The Evangelistic Brilliance of Frank Sheed

An interview with Dr. Joseph F. Martin about one of the greatest Catholic apologists of the past century

Dr. Joseph F. Martin, is a professor of Communication and Rhetoric at Hampton University in Virginia. He is the former art director of re:generation quarterly and his artwork has been commissioned by numerous national clients. He has also written essays and reviews for Word, Books and Culture, and other publications. In 2012, Martin was awarded his doctorate from Regent University, receiving honors for his dissertation, “Lingua Franka: An Examination of the Frank Sheed’s Rhetorical Achievement”, which examined closely the unique qualities Sheed employed as speaker, apologist, author, and communicator.

Although Frank Sheed (1897-1981) authored over twenty books—including Theology and Sanity, A Map of Life, Society and Sanity, Knowing God, and To Know Christ Jesus—and founded, with his wife Maisie Ward, the Sheed & Ward imprint, he is not nearly as well known as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. Many, however, think Sheed is the equal of Chesterton and Lewis as a Christian apologist, deserving of more attention as not only a defender of the Faith, but as an evangelist, catechist, and communicator.

Dr. Joseph F. Martin

Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, recently interviewed Dr. Martin at length about Sheed. The first of this two-part interview focuses on how Sheed helped Martin (a former Evangelical) journey into the Catholic Church, Sheed’s background, Sheed’s skills as a communicator, and what distinguished Sheed as an apologist. The second part of this interview will examine Sheed’s focus on “sanity”, will compare him to Chesterton and Lewis, and highlight his key books.

CWR: When you first discovered the writings of Frank Sheed, you were not yet Catholic. How did you come upon his work and what sort of impression did it make on you as an Evangelical Protestant?

Joseph Martin: People may be surprised to know Sheed grew up shaped by various non-Catholic influences. In fact, for a good while he was farmed out to the Methodists. Under their preaching he developed what his son later called a “rather Protestant crush on the personality of Jesus.” Sheed himself appreciatively admitted, “Few Catholic boys were getting as much Scripture as I got,” And though his Protestant relatives also fed him with a regular diet of anti-Catholic propaganda, he never bought it. He would intuitively embrace the sacramental faith of his mother.

When someone later told him that his Catholicism was the result of brainwashing, he said his accuser “hadn’t a notion of how many competing detergents my small brain had been scrubbed with.” So he knew all the arguments.

So there’s one reason his writing probably resonated with me. He could present the spectrum of Catholic belief along lines that were accessible to people who knew Scripture but also knew mostly caricatures of the Catholic Church. Some of these latter were off base, but some were all too close to the truth. I laughed out loud at his anecdote of attempting to deflect hecklers’ accusations that Catholics neglect the Bible. When he cockily told them Pius XI had in fact attached an indulgence to fifteen minutes of Scripture reading, they came right back at him: “‘Indulgences are not in Scripture!’ they said.”

I grew up Methodist myself — I’d experienced liturgy, a least sort of. I also crossed paths with the charismatic renewal of the 1970s and the “Born Again” phenomenon given high profile by Chuck Colson’s conversion. Young Life and InterVarsity Fellowship impacted my personal journey as well. Then there were the books of Peter Kreeft, where items I’d held to be Catholic superstitions suddenly started to sound almost plausible. It was all both simultaneously enticing and alarming to consider the Catholics might be right after all.

CWR: When did you first read something by Sheed?

Martin: Around that same time, I began a stint as a young Army lieutenant on an American base in Germany. When I initially found my co-workers coarse and my Slavic hosts steely, I went looking in the post library for some sort of spiritual lifeline. There, sitting in the middle of a row of IVP [InterVarsity Press] and NavPress paperbacks, sat The Church and I, Sheed’s autobiography. I’m sure I’d seen his name before, vertically stamped on the spine of any number of bindings as half of the imprint Sheed & Ward. But as an author he was an entirely unknown entity to me. And so was this Catholic universe he described, hidden as it was behind a stained glass curtain separating it from all things Protestant.

When I read that Sheed and his wife were outdoor preachers in London and America for over forty plus years, I was stopped in my tracks. That’s Salvation Army stuff – turf that belongs to Billy Graham – and certainly not Catholic territory! So its appropriation by Sheed blew my mind. Who was this guy who defended Rome and also sounded for all the world like an Evangelical? Here’s a sample:

Two lives? There is the life all men have… [and] another life, not following our earthly life, but to be entered on here and lived parallel with the first…. The truth that a second birth was the whole point of Jesus’ coming is especially vivid in John’s Gospel… This is not a lot of theological rhapsodizing, but plain down-to-earth fact, and of the highest practicality. It is a precise statement of what it is to be a Christian.

Reborn. A second birth. Those familiar catchphrases rang in my ears as they sprang off the pages of a writer who was so unabashedly Catholic. To say I experienced cognitive dissonance would be putting it mildly.

But that was more than ten years back, a time when finding out more about him was no easy task. Subsequent visits to Catholic bookstores unearthed little more than traces of an author named Sheed. “You must mean Fulton Sheen,” was a frustratingly typical response. This despite the fact that as publisher, especially, Sheed was something of a Catholic gadfly who edited or intersected with something of a Catholic Jet Set: Christopher Dawson, Ronald Knox, Dorothy Day, C.C. Martindale, Clare Booth Luce, Arnold Lunn, Catherine van Hueck, Cardinal Merry del Val, and artists Jean Charlot and Eric Gill.

And that doesn’t even touch on his wife’s social circle, one that included of Belloc, Chesterton, and Shaw. [Maise Ward wrote several books, including two on the life and thought of Chesterton: Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Return to Chesterton — Ed.] Somehow, his fame had inexplicably faded just as the overtures of outreach and ecumenicism that were keynotes of his own repertoire began gaining traction, around the time of Vatican II. John Paul II later famously insisted that Rome “does not impose, she only proposes.” But Frank Sheed was pioneering that impulse decades earlier, communicating Catholic theology in a style not so much dogmatic as dialogical. His delivery seemed to have it all: Scriptural fidelity, intellectual integrity, contemporary relevance, and audience awareness. And his apologetic boasted a sparkle — almost a beat — I’d hardly suspected possible in association with “artifacts” like Thomism and scholastic doctrine.

As a child of his time he was a bit staid; and yet the experiential aspect of his faith and his love of language make for a lively combination. By no stretch would I say he too much resembled today’s street rappers or even modern popular speakers. But somehow, for me, no contemporary phrasing better suggests the subtle energy emanating from his delivery than to say Frank Sheed had “style” – panache – maybe even something akin to an inverted bling.

CWR: What was Sheed’s background? How did he eventually hit upon being a lay theologian, street corner evangelist, publisher and editor, and popular apologist?

Martin: Sheed was an Australian expatriate, and a dyed-in-the-wool Aussie-fied cultural Catholic – think The Thornbirds. He started out more sectarian than authentically religious. During his teens, immediately prior to World War I, a teacher at Sydney High School gave him Chesterton’s Heretics and Belloc’s Danton, telling him “These will suit you.” Did they ever. Their tangy affirmations of Catholicism stood in opposition to the zeitgeist and whet his budding appetite for argument. But while he was a proud Catholic as a teen, he was also a nominal one. He sort of played the controversialist. When he made a decision to tackle law school, it was largely based on his aptitude for debate: “To be paid for arguing? – it was like paying Willie Mays to play baseball,” his son later joked.

In between classes he also taught at Sydney’s High School. Teaching was closer to his calling than law school, but the question became what was worth teaching? Law bored him. Theology interested him, sure, but did not energize him. Restless after two years, he interrupted school to see the world, and made it to London in 1920. Just days off the ship, he was invited to a fundraiser concert for The Catholic Evidence Guild, a group that for its time was something along the lines of a Catholic Campus Crusade for Christ. Its members literally went took to the streets to defend Catholicism against the prejudices of very provincial prejudices of then-Protestant England. If he’d known what he was getting in for, he probably would have been scared off. But if it had Catholic in the name, he thought, it must be a worthy cause, so off he went. Some Guild training class ensued. After a lecture on “The Marks of the Church” the presenter asked people to have a go at answering questions like those posed by hecklers. A young Mr. Sheed brashly spoke right up and was cut to shreds. He called it a “shattering experience. I did not mind being taken apart thus publicly. What bothered me was the realization of my intellectual barrenness. Obviously I could not leave it at that. I came back for more.”

For four years, the Catholic Evidence Guild dominated his life; he became one of its defining personalities. But Sheed insisted that it was the Guild that defined him: “All that I have done in the fifty-three years since [leaving Australia] bears the mark of the CEG, some of it would be incomprehensible without the refashioning my whole self underwent in it.” Central to that refashioning was a growing appreciation for religion as personal reality and not just a cultural identity marker. In rare comments that hint at something along the lines of a conversion experience, he recounted,

… I can date [this] beginning, a Tuesday evening in the spring of 1921. Maisie Ward gave us newcomers a class on the Supernatural Life. Quite literally, I had never heard the two words uttered together, supernatural had meant ghosts, life I had enjoyed without reflection. I have lived in their awareness ever since. I already knew that Christ had said, “Unless a man be born again of water and of the Holy Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” I had not grasped that he was saying that merely by birth into the life of the human race we are unfit for salvation: we must have a second birth, a birth into the life of Jesus himself… I found this new vision of reality intoxicating as I first heard it. It is intoxicating still. I seem to remember, incorrectly perhaps, walking home on air from the lecture.

Also apparently intoxicating was his budding relationship with that female speaker. He first met Maisie Ward at one of the Guild’s occasional junk sales, where he found himself queried by “a somewhat officious young woman” with the words: “Are these good scissors?” Not skipping a beat, Sheed retorted, “Madam, these are the very best scissors.” Inauspicious beginnings for what became a felicitous union: a marriage, two children, a publishing house, and a global speaking and writing ministry followed.

Maisie Ward was a descendent of the aristocratic British Catholic recusancy: her father Wilfrid Ward was the famous biographer of John Henry Newman (Sheed called his two volumes an Arch de Triomph to the Cardinal). So something akin to British Catholic “First Family” status was conferred on him via marriage to Maisie. When her mother Josephine Ward later decided to let the young newlyweds shepherd her dream of a Catholic publishing house, she could hardly have planned a more perfect pairing of persons and project. Sheed & Ward grew to have offices in New York as well as London, and the Sheeds made a lifetime project of balancing business, family, and discipleship on three continents.

CWR: You’ve written that Sheed was “a Christian communicator [who] could build bridges of understanding between separated churches and believing and disbelieving worlds.” What were some of the ways in which Sheed pursued ecumenical work and inter-religious dialogue? What lessons does his work in those areas provide us today?

Martin: Sheed was 100% Catholic. He explained, “…When I meet a Baptist, I want him to have all that my Faith has given me. And, if the Baptist is the man I hope he is, he feels the same way about me.” So his was no attempt at minimizing or watering down of doctrinal differences. But at a time when religious distrust was very real, what he did counsel was a sincere attempt at mutual understanding. For him, it obviously wasn’t bigotry to point out that those who disagreed with Catholics were wrong. “Of two contradictory views, one must be wrong. Bigotry means believing [your opponents] must be dishonest. I remember a questioner who said to me, ‘Either you’re paid to say these things or you’re mentally deficient’ – a moment later he went on, ‘I can’t imagine anybody paying you!’

But he did not return like fire. Of Protestants he was one of the first to say, “I rejoice in the union of hearts, pray for the union of minds, am glad these other Christian groups are taking Christ our Lord to men who, for whatever reason, will not accept Him from us.” So he was an early encourager of assuming the best of non-Catholics. Vatican II and the idea of “separated brethren” were still a ways off, so for his own era he was something of a maverick.

Maisie Ward approached Christian divisions from a similar attitude. Writing of the Mass she remarked, “That sacrifice, enough in itself to save a thousand worlds, has to be applied to the soul of each individual… On earth it is presented before God in every Mass. The good Protestant who ‘pleads Christ’s sacrifice’ in his private prayers does not realize that God has given him the perfect way of doing this. If we could explain it properly, we could convert thousands.” “Good Protestants.” I wonder how many people tripped over that phrase when she wrote it in 1945. In a book on the Rosary, no less! Sheed & Ward were not involved in overt ecumenical activity, either as Catholics or as publishers. There just wasn’t that much in their day. But they encouraged Catholics to check their attitudes, and laid the groundwork for a lot of the cooperation you see going forward today, like Evangelicals & Catholics Together. I can’t imagine that Sheed wouldn’t be impressed with that.

One other quick mention on Sheed’s ecumenical appeal: he’s consistently Christ-centered even as he is consciously Catholic. His books as he grew older – What Difference Does Jesus Makes?, Christ in Eclipse, Christ in the Classroom, The Lord’s Prayer – became more and more about Jesus. When he republished Theology and Sanity, he began with the line, “The test of every change is whether it brings Christ closer.” And let me quote some lines from Is It The Same Church?, written after Vatican II, which deflect accusations that Catholics are Pope-fixated:

Priests have been leaving because of the failure of the Institutional Church. In their apologias … It is odd how seldom they mention Christ, odd how seldom we notice the omission… We do not belong to the Church because of pope or hierarchy: we may like them or dislike them, but they are not the point. If we think they are handling the Church outrageously, our first instinctive reaction should be grief for Christ whose work they are damaging… In that feeling we should make our protest, very much as St. John Fisher could say, “If the Pope does not reform the Curia, God Will,” yet [go on to] die on the headsman’s block for Papal Supremacy. The trouble is that Popes and Bishops are so spectacularly present, Jesus so quietly.

It would be hard to get more Christ-focused.

CWR: You’ve studied Sheed as a communicator—speaker, author, apologist, theologian, and so forth. What made him so successful as a communicator? What are, in your estimation, some of Sheed’s greatest insights into apologetics?

Martin: Sheed had a conviction of the truth, an affection for his audience, and an integrity of life that together made for spontaneous combustion. First, he was convinced of the revealed nature of truth and its implications. He believed that “The luxury of knowing what life is all about, what we are, why we are here, where we are supposed to be going, is all grounded in [Christ].” He framed the passion of Evangelical imperatives in sophisticated utterance. Here’s a soundbite of that:

Never think that the way of man is prosaic. We are a mixture of matter and spirit, and … the only beings who die and do not stay dead: it seems an odd way to our goal that as the last stage on the way to it all of us, saint and sinner, should fall apart. We are the only beings with an everlasting destiny who have not reached their final state. By comparison there is something cozy and settled about angels, good and bad. Men are the only beings whose destiny is uncertain. There is an effect of this in our consciousness, if we choose to analyze it. There is a two-way drag in all of us, and nothing could be more actual and less academic than this curious fact. How actual it is we can see if we compare our knowledge that the planet we live on is not anchored in space. This ought to be, one would think, the first thing we should be aware of, yet it was only a few centuries ago that scientists arrived at it; and most of us still have to take the word of scientists for it. No one of us has ever felt the whizz of the world through space and the counter-drag of whatever power it is that keeps us upon the earth’s surface. But we do feel the almost continuous drag in ourselves downwards towards nothingness and the all too occasional upward thrust. Man is the cockpit of a battle. We are the only creatures who can choose side and side in this battle. We are the only beings left who can either choose or refuse God. All the excitement of our universe is centered in [us].

His son, Wilfred, wrote a biography of him, and explained that while he “painted him … as a light-hearted man, because that’s how he painted himself, …he was always harrowingly serious about the Faith.” I love quoting Wilfred’s explanation of the motivation behind the man:

Frank believed (and in this Maisie was a rubber stamp) that Catholics live in the real world and the rest don’t and that this has implications far beyond the religious… Outsiders might admire Sheed/Ward from afar, but if they got too close to it or went too deep, they would have had to find it insane (as they would Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa). Those crazy claims must be symbolic, aren’t they? Virgin births? Resurrections? No, I’m afraid they’re not. If Rome was the true Church, and there was no if about it, Catholics were right and the others wrong, except insofar as they agreed with Catholics.

That puts it in perspective. But the same conviction that gave Sheed’s communication a God-centred grid had a flip side. This other element shows up in his review of a book on the Virgin Mary. The author of The Reed of God was Caryll Houselander, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who went on to become a family friend. Sheed first quotes her: “The sorrows of the whole world, not only the dramatic ones but the daily ones, began to unfold gradually in Our Lady’s life, and the intelligent heart can read into them not only the hard outlines of all the world’s tragedies but also the smallest details of human existence.” Then he says this:

That sentence indeed is the key not only to one book but in its implications to the whole Catholic Revival: for the Catholic Revival is not simply a great burst of brilliant writing by brilliant men but primarily a reawakening of the ordinary Catholic to certain forgotten splendours – and most notably the splendour of man and human life. There had been an appalling draining away (even from the Catholic mind of the moment) of the mystery and magnificence of man. Men adored the majesty of God and received wonderful proofs of his love, but remained in themselves flat and obvious and commonplace. God was mysterious: men were not. God was awe-inspiring, tremendous, incredible: men were not. But this was monstrous. What kind of artist would that be who put nothing of himself into the things he made? If God is all that, then men are all that: not in God’s measure, but in some measure.

Put very simply, in Sheed’s estimation man was “all that.” This apologist was enamoured of the “splendour of man and human life,” and that attitude spilled over into all his rhetoric. He was fascinated by literature, language, history, art and music – and he was fascinated by the creatures that produced these things. Reading him now, it’s impossible not to be struck by the genuine liking and affection for people as people one finds there. His attitude was at one with Irenaeus’ dictum, “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” Because of this, he felt solidarity with others and empathy for their difficulties that imbued his words with a palpable empathy.

Conviction and Affection were capped by Integrity. Sheed lived what he published and preached. He was a daily Mass attendant, and though he owned a publishing house, his family lived frugally. People are surprised to learn that in retirement he and Maisie Ward lived in a low-rent apartment in New Jersey (with very few books!) They are also often unaware of his support of Dorothy Day’s work for the poor (of Day he once shared an irreverent anecdote of “groan[ing] together over the general hellishness of trying to serve the Lord”), or the inter-racial justice efforts of Friendship House. So he was an example of the whole package, living in conscious light of God, others, and himself.

CWR: What were some of the basic insights that Sheed utilized in defending and explaining Catholicism?

Martin: As a communicator, it took him a lifetime to determine what was essential and what was distraction in terms of strategy. I’d boil down his two key insights to these: 1) in evangelism truth is its own best defense, and 2) in evangelism it is essentially personal. When he began speaking on the faith, he was very argumentative. But later he observed that arguments were seldom “won.” You can pick up on his early attitude in a1920 letter he wrote after only a few months with the Catholic Evidence Guild in London:

I already know ten times as much about the Church as I ever did [I Australia] and I’m fairly staggered when I think of the chances that I missed out : chances driving home a point …The other night there was a dirty dog interrupting me. So I suddenly stopped and cross-questioned him… It took [he crowd] just five seconds to see that he had walked into a trap and contradicted himself gloriously. They raised a roar that might have been heard in Henley and he kept his face firmly shut thereafter.

But a decade or so later it was an entirely different Sheed who wrote, “Argument rouses the combative quality not only in the hearers but in the apologist too: victory may very easily become for him a personal matter.” Apologetics as Exposition had become Sheed’s method. He shifted from defence and proclamation to explanation and invitation. This was because he was finding modern audiences that seemed tired and apathetic. Catholics were often only nominal believers, ones whose entire picture of spiritual things easily reduced itself to the negative – the caricature of a knuckle-rapping nun or prohibitive priest. Exposition was his surreptitious appeal to pathos. By explaining the reality of religion, initial mental resistance might weaken and hearers could considered it first as personally relevant as opposed to intellectually rigid. Sheed’s New Apologetic was simply an explanation – one aimed at potentially triggering a celebration – of what Chesterton called “the romance of orthodoxy.”

As for the personal imperative, Sheed was demonstrating “relationship evangelism” long before it was the catch phrase it’s become in evangelical circles. There isn’t a contemporary minister taking it as seriously as did Sheed. Just listen: “To say that the speaker must give himself with the truth adhering may sound pretentious, especially if you have the standard picture of the soap-box orator. But it is the minimum. The speaker and his message reach the hearer together.” Explaining his theory of communication in The Church and I, he actually ends up equating evangelism with… sex! It’s one of many places he caps some thoughts with a one-liner that makes you do a mental double-take and think, “I can’t believe he just said that”:

It may seem to be carrying pretentiousness to the point of fantasy when I say that what the speaker is aiming at is a union of minds between himself and his listeners as a result of which a truth living in one mind becomes a truth living in another. The analogy with bodily union is precise – and it goes with the analogy that both unions demand a concentration on the other party. The speaker who is listening spellbound to himself is not affecting a union of minds: in the bodily order there is a name for what he is doing, masturbation. In plain words each sort of union demands love. The speaker is genuinely making love to his audience. I have found the experience of making love to a different indoor audience every night in a long lecture tour, pretty draining. At the end of many a tour I have felt that I don’t want to see another audience as long as I live.

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.