What Made Dorothy L. Sayer's The Man Born to Be King So Controversial?

There have been many adaptations of the story of Jesus, but few shocked people like The Man Born to Be King by Dorothy L. Sayers. So what was the reason it surprised so many?

Updated May 09, 2024
What Made Dorothy L. Sayer's The Man Born to Be King So Controversial?

The year was 1941. Britain was at war—and not just with Germany. At home, a fire-storm of controversy roared around a Christian writer.

The trouble began when the BBC (British Broadcast Corporation) announced that it would produce a series of twelve radio plays retelling the life of Christ. The Man Born to Be King was written by the scholar and popular mystery writer, Dorothy L. Sayers, a member of the Church of England. At a press conference, she explained that in order to adapt the gospels to radio, she had invented a few characters and combined Bible personages. To make the radio voices distinct, she had sometimes used American slang or regional accents. For instance, Matthew says, "The fact is Philip, you've been had for a sucker. You ought to keep your eyes skinned."

From the reaction, one would have thought that she had burned a Bible in St. Paul's Cathedral. Before a single play was released, newspaper headlines screamed "blasphemy!" Atheists complained that Christians were being given free radio time for propaganda. Language lovers griped, "Should children listen to such unwholesome, American slang...?" The Lord's Day Observance Society complained, "A sinful man presuming to impersonate the Sinless One! It detracts from the honor due to the Divine Majesty."

Prime Minister Churchill was swamped with letters urging a ban on the plays. The Archbishop of Canterbury, leading official of the Church of England, received a similar flood of requests. A question was raised about the plays in the House of Commons. Dorothy continued writing.

Although she is best known as the creator of detective Lord Peter Wimsy, Dorothy was well-qualified to write Christian plays. She had already done two for Canterbury Cathedral, both of which were so good they ran for several weeks in London.

No detective had to be called in to learn where she stood on matters of faith. Reared in the Church of England, she did not follow the path of the majority of intellectuals, who abandoned the church. Although she had not lived a saintly life, neither had she renounced her faith. Just how satisfying Christianity was for her became clear in 1938 when she wrote a Sunday editorial for the Times. "The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man...and the dogma is the drama." A typical Sayers' approach was to poke fun at Higher Criticism by soberly applying its techniques to Sherlock Holmes mysteries!

She accused religious leaders of being so careful to say nothing that would offend anyone that they said nothing worth saying at all. In her radio dramas she presented Christ's story with superb craftsmanship. She even had to invent the form she used. The nearest equivalent was the cycle of Arthurian legends.

The first play from The Man Born to Be King aired on this day, December 21st, 1941. Most listeners who contacted the BBC said they loved it. For many, the play raised morale by reminding them of their Christian roots. Dorothy made Christ's life seem so real that people were forced to reconsider its meaning for themselves. The Bishop of Winchester said the cycle was the greatest evangelical appeal made in the twentieth century.


  1. Dale, Alzina Stone. Maker and Craftsman: the Story of Dorothy L. Sayers. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.
  2. Sayers, Dorothy. The Man Born to Be King: a Play-Cycle on the Life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, written for broadcasting. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1943.
  3. ---------------. The Whimsical ChristianNew York: Macmillan, 1978.
  4. "Sayers, Dorothy." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-1996.

("Sayer's The Man Born to Be King" by Dan Graves first published on Christiantty.com on April 28, 2010.)

What Else Was Dorothy L. Sayers Known For?

Sayers packed more accomplishments into her 64 years of life than most people even aspire to accomplish.

She initially became a pioneer in advertising, creating the Mustard Club campaign for Coleman's Mustard and the Guinness Beer toucan with its slogan, "If he can say as you can/Guinness is good for you/How grand to be a Toucan/Just think what Toucan do."

When Sayers began publishing detective novels in the 1920s, she became one of the genre's most famous authors. She later joined the Detection Club, where she interacted with fellow Christians like G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, and Freeman Wills Crofts. Critics today debate whether The Nine Tailors or her more experimental Gaudy Night is her greatest detective story. Either way, her work played a foundational role in mystery fiction.

Particularly during World War II, Sayers sought avenues to explain Christianity and show how it can be an intellectually and creatively rich faith. Her book Creed or Chaos? makes a compelling argument for why Christians should know what they believe and where it comes from. The Mind of the Maker uses Christian teachings about God (and particularly how our interactions with God compare to how the Trinity's members relate to each other) to consider why we, like God, are fundamentally creative beings, and how we use our creativity in God-honoring ways. Sayers also corresponded with other Christian intellectuals during World War II, particularly apologist C.S. Lewis.

In her last years, Sayers focused on translating Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy from Latin into English. She passed away before finishing the third volume and her friend Barbara Reynold had to complete it, but that didn't stop the full translation from being a great success. Grevel Lindop notes in The Third Inkling that Sayers' work was the most popular translation of The Divine Comedy during the twentieth century.

Whether readers prefer Sayers' detective stories, apologetics, plays or translation work, she brings a distinctly Christian sensibility to her work and a care for craft that makes the writing spirituality and creatively enriching.

Plays to Read After The Man Born to Be King

While The Man Born to Be King had a unique effect on audiences when it appeared, it was also the fruit of a larger process that Sayers had been involved in. In 1928, George Bell, Dean of Canterbury, started the Canterbury Festival and commissioned writers to create nine plays from 1928 to 1948. Sayers began contributing to the Festival in 1937, and produced two of its most memorable playsworks, with intelligent scripts based on biblical stories or church history. These plays, and others that she wrote for BBC radio in the 1930s-1950s, show her perfecting her playwright skills and using techniques that made The Man Born to Be King so iconic.

Zeal of Thy House, Sayers' first Canterbury play, is based on a historical event: architect William of Sens being crippled in 1174 while repairing the Canterbury Cathedral's choir area. Sayers dramatizes William as a proud man who has perhaps lost his focus on serving God, even when he's working on a "sacred project."

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He That Should Come, Sayers' first play based on a biblical subject, is a one-act nativity. Not only does it use modern language for the dialogue, but it provides lots of background detail on the Judea that Jesus was born into, in all its political and cultural chaos.

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The Devil to Pay is Sayers' second Canterbury play. She explores the famous Doctor Faustus legend, in which the theologian Faust makes a deal with the devil for power. Sayers reimagines the story as Faust thinking he can use evil for good ends, and her script ponders whether someone who falls so far can be redeemed.

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The Emperor Constantine looks at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which instituted a new era when it made Christianity Rome's official religion instead of a persecuted underground faith and established key theological principles that still define orthodox Christian doctrine today. Sayers combines the story of Constantine with elements from other early Christian stories like the Colchester legend about Constantine's mother Helena to present him as a complex leader grappling with newfound faith and how it affects his political and personal life.

The Canterbury Festival plays by other writers are all worth examining today, but two are particularly important for Sayers' fans.

Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot is probably the best-known Canterbury Play and set the standard for Sayers and all who followed. It is based on the story of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, being executed in 1170 for defying the King of England. Eliot delves into the event's complications, like the fact Edward II probably wasn't being serious when he asked, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" and whether Beckett's piety or pride got him in trouble.

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Thomas Cramner of Canterbury was written by Sayers' friend, the writer and Inkling Charles Williams. Williams was a complex figure who wrote complicated plays featuring many layers of spiritual imagery. Thomas Cramner of Canterbury may be one of his most accessible plays. It tells the story of the seminal British theologian who wrote The Book of Common Prayer and died by fire for not following Catholic authorities.

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Further Reading:

100 Christian Novels You Haven't Read Yet

Why Should Christians Study Apologetics?

10 Inspiring Christian Mystery Authors You Can Read Today

Can Christians Like True Crime?

Best Christian Books of All Time

Photo Credit:©Ekaterina Kiseleva


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