Hewlett Johnson

Bronze bust of Johnson by Jacob Epstein, 1942

Hewlett Johnson (25 January 1874 – 22 October 1966) was an English priest of the Church of England. He was Dean of Manchester and later Dean of Canterbury, where he acquired his nickname "The Red Dean of Canterbury" for his unyielding support for the Soviet Union and its allies.

Early life

Johnson was born in Kersal as the third son of Charles Johnson, a wire manufacturer, and his wife Rosa, daughter of the Reverend Alfred Hewlett. He was educated at The King's School, Macclesfield and graduated from Owens College, Manchester in 1894 with a BSc degree in civil engineering and the geological prize.[1]

He worked from 1895 to 1898 at the railway carriage works in Openshaw, Manchester, where two workmates introduced him to socialism,[1] and he became an associate member of the Institute of Civil Engineers.[2] After deciding to do mission work for the Church Mission Society, he entered Wycliffe Hall, Oxford in 1900 and later attended Wadham College where he gained a Second in Theology in 1904.[3] The Society rejected him because of his increasingly liberal theological views, so he concentrated on training for priesthood and was ordained in 1904.

He became curate in 1905, and then in 1908, vicar of St Margaret's, Altrincham. He and his first wife organised holiday camps for poor children and, during World War I, a hospital for returning wounded soldiers in the town. His unconventional views on the war caused him to be refused employment as an army chaplain on active service but he officiated at a prisoner-of-war camp in his parish.[2] He became an honorary canon of Chester Cathedral in 1919 and rural dean of Bowdon, in which area his parish lay, in 1923.[1]

An avowed Christian Marxist, Johnson was brought under surveillance by MI5 in 1917 when he spoke in Manchester in support of the October Revolution. Although he never joined the Communist Party, he became chairman of the board of its newspaper, The Daily Worker.[1][4] His political views were unpopular but his hard work and pastoral skills led to him being appointed Dean of Manchester by Ramsay MacDonald in 1924. He was appointed Dean of Canterbury in 1931.[5]

The Socialist Sixth of the World

Johnson came to public prominence in the 1930s when he contrasted the economic development of the USSR under the First Five Year Plan to Britain during the Great Depression. He toured the Soviet Union in 1934 and again in 1937, reporting on each occasion the health and wealth of the average Soviet citizen and that the Soviet system protected the citizens' liberties. He collected his articles in the book The Socialist Sixth of the World (Gollancz, 1939; published in the USA as Soviet Power in 1941), which included a preface by the renegade Brazilian Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Duarte Costa.[6] His observations and views have drawn extensive criticism from commentators who point out that the Soviet Union in the 1930s was actually an oppressive totalitarian society with few or no redeeming features. Yet Johnson defended his positive accounts of life in the Soviet Union, emphasising that he had visited "five Soviet Republics and several great Soviet towns," that he had wandered on foot "many long hours on many occasions and entirely alone," and that he saw "all parts of the various towns and villages and at all hours of day and night."[7] It later emerged that much of the book was copied word for word from pro-Soviet propaganda material produced by organisations such as the Society of Cultural Relations with the USSR of which Johnson was Chairperson.[6]

World War II

During World War II, Johnson strictly followed the Soviet line. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, he opposed the war despite the fact that Britain was at war with Germany, and was accused of spreading defeatist propaganda. However, after Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, he supported the war, although his MI5 file reports that it was still judged "undesirable for the Dean of Canterbury to be allowed to lecture to troops".[8]

Johnson was arguably the most prominent of the Western church leaders who are said to have persuaded Joseph Stalin to restore the Moscow Patriarchate. Stalin was successfully convinced that such a move would improve his relations with the Western Allies. "It was not the vanity of a former seminary dropout that moved the Soviet leader," Dmitri Volkogonov concluded, "but rather pragmatic considerations in relation with the Allies." [9]


At the end of the war Johnson was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, in recognition of his "outstanding work as chairman of the joint committee for Soviet Aid", and in 1951 received the Stalin International Peace Prize. After the war, Johnson continued to use his public position to propound his pro-Soviet views. From 1948, he was the leader of Great Britain-USSR Friendship Organisation. However, his influence began to wane, particularly after public sympathy for the USSR in Britain declined dramatically after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Johnson's pro-Communist activities were especially troublesome for the British government, since foreigners tended to confuse Johnson the Dean of Canterbury with the Archbishop of Canterbury.[6][10] According to Ferdinand Mount, "What infuriated his critics, from Gollancz on the left to Fisher on the right, was that there was no evidence that Johnson had made any but the most superficial study of the issues that he spouted on with such mellifluous certainty, from famines in the 1930s to germ warfare in Korea."[6]

The headmaster of the King's School, Canterbury, Fred Shirley, manoeuvred against him. One year Johnson put up a huge blue and white banner across the front of the Deanery which read "Christians Ban Nuclear Weapons". By way of riposte, some of the boys put up a banner on one of the school's buildings which read "King's Ban Communists".

Johnson's adversaries have called his endeavours to unite Christianity and Marxism–Leninism a "heretical teaching concerning a new religion".[11] Johnson denied these accusations and argued that he knew very well the difference between religion (Christianity) and politics (Marxism–Leninism). His religious views were in line with mainstream Anglicanism. His support for Marxist–Leninist politics was derived, in his own words, from the conviction that "[capitalism] lacks a moral basis" and that "it is the moral impulse [of communism] ... which constitutes the greatest attraction and presents the widest appeal."[1]

His biographer Natalie E. Watson, in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), writes: "Communism, for Johnson, was not an anti-Christian force, but rather a natural result and a practical outworking of the Christian gospel ... His extensive writings on Soviet Russia reflected a naive and romantic perspective on the transformation [of Russian life] after the 1917 revolution. Until the end of his life he ignored the realities of mass persecution and the extermination of political opponents, as well as the anti-religious aspects of Marxism and Stalinism."[1]

Personal life

Johnson was twice married. While still a student at Oxford in 1903, he married Mary, daughter of Frederick Taylor, a merchant of Broughton Park, Manchester.[1] The couple had no children and she died of cancer in 1931.[1] He remarried in 1938 to Nowell Mary, daughter of his cousin George Edwards (another Anglican priest), with whom he had two daughters.[1]

Later life

Johnson retired from the Deanery of Canterbury in 1963, the year of his 89th birthday, but settled in the town, where he lived at the Red House in New Street.[12] While maintaining his interest in Communist world developments, he engaged in psychical research and completed before his death his autobiography, Searching for Light (posthumously published in 1968).[13] He died, at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital in 1966 aged 92, and was buried in the Cloister Garth at Canterbury Cathedral.[1]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Natalie E. Watson (2004). "Hewlett Johnson". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 30. Oxford University Press. pp. 268–270.
  2. 1 2 Altrincham Area History - biographies of local people.
  3. Oxford University Calendar 1913, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1913, p.150.
  4. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 30. p. 269.
  5. "Hewlett Johnson Papers: Biographical information". University of Kent. Retrieved 2011-03-08.
  6. 1 2 3 4 Mount, F. 2012. "To the End of the Line." Review of The Red Dean of Canterbury: The Public and Private Faces of Hewlett Johnson by Butler, J. London Review of Books vol. 34 no. 8, pp. 27-28. [Accessed 2 May 2012].
  7. Cited by John G. Wright in "The Dean of Canterbury’s Soviet Power", Fourth International, February 1941, pp. 56-59.
  8. Communists and Suspected Communists. MI5 Releases, 1 March 2006
  9. Cited in Steven Merritt Miner Stalin's holy war: religion, nationalism, and alliance politics, University of North Carolina Press, 2002, p. 8
  10. Lester H. Brune, The Korean War: Handbook of the Literature and Research, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996, p.103
  11. Boris Talantov, "The Moscow Patriarchate and Sergianism", Orthodox Christian Information Center.
  12. Crockford's Clerical Directory. Oxford University Press. 1963–64. p. 640.
  13. Dictionary of National Biography. 1961-1970. Oxford University Press. 1981. p. 592.

Citations on USSR


Church of England titles
Preceded by
Gough McCormick
Dean of Manchester
1924 1931
Succeeded by
Garfield Williams
Preceded by
Dick Sheppard
Dean of Canterbury
1931 1963
Succeeded by
Ian White-Thomson
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