Meet G.K. Chesterton
– by Shane Fuller
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who is commonly and most often referred to as G. K. Chesterton, was born in 1874 and lived until 1936. He would go down as one of the best writers in the 20th Century.
He was born in London and educated at St. Paul’s. Surprisingly, Chesterton never attended college, but went to art school instead. He began writing when, as an art student, he was asked to contribute a few articles to an art magazine where he critiqued some new pieces. From those humble beginnings, Chesterton would go on to write over 100 of his own books, while contributing to over 200 more. He also wrote hundreds of poems, five plays, five novels, nearly 200 short stories. Chesterton, who considered himself more of a journalist than a writer, also wrote weekly columns for 43 years of his life. Few in history have been such prolific authors…and he didn’t start publishing until 1900.
Chesterton had a spouse who anchored his personality, writing, lifestyle, diet, and many other things. His wife, Frances, seems to have single-handedly kept G. K. on track with his personal schedule. One letter even has Chesterton writing to his wife about where he was, and asking her where he ought to be instead.
He was as amazing a character as any of his fictional creations. G. K. was over six feet tall, and weighed nearly 300 pounds. He wore a cape and a crumpled top hat. Almost every picture that exists of G. K. has him sporting a mustache and glasses. He
would commonly walk with a cane, and nearly always kept a cigar in his mouth. He was incredibly large, loud and friendly, often was bellowing out laughs through his cigar and mustache.
Chesterton continues to have the same type of impact on his world as he did with his contemporaries. For example, C.S. Lewis, who was a staunch atheist, was brought to faith through the reading of Chesterton’s little book The Everlasting Man. Another example has a man living in British-ruled India, who became inspired by a Chesteron writing, and through it was led to start a movement, which eventually ended British rule in India The man: Mohandas Gandhi. And if these accounts are not amazing enough, one can simply read the praises that came from other intellectuals of his day: George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Elliot,Dorothy Sayers, and H. G. Welles. Shaw, who had a friendly rivalry with G. K., once described him as “a man of colossal genius”. Elliot affirmed that “Chesterton deserves a permanent claim on our loyalty.”
Perhaps you’re wondering, “why have I not heard much of this Chesterton figure?” One reason may be that he has always been hard to label – either as a man of faith, or a politician. Another may be that he often put forth challenging ideas about controversial topics. For example, Chesterton is famous for arguing the cause of the common man. He was fond of defending the poor, and the family. Chesterton, always a lover of the arts, would also write often of the beauty he found in things that society would not find so beautiful. He defended Christian thought and morals in a day of growting secularism, and championed the Roman Catholic faith in the land of the Church of England. He also wrote regularly against such things as materialism, scientific determinism, moral relativism, and agnosticism. Since all of these have grown stronger since his day, it makes sense that G. K. and his arguments may have lost favor over the years.
Where does Chesterton fit in the narrative of Church history?
Chesterton began his faith journey in the High Anglican Church. We can certainly be pleased with his role in the conversion of C. S. Lewis. But, well beyond that single instance, Chesterton was publicly bold in his defense of Christian thought. Chesterton began his faith journey in the High Anglican Church, but ultimately converted to Roman Catholicism. But, he preferred to be called “orthodox” (His most widely read book to this day is Orthodoxy, in which Chesterton defends “orthodox” Christian views). From this platform of defending a traditional Christian understanding of truth, Chesteron would argue against the pride and willfulness of modernistic thought. For example, he stated that “the worship of will is the negation of will”. When one lifts up one’s own will as supreme, then one must respond to another’s will with a like deference, saying “do as you will”. This means that “I have no will in the matter” of another — meaning one’s will is acutally negated, and doesn’t matter.
He also defended Christian ideals like fighting for a Biblical anthropology. A popular topic in London during his time was eugenics. Eugenics proposed the termination or sterilization of people with limited mental capacity. Also, leading thinkers in London had begun to think of the poor as a race of people that had failed to produce good offspring. Chesterton was vehemently opposed to these ideas, writing books, essays, and poems in defense of those who were challenged mentally and economically.
G. K. also wove himself into Christian history through his work as a biographer. In his personal study of Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton skimmed through one book … and then penned what is perhaps the greatest biography written on the man.
As for his conversion to Catholicism, Chesterton’s main reason was the church’s catholicity: He very much enjoyed being a part of something that felt bigger than him, and his country, and his century. Chesterton didn’t consider himself a child of his age, but instead a product of the truths and traditions that had survived the centuries before him.
As for this sort of thinking, who can blame him?