‘), not to mention allegations of incompetence (‘Lions led by donkeys‘), but ‘Beyond the Odds’ doesn’t set out to be a theological tome which wrestles with (mis)conceptions of justice.
Providence is about God’s knowledge and His provision rather than His active involvement in the world. If you believe in God, you will see the hand of God in the rise and fall of nations; in miracles, answered prayers, and moments of national salvation. “He blew with His winds, and they were scattered”, they said of the ‘Protestant wind’ which helped defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. And if you do not believe in God, you may be persuaded at least that there were some really quite extraordinarily providential or otherwise inexplicable moments in Britain’s wars of the 20th century. The general providence of a serene English Channel for the evacuation of Dunkirk may just have been ‘lucky weather’, but how did so many men share the special providence in the same moment of ‘hysteria’ and have the same ‘hallucination’ of the Angel at Mons? Might it still be that the battle is determined by God?
And the Lord said unto Joshua, See, I have given into thine hand Jericho, and the king thereof, and the mighty men of valour (Josh 6:2).
Of course, if you a member of the clergy of the Church of England, you will probably dismiss the book as misguided ‘Christian Nationalism’, zealous Calvinism, the ‘Myth of British Exceptionalism’, or just more deluded ‘White Privilege’. And you can be sure that ‘Beyond the Odds’ will not be on sale in the Westminster Abbey bookshop (or St Paul’s Cathedral, or, indeed, in any cathedral).