Anyone who has seen the 2010 film, The King’s Speech, knows that the speech in the movie title refers to King George VI’s speech on 3 September 1939 to the peoples of the British Empire upon Great Britain’s declaration of war with Nazi Germany.
Obviously, it was an important speech, but there was another speech by the King that, to my mind at least, was equally as important, perhaps even more so. For a King not known for compelling speeches, this one would be a landmark. It united King and Country in a common cause and inspired people to hold fast. After all, at this point in history, no one knew whether the Allies would triumph. Great Britain was to face five more years of war and brutal bombing by the German Luftwaffe before the day of liberation would arrive. The war in Europe itself would not be finally resolved until May 1945.
The occasion for this other speech was the King’s annual Christmas broadcast to the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the rest of the British Empire. This was the King’s first wartime Christmas radio broadcast to his country. At the time, Great Britain and its Empire were in the middle of the so-called “Phoney War” – the relatively quiet period at the start of World War II between the declaration of war by the Western Allies (United Kingdom and France)against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939 and the German Blitzkrieg (lightning war) in April 1940 that was marked by a lack of major military land operations by the Allies on Germany’s Western Front. The expected air onslaught on Great Britain had not yet come and many of the children who had been evacuated out of the cities had returned home. Although the German Navy was already harassing Atlantic convoys and on 13 October 1939 had managed to penetrate the defenses at Scapa Flow, off the northeast coast of Scotland, and sink the battleship HMS Royal Oak with the loss of over 830 lives, the general mood in the country was one of apathy and complacency.
Recognizing the need to change the mood from indifference and contentment to one of confidence and determination, the King finished his Christmas speech – a grueling experience for a man who suffered from a debilitating stutter – with a poem entitled “God Knows” (sometimes called “The Gate of the Year”), written by Minnie Louise Haskins that appeared in a collection, The Desert, published in 1908. The poem had been drawn to the King’s attention by his wife, Queen Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mother, and the lines were to be recited sixty-three years later at her own funeral in 2002.
The speech was very well received and the poem became one of the most widely reproduced of the twentieth century. Dressed in the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet and sitting in front of two microphones on a table at the royal residence at Sandringham House, King George VI spoke to offer a message of reassurance to his people. It was to be a momentous speech and was to have an important effect on the listening public as they were plunged into the uncertainty of war. He began: “A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle, we shall remain undaunted.”
Great Britain was, of course, at war (and, it is worth noting the obvious fact, obscured by hindsight, that at the time no one knew if Great Britain would win the war). “I believe from my heart,” King George VI continued, “that the cause which binds together my peoples and our gallant and faithful Allies is the cause of Christian civilization.”
The King closed his nine-minute speech by quoting from the poem, “God Knows.” He said: “I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you: ‘I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown. And he replied, Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way! So I went forth and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.’ May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.”
The Christmas of 1939 was a shaky time, but great leadership by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill would hold Britain steady against the Nazi aggressors. The speech was a call to trust that the future should be welcomed with confidence and that light would overcome darkness. The way ahead was incredibly dark. No one knew where it would lead. The nation was to go through extraordinarily dark days as would the rest of the world as the war became global in nature. The poem quoted by King George VI hints at that situation. It speaks about being led into the unknown in order that we may begin to discover that “Almighty Hand” who will guide and uphold us all – even in those dark places. The first glimmers of light began to be seen after the completely unexpected and almost miraculous victory of the Battle of Britain in 1940.
After 107 years, the Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem still retains its power to inspire and encourage us as we move forward into the future with hope and confidence. At times, the world and life can seem very dark. Seventy-six years ago, when the King of England read those inspirational words of Minnie Louise Haskins, it must have seemed incredibly dark. And today, things are also dark. We still live under the shadow of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria, and any of the many nations that are embroiled in civil war; or the shadow of terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, San Bernardino; or the shadow of violence rampant on the streets of major United States cities such as Chicago, Charleston, Baltimore, and Colorado Springs. For many, this is a particularly dark period. We ask, what is next? Who is next? Will 2016 be any better? Are there any glimmers of light?
In her Christmas address this year, Queen Elizabeth II, the elder daughter of King George VI, struck once again the theme of light as had her father some seventy-six years earlier when she said: “It is true that the world has had to confront moments of darkness this year, but the Gospel of John contains a verse of great hope, often read at Christmas carol services: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’. . . The customary decorations have changed little in the years since Victoria and Albert’s tree first appeared, although, of course, electric lights have replaced the candles. There’s an old saying that ‘it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’ There are millions of people lighting candles of hope in our world today. Christmas is a good time to be thankful for them, and for all that brings light to our lives. I wish you a very happy Christmas.”
As you read this, my hope is not only for a happy Christmas, but also for a peaceful New Year.