I found this marvelous insight on the Church Militant in the letter Chesterton wrote to his mother the very day of his baptism (July 1922):

I have thought about you, and all that I owe to you and my father, not only in the way of affection, but of the ideals of honour and freedom and charity and all other good things you always taught me: and I am not conscious of the smallest break or difference in those ideals but only of a new and necessary way of fighting for them. I think, as Cecil did, that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by [the] one fighting form of Christianity.

From G. K. Chesterton’s Biography by Maisie Ward
Chapter 23 on Chesterton’s conversion and baptism

In fact, as we learned later, this visit to Jerusalem had been a determining factor in Gilbert’s conversion. Many people both in and outside the Church had been wondering what had so long delayed him. The mental progress from the vague Liberalism of the Wild Knight to the splendid edifice of Orthodoxy had been a swift one. For the book was written in 1908 and already several years earlier in Heretics and in his newspaper contests with Blatchford [Christianity and Rationalism], Gilbert Chesterton had shown his firm belief in the Godhead of Our Lord, in Sacraments, in Priesthood and in the Authority of the Church. But it was not yet the Catholic and Roman Church. There is a revealing passage in the Autobiography: “And then I happened to meet Lord Hugh Cecil. […] . I listened to Lord Hugh’s very lucid statements of his position […] . The strongest impression I received was that he was a Protestant. I was myself still a thousand miles from being a Catholic but I think it was the perfect and solid Protestantism of Lord Hugh that fully revealed to me that I was no longer a Protestant.”

The time that thousand miles took is a real problem — the years before the illness during which he talked of joining the Church, the seven further years before he joined it. Cecil Chesterton had been received before the war — just at the beginning of the Marconi Case, in fact — and the entire outlook of both brothers had seemed to make this inevitable, not only theologically but sociologically and historically. Alike in their outlook on Europe today or on the great ages of the past, it was a Catholic civilisation based on Catholic theology that seemed to them the only true one for a full and rich human development.

I think in this matter a special quality and its defect could be seen in Gilbert. For most people intensity of thought is much more difficult than action. With him it was the opposite. He used his mind unceasingly, his body as little as possible. […] The whole of practical life he left to [Frances]. But joining the Church was not only something to be thought about, it was something really practical that had to be done, and here Frances could not help him.
Another element that made action lag behind conviction with Chesterton was his perpetual state of overwork. Physically inactive, his mind was never barren but issued in an immense output: several books every year besides editing and articles; there were even two years in which no fewer than six books were published. To focus his attention on the deepest matters, it was vital to escape from the net of work and worry.

Returning from Jerusalem, Gilbert wrote from Alexandria to Maurice Baring:

My dear Maurice,

[…]I feel impelled to send you this hurried line to thank you for the wonderful time I have had in Palestine, which is so largely owing to you. There is also something even more important I want very much to discuss with you because of certain things that have been touched on between us in former times. I will only say here that my train of thought, which really was one of thought and not fugitive emotion, came to an explosion in the Church of the Ecce Homo in Jerusalem, a church which the guidebooks call new and the newspapers call Latin. […] The journey [will be] prolonged by a friend ill in Paris and I must work the moment I return to keep a contract. But if we could meet by about then I could thank you better for many things.

Yours illegibly,

G. K. Chesterton.

The contract that had to be kept was in all probability the writing of The New Jerusalem. It is a glorious book. […] It is the book of a man seeing a vision. To understand how this vision broke upon him we have first to try to understand something jealously hidden by Gilbert Chesterton — his own suffering. Even as a boy — in the days of the toothache and still more torturing earache — he had written:

Though pain be stark and bitter
And days in darkness creep
Not to that depth I sink me
That asks the world to weep.

So much did he acclaim himself enrolled under the banner of joy that I think most people miss the companion picture to the favourite one of the Happy Warrior. No warrior can fight untiringly through a long lifetime without wounds, without temptations to abandon the struggle and seek a less glorious peace. If in what are commonly called practical matters Chesterton was weak, he was in this almost superhumanly strong. His fame did not rest upon success in the field of sociology and politics. He could have increased it by neglecting the good of England for which he fought, and living in literature, poetry and fantasy. Here all acclaimed him great, whereas most tolerated or despised as a hobby or a weakness the work he was pouring into the fight for England. In this time after the Armistice it was by a naked effort of the will that he held his ground. The loss of Cecil [1918] with his light-hearted courage, his energy and buoyancy, was immeasurable. And I know — for we talked of it together — that Frances had not the complete sympathy with Gilbert over the paper* that she had over his other work. […] She would have rejoiced if he had chosen to let it go.


* Encouraged by the excitement that had attended the publication of The Party System its authors [Belloc and Cecil Chesterton] decided to attempt a newspaper of their own. This paper has in the course of its history appeared under four different titles.:

The Eye Witness, June 1911-October 1912 [Hilaire Belloc, editor]
The New Witness, November 1912-May 1923 [Cecil Chesterton, then G.K.C., editors]
G. K.’s Weekly, 1925-1936 [G. K. Chesterton, editor]
The Weekly Review, 1936-1948 [Reginald Jebb, Belloc’s son-in-law, editor]

[…] Its main aim may be roughly defined under two headings. 1. To fight for the liberty of Englishmen against increasing enslavement to a Plutocracy. 2. To expose and combat corruption in public life.

[From chapter 18 of Chesterton’s biography]

And the fight that he had almost enjoyed in Cecil’s company had become a harder one, not merely because he was alone but because the nature of the foe had changed. He was fighting now not individual abuses but the mood of pessimism that had overtaken our civilisation. In an article entitled Is It Too Late? he defined this pessimism as “a paralysis of the mind an impotence intrinsically unworthy of a free man.” He stated powerfully the case of those who held that our civilisation was dying and that it was too late to make any further efforts:

The future belongs to those who can find a real answer to that real case […]. The omens and the auguries are against us. There is no answer but one that omens and auguries are heathen things and that we are not heathens […]. We are not lost unless we lose ourselves […]. Great Alfred, in the darkness of the Ninth Century, when the Danes were beating at the door, wrote down on his copy of Boethius his denial of the doctrine of fate. We, who have been brought up to see all the signs of the times pointing to improvement, may live to see all the signs in heaven and earth pointing the other way. If we go on it must be in another name than that of the Goddess of Fortune.

It was that other Name, in which he had so long believed, that he realised with the freshness of novelty on this journey to Jerusalem. He made in the Holy City and in the fields of Palestine a new discovery of Christ and of the Christian Thing. As he looked over the Dead Sea and almost physically realised what evil meant, he heard the voice of the divine Deliverer saying to the demons: “Go forth and trouble him not any more.” In the cave at Bethlehem he realised the “little local infancy” whereby the creator of the world had chosen to redeem the world. All through the book [The New Jerusalem] there are glimpses of what he tells more fully in The Everlasting Man. Between the two books all that he had seen and thought in Palestine lay in his mind, and grew there, and fructified for our understanding. But he had seen it all in that first vision.

Jerusalem first impressed Chesterton as a mediaeval city and from its turrets he could readily picture Godfrey de Bouillon, Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saint Louis of France. Through the Crusades he views what was meant by Christendom and sets over against it at once the greatness and the barrenness of Islam:

The Moslem had one thought, and that a most vital one: the greatness of God which levels all men. But the Moslem had not one thought to rub against another, because he really had not another. It is the friction of two spiritual things, of tradition and invention, or of substance and symbol, from which the mind takes fire. The Creeds condemned as complex have something like the secret of sex: they can breed thoughts. Today we of Christendom have fallen below ourselves but yet we have something left of the power to create whether it be a theology or a civilisation.

Talking to an old Arab in the desert, Chesterton heard him say that in all these years of Turkish rule the Turks had never given to the people a cup of cold water. And as the old man spoke he heard the clank of pipes and he knew that it was the English soldiers who were bringing water through the desert to Jerusalem.
Jerusalem gave to Chesterton the fuller realisation of two great facts. First he saw that the supernatural was needed not only to conquer the powers of evil but even to restore the good things that should be natural to man. As he put it in the later book, “Nature may not have the name of Isis. Isis may not be really looking for Osiris. But it is true that Nature is really looking for something. Nature is always looking for the supernatural.” Yet man, even strengthened by the supernatural, cannot suffice for the fight, without a leader who is more than man. In the land of Christ’s childhood, His teaching and His suffering, there came to Gilbert Chesterton “a vision more vivid than a man walking unveiled upon the mountains, seen of men and seeing a visible God.”

All visions must fade into the light of common day, and the return home meant the resumption of hard labour.
He had got home in April 1920: and a lecture tour was planned for the United States at the beginning of the following year. The eight months between saw the completion and publication of The Uses of Diversity (collected essays), The New Jerusalem and The Superstition of Divorce. And still went on the New Witness, the Illustrated London News, articles, introductions, lectures, conferences.
It seems best to complete now the story of his journey of the mind. A reserved man tells more of himself indirectly than directly. Readers of the Autobiography complain that it is concerned with everything in the world except G. K. Chesterton. You can certainly search its pages in vain for any account of the process of his conversion: for that you must look elsewhere: in the poems to Our lady, in The Catholic Church and conversion, in The Well and the Shallows, and in the letters here to be quoted.

In The Catholic Church and conversion he sketches the three phases through which most converts pass, all of which he had himself experienced. He sums them up as “patronizing the Church, discovering the Church, and running away from the Church.” In the first phase a man is taking trouble (“and taking trouble has certainly never been a particular weakness of mine”) to find out the fallacy in most anti-Catholic ideas. In the second stage he is gradually discovering the great ideas enshrined in the Church and hitherto hidden from him.

It is these numberless glimpses of great ideas, that have been hidden from the convert by the prejudices of his provincial culture, that constitute the adventurous and varied second stage of the conversion. It is, broadly speaking, the stage in which the man is unconsciously trying to be converted. And the third stage is perhaps the truest and most terrible. It is that in which the man is trying not to be converted. He has come too near to the truth, and has forgotten that truth is a magnet, with the powers of attraction and repulsion.

To a certain extent it is a fear which attaches to all sharp and irrevocable decisions it is suggested in all the old jokes about the shakiness of the bridegroom at the wedding or the recruit who takes the shilling and gets drunk partly to celebrate, but partly also to forget it. But it is the fear of a fuller sacrament and a mightier army […].

The man has exactly the same sense of having committed or compromised himself or having been in a sense entrapped, even if he is glad to be entrapped. But for a considerable time he is not so much glad as simply terrified. It may be that this real psychological experience has been misunderstood by stupider people and is responsible for all that remains of the legend that Rome is a mere trap. But that legend misses the whole point of the psychology. It is not the Pope who has set the trap or the priests who have baited it. The whole point of the position is that the trap is simply the truth. The whole point is that the man himself has made his way towards the trap of truth, and not the trap that has run after the man. All steps except the last step he has taken eagerly on his own account, out of interest in the truth and even the last step, or the last stage, only alarms him because it is so very true. If I may refer once more to a personal experience, I may say that I for one was never less troubled by doubts than in the last phase, when I was troubled by fears. Before that final delay I had been detached and ready to regard all sorts of doctrines with an open mind. Since that delay has ended in decision, I have had all sorts of changes in mere mood and I think I sympathise with doubts and difficulties more than I did before. But I had no doubts or difficulties just before. I had only fears. Fears of something that had the finality and simplicity of suicide. But the more I thrust the thing into the back of my mind, the more certain I grew of what Thing it was. And by a paradox that does not frighten me now in the least, it may be that I shall never again have such absolute assurance that the thing is true as I had when I made my last effort to deny it.
(The Catholic Church and conversion, p. 61-65)

The whole of Catholic theology can be justified, says Gilbert, if you are allowed to start with those two ideas that the Church is popularly supposed to oppose: Reason and Liberty. “To become a Catholic is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think. It is so in exactly the same sense in which to recover from palsy is not to leave off moving but to learn how to move.” The convert has learnt long before his conversion that the Church will not force him to abandon his will. “But he is not unreasonably dismayed at the extent to which he may have to use his will.” This was the crux for Gilbert. “There is in the last second of time or hairbreadth of space, before the iron leaps to the magnet, an abyss full of all the unfathomable forces of the universe. The space between doing and not doing such a thing is so tiny and so vast.”

Father Maturin said after his conversion that for at least ten years before it the question had never been out of his mind for ten waking minutes. It was about ten years since Gilbert had first talked to Father O’Connor of his intention to join the Church, but in his case thought on the subject could not have been so continuous. Still he had time for patronising, discovery, and running away, all in leisurely fashion. External efforts to help him had been worse than useless: as he indicates in The Catholic Church and conversion, they had always put him back.
In two letters Gilbert said that the two people who helped him most at this time were Maurice Baring and Father Ronald Knox, who had both gone through the same experience themselves.

Besides the positive mental processes of recognition, repulsion and attraction exercised by the Church, Gilbert was affected to some extent both by affection for the Church of England and disappointment with it. The profound joy of his early conversion to Christianity was linked with Anglicanism and so too were many friendships and the continued attachment to it of Frances. But what he said to Maurice Baring about a Porch is representative. Like Father Maturin he felt he owed so much to his Anglican friends: he hated to stress overmuch the revulsion from Anglicanism in the process of conversion. But it did at this date contribute to the converging arguments.

He wrote to Maurice Baring:

So many thanks for the sermons, which I will certainly return as you suggest. I had the other day a trying experience, and I think a hard case of casuistry I am not sure that I was right but also not by any means sure I was wrong. Long ago, before my present crisis, I had promised somebody to take part in what I took to be a small debate on labour. Too late, by my own carelessness, I found to my horror it had swelled into a huge Anglo-Catholic Congress at the Albert Hall. I tried to get out of it, but I was held to my promise. Then I reflected that I could only write (as I was already writing) to my Anglo-Catholic friends on the basis that I was one of them now in doubt about continuing such and that their conference in some sense served the same purpose as their letters. What affected me most, however, was that by my own fault I had put them into a hole. Otherwise, I would not just now speak from or for their platform, just as I could not (as yet at any rate) speak from or for yours. So I spoke very briefly, saying something of what I think about social ethics. Whether or not my decision was right, my experience was curious and suggestive, though tragic for I felt it like a farewell. There was no doubt about the enthusiasm of those thousands of Anglo-Catholics. But there was also no doubt, unless I am much mistaken, that many of them besides myself would be Roman Catholics rather than accept things they are quite likely to be asked to accept — for instance, by the Lambeth Conference. For though my own distress, as in most cases I suppose, has much deeper grounds than clerical decisions, yet if I cannot stay where I am, it will be a sort of useful symbol that the English Church has done something decisively Protestant or Pagan. I mean that to those to whom I cannot give my spiritual biography, I can say that the insecurity I felt in Anglicanism was typified in the Lambeth Conference. I am at least sure that much turns on that Conference, if not for me, for large numbers of those people at the Albert Hall. A young Anglo-Catholic curate has just told me that the crowd there cheered all references to the Pope, and laughed at every mention of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s a queer state of things. I am concerned most, however, about somebody I value more than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Frances, to whom I owe much of my own faith, and to whom therefore (as far as I can see my way) I also owe every decent chance for the controversial defence of her faith. If her side can convince me, they have a right to do so, if not, I shall go hot and strong to convince her. I put it clumsily, but there is a point in my mind. Logically, therefore, I must await answers from Waggett and Gore as well as Knox and McNabb and talk the whole thing over with her, and then act as I believe

This is a dusty political sort of letter, with nothing in it but what I think and nothing of what I feel. For that side of it, I can only express myself by asking for your prayers.

The accident of his having to speak at this Congress, where he was received with enormous enthusiasm, probably led to a fuller analysis of this element in his thought. I put here a letter he wrote to Maurice Baring soon after his conversion, because it sums up the Anglican question as he finally saw it:

Feb. 14th, 1923

Please forgive me for the delay but I have been caught in a cataract of letters and work in connection with the new paper we are trying to start and am now dictating this under conditions that make it impossible for it to resemble anything so personal and intimate as the great unwritten epistle to which you refer. But I will note down here very hurriedly and in a more impersonal way, some of the matters that have affected me in relation to the great problem.

To begin with, I am shy of giving one of my deepest reasons because it is hard to put it without offence, and I am sure it is the wrong method to offend the wavering Anglo-Catholic. But I believe one of my strongest motives was mixed up with the idea of honour. I feel there is something mean about not making complete confession and restitution after a historic error and slander. It is not the same thing to withdraw the charges against Rome one by one, or restore the traditions to Canterbury one by one. Suppose a young prig refuses to live with his father or his friend or his wife, because wine is drunk in the house or there are Greek statues in the hall. Suppose he goes off on his own and develops broader ideas. On the day he drinks his first glass of wine, I think it is essential to his honour that he should go back to his father or his friend and say, “You are right and I was wrong, and we will drink wine together.” It is not consonant with his honour that he should set up a house of his own with wine and statues and every parallel particular, and still treat the other as if he were in the wrong. That is mean because it is making the best of both it is combining the advantages of being right with the advantages of having been wrong. Any analogy is imperfect but I think you see what I mean.

The larger version of this is that England has really got into so wrong a state, with its plutocracy and neglected populace and materialistic and Servile morality, that it must take a sharp turn that will be a sensational turn. No evolution into Catholicism will have that moral effect. Christianity is the religion of repentance, it stands against modern fatalism and pessimistic futurism mainly in saying that a man can go back. If we do decidedly go back it will show that religion is alive. For the rest, I do not say much about the details of continuity and succession, because the truth is they did not much affect me. What I see is that we cannot complain of England suffering from being Protestant and at the same time claim that she has always been Catholic. That there has always been a High Church Party is true; that there has always been an Anglo-Catholic Party may be true, but I am not so sure of it. But there is one matter arising from that which I do think important. Even the High Church Party, even the Anglo-Catholic Party only confronts a particular heresy called Protestantism upon particular points. It defends ritual rightly or even sacramentalism rightly, because these are the things the Puritans attacked. If it is not the heresy of an age, at least it is only the anti-heresy of an age. But since I have been a Catholic, I have become conscious of being in a much vaster arsenal, full of arms against countless other potential enemies. The Church, as the Church and not merely as ordinary opinion, has something to say to philosophies which the merely High Church has never had occasion to think about. If the next movement is the very reverse of Protestantism, the Church will have something to say about it or rather has already something to say about it. You might unite all High Churchmen on the High Church quarrel, but what authority is to unite them when the devil declares his next war on the world?

Another quality that impresses me is the power of being decisive first and being proved right afterwards. This is exactly the quality a supernatural power would have and I know nothing else in modern religion that has it. For instance, there was a time when I should have thought psychical enquiry the most reasonable thing in the world, and rather favourable to religion. I was afterwards convinced, by experience and not merely faith, that spiritualism is a practical poison. Don’t people see that when that is found in experience, a prodigious prestige accrues to the authority which, long before the experiment, did not pretend to enquire but simply said, “Drop it.” We feel that the authority did not discover, it knew. There are a hundred other things of which that story is true, in my own experience. But the High Churchman has a perfect right to be a spiritualistic enquirer, only he has not a right to claim that his authority knew beforehand the truth about spiritualistic enquiry

Of course there are a hundred things more to say indeed the greatest argument for Catholicism is exactly what makes it so hard to argue for it. It is the scale and multiplicity of the forms of truth and help that it has to offer. And perhaps, after all, the only thing that you and I can really say with profit is exactly what you yourself suggested that we are men who have talked to a good many men about a good many things, and seen something of the world and the philosophies of the world and that we have not the shadow of a doubt about what was the wisest act of our lives.

This letter, as we have seen, was written afterwards. Meanwhile the story of the last slow but by no means uncertain steps is best told in a series of undated letters to Father Ronald Knox:

Dear Father Knox,

It is hard not to have a silly feeling that demons, in the form of circumstances, get in the way of what concerns one most, and I have been distracted with details for which I have to be responsible, in connection with the New Witness, which is in a crisis about which shareholders etc. have to be consulted. I can’t let my brother’s paper, that stands for all he believed in, go without doing all I can and I am trying to get it started again, with Belloc to run it if possible. But the matter of our meeting has got into every chink of my thoughts, even the pauses of talk on practical things. I could not explain myself at that meeting and I want to try again now.

I could not explain what I mean about my wife without saying much more. I see in principle it is not on the same level as the true Church for nothing can be on the same level as God. But it is on quite a different level from social sentiments about friends and family. I have been a rottenly irresponsible person till I began to wear the iron ring of Catholic responsibilities. But I really have felt a responsibility about her, more serious than affection, let alone passion. First, because she gave me my first respect for sacramental Christianity second, because she is one of the good who mysteriously suffer […].

I have, however, a more practical reason for returning to this point. So far as my own feelings go, I think I might rightly make application to be instructed as soon as possible but I should not like to take so serious a step without reopening the matter with her, which I could do by the end of a week. I have had no opportunity before, because she has only just recovered from an illness, and is going away for a few days. But at about the end of next week, say, everything ought to be ready. Meanwhile I will write to you again, as I ought to have done before, but this tangle of business ties me up terribly just now. Perhaps you could tell me how I could arrange matters with some priest or religious in London, whose convenience it would suit if I came up once or twice a week, or whatever is required or give me the address of someone to write to, if that is the correct way. There are priests at High Wycombe which is nearer but I imagine they are very busy parochial clergy.

I had meant to write to you about the convictions involved in a more abstract way, but I fear I have filled my letter with one personal point. But, as I say, I will write to you again about the other matters and as they are more intellectual and less emotional, I hope I may be a little more coherent.

Yours very sincerely,

G. K. Chesterton.

P.S. This has been delayed even longer than I thought, for business bothers of my own and the paper’s, plus finishing a book and all my journalism, are bewildering me terribly.


Dear Father Knox,

Please excuse this journalistic paper, but the letter-block seems undiscoverable at this time of night. I ought to have written before but we have been in some family trouble. My father is very ill, and as he is an old man, my feelings are with him and my mother in a way more serious than anything except the matter of our correspondence. Essentially, of course, it does not so much turn the current of my thoughts as deepen it to see a man so many million times better than I am, in every way, and one to whom I owe everything, under such a shadow makes me feel, on top of all my particular feelings, the shadow that lies on us all. I can’t tell you what I feel of course but I hope I may ask for your prayers for my people and for me. My father is the very best man I ever knew of that generation that never understood the new need of a spiritual authority and lives almost perfectly by the sort of religion men had when rationalism was rational. I think he was always subconsciously prepared for the next generation having less theology than he has and is rather puzzled at its having more. But I think he understood my brother’s conversion better than my mother did. She is more difficult, and of course I cannot bother her just now. However, my trouble has a practical side, for which I originally mentioned it. As this may bring me to London more than I thought, it seems possible I might go there after all, instead of Wycombe, if I knew to whom to go. Also I find I stupidly destroyed your letter with the names of the priests at Wycombe to whom you referred me. Would it bother you very much to send me the names again, and any alternative London ones that occur to you and I will let you know my course of action then. Please forgive the disorder of my writing — and feeling.

Yours sincerely,

G. K. Chesterton.


Dear Father Knox,

I was just settling down three days ago to write a full reply to your last very kind letter, which I should have answered long before, when I received the wire that called me instantly to town. My father died on Monday and since then I have been doing the little I can for my mother but even that little involves a great deal of business — the least valuable sort of help. I will not attempt to tell you now all that this involves in connection with my deeper feelings and intentions for I only send you this interim scribble as an excuse for delaying the letter I had already begun and which nothing less than this catastrophe would have prevented me finishing. I hope to finish it in a few days. I am not sure whether I shall then be back in Beaconsfield but if so it will be at a new address: Top Meadow Beaconsfield.

Yours in haste,

G. K. Chesterton.


Dear Father Knox,

I feel horribly guilty in not having written before, and I do most earnestly hope you have not allowed my delay to interfere with any of your own arrangements. I have had a serious and very moving talk with my wife and she is only too delighted at the idea of your visit in itself. In fact she really wants to know you very much. Unfortunately, it does not seem very workable at the time to which I suppose you referred. I imagine it more or less corresponds to next week and we have only one spare bedroom yet, which is occupied by a nurse who is giving my wife a treatment that seems to be doing her good and which I don’t want to stop if I can help it. I am sure you will believe that my regret about this difficulty is really not the conventional apology though heaven knows all sorts of apologies are due to you. Touching the other idea of Lady Lovat’s most generous invitation I am not so sure, as that again depends at the moment on the treatment but of course I shall let Lady Lovat know very soon in any case and make other arrangements, as you suggested. In our conversation my wife was all that I hope you will some day know her to be. She is incapable of wanting me to do anything but what I think right and admits the same possibility for herself: but it is much more of a wrench for her, for she has been able to practise her religion in complete good faith which my own doubts have prevented me from doing.

I will write again very soon.

Yours sincerely,

G. K. Chesterton.

P.S. I am ashamed to say this has been finished fully forty-eight hours after I meant it to go, owing to executor business. Nobody so unbusinesslike as I am ought to be busy.


Dear Father Knox,

This is only a wild and hasty line to show I have not forgotten, and to ask you if it would be too late if I let you know in a day or two, touching your generous suggestion about your vacation. I shall know for certain, I think, at latest by the end of the week but just at the moment it depends on things still uncertain, about a nurse who is staying here giving my wife a treatment of radiant heat — one would hardly think needed in this weather but it seems to be doing her good, I am thankful to say. If this is pushing your great patience too far, please do not hesitate to make other arrangements if you wish to and I shall no doubt be able to do the same. But I should love to accept your suggestion if possible.

Yours sincerely,

G. K. Chesterton.


Dear Father Knox,

Just as I am emerging from the hurricane of business I mentioned to you, I find myself under a promise a year old to go and lecture for a week in Holland and I write this almost stepping on to the boat. I don’t in the least want to go but I suppose the great question is there as elsewhere. Indeed, I hear it is something of a reconquered territory. Some say a third of this heroic Calvinist state is now Catholic. I have no time to write properly but the truth is that even before so small a journey I have a queer and perhaps superstitious feeling that I should like to repeat to you my intention of following the example of the worthy Calvinists, please God so that you could even cite it if there were ever need in a good cause. I will write to you again and more fully about the business of instruction when I return, which should be in about ten days.

Yours always sincerely,

G. K. Chesterton.


Dear Father Knox,

I ought to have written long ago to tell you what I have done about the most practical of business matters. I have again been torn in pieces by the wars of the New Witness but I have managed to have another talk with my wife, after which I have written to our old friend Father O’Connor and asked him to come here, as he probably can, from what I hear. I doubt whether I can possibly put in words why I feel sure this is the right thing, not so much for my sake as for hers. We talk about misunderstandings but I think it is possible to understand too well for comfort, certainly too well for my powers of psychological description. Frances is just at the point where Rome acts both as the positive and the negative magnet a touch would turn her either way almost (against her will) to hatred, but with the right touch to a faith far beyond my reach. I know Father O’Connor’s would be the touch that does not startle, because she knows him and is fond of him and the only thing she asked of me was to send for him. If he cannot come, of course I shall take other action and let you know. I doubt if most people could make head or tail of this hasty scrawl: but I think you will understand.

Yours sincerely,

G. K. Chesterton.

Father Knox wrote on July 17, 1922, “I’m awfully glad to hear that you’ve sent for Father O’Connor and that you think he’s likely to be available. I must say that, in the story, Father Brown’s powers of neglecting his parish always seemed to me even more admirable than Dr. Watson’s powers of neglecting his practice so I hope this trait was drawn from the life.”

Father O’Connor has described the two days before the reception:

On Thursday morning, on one of our trips to the village, I told Mrs. Chesterton: ‘There is only one thing troubling Gilbert about the great step — the effect it is going to have on you.’ ‘Oh! I shall be infinitely relieved. You cannot imagine how it fidgets Gilbert to have anything on his mind. The last three months have been exceptionally trying. I should be only too glad to come with him, if God in His mercy would show the way clear, but up to now He has not made it clear enough to me to justify such a step.’ So I was able to reassure Gilbert that afternoon. We discussed at large such special points as he wished, and then I told him to read through the Penny Catechism to make sure there were no snags to a prosperous passage. It was a sight for men and angels all the Friday to see him wandering in and out of the house with his fingers in the leaves of the little book, resting it on his forearm whilst he pondered with his head on one side.

The ceremony took place in a kind of shed with corrugated iron roof and wooden walls — a part of the Railway Hotel, for at this time Beaconsfield had no Catholic Church. Father Ignatius Rice, O.S.B., another old and dear friend, came over from the Abbey at Douai, to join Father O’Connor at breakfast at the Inn and they afterwards walked up together to Top Meadow. What follows is from notes made by my husband [Frank Sheed] of a conversation with Father Rice. They found Gilbert in an armchair reading the catechism “pulling faces and making noises as he used to do when reading.”

He got up and stuffed the catechism in his pocket. At lunch he drank water and poured wine for everyone else. About three they set out for the Church. Suddenly Father O’Connor asked G.K. if he had brought the Ritual. G.K. plunged his hand in his pocket, pulled out a threepenny shocker with complete absence of embarrassment, and went on searching till at last he found the prayer book.

While G.K. was making his confession to Father O’Connor, Frances and Father Rice went out of the chapel and sat on the yokels’ bench in the bar of the inn. She was weeping.

After the baptism the two priests came out and left Gilbert and Frances inside. Father Rice went back for something he had forgotten and he saw them coming down the aisle. She was still weeping, and Gilbert had his arm round her comforting her […].

He wrote the sonnet on his conversion that day. He was in brilliant form for the rest of the day, quoting poetry and jesting in the highest spirits […].

He joined the Church “to restore his innocence.” Sin was almost the greatest reality to him. He became a Catholic because of the Church’s practical power of dealing with sin.

Immediately, he wrote to his mother and to Maurice Baring, who had anxiously feared he had perhaps offended Gilbert, so long was it since he had heard from him.

My dearest Mother,

I write this (with the worst pen in South Bucks) to tell you something before I write about it to anyone else, something about which we shall probably be in the position of the two bosom friends at Oxford, who “never differed except in opinion.” You have always been so wise in not judging people by their opinions, but rather the opinions by the people. It is in one sense a long story by this time but I have come to the same conclusion that Cecil did about needs of the modern world in religion and right dealing, and I am now a Catholic in the same sense as he, having long claimed the name in its Anglo-Catholic sense. I am not going to make a foolish fuss of reassuring you about things I am sure you never doubted. These things do not hurt any relations between people as fond of each other as we are any more than they ever made any difference to the love between Cecil and ourselves. But there are two things I should like to tell you, in case you do not realise them through some other impression. I have thought about you, and all that I owe to you and my father, not only in the way of affection, but of the ideals of honour and freedom and charity and all other good things you always taught me: and I am not conscious of the smallest break or difference in those ideals but only of a new and necessary way of fighting for them. I think, as Cecil did, that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by [the] one fighting form of Christianity. The other is that I have thought this out for myself and not in a hurry of feeling. It is months since I saw my Catholic friends and years since I talked to them about it. I believe it is the truth. I must end now, you know with how much love for the post is going.

Always your loving son,



Dear Maurice,

My abominable delay deserves every penalty conceivable, hanging, burning and boiling in oil but really not so inconceivable an idea as that I should be offended with you at any time (let alone after all you have done in this matter) however thoroughly you might be justified in being offended with me. Really and truly my delay, indefensible as it is, was due to a desire and hope of writing you a letter quite different from all those I have had to write to other people, a very long and intimate letter, trying to tell you all about this wonderful business, in which you have helped me so much more than anyone else. The only other person I meant to write to in the same style is Father Knox and his has been delayed in the same topsy-turvy way. I am drowning in whirlpools of work and worry over the New Witness which nearly went bankrupt for good this week. But worry does not worry so much as it did before […] Unless it is adding insult to injury, I shall send the long letter after all. This I send off instantly on receipt of yours. Please forgive me, you see I humiliate myself by using your stamped envelope.

Yours always,

G. K. Chesterton.

This sense that the Church was needed to fight for the world was very strong in Gilbert when he hailed it to his mother as the “one fighting form of Christianity.” In the New Witness he answered near this time a newspaper suggestion that the Church ought to “move with the times.”

The Cities of the Plain might have remarked that the heavens above them did not altogether fit in with their own high civilisation and social habits. They would be right. Oddly enough, however, when symmetry was eventually restored, it was not the heavens that had been obliged to adapt themselves […].

The Church cannot move with the times simply because the times are not moving. The Church can only stick in the mud with the times, and rot and stink with the times. In the economic and social world, as such, there is no activity except that sort of automatic activity that is called decay, the withering of the high Powers of freedom and their decomposition into the aboriginal soil of slavery. In that way the world stands much at the same stage as it did at the beginning of the Dark Ages. And the Church has the same task as it had at the beginning of the Dark Ages to save all the light and liberty that can be saved, to resist the downward drag of the world, and to wait for better days. So much a real Church would certainly do but a real Church might be able to do more. It might make its Dark Ages something more than a seed-time it might make them the very reverse of dark. It might present its more human ideal in such abrupt and attractive a contrast to the inhuman trend of the time, as to inspire men suddenly for one of the moral revolutions of history so that men now living shall not taste of death until they have seen justice return.

We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world. We want one that will move it away from many of the things towards which it is now moving, for instance the Servile State. It is by that test that history will really judge, of any Church, whether it is the real Church or no.

G. K. Chesterton