He stood high on the admiral’s bridge.
The great, gray warship floated in Placentia Bay, as the sun began to slowly rise over the coast of Newfoundland.
The rumpled stout man with thinning and unkempt sandy hair peered intently across the Atlantic. He had just gotten up but he couldn’t wait – not even to comb his hair.
Eager anticipation crossed the countenance of his determined features.
He had carefully labored and hoped for this moment – this meeting.
“Can you see any sign of them yet?” he asked an aide.
When the U.S.S. Augusta approached the HMS Prince of Wales at 11:00 AM, he had already dressed into a dark blue military uniform. He crossed the bay and boarded the ship.
There, on Saturday morning, August 9, 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill met President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the first time. Roosevelt, supported on the arm of his son Elliott, smiled broadly and shook Churchill’s hand. Though always a painful risk, especially on board a ship, the president had insisted on standing in his braces for this historic occasion.
It was a warm greeting FDR extended to his British counterpart. They had been in communication by cable. The meeting had been kept from the American press and public – a secret rendezvous on the high seas that would help determine the course of the world.
FDR jauntily lifted his head and smiled again at Churchill. “At last – we’ve gotten together,” he said. Churchill nodded and smiled back.
“We have,” he replied.
They hit it off instantly.
England was standing alone against Hitler’s Germany in World War II. Churchill hoped to persuade FDR, who faced staunch isolationism at home, to help Great Britain.
The stakes had never been higher for civilization. Both men knew that.
The next day, Sunday, on board the Prince of Wales, the President and Prime Minister joined American and British sailors in a church service.
Churchill had carefully selected the hymns.
They were rich and glorious Anglo-Saxon declarations of faith and courage. They are not so frequently sung in churches today.
The first was O God, Our Help in Ages Past, based on the 90th Psalm.
The second was Onward Christian Soldiers.
The service concluded with the singing of a hymn that FDR and Churchill, lovers of the sea and the Navy, would have found moving: Eternal Father, Strong to Save, known traditionally as “the Navy Hymn.”
Churchill wept and pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket. “It was,” he later said, “a great hour to live.”
Prayers were offered. The scripture passage was from Joshua 1. The words rang clear and strong:
“…as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee. Be strong and of a good courage …be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:5, 9, KJV).
Military and political strategies aside, that single worship service on the deck of the Prince of Wales, moved FDR deeply.
Later he confided to his son Elliott:
“If nothing else happened while we were here, that would have cemented us. ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’ We are Christian soldiers, and we will go on, with God’s help.”
And they did.
Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill forged a close friendship of rare candor, warmth and mutual admiration.
It was the friendship that won the war and saved the world.
Yes, it was a “great hour to live.” And a time of maximum peril and challenge for the whole world. There was nothing quite like it before. There has been no time like it since.
And as great as the danger was, great leaders rose to meet it.
In a poignant scene from the film Lincoln, the president asks a young soldier:
“Do you think we choose to be born? Or are we fitted to the times we are born into?”
While interesting, it’s not likely Lincoln ever said that. He did confess that events had controlled him, rather than he controlled events. He quoted Shakespeare’s Hamlet about the “divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.”
History reveals the hand of a sovereign God.
Great events and great lives remind us that this is indeed His Story.
No one who believes in God would dismiss the close collaboration of FDR and Churchill in the world’s greatest war as mere coincidence.
It was divine providence. It was God saving his world.
This year, interestingly, will serve as reminders of God’s sovereign control of events. January 24th marks the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s death. This April marks the 70th anniversary of FDR’s passing. That month is also the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War. In August, we commemorate the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II.
History, like a kind father, reminds us of the power, purpose and watchfulness of God and points us to a renewed faith in his judgment and care for us.
He rules the nations.
But let us remember too that the Lord of Hosts is also the God of Jacob. He cares about the individual no less than the universe.
“Remember the days of old,” sang Moses, “consider the years of many generations …” (Deuteronomy 32:7, KJV).
And thank God for the day when giants strode the earth.
May God bless you and your family.