It’s Friday, September 9, 2022.
I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Indeed, news and events demand a consideration from a Christian worldview, and that’s why today, we are giving this edition of The Briefing over to a special edition to consider the life legacy and the meaning of the death of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom and of dominions. We are looking at a major turning point in Western history. We’re looking at a turning point in human history, and as we’re thinking about the modern age, we need to recognize, those of us who are alive today, to recognize this transition with the death of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.
We are actually looking at something that will not happen again in our lifetimes and probably not again in the lifetimes of our children or our children’s children. If the Lord tarries, we’re probably still not looking at another event like this, because what we are looking at in the grand scheme of history is an unprecedented period of change, not only in the world, but in the history of Great Britain. We’re also looking at an unprecedented reign, a reign that will be recorded as enduring for seven decades, for 70 years, but also we should note, a reign that marks a certain age in history, particularly for the United Kingdom, for Britain, but also for the world a second Elizabethan age. That first Elizabethan age is traceable to the Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. What was her great achievement? Reestablishing the legitimacy and the longevity of the British throne and the aftermath of the tumult that followed the death of her father, King Henry VIII, who had cast such a massive shadow on the world scene.
Of course, you’re looking at Henry VIII, who with three other crowned heads, basically ruled all of the known world at the time. It will be Henry VIII of Great Britain, along with Henry I, King of France, Charles V, King of Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor and Sultan Suleiman, the magnificent of the Ottoman Empire. You put the four of those mighty princes together, and most of the people then known to exist in the world were somehow subject to one of those four crowns. The death of Henry VIII came at the very time that Europe was being torn assunder by various forces, but most importantly, the battle between the Protestant princes and the Catholic princes, and within England, the question was whether or not the death of Henry VIII would mean the reestablishment of Catholicism in England. That’s not just a matter of religious preference, that would be a matter of history changing significance.
It would also mean, quite literally, that certain heads would roll. England’s commitment to the reformation was one political act that the Vatican sought to reverse at just about any cost, and yet, the king had a son, who became King Edward VI, and he was very much a Protestant reforming prince. He actually had correspondence with the Great Genevan reformer, John Calvin. He was a friend of the Reformation, and actually, it was an ongoing conversation with the heads of the Church of England, and he was headed in a more puritan direction in order to try to bring about a more comprehensive reformation of the church in Protestant lines in England, but he died as a teenager, and then the crown passed to his half-sister, who became Queen Mary, and Queen Mary, known throughout Protestant British history as Bloody Mary, was indeed the daughter of Catherine the Aragon, as well as of Henry VIII, and that meant that she was very much a Catholic princess. She sought to reestablish the Roman Catholic church in England, and she succeeded at least insofar as her reach was able, but nonetheless, she also died and she was replaced with her half-sister and she became Queen Elizabeth I, and Queen Elizabeth, who was never to be underestimated, simply dominated an era like no one, including her father had done before. Elizabeth gave her name to an era, the Elizabethan age.
Elizabeth’s reign, by the way, established Protestantism in some form as the official religion of the church of England, but the in some form became a debatable matter far beyond the life of Queen Elizabeth, but nonetheless, she established England as a major world power, and England enjoyed a certain season, a peace and prosperity under her reign that it had not experienced before, nor did it for a long time thereafter. That’s just necessary background to understanding why the second Elizabeth, now to be credited with an age of her own, why that is a statement of enormous historical significance, a second Elizabethan age that spanned most of the 20th century and extended more than two decades into the 21st, but in order to understand Elizabeth’s place in history, we need to go back and understand what had happened in the decades preceding her ascension to the throne. So what did happen? Well, the most important thing to recognize is that the modern age came of age in the late 19th century, and in particular, in the early decades of the 20th century, and the modern age seemed antithetical to hereditary monarchy. More on that in just a moment, but the big issue here was that the prophets who looked to the future thought that the modern age was probably going to do quite well without crowned heads.
You look at the Bolshevik Revolution that brought about the end of the Romanov dynasty in Russia, and then you look at the end of World War I and the collapse of the German Imperial House with Wilhelm II abdicating, and then you look at the collapse of what historically, it was an even more venerable throne than that in Germany, and that was the throne of the Austria-Hungarian empire. That empire basically fell apart, and so did the royal house, but as people were looking at the fall of these royal houses, the question came, “Well, how long can it be before England or Britain’s Royal House also falls?” The reason it didn’t was, at least, largely due to three monarchs, and the first of them was George V. George V was king in the early decades of the 20th century, and he saw to the monarchy being reestablished upon legitimacy, upon respect, upon duty, and upon the person of the king and the extension of the influence of the royal family, and so you had George V, who basically acted like and saw himself as the father of the nation, and he was in his person, not only the image on the coins, he was also the individual who represented England, who represented Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and that helped to save the monarchy. Then, it was his son, not his first son, who was a disaster that once again, threatened the House of Windsor.
It was, rather, his second son. It became Bertie, as he was known, who ascended to the throne upon the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, and it was George VI, given the throne name that he took, the father of Elizabeth II, who also, by duty and honor and dignity, sought not only to lead the nation during the horrors of World War II, but again, to embody the nation in dignity, and in duty, and in honor, and in patriotism, and service to country. Of course, as you’re looking at this, we just have to go back and say that the big issue that brought Elizabeth’s father to the throne was the abdication of his brother who turned out, as we now know, not only to be a morally corrupt and emotionally weak man, but in all likelihood, in legal terms, was also a traitor to his nation. That would be Edward VIII. Remember, that the issue that led to the abdication of Edward VIII was his determination to marry a twice divorced American woman. Put all those words together, it was unthinkable in Britain in the 1930’s.
The Church of England simply would not stand for the sovereign marrying a divorcee. Now, just hold that thought, because the other meaning of the age of Elizabeth, the second Elizabethan age is the moral transformation and the radical secularization of Britain that took place during those years, and so it was a crisis in the monarchy that brought about the ascension of George VI to the throne, and thus, created the situation in which a 10-year-old princess, Elizabeth became first in the line of succession. Now, here’s what’s so important. Just consider world history at that time. We’re talking about the year 1936. The storm clouds over Europe are horrifying.
Hitler is coming to power and consolidating his war plans. The power of the Third Reich and of Nazi Germany is becoming indisputable, and Britain is entering a dark, dark hour. It is Elizabeth’s father, King George VI and her mother, his queen, Elizabeth, who helped so much to build morale for the British people during the war, and of course, they were joined by an unlikely partner given the family relationships, and that was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Winston Churchill was the voice, but in so many ways, it was George VI who was the towering figure of rectitude. Then, you put it again in terms of a 10-year-old girl, who was now first in line of succession, and that 10-year-old girl, the Princess Elizabeth was raised to be queen, in a way very few children in world history ever have been, and in a very dark moment. The big thing to recognize is that when you look at photographs of, say the young Elizabeth, the teenage Elizabeth, the young woman, Elizabeth, the one thing you notice is the seriousness and sobriety with which she carried herself, the grace and the dignity that she bore not only for herself, not only for her family, but for the nation.
From the moment she was born, very much in the public eye, and already second in the line of succession, because her uncle had no wife or children, from that time until 10, when she became first in the line of succession, with her father the king, it was just so clear that Elizabeth was going to be the destiny of England looking to the future, and that’s an enormous burden to put on anyone, not to mention, on a very young girl, and of course, a woman who became queen as a very young woman, at age 25. In 1947, when Elizabeth turned 21, the entire nation knew that eventually, she would become the sovereign, and so there was so much attention to her turning 21. On that birthday, she made a solemn declaration, a pledge to the nation. She said, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” Now, she said that in 1947. That is simply decades ago.
That’s an entire epic ago, but she said it just a matter of years before she indeed became queen, and that line, whether her life would be long or short, well, let’s just understand, her life was indeed very long and her reign was thus very long, and thus, her shadow is also very long. Duty fell to Elizabeth at such an early age, and she carried it so well for so long on behalf of so many. Now, just a few days ago, we were talking about the new British Prime Minister and why Americans should pay attention to that news, and we made the distinction, which is all the more important now, that Britain’s Prime Minister is after all the monarch’s first minister and is the head of government, but not head of state. It is the monarch, the king or the queen who is the head of state, and so Britain now has a new head of government and head of state in the same week. That is an absolutely stunning and completely unexpected development, a new head of government and a new head of state.
Now, in the United States, it’s a very different picture, but we need to understand that our own democratic tradition, our own democratic history, our own constitutional tradition is engrafted onto that of Britain, and so what’s happening right now in America still has a unique relationship to the world that Americans also inhabit, but we need to understand that our own constitutional system of government, our own language, culture, democratic traditions, our own textual tradition is absolutely traceable back to England, and thus, what is going on in Britain right now is still a part of our story, even if we’re separated by the Atlantic or separated, as Winston Churchill once quipped, by a common language.
In Christian worldview terms, I want to talk about two particular aspects that demand our attention. One is the question of political legitimacy. That’s simply a massive question. It’s one of the most pressing questions the humanity is faced throughout all the millennia of human experience, “What makes a government legitimate?”
“How is legitimacy to be grounded when it comes to government?,” and that’s a huge, huge issue. You could simply say in the personality of a dictator, you could have someone like a Genghis Khan, you could have some kind of tribal definition. The longest-lasting argument for legitimacy in government we need to note is the argument of a hereditary monarchy. Now, again, as you’re looking at this, you recognize that if you look through the span of human history, it is a hereditary monarchy or some modification of a hereditary monarchy that has represented the central legitimacy of most governments over time of most states. Now, there’s a fascinating testimony to this in the scripture, in 1 Samuel 8, in the experience of Israel, because you’ll recall, as 1 Samuel records, nevertheless, the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel, and they said, “No, but we will have a king over us so that we may also be like all the nations and that our king may judge us and go up before us and fight our battles.”
Verse 21 of 1 Samuel 8 tells us, “And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he repeated them in the hearing of the Lord, so the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Heed their voice, and make them a king,’ and Samuel said to the men of Israel, ‘Every man, go to his city.'” What you see there is the issue of political legitimacy that is being experienced by Israel. Now, Israel experiences it and responds in a sinful way. It was God’s intention that His covenant people be under His direct rule, not to have a king, but Israel looked at all the other nations and they said, “Look how well they’re doing with the king. Now, what are we doing as a nation? How can we be a nation when we don’t have a king? We need a king.”
And in their rebellion, they demanded a king. Samuel the prophet did not want to give them a king, but God simply said to Samuel, “Look, if they demand a king, let them have a king, but when they have a king, they’re going to learn the advantages and the disadvantages of having a king.” Now, you just look at that and you recognize Israel was yearning for the political legitimacy of a throne, of a monarchy, of a king, of a crown, and thus, we recognize that throughout human history, this has been the most enduring argument. Now, it’s not the argument that won in the United States.
It’s not the argument of the American constitutional order, but we need to recognize it is the argument that gave birth to the American constitutional order, even to the American revolution, and we also have to recognize that the most urgent question faced by the young American nation is, “Where, how, and whom is the legitimacy of this government to be determined?” We don’t have time to unpack the answers that they considered and the answer they gave there, but let me just say once again, you look at a hereditary monarchy, and indeed, even as the Lord made clear to Samuel and through Samuel made clear to Israel, there are advantages and there are disadvantages.
The point is that as you look at the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, you can see many advantages. Britain was never embarrassed by its queen. Queen Elizabeth was the very model of decorum. She defined the modern monarchy in that way.
She also was amazingly adaptable, adaptable to the people, adaptable to modern communications technologies, even to television. She was restrained and she understood the dignity of her office, and she understood that that meant that she had to be careful about how she exposed herself and exposed her family in the media. Another story there, of course coming, but nonetheless, she did understand that in the modern age, the monarchy had to adjust. The problem is that as you look at Elizabeth’s life, the second dimension is the amount of social, technological, moral, and cultural change that took place during her long 70-year reign.
You could put it another way. Queen Elizabeth was the constant, but her nation changed remarkably. It changed utterly. It changed religiously, it changed in terms of the secularization of the culture, Britain secularizing far faster than even some other European nations, not to mention, the United States, and you’re also looking at moral change. Now, just remember, it was a crisis over divorce that led to her father becoming king unexpectedly, and thus, Elizabeth becoming the first in the line of succession to become queen. You look at that and you recognize how the morality of Britain has changed from 1936 until the present.
You fast-forward and you recognize not only was it a divorce crisis in 1936, it was a divorce crisis a generation later when one of the most controversial moves made by Elizabeth was her denial to her sister of the opportunity of marrying a divorced man and her sister seriously wanted to marry that divorced man. The Church of England’s refusal to allow Edward VIII to marry a divorcee is what set the stage for Elizabeth becoming queen, as she did and when she did, if ever, but it also points to the radical moral change that has accompanied the secularization of Great Britain. Just consider the fact that divorce is now considered there hardly a consequential issue, and the liberalization of divorce laws is one of the results of that secularization, but it’s not just a matter of a moral convulsion in Great Britain that includes not only the issue of divorce, but premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, the entire LGBTQ spectrum of issues, but it’s also the general liberalization that came home in Elizabeth’s own family. In 1947, she married Philip who was a Prince of Denmark and of Greece, and together, they established the Royal family, much as Victoria and Albert did in the 19th century as another picture of rectitude, but only for so long. That picture of rectitude didn’t hold.
Elizabeth and Philip had four children. The first of them, Charles became Prince of Wales, but Charles became more than Prince of Wales. He is, of course, now the reigning king. His official throne name is to be released later today, it is believed. It’s likely to be either King Charles III, and many are referring to him as that already, although it is still possible that he would claim as his throne name King George VII. Elizabeth and Philip would have four children.
The oldest of them is now King Charles III, and then you had Princess Anne, and then Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward. Three of the four of them divorced and divorced in fairly controversial circumstances, even for the modern age. The most notorious, of course, was the then Prince of Wales, Charles, who married Lady Diana Spencer, who became Princess Diana, and it turned out that that marriage was a royal sham and a royal disaster. It also turned out, as we fast-forward in history through numerous chapters of tragedy, that Charles is now married to Camilla Parker Bowles, who is now Camilla Queen consort, who was the very woman with whom he had the affair, and to whom he was married after his divorce from Princess Diana. The Princess Royal also later became divorced, and then came Prince Andrew, who not only became divorced and salaciously so, but he has now become so embroiled in personal moral conflict that the Queen had to order him to cease all royal duties, and he has basically fallen out of the public eye, at least until the funeral and other events of mourning for his mother’s death.
By the way, his mother’s death almost certainly indicates that very little will ever be seen of Prince Andrew in terms of royal occasions looking to the future. Only one of the queen’s offspring, and that way, Prince Edward is still married to his first wife, and so you’re looking at the fact that that great moral transformation that so utterly changed the landscape of Britain, also a theological transformation, transformed her family as well, and in a tragic sense, because even as Elizabeth was the picture of dignity and integrity and rectitude, even as she was the picture of stability, you’re now looking at a Royal family that is going to be described very differently. No matter how Charles III turns out to rule, the very story of his life before he became king and the very presence of Camilla as his Queen consort is going to be a continual reminder that this is an entirely new and entirely sad chapter, in this sense, in the British monarchy, but finally today, I want us to think about some of the theological dimensions that were certainly on Elizabeth’s mind and should be on our mind as well as we think about the meaning of Her Majesty’s life and her legacy. Just consider her coronation, and just remember that that coronation follows an ancient and medieval liturgy that includes portions from scripture, and just remember the piece of music that is played as the oil is put upon the monarch in a private ceremony behind a screen there in Westminster Abbey. The music that the entire congregation is hearing is one of my favorite pieces of music in the entire musical tradition, one of the most dignified, one of the most rousing, it is handles great composition, Zadok the Priest, which is pointing all the way back to the anointing of a King of Israel.
Thus, for virtually the entirety of her very long life, Elizabeth saw herself as fulfilling a tradition and fulfilling a role by divine sovereignty that could be traced back, if not, genetically and by hereditary claim, at least trace back to ancient monarchies and, in particular, to the monarchical tradition of the Old Testament. Elizabeth was also, we should note, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the very church that suffered such theological and numerical and moral loss during the 20th century. One of the ironies is that by the end of her life, Queen Elizabeth was almost assuredly more orthodox and conservative than most of her bishops. Her theological convictions came out most clearly in her Christmas messages that were a long tradition of the British monarchy, and it was Elizabeth who saw the transition from delivering them on radio to delivering them on television, and in ways that year by year made more clear her theological convictions, Elizabeth II made very clear that she affirmed the great doctrines of the Christian faith. There were those who ministered very close to her and knew her, who said that the faith for Elizabeth was not merely conceptual, it was personal.
Over the course of the next several weeks, there will be an unfolding of occasions, climaxing in a state funeral there in London, and we’re going to be hearing a lot about the British monarchy. We’re going to be seeing a lot of retrospective about Queen Elizabeth II. We’re going to be hearing a lot about the new king, and we’re going to be hearing a lot about the transition in the Royal family. The big thing for Christians to understand is that the legitimacy of government is always an issue, and if you’re going to root that legitimacy in a person, you better hope that person turns out to be someone like Queen Elizabeth II.
But Americans need to understand that our interest in what is taking place right now in England and our sense of shared grief and of shared historical moment is not just some kind of celebrity interest from afar. It’s because intuitively, we really do know that this unfolding story is still very much a part of the American story.
That is simply not an historical accident.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
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