Winston Churchill’s sarcastic response to a call for prayers for rain

July 4, 2016 • 10:00 am

Like Einstein, Winston Churchill occasionally made references in his discourse to the divine or the Almighty, and, like Einstein, Churchill apparently didn’t believe in a personal God—or perhaps any God. Invoking the supernatural or divine was simply a figure of speech.

Having rejected Christianity as a young man, Churchill spent the rest of his life as an exponent of secularism, occasionally making disparaging remarks about faith. The following letter was brought to my attention by reader Mark B. (it’s today’s daily letter at the Letters of Note website, which Mark recommends highly). It was sent to the Times in 1919—when Churchill was the 44-year-old Secretary of War—in response to a letter from the Duke of Rutland. The severe drought in Britain that year had prompted the Duke to ask readers to pray for rain, and this is Churchill’s sarcastic response. It was published under a pseudonym, but the true writer was revealed 20 years later by Churchill’s private secretary.

June 12th, 1919

To the Editor of The Times.


Observing reports in various newspapers that prayers are about to be offered up for rain in order that the present serious drought may be terminated, I venture to suggest that great care should be taken in framing the appeal. On the last occasion when this extreme step was resorted to, the Duke of Rutland took the leading part with so much well-meaning enthusiasm that the resulting downpour was not only sufficient for all immediate needs, but was considerably in excess of what was actually required, with the consequence that the agricultural community had no sooner been delivered from the drought than they were clamouring for a special interposition to relieve them from the deluge.

Profiting by this experience, we ought surely on this occasion to be extremely careful to state exactly what we want in precise terms, so as to obviate the possibility of any misunderstanding, and to economize so far as possible the need for these special appeals. After so many days of drought, it certainly does not seem unreasonable to ask for a change in the weather, and faith in a favourable response may well be fortified by actuarial probabilities.

While therefore welcoming the suggestion that His Grace should once again come forward, I cannot help feeling that the Board of Agriculture should first of all be consulted. They should draw up a schedule of the exact amount of rainfall required in the interests of this year’s harvest in different parts of the country. This schedule could be placarded in the various places of worship at the time when the appeal is made. It would no doubt be unnecessary to read out the whole schedule during the service, so long as it was made clear at the time that this is what we have in our minds, and what we actually want at the present serious juncture.

I feel sure that this would be a much more businesslike manner of dealing with the emergency than mere vague appeals for rain. But after all, even this scheme, though greatly preferable to the haphazard methods previously employed, is in itself only a partial makeshift. What we really require to pray for is the general amelioration of the British climate.

What is the use of having these piecemeal interpositions—now asking for sunshine, and now for rain? Would it not be far better to ascertain by scientific investigation, conducted under the auspices of a Royal Commission, what is the proportion of sunshine and rain best suited to the ripening of the British crops? It would no doubt be necessary that other interests besides agriculture should be represented, but there must be certain broad general reforms in the British weather upon which an overwhelming consensus of opinion could be found. The proper proportion of rain to sunshine during each period of the year; the relegation of the rain largely to the hours of darkness; the apportionment of rain and sunshine as between different months, with proper reference not only to crops but to holidays; all these could receive due consideration. A really scientific basis of climatic reform would be achieved.

These reforms, when duly embodied in an official volume, could be made the object of the sustained appeals of the nation over many years, and embodied in general prayers of a permanent and not of an exceptional character. We should not then be forced from time to time to have recourse to such appeals at particular periods, which, since they are unrelated to any general plan, must run the risk of deranging the whole economy of nature, and involve the interruption and deflection of universal processes, causing reactions of the utmost complexity in many directions which it is impossible for us with our limited knowledge to foresee.

I urge you, Sir, to lend the weight of your powerful organ to the systematization of our appeals for the reform of the British climate.

Yours very faithfully,
Imagine something like this these days. It’s as if Leon Panetta, the U.S. Secretary of Defense in 2011, wrote a sarcastic letter making fun of Texas governor Rick Perry’s call for “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas” in that same year.
Churchill was not a perfect man (he was somewhat of a racist, for instance), but he’s still one of my heroes, and this makes him even more heroic. I wish he had signed his name, but of course as a cabinet minister that would have been impossible.
Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 9.52.56 AM
Winston Churchill, 1919

66 thoughts on “Winston Churchill’s sarcastic response to a call for prayers for rain

  1. When the Berlin Wall fell, I realized that my engineering education hadn’t given me much of a background to understand the backdrop of the wall going up, so I read Churchill’s 6 volume history of WWII. Not surprisingly, these books make Churchill look pretty good. 🙂

    I followed up with Manchester’s biography of Churchill, which, at the time, consisted of only two volumes. The third didn’t arrive until a couple of decades later and I probably won’t get around to it.

    I also read “Winston Churchill and his Black Dog” (or something like that), which described Churchill’s struggle with depression.

    So, for me, he’s the strongest, most admirable personality of the era and overshadows Roosevelt, for whom Churchill didn’t seem to have a lot of respect.

    1. IIRC, Churchill (after his first meeting with Roosevelt?) reflected to the effect that Roosevelt had a second-rate intellect but a first-rate personality, giving reasonable credit to the necessity of the latter in political matters.

    2. Yes, the 6-vol. WWII history is brilliant.

      Every other of his books I’ve read has been excellent as well.

      Currently working my way through The World Crisis with the History of the English Speaking Peoples in queue.

  2. aside from the content, there are few politicians today capable of writing an English sentence with any where near the style, vocabulary, punctuation, witty sarcasm, pointed restraint as that of the PM.

    1. I read an essay over 10 years ago which lamented the quality of contemporary (Australian) prime ministerial script writers in particular and of prime ministerial and presidential script writers in general. Among other things, the author stated that modern political speeches are bereft of ideas, original thought, and inspiration. Things have only become worse since then; the previous two Australian prime ministers’ speechwriters simply cribbed lines from American comedies like The West Wing.

    1. Shurely that shuld be

      “The tide goes in, the tide goes out. I can’t explain that”.


        1. Sadly, you’ll sell several hundreds of thousands to the likes of readers here, and achieve almost no penetration into the non-reading (or Celebrity-trash-only reading) majority. Sorry to be realistically elitist.
          It’s actually a potentially interesting book – the same vein and level as Dava Sobel’s “Longitude” would sell well and be something you can happily put on your gravestone.

          1. Sorry, I was unclear. I meant the know-nothing O’Reilly will write yet another know-nothing book.

            They say you can’t go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Heck, you can get rich that way.

            I shouldn’t be grumpy today. Happy fourth!

            1. Quoting either Barnum or Mencken is evidence of staying on the humorous side of grumpy.
              Happy Aphelion day. It’s all downhill from here!

          2. I once, when walking off jet-lag, stumbled across Harrison’s grave in Hampstead -one of those box ones – and it contained a lot of useful information on the technical stuff he invented.

            1. Even before “Longitude”, he was something of a hero to many astronomical and similarly inclined people. his story appealed to a lot of people into amateur telescope making – which on reflection should surprise nobody.

              1. Did my fingers just say that?
                I shall sharpen the edge of the laptop and commit sepukku forthwith. No other atonement is sufficient.

      1. It should; however, in case you don’t know, the speaker was a certain Mr William O’Reilly and it was said to a certain a Prof. Dawkins during an interview. Mr O’Reilly would never, ever admit that he couldn’t explain something. In fact, he makes his living by having the simplest of explanations for everything.

        1. Well, I knew that it wasn’t King Cnut explaining the uselessness of sycophancy to his courtiers. Because it wasn’t in Anglo-Saxon. Or Danish.

        2. Bill O’Reilly actually made that ridiculous statement during an interview with David Silverman of American Atheists, not Richard Dawkins.

          Though it would’ve been highly amusing to see Richard’s response had it been said to him.

          1. You can see/hear what DAWKINS had to say about it here: /watch?v=2FARDDcdFaQ at youtube (last time I plugged in the full URL with the wrapper it pasted the video in here anyway.)

            1. (Coming late to the party)

              The URL you want is:

              (Hint: Cut off the ‘http://’ from the start when you quote it, WordPress automatically reinserts it. If you leave in in place then WP imbeds the video)

              Dawkins was being very polite to O’Reilly and let him get away with a lot of gish-gallop BS, I guess because it was O’Reilly’s show.


    2. When I attended navy officer candidate school, the navigation instructor made a point of emphasizing that the current goes in and out (as in “ebbing and flowing,”) and that the tide goes up and down (low, high, neap).

      However, it won’t do to change the name of the great popular song standard “Ebb Tide” to “Ebb Current.” (Re: Salman Rushdie’s “The Elsinore Vacillation” and “For Whom the Bell Rings.”)

      1. So “The Sun Also Rises” should be “The Sun Also Remains Stationary Relative to a Rotating Earth”?

  3. The author of the Wikipedia article explains the results of Perry’s Days of Prayer. Perhaps subtle sarcasm that sneaked past the editors?



    The drought continued to worsen for four months following the Days of Prayer. While only 15-17% of the state was undergoing exceptional drought by late April, the percentage grew to 50% a month later, and by late June, more than 70% of the state was experiencing exceptional drought conditions, a level at which it persisted until August 18, 2011. Most of the drought conditions subsided by the end of summer, when rain returned to various parts of Texas.

    The first major rain in the state after the Days of Prayer came 168 days later on October 9, 2011.


  4. The problem with monotheism, is that the chosen deity always has a lot on his plate. I know that YHWH is omniscient, omnipotent, etc., but there are instances where he is simply overwhelmed with the workload. Perhaps the world would be better off returning to polytheism, where there is a separation of responsibility. With global climate change, we need our gods to be focused and not scatter brained. In today’s world, prayers are rarely (some say it’s coincidence), if ever answered. Our current god just can’t handle the complications of a modern, highly populated society.

    1. That might help matters, but then we could run into the problem of one god getting pissed off about another god. To get back at each other they would pull pranks like the god of earthquakes smiting the Christians, so to get even the rain god would cause a drought in the Middle East…

      1. Those rain gods are real snippy a-holes too. They’re always causing droughts in places that need rain the most, like deserts, and rain at places like Wimbledon during tennis tournaments.

        1. Yes, I think their sense of humor is what got the various pantheons booted from most favored status, to be replaced by a no-nonsense war god. They ALL seem to fail at distributing adequate amounts of precipitation equally where needed. Makes one want to give up on gods entirely.

          1. I think you just worked out how monotheism was invented – it stopped the arguments between the gods!

  5. My favourite Churchill quote in which he invokes a deity is: “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

  6. I would love to see that done every time we have another shooting in the community (every day and every community) and word come down from some official – our prayers are with the families or we pray for the victims. Lets have another prayer walk. You can never have enough guns or prayer walks.

    One of my grandfather’s favorites – You can pray in one hand and shit in the other, see which one gets full first. Grandfather was no Churchill.

    1. Surely the obvious thing to do is for the Church of Baal (to choose one of the divine horde whose Earthly PR agent can’t seriously sue for defamation) to issue a cal for prayer for another massacre after every massacre. Then they could rapidly accumulate some pretty impressive statistics in the “Our God Answers Prayer” Stakes.

  7. I like Churchill, too (even though, as you say, he’s a bit of a mixed bag).

    But liking Churchill is no indicator of an enlightened political outlook. Every neocon with a truculent attitude toward the use of military power thinks he’s the second coming of Sir Winston — and thinks that resolving any foreign-policy dispute through anything less than the full-bore deployment of the US armed forces is tantamount to Chamberlain appeasing Hitler at Munich.

      1. Oh, Churchill was clearly right about Hitler in ’39 — as right as he ever was about anything. It’s those who believe (as some in the Bush II administration did) that the only lesson to be taken from this experience is never negotiate, never use soft power when military might will do, who are misguided.

      1. He did have ultimate responsibility for the Bengal famine during the war (Thomas Kenneally: Three Famines)

  8. A very unpleasant man, in my opinion. He was the right person for wartime Prime Minister (it played to his not inconsiderable strengths), but other than that? He didn’t manage peace anywhere nearly as well.

      1. He was an old imperialist in many things but a great war leader in “total war” against several at the time much greater threats to human wellbeing, not to mention British (and even European and perhaps American) survival. We owe him re wartime mobilisation and standing up to Stalin when Roosevelt was disinclined – or too ill? to appreciate the latter’s malice

  9. Churchill’s conversion to secularism was precipitated by reading the 19th century author Winwood Reade’s “The Martyrdom of Man”. However, Reade believed in the possibility of an
    non-anthropomorphic “ineffable” deity.

    Churchill very much disliked Gandhi, whom I both admire but believe to be over-idolized.

  10. When I was young, I also admired Winnie. There is much to admire, especially his determination during WWII. But he was more than “somewhat of a racist”, he was pretty much of a murderer. See this article on BBC or this one on Counerpunch. I’m afraid the balance is against him. Sorry.

  11. You can perhaps forgive mild racism to some extent (most people were racist back then) but causing the death of 3 million people ? That is beyond the pale, IMO. And when being told about it, he shot back, “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet”. You an understand how for Indians (for several reasons other than this), he was a monster.

    Also, here’s how an Indian MP, Shashi Tharoor, made that point in an Oxford debate

  12. Tangentially related. Churchill’s wish was that he buried in his garden beside a beloved canine. His surviving family did not carry out this wish and after the state funeral he was buried in a local church graveyard.

    1. From Wikipedia

      The churchyard of St. Leonard’s includes the tomb of Sir Joseph Danvers (1686–1753), which was built half inside the graveyard and half outside (on Danvers’ estate) to allow his favourite dog to be buried with him (the dog buried on unconsecrated ground).

      1. From “Sleeping With Dogs”. An autobiography by Brian Sewell (art critic): “And when that time comes I fancy that, for me, long an agnostic, proof of the existence of God will be waking one morning to find all my old dogs sleeping on my bed or nuzzling my face and demanding to be let into the garden — then I shall know that I am dead and in Heaven.”

    2. Also tangential, there’s minor speculation as to why Churchill’s funeral train left from the Southern Region’s Waterloo Station rather than the more obvious (for an Oxfordshire destination) Paddington. The Southern had a locomotive ‘Winston Churchill’ which did indeed haul the funeral train, though that hardly seems enough reason (surely it could have been lent to Paddington). My favourite theory is the story, possibly apocryphal, that Churchill himself had specified the station of departure because ‘then de Gaulle will have to come and salute me at Waterloo’.

      (A more likely explanation is here
      but I still like the ‘de Gaulle’ story)


  13. Ah, that’s reminiscent of Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, and Jonathan Swift among others. Although I’m no great fan of Churchill, he certainly could write.

  14. Churchill’s successor as PM, Clement Atlee, was a much less wordy man. When asked what his religious views were, he said:

    “Believe in the ethics of Christianity. Can’t believe in the mumbo jumbo.”

  15. Though I disagreed with his Politics, I admired the man and he was our Prime Minister at a time when we neede a “bulldog” so to speak. He has left us a whole library of great speeches and letters, and quotes, sarcastic and otherwise. No wonder he won the Nobel Prize .

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