“What’s this I hear- you got religion?” John Wayne studied the man’s face for his reaction to the straight-forward question. Duke had become acquainted with Stuart Hamblen when Hamblen had appeared in Duke’s 1945 film, “Flame of the Barbary Coast.”
Even by then, Hamblen had become a well known womanizer, gambler, and alcoholic. But something had happened to Hamblen in 1949. He attended a crusade meeting in Los Angeles that was held by a young evangelist named Billy Graham and had converted to Christianity.
Duke had obviously heard of Hamblen’s conversion and was curious. Hamblen acknowledged his acceptance of Christ as his savior and Duke, being no stranger to the pleasure of drinking, then asked how Hamblen was able to stop imbibing so easily. Hamblen replied that it was no secret what God could do. Duke reportedly responded, “That’s a catchy phrase. You ought to put it in a song.” In 1950, Hamblen wrote the classic hymn, “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)” which has been recorded by artists as diverse as Kate Smith and Elvis Presley.
Many fans of the Duke are familiar with the Hamblen story but they may have difficulty nailing down Wayne’s feelings about religion. The primary reason for this ambiguity is that Wayne personally felt that one’s religious beliefs were a very private matter. However, based on accounts by those who knew him well, Duke had very specific thoughts regarding organized religion. His daughter, Aissa, wrote in her book, “John Wayne: My Father”, that Duke never took any interest in accompanying her and her mom to Mass. He told Aissa, “I don’t belong to any church. I believe in God and Jesus Christ and I pray.”
Aissa also wrote that she did not believe her father had converted to Catholicism just prior to his death. Although his children by both his first wife, Josie, and his third wife, Pilar, were raised in the Catholic Church without his objection, Duke never demonstrated a desire to convert before he became ill in the late 1970’s. He reportedly once stated, “If anything, I guess I’m a Presby-godd**n-terian.” There were reports that Wayne had converted to Catholicism on his deathbed when his friend, Archbishop Mark McGrath of Panama, visited him. Aissa indicated that she was present during the visit and her father was in bed and heavily sedated and merely acknowledged the priest’s prayers for him. On the reverse of this is the account given by Duke’s secretary/girlfriend, Pat Stacy, in her book, “Duke: A Love Story.” Stacy described Wayne as getting out of bed and sitting in a chair for the Archbishop’s visit. Stacy admitted that she was not privy to their conversation but that Duke “made peace with his Maker” during the last few weeks of his life and that when he died, Duke died a Catholic.
It seems fitting that even after his death, Duke’s desire to maintain the privacy of his beliefs remains fulfilled. It is also fitting that during his last televised interview, Wayne acknowledged his dependence on God while speaking with Barbara Walters. When asked by Walters if he had a philosophy that summed up how he faced illness, Duke responded, “Listen, I spoke to the Man up there on many occasions, and I’ve had what I always had: deep faith that there is a Supreme Being. There has to be, you know; it’s just a normal thing, to have that kind of faith.” Walters then asked if he feared death. His answer indicated that it had been on his mind. “I don’t look forward to it, because, you know, I don’t care what faith you have; maybe He isn’t the kind of father I’ve been to my children. Maybe He’s a little different; maybe he won’t be as nice to me as I think He will, but I think He will.”