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“Dressed in an Angel's Nightshirt”: Jesus and the BBC

  • Meredith Veldman

This article examines images of Jesus broadcast on the BBC from the 1930s through the 1950s. During these years, the BBC sought to use its cultural influence to replace popular religiosity with what the clerics who staffed its Religious Broadcasting Department (RBD) regarded as a more masculine, modern, and vigorous national religious faith. To achieve this aim, the RBD marshaled the might of British New Testament scholarship and its image of a warrior-like, apocalyptic historical Jesus. Yet the RBD's hopes of bridging the gap between popular religiosity and its own vision of Christianity went unrealized. Programs on Jesus that reached a genuinely national audience—The Man Born to be King, Dorothy L. Sayers's wartime radio drama, and Jesus of Nazareth, a popular television series from the 1950s—instead featured Anglicized and ahistorical images deeply embedded within British popular culture. The story of Jesus on the BBC highlights both this popular culture's strength and Christian Britain's fragmentation.

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1 Francis House to Freda Lingstrom, 12 March 1955; BBC Written Archives Centre (hereafter WAC) T2/74/2.

2 Robert Walton to House, 18 March 1955, WAC T2/74/1.

3 See Maas, Jeremy, Holman Hunt and the “Light of the World” (London, 1984); Madeleine Bunting, “Victorians Valued after Years of Neglect,” Guardian, 5 November 1994, 2.

4 Brown, Callum, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularization 1800–2000 (London, 2001), 58, 16, 25–26; Nash, David, Christian Ideals in British Culture: Stories of Belief in the Twentieth Century (Basingstoke, 2013), 160–83.

5 Green, S. J. D., Religion in the Age of Decline: Organization and Experience in Industrial Yorkshire 1870–1920 (Cambridge, 1996), 272 ; see also 205–9; Brown, Death of Christian Britain, 156–61; Cashdollar, Charles D., A Spiritual Home: Life in British and American Reformed Congregations, 1830–1915 (University Park, 2000), 118 .

6 Hall, Donald, ed., Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age (Cambridge, 1994); Springhall, John, “Building Character in the British Boy: The Attempt to Extend Christian Manliness to Working-Class Adolescents,” in Manliness and Morality: Middle-Class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800—1940, ed. Mangan, J. A. and Walvin, J. (Manchester, 1987), 5274 ; Vance, Norman, The Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought (Cambridge, 1985); Walker, Pamela J., Pulling the Devil's Kingdom Down: The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain (Berkeley, 2001).

7 Veldman, Meredith, “Dutiful Daughter versus All-Boy: Jesus, Gender, and the Secularization of Victorian Society,” Nineteenth Century Studies 11 (1997): 124, at 10–18.

8 [Cairns, D. S.], The Army and Religion: An Enquiry and its Bearing upon the Religious Life of the Nation (London, 1919), 35 .

9 The Bishop of Liverpool et al., letter to the editor, Times, 18 February 1933.

10 Pictures of Jesus for Children: Addresses by Eight Leading Educationalists (London, [1935]), 14, 37, 28.

11 Turnock, Ron, Television and Consumer Culture: Britain and the Transformation of Modernity (London, 2007), 2429 ; see also Briggs, Asa, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, vol. 2, The Golden Age of the Wireless (London, 1965); vol. 3, The War of Words (London, 1970); vol. 4, Sound and Vision (London, 1979); and vol. 5, Competition (London, 1995).

12 Wolfe, Kenneth M., The Churches and the British Broadcasting Corporation 1922–1956: The Politics of British Religion (London, 1984); see also Noonan, Catriona, “Piety and Professionalism: The BBC's Changing Religious Mission,” Media History 19, no. 2 (May 2013): 196212 .

13 For “diffusive Christianity,” see Cox, Jeffrey, English Churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth, 1870–1930 (Oxford, 1982); for “indigenous,” see Wolfe, Churches and the BBC, 25.

14 Williams, S. C., Religious Belief and Popular Culture in Southwark c. 1880–1939 (New York, 1999), 87104, 117–23, 143–47; see also Brown, Death of Christian Britain, 115–44; Green, Religion in the Age of Decline, 282–83; Parker, Stephen, Faith on the Home Front: Aspects of Church Life and Popular Religion in Birmingham, 1939–1945 (Bern, 2005), 5994 ; Roberts, Elizabeth, A Woman's Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women 1890–1940 (Oxford, 1985), 45 .

15 Williams, Religious Culture, 130–31. See also Roberts, A Woman's Place, 4–6, 15, 44–45, 170; Elizabeth Roberts, Working Class Barrow and Lancaster, 1890–1930, Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster Occasional Paper No. 2 (1976), 62–69.

16 Williams, John Gordon, The Life of Our Lord, Senior Course (London, 1939), 1 .

17 Hayes, Ernest H., “Sunday School Lessons,” in Christian Education in the Sunday School and Bible Study in Day Schools, ed. Braham, Ernest G. (London, 1933), 77 .

18 Lee, Hetty, Lessons on the Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ (London, 1944), 245 .

19 See, for example, Pictures of Jesus, 17, 23–24.

20 D. M. Llewellyn, Jesus Christ: The Son of God. Kindergarten Lessons 1940–1941 (London), 32.

21 See, for example, Oakley, G. R., The Prayer Book Catechism. A Series of Sunday School Lessons (Lent to Trinity) (London, 1928), no. 44; Elsie Anne Wood, Giant Picture Book, series 1, The Gospels, book 1, The Childhood of Jesus (London, 1950).

22 See, for example, Reid's, Robert PaytonChrist in the Carpenter Shop,” Nelson's Bible Pictures: For Use with the Standard Graded Courses (London, 1914).

23 Pictures of Jesus, 13.

24 See, for example, Gardiner, E. A., The Children's Book of Bible Stories (London, 1938), frontispiece; “John,” Gems from the Gospels (Copenhagen, 1929); Sunday school and prayer book stamps, John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Library, Texts Box 1; Arthur Mee, The Pocket Bible (London, 1927), frontispiece. See also Binfield, Clyde, “The Purley Way for Children,” The Church and Childhood, ed. Wood, Diana (Oxford, 1994), 461–76, at 473.

25 “Holman Hunt,” Scotsman, 2 April 1927, 10.

26 Bonner, Carey, ed., The Sunday School Hymnary (London, 1905), no. 218; the hymn also appears in The Church and School Hymnal (London, 1926), no. 321; The Methodist Hymn-Book (London, 1933), no. 842. For the importance of Bonner's Hymnary, see Northcott, Cecil, For Britain's Children: The Story of the Sunday Schools, and of the National Sunday School Union (London, 1953). For the popularity of “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild,” see Clapp-Itnyre, Alisa, British Hymn Books for Children, 1800–1900: Re-Tuning the History of Childhood (Farnham, 2016), 61, 159–60. For the importance of hymns in popular religion, see Brown, Death of Christian Britain, 137–38; Williams, Religious Belief, 148–54.

27 See, for example, Margetson, W. H., “The Good Shepherd,” in Nelson's Bible Pictures for Individual Work: New Testament (London, 1936).

28 Bonner, Hymnary, nos. 46, 323. Both also appeared in the Church and School Hymnal (nos. 323, 167) and the Methodist Hymn-Book (nos. 844, 865).

29 Clapp-Itnyre, British Hymn Books for Children, 1800–1900, 134 (emphasis in original); see also 50, 79, 135–36.

30 McIntyre, Ian, The Expense of Glory: A Life of John Reith (London, 1994), 159 ; see also 188, 189.

31 Briggs, The Golden Age of the Wireless, 12.

32 BBC Handbook (London, 1928), 35.

33 Ibid.

34 Wolfe, Churches and the BBC, 47, 95, 154.

35 Rev. J. G. Williams to the Senior Education Officer, 18 December 1947, WAC R16/230/14.

36 John Reith, Broadcast over Britain (London, 1924), 193.

37 Reith to William Temple, 23 June 1930, quoted in Wolfe, Churches and the BBC, 29.

38 Ibid., 18–25.

39 Ibid., 85.

40 Welch to Melvin Dinwiddie, February 1940, quoted in Wolfe, Churches and the BBC, 155; see also 61–62, 154–57.

41 Welch, “Series of Biblical Plays for Broadcasting to Schools,” 11 January 1945, WAC R16/442/6.

42 Letter from Welch to “Sister Penelope,” 1 June 1944, quoted in Wolfe, Churches and the BBC, 240.

43 Alan Webster, “Obituary: The Venerable Francis House,” Guardian, 11 September 2004.

44 House, Francis, The Church on the Air: A Brief Account of the Work of the BBC's Religious Broadcasting Department (London, 1949), n.p.

45 Eric Saxon to Francis House, 22 November 1949, WAC R34/815/4.

46 Welch, Series of Biblical Plays.

47 “Memorandum on the Review Material, Sept. 1952–June 1953 (Report on ‘Religion and Philosophy’ series),” WAC-R16/262.

48 Hastings, Adrian, A History of English Christianity 1920–1990 (London, 1991), 117 . See also Horbury, William, “The New Testament,” A Century of Theological and Religious Studies in Britain, ed. Nicholson, Ernest (Oxford, 2003), 98104 ; Schwarz, Hans, Theology in a Global Context: The Last Two Hundred Years (Grand Rapids, 2005), 285–91; Williams, John Tudno, “The Contribution of Protestant Nonconformists to Biblical Scholarship in the Twentieth Century,” in Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century, ed. Sell, Alan P. F. and Cross, Anthony R. (Carlisle, 2003), 132, esp. 4–14, 23–28. For Manson's and Dodd's broadcasts, see Manson Papers, DIII, John Rylands Library (hereafter MP); Manson files under WAC Talks; also WAC 910; WAC R16/442/9; WAC R16/774/1; Dodd files under WAC Talks and Contributor Talks; also WAC R16/230/1; WAC R16/230/2.

49 See, for example, Dodd, C. H., The Founder of Christianity (London, 1971); idem, The Gospel in the New Testament (London, 1926); idem, The Leader: A Vivid Portrayal of the Last Years of the Life of Jesus, 2nd ed. (London, 1958); idem, There and Back Again (London, 1932); Manson, T. W., “Background to the Ministry of Jesus” and “The Ministry of Jesus,” in The Bible Today (New York, 1955), 6775, 88–93, first appearing as columns in the Times; as well as Manson’s monthly column, “The Free Churches,” in the Manchester Guardian in the 1940s. See also Black, Matthew, Thomas Walter Manson, 1893–1958 (Oxford, 1959), 330–31; Dillistone, F. W., C. H. Dodd: Interpreter of the New Testament (London, 1977), 51, 73–4, 183–92.

50 Wolfe, Churches and the BBC, 25.

51 Dodd, Leader, 7–8, 12, 14, 15, 17 (first published in 1922). See also idem, Benefits of His Passion: Six Broadcast Talks (London, 1947), 3–4; idem, Founder, 126, 91, 124; Manson, The Teaching of Jesus: Studies in Form and Content (Cambridge, 1943), 209.

52 Sanday, William, Outlines of the Life of Christ (Edinburgh, [1906]), 250 .

53 Aulen, Gustaf, Jesus in Contemporary Research, trans. Hjelm, Ingalill H. (London, 1976), 4. Aulef is quoting from Dodd, Leader, 167.

54 Manson, Teaching, 101.

55 Schweitzer, Albert, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1st complete ed., ed. Bowden, John (Minneapolis, 2001). For twentieth-century developments, see Neill, Stephen and Wright, Tom, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986 (Oxford, 1988), 205312 ; Weaver, Walter, The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century, 1900–1950 (Harrisburg, 1999); for a more succinct narrative, see Davidson, Robert and Leaney, A. R. C., The Pelican Guide to Modern Theology, vol. 3, Biblical Criticism (Harmondsworth, 1970), 246–66.

56 Manson, T. W., “Quest of the Historical Jesus—Continued” (Rylands lecture, 1949), in Studies in the Gospels and Epistles, ed. Black, Matthew (Manchester, 1962), 12 .

57 Dodd, C. H., The Authority of the Bible (London, 1928), 225 .

58 Manson, T. W., “The Gospel Miracles” (broadcast to schools, November 19, 1951), in Religion in Education 19, no. 2 (1952): 4551, at 45, 51, 49.

59 Dodd, C. H., Parables of the Kingdom (London, 1953), 2526 .

60 Dodd, C. H., The Coming of Christ: Four Broadcast Addresses for the Season of Advent (London, 1951), 12 .

61 Manson, Teaching, 168.

62 See Gerdmar, Anders, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews (Leiden, 2009); Kelley, Shawn, Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship (London, 2002).

63 Caird, George B., “C. H. Dodd,” in A Handbook of Christian Theologians, ed. Peerman, Dean G. and Marty, Martin E. (Cambridge, 1984), at 321.

64 See, for example, Manson, “Christmas: Fact or Fancy?” (broadcast, 14 December 1948), in the Listener, 23 December 1948; typed ms, Sermon, Service for Easter Day 1950, BBC Third Programme, MP D1; typed ms, “Steadfastly Towards Jesus,” Holy Week Talks, 1951, Dodd's Third Programme talks, MP DII; all published in the Listener, “New Testament Scholarship Today,” 19 December 1946, 888–89; “The Environment of Early Christianity,” 19 July 1951, 103–5; “New Testament Criticism: A Fresh Approach,” 26 July 1951, 143–45; “Results of Recent New Testament Research,” 2 August 1951, 183–85.

65 See, for example, Manson's Holy Week Talks, 1951; see Eric Saxon to AHRB, 14 April 1951, WAC 910 File II. See also Silvey, Robert, Who's Listening: The Story of BBC Audience Research (London, 1974).

66 Sayers, Dorothy L., He That Should Come: A Nativity Play in One Act (London, 1939).

67 Welch to Sayers, 5 February 1940, in Sayers, Dorothy L., The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, vol. 2, 1937–1943: From Novelist to Playwright, ed. Reynolds, Barbara (New York, 1997), 145–46 (hereafter Letters).

68 Quoted in ibid., 157; no source given.

69 See also Goody, Alex, “Dorothy L. Sayers's The Man Born to Be King: The ‘Impersonation’ of Divinity: Language, Authenticity and Embodiment,” in Broadcasting in the Modernist Era, ed. Feldman, Matthew, Tonning, Eric, and Mead, Henry (London, 2014), 7996 ; Low, Donald L., “Telling the Story: Susan Hill and Dorothy L. Sayers,” in British Radio Drama, ed. Drakakis, John (Cambridge, 1981), 111–38; Reynolds, Barbara, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (New York, 1993), 298306, 317–30; Wolfe, Churches and the BBC, 218–38.

70 Welch to Director of Features and Drama, 27 November 1941, WAC R19/1016/1.

71 Sayers to Marjorie Barber, 27 January 1942, in Letters, 346.

72 Publicity, WAC R1.

73 Low, 135.

74 Sayers to Welch, 6 1942, in Letters, 339; C. S. Man Born to be King, A–K, 1941–46, WAC R41/250/1; L–Z, 1941–43, WAC R41/250/2; WAC R1. For additional reactions, see WAC R41/102.

75 C. S. Report, Confidential, [January 1942], WAC R41/102; for the Protestant Truth Society and Lord's Day Observance Society, see Bebbington, David, “Martyrs for the Truth: Fundamentalism in Britain,” in Martyrs and Martyrologies: Papers Read at the 1992 Summer Meeting and the 1993 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, ed. Wood, Diana (Oxford, 1993), 417–51; Maiden, John, “Fundamentalism and Anti-Catholicism in Inter-War English Evangelicalism,” in Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom during the Twentieth Century, ed. Bebbington, D. W. and Jones, David Ceri (Oxford, 2014), 151–70.

76 Herbert Henry Martin, letter to the editor, Yorkshire Post, 17 January 1942; Sayers to Father Taylor, after 8 March 1942, in Letters, 353–54; See also the New Chronicle of Christian Education headline, “Christ in Woman Novelist's ‘Radio Oberammergau,’” December 1940, quoted in Goody, “Dorothy L. Sayers's The Man Born to Be King: The ‘Impersonation’ of Divinity: Language, Authenticity and Embodiment,” 79.

77 Sayers to Welch, 6 January 1942, in Letters, 339.

78 C. S. Report, Confidential.

79 J[ohn] Coatman to D. G. [Sir Frederick Ogilvie], 30 December 1941, WAC R41/102.

80 Welch to Coatman, 24 December 1941, WAC R41/250/1, emphasis in original.

81 Welch to Sayers, 4 December 1940, in Letters, 212.

82 Welch to Children's Hour Department, 29 February 1940, WAC R1/910.

83 B. E. Nicolls, BBC Controller of Programmes, to Sayers, 18 October 1942, in Letters, 376.

84 Wolfe, Churches and the BBC, 235.

85 Welch to the archbishop of Canterbury [William Temple], June 1943, quoted in Letters, 428. See also Dinwiddie, Melvin, Religion by Radio: Its Place in British Broadcasting (London, 1968), 9091 ; RBO Glasgow [Rev. Ronnie Falconer] to HRB [Welch], 20 July 1956, WAC R34/815/6.

86 See, for example, Sayers to unknown recipient, 28 November 1941, in Letters, 329–34.

87 See Welch's comments on Hugh Ross Williamson's use of John's gospel for the “Life of Jesus Interludes” in the Worship Service Broadcasts for Schools: DRB [Welch] to DSB, 12 January 1944, WAC R16/442/5.

88 Sayers to Derek McCulloch, 25 October 1940, in Letters, 186; Sayers to Marjorie Barber, 26 October 1942, in Letters, 379.

89 Sayers, Dorothy L., The Man Born to Be King (New York, 1943), 263, 268 (hereafter MBTBK).

90 See Gilman, Sander, The Jew's Body (New York, 1991).

91 MBTBK, 60, 83, 89; the Sound Archive of the British Library holds recordings of the plays.

92 Ibid., 100, 271.

93 Sayers to Welch, 5 November 1950, quoted in Reynolds, Sayers, 302; see also Curran, Terrie, “The Word Made Flesh: The Christian Aesthetic in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Man Born to be King ,” in As Her Whimsey Took Her: Critical Readings on the World of Dorothy L. Sayers, ed. Hanney, Margaret (Kent, 1979), 6777 .

94 Sayers's press announcement, 10 December 1941, WAC R1; Sayers to Welch, 19 February 1942, in Letters, 351–52.

95 Sayers to Derek McCulloch, 25 October 1940, in Letters, 186; Sayers to Welch, 17 September 1941, in Letters, 293–96, at 293.

96 Ibid., 295–96.

97 Sayers to Father Taylor, after 8 March 1942, in Letters, 354.

98 MBTBK, 54, 53, 5.

99 Virgina Graham, “Cinieika,” Spectator, 20 September 1951, 12. See also “Film of Passion Play,” Times, 9 September 1951, 8.

100 Quoted in Crisell, Andrew, An Introductory History of British Broadcasting (London, 1997), 86 .

101 Freda Lingstrom to C. Tel., 21 May 1954, WAC T2/74/1.

102 House to Joy Harington, 8 Oct. 1954, WAC T2/74/1.

103 House to Lingstrom, 1 June 1955, WAC T2/74/2.

104 House to Colin Beale, 24 May 1955, WAC T2/74/2.

105 Ibid.

106 Harington to Lingstrom, 20 December 1954, WAC T2/74/1 (emphasis in original); House to Harington, 8 October 1954. See also Memo from Harington, 1 September 1954, WAC T2/74/1.

107 Minute of the Central Religious Advisory Committee, 31 January 1952, BBC WAC T2/74/1.

108 R. McKay, “Points Arising from the Discussion at the Consultation on the Life of Christ Series Held on Wednesday July 6th, 1955,” 8 July 1955; and “House's Addendum to McKay's Memo, Children's Life of Christ Series (Television) 12 July 55,” BBC WAC-T2/74/3.

109 Harington, Joy, Jesus of Nazareth (New York, 1957), 145 .

110 House, “HCPTEl [Lingstrom] and HRB [House]: Interview 3rd June, 1955 on the basis of HRB's memorandum of 1st June 1955,” BBC WAC-T2/74/2.

111 House, “Life of Christ for Children's Television—Note of Informal Conversation with H. E. B. on May 23rd [1955],” WAC-T2/74/2.

112 For the priority of Mark, see T. W. Manson, “The Foundations of the Synoptic Tradition and the Gospel of Mark” (Rylands lecture, 1944), in Studies, 30–45; Manson, Teaching, 23–26.

113 Harington to House, 6 December 1954; House to Harington, 14 December 1954, WAC-T2/74/1.

114 “Points Arising”; “Notes on Holy Land Meeting,” no date [July–December 1955], WAC-T2/74/3.

115 Robert Walton to H. C. Tel., 5 October 1955.

116 I thank Deborah Perkin and BBC Wales for enabling me to watch the series.

117 Harington to Lingstrom, 18 May 1955, from Jerusalem, Jordan, continued 22 May, WAC-T2/74/2.

118 Freda Lingstrom, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Radio Times, 10 February 1956, 3.

119 Harington to Lingstrom, 18 May 1955.

120 Ibid., emphasis in original.

121 Ibid.

122 For a similar contemporary critique, see Freda Lingstrom, “A Report on the Cycle of Plays on the Life of Jesus of Nazareth with a Recommendation,” August 1956, 4, WAC T2/74/5.

123 Still from Jesus of Nazareth, “Jesus of Nazareth: A Souvenir of One of the Most Memorable TV Programmes yet Produced,” in The Television Annual for 1957, ed. Kenneth Baily (London, 1957), 52–55, at 54.

124 Ibid.

125 “Jesus of Nazareth. A Souvenir,” 52.

126 Audience research report, 12 February 1956, WAC T2/74/5; Viewer response survey, 25 April 1956, WAC T2/74/5; Lingstrom, “Report,” 14.

127 Canon Roy McKay,” Priests and Prelates: The Daily Telegraph Obituaries (London, 2002), 107 .

128 See Oliver Hunkin, “Obituary: Canon Roy McKay,” The Independent, 18 November 1993; McKay, Roy, Take Care of the Sense: Reflections on Religious Broadcasting (London, 1964).

129 Brown, Death of Christian Britain, 170–98; Green, S. J. D., The Passing of Protestant England: Secularisation and Social Change, c. 1920–1960 (Cambridge, 2011). See also McLeod, Hugh, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (Oxford, 2007).

130 Victoria Combe, “Church Poster Shows Jesus as Che Guevara,” The Telegraph, 6 January 1999, 7.

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