C. S. Lewis Got it Wrong: A Reliable Date for Theistic Conversion?

Lewis desk cigarette

(NB: This expanded version contains some significant information edited out of the First Things version, which they edited for space.)

In March of 2013, a debate began here about Alister McGrath’s new biography of C. S. Lewis and the re-dating of Lewis’s Theistic conversion. Since then, an unpublished autobiographical manuscript of that conversion has come to light, settling the question once and for all, establishing with some precision the time period when that conversion actually took place.

This manuscript, which Walter Hooper calls “Early Prose Joy,” contains an account of how Lewis had become (in his own words) “an empirical Theist,” and had “arrived at God by induction.” A careful reading of the manuscript reveals much that corrects his dating from Surprised by Joy, in particular Lewis’s claim that he converted to Theism “in the Trinity Term of 1929.” In a recent article in SEVEN: An Anglo-American Literary Review, I explored the results of discoveries I made while transcribing “Early Prose Joy.” Five key pieces of evidence, two external and three internal, clearly establish the fact that Lewis converted to Theism during Trinity Term 1930 (not 1929), that he did so sometime between June 1-June 10, and that he wrote about it soon afterward.

The manuscript itself helps to establish the general time period of the Theistic conversion. “Early Prose Joy” appears in one of Lewis’s notebooks, a few pages after a draft of the poem “The Nameless Isle,” which Lewis dated “Aug. 1930.” While this fact is not in itself conclusive, we can assume that Lewis penned “Early Prose Joy” sometime after August, 1930. Because Lewis only describes a conversion to Theism and not to Christianity, in all likelihood he wrote this account before becoming a Christian in late September, 1931.

Lewis handwriting expert Charlie W. Starr, knowing neither my dating of “Early Prose Joy” nor the specific events described in the manuscript, recently reviewed these pages in order to suggest a date based on handwriting alone. In a recent email, Starr told me that he was 100% positive that the handwriting in “Early Prose Joy” comes from 1929-1931, and he was about 90% sure that the manuscript was written in 1931.

We can therefore assume that Lewis wrote about his Theistic conversion either in late 1930 (after “The Nameless Isle” draft) or in early- to mid-1931 (before his Christian conversion). But can we discover when this key change in Lewis’s life occurred? In fact, three passages from within “Early Prose Joy” do just that. This manuscript proves that when Lewis “gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed,” it was not “in Trinity Term of 1929” as he states in Surprised by Joy. Instead, he did so within a ten-day span in early June, at the end of Trinity Term of 1930.

In his new biography of Lewis, McGrath points out a letter from Lewis to Owen Barfield dated 3 February 1930 (several months after Lewis’s purported 1929 conversion) as crucial to correcting the received chronology. In that letter, Lewis implores Barfield to come and visit him, lamenting that “the ‘Spirit’ or ‘Real I’ is showing an alarming tendency to become more personal and is taking the offensive, and is behaving just like God.” McGrath correctly concludes that “Lewis’s comments to Barfield must prefigure his conversion; they make no sense if they took place a year later, referring to an experience Lewis had already undergone.” McGrath goes on to note that Barfield himself saw this letter as a signal of “the beginning of [Lewis’s] conversion.” “Early Prose Joy” entirely supports McGrath’s conclusions.

In the “Early Prose Joy” manuscript, using the same tone and very similar language as he does in the letter, Lewis describes writing the 3 February 1930 note to Barfield as an important milestone leading up to his conversion. This fact alone proves that the conversion could not have taken place in 1929 and must have happened sometime after February 3rd, 1930.

The second piece of internal evidence pointing to a 1930 date for conversion comes, somewhat surprisingly, from a comment by Lewis in “Early Prose Joy” about learning how to dive. In a pair of letters to Arthur Greeves from July 1930, Lewis recounts a late-June visit to Barfield, during which they enjoyed some “lovely bathes.” During the week of his visit, Lewis recounts, “I learned to dive, wh[ich] is a great change in my life & has important (religious) connections. I’ll explain that later.” If Lewis ever explained that to Greeves in writing, we have lost it.

But perhaps he did explain the connections, first in “Early Prose Joy” and later in another spiritual autobiography, The Pilgrim’s Regress. In the latter, Lewis makes much of the spiritual implications of diving, an action that requires the surrender of one’s whole being to God. This description appears to connect clearly with the kind of giving in Lewis repeatedly describes at the moment of conversion, both in The Pilgrim’s Regress, and in Surprised by Joy.

In the “Early Prose Joy” manuscript, Lewis later records that he learned how to dive “in the same year and the same month” that he gave in to God and converted to Theism. And because we know that Lewis likely learned how to dive during the last week of June, 1930, we can therefore conclude with some certainty that the Theistic conversion took place that month. But we can get closer. A final clue further solidifies the correction of the chronology, narrowing the possible date range of the conversion to between June 1 and June 10.

“Early Prose Joy” details Lewis’s extreme reluctance just prior to his conversion to address a God in whom he still did not believe. The manuscript describes how this philosophically-driven difficulty resulted in Lewis’s refusing to pray. In conversion, Lewis overcame this difficulty; Surprised by Joy details how Lewis “knelt and prayed” once he admitted that God was God. If we could determine when Lewis first prayed, we would therefore have a very good idea about when the conversion took place. And here again, not only does a published letter helps us to hazard a guess at when Lewis began to pray, but Barfield also plays a key role.

On 10 June 1930, Lewis wrote a letter to Barfield and, as was his habit, he included the draft of a poem, requesting feedback. This poem, later published as “Prayer,” explores how deeply the human soul needs God, all the more in the act of praying. Therefore, by June 10th, Lewis had in all likelihood both prayed and written a poem about it.

Incidentally, the when the letter was published, a typo appears to have snuck in. While the published version reads 19th June 1930, the actual letter, housed at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, clearly reads 10th June 1930. This corrected dating of the letter containing “Prayer” helps us conjecture more precisely the day by which Lewis had knelt and prayed. By pulling together these various strands, we can now craft a definitive timeline.

In 1930, Trinity Term ran from April 27 – June 21. If Lewis gave in to God in the same year and month that he learned to dive, June 1930, and he began to pray no later than June 10th, we can conclude with confidence that Lewis’s Theistic conversion took place one evening between June 1st and June 10th, 1930.

The dating looks like this:

  • 3 February 1930: Lewis speaks of the “Spirit” behaving like God and taking the offensive.
  • April 27–June 21, 1930: Trinity Term.
  • June 1-10 1930: Lewis converts to Theism.
  • 10 June 1930: Lewis sends Barfield a poem about prayer.
  • Late June / early July 1930: Lewis visits Barfield and learns to dive.
  • July 1 & 8 1930: Lewis writes to Arthur Greeves about the Barfield visit.
  • August 1930: Lewis writes and dates a draft of “The Nameless Isle” in a notebook, ten pages before “Early Prose Joy.”
  • August 1930—late September 1931: Lewis writes “Early Prose Joy,” recounting his Theistic conversion.
  • 28 September 1931: Lewis converts from Theism to Christianity.

So why does this corrected dating matter? First of all, it validates the conclusions about the Theistic conversion in C. S. Lewis: A Life, allowing us now to see the corrected dating as reliable fact instead of groundbreaking theory. McGrath was right. Secondly, it shows us how easily mistakes can arise, especially regarding dates. Sometimes, Lewis was wrong.

And if nothing else, this bit of chronological detective work issues a fairly clear call for increased precision and depth in the scholarship on Lewis, all the more so at a time when his star continues to rise.






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