The National Churchill Museum is located on the campus of Westminster College in the small town of Fulton, Missouri. The site also includes a seventeenth-century Christopher Wren-designed church, brought piece by piece from London after it was destroyed in the Blitz of World War II.
I thought I knew a fair amount about the great statesman before visiting the National Churchill Museum, but I came away with an even deeper appreciation for his courage, leadership and tenacity.
The story of why the museum is located in the middle of Missouri begins with an invitation from Westminster College to Churchill shortly after he had lost his position as Prime Minister following the end of World War II.
President Harry Truman, a native of Missouri, put in a good word for the school, and on March 5, 1946, the revered statesman arrived on campus to deliver a speech that received news coverage around the world. In it he warned of an “iron curtain” descending across Europe as the Soviet government tightened its grip on the countries of the Eastern bloc. Churchill was one of the first to realize the seriousness of the Soviet threat and his vivid phrase came into widespread use.
So began a long association between Westminster College and Winston Churchill. Today its $4 million museum showcases the life and achievements of the great wartime leader, with special attention, of course, to his famous speech at the school.
Exhibits describe his childhood growing up on one of England’s grandest estates, his checkered military career prior to World War II and his valiant service to Britain and the larger world during the conflict. According to Churchill biographer Paul Reid, this is the “epicenter of Churchill in North America,” designated by the U.S. Congress as America’s National Churchill Museum.
I found myself most fascinated by Churchill’s early years. While his accomplishments in World War II are well-known, they were preceded by a roller coaster of failure, success and then failure again. His childhood was dismal. His father (a British lord) was greatly disappointed in his son, whom he thought showed a woeful lack of initiative and intelligence. His adored mother (an American-born heiress) was emotionally distant, and Churchill’s sole source of unconditional love was his nanny.
After a mediocre record as a student, Churchill joined the military. To make extra money as well as enhance his reputation, he volunteered to serve in hot spots around the world and worked as a war correspondent for several London papers.
By the time he entered politics he was already well-known in Britain and had experienced enough drama, tragedy, defeat and adventure to fill the lives of 10 men. All of these experiences helped forge a steely resolve, superlative communication skills and a talent for leadership that proved essential during World War II.
The London church that sits atop the museum recalls Churchill’s heroic efforts during the Blitz, England’s darkest hour. For the 20th anniversary of the Iron Curtain speech, Westminster College received it from the city of London. The 17th-century Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury (which had laid in ruins ever since being bombed during the Blitz) was packed up piece-by-piece and shipped to Missouri, where it was laboriously reassembled in its original form.
Today the church is a sunlit marvel of English elegance. The famed architect Christopher Wren had designed the building to replace a medieval church destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.
Wren believed that there is nothing more beautiful than light, and stepping inside the church’s sanctuary, I found myself agreeing with him. Clear glass windows let in the sun, illuminating white walls, simple wooden pews, and an altar displaying the Ten Commandments.
Another tribute to the great leader sits outside the church. Created by Edwina Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter, it is called “Breakthrough” and features eight sections from the Berlin Wall, each covered with graffiti from the days when the city was divided into Soviet-controlled East Berlin and free West Berlin. The wall symbolizes the wisdom of Churchill’s warning to the world in 1946, but it also shows the triumph of freedom over tyranny.
One could say that the holy site here is the Christopher Wren church, but I would argue that the entire site is sacred. Winston Churchill, flawed as he was, was a man of honor and bravery who inspired millions at a time when the world’s future hung in balance.
I love the fact that we can pay homage to him here, in this rural corner of the Midwest, sitting in a London church, looking up at the sunlight streaming in the window.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.