The Rise and Fall of an Empire
west midlands, england—
Imagine surveying the world in the year 1500, 1600, 1700 or even 1800. Which nation would you guess was about to form the largest empire in the history of the world? Probably not Great Britain.
Even as late as 1800 many countries had larger populations, bigger militaries, more prolific manufacturing and richer governments than this small collection of islands off Western Europe.
Countless books have been written trying to untangle exactly why the British, rather than the French, Chinese, or any other people, dominated the world for the next 100 years. Some of these books make excellent points. But only one gets to the heart of the reason: The United States and Britain in Prophecy. In that book, Herbert W. Armstrong offered proof after proof that the Bible prophesied the rise of Great Britain—and even pinpointed exactly when it would occur.
The core reason for Britain’s rise wasn’t any special geographic features of the British Isles, unique British traits of character or even British institutions. The reason is that the people of Britain descended from ancient Israel. God promised Abraham that some of his descendants would form the mightiest empire in world history. Ancient Israel did not receive these promised blessings. Neither have the Jews. They were poured out rapidly upon Britain and America.
Yet the Bible not only prophesied the rise of Britain and America in extraordinary detail; it also prophesied their fall. “Do you think so great a fall could not come to so great powers as Britain and America?” Herbert W. Armstrong asked. “Do you say, ‘It can’t happen here?’ Do you think the great God who was able to give them such unprecedented world leadership and power and wealth is not able to take it away from them and throw them, like their ancient forefathers, back into slavery? You need to open your eyes to the fact that Britain’s sun already has set!” (emphasis added throughout).
The fall of Britain is a warning to America and to the world. But it also reveals God’s inspiring master plan for mankind and is directly tied to the gospel message.
Winston Churchill dubbed World War ii the British Empire’s “finest hour.”
Across the globe, 15 million men of the Empire battled against tyranny not just for themselves and their own freedoms, but for the whole world. Civilization can be thankful they succeeded. Yet the war exhausted the British Empire and Commonwealth. Even so, few at the time could have guessed that the Empire’s finest hour would be its last.
“In the late summer of 1945 the British Empire and Commonwealth … stretched over nearly a third of the globe,” wrote historian Paul Johnson in his book Modern Times. “No nation had ever carried such wide-ranged responsibilities. Twenty-five years later, everything had gone. History had never before witnessed a transformation of such extent and rapidity.”
Johnson pinpoints the cause of this collapse: “There was a failure of vision, a collapse of will.”
The Bible gives exactly the same diagnosis.
In Leviticus 26, which Mr. Armstrong called the pivotal prophecy of the Old Testament, God lists the blessings He would give His people for obeying Him—and the curses for disobeying. One of the first curses is stated in verse 19: “I will break the pride of your power.”
The chronology of Leviticus 26 is important: The longer Israel disobeyed, the worse the curses would become. The broken national will precedes many other curses.
God’s law is a law of cause and effect. It is the way that causes happiness, individually or nationally. Turning against that way results in curses. Britain’s way of life resulted in a weak-willed nation. A lack of will and vision lead to other curses.
In verse 21, God says that if the people failed to repent and turn to Him, their punishment would grow seven times more intense. “To teach us the lesson we have failed to learn by experience, God is going to plague our peoples sevenfold more than our sins already have plagued us—sevenfold more punishment than we have brought on ourselves!” wrote Mr. Armstrong. God is supernaturally intensifying these self-inflicted curses. This punishment is intended to wake us up to the real and only solution: turning to Him.
God did not bless Britain because of any national righteousness. But decades ago, when the nation was at its peak, the British did try much harder to obey what they understood of Bible morality.
In 1851, a random survey estimated that about 40 percent of the population attended church services on any given weekend. By the 1980s, church attendance was 12 percent. By 2015, it had fallen to 5 percent.
That’s not to say that these churches were teaching God’s truth. But the nation at least was much more aware that there was a Creator and knew some of His laws. A 2016 survey found that only 28 percent said they believed in God or a higher power.
Family life has followed a similar decline. At no point has Britain been a model of biblical family values. But in the first decade of the 20th century, only 1 in 450 marriages ended in divorce, and only 1 child in 20 was born outside of wedlock. As recently as 1978, that figure was still 1 child in 10. Today, 40 percent of marriages end in divorce. Babies born outside of wedlock are close to being in the majority.
The United Kingdom is post-religious and quickly becoming post-family. Far-left, anti-family legislation is taking over schools, and families are not strong enough to resist these teachings at home. A 2018 survey found more than a third of Britons under age 22 identified as something other than heterosexual.
Mr. Armstrong warned that our declining family life was “rapidly becoming a greater threat to humanity than the hydrogen bomb!” It has proved far more destructive than any other weapons faced by the British Empire.
A glimpse into the lives of Britain’s teens shows how destructive this decline has been. To take just two vivid examples, a 2018–2019 study of 10,000 17-year-olds found that 28 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys reported intentionally harming themselves at some point in the past year. Another study found that 7 percent of British children attempt suicide before they turn 17. These cold numbers represent hundreds of thousands of deeply troubled youths.
This moral decline has led to other alarming cultural changes. In his book The Welfare State We’re In, James Bartholomew writes, “It is not going too far to say that there seems to have been a revolution in the culture and character of the British people in the last 60 years. The evidence is overwhelming that they are less polite and more violent. … A picture emerges of a country that has become brutish and even degenerate compared to how it was …. A country which had a remarkable history and character appears to have just thrown it away.”
The degeneration of British society is not some figment of the imagination of older generations. In 1889, there were 4,221 recorded violent crimes in England and Wales. This total remained basically unchanged for the next 50 years. It began to rise before World War ii; then after the war it started shooting up. By 1999, this number exceeded 330,000. By 2021, it was nearly 1.8 million. Back in 1935, one international observer wrote that English soccer crowds were “as orderly as church meetings.” No observer would mistake a football mob for a religious service today.
To whatever degree British society as a whole sought to obey God in the past, it did not value that virtue enough, and it let slip the truth it had. This loosening morality is not merely a private matter or a “lifestyle.” Its ramifications are global.
Isaiah 3 prophesies of the curse of disappearing male leadership in the families of modern Israel. The same chapter describes a complete lack of statesmen and real leadership. The two go together. Strong families raise strong leaders. A nation of strong families has strong will and morale. The decline of British morality means a broken British will. And the results have shaken the world.
A Self-Inflicted Wound
The British Empire at its peak gave British subjects a sense of purpose beyond themselves and a noble vision of helping the world and future generations. When the British lost that sense of purpose, the nation turned inward.
Contrary to claims that it robbed its colonies, the Empire was actually a drain on Britain’s resources. Historian Patrick K. O’Brien estimates that if Britain had retreated from its Empire in 1845, the British taxpayer would have been able to pay 25 percent less tax. But such sacrifices were borne as part of the responsibility of being an imperial power.
One hundred years later, many decided they would rather not spend all that money. Instead of defending and building up people hundreds and thousands of miles away, they wanted social programs. Churchill, a stalwart defender of the Empire, was voted out of office as soon as World War ii was over. Voters instead chose the Labour Party and its promises of lavish social spending.
The Labour government set up the welfare state. It established the National Health Service and a new social security system, with National Insurance contributions to pay pensions and unemployment benefits. It also nationalized hundreds of British businesses.
In the decades that followed, the weakening of British families meant more people looked to the government for intervention in everyday life. In 1900, Britain’s welfare programs consumed 12 percent of its annual economic output. By 1985, it hit 45 percent. Last year, it surpassed 50. The National Health Service alone accounts for about half of all government spending.
Embracing socialism meant retreating from empire. The new government granted India independence in 1947. This move that would have been unthinkable a generation before wasn’t even controversial within Parliament. So few people opposed it that Parliament didn’t even hold a formal vote.
Britain’s spirit of retreat was most notably on display in the Suez crisis of 1956, when it capitulated to opposition from the United States and allowed Egypt to seize the canal. This loudly signaled that the nation no longer had the power or courage to take risks.
The government sucked more and more money out of defense and poured more and more into welfare, shrinking Britain as a major power. In January 1968, Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that the nation was withdrawing all forces east of the Suez Canal. British troops abandoned bases across the Middle East and Asia.
U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was incredulous. He said that he “could not believe that free aspirin and false teeth were more important than Britain’s role in the world.”
Prime Minister Wilson disagreed, as would probably a large majority in Britain today.
By 1968 (if not 1956), the British Empire was gone.
What is stunning is that, among all those nations and peoples that had been part of the Empire, there is little evidence that most British subjects didn’t want it. In fact, across the Empire, the people as a whole had just demonstrated their support in the deepest of ways: rejecting the Axis powers (which had actually tried to rally them against Britain), and instead fighting against them and giving their lives for the Empire. After the war, it was not the masses but the elites, responding to noisy minorities, who dismantled the Empire in peacetime.
The British simply lost the will to fight for the Empire. It wasn’t even necessary for them to fight physically—it was simply a matter of fighting morally for the higher ideals of the Empire. It was a matter of understanding and making the moral and intellectual case. It was a matter of standing up for it, enduring for it, sacrificing for it, as young Churchill did, because you knew it was making the world and the future better.
But it was easier to succumb to socialism and live the good life.
The peoples of the Empire paid the price. When Britain left India, for example, ethnic tensions exploded. About 1 million people were killed. About 5 million were forced to flee their homes. India and Pakistan went on to fight four wars and are currently in a nuclear stand-off.
In 1960, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan toured Africa and grandly declared, “We have seen the awakening of national consciousness in peoples who have for centuries lived in dependence upon some other power.” This was wishful thinking. A new cadre of elites saw an opportunity to kick out Britain and seize power for themselves. It led to the rise of despots and civil war. Ugandan dictator Idi Amin killed up to half a million of his own people. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser repeatedly tried to attack Israel. South Rhodesia saw the coming disaster after Macmillan’s speech and tried to save itself by breaking away. For a time it succeeded—until Britain forced into power the terrorist leader Robert Mugabe in the new state of Zimbabwe. Just as the Rhodesians had foreseen, Mugabe almost immediately began to commit genocide.
It’s difficult not to detect echoes of Britain’s imperial retreat in what America did this past summer in Afghanistan. (Joe Biden executed a particularly dishonorable exit—but even Donald Trump was planning to retreat.) The U.S. left because it was too hard and because they would rather divert resources to revolutionary social programs, like the Build Back Better plan. The suffering of those left behind is stark. The experience of the British Empire tells us this suffering is just beginning.
“Few realize that every desired, prized possession imposes with it the obligation of responsibility for its use,” wrote Mr. Armstrong. “When God lavished on our peoples such wealth and power and economic possession as no peoples have ever before enjoyed, did we appreciate what we had or feel the commensurate sense of responsibility for its wise and proper use? We did not! We didn’t even recognize how great was our blessing, let alone feel a sense of obligation for our custodianship before our Maker!”
Britain shrugged off that burden and rejected the responsibility. The world suffered.
In prior centuries, Britain rose to power as it recognized its own uniqueness from Europe and distanced itself from the Continent. More recently, with its pride in its power broken, it did the opposite. The nation lost the will to chart its own path. There was no sense of unique national mission. Instead it sought the security blanket of its European neighbors.
On Jan. 1, 1973, Britain joined the European Economic Community. In a Plain Truth article published that year, Mr. Armstrong warned that the nation would look back on this “as a most tragically historic date—a date fraught with ominous potentialities!”
Joining Europe economically abruptly severed many strong trade links Britain had with its commonwealth countries. The distinctness of its legal system, its greater love of freedom and free enterprise eroded away to conform more with Europe’s more restrictive systems.
Britain had already embraced socialism. But EU membership helped write a highly regulated business system into Britain’s own legal code and way of life. By the time the UK voted in 2016 to leave Europe, 60 percent of its laws had come from the EU. European regulation put a stranglehold on British business and helped breed out a culture of British self-reliance.
Meanwhile, a new human rights code established by the EU became a predominant piece of UK law. This European system doesn’t promote a few inalienable rights; it establishes a multitude of rights that compete against each other. The result is a mess, where, for example, a terrorist’s right to family life (which, practically speaking, can mean his right to own a cat) prevents him from being deported—while no human rights stand in the way of putting an entire nation under house arrest, as has taken place under covid-19 restrictions. These laws, supposedly aimed at guaranteeing human rights, have actually weakened the nation’s protections against tyranny.
EU membership changed Britain in more fundamental and visible ways. The human rights legislation prevented the deportation of many immigrants from poorer countries, so refugees both real and so-called began pouring in from the Middle East and North Africa. During the 1990s and 2000s, Labour governments deliberately turned the flow into a flood. In 2004, 10 new member states, mostly poorer countries, joined the EU. Most member nations closed their borders to these new member states to protect their own workers. Britain was one of only three nations that threw their borders wide open. Andrew Neather, a speechwriter for Tony Blair and other senior Labour leaders, said his party had a “deliberate policy … to open up the UK to mass migration” and wanted to “rub the right’s nose in diversity.”
Britain now absorbs about 1 million people every three years. That’s the equivalent of one large city arriving annually. Well over a quarter of all births in England and Wales are to mothers born outside the UK. One in five elementary school children don’t speak English as a first language. In 2,000 schools, the majority don’t speak English as a first language; and in 200 schools, 90 percent do not.
It’s easy to read British history from just a few decades ago and feel like you’re reading about a different country. In a very real and literal way, you are.
As the migration tsunami was rising, Trumpet managing editor Joel Hilliker wrote, “Instead of producing a stronger, more unified, more harmonious, peaceful and prosperous nation, the diversity cult has done untold damage. … Compulsory multiculturalism has created ghettos, fragmented British society, and empowered the most dangerous and radical of ideologues” (Feb. 18, 2008).
This fulfilled one of the curses God prophesied would fall on a disobedient nation: “The stranger that is within thee shall get up above thee very high; and thou shalt come down very low” (Deuteronomy 28:43; see also Hosea 7:8).
Britain did summon the courage to leave the EU, but it has not recovered the proper pride in its power. The grandchildren of those who lived Britain’s finest hour now find themselves submitting to their false god of medical tyranny and shutting themselves in their homes.
God promised material prosperity in Deuteronomy 28:3-6, and Britain’s financial system helped build its Empire. Contrarily, He promised debt as a curse for disobedience (verse 44)—and today the national debt is at a peacetime record. God also warned that He would withdraw strong leaders, military blessings and freedom from fear (Leviticus 26:14-17; Isaiah 3:1-4). He forewarned that British society would become more violent. “By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood” (Hosea 4:2). He said its foreign policy would be like a “silly dove,” foolishly trusting in a bird of prey for protection (Hosea 7:11). He said Britain would be like a “cake not turned” (verse 8), appealing on the outside but burned out and hollow on the inside.
Does this not describe Britain today?
These same prophecies state that conditions are about to get much worse for Britain, America and the whole world. So many prophecies have already been proved true for Britain that there is strong reason to take those yet unfulfilled very seriously.
But there is another critical reason. In Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong explained why God chose to give the descendants of Israel such spectacular promises of national greatness, power and wealth. “[T]he intellectuals and scholarly of this world feel that, given sufficient knowledge, human carnal man could solve all problems,” he wrote. “God let many generations of ancient Israel and Judah prove by hundreds of years of human experience that the best of humanity, without God’s Holy Spirit, cannot solve human problems and evils!”
Britain experienced blessings as no other nation on Earth. Yet even with these blessings in hand, Britain could not sustain them. Instead, it abandoned its sense of purpose, afflicted itself with wounds, embraced patterns of failure and curses, and is now collapsing under its own weight. An empire can be strong enough to rule a quarter of the globe and almost a quarter of its people—and still self-destruct. God is now adding curses to help Britain realize how destructive its ways are and how much human beings, even with every advantage, desperately need God!
This is the fundamental lesson God has been teaching man since the Garden of Eden. We human beings are inherently incapable of creating permanent stability, prosperity or happiness. We need God.
Mr. Armstrong described Britain and America as “fulfilling their role despite themselves.” They could have used their power for good, working to point their fellow man to their Creator. They failed. Yet even in their disobedience, these nations’ decline and fall inadvertently points the world to God!
“God is Creator of all other nations, too!” wrote Mr. Armstrong. “God is concerned about the people and races we have called ‘heathen.’ They, too, are human. They, too, are made in God’s own likeness, with the potential of being molded into God’s spiritual and character image!” (ibid). Rather than being chosen for favored treatment, the modern nations of Israel are teaching all nations of the world this invaluable lesson.