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 1922. 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 (above), C.S. Lewis's case (see his book Surprised by Joy) or other famous Christians' conversion stories because of Chesterton (see book below):

Some resources that can point to the answer:

  • EWTN article about C.S. Lewis conversion and the role Chesterton played

  • A 2002 short paper G.K. Chesteron: 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.

  • His 1926 book The Catholic Church and Conversion with quotes from this blog article by Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong.

  • Possible contributing reason: "He would have done it earlier 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 '20 at 22:51

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 '20 at 22:08

Chesterton wrote an article 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 lest 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 authoritively.

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 particukar 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. Iit 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 eventaully did the same four years later.


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 '20 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 '20 at 2:23

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