How Hitler and a Boring Sermon Awakened C.S. Lewis’s Demons

It was a hot dry summer in 1940 in Oxford, England. That ended in July when the heavens opened up with deluge rainfalls. It must have been a wet Saturday evening when C.S. Lewis, the man who would take to speaking over the radio in the very near future, turned on his own radio on and tuned in to listen to an influential political speech. History was being made in more ways than one

“In looking back upon the last ten months we are all struck by the grace of Providence that has allowed us to succeed in our great work,” the speaker’s voice proclaimed through the crackly speakers. “Providence has blessed our great resolves and guided us in our difficult matters. As for myself, I am deeply moved, realizing that Providence has called on me to restore to my people their freedom and honor.”

Lewis admitted to being affected by the rhetoric. “I don’t know if I’m weaker than other people, Lewis said, “but it is a positive revelation to me how while the speech lasts it is impossible not to waver just a little.” Lewis wrote these words describing how it felt to hear what is described as Hitler’s last appeal to Britain to remove themselves from the war, before he promised to unleash Hell. Within a couple months it would be far more than rain falling from the English sky.

In his speech, Hitler claimed to be the voice of reason pleading for common sense. It was Churchill who was evil and illogical, Hitler claimed, referencing the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister no less than fourteen times in the address. Writing to his brother the next day, Lewis described what it felt like to listen to such a persuasive devil. “Statements which I know to be untrue all but convince me,” Lewis explained, “at any rate for the moment, if only the man says them unflinchingly.” 

And just like that, Screwtape was born. Well, to be fair, Lewis first had to endure a rather boring sermon. “Blanchette preached, not very profitably,” Lewis wrote his brother. The two events, the radio speech and the Sunday sermon are mentioned in the same letter to Warnie Lewis dated July 20, 1940. 

In Lewis scholarship there’s a bit of debate over what event inspired Lewis’s demonic invention. In his letter to his brother he mentions both the radio address Saturday night and a church service the next morning where his mind began to wander. I think it was both. With thoughts of Hitler’s temptations mingled with reflections in the worship service, he thought up a dastardly plan to expose evil. Lewis wrote:

Before the service was over—one cd. wish these things came more seasonably—I was struck by an idea for a book wh. I think might be both useful and entertaining. It wd. be called As one Devil to Another and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first “patient.” The idea wd. be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.

If you’ve never read the Screwtape Letters before, I’d encourage you to grab a copy. The book consists of 31 letters from a senior demon Screwtape to his nephew, a junior demon, named Wormwood. This is arguably Lewis’s most influential work. You can read it in a month just doing one letter a day. They give powerful insights into what it feels like to be tempted in a fallen world and the glory that awaits believers on the other side.

I’m staring a new podcast this month called “Mere Caffeination.” It’s an Inklings-inspired program about cultivating a winsome Christian witness with clarity, charity, and kindness. Each episode will feature a different guest. Our first few guests are Sam Allberry, Trillia Newbell, and Amheen Hudson (co-host of Southside Rabbi podcast). This season, I will be teaching through the Screwtape Letters. The first episode will drop, in true Screwtape fashion, on Halloween day, October 31st. I hope you’ll join us!