John considers himself Christian, but he doesn’t attend services or liturgy. He wants to learn more, so he begins to explore various Christian denominations.
After meeting with representatives of a number of them, he is told that as a Christian all he has to do is read the Bible and worship with any denomination that appeals to him since there is little difference between them.
This answer satisfies John at first, but he reads the Bible and doesn’t find the clear guidance he had expected. Another problem he finds is that he cannot understand what he is reading on his own. He decides that he needs a guide and begins searching for one.
Originally published in 1906, the book collects six lectures Benson delivered at the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Cambridge, England. A new edition of the book has been published by Tan Books.
Benson is best known for his 1907 novel The Lord of the World, which examines the coming of the anti-Christ and the end of the world. The book has been praised by, among others, Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, as well as the critic Joseph Pearce.
Benson also is known for his conversion to the Catholic Church, which Pearce says shocked the Anglican establishment of his times; Benson was ordained to the Anglican priesthood in 1895 by his father, Edward White Benson, who was then the Archbishop of Canterbury.
About a year after his ordination, Benson began exploring questions he had about the Anglican faith. Much like John his questions led him to the Catholic Church, and he converted in 1903. In 1904, he was ordained as a Catholic priest.
The Religion of the Plain Man follows John as he attempts to understand the Bible and determine where he will worship. He meets with the various Christian of England – a Baptist minister, a Salvation Army captain, a Presbyterian, a Congregationalist, a Wesleyan, a Unitarian.
Their different answers to his questions leave him with one conclusion: “… namely that the Bible is insufficient as a guide to true religion.”
John approaches a friend, a member of the Church of England, and his description of the liturgy, creed, and sacraments leads him to become a member as well. Soon, however, he questions his decision and he begins to examine the claims of the Roman Catholic Church.
John considers the world’s perception of the Catholic Church; the Church’s unity. He returns to the Bible to examine the Church’s claims. He purchases a Penny Catechism to learn what the Church teaches.
John’s examination of the Catholic Church must have been similar to Benson’s own, since he spends a good amount of time examining papal primacy. The book, in fact, includes an excellent appendix that lists the references to Peter in Scripture and references to the primacy of the papacy in writings of the Church Fathers through the fifth century.
John’s examination eventually leads him to conclude:
“Simon is Peter, not because he is a stone by nature, or even by grace, but because in the inscrutable decrees of God he is chosen to be the foundation-stone of an institution which Christ names His Church. There is only one Church in Christendom which claims to be built upon an apostle; and that one whose centre is Rome, where Peter ruled and his body lies. As for the gates of hell, is there any other institution in Christendom which compares with this for immovability, authority and impressiveness? One was built upon the fire of Luther, another upon the piety of Wesley, another upon the lusts of a king and the independent spirit of a nation. These have stood for varying periods, and not one of them for more than four hundred years.”
Benson’s John examines many more points, large and small, concerning the Catholic Church. Through them all Benson is eloquent in his descriptions of the Church and its teaching, and is respectful of the teachings of the various Christian denominations he discusses.
The Religion of the Plain Man is a concise, thoughtful, gracious, persuasive, and beautifully written account of a convert’s journey and the reasons why one might wish to enter into communion with the Catholic Church.
This is a book that will benefit anyone interested in learning about the teachings of the Catholic Church, or the journey of a convert. It also is a book that any Catholic would benefit from reading, particularly apologists and those lukewarm in the faith.