The Atlantic has an excellent article on Peanuts‘ creator Charles Schulz, who died in 2000.
‘The Spirituality of Snoopy’ explores Schulz’s Christianity and how it informed his long-running comic strip, which first appeared in print in 1950.
Stephen Lind, author of the recently published book A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schulz, gave an interview to the magazine. He said:
Many familiar with the Peanuts strip don’t think of Charles Schulz as a Christian pioneer. But he was a leader in American media when it comes to both the strength and frequency of religious references.
Interestingly, Blondie‘s creator, Chic Young, warned cartoonists in that era not to mention religion in comic strips.
Schulz was raised a Lutheran but, after serving with the United States Army in World War II and coming to grips with his mother’s death at that time, he drifted away from church. His father was worried his son was losing his faith. His widow Jean explained how Charles — Sparky — returned to the fold:
When he came back from the army he was very lonely. His mother had died and he was invited to church by a pastor who had prepared his mother’s service from the Church of God. Sparky’s father was worried about him and was talking to the pastor and so the pastor invited Sparky to come to church. So Sparky went to church, joined the youth group and for a good 4-5 years he went to Bible study and went to church 3 times a week (2 Bible studies, 1 service). He said he had read the Bible through three times and taught Sunday school. He was always looking for what those passages REALLY might have meant. Some of his discussions with priests and ministers were so interesting because he wanted to find out what these people (who he thought were more educated than he) thought.
When he taught Sunday school, he would never tell people what to believe. God was very important to him, but in a very deep way, in a very mysterious way.
This particular Church of God is a Wesleyan holiness group based in Anderson, Indiana. (There are other Churches of God.) Wesleyan pietism forbids alcohol and smoking.
Schulz’s daughter Amy Schulz Johnson eventually became a Mormon. In November 2015, she told the Deseret News that:
Her parents never told her not to drink alcohol, but because they never drank, she didn’t either.
“Our great life prepared me [for Mormonism], because I didn’t have to change much of anything,” Johnson said.
When Johnson was growing up, she said that her father dropped everything when she or her three siblings walked into his office. In fact, as a young child, she actually thought he was unemployed because he was always there for them.
That dedication also ended up saving some of the Schulz children’s friends. Johnson recalled:
“Some of my friends didn’t tell me until they were in their 40s the things that were happening in their homes,” Johnson said. “And … I can’t really word this properly, but they said, and this had everything to do with Dad, that coming to our house every weekend is what saved them emotionally. … Seeing a normal, nice dad who was a good person helped them survive what they were going through themselves. … Our home was a shelter from the storm for them.”
Johnson refers to her adolescence as “wonderful, happy and clean-cut.” She often tells people, “If you think Utah Valley Mormons are sheltered, you should’ve been a Schulz!” Johnson believes the Schulz residence was a place where God’s influence could be felt because “the Spirit is in homes of goodness.”
By that time, Schulz had made a lot of money from Peanuts and was able to transform his 28-acre estate in Sebastopol, California, into a self-contained family compound complete with a swimming pool, baseball fields, a golf course and a park.
The Atlantic article points out that, when A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965, fewer than nine per cent of Christmas specials on American television contained religious references. The programme shows how materialism does not satisfy the Peanuts characters. Linus ends up going to the Bible and reads aloud the King James Version of Jesus’s birth from the Gospel of St Luke.
Two years before that, the debate over prayer in state schools was at its peak. Schulz penned a strip with Sally reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and ending it with ‘Amen!’
Schulz once said:
I preach in these cartoons, and I reserve the same rights to say what I want to say as the minister in the pulpit.
Out of nearly 17,800 strips, 560 contain a spiritual, biblical or theological reference. Clergy noticed and asked Schulz for permission to reproduce his comic strips for use at church. He willingly granted permission in nearly all cases.
His Bible had many handwritten notes in the margins. He also enjoyed reading theological commentaries on the Bible. During his time as a Sunday School teacher, he once led a group in a study of the entire Old Testament.
The Atlantic shared some of Schulz’s wry Biblical references in Peanuts:
In June of 1952, the somewhat sad and self-deprecating Charlie Brown borrowed Solomon’s words from Ecclesiastes 1:14: “All is vanity!” In December of 1955, a shivering Snoopy found solace in Jesus’s words from John 16:33: “Be of good cheer, Snoopy … Yes, be of good cheer.”
Sometimes the Bible references were clearly cited. When he catches Snoopy taking food out of the refrigerator, Charlie Brown pulls out a Bible and quotes from the Ten Commandments: “Look, it says here in Exodus, ‘Thou shall not steal.’” Snoopy borrows his book, flips the page and hands it back. “Deuteronomy 25:4 …” Charlie Brown reads, “Thou shall not muzzle the ox while he treads out the grain.”
But often, they were more cryptic. When Linus asks Snoopy, “Does it bother you that the Bible doesn’t speak very highly of dogs?” the beagle replies with a reference to one of Jesus’s teachings, “Sure it bothers me, but I just turn the other muzzle.” In a famous strip from 1959, Linus built a sandcastle that the rain washed away. Linus concludes, “There’s a lesson to be learned here, but I don’t know what it is …” But many readers would have recognized the allusion to Jesus’s parable about a man who built his house on sand in Matthew 7, and Schulz later said that this was exactly what he intended.
In 1965, a Presbyterian minister, Robert L Short, wrote The Gospel According to Peanuts, which featured Schulz’s famous illustrations. Over 10 million copies were sold. Westminster John Knox Press published a 35th anniversary edition in 2000.
In 1968, Short wrote The Parables of Peanuts, which HarperCollins reissued in 2002.
Schulz was careful not to be didactic or domineering with his beliefs. He is remembered as a loving, generous, kind man.
Interestingly, he appeared regularly in Forbes‘s 400 wealthiest Americans lists. His success came from his gentle personality which shone through in his comic strips and characters. He wrote about what he knew and enjoyed.
His characters are based on real-life people — and a dog — in his milieu. He and Charlie Brown shared similar traits. Schulz was shy and retiring growing up. He was the youngest in his high school class. His family owned a dog that resembled Snoopy. Lucy was based on his first wife, Joyce Halverson, and Peppermint Patty on one of his mother’s cousins.
In later life, his Christianity took on a vaguer tone and, by the 1980s, he stopped going to church. However, his daughter Amy Schulz Johnson said that when she was on missionary work with the Mormons in England, Schulz wrote her weekly. She treasures those missives:
“It’s funny because if I read you parts of them, you would think that my dad was a stake president in our church or something,” Johnson said. “He would have the most beautiful things to say about Christ and the scriptures.”
In closing, it is interesting that Charles Schulz made ‘Good grief!’ common parlance and introduced ‘security blanket’ into the English language. In fact, in Britain, it’s called a ‘Linus blanket’!