Raised in the Shire, he left its tranquility for an adventure that brought him through battles, dungeons and peril until he found an immense treasure. To possess it, he fought a monstrously evil dragon. We speak not of Bilbo Baggins, but noted Catholic biographer Joseph Pearce.
To know the identity of author Joseph Pearce, you must first meet Joe Pearce, just as you must first encounter Saul of Tarsus to fully understand the greatness of Saint Paul. Like Paul, Joseph Pearce endured more than one beating, stoning (actually they used bricks) and imprisonment. Teresa of Avila equated humility and truth. Through Race with the Devil, Pearce opens his early life to the world, revealing pain, promise and God’s hand in his miraculous transformation.
If you judge a book by its cover, particularly the dust jackets of Pearce’s 2012 Saint Benedict Press publications, Candles in the Dark and Bilbo’s Journey, beware the photos, rich in Hobbit-like dimples and engaging smile. This impression clashes with the cold, determined, mask-like face that stares from the cover of Race with the Devil. When first I viewed this image, I wondered as to the subject’s identity. Imagine my shock at the subtitle: “My Journey (What, this is an autobiography?) from Racial Hatred (This can’t be the noted Catholic author that I’ve read.) to Rational Love.” In this amazement, I share, but in reverse order, the impression of Abbot Richard Yeo, OSB, who in the year 2000, “seemed genuinely astonished that (Pearce) had not only become a Catholic but had written books such as Literary Converts and (his) biography of Chesterton of which (the Abbot) was clearly familiar.” Although mine appears the mirror image of the Abbot’s shock, we both rejoice that “God can indeed mould the most unpromising of clay.”
Pearce dedicated his conversion story to the memory of his father, Albert Arthur Pearce, who taught Joseph to love his heritage, to fistfight-observing the Marquis of Queensberry rules, to appreciate English literature and to educate himself throughout his life. Albert also reinforced powerful nationalistic sentiments and bigotry, all of which played a part in Joseph’s life and set the tone for Race with the Devil.
At the age of sixteen, Joseph founded, published, edited, distributed and wrote for the Bulldog, the newspaper of the Young National Front, an auxiliary of the National Front, a “white supremacist organization that demanded the forced removal of all non-whites from the United Kingdom.” Joseph’s precocious achievement brought notoriety and, if not awards, two all-expenses-paid prison terms. Pearce opposed the immigration of Jamaicans, Indians, Pakistanis and others. (Observe that in Candles in the Dark, Joseph embraced the Jamaican people and the ethnically diverse members of the Missionaries of the Poor.)
His anti-Catholic sentiments brought him “across the sea to Ireland,” not to Galway Bay, but Belfast, “On the twelfth of July when it yearly did come…”* to march with Orangemen, “to the sound of the drum.”* Unprepared for the deadly “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Joseph nearly became a “statistic.” Many of his friends in the Orange Order later died in that conflict.
Pearce made both friends and enemies. As political positions changed some friends became enemies. In Race with the Devil, Joseph reaches out to his former friends, apologizing for infractions even as small as failing to return a borrowed book or record. Thanks to Albert’s influence, Joseph learned to say something nice even about his enemies, such as the Irishman who broke his nose. The kindness of strangers deeply impressed the young Pearce: the policeman who loaned him the price of a ticket to a Chelsea football match, an adversary who after a heated radio debate, invited Joseph to lift a pint at his favorite pub, as well as the American Jewish attorney who resigned from the British equivalent of the ACLU, when that organization refused to let him defend the anti-Semite Pearce
While still sixteen, Joseph, now a full-time employee of the National Front, commuted four-hours, round-trip each work day. If Hobbits lived in burrows, Pearce spent nearly the equivalent of a day each week in the “Tube.” He read his way back and forth beneath London, completing the mandatory list of White Supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Communist tomes. Although still a teen, Joseph’s critical thinking skills kept him from swallowing the entire bait and hook. His reading extended to Orwell to whom Joseph gives credit for part of his conversion. In contrast to Orwell’s bleak, inescapable despair, Joseph considered Alexander Solzhenitsyn a hero who continued to hope despite his confinement in the Gulag Archipelago. In time it was Solzhenitsyn who read the works of Joseph Pearce, opening the door to Joseph’s writing Solzhenitsyn’s authorized biography.
Conversion to Catholicism snuck-up on Joseph Pearce about the time of his second imprisonment. Solitary confinement, like the hours spent riding in the “Tube,” afforded Joseph time for spiritual reading, including two of Newman’s conversion stories, the works of Tolkien, Chesterton and others. Joseph emerged from the chrysalis of prison with his wings not quite ready for full flight. Nourished by the liturgy and a devotion to Our Lady, he still waged many a battle before his acceptance into the Roman Catholic Church and subsequent participation in the Catholic Literary Revival.
Like Bilbo, the dragon slain, Joseph had returned home with treasured faith, but the journey’s not quite done. It may be Joseph’s task to train a Frodo or a host of Frodos to meet and best even greater evils and rescue and share far more glorious treasures. I eagerly anticipate the sequel to Race with the Devil which may well flow from the pen of one of those fortunate few who now studies with this Catholic Literary Giant, Joseph Pearce.
*Modified from “The Old Orange Flute.”
(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)