In his recent book C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”: A Biography, George Marsden narrates how this came about:
[O]n February 7, 1941, the Reverend J. W. Welch, director of the Religious Broadcasting Department of the BBC, wrote what would prove to be a momentous letter to C. S. Lewis. While immediate invasion seemed less likely, the devastating bombing was continuing. By that time, the imposing BBC building, Broadcasting House, in the heart of London, had been hit by bombs on two occasions, once when they could be heard during a broadcast. It was from the roof of that building that Edward R. Murrow made his famous eyewitness reports describing the Blitz to American audiences. Welch was situated in Bristol, where he also had a narrow escape as bombs were falling during a Sunday evening religious broadcast.
Welch had never met C. S. Lewis, but he had been greatly impressed by the Oxford don’s recent and timely apologetic work, The Problem of Pain. He thanked Lewis for that book and asked him if he might be willing to help with religious broadcasting. “The microphone,” Welch explained, “is a limiting and often irritating instrument, but the quality of thinking and the depth of conviction which I find in your book ought surely to be shared with a great many other people; and for any talk we can be sure of a fairly intelligent audience of more than a million.”
Lewis responded positively to Welch almost immediately (in a letter dated February 10, 1941), and beginning in August of that year he began a series of live talks over the airwaves, each 10 to 15 minutes in length. He would eventually agree to do four series, from August of 1941 to April of 1944. All told, he gave 25 addresses, which adds up to nearly six hours of audio. One broadcast had at least 1.5 million listeners.
Marsden explains how it came about that the BBC wanted to broadcast Christian teaching during the war:
The BBC was a noncommercial company serving the British people under a royal charter. It included a substantial religious dimension. Great Britain was officially a Christian nation, and the company leadership took that more seriously than did most of the British public. For instance, until World War II, Sunday programming not only included church services and religious programs, but also had to be tasteful, so that there was no jazz or comedy shows on Sundays. During the war, when the BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting, those rules were relaxed a bit for the sake of the troops. But the religion department oversaw quite a few weekday religious programs as well as Sunday broadcasts.
Lewis fit their purposes well. Because of the war, they did not want anything controversial. And Lewis’s talks could be of interest to people of all sorts of Christian backgrounds.
Unfortunately, the only surviving audio from these address is the clip below from the final talk his final series (the date on the YouTube video is incorrect):
Lewis had the first two sets of talks published in a little paperback called simply Broadcast Talks (1942). The following year, an American edition appeared with the more engaging title, The Case for Christianity (1943).
The third and fourth sets of talks (with some additional chapters) were also published as paperbacks: Christian Behaviour (1943) and Beyond Personality (UK: 1944, US: 1945).
Finally, in July 1952, Geoffrey Bles published the three books together, with Lewis’s light editing and a preface explaining what he meant by his new title: Mere Christianity. Four months later, Macmillan in New York published the American edition in November 1952.
Below is a chronology of the talks. I am indebted to Joel Heck’s indispensable and exhaustive (but not exhausting) Lewis chronology website, which contains much more information on how the BBC talks came about.
Series 1 (1941)
The first five lectures were broadcast from London each Wednesday from August 6 to September 3, 1941, from 7:45 to 8:00 pm. They later became the first part of Broadcast Talks / The Case for Christianity and Book I of Mere Christianity (called “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe”).
1.1. August 6, “Common Decency” (later titled, “The Law of Human Nature”)
1.2. August 13, “Scientific Law and Moral Law” (later titled, “The Reality of the Law”)
1.3. August 20, “Materialism or Religion” (later titled, “What Lies Behind the Law”)
1.4. August 27, “What Can We Do About It?” (later titled, “We Have Cause to be Uneasy”)
1.5. September 3, “Listeners’ Objections” (later titled, “Some Objections”)
Series 2 (1941)
The second set of five talks were broadcast each Sunday afternoon from August 6 to September 3, 1941, from 4:45 to 5:00 pm. They formed the second half of Broadcast Talks / The Case for Christianity and Book II of Mere Christianity (called “What Christians Believe”). In this series and the one that follows, the broadcast scripts are untitled, so I’ve included the titles as they were published in written form.
2.1. January 11, “The Rival Conceptions of God”
2.2. January 18, “The Invasion”
2.3. February 1, “The Shocking Alternative”
2.4. February 8, “The Perfect Penitent”
2.5. February 15, “The Practical Conclusion”
Series 3 (1942)
The third set of eight talks were broadcast on Sunday afternoons, between 2:50 and 3:00 pm, on the BBC’s General Forces Programme for the armed forces. Originally written to be 15 minutes in length, Lewis had to cut them down to the ten-minute timeframe (but restored the excised material when he published it in written form). These talks were published as Christian Behaviour, which became Book III with the same title in Mere Christianity (along with additional chapters).
3.1. September 20, “The Three Parts of Morality”
3.2. September 27, “Social Morality”
3.3. October 4, “Morality and Psychoanalysis”
3.4. October 11, “Sexual Morality”
3.5. October 18, “Forgiveness”
3.6. October 25, “The Great Sin”
3.7. November 1, “Faith”
3.8. November 8, “Faith”
Series 4 (1944)
Lewis’s final series of talks was broadcast at 10:30 pm (the late time in the evening was much to Lewis’s consternation, who had to travel to and from London) from February 22 to April 4, 1944, and published as Beyond Personality and then as Book IV with the same title in Mere Christianity.
4.1. February 22, “Making and Begetting”
4.2. February 29, “The Three-Personal God”
4.3. March 7, “Good Infection”
4.4. March 14, “The Obstinate Toy Soldiers”
4.5. March 21, “Let’sPretend”
4.6. March 28, “Is Christianity Hard or Easy?” (prerecorded)
4.7. April 4, “The New Men” (prerecorded)
- Mike W. Perry, “Publication History of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity“
- Joel Heck, Chronologically Lewis
- George Marsden, C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”: A Biography
Besides reading the book, here are some edifying ways to explore more of the message in Lewis’s classic work:
Focus on the Family Radio Theatre produced C. S. Lewis at War: The Dramatic Story Behind Mere Christianity, which is a dramatic rendering of his conversion and background, along with a complete audio version of Mere Christianity.
Finally, Kalman Kingsley has created a truly remarkable YouTube channel that uses a narrator reading Book I of Mere Christianity along with animation to illustrate the concepts: