A photo of G.K. Chesterton from 1920. In 1926, Frank Sheed founded Sheed & Ward, a publishing house house that over the next half century published the leading lights of Catholicism: writers like G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Dawson and Ronald Knox. National Portrait Gallery/WikiCommons

Publisher of Catholic apologetics had zeal for open-air evangelism

  • October 30, 2017

Born in Australia in 1897, Frank Sheed’s father was a Scottish Presbyterian, his mother an Irish Catholic. Fortunately for the Church, and for English literature, his mother won out and, at 16, Frank declared himself Catholic and never looked back.

Sheed’s passion was Catholic polemics — or apologetics as it was then called — and he devoted himself to this pursuit from his late teens until his death at the age of 85. He specialized in conducting street missions on behalf of an organization called the Catholic Evidence Guild. Through the Guild he met another platform firebrand, Maisie Ward, who, Sheed insists, was more eloquent and convincing than he was.

They met in 1924, married in 1926, and later that same year founded Sheed and Ward, a publishing house that over the next half century published the leading lights of Catholicism: writers like G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Dawson and Ronald Knox.

When they began they knew nothing about publishing. Neither thought to ask the two essential questions: Was there a market for books of Catholic polemics? And were there sufficient authors to provide them?  Fortunately the answer to both questions turned out to be Yes.

If Sheed and Ward did not exactly thrive, their publishing house at least survived for 75 years. Today it is a part of the Bloomsbury publishing group.

Meanwhile, street-corner evangelism required the Sheeds to be constantly on the move. “Talking outdoors in all weather can be dreary, talking to a handful of people does little for one’s morale.”  Sheed estimated that over his lifetime he spoke at more than 7,000 open-air meetings. Their son, Wilfred, once remarked:  “If publishers had trunks like actors, I would have been born in one.”

Sheed describes some of the challenges and rewards of open-air evangelism, for example hecklers. One Catholic Evidence guild speaker was discussing Confession when a haggard-looking woman shouted out: “Your priests send your young men straight from the confessional to make love to me.” The speaker went silent for a moment and then replied: “I didn’t know we had such severe penance nowadays.”

In her life, Maisie Ward wrote about 20 books, the most notable her 1943 biography of G.K. Chesterton and, despite the appearance since of many Chesterton biographies, Ward’s is still highly regarded. For his part, Sheed wrote a dozen or so books, including a thinly disguised autobiography called The Church and I (published by Doubleday in 1974). Ward died in 1975; Sheed died in 1981.

Sheed’s The Church and I is one of those rare books that I wish were longer. It is episodic, unhurried, droll and full of amusing anecdotes. It speaks of a better, healthier time, when the Bible was generally accepted as the meta-narrative of Western civilization and when people were curious to find convincing answers to the eternal dilemmas of human existence. Sheed never turned down an opportunity to explain why he believed that the Bible, as interpreted by the Church, provided the answers.

Memoirs of a Contented Catholic could have been an alternative title — for Sheed was, first and foremost, a contented Catholic, not because he was unaware of, or closed his mind to, problems in the Church, but rather because he understood that the Church belongs to God and that God is the ultimate guarantor of its survival.

For me this book came along at just the right moment. For various, sometimes quite trivial, reasons I have been engaged in a sort of lover’s quarrel with the Church. Sheed’s lucid prose has been a health-restoring antidote.

I conclude with these words from Sheed which nicely sum up his outlook:

“Anyone who finds the Church on Earth so imperfect as to be no longer tolerable should ask himself solidly, somberly, ‘How is a perfect society to be built up of people like me?’ If he sees no difficulty in that then either he is a person of unique perfection, or he does not know himself very well. ... Jesus did not, very definitely did not, build His Church of average decent Christians. Among the early Christians almost every fault people complain of in the Church of history and the Church of now was already in full bloom. Jesus and His Church cannot be understood at all unless we realize that it was His choice to unite men to Himself, and continue His redemptive work through humanity — not through some triply refined essence of man, but through the humanity that actually exists.”

In other words, us.

(Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)

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