Not all roads lead to God. Many – maybe most – lead to perdition. All genuine conversion stories, though, lead to the Church. All conversion stories fascinate but some, maybe for their drama and the tremendous arc of someone’s life, fascinate more than others.
Joseph Pearce came onto the Catholic radar screen sixteen years ago with a biography called Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton. There’s hardly a faithful Catholic that has not been touched by Chesterton. William Buckley used to hand out Orthodoxy to anyone writing to him about the faith. He sent one to me.
Pearce followed up with Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief. What joy! Here was a guy working that special British vein of literary Catholicism and conversion that American Catholics love so well. From Campion to Newman to Chesterton, even Oscar Wilde. And here was a guy picking and scratching at that vein and still finding ore. And he kept it up. A biography of Tolkien followed, one on Belloc, one on Wilde. Pearce became a small family-owned industry of quite remarkable books.
But all along we heard the strangest things about him. We heard he spent time in prison. Yeah, well I heard he killed a guy. Like Gatsby, we looked forward to the day he would tell his story. That day has come.
Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love recounts Pearce’s life from small town England to national racist leader to prison – and then to God through the Church. First, he did not kill anyone. He would say, but for the grace of God he didn’t, because he was certainly in a position to kill and even more to be killed.
Born in the shadow of the Second World War, into that bleak post-war not-yet-swinging England, Pearce nonetheless lived at least part of his youth in an Eden of fields and forests, in a village sixty-five miles north of London.
His father taught him to love literature and to hate the Catholic Church. His father also hated the Irish and the wave of brown-skinned immigrants that began flooding into Great Britain with the 1949 British Nationality Act, which allowed citizens of Commonwealth countries to move to the motherland.
Pearce learned early and well.
When he was twelve, the family moved from their idyllic village to a London suburb and were thrust into the beginnings of what has become multicultural England. He recalls torturing a Pakistani teacher. One of the things that led him into racist politics seems to have been a quite proper dislike of Communism, also learned at his father’s knee.
Pearce submitted an article to Spearhead, a magazine published by the chairman of the racist National Front. His article Buckley-like criticized “the Marxist orientation” of his high school education. He chaffed at the fact that his school did not teach about the great English victories in battle but concentrated instead on British “social history.”
His descent into racist politics began in earnest when he lied about his age and at fifteen joined the National Front. In that long, hot summer of 1976, “My photograph appeared in the local paper on my first [National Front] paper sale in Barking town centre and to this day I remember the look of fanatical anger on my face. I had metamorphosed into a political extremist.”
Pearce describes roving bands of white youths prowling the streets “looking for isolated Sikhs or Muslims to attack.” Some local gangs were “said to dress in SS uniform and would shoot any non-whites they came across with air pistols.” There were gangs of “Nazi-hippies who would listen to music by Hawkwind and Frank Zappa and get high on LSD, before setting out on nights of psychedelic and psychopathic violence against hapless immigrants.”
Pearce did not join the roving gangs of “Paki-bashers,” gangs that focused on hurting the innocent, preferring instead open warfare with the guilty, that is, Marxist youth gangs. The left and right seem to follow each other around and squared off in vicious public fights that were barely controlled or not controlled at all by the local constabulary.
Pearce became fond of Nazism and learned Nazi marching songs. In one comical incident, he found himself in a German skinhead bar. Identified as a hated Brit, he saved himself by belting out the banned in Germany Horst Wessel song. Instead of beating him they bought him beers.
In 1977, Pearce founded a youth magazine called Bulldog: “Although I would deny the charges in court, it would be true to say that Bulldog’s ultimate purpose was to incite racial hatred.” He was eventually convicted of inciting racial hatred and sent to prison, not once but twice.
Ironically and providentially, Pearce was saved from that life by an aspect of his radicalism, his hatred of large government and his love of the small and the local. He discovered Chesterton and Belloc and Distributism, and through them came to know and to love the Church.
This is why all conversion stories are so interesting. Who would have thought that God would lead a man through racism and hatred and into the Church by reading economics?
There is much more in this book than a thousand words can convey. There is a long section about his time spent raising hell in Northern Ireland – where he came close to death many times. There are stories about his pals from those days who have risen to positions in the European Parliament. And there is much more to say about his conversion.
Today Pearce is writer-in-residence at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire where he lives with his wife and children. He has written twenty books and at the tender age of fifty-two, with God’s grace, will write many more.