The Conversion and Persecution of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mother

In a letter to his own son J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that his mother was a ‘gifted lady of great beauty and wit, greatly stricken by God with grief and suffering who died in youth of a disease hastened by persecution of her faith.’

A Christmas card with a photo of the Tolkien family, sent by Mabel Tolkien from the Orange Free State to her relatives in Birmingham, England, on Nov. 15, 1892.
A Christmas card with a photo of the Tolkien family, sent by Mabel Tolkien from the Orange Free State to her relatives in Birmingham, England, on Nov. 15, 1892. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Courageous faith in the face of persecution has inspired millions. One can’t over estimate the consequences of Christian courage. I’ve long wondered is St. Stephen's forgiving of his murderers, his love in the face of violence had an impact on Saul who would become Paul, one of the greatest evangelists in Church history. But even the smallest acts of enduring faith can impact millions.

In 1904, a young widow with two boys died in England. Few mourned Mabel Tolkien. History would not have marked her life or passing at all had not her example of steadfastness to her faith inspired her son, who would grow up to become a literary giant. Her father, John Suffield, was a merchant married to Emily Sparrow. Together, they had seven children and ran a shop in Birmingham. When Mabel was just 18 she began seeing a 31-year-old banker named Arthur Tolkien. The two exchanged numerous letters as Arthur went off to South Africa in search of a lucrative career in banking.

In 1891, after being parted for two years, Mabel set sail alone on the ship named the Roslin Castle to be reunited with her love. When the two were reunited, they married in an Anglican Church. Two children followed. The two Tolkien boys were named John Ronald Reuel and Hilary Arthur Reuel. After a few years, she grew increasingly worried about the giant spiders, the effect of the intense heat and the danger of wild animals around the children, so she left South Africa for England with the children and a promise to return in the near future.

But soon after, Arthur fell ill and died. Heartbroken but determined to bring up her children in love, Mabel settled in a rural town outside Birmingham. Many believe it was this idyllic setting that inspired the Shire in J.R.R. Tolkien’s later writings. It was Mabel who taught her children to love language, literature and art. Mabel also passed on her love of Christ. In 1900, Mabel and her two boys entered into the Catholic Church. This could not have been an easy decision as virulent anti-Catholicism was mainstream in England at that time. To be Catholic was to be un-British.

This was just 14 years after the death of St. John Henry Newman, whose conversion was so controversial. In fact, Mabel converted along with her sister May Incledon and joined St. Anne’s, which Newman had transformed from a gin distillery into a chapel. Mabel’s Protestant family did not respond well to her decision. Neither did the Tolkiens who were Baptist. The two sisters were vehemently urged to renounce the Catholic faith. In fact, Mabel’s sister May, at the insistence of her Anglican husband, did renounce her Catholic faith only to become a Spiritualist. But Mabel never renounced her newfound faith even in the face of ostracization, both personally and economically. The families essentially cut off the young widow whose health was fading but she persisted with the help of a priest, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, who became a father figure to the boys.

On Nov. 14, 1904, Mabel passed away from diabetes. Her son J.R.R. Tolkien was 12 years old. Many years later he wrote a letter to his own son Michael about his mother and said of her that she was a “gifted lady of great beauty and wit, greatly stricken by God with grief and suffering who died in youth (at 34) of a disease hastened by persecution of her faith.”

As she lay dying, she wasn't so worried about her own death but about her sons and their faith. So concerned that the boys would be forced to renounce their Catholic faith by her own family or the Tolkiens, she named Father Francis Xavier Morgan as the boys’ legal guardian.

Mabel Tolkien’s faith perseverance had a lifelong impact on Tolkien and colored many of his most well-known stories, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. And in turn, those stories of faith and courage have helped so many others persevere in times of trouble.

 There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

No life is small. No act of faithful perseverence is insignificant because its effects can not be fully measured by others. Only heaven can truly measure the impact of faith and love.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which Way Is Heaven?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed on a quest for a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean.