WASHINGTON (CNS) — Memories of fundamentalist pamphleteer Jack T. Chick, who attacked Catholic beliefs and faith practices for more than 50 years, depend on the generation of those doing the remembering.
Millennials accustomed to getting all of their information online may not be as familiar with him. Baby boomers, however, are vividly recalling his compact dystopian tracts with stark black-and-white illustrations. With Chick’s death Oct. 23 at age 92, the stories have been flowing.
Always, the tracts seemed to just appear in unexpected venues, particularly in rural areas of the United States. Sometimes they were deposited in bus stops, roadside diners and public restrooms, other times thrust into hands by someone hoping to save a soul on a street corner, or they were given out or sold at evangelical revival services.
To see only one was enough to remember Chick’s unforgiving “message.” His snaggle-toothed Satans and smirking potbellied demons brandishing pitchforks at those fearful of impending death had their own way of going viral decades before that term was applied to online videos.
His website claims that more than 900 million of his tracts have been published in 102 languages, but these numbers are not subject to audited circulation agencies. Churches and itinerant evangelists still can order the pamphlets in bulk for pennies apiece.
Well into the 1970s, Chick’s tracts and comic books were sold in evangelical bookstores alongside works from such respected figures as the Rev. Billy Graham. But his rabid anti-Catholic views kept him marginalized.
In 1981, under pressure from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, he withdrew from the Christian Booksellers Association after complaints about his “Crusader” comic books featuring Alberto Rivera, who claimed to be a former Jesuit brother trained to infiltrate and destroy Protestant congregations.
Christianity Today and other publications debunked Rivera’s stories. Rivera was revealed to have never been a Catholic and he also had outstanding warrants for bad checks through his occasional fundraising activities for small Protestant colleges. Rivera died in 1997.
The Rivera series produced one of Chick’s more bizarre claims: that a computer at the Vatican, through agents of the Holy See, held the names of every Protestant in the world. Another of his more than 100 active tract titles, “The Death Cookie,” claims that the Eucharist was rooted in ancient Egyptian sun worship.
Chick’s publishing operation, which is expected to continue, is based in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He did not attend college, spoke of having left a Christian congregation in the 1950s, and didn’t indicate since whether he participated in congregational worship or had any church membership.
His background was in commercial art, not theology, and he said his religious awakening came from listening to a radio program, the Rev. Charles Fuller’s “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” when he was in his 20s. The tracts came about, according to his website, when he learned that communist propagandists had won over China with small comic books.
The tracts began in earnest with “This Was Your Life!” in 1964. It featured a man who has just died being flown by an angel to the throne of heaven. The man encounters a giant movie screen where his sins parade before him, followed by judgment before a faceless and vengeful God, who decides that since he’s ignored Christian teachings and his name wasn’t in the Book of Life, he should be tossed into the lake of fire mentioned in the 20th chapter of Revelation.
It became Chick’s best-selling tract. For the next 52 years, the tracts, mostly drawn by himself, other times by artist Fred Carter, tossed all who weren’t adherents of his particular brand of faith into that lake.
In addition to Catholics, they included Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons and Freemasons, but never Jews, whom Chick’s dispensationalist beliefs considered essential to the second coming of Christ. (One tract was titled “Support Your Local Jew.”)
Chick never argued theological nuance. He only wrote about Catholics’ “otherness,” and connected the church to a surfeit of dark and convoluted conspiracy tales involving the takeover of the world, with the pope as the antichrist and the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon mentioned in Revelation.
In so doing, he was the heir of an entire sub-genre of 19th-century anti-Romanist propaganda that was, at a certain level, pornographic. Such works would describe tunnels between monasteries and convents, and nuns giving birth.
The most famous examples are “Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed” (1836) and “50 Years in the Church of Rome” (1884) by former Canadian priest Charles Chiniquy. The latter work became the basis of Chick’s portrayals of Jesuits, including their supposed involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Scare tactics weren’t one of Chick’s evangelistic tools — they became his only tool.
“I only know about it secondhand and find Chick interesting only to the extent that he’s so perfect, i.e. extreme, an example of mind-altering bigotry,” said David Mills, editorial director of Ethika Politika, a Catholic website, and a senior editor at The Stream, an ecumenical site. “If nothing else, he serves as a warning or cautionary tale for the rest of us, because any strong prejudice, even if it’s not so rabid as his, warps our understanding. You have to see even the villain clearly to criticize him well.”
“There’s a difference between his brand of anti-Catholicism and the elitist brand we encounter today from show business figures and politicians,” said Rick Hinshaw, communications director of the Catholic League. Chick’s militant brand of theology “appealed to people who didn’t have the education to develop reasoning.”
Bob Lockwood, president emeritus of Our Sunday Visitor, doesn’t think Chick ultimately had much impact. “I think if he did anything at all, he reinforced that peculiar part of Protestantism that was kind of raised in the old school of being anti-Catholic.”
He called the Chick tracts that he’d seen “sheer nuttiness. Well-drawn, but sheer nuttiness.”
Jimmy Akin, an apologist for Catholic Answers, based in San Diego, acknowledged that Chick’s tracts were based in notions that long ago left the mainstream, but said, “They definitely changed people’s minds. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t buy them. I have no doubt that some people have come to God” through the tracts,” even though “they give a distorted impression of the Christian message.”