Category Archives: British Empire

And Now, For Some British Exceptionalism


Admiral John Jervis, First Earl of St. Vincent, who famously said, “I do not say the French cannot come; I only say, they cannot come by sea.”

One of my top bucket list priorities is to go and attend the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts (or simply, The Proms) at the Royal Albert Hall in London–and especially the Last Night of the Proms to witness the jaunty-elegant-majestic “Fantasia on British Sea Songs” and also the triumphant “Rule, Britannia!”

I must admit: I am an Anglophile at heart. And since I am fascinated by nationalism in history and civil religion, I find English–and British–expressions of patriotism really interesting. We Americans are a proud people, to be sure, but our national tradition goes back a scanty 238 years this July. British national tradition goes back to 1707, if you want to be technical. English, Scotch, Welsh, and Irish traditions go back well into the Medieval period. So when I watch the British express their patriotism in song, I am struck by how deep their traditions go.

Watch this small sampling from the Last Night of the Proms. The selection is the last part of the “Fantasia on British Sea Songs,” which in turn segues in to “Rule, Britannia!” “Rule, Britannia!” was written in 1740 to mark the thirteenth anniversary of the accession of George II. It quickly became an enormously popular patriotic song, celebrating the virtue, power, and superiority of the British nation over and against the French, with whom the British were almost constantly at war during the 18th and early 19th centuries. “Rule Britannia!” is a perfect example of an expression of British civil religion, as the song clearly celebrates the British nation as the chosen people of God.

As you watch, notice how the audience participates with the choir and orchestra. And here are the complete stanzas to the magnificent “Rule, Britannia!”–

When Britain first at heav’n’s command/Arose from out the Azure main/Arose, Arose from out the Azure main/This was the charter, the charter of the land/And guardian angels sang this strain–

Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves!/Britons never shall be slaves!

Still more majestic shall thou rise/More dreadful from each foreign stroke/More dreadful, dreadful from each foreign stroke/As the loud blast that tears the skies/Serves but to root thy native oak!

Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!/Britons never shall be slaves!

Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame/All their attempts to bend thee down/All their, all their attempts to bend thee down/Will but arouse, arouse thy generous flame/And work their woe, and they renown!

Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!/Britons never shall be slaves!

The Muses with freedom found/Shall to thy happy coast repair!/Shall to, shall to thy happy coast repair/ Blest isle! With matchless, with matchless beauty crown’d/And manly hearts to guard the fair!

Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!/Britons never shall be slaves!



A Christian Britain?

British-Empire-Flags1Brantley Gasaway presented the issue of whether or not it is appropriate to consider Britain as a Christian nation the other day at Religion in American History. A very interesting question, and one that is getting attention because of Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments on the subject.

Gasaway begins his piece with an acknowledgement that many readers may be somewhat tired of thinking about the idea of a Christian nation. I certainly hope not! A large share of my scholarship addresses the question of whether America is a Christian nation or not. But he also raises a really important point–Americans aren’t the only ones who have ever considered themselves a Christian nation.

One of the best books I have ever read on the history of religious exceptionalism and nationalism is Anthony Smith’s Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity. In this work, Smith locates four objects in what he calls “the sense of the sacred” in national identity: 1) the community, which considers itself chosen by God, 2) the land itself, which the nation considers sacred, 3) what Smith calls “the glorious past,” that is, the mythological/glorified past of the nation, and 4) “the glorious dead,” and the sacrifices of those who laid down their lives for the causes of the nation.

One of the many values of this book is that Smith shows how western civilizations going back to the fourth century have considered themselves the chosen people of God, and uniquely Christian. Americans are only one of many western societies that have considered themselves Christian, and the British are another.

The British have historically seen themselves as a Christian nation, and sometimes have even seen themselves as the only true Christian people in the world. In the eighteenth century for example, the British considered themselves to be the Christian answer to the Anti-Christ, which was embodied in the French nation. The wars Britain fought with the French in the 1700s were seen by them as an apocalyptic struggle of true Christianity against the forces of the devil and the Anti-Christ of Catholic France. And any nation that styles its monarch as “Defender of the Faith” has a much more explicit claim on being a Christian nation than America ever did.

Still, I’m with Gasaway on remaining open to questioning the propriety of classifying any nation as Christian. What is a Christian nation, anyway? I deal with the ambiguity of the term “Christian nation” extensively in One Nation Under God. Defining precisely what a Christian nation looks like is a thorny path indeed, and I have never found anyone who has met with success in the endeavor.

“We Seem to Have the Upper Hand”


The First World War is fascinating to me. I’ve mentioned before here on the blog that if I had another 30 years or so to add to my life, I’d go back to school and get another PhD, this time to focus on the US Marines’ action at Belleau Wood in 1918.

Twenty fourteen marks one hundred years since the start of hostilities. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist. By August 4, Europe was at war. Four years later, 22 million men became casualties–52 percent of the total percentage of every man who put on a uniform to fight for his country.

The British Empire sustained over 3 million casualties in the war. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, sixty thousand men were killed. Sixty thousand in one day! That’s as many Americans that were killed in the Vietnam War from 1959-1975. It was the worst day of many bad days in the history of the British army.

The University of Manchester is holding an exhibit of a collection of letters from soldiers writing to their former professor, Thomas Frederick Tout, from the front. Most of the men who wrote to their old mentor were killed in action. Reading these letters and others like them brings home a small sense of the reality of an appalling war.

If you want to read a good history of World War I that is based on the perspective of the ordinary soldier at the front, pick up a copy of Lyn Macdonald’s To the Last Man: Spring 1918. You can also check out Macdonald’s oral history of World War I, entitled 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War. Both books will no doubt stick with you for a long time.