The Lord of the World

In 2001, St. Augustine’s Press published a new edition of Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel, The Lord of the World. A friend of mine in Vermont recently urged me to read it, and I did.

Ralph McInerny, in a brief introduction, writes: “The novel wonderfully conveys the flatness and boredom of a world without God. Boredom becomes a condition for recognizing our need for something more than this — a few more decades of life and then a total void.”

This novel is remarkably similar in theme to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi, one of the very great encyclicals. That is, the novel is about the futility of a this-worldly utopia with the instruments of death (abortion, euthanasia) and endless life (prolongation of life, cloning) that are designed to make it come about. Indeed, in a lecture he gave at the Catholic University in Milan on February 6, 1992, Josef Ratzinger cited The Lord of the World and the deadly Universalist, inner-world atmosphere it depicted.

My father had this Benson novel around the house when I was a boy in Iowa, and I remember reading it then. What I remember most about it at that young age was how frightening it was, with its vivid end-of-the world description. Indeed, I have often said that this novel and C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength are the most frightening books that I have ever read. Now, no longer a youth (and then some), when I ask myself why this fright, it is because both books make the this-worldly triumph of evil so plausible, so intellectual, so logical.

Both books seem to exemplify the validity of a remark of Herbert Deane in his book on Augustine: “As history draws to its close, the number of true Christians in the world will decline rather than increase. His [Augustine’s] words give no support to the hope that the world will gradually be brought to belief in Christ and that earthly society can be transformed, step by step, into the kingdom of God” (38). The anti-Christ figure in The Lord of the World becomes the “Man-God,” the “Lord of the World,” precisely by promising universal brotherhood, peace, and love, but no transcendence.

The hero of the book is an English priest, Percy Franklin, who looks almost exactly like the mysterious Julian Felsenburgh, the American senator from Vermont. The senator appears as a lone and dramatic figure promising the world goodness if it but follow him. No one quite knows who he is or where he is from, but his voice mesmerizes. Under his leadership, East and West join. War is abolished. Felsenburgh becomes the President of Europe, then of the world, by popular acclaim. Everyone is fascinated with him, yet still no one knows much about him. People are both riveted and frightened by the way he demands attention. Most follow without question.

The only group who in any sense oppose him are the few loyal Catholics. The English priest is eventually called to Rome, since he has been an acute observer of the rise of Felsenburgh and his agenda. Apostasies among bishops and priests increase. The pope, John XXIV, is a good man — not unlike Pius X, who was pope when this novel was written.

Belief in God is to be replaced by belief in man. All those who oppose this doctrine are slated for extermination. With the English priest’s inspiration, the pope forms a new religious order, the Order of Christ Crucified. Its members, including the pope, vow to die in the name of the faith. Many do.

The English prime minister and his wife form a sub-plot: The wife desperately wants to believe in this new world movement, but she is horrified when she sees the killings that are justified in the name of world unity. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s mother is brought back to the faith by the English priest, much to the horror of the prime minister. But the wife is upset at the whole thing. Finally, to escape it all, she applies for and is granted public euthanasia. She dies not believing, but somehow knowing that what is coming with Felsenburgh is utterly horrible.

As the world comes to an end, the pope calls all the cardinals to Rome. Meantime, some English Catholics, against orders, plot to blow up the Abbey where the politicians meet. Percy Franklin, now a cardinal, along with another German cardinal, are sent back home to try to prevent this plot, which they are warned about. But word gets out. In retaliation, Felsenburgh orders that Rome be destroyed, which it is, together with the pope and all the cardinals but the three not in Rome. These three quickly elect the younger Englishman as the new pope, Sylvester III. The old cardinal in Jerusalem dies. The German cardinal is hanged.

The last pope goes to the Holy Land, to the places of the last days pictured in the New Testament. In a final act, Felsenburgh and all the world leaders fly in formation to destroy the remaining signs of faith on earth. In response, Sylvester and the remaining Catholics are at Mass. As they sing together the music of Benediction, the Tantum Ergo, the attack strikes. With that, the world ends.

The last words of the novel are: “Then this world passed, and the glory of it.” It could not be more dramatic, or more moving. Somehow, I no longer find it so frightening. It is almost consoling.

Originally Published in Crisis March 2009

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

  • Dale Price

    Just finished reading it for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Holds up very well, considering its age. Grim, yet inspiring, too.

    St. Benedict Press has discounted copies you can buy over at TAN Books. One caveat–there are some very irritating typesetting problems and typographical errors in this version. But you can’t beat the price.

  • SC

    I bought The Lord of The World after reading Rev. George Rutler

  • Peter Freeman

    For added drama, I decided to read an online version of this book in my office in between classes…during the recent election.

    It was hard not to resist allegorizing the utterly charismatic but seemingly spontaneously generated American senator whose golden tongue promises to charm all the world together in peace under his personality-driven reign.

    For me, though, the most powerful moment of this book is when Fr. Franklin meets with the priest who resigns and realizes that it is impossible for friendship to truly extend between people who don’t understand each other’s faiths.

    And when that priest became the liturgical head of the neo-pagan pseudo-religion that emerges around Felsenburgh, it was an uncanny reminder how atheism doesn’t really mean the end of religion — it means wiping the slate clean for the rebirth of the deadliest superstitions.

    I’m fascinated by how those early 20th-century Catholic authors seem so uncannily prophetic now.

  • Ellen

    I’ve read Lord of the World several times and am reading it again for Lent. It never fails to move me, make me think and, especially now, scare the wits out of me.

    I fear we are in for very difficult times.

  • David L Alexander

    I read LOTW a few years ago. It was one of the few novels I really liked, that I could get back then on a Palm Pilot. I read it for long rides on the subway. Amidst the despair of the scenario, of a world falling around them, the heroic figures could cling to Hope.

    Hope. We heard that word a lot in the past year, from a figure who mesmerized us enough to elect him a great leader, but about whom we knew little. Somehow I doubt that it was the theological virtue that drew the masses to him. Not because of any evil designs one might assign to the man, but because he IS merely a man. “Put not thy trust in princes.” The true heroes of LOTW set their sights higher, and paid the price for it. The parallels between that world and ours are not obvious, but lie just underneath the surface. This alone makes LOTW very timely reading, as it is a message for all time.

    The good Father could be said to have given away the ending. Then again, shouldn’t we have already known?

  • Nancy Nelson

    Fr. Schall, would you provide advice, suggestions and comments about my having a group meet in my home to read and discuss The Lord of the World and Spe Salvi. I ask this because prior to reading your comments about the book on the Catholicity site, I was struggling with a sense of hopelessness and believed that I was losing faith. The recap of the book left me with great hope again. Thank you and thank God for that. It helped me to again realize that even though for a person who is labeled pro-life, the future seems rather bleak, the fact remains that we are sojourners on earth, to do our best while here, but that heaven is our true home.

  • gwen nell

    I got to the climax of this book LORD OF THE WORLD and all the important phrases were in Latin and I could not understand them. I was so frustrated I even went on Google to translate but it did not help. Can anyone translate for me the climactic phrases at the end of this story!! Thanks.

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  • Frcjm

    There is a new edition out from the same publisher with a  long foreword  on the End Times and the ati Christ by my favorite author myself,,, Fr. C. John McCloskey III

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  • James

    “The hero…who looks almost exactly like the mysterious Julian Felsenburgh, the American senator from Vermont. The senator appears as a lone and dramatic figure promising the world goodness if it but follow him. No one quite knows who he is or where he is from, but his voice mesmerizes.”

    Maybe Benson should have picked Illinois instead of Vermont. 😉

  • DC

    That’s weird.  I had never heard of this book until about three weeks ago when I found it free for the kindle and read it.  And now today I see this article on Crisis.  I really liked it recommend it.

  • grahamcombs

    I’m not sure why I’m more at home with 18th century English than early 20th, but after acclimating I discovered what a fine writer Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson was and is.   There is an eerie if unintentional prescience.  Sen. Felsenburgh is “not known” and the minister wonders why he wife thinks this;  the pope is John XXIV (why not the XXIII?);  the king of England is named William (who will be king by the end of this decade); and there is a bit of C.S. Lewis’s later creation Screwtape in Felsenburgh.   Particulary the fierce and seductive logic.  Then there is the premonition of WWII’s carpet bombing with its massive death toll.   There are others I’m probably forgetting.  As a former Anglican I also noted touches of English found in the Book of Common Prayer — “meet and right” for example which precedes the Eucharistic Prayer.   With the new 2011 edition on  Amazon  maybe this is no longer a lost classic.   The edition I read was a 1975 facsimile of the 1908 edition I borrowed from Northern Michigan University and part of a series of forgotten science fiction classics.  The Author writes that the Prologue can be passed over but it is a fascinating chapter of the novel.    Thank you Father Schall for writing this and Crisis Magazine for reposting it. 

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