Father Dwight Longenecker Was a Protestant Fundamentalist — Here’s How He Became Catholic

A Hobbit’s Journey Home (Part 2): Crossing the Atlantic and the Tiber

Neighborhood of St. Peter's Church in the Vatican from a height of flight
Neighborhood of St. Peter's Church in the Vatican from a height of flight (photo: PaPicasso / Shutterstock)

At the conclusion of the first part of our journey “there and back again” with Father Dwight Longenecker on his “somewhat religious odyssey,” we left him on his knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament at Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris. A Protestant Fundamentalist young man, taught from infancy to see the Catholic Church as the enemy of true Christianity, he had been moved by the mystery of the invisible sacramental presence of Christ, even though he had no idea what it was that was moving him.

After Paris, he and his fellow Protestant missionaries went to London, an experience which rekindled his Anglophilia, his love for all things English. “There really were red phone booths, double-decker buses, and soldiers with bearskin hats at Buckingham Palace.” It was as though the pictures that had fired his imagination as a child had come alive, as if he’d stepped through a wardrobe into a place where his imagined world became real. He visited Madame Tussaud’s, toured Westminster Abbey, rode the Tube, drank tea and ate fish and chips. He was “pleased to see that the men not only wore three-piece suits, they had neat umbrellas — like George Banks in Mary Poppins.”

He flew home to his family in Pennsylvania bedazzled by the magic of England.

“You’re home!” his mother said upon his return. “How was your trip?”

“It was great!” he exclaimed. “I’m going to live over there one day.”

First, however, he went about as far from Merrie England as might be imagined, enrolling at Bob Jones University, the most fundamentalist of all fundamentalist universities, nestled in the very buckle of the Bible Belt, in the deepest of the Deep South, in Greenville, South Carolina. It was only during Dwight Longenecker’s time there as an undergraduate that BJU finally admitted its first black student. “They have since apologized,” Father Longenecker explains, “but at the time they used the Scriptures to support their segregationist policies, and their racism was matched by their rabid anti-Catholicism.” Bob Jones Sr., who had founded the university, had bellowed bombastically that he “would rather see a saloon on every street corner than a Catholic in the White House!”

The young man was inoculated from the worst of the anti-Catholicism by his friendship with an elderly Catholic woman, whom he came to know by chance, and by his love for England, the latter being somewhat ironic considering England’s history of persecuting Catholics. “Part of the Anglophilia came from soaking up great literature, and most of that literature was religious. I can remember very clearly pondering the fact that John Donne, George Herbert, C. S. Lewis, and T. S. Eliot were clearly Christians, but they were also, quite clearly, not members of the Four Square Holiness, Snake Handling Church of God Prophecy. What were they? They were members of the Church of England. They were Anglicans.” 

Another influence was J. R. R. Tolkien, whose works the young undergraduate also admired greatly. Tolkien’s Catholicism was a leap too far for the young man’s prejudiced imagination but Anglicanism seemed acceptable enough. Feeling that the form of Christianity acceptable to Lewis and Eliot was more acceptable than the knee-jerk Protestantism of BJU, the young man began attending a local “Anglican Orthodox Church,” which was not really Anglican and not really Orthodox. The breakaway church had been started by a self-styled “bishop,” who Father Longenecker describes as being like “a character from a Tennessee Williams play.” It was all somewhat bizarre but was nonetheless the beginning of a journey to authentic Anglicanism which would be itself a staging post on the path to Rome.

In the summer after his sophomore year, he made a second trip to England and stayed in a hostel in Westminster. Every afternoon he went to Evensong at Saint Margaret’s Church next to Westminster Abbey or in the abbey itself. “As you can imagine,” Father Dwight writes, “this did nothing to help cure my increasingly acute case of Anglophilia. Just the reverse.”

From this time onward, Father Dwight began to feel the pull to the priesthood, albeit the Anglican priesthood. “I wanted to be an English country parson like Geoge Herbert,” he says. “I pictured myself living in a rambling old rectory in five acres of garden, and after a day of pruning roses and writing poems, I would wander through the village to ring the bell and recite Evening Prayer in a thousand-year-old stone church with stained glass windows and ancient tombs.”

He would smoke a pipe, own a dog, have a study full of books and would visit his parishioners in their thatched cottage homes. He would drop in at the local pub for a pint of ale and enjoy convivial conversation with the locals. “Who knows, like one of Jane Austen’s clergymen, I might even fall in love with the blushing daughter of the squire and raise a brood of rosy-cheeked English children with names like Henry, Poppy, George, Nigel, Cordelia, and Meg.”

Following the dream, Father Dwight left for England after his graduation from Bob Jones University. He was accepted at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford to train for the Anglican priesthood. It was as if the dream was coming true. “Oxford! The city where T. S. Eliot studied, where Tolkien and Lewis swilled beer in smoky rooms and argued about Narnia and Middle Earth.” 

The perfection of the dream was soiled by the young American’s close encounter with the real Anglican Church. He discovered that the theology of most Anglicans was “a pleasant form of agnosticism,” a cafeteria creed or “theological buffet … in which every dish was vanilla pudding”.

In spite of this harsh dose of realism, he persevered and was duly ordained as a priest of the Church of England. Following his ordination, as if by magic, his dreams started to come true. He became the country parson and lived in the rambling old rectory in a quaint English parish on the Isle of Wight, reciting Evening prayer in the thousand-year-old church. He even fell in love with an English lady and married her. They would have four English children, rosy-cheeked no doubt, but none of whom would be named Henry, Poppy, George, Nigel, Cordelia, or Meg. “The characters and plot lines of Jane Austen were not too far removed from my own rural idyll on the Isle of Wight. My patron at Yaverland Manor — the Honourable Mrs. Monck — unlike Mr. Collins’ patron, the Lady Catherine de Bourgh, was a delightful and generous old lady who was filled with laughter and kindness.”

It was all so idyllic. So perfect. Or at least apparently so. 

The problem was that the dream was not the reality. The Anglican Church was not the true Church. The comfortable life they were living was also the living of a comfortable lie. The Truth of the Catholic religion had “brought us face to face with reality. The fantasy island of Anglicanism melted like mist in the light of the sun.”

In February 1995, following their consciences, they sacrificed the rambling old rectory and their family income, embracing homelessness and joblessness, in order to be received into the Catholic Church. They were confirmed and received at Quarr Abbey, a Benedictine monastery that Father Dwight had visited regularly. “I had come to England and Oxford on a wave of euphoric Anglophilia,” Father Dwight writes. “I liked England and Anglicanism. Although I loved Quarr Abbey, I was not sure if I loved the Catholic Church. To put it simply, I became an Anglican because I wanted to. I was becoming a Catholic because I needed to.”

Following his crossing of the Tiber, Father Dwight crossed the Atlantic once again to be ordained as a Catholic priest for the Diocese of Charleston. Ironically, he is now pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina, only a few short miles from the campus of Bob Jones University. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the ways of God more strange and more beautiful than anything the mind of man can fathom. 

As Father Dwight Longenecker proclaims, “The ministry to which God has called me in my native U.S. is far more extensive and fruitful than anything that might have happened in dear, old, damp England.” The present author, a native of “dear, old, damp England” who now lives near Greenville and has Father Longenecker as a close neighbor and a dear friend, can only praise God for all this great man of God has done and is doing for Holy Mother Church. May God be praised!