By Stephen Mansfield
Her name was Elizabeth Anne Everest. Few today will remember her. In fact, few would have known of her even during her lifetime, which ended in near obscurity in 1895. She was, after all, only a nanny—one of thousands in Victorian England, who quietly spent their days caring for the children of other people. Strolling in a park with her baby’s carriage or braving the London streets with a little boy clinging tightly to her side, there would have been nothing to distinguish her to passersby; she was just another British nanny with another nobleman’s son in her charge.
Or so it would seem. But Elizabeth Anne Everest was not just another nanny. She was a Christian, and for her being a nanny was not just a job, it was a ministry. She worked hard to build godliness and biblical truth into the young lives in her care. Thus it was that she came to have an impact on the course of modern history. For on a blustery English day in February of 1875, Elizabeth Everest came to be the nanny, and soon the primary spiritual influence, of one rosy-cheeked baby boy by the name of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, future Prime Minister of England and major leader of the western world.
There was little hint in his early years, however, of the greatness that young Winston would one day command, and Mrs. Everest soon understood the immensity of her task. In time, the boy’s mother would warn visitors, in the style of typical British understatement, that he was a difficult child to manage. She was right. He kicked, he screamed, he hit, and he bullied. The word monster was often used of him, and the trouble was that he was bright, too.
Knowing of Mrs. Everest’s Christian faith, young Winston once tried to escape a mathematics lesson by threatening to "bow down and worship graven images." It worked, too for a while. But Elizabeth Everest was an exceptional woman. She knew how to enforce the boundaries she set, and from the beginning Winston held a grudging respect for this woman who seemed to know the secret that his irritating behavior only served to hide a desperate longing of his heart.
This was the truth she tenderly guarded, for she knew that her Lord had not entrusted young Winston to her solely for the discipline she would enforce, but more for the vacuum she would fill in the life of this lonely little boy. Few knew how painful his loneliness really was. It would be nice indeed to report that the Churchills shared a warmly intimate home life and that Winston was smothered with parental affection, but nothing could be further from the truth. Quite to the neglect of their son, Randolph and Jennie Churchill gave themselves completely to their social ambitions. True, Victorian parents in general maintained an astonishing distance from their children, receiving them only at prearranged times and under the watchful eye of servants, but the Churchills were remote even by these standards.
Of his mother, Winston later wrote, "I loved her, but at a distance." His father thought Winston was retarded, rarely talked to him, and regularly vented his mounting rage on the child. More than one historian has concluded that Lord Randolph simply loathed his son.
Thus it was that Elizabeth Everest (Winston came to call her Woom) became not only his nanny but his dearest companion, sharing with understanding and tender loyalty the secrets of his widening world. Of their special relationship, Violet Asquith later wrote that in Winston’s solitary childhood and unhappy school days Mrs. Everest was his comforter, his strength and stay, his one source of unfailing human understanding. She was the fireside at which he dried his tears and warmed his heart. She was the nightlight by his bed. She was security.
She was also his shepherd, for it was here, in the safety of their shared devotion, that Winston first experienced genuine Christianity. On bended knee beside this gentle woman of God he first learned that surging of the heart called prayer. From her lips he first heard the Scriptures read with loving devotion, and was so moved he eagerly memorized his favorite passages. On long walks together they sang the great hymns of the church, spoke breathlessly of the heroes of the faith, and imagined aloud what Jesus might look like or how Heaven would be. As they sat together on a park bench or on a blanket of cool, green grass, Winston was often transfixed while Woom explained the world to him in simple but distinctly Christian terms. And it is not hard to imagine that when their day was done, many an evening found this devoted intercessor praying over her sleeping charge, asking her Heavenly Father to fulfill the calling she sensed so powerfully on his life.
It would seem her prayers were answered, for though in early adulthood Churchill immersed himself in the anti-Christian rationalism that swept his age, he eventually recovered his faith during an escape from a prisoner of war camp during South Africa’s Boer War. So deeply had he received the imprint of Mrs. Everest’s dynamic faith that in this time of crisis the prayers he had learned at her knee returned almost involuntarily to his lips, as did the Scripture passages he had memorized to the familiar lilt of her voice. From that time forward, his faith defined him, as it did his sense of mission. He came to see himself in much the same terms as those he once used to dedicate his grandson. Holding the child aloft he tearfully proclaimed him, "Christ’s new faithful soldier and servant."
While other leaders of his age vacillated and sought the compromises of cowards, Churchill defined the challenges of his civilization in the stark Christian terms that moved men to greatness. Yet behind the arsenal of his words, behind the artillery of his vision, was the simple teaching of a devoted nanny who served her God by investing in the destiny of a troubled boy.
So it was that when the man some called the Greatest Man of the Age lay dying in 1965 at the age of ninety, there was but one picture that stood at his bedside. It was the picture of his beloved nanny, gone to be with her Lord some seventy years before. She had understood him, she had prayed him to his best, and she had fueled the faith that fed the destiny of nations in the hiddenness of her calling.