The Lord of the World

Deliver Us From Dystopia

Much has been written about Lord of the World, a 1907 religious-dystopian novel about the fall of Christianity, the coming of the anti-Christ and the end of the world, which has been touted as prophetic by the last two popes and a variety of other Roman Catholic luminaries over the years.

The book is sometimes credited as being the first modern sci-fi dystopian novel, a claim that is easily dismissed. Even allowing for some vagueness around the word “modern,” Lord of the World has many obvious forebears, such as The Angel of the Revolution (1893), The Last American (1889), the unpublished 1863 Jules Verne novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, and more than a dozen novels about the Chinese conquest of America. Some of these included fantastic or science-fiction elements, while others were set in the not-too-distant future.

More significantly, given its notoriety, Lord of the World is not the first dystopian novel to address the decline and fall of Christianity, and elements of the book are suspiciously similar its predecessors in this subgenre. Fictional accounts of religious apocalypse (as opposed to prophetic or scriptural accounts) first started to appear in significant numbers after the 1805 publication of Le Dernier Homme by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville, which is believed to be the first clear example of the science-fiction subgenre named after the book’s title, “The Last Man” – the extinction of humanity as seen in the story of its last survivor. de Graineville’s book inspired a number of direct imitators on the topic of the last man in fiction and poetry.

Le Dernier Homme contained many elements of modern dystopia, including the description of a futuristic human race with great technology, but cursed by declining fertility, but its structure and plot are much more reminiscent of religious apocalypse writing. As the 19th century progressed, the classical dystopian genre—stories of a broken or irretrievably corrupt society—exploded into popularity. Many of these were racial in nature, describing the decline of white supremacy to competing demographics, but some waded into more complex technological, political and religious waters. British authors produced a number of religiously oriented dystopias during the late 1800s, such as 1891's The Christ That is to be, which describes the Second Coming of Christ to a decaying Britain that has been overrun by socialism.

The Rev. Annabel Lee was an early example of Christian dystopia, describing a futuristic world in which the old religions have declined in favor of a new religion called Humanity, and therein lies an interesting question, because while the two books are wildly different, Lord of the World (published almost 10 years later) describes a very similar secular religion unfolding in roughly the same time frame. The similarities suggest that the author of Lord of the World, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson borrowed the outline of the religion of Humanity, as it is called in both books, from Robert Williams Buchanan, the author of The Rev. Annabel Lee.

Buchanan was a Scottish poet who wrote extensively, and sometimes critically, about Christianity. The Rev. Annabel Lee is half frivolous romance-story and half polemic about Christianity. Its protagonist, Annabel Lee, is a woman of the 21st century who diagnoses the inadequacy of the official world religion of Humanity and leads a movement to revive Christian belief. The book ends in tragedy, but with a promise that Christianity is on the rebound.

In contrast, Benson was an Anglican priest in England who had scandalously converted to Catholicism. His novel is a far cry from Buchanan’s—grim and extreme. While the setting is very similar, a 21st century world in which the religion of Humanity has replaced dying Christianity, the storyline is very different. In Lord of the World, the anti-Christ arrives and precipitates a global genocide of the world’s few remaining Catholics, a campaign that culminates in the end of the world.

While there are similarities between the two books in their science fiction elements (airships, wireless communications), the more important meeting is over the religion of Humanity.

In The Rev. Annabel Lee:

For it was the twenty-first century — measuring the period by the chronology of the Christian Era — that is to say, from the birth of Jesus Christ onwards — and Humanity, the Great Being, the God whom the great scientists and philosophers of the last decades of the nineteenth century had prophesied, had at last come to his throne. All the prophecies indeed had come to pass. Man was master of the world and of his own destiny, and Science, by abolishing nearly all the evils which had devastated the earth for so many centuries, had produced an almost perfect race. …We should grossly libel the spirit of the twenty-first century if we described it as either grossly material or openly irreligious. The City had its Churches and Temples of Humanity, and therein men and women worshipped all that was best and beautiful in human character all that shed peace and happiness on the human race.

In Lord of the World:

… "God" was the developing sum of created life, and impersonal Unity was the essence of His being; competition then was the great heresy that set men one against another and delayed all progress; for, to his mind, progress lay in the merging of the individual in the family, of the family in the commonwealth, of the commonwealth in the continent, and of the continent in the world. Finally, the world itself at any moment was no more than the mood of impersonal life. It was, in fact, the Catholic idea with the supernatural left out, a union of earthly fortunes, an abandonment of individualism on the one side, and of supernaturalism on the other. It was treason to appeal from God Immanent to God Transcendent; there was no God transcendent; God, so far as He could be known, was man.

In both books, the legalization of euthanasia is a key practice of Humanity. In Annabel Lee’s world, euthanasia is tied to a program of eugenics and nutrition, which has produced a “New Race of men and women” among whom “Sickness, Poverty, Disease, and Crime were practically unknown.” In Lord of the World, euthanasia is available for anyone who is sick, aged, gravely injured or simply unhappy.

Another point of overlap between the two books comes in the diagnosis of where Humanity fails, criticizing its goal of assuring secular happiness above all else. Buchanan and Benson both refer to Christ as the “Man of Sorrows” (in Christian theology, an Old Testament reference to the Messiah) and describe how Humanity fails by eliminating the clarifying virtue of suffering.

Annabel Lee:

And it seemed now, since men were beneficent and good, and sorrow almost abolished, and the bread of life a certainty for all who deserved to live, and the sick and foul stamped out almost utterly, that Man could advance no more in happiness, though he might perchance in power and knowledge. … “If there were no pain, no calamity, no struggle, there would be no Love,” [in the words of Annabel Lee.] “The face of Man would be a mask of happiness, but his heart would remain a machine, and his conscience would be dead. The day he arrogates God's Seat and pro claims aloud that he has fully abolished suffering, he will pause upon his upward way and bow the head to Death indeed!”

Lord of the World:

…while Humanity- Religion endeavoured to abolish suffering the Divine Religion embraced it, so that the blind pangs even of beasts were within the Father's Will and Scheme; or that while from one angle one colour only of the web of life was visible— material, or intellectual, or artistic— from another the Supernatural was as eminently obvious.

Finally, and relatedly, Humanity is depicted by both authors as successful in eliminating most war, disease, crime and human misery. This is one of the classic scenarios of the dystopian genre—what would you exchange for an end to crime, poverty, sickness? How far would you go? As in many dystopias (such as Rollerball and The Purge), the regime succeeds in meeting many of the long-imagined goals of society, enforcing law and order and ensuring a form of prosperity.

But this classic proposition typically fails when confronted with its shortcomings, and in both books, Humanity shows its true colors when confronted by Christianity. In Annabel Lee, Humanity’s commitment to freedom of thought gives way to persecution, although the book ends before that conflict is fully realized. In Lord of the World, a similar dynamic plays out, with Christians tolerated at the start of the book, but met with oppression and finally genocide, as the anti-Christ leads an all-out military assault on the last strongholds of the Catholic Church, killing almost all the believers.

Buchanan died on June 10, 1901, on the same day as Sir Walter Besant, another early British dystopian author. In an unkind double obituary, The New York Evening Post wrote that “The death of Sir Walter Besant and of Robert Buchanan in one day can hardly be called a great loss to English letters, for neither man stood in the first rank.” Reviewers of the day panned The Rev. Annabel Lee, finding its writing flighty and its female protagonist improbable.

But both were important early British authors in the dystopian genre, and given their geographic and thematic proximity, it’s very possible than Benson was acquainted with the work of both authors. According to his biographer, Benson was directly acquainted with Besant’s sister-in-law, a prominent Theosophist and Freemason. Benson’s version of Humanity was closely tied to Freemasonry, which is cast in a very negative light.

While Benson does not directly lift any lengthy passages from Buchanan, it’s hard to conclude that Benson was not familiar with The Rev. Annabel Lee when reading the two books side by side—although it should be stressed that I haven’t found any evidence aside from the textual similarities noted above. Further examination of both men’s bodies of work might offer more insight.

Benson’s vision was grimmer than Buchanan’s, and far more Catholic. Lord of the World is, in many ways, a book about Catholic faith, belief and practice, delving into esoteric and mystical reflections, sometimes at the expense of plot. The book’s story is often sketched very broadly, and conventional details frequently

Nevertheless, the novel has had an impact over the years, including on the last two popes, which may offer some sobering insight into how they see the current state of the church and its prospects for the future. Reportedly, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger cited the book in a dire speech decrying the rise of a secular “New World Order.” This claim is repeated on a number of apocalyptic-leaning Catholic sites and is cited on Wikipedia, as well as in promotional materials for a recent edition of the book, but I couldn’t find a primary source for this online and in English.

Pope Francis’s interest in the book is somewhat better (or at least more copiously) documented. Francis has said that anyone who wants to understand him should read the book. In a 2013 sermon, he pointed to the book as “almost a prophecy” of how pressure to compromise with the secular world can lead to “apostasy.” In a 2015 interview, he said:

There is a book, excuse me but I'll make a commercial, there is a book that maybe is a bit heavy at the beginning because it was written in 1903 in London. It is a book that at that time, the writer had seen this drama of ideological colonization and wrote in that book. It is called "The Lord of the Earth," or "The Lord of the World." One of those. The author is Benson, written in 1903. I advise you to read it. Reading it, you'll understand well what I mean by ideological colonization.

For a pope who has been lauded by some as progressive, Francis’s recommendation should offer a note of caution, or at least of counterweight. Lord of the World is apocalyptic, reactionary and paranoid, depicting a church under final, bloody assault from the forces of Satan. Although its Catholic protagonists engage primarily in passive resistance, the lessons of the book are explicitly geared toward Armageddon.