May 5, 2009

C. S. Lewis: Crypto-Mormon? Part II: Lewis on Latter-day Saints

See Part 1 here.
During the 1950s before Lewis ever appeared in an LDS-related publication, a young man named Neal A. Maxwell discovered The Screwtape Letters. He became so impressed with Lewis's writings that in 1960 he sent Lewis a copy of the Book of Mormon with a letter of gratitude, as recounted by Maxwell's biographer Bruce C. Hafen:

"May I express my deep appreciation for your contribution to literature and Christianity through your excellent writings." Your work has "held special pleasure for me. Perhaps you do not realize that you have acquired quite a following in this area of America" in recent years. He explained the Book of Mormon only briefly, adding that his gratitude for Lewis's work "is not conditioned upon your appreciation of this Book." Rather, "my sending it to you represents an effort to share with you some of the things that have brought me satisfaction as a token of the appreciation I feel for your writings."1
Since becoming known as a Christian apologist Lewis received thousands of letters a year and attempted to respond to as many as possible.2 However, from what I have found it appears he did not respond to Maxwell, who chose an unfortunate time of the year (the end of November) to write. Lewis's daily mail greatly increased during the Christmas season and he struggled to keep up with it.3

Lewis was already at least slightly familiar with the Book of Mormon by the time Maxwell wrote him. On March 20, 1950 Lewis mentioned the book when he delivered the Ethel M. Wood Lecture before the University of London. The lecture, called "The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version,"4 discussed different ways the Bible has been viewed and understood under different circumstances. Lewis set about "distinguishing the various senses in which one book can be said to influence the author of another book."5 He distinguished the one particular sense as follows:
Finally, we come to literary influence in the fullest sense, the sense it bears when we say that Paradise Lost is influenced by Homer and Virgil, or nineteenth century journalism by Macaulay or modern English poetry by Mr. Eliot. You will perhaps remember that I have defined Influence, in this sense, as that which prompts a man to write in a certain way. But even within this definition further distinctions break out. The influence may show itself in architectonics. That is the most obvious, though by no means the only, manner in which Virgil influences Milton. The whole plan of his epic is Virgilian. Very few English writers have undergone an influence of that sort from any book of the Bible. Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy and the Book of Mormon are perhaps instances. Some would add Blake’s Prophetic Books. Again, Influence may show itself in the use of language― in the rhythm, the imagery, or (using that word in its narrowest sense) the style.6
However Lewis viewed LDS claims that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record, in this case he singled out the "architectonics" of the book as showing dependency on the Bible. In other words, he saw the Book of Mormon as being influenced by the Bible in its actual structural design, or separation into various books, etc. Though he doesn't state it explicitly, Lewis likely saw the King James style of the Book of Mormon as dependent upon that version, as do many LDS scholars.7 However, it remains to be seen how much Lewis really knew about the Book of Mormon.

Although this is the only direct reference to the LDS Church I have discovered in Lewis's writings, he made many other comments that demonstrate where he would have disagreed (and sometimes quite strongly) with Latter-day Saints. Evan Stephenson's Dialogue article "The Last Battle" attempted to reign in enthusiasts who would try to make Lewis into a Latter-day Saint.8 For a fuller view of this topic than presented in this blog post, I recommend it with a few qualifications. The difficulty in understanding C.S. Lewis's theology is that he was not interested in presenting a systematic theology. As a result, his views not only shift over time (sometimes rather dramatically), but they also contradict each other at times, though he sometimes realizes and admits this problem. It can be a mistake to present something Lewis wrote as being his unequivocal or unchanging position and chronology is no sure trump card.

For instance, Stephenson asserts that Lewis "would have called eternal families 'unscriptural' and created 'out of bad hymns and lithographs/' and would sooner dream of 'cigars in heaven.'"9 Stephenson is quoting from Lewis's A Grief Observed, which he wrote shortly after the wrenching death of his wife, Joy. Initially published under the pseudonym "N.W. Clerk,"10 the book is an example of Lewis's longtime belief that "ink is the great cure for all human ills."11 Lewis was remarkably candid in the book and it is difficult to differentiate his emotional thoughts from what he believed at a given time; he fluctuates and questions and doubts and digs throughout the book. His statements here appear to be predicated on not seeing binding descriptions in the Bible, while romanticized "family reunions" on the other side were "ringing false" as he grieved. He was lamenting attempts at "consolation" via sentimentalized thoughts from religion, when he favored "truth" and "duty" as being more important.12 Lewis's personal letters show that his views on the matter were in flux and were undergirded by a lack of clarity in scripture.While Lewis's exact views of the afterlife were somewhat hazy until he died, earlier statements temper his later ruminations. Consider a letter of consolation Lewis wrote seven years earlier to a woman whose husband had died:
Now about not wanting to pray, surely there is one person you v. much want to pray for: your husband himself. You ask, can he help you, but isn't this probably the time for you to help him. In one way, you see, you are further on than he: you had begun to know God. He couldn't help you in that way: it seems to me quite possible that you can now help more than while he was alive. So get on with that right away. Our Lord said that man & wife were one flesh and forbade any man to put them asunder: and we may be sure He doesn't do Himself what He forbade us to do. Your present prayers for yr. husband are still part of the married life.13
A curious correspondent referred to simply as "Mrs. Johnson" wrote Lewis in 1952 with a list of questions, among them whether or not humans will recognize their loved ones in heaven. Lewis replied:
The symbols under which Heaven is presented to is are (a) a dinner party, (b) a wedding, (c) a city, and (d) a concert.14 It wd. be grotesque to suppose that the guests or citizens or members of the choir didn't know one another. And how can love of one another be commanded in this life if it is to be cut short at death?15
Mrs Johnson's follow up question was whether her memory of her husband would be taken away should she go to heaven and he not. Lewis didn't have a direct answer for that, concluding that it was crucial to love God first in order for love of family and friends to be pure and true:
When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now...If you and I ever come to love God perfectly, the answer to this tormenting question will then become clear, and will be far more beautiful than we cd. ever imagine. We can't have it now.16 

Instead of asserting guesses, Mrs. Johnson could work on loving God now as best she can; the other answers would follow. An appeal to the Bible was also his repeated method for rejecting any forbidding of alcoholic beverages. In 1955 a woman wrote Lewis with questions about particular denominations. Lewis responded:

I am afraid I am not going to be much help about all the religious bodies mentioned in your letter of March 2nd. I have always in my books been concerned simply to put forward 'mere' Christianity, and am no guide on these (mostly regrettable) 'interdenominational' questions. I do however strongly object to the tyrannic and unscriptural insolence of anything that calls itself a Church and makes tee-totalism a condition of membership. Apart from the more serious objection (that Our Lord Himself turned water into wine and made wine the medium of the only rite He imposed on all His followers) it is so provincial (what I believe you people call 'small town'). Don't they realise that Christianity arose in the Mediterranean world where, then as now, wine was as much part of the normal diet as bread?17  
Lewis repeatedly defended the right of Christians to drink. He was especially bothered by any temperance society that would try to rewrite history:
Of course Our Lord never drank spirits (they had no distilled liquors) but of course the wine of the Bible was real fermented wine and alcoholic. The repeated references to the sin of drunkenness in the Bible, from Noah's first discovery of wine down to the warnings in St Paul's epistles, make this perfectly plain. The other theory cd. be (honestly) held only by a v. ignorant person. One can understand the bitterness of some 'temperance' fanatics if one has ever lived with a drunkard: what one finds it harder to excuse is any educated person telling such lies about history.18
Lewis was one who had lived with a "drunkard," his brother Warnie struggled with alcoholism for years, often disappearing on trips to Ireland where he would drink himself into a hospital somewhere. What concerned him about temperance movements was potential "Phariseeism," which he hoped to "upbraid":
To be sure, the person who thinks either the use of the rosary or the abstinence from liquor an essential to Christianity will be, in my opinion, holding an unscriptural and erroneous doctrine. If, in addition, his passionate adherence to 'will-worship' leads him to denigrate and misrepresent those who do not share it, he will be sinning against the plainest commands we have received....One doesn't blame the Pharisee for washing his hands before food (indeed I do myself) but for neglecting 'the weightier matters of the law'. May I add that a great deal of shame, terror and misery has been caused in my own life by the drunkenness of a relative? I do not 'jest at scars' without ever having 'felt a wound'.19
One interesting theory posits that Lewis disliked Mormons enough to take a subtle dig at the religion in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents...were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotallers[sic], and wore a special kind of underclothes.20
Some of the characteristics apply as easily to strict Seventh-Day Adventists to whom Lewis referred several times throughout his collected letters. It is more likely in my view he did not have Latter-day Saints in particular in mind when he invented the Scrubbs. Kathryn Lindskoog of The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing asked Douglas Gresham, Lewis's stepson, if the Scrubbs represented some "abstemious" religious group and he replied:
Absolutely not... At the time there was a fad for string underwear, it was crocheted out of quite coarse cotton thread and was in a net form. It did feel rather weird to wear but it was very warm... Harold and Alberta were simply faddists.21
Lewis's ideas shifted after his conversion on subjects like the reality of forgiveness, the nature of Hell, the nature of angels, and many other topics. He did not like to pin down a precise list one must believe in order to be saved.

For one example, consider Lewis on atonement theory. Almost a decade after his conversion Lewis began working on the radio broadcasts that would later become Mere Christianity.22 In an attempt to appeal to as many Christians as possible Lewis had three different clergymen review the talks before they were complete, hoping to find some advice. Instead, the three clergy men all disagreed with certain aspects, though not in unison. "You see," Lewis wrote to one, "what I wanted to do in these talks was to give simply what is still common to all." Lewis realized agreement on very basic doctrines could be too elusive for the goal. "I fear I shall have to give up my original hope. I think I could get something you and your friends wd. pass, but not without making the talk either longer or shorter: but I am on Procrustes' can imagine the difficulty."23

Lewis wanted to know whether his friend could "admit that a man was a Xtian (and could be a member of your Church) who said 'I believe that Christ's death redeemed man from sin, but I can make nothing of any of the theories as to how'?" Various atonement theories "need not be used" if "we don't find them helpful."24 In the broadcasts he settled on mystery: "The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start." Further, "Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do not help us, not to be confused with the thing itself."25

Thus, while Lewis utilized a "ransom theory" of the atonement for Aslan in his Narnia book The Last Battle, it does not show that Lewis believed that theory applied any better than others. "You must not confuse my romances with my theses," he wrote to someone asking about his ideas behind Out of the Silent Planet. "In the latter I state and argue a creed. In the former much is merely supposed for the sake of the story."26

Throughout his personal letters Lewis got his beak wet in all sorts of interesting subjects like Calvinism and Arminianism, omnipotence, omnipresence, the concept of time, the Incarnation, etc. He also develops a different understanding of the nature of God and man; a substantial ontological gap separating the two (see Stephensen's article for a development of this important distinction). Despite various doctrinal disagreements with Latter-day Saints, I believe one thing that overshadows such differences is the common ground of favoring personal Christian behavior and conversion over understanding orthodox doctrine.27 Latter-day Saints do well in seeking parallels with Lewis, but perhaps an even more fruitful exercise is found in seeing how Lewis dealt with some of the difficult questions of theology like the atonement. In this way, Lewis can be seen as a fellow Christian asking interesting or difficult questions Latter-day Saints aren't likely to raise during Sunday School. Rather than being a source for proof-texts conforming to what one already believes, Lewis can be a gateway drug to thinking deeply about theology.

See "Part I: Latter-day Saints on Lewis" here.

Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple's Life, Deseret Book (2002), p. 168.

Lewis was asked by the BBC to give a series of radio talks which eventually became his book Mere Christianity. In 1941 Lewis wrote "as the aftermath of those Broadcast Talks I gave early last summer I had an enormous pile of letters from strangers to answer. One gets funny letters after broadcasting - some from lunatics who sign themselves 'Jehovah' or begin 'Dear Mr Lewis, I was married at the age of 20 to a man I didn't love' - but many from serious inquirers whom it is a duty to answer fully. So letter writing has loomed pretty large!" (CL 2:504). Four years later he apologized to a man for being so delayed in his response. The "most harassing part of my routine" Lewis explained, is "the never-ending correspondence with people I shall never hear of again...(I don't mean to say anything against them: they're very nice, some of them)[but they] have to be dealt with punctually or I'd be 'eternally floored'" (CL 2:683).

Bruce C. Hafen did not find a response from Lewis in the Maxwell papers despite digesting them while researching for the biography. "I think Elder Maxwell would have told me if he had [received a response]," Hafen explained, "because he told me about this incident in a private conversation," (Hafen, personal correspondence with the author, April 14, 2009). The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. III also does not contain a response, though December of 1960 is one of the more sparsely represented December's in the collection, including only eight letters, compared to 18 in December 1959. The collected letters do not contain all the letters Lewis wrote, however; only those that could be found. In 1949 he thanked his friend Dorothy Sayers for the Christmas letter: "Your letter shines amid the day's mail like a good deed in a naughty world. The Christmas holidays are the time when all the nuisances in the world choose to write to me" (CL 2:902). In 1953 Lewis closed a letter to Rhona Bodle saying "And now for piles of Christmas letters: many of them, unlike yours, from people I don't want to write to at all." (See Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963, HarperCollins [2007], p. 396, cited as CL hereafter). To one particularly pesky pen pal he explained his response would be short, "for Christmas mails have 'got me down'. This season is to me mainly hard, gruelling[sic] work - write, write, write, till I wickedly say that if there were less good will (going through the post) there would be more peace on earth," (CL 3:401, emphasis in original). She didn't get the hint. The following year Lewis explained why he had not responded to her recent letter: "[T]ry not to be hurt by my silence. And always remember that there is no time in the whole year when I am less willing to write than near Christmas," (CL 3:557). It appears she didn't remember. Lewis wrote her in December 1959: "Let us, however, make a compact that, if we are both alive next year, whenever we write to one another it shall not be at Christmas time. That period is becoming a sort of nightmare to me - it means endless quill-driving!" (CL 3:1112).

See C.S. Lewis, "Literary Impact of the Authorized Version," Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 136.

Lewis, "The Literary Influence of the Authorised Version," personal copy, p. 6.

Lewis, ibid. p. 9, emphasis mine.

Lewis was "astonished" by the seeming lack of Biblical influence upon current daily language usage. A few paragraphs after mentioning the Book of Mormon he noted that Biblical phrases like "It came to pass" and "answered and said, lo" were missing from contemporary vernacular. "[H]ave these ever been used by any English writer without full consciousness that he was quoting?" he asked (ibid. p. 9). Evan Stephensen saw Lewis as thus dismissing the Book of Mormon: "Lewis had heard of the Book of Mormon. In the same way the 'whole plan' of Milton's work is based on Virgil, he says, the Book of Mormon is based on the Bible. Therefore, as Milton is the author of his own work, Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon," ("The Last Battle: C.S. Lewis and Mormonism," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol. 30, no. 4, [winter, 1997]: 46). Lewis also may have been referring simply to influence of structure (as that is the connection he makes in the paper) rather than to specific truth claims. What had he heard about the Book of Mormon and how Mormons understood it? Journalist and Evangelical Richard Ostling wrote: "Lewis was aware of the Book of Mormon and assumed Joseph Smith wrote it" (Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, HarperOne [2008], p. 308). From the one brief reference Lewis makes I believe Ostling overstates his case. It is important to know what Lewis really thought about the book, but it is simply not clear how familiar Lewis actually was with the overall subject. While some have argued Book of Mormon dependency on King James style shows it is a fictional and derivative work, others believe Joseph couched his revelation of the Book of Mormon in the scriptural terms he would have seen as appropriate for holy writ. For one example of the former view, see David P. Wright's "Isaiah in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith in Isaiah," (American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, eds., Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002, pp. 157-234). For an example of the latter view see "The King James Bible and the Book of Mormon," FAIR, [.pdf], note especially the endnote references. See also the FAIR wiki bibliography here. Indeed, Orson Pratt even followed King James chapter/verses when he added versification and divided chapters in the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon. See Royal Skousen, "Book of Mormon Editions," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol. 1, pp. 175-176.

Evan Stephensen, "The Last Battle: C.S. Lewis and Mormonism," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol. 30, no. 4, (winter, 1997): 43-69.

Stephensen, ibid., p. 46.

CL 3:1201. Lewis had previously published poems under the name "Nat Whilk," which Walter Hooper mentions is Anglo-Saxon for "I know not whom." He added the last name "Clerk" because he said it referred to something like "scholar" in medieval usage.

CL 1:187.

Lewis, A Grief Observed, (Bantam edition) pp. 28-29.

Lewis to Phyllis Elinor Sandeman, Dec. 22, 1953, CL 3:392. Lewis, still a bachelor, thoughtfully opened the letter saying "First, you may be quite sure that I realise (I'd be a fool if I didn't) that there is something in a loss like yours which no unmarried person can understand. Secondly, that nothing I or anyone can say will remove the pain."

See (a) Matt. 22:4, (b) 22:2-12; Luke 12:36, (c) Hebrews 11:16; 12:22, (d) Revelation 5:8-14.

CL 3:247.


CL 3:580. The woman is the mysterious "Mrs Johnson," who is incorrectly identified as "a woman who lived in Salt Lake City" in Marianna Richardson and Christine Thackeray's C. S. Lewis: Latter-day Truths in Narnia, Cedar Fort (2008), p. 3. The authors have confused Johnson with a "Mrs. Garrett," a Salt Lake resident whose letter is quoted in Wm. Clayton Kimball's "The Christian Commitment: C. S. Lewis and the Defense of Doctrine," BYU Studies 12, no. 2 (winter, 1972):185. Kimball speculates that Johnson might have recently been in contact with Mormons based on her questions about temperance rules, but this is not enough to prove the case.

CL 3:608.

CL 3:1126.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, see The Chronicles of Narnia (HarperCollins 2001), p. 425. Lewis had already shown distaste for prohibition as a moral requirement. His letters with "Mrs. Johnson" began in 1953, while Voyage was published in 1952.

Kathryn Lindskoog, "Special Underclothes: Were the Scrubbs Mormons?" The Lewis Legacy, Issue 85, June 1, 2000.

Lewis's book The Problem of Pain had been well received by many Christians. It caught the eye of Dr. James W. Welch, Director of Religious Broadcasting for the BBC. Welch was concerned with what he saw as widespread ignorance of the faith in Great Britain and wrote to ask Lewis if he would help in the "work of religious broadcasting." He wanted a series of talks "on something like 'The Christian Faith As I See It - by a Layman." Lewis agreed. (See CL 2:469-470.)

CL 2:502.


See Mere Christianity (Granite, 2006), pp. 54-55.

CL 2:914. For other thoughts on atonement theory see CL 3:200, 465.

This common ground is discussed in my paper "All Find What They Truly Seek: C.S. Lewis, Latter-day Saints, and the 'Virtuous Unbeliever,'" forthcoming, to be presented at the 2009 conference of The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology.