Although many might think of John Wayne as being the very embodiment of old-fashioned American values, the beloved Hollywood icon didn’t find “find Jesus” until he was nearly on his deathbed. Mere weeks before his passing, John Wayne passionately converted to Catholicism after having been raised Presbyterian and giving up the faith soon into his adulthood. Though John Wayne’s religious epiphany near the end of his life is often attributed to a note that he received from the daughter of televangelist Robert Schuller, the actual story of why John Wayne had a change of heart remains slightly more mysterious. Join Facts Verse as we explore why John Wayne embraced religion and converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.
Over the course of his lifetime, John Wayne achieved the status of a Hollywood icon. However, in the last weeks of his life, John wasn’t feeling anywhere near the hero that the public viewed him as. Not only was the beloved actor’s health suffering immensely, causing him to lose most of his weight and take on a frail form nearly unrecognizable to those around him, but he also found himself looking back on the excess and debauchery of his adult years in the entertainment industry and wondering if there was going to be a place for him up in heaven. The final weeks of John Wayne’s life were certainly a lonely and torturous time for the actor as he had to grapple with both the legacy that he was going to leave behind on Earth and the afterlife that awaited him.
By the time of his death in 1979, the hard-working John Wayne had starred in well over 100 films. He had taken on his first leading role in a feature film nearly half of a century prior, with that being in the 1930 Western The Big Trail. John Wayne would go on to make a name for himself primarily in the Western genre but also in war films during World War II. John lived and died a passionate patriot, but he didn’t truly find religion until he was on his deathbed. One of the actor’s most notable roles was in the 1969 film True Grit, which saw him win the Academy Award for Best Actor at the following year’s Academy Awards ceremony.
John started acting during his college years, at a time when he was more focused on playing football than he was interested in worrying about the future. As he dabbled more and more in acting, he eventually came upon the legendary director John Ford, and the two struck up a friendship. It was John Ford who gave John Wayne his entrance into the Hollywood big leagues, with the former directing some of the latter’s most successful performances over the course of his career. The two Johns remained great friends throughout their lifetimes.
While everyone knows that John Wayne was a popular actor, few people know of his religious upbringing. John was raised in a Scotch-Irish family that subscribed to the Presbyterian faith. Because of this, John was raised to revere the word of the Bible and believe in God. However, it appears that these values weren’t instilled strongly enough in the young boy, as he would grow up to leave them behind and indulge in a life of excess and sin in Hollywood.
After John Wayne became a big star, he found that the temptations of Hollywood were far too much for his childhood Presbyterian faith. While John was no monster, he certainly wasn’t the epitome of a faithful man. He had three separate wives over his lifetime and didn’t seem to be incredibly faithful to any of them. Besides those three wives, John Wayne took advantage of his Hollywood fame by taking on a variety of casual lovers, both inside and outside of his marriages. Maureen O’Hara and Marlene Dietrich are just a couple of the famous lovers that John had during his lifetime.
In addition to John’s immense excess when it came to women, he was all equally excessive when it came to his consumption of food, alcohol, and tobacco. John was rumored to have drunk a full bottle of alcohol before a meal and another one afterward, and he could often be found chain-smoking cigarettes. While these two habits would have been bad enough in their own right, the meals that John was eating weren’t incredibly healthy, either. John liked his food rich and hearty, believing that was the way an American man was supposed to eat.
The tough man that he was, John Wayne arguably lived longer than most would’ve if they had been living the same excessive lifestyle. However, even Hollywood heroes eventually succumb to their bad habits! By the end of John’s life, his excessive consumption had taken an immense toll on both his heart and his lungs, leaving him a shell of the man that he used to be. No longer able to find solace in his indulgences, the late Western icon was instead forced to seek salvation in Jesus.
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Despite the fact that John Wayne had essentially abandoned his childhood Presbyterian faith by the time that he had found his Hollywood fame, there was another religion that continued to exude a subliminal influence over the man during the years of his adulthood. This religion was Catholicism, which just so happened to be the religion of all of his wives, children, and grandchildren. In addition, Catholicism was also the religion of one of John Wayne’s oldest friends, with that being the aforementioned director John Ford! Catholicism may have been everywhere around John Wayne, but that doesn’t mean that he took all of it’s messages to heart. Still, the pervasive faith seems to have struck a chord with the actor in some kind of way because he decided to become baptized in the religion on his deathbed!
By the mid-1970s, John Wayne wasn’t doing particularly well. The actor’s last film was 1976’s The Shootist, which John had infamously had a fairly hard time trying to film. An oxygen tank had to be wheeled around behind him, and the immense pain that the actor had found himself in by that point in his life caused him to lash out at his coworkers on the picture. Despite the immense turmoil that the production meant for both John Wayne and much of the creative staff as a result of the legend’s failing health, the film ended up being completed and released. However, it proved to be a box-office disappointment and not an ideal swan song. In 1978, John was forced to undergo heart surgery amidst an increasingly tumultuous battle with cancer. John had been diagnosed with cancer in 1965, and the Hollywood legend finally succumbed to the disease in 1979.
While John Wayne was on his deathbed, he made the decision that he wanted to be baptized officially into Catholicism. Many have suggested that this change of heart came from a letter that was written to John by the daughter of televangelist Robert Schuller. John Wayne and Robert Schuller were close friends, and it stands to reason that the two would have been in contact around the time. However, many question the validity of the story given some of the details of the popularized account.
If the rumors are to be believed, John Wayne found out that Robert Schuller’s daughter had broken her leg, so he sent her a letter telling her to get well soon. When Robert Schuller’s daughter received the letter, she supposedly wrote John in return saying that he didn’t need to worry about her, as Jesus was already taking care of her. Supposedly, this letter touched John’s heart so much that he immediately became saved and scheduled his baptism.
Though this story is certainly potent, there are time discrepancies and other details that have caused many to believe that Robert Schuller’s daughter may not have been directly responsible for changing John Wayne’s heart. Still, John and Robert were close, and Robert’s daughter did have her leg broken around the time that this was all supposed to have occurred. While John may have given Robert’s daughter his well wishes and been touched by her story and positivity, it seems that the late Western legend’s decision to become baptized before his death came from a more internal place and not directly from the inspiration of another.
John Wayne’s decision to officially become a Catholic on his deathbed likely had more to do with the faith of his children and grandchildren than it did with the faith of a televangelist’s daughter. All of John’s children and grandchildren had been brought up in the Catholic faith, and many of them took it incredibly seriously. They were the ones closest to the actor during his final weeks, and the influence of their faith likely greatly affected the actor as he began slowly succumbing to his lifetime of sin and excessive indulgence.
John died on June 11, 1979, and his final public appearance was at the Academy Awards ceremony in April of that same year. During the ceremony, John had been tasked with giving the Best Picture award to the film The Deer Hunter. Though John performed the duty admirably, particularly given the rapidly diminishing quality of his health, he had some qualms about the film being given the prestigious award due to the fact that he disagreed with it’s anti-war themes. John was so frail at the time of the ceremony that he was said to have worn a wetsuit underneath his actual suit in order to look a bit bulkier than he actually was. The immense heat of this getup likely contributed to John collapsing after the show.
Despite the fact that Hollywood icon John Wayne was raised Presbyterian and died Catholic, it appears that he wasn’t a very religious man throughout the majority of his life. Now it’s time to hear from you: did you know that John Wayne didn’t find Jesus until he was mere weeks away from death, or did you think that the Western icon had always been religious? Let us know in the comments.
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