Today marks the 85th anniversary of G. K. Chesterton’s death. Although he was a Catholic, the British writer has developed an enthusiastic fanbase among evangelicals. “I thank God for G. K. Chesterton,” said John Piper. “His gift for seeing the world and for saying what he sees is peerless. He opens my eyes to wonders of what is there. And what is there is the finger-work of God.”
Here are nine things you should know about the “prince of paradox.”
1. As a child, Chesterton was a slow learner.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in an affluent area of London in 1874. He attended a prestigious all-boys school but was such a slow learner he did not learn to read until he was 8. His parents even took him to a brain specialist to see if he had a disability. “I think the chief impression I produced, on most of the masters and many of the boys,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “was a pretty well-founded conviction that I was asleep.”
2. He almost became a professor, though he never graduated college.
After graduation he attended the Slade School of Art to become an illustrator, and took classes in literature at University College London. Before completing his degree, he dropped out of college to take a job at a publishing house. At the age of 25 he began writing for a weekly publication and publishing books. Two years later he was writing regularly for The Daily News. By the age of 30 he was already becoming famous for his writings. Despite not having a college degree, he was invited to become a candidate for the chair of literature at Birmingham University, which he declined.
3. Chesterton was one of the most prolific writers of all time.
He wrote about 80 books and made contributions to 200 more. He wrote hundreds of poems—including an epic poem—five plays, five novels, and 200 short stories, including a popular series featuring the detective priest Father Brown. For his day job he wrote more than 4,000 newspaper essays and edited his own newspaper, G. K.’s Weekly. “To put it into perspective,” says Dale Ahlquist, “4,000 essays is the equivalent of writing an essay a day, every day, for 11 years.”
4. Chesterton’s wrote detective fiction about a crime-solving priest.
Between 1910 and 1936, he published short stories about a Catholic priest and amateur detective known as Father Brown. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, who relied on deduction and scientific understanding, Father Brown solved mysteries using induction and spiritual understanding. “Father Brown has three qualities that allow him to penetrate the mind of the criminal and thus to identify him,” says Daniel Callam.
First, he is a priest, and “a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil.” It follows, then, that Father Brown has an interest in the case that goes beyond solving the crime and bringing the culprit to justice: he wants to reconcile the sinner to God, as at the end of The Invisible Man, when he hears the confession of the murderer James Welkin. And thirdly, most significantly, Father Brown has sympathy for the criminal because he recognizes that he himself is a sinner and as such would be capable of every enormity, including the crime under investigation.
The Father Brown series totaled 51 short stories in five volumes.
5. Chesterton was one of the most influential apologists of the 20th century.
In his book Orthodoxy, he said he “never read a line of Christian apologetics” before becoming a believer, adding: “I read as little as I can of them now.” Despite his professed aversion to apologetics, he was one of the most influential apologists of the 20th century. In explaining what made Chesterton so effective, the Anglican theologian David Pickering said:
[H]e deployed a set of rhetorical devices that enabled him to create common ground with his readers. He used these devices to present himself as a friend, and to claim that he presented religious questions to his readers in the manner of an unbiased explorer, in spite of his own faith commitments. As part of this strategy, he restricted the range of theology he used in his apologetics so as to remain as far as possible within boundaries his non-religious readers could easily relate to.
6. Chesterton didn’t become a Catholic until middle age.
Chesterton was raised in a family whose religious view leaned toward Unitarianism. He credits his wife with moving him toward Anglicanism, though it wasn’t until 1908—the year he published Orthodoxy—that he asserted he was an orthodox believer. For the next 14 years, he weighed the claims of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. His fear that Anglicanism could not respond to the threats of modernity pushed him toward Catholicism. He made the decision to become a Catholic in 1922, at the age of 48—14 years before his death. When Chesterton died in 1936, Pope Pius XI praised him a “Defender of the Catholic Faith.”
7. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were “frenemies.”
George Bernard Shaw was an acclaimed Nobel Prize–winning playwright who is sometimes considered second only to Shakespeare among British dramatists. He was also a radical activist who promoted euthanasia and opposed Christianity. Yet for 35 years Shaw and Chesterton maintained an amiable though contentious friendship. “He is something of a pagan,” said Chesterton, “and like many other pagans, he is a very fine man.” Chesterton and Shaw began a series of public debates in 1911 that continued until 1928. During such debates, the portly Chesterton (he was 6-foot-4 and nearly 300 pounds) and the rail-thin Shaw would frequently mock each other. Chesterton once told Shaw, “To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England.” In retort, Shaw replied, “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it.”
8. Chesterton inspired many influential people—and two national independence movements.
Chesterton had an influence on a variety of people, including novelists (J. R. R. Tolkien, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Agatha Christie, Neil Gaiman, Dean Koontz), poets (W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot), thinkers (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Marshall McLuhan), film directors (Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock), and U.S. presidents (Theodore Roosevelt). Chesterton even played a role in influencing two independence movements, having influenced the thinking of Mahatma Gandhi in India and Michael Collins in Ireland.
9. Chesterton has a significant influence on Protestant Christian writers and thinkers.
Despite their disagreements with his Catholicism, Chesterton has a profound effect on such writers as Trevin Wax, Philip Yancey, and John Piper. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis mentions how Chesterton led him to become a Christian. “In reading Chesterton . . . I did not know what I was letting myself in for,” Lewis wrote. “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” Lewis added, “Then I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. . . .” In his obituary for Chesterton, poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot said he “did more than any man of his time” to “maintain the existence of the [Christian] minority in the modern world.”