Today, we acknowledge G. K. Chesterton as one of the greatest Catholic minds of the twentieth century, and perhaps its greatest writer. More than 75 years after his death, Chesterton Societies abound in the English-speaking world, and many of his 90 books are in multiple printings.
But who was this man, really – this English convert, formidable intellect, prolific writer and staunch defender of the Catholic Faith?
Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in London, England on May 29, 1874. Though he thought of himself as a journalist, GKC was actually many things including a playwright, novelist, literary and social critic, poet, illustrator, essayist, apologist, hagiographer and broadcaster.
Chesterton wrote voluminously and brilliantly in most literary genres of the day. His prodigious output includes about ninety books and thousands of essays for London newspapers such as the Daily News, Illustrated London News, and G.K.’s Weekly.
Chesterton’s Early Years
Chesterton was born into a middle-class, liberal Unitarian family and retained fond memories of childhood. “What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world” (Autobiography, 1936).
GKC attended St. Paul’s School, where he was an academic under-achiever and forgetful student. He enrolled next in the London’s Slade School of Art, making no significant accomplishments. Somewhat later, he attended lectures in English literature at London’s University College. He did not earn a college degree.
Chesterton was a large figure of a man, at 6’ 4”, 300 lbs., cigar-smoking – and sporting a swordstick, cape and sombrero.
GKC’s Career and Marriage
During 1900, Chesterton began publishing essays for periodicals, collections of verse, and fantasies. His writing transformed him from an obscure scribbler into a Fleet Street legend and household name.
GKC was to become a familiar sight on Fleet Street. He was a large figure of a man, 6’ 4”, 300 lbs., cigar smoking, sporting a swordstick, cape and sombrero.
In 1901, Chesterton married Frances Blogg, a devoted Anglo-Catholic. The marriage was a happy one. Unhappily, though, the Chesterton’s could not have children of their own so they frequently entertained other people’s children in their home.
GKC publicly debated the leading figures of his day, including H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Clarence Darrow. Despite differences in views, Chesterton’s opponents admired him. He made no enemies. His life exemplified the Christian virtues of charity and humility.
Chesterton’s books, Orthodoxy (his 1908 companion volume to Heretics, 1905) and The Everlasting Man (1925), were destined to become classics of Christian apologetics. The latter book contributed to C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.
‘Because my name is Lazarus and I live.’
Immediately after his reception into the Church, G.K. Chesterton composed this sonnet:
After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white.
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead.
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.
GKC publicly debated the leading figures of his day — H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Clarence Darrow. Despite differences in views, Chesterton’s opponents admired him. He made no enemies.
Chesterton Converts to Catholicism. In 1922, GKC converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Frances converted four years later through her own convictions. Hilaire Belloc, the famous Catholic historian, essayist and poet, and Chesterton’s close friend, said, “He advanced towards the Faith over many years and was ultimately in full communion with it…. He approached the Catholic Church gradually but by a direct road. He first saw the city from afar off, then approached it with interest and at last entered. Few of the great conversions in our history have been so deliberate or so mature. It will be for posterity to judge the magnitude of the event.”
Chesterton was motivated to conversion by his concern for legitimate authority. The teaching authority of the Church exemplified a firm point of reference in a changing world. “The Catholic Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”
Even more significant to GKC was the Sacramental authority of the Church to forgive sins. To those critics who believe it is morbid to confess one’s sins, Chesterton replied, “The morbid thing is not to confess them. The morbid thing is to conceal your sins and let them eat away at your soul, which is exactly the state of most people in today’s highly civilized communities.”
“The difficulty of explaining why I am a Catholic is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”
Furthermore, in The Well and the Shallows (1935), Chesterton explains the role of the Virgin Mary in his conversion:
“I never doubted that the figure (of Mary) was the figure of the faith; that she embodied, as a complete human being still only human, all that this Thing had to say to humanity. The instant I remembered the Catholic Church, I remembered her; when I tried to forget the Catholic Church, I tried to forget her; when I finally saw what was nobler than my fate, the freest and the hardest of all my acts of freedom, it was in front of a gilded and very gaudy little image of her in the port of Brindisi, that I promised the thing that I would do, if I returned to my own land.”
Chesterton said, “The difficulty of explaining why I am a Catholic is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” He often challenged critics of the Church by turning their arguments around to expose their hollowness. For example, he says, “The most absurd thing that could be said of the Church is the thing we have all heard of it …. that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages…. The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them”.
“The morbid thing is not to confess your sins. The morbid thing is to conceal your sins and let them eat away at your soul, which is exactly the state of most people in today’s highly civilised communities.”
Few people have applied thought to defending Christianity and Catholicism as successfully as Chesterton. Hilaire Belloc said, “His mind was oceanic, subject indeed to a certain restriction of repeated phrase and manner, but in no way restricted to the action of the mind. He swooped upon an idea like an eagle, tore it with active beak into its constituent parts and brought out the heart of it. If ever a man analyzed finally and conclusively Chesterton did so.”
GKC died on June 14, 1936 in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. Étienne Gilson, the pre-eminent 20th century Thomist philosopher and historian of medieval philosophy, called Chesterton “one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed.”
Shortly after his death, Pope Pius XI declared Chesterton defensor Fidei, Defender of the Faith.
“The most absurd thing that could be said of the Church is the thing we have all heard of it …. that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages…. The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.”