The Red Dean of Canterbury
The Public and Private Faces of Hewlett Johnson
- Biography examining the extraordinary life and career of Hewlett Johnson, the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury Cathedral
In the mid-twentieth century, few people in Britain divided public opinion more than Hewlett Johnson, the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury Cathedral from 1931 to 1963. Converted to socialism in the 1890s, he trained as an engineer, was ordained in 1906, and served as a parish priest in Cheshire and Dean of Manchester Cathedral before his promotion to Canterbury. When he retired at the age of eighty-nine, he had served almost sixty years in the Anglican ministry. At the heart of Johnson’s Christian faith was his unshakeable conviction that the principles of communism were all but indistinguishable from Jesus’s teaching about the Kingdom of God on earth. For those who heard his sermons on Christianity and politics, Hewlett Johnson was either adored as a Christian visionary or hated as a mouthpiece of Soviet propaganda. There was little middle ground. Although despised by many senior figures in the Church of England, Hewlett Johnson was welcomed in high political places throughout the world. He had audiences with Stalin, Khrushchev, Molotov and Malenkov, Mao Tse-Tung and Chou En-Lai, Castro and Che Guevara. He also talked with Truman in the White House. He was tracked by MI5 for thirty-five years, was awarded the Soviet equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, twice spoke to huge audiences at Madison Square Garden in New York, and was condemned by an Archbishop of Canterbury as ‘blind, unreasonable and stupid’. He was a prolific writer and a gifted orator, had two long marriages each of nearly thirty years, and became a father for the first time at the age of sixty-six.
John Butler is the author of the acclaimed book The Quest for Becket’s Bones published by Yale.