G.K. Chesterton (b. 1874, d. 1936), a major figure in the Catholic literary revival, who wrote the classic Catholic apologetics book Orthodoxy in 1908 along with Father Brown stories and books shortly after (1910-), but did not enter full communion with the Catholic Church until 30 July 1922 (with first Communion and Confirmation on 24 September, taking the confirmation name after St. Francis of Assisi). He was baptized as a baby in the Church of England.

Similarly, another major Catholic thinker Mortimer Adler (b. 1902, d. 2001), a non-observant American Jewish philosopher who discovered Aquinas in his 20s and "was a frequent contributor to Catholic philosophical and educational journals, as well as a frequent speaker at Catholic institutions", only converted in 1998 after becoming an Episcopalian first in 1984. From Wikipedia:

Despite not being a Catholic for most of his life, Adler can be considered a Catholic philosopher on account of his lifelong participation in the Neo-Thomist movement and his almost equally long membership of the American Catholic Philosophical Association.

Wikipedia provides Mortimer Adler's reason for not converting earlier:

According to his friend Deal Hudson, Adler "had been attracted to Catholicism for many years" and "wanted to be a Roman Catholic, but issues like abortion and the resistance of his family and friends" kept him away. Many thought he was baptized as an Episcopalian rather than a Catholic solely because of his "wonderful – and ardently Episcopal – wife" Caroline. Hudson suggests it is no coincidence that it was only after her death in 1998 that he took the final step. (see The Great Philosopher Who Became Catholic)

But why did Chesterton wait so long? Compared to Adler, he was a lot closer already, having born in the Church of England.

As @KenGraham points out:

"The operations of Grace are known unto God alone. The Holy Spirit can offer graces to a soul, but when, how and why they become acceptable to a soul is completely known unto a God and the individual soul."

This question may not have an answer, but if Chesterton disclosed his reason, this question may have an answer that is more objective than our conjecture / opinion, as in Adler's case (see above) or in C.S. Lewis's case (see his spiritual autobiography book Surprised by Joy and the EWTN article on The Conversion Story of C.S. Lewis).

Resources that can point to the answer:

  • A new 2011 biography G.K. Chesteron: A Biography by "the world's authority on John Henry Newman" Dr. Ian Ker, especially Chapter 11 (America and Conversion) Section 6, covering the letters, events, and recollections in the months preceding the 30 July 1922 conversion and the immediate reactions afterwards.

  • His own 1926 book The Catholic Church and Conversion (pdf copy here), especially about the 3 stages in "Chapter III : The Real Obstacles", quoted by Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong blog article Catholic Conversion: Classic Analyses (Chesterton, Belloc, Pelikan).

  • An essay "My Six Conversions" published in a 1935 collection The Well and the Shallows which we can read in the Gutenberg Australia edition. Very short summary in a blog article here:

    ... If, says Chesterton, he had not already been a Catholic (which he had been since 1922), here are six reasons why he would have converted. They are variable: he points to the apparent aimlessness and rootlessness of the Church of England, to the collapse of the modernist theory of progress in light of contemporary political developments, to the growing social acceptability of birth control, to state interference in English religion, to the irrationality of materialist philosophy, and, in an opaque final essay, to something pertaining to Spanish politics — the Spanish Civil War? ...

  • A 2002 short paper G.K. Chesterton: The Theology of Philip Yancey's Favorite Writer from the Journal of the GRACE Evangelical Society surveying Chesterton's theology and in particular Chesterton's view of Protestant soteriology (and the dearth of references in his voluminous writings about saving faith) which may have contributed to his conversion to Rome.

  • A book Father Brown on Chesterton by Catholic priest Fr. John O'Connor published in 1937, shortly after Chesterton's passing, containing a lot of personal details of his interaction with Chesterton. Chapter 23 has quotes from Chesterton to various newspapers about his conversion.

  • Possible contributing reason: from Christianity Today's Christian History article on G.K. Chesterton:

    In 1922 Chesterton left Canterbury for Rome. Catholicism, he asserted, was the only church that "dared to go down with me into the depths of myself." He would have converted earlier, he told the hordes of shocked Protestants, but was "much too frightened of that tremendous Reality on the altar."

  • A new book (2019) My Name is Lazarus: 34 Stories of Converts Whose Path to Rome Was Paved by G. K. Chesterton which includes an essay on G. K. Chesterton's own conversion "The Chief Event of My Life" put together by the book's editor:

    Editor’s note: Chesterton refers to his conversion as “the chief event of my life” in the preface to The Everlasting Man. The present essay, however, is a composite that I put together drawing from his Autobiography, Orthodoxy, The Catholic Church and Conversion, The Thing, The Well and the Shallows, the essay “Why I am a Catholic,” and a few other uncollected sources. I used this same text for the basis of an “interview” with Chesterton by Marcus Grodi for a special edition of The Journey Home on the Eternal Word Television Network.

  • A poem Chesterton wrote on the day of his conversion into the Catholic church:

        By G.K. Chesterton

        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 dust and lets the gold go free:
        And all these things are less than dust to me
        Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

            Written the day he was received into
            the Catholic Church, July 30, 1922

This question is inspired by Ignatius Theophorus's comment in another question Why did G.K. Chesterton convert to Catholicism? which already had 2 good answers

  • The operations of Grace are known unto God alone. The Holy Spirit can offer graces to a soul, but when, how and why they become acceptable to a soul is completely known unto a God and the individual soul.
    – Ken Graham
    Apr 18, 2020 at 22:51
  • 1
    Constantine the Great deferred his formal entrance (by baptism) till very late in life. Mind you, there could be no parallel with him and Chesterton (whose poem, 'The Donkey' I have memorized, especially to use on Palm Sunday!) By the way, I appreciate your comment to me re. SRI's recent Q which I declined to answer. Thanks.
    – Anne
    Feb 25, 2022 at 18:41

5 Answers 5


G.K. Chesterton might not have explicitly explained it, owing to the fact that he very rarely talked about his wife out of extreme prudence. From his poetry you can tell that he loved her dearly, but he was a "Kept Man" as it was who was not let out of her sight. Frances Chesterton for her part was a content Anglican. It was harder for her to embrace Catholicism than for Gilbert.

Frances found a parish home at the local Anglican church of Saint Mary and All saints in downtown Beaconsfield. Gilbert attended with her, but his heart was slowly turning towards the idea of a conversion to the Catholic faith - an idea which Frances found difficult to swallow. She was at the time still content with the faith she adopted at St. Stephen's from the Clewer Sisters. Additionally, the "failure" of conversion to save her brother still rankled in her heart.

Nancy Carpentier Brown - The Woman Who Was Chesterton

According to her biography, they lived in Beaconsfield between 1909 and 1922, during which he spent 2 years in bed and his brother died shortly after WWI ended. 1922 was when GKC converted to Catholicism and Frances converted 4 years later.

Chesterton said that Poets are remarkably silent on the matter of cheese, but he was remarkably silent on the subject of his own wife in his autobiography and everywhere else. And there's a good chance that if there's something he didn't explicitly mention, it's because the reason was due to affections with someone who was dear to him. She converted to Catholicism after 25 years of marriage, but Chesterton cited her as "the one who brought the Cross to him" in the preface to the Ballad of the White Horse, so like any other married couple, they helped each other get where they needed to go while remaining their own person.

  • Also, Chesterton had an essay in The Well and the Shallows called "My five conversions" guessing one of them contains this answer. This is a note to myself to go get that book and look it up
    – Peter Turner
    May 19, 2020 at 22:08
  • I decided to accept yours as the answer, although davidlol's answer is very good for earlier stages. I posted my own answer to supplement yours, rather than adding comments. Feb 20, 2022 at 18:45
  • About the essay you mentioned, it is in the 1935 collection The Well and the Shallows which we can read in the Gutenberg Australia edition. Very short summary in a blog article here (2nd paragraph). Feb 20, 2022 at 22:49

Chesterton wrote a book The Catholic Church and Conversion in 1926. It was not primarily about his own conversion though he acknowledged that if he was to understand the conversion of others he must try to understand his own.

The following passage records that, coming initially more from an agnostic than an Anglican perspective, he was for a long time an Anglo-Catholic. He described this as on the borderlands of Anglicanism.

He had come to believe in Catholicism and felt it would be "so much the better" if what he called "the Catholic Church" (meaning I think the true church) and "the English Church" (meaning I think the Church of England) were one and the same. Or at least that his national Church, at least the Anglo-Catholic section, was truly a part of the Catholic Church.

Later though he came to believe it was not, and that only the Church of Rome was truly Catholic.

The Church is a house with a hundred gates; and no two men enter at exactly the same angle. Mine was at least as much Agnostic as Anglican, though I accepted for a time the borderland of Anglicanism; but only on the assumption that it could really be Anglo-Catholicism. There is a distinction of ultimate intention there which in the vague English atmosphere is often missed. It is not a difference of degree but of definite aim. There are High Churchmen as much as Low Churchmen who are concerned first and last to save the Church of England. Some of them think it can be saved by calling it Catholic, or making it Catholic, or believing that it is Catholic; but that is what they want to save. But I did not start out with the idea of saving the English Church, but of finding the Catholic Church. If the two were one, so much the better; but I had never conceived of Catholicism as a sort of showy attribute or attraction to be tacked on to my own national body, but as the inmost soul of the true body, wherever it might be. It might be said that Anglo-Catholicism was simply my own uncompleted conversion to Catholicism.

Ian Ker wrote a biography of Chesterton. He records that Chesterton gave an interview to the Toronto Daily Star in which he acknowledged that "the chief Protestant leaders in the Church of England" (meaning I think those most opposed to Anglo-Catholicism) who helped him to realise that the Church of England was not a branch of the Catholic Church. Chesterton had believed in "Catholic Christianity" for 20 years but struggled to work out whether or not Anglo-Catholicism was a true expression of Catholicity. Ultimately he felt that it was not, partly at least because it did not speak authoritatively.

Although christened by the Church of England Chesterton's upbringing was amongst liberals, universalists and Unitarians. He was not himself a strong believer in any form of Christianity until he met his wife who was a very committed Anglo-Catholic and Chesterton was drawn to her religion, she being one of the few people he knew who actually practiced her religion.

Even in his younger days Chesterton had been interested in paradox, in things being opposite to common perception. He detected many elements of paradox in the attitude of his contemporary Englishmen to (Roman) Catholicism.

Roman Catholic priests were simultaneously castigated for breaking their vows of celibacy and for taking them in the first place. The general criticism of Protestants that Catholics had too little respect for the Bible rather than tradition struck him as paradoxical. This was because his generation of Protestants were themselves discovering that they were the ones who did not believe in the Bible, as Darwinism and Higher Criticim of Biblical texts became the commonly accepted view.

Catholicism was criticised as lacking in morality, since their Church required only conformance in faith. Yet in reality Chesterton felt it was Protestants who claimed to belive in Justification by Faith alone.

The Jesuits in particular were seen as devious and dishonest for their views on equivocation. Yet every gentleman expressed himself delighted to be asked to dine with a bore, and every lady admired every baby, no matter how ugly she might think it. The Jesuits were, Chesterton felt, to be admired for codifying and placing limits on a practice, equivocation, which was universal.

Nevertheless Chesterton was a journalist and sought to make sense of the world he saw. It was through his wife that he became a practicing Christian and a firm believer in (not necessarily Roman) Catholicism a great many years before deciding this meant leaving the Church of England. His wife eventually did the same four years later.

  • Thank you for your answer and for providing the reference to Dr. Ian Ker's biography. I wish I can accept two answers as your answer complements Peter Turner's answer. Feb 20, 2022 at 18:47

Why did it take so long for Chesterton to become Catholic?

That is a secret between the Holy Spirit and G. K. Chesterton and neither one has revealed the answer.

The operations of grace of the Holy Spirit are known unto God alone. The Holy Spirit can offer graces to a soul, but as to when, how and why they become acceptable to a soul is completely known unto God and the individual soul, otherwise Satan would try to impede his conversion to the Catholic Church.

Did Chesterton ever explain why he did not formally become a Catholic until long after he had starting thinking and writing for Catholics?

The short answer is no. He took secret with him when he died.

However, somewhere down the line he became convinced that the Catholic Church was the true Church and entered into full communion with Rome.

  • Have you any sources for your answer "no"? It is difficult to prove absence, but maybe you can make it plausible.
    – K-HB
    Apr 19, 2020 at 15:30

In all fairness, Chesterton would be the best to answer this, and there is no evidence that he was ever asked or addressed this question.

However a reasonable understanding might lie in the close association of Anglican Church to the Catholic Church. [As one Anglican said, "Its like Catholic without the Pope."]. For instance, it is easy to change houses when the difference is obvious. It is difficult when the change is minor. People are more likely to move from a 600sf 1bed/1bath home to a 1400sf 2bed/2bath home, than they are to move to another 600sf 1bed/1bath home.

Therefore with similar sacraments, priesthood, and worship, it might have been harder based on the multitude of similarities than the differences.

But lacking sufficient evidence, this should be viewed for what it is. Conjecture on my part.

  • Welcome to the site and thank you for your attempt to answer. Your conjecture makes sense, but needs to be substantiated with some references of Chesterton supporting your answer. (That's how this site works). For comparison, C.S. Lewis was very explicit in his book "Mere Christianity" that the denomination you belong to does not much matter as long as you belong to one. So if this were C.S. Lewis, his book would be one example of support. Apr 18, 2020 at 2:23

I think Dr. Ian Ker's 2011 biography of Chesterton Chapter 11 ("America and Conversion") Section 6 provides us with the most objective clues. Ian began section 6 by framing the final step to follow Chesterton's own description of 3 stages of conversion which he described in his 1926 book The Catholic Church and Conversion, quoted by Dave Armstrong in his 2017 blog article Catholic Conversion: Classic Analyses (Chesterton, Belloc, Pelikan)

I think during the final stage 3 where Chesterton likens truth as a "magnet, with the powers of attraction and repulsion", he was done with the discovery process (stage 2), having no more intellectual objections, but the primary concern was to address the "repulsion" consisting primarily of his delicacies of feelings to Frances to whom he felt a tremendous debt of gratitude for having shown him a living witness of being a genuine Anglo-Catholic Christian in contrast to developments within the Church of England at the time which he disliked.

In the months preceding his reception, Ian said there were two people who helped him the most, Maurice Baring and Fr. Ronald Knox, who had travelled the same road themselves. Chesterton wrote a series of letters to Knox. In one of them (Major clue #1) Chesterton wrote:

‘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.’

Ian Kerr wrote:

He felt a ‘responsibility’ about Frances, ‘more serious than affection, let alone passion’.

But once Frances assured one of their closest Catholic friend Fr. O'Connor (as ‘the person’ that he and Frances thought of ‘with most affection, of all who could help in such a matter') that she didn't object (out of her love and support for Chesterton), Chesterton could finally proceed. Major clue #2 from the biography:

When O’Connor arrived in Beaconsfield [on 26 July], he told Frances that there was ‘only one thing troubling Gilbert about the great step’ he was proposing to take—the effect it would have on her. ‘Oh! I shall be infinitely relieved,’ she responded. ‘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.’ Having given Chesterton the reassurance he needed, O’Connor discussed at length with him ‘such special points’ as he wanted to raise, before telling him ‘to read through the Penny Catechism to make sure there were no snags to a prosperous passage’. ...

... Chesterton’s reception into the Catholic Church took place on Sunday 30 July ... While Chesterton made his confession to Father O’Connor, Frances, who was weeping, and Dom Ignatius Rice sat in the hotel bar. After conditional baptism had been administered, the two priests left Chesterton and Frances by themselves in the makeshift chapel. Returning to collect something he had forgotten, Rice saw them coming down the aisle, Chesterton with a comforting arm round his weeping wife (not all her tears were of grief, O’Connor thought).122 ...

The above clues bolster what @PeterTurner wrote in his answer, which in the overall scheme seems to be the primary reason of the delay, since G.K. Chesterton has shown in his thinking, feeling, and actions to be a great man of:

  • intellectual integrity: the biography showed how meticulous he was in making sure he understood and agreed with everything in the catechism
  • sensibilities and intuition: he worked out his inner conversion from all angles possible (see @davidlol's answer on why finally he couldn't stay in the Church of England)
  • public integrity: he took the public consequences of his conversion seriously, including all impacts to his closest friends and families (the biography included a letter to his mother which he wrote immediately afterwards so his mom was among the first to know)
  • deep solicitude and sensitivity to his wife Frances: the primary topic of section 6, which is corroborated by a biography of Frances and other writings quoted by @PeterTurner.

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