How Britain Became Great

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How is it that a small, island kingdom came to shape so much of modern civilization?


Many assume history is a boring subject about long-forgotten names, dates, battles and places. Yet, the facts of history, when viewed through the lens of Bible prophecy, reveal how the hand of God has guided the course of history according to a predetermined plan. The Bible clearly states that God “makes nations great, and destroys them” (Job 12:23), and “He removes kings and raises up kings” (Daniel 2:21). This is vividly illustrated in the remarkable rise of England through a series of events that not only changed the course of history and shaped the modern world, but also fulfilled numerous ancient Bible prophecies.

Specific Ancient Prophecies

The Old Testament contains a series of specific prophecies about the future descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose twelve sons became the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Following periods of captivity in Assyria and Babylon, these tribes migrated to northwest Europe and the British Isles, where the “latter day” fulfillment of these prophecies would occur. Abraham’s descendants were prophesied to become great and be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth (Genesis 12:1–3). They would multiply as “the dust of the earth” and the stars in the sky (Genesis 13:16; 15:5) and “possess the gate of their enemies” (Genesis 22:17; 24:60). The two grandsons of Jacob, Manasseh and Ephraim, were to become, respectively, a “great” nation and a great “multitude of nations” (see Genesis 48:19–22). In the “latter days” the descendants of these two boys—the sons of Joseph—would spread around the world as a colonizing people and settle in the choice places of the earth, yet would be separated from other Israelites in northwest Europe (Genesis 49:1, 22–26). The history of England’s remarkable rise to a world power reveals how these ancient prophecies have been fulfilled.

The March of History

Historians acknowledge that nations of the West have dominated the world for the last 500 years. England’s rise to power began about 1500, when Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church in Rome, aligning England’s course with the Protestant Reformation and the new ideas it represented. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 ended Philip II’s attempt to invade England and bring the Protestant nation back into the Roman Catholic fold, while the English navy gained prestige. This critical naval battle was a turning point in history, where 80 English ships saw the “invincible” 130-ship Armada lose more than one-third of its vessels—due in part to terrible weather.

In 1759, the British fleet, again with the aid of the weather, destroyed a French fleet at Quiberon Bay off the coast of France—disrupting an invasion of England planned by France’s King Louis XV. 1759 has been termed the “Year of Miracles” because of English victories during the Seven Years’ War, when England gained nearly all of French Canada and other territories as well. In 1805, another invasion of England was thwarted when British Admiral Nelson demolished a combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar off the coast of Spain—destroying 22 of 33 enemy ships, while the British lost none. The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 by the British Duke of Wellington and his European allies enabled England to finally emerge as a world power.

In the light of these remarkable victories, it is worth remembering the prophecy that Moses recorded about the Israelites: “Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you” (Leviticus 26:7–8). Years later, as Winston Churchill looked back over these and other events that surrounded the rise of England, he observed, “I have a feeling that we have a Guardian because we have a great Cause, and we shall have that Guardian so long as we serve that Cause faithfully” (We Have a Guardian: Some Instances of Divine Intervention in British History, William Brooke Grant, p. 3).

A Global Empire

During the period that England was establishing global naval supremacy, international trade was also developing along the oceanic highways in the Atlantic, while on the other side of the world the Russians, Chinese and Arabs were closing the “Silk Road” to traffic from the West. The nations along the northwest coast of Europe were ideally suited by geography to benefit from this turning point in history, but England, located on an island—separate from her Israelite cousins in Europe—was “best placed of all” to take advantage of the burgeoning Atlantic economy (Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now, p. 500).

The early 1800s brought the Industrial Revolution. This major shift in society began in England for a number of reasons: a national spirit of inventiveness and innovation that led to the development of steam power; the local access to deposits of coal; and the use of forged iron to make machines for factories that produced cloth and weapons—all of which enabled the English to prosper economically and project their military power around the world. As a result, in England, wages rose, life spans increased and the growing population began to migrate to other parts of England’s expanding global empire.

At its zenith, the British Empire occupied and governed about one-quarter of the globe, controlled the major sea gates of the world, and spread the English language around the world, where it is now the official language of more than 80 countries and territories. During the “Anglobilization” of the world, British missionaries and colonial administrators brought Bibles and biblical values of honesty, efficiency, hard work and education—in addition to medicine, sanitation, parliamentary government, railroads, and even cricket and soccer—that transformed the lives and cultures of entire continents. As British historian Niall Ferguson has written, “[T]he world we know today is in large measure the product of Britain’s age of Empire” (Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, p. xxv).

Many have sought to explain the shocking success of the British Empire, in which a small island came to dominate the world. Some speculate it was due to reasons such as geography, climate or resources, while others suggest it was simply luck—a fortuitous accident. Historian Ian Morris asserts this unique event was “neither predetermined thousands of years ago nor the result of a recent accident” (Morris, p. 25). Morris suggests the rise of the West, and England, in particular, was the result of laws of biology, sociology and geography. However, these speculative ideas overlook the fact that God recorded specific prophecies in the Bible about what would happen to the descendants of Abraham in the latter days. The historical facts about the rise of England confirm the validity of ancient prophecies, which reveal that God had a plan for the sons of Jacob. England’s global empire changed the course of history—and clearly demonstrates that “the Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever He chooses” (Daniel 5:21).

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