The best-selling work of fiction in 1941, according to Publishers Weekly, was this religious text. I'm taking a bit of liberty in calling the work "religious," however, for the main character (with whom the author's sympathies seem to lie) is one who espouses a kind of echumenicalism.
The subject of the work is one Francis Chisholm, a British Catholic priest, who at the start of the novel is being forcefully retired for having various oddities. There also appears to have perhaps been something that happened in the past that might, in fact, be the reason for his dismissal. This is the frame into which we are placed when the story takes an abrupt turn back to his childhood and recounts Chisholm's life and what brought him to this point.
As it turns out, Chisholm is an orphan, having lost his parents at an early age. Taken in by a family who puts him to personal use (making money off him), Chisholm is abused child--until his Aunt Polly and Uncle Ned rescue him. He's also one who loves a girl named Nora, but having a religious bent, he is torn between love and his Catholic faith. His uncle sends him packing to a Catholic school, as the family hopes he'll become a priest. At school, he's a bit of an oddball, once taking a four-day walk without permission, all the way to a prostitute's house. The belief is that he's gone to see the woman, when in fact he simply spends the night at her abode, having nowhere to sleep, and nearly succeeds in converting her. On his return to his hometown, he finds Nora has had a child out of wedlock and is about to be married to a less-than-pleasant companion, who is mostly after her for her family's business. Nora commits suicide before the wedding can take place, and this renders Chisholm's decision about his life's course final: he will take the priesthood.
In Britain, at the various parishes at which he serves, he does not get along very well with his fellow clergymen, who often seem more interested in accumulating power for themselves than in actually helping people. Chisholm starts a youth club (that includes dancing, which another priest finds akin to sex out of marriage) in one place in which he assists; in another, Chisholm exposes a supposed miracle (a girl who lives without eating) as a fraud, and meanwhile finds a true miracle (a dying cripple who is given back his life and mobility), to the consternation of the priests who hoped to put their parish on the map of important places.
For these things, Chisholm is sent packing--to China. Here, he won't have other priests to bother. On arriving, he finds his mission is much less than promised--the buildings have been torn down and the many followers turn out to be two people who are only lying around because the previous priest paid them. Francis sets about creating a clinic to help the sick and an orphanage. He builds a new church from scratch, on land he'd hoped to purchase but is given for free, when the landowner sees that Chisholm isn't going to try to convert him--that is, that Chisholm's acts of kindness are genuine.
In time, Chisholm finds another mission, established long ago, up in the mountains, and he befriends the local believers there, helping them to become more standard in their practices. He gains a few sisters who come to assist him with his work. Disliking him at first, the sisters come to view him favorably, when they see how sincere he is, even if his views are not mainstream.
One of these particular views is that there are many roads to heaven. Hence, Francis doesn't feel a need to convert people to Catholicism as he is supposed to. When a Methodist mission sets up in the same town, he befriends the missionary couple rather than try to intimidate them into leaving.
At some point along the way, a civil war erupts in his area of China, and two warlords battle over the land on which Chisholm's mission rests. Chisholm helps the wounded from both camps, and he shelters men who don't want to fight. For this, he is threatened--if he continues to do such things, his mission will be destroyed. Meanwhile, in Europe, World War I has erupted, and the church is going to bat for one side or the other. Even in his own parish, Chisholm sees the disagreement split his three sister assistants, as they are from warring nations. If the church would just tell people not to fight, he thinks, we could have peace. It is wrong for Christians to fight one another.
And yet, after the threat to his mission, Chisholm finds himself the instigator of a military action. He gets a friend to help bomb a great gun. Thirty men are killed in the process, but the gun is destroyed and the mission is saved.
When Black Plague erupts, Chisholm enlists the help of an atheist doctor. And when Francis's old friend Anselm arrives to inspect his charge's mission, Anselm criticizes it for its wayward state (the mission is in bad repair because of a recent weather incident). Anselm stands in for the old church authorities that Francis often had run-ins with--he is pompous and egocentric, concerned with furthering his own church career.
At the end of Chisholm's stay in China, he is taken captive along with the Methodist missionaries, by the warlord who lost the civil war and who is now mostly just a renegade who kidnaps people for ransome. No money is forthcoming, however, and the missionaries have to flee for their lives. One dies, and Francis himself is severely injured, which brings him back to England.
There, his oddities once again become chatter for his fellow church folk, and he is asked to retire. But generally, Francis always turns the other cheek, and as a result, his enemies feel compelled to forgive him.
This brings me to the question of why this particular book might have had special appeal to Americans at a time when troubles were heating up around the globe. The United States would not enter World War II until the end of the year, but it was already a major supplier of arms to the Allies. And while the United States suffered few attacks on its shores and thus arguably never felt the sting of total war, its economy eventually would be engaged in a kind of total war that would effect social change (feminist, racial) during and after the conflict.
Cronin's book, it seems, points to a way of peace--one of treating one's brother with love no matter how one is treated and of showing great tolerance. These may well have been the wishes of Americans on the eve of war, that such actions could keep the nation out of the conflict. But as the section on the civil war in China shows, conflict, it seems, is inevitable when parties make you part of it. Another thing to note: this is one, I believe, of three novels that hit the top of the best-seller list during World War II that had to do with religion; that too is a fact of interest to me that I hope to explore as I read more of these books.