The Confessions of St. Augustine

Augustine of Hippo wrote his Confessions partly as an autobiography, partly to express his views on doctrine.

Augustine was born in 354 and grew up in northern Africa. His mother, Monica, was a Christian, but his father was a pagan until close to his death. Augustine was sent to school to study rhetoric and eventually taught grammar and later rhetoric in Carthage, Milan, and Rome.

In the school he was sent to, boys bragged about their sexual exploits, even making up encounters so as to have something to tell. He began a relationship with a mistress that produced one son. He later agreed to forsake his mistress and marry, but the girl he was engaged to was too young. In the meantime, he took another mistress.

He was involved for many years in Manichaeism and astrology.

When Augustine first began to study the claims of Christianity, he was plagued by what the nature of God was, the origin of evil, and the seeming unconquerable hold his lust had on him.

Through reading, study, and conversations with others, he eventually he turned away from Manichaeism, disproved astrology, and came a satisfactory understanding of the nature of God and evil. It took a very long time, however, for him to be willing to give up his lust. He once famously prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” He tells how this last stronghold was broken and how he came to believe in Christ for salvation and was baptized.

Confessions is written in thirteen books, the first nine autobiographical and the last four philosophical. He was only in his forties when he wrote it and lived until 76, so the book only covers the first half of his life. Wikipedia says Confessions is the “first Western Christian autobiography.” It’s written somewhat like the psalms, with Augustine’s history or thoughts on a subject followed by bursts of penitence or praise. In his introduction, the translator of this edition says:

One does not read far in the Confessions before he recognizes that the term “confess” has a double range of meaning. On the one hand, it obviously refers to the free acknowledgment, before God, of the truth one knows about oneself—and this obviously meant, for Augustine, the “confession of sins.” But, at the same time, and more importantly, confiteri means to acknowledge, to God, the truth one knows about God. To confess, then, is to praise and glorify God; it is an exercise in self-knowledge and true humility in the atmosphere of grace and reconciliation.

Augustine is considered one of the early church fathers. Though a Catholic, he is also claimed by many Protestants as well. Of course, the Reformation wouldn’t happen until the 1500s. But some of the seeds of Protestant thought are in Augustine’s writings, one being the doctrine of original sin.

Confessions was one of those “I probably ought to read that sometime” books. I put it off several times, thinking it would be hard to understand.

The words themselves weren’t hard to understand. The copy I read and listened to was originally translated by Albert C. Outler in 1955 and then included in this version in 2002, so perhaps the archaic language was modernized. But as Outler said in his introduction, “A succinct characterization of Augustine is impossible, not only because his thought is so extraordinarily complex and his expository method so incurably digressive, but also because throughout his entire career there were lively tensions and massive prejudices in his heart and head.” “Incurably digressive” was a good way to put it.

The dialogue and narrative testimony wasn’t hard to understand, either.

But what I found hard to follow were Augustine’s lengthy trains of thought: for example, over 16 Kindle pages pondering what was meant by “The earth was without form and void” in Genesis 1:2, 20 pages on what time is and how it is measured, similar long discourses on memory and many other subjects.

Also, I am not familiar with many of the schools of thought or warring doctrines and philosophies of the times. In fact, I am sorry to say that I know very little about the first millennium AD after the first century or so.

Augustine’s famous quote, “Thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee,” comes from the first page of his confessions. Some of my other favorite quotes:

Thou wast always by me, mercifully angry and flavoring all my unlawful pleasures with bitter discontent, in order that I might seek pleasures free from discontent. But where could I find such pleasure save in thee, O Lord—save in thee, who dost teach us by sorrow, who woundest us to heal us, and dost kill us that we may not die apart from thee.

I especially liked “mercifully angry” and “woundst us to heal us.”

I got a lot from his discussion of the will and struggles with food, especially that “What is sufficient for health is not enough for pleasure.”

He had a section on people with differing interpretations and Scripture and said, “In this discord of true opinions let Truth itself bring concord, and may our God have mercy on us all, that we may use the law rightly to the end of the commandment which is pure love.”

I enjoyed finding an incident I had heard, but did not know came from this book. Augustine’s mother, Monica, had prayed for him for years. She talked to a bishop who had had some of the same struggles as Augustine with the Manicheans. She wanted the bishop to speak to Augustine, but he felt Augustine was unteachable at the moment, and they should just pray for him for now. She cried and begged him, until he said, “It cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.”

There was another illustration I had heard but didn’t realize came from Augustine until I read it here. He tells of a friend, Alypius, who had “a passion for the gladiatorial shows,” but determined they were bad for him and he wouldn’t attend any more. One night he ran into some friends who, with “friendly violence . . . drew him, resisting and objecting vehemently, into the amphitheater” to watch. He determined to keep his eyes closed. But a cry from the audience caused him to open his eyes, and, “as soon as he saw the blood, he drank it in with a savage temper.” He became enamored once again with the violence of the games, receiving “a deeper wound in his soul than the victim.”

There was one famous illustration that I was looking forward to reading that was not in the book. The story is told that, after Augustine’s conversion, he ran into one of his mistresses on the street. He tried to avoid her, but she kept following and calling to him, “Augustine, it is I.” He was said to have answered, “Yes, but it is no longer I.” This article indicates this incident may not have ever happened. On the other hand, it may have come from some of Augustine’s writings that are not searchable online. At any rate, it’s not in his Confessions.

I am not Catholic and therefore couldn’t agree with his distinctly Catholic views. Probably my biggest disagreement is that, though he expressed faith and his life changed before his baptism, he equated salvation with baptism several times in the book. Also, he spends a lot of time near the end of the book interpreting creation allegorically–the firmament is supposed to mean the Bible, the spiritual gifts are supposedly meant by the sun, moon, and stars. etc. He goes into a great deal of explanation as to how he came to these conclusions. But personally, I think we have to be careful not to make something in the Bible symbolic that the Bible doesn’t convey as symbolic. He and his mother also put a lot of stock in visions and dreams, which I don’t.

So, I have mixed views about Augustine. But I am glad to finally have read this book.

I started out listening to the audiobook read by one of my favorite narrators, Simon Vance. I read parts in this 99-cent Kindle version, but didn’t find Augustine’s arguments any easier to follow. The last few pages, I read along while listening to the audiobook. That seemed to be the clearest way for me to gain the most from the book. If I ever read it again—which won’t be for a very long time to come—I’ll have to try it that way from the beginning.

I am counting this book for the Pre-1800 Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.

Have you ever read Augustine’s Confessions? What did you think?

Book Review: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot

Elisabeth Elliot has been one of my heroes for decades. I first discovered her in college when I read Through Gates of Splendor, her book about the ministries and deaths of her husband and four friends. Then I read nearly everything she had written, received her newsletter and a Back to the Bible devotional mailing of her writings for years, and got to hear her speak in person twice.

The Elliots and their friends had wanted to reach out to a seemingly unreachable tribe in Ecuador. Though the beginning seemed promising, all five men were speared to death by the tribe, known then as Aucas (later by their own name for themselves, Waodani). A few years later, Elisabeth and her young daughter, Valerie, and Rachel Saint, sister to one of the other men, went to live among the Waodani. Some became believers, with a testimony that still stands to this day.

Elisabeth eventually came back to America. She authored 30 books and spoke to women, eventually hosting a radio program, Gateway to Joy, and sending out a monthly newsletter.

She surprised herself by remarrying a college theology professor, Addison Leitch. He succumbed to cancer four years later. She was an adjunct professor for a while. A few years later, she married Lars Gren. She had dementia the last several years of her life, lost the ability to speak, and died at age 88 on June 15, 2015.

Those are the spare details of her life. But they don’t capture her personality, her character. Why did so many women love to read her words and hear her speak and write her letters asking her advice about their problems?

Ellen Vaughn has attempted to answer those questions in her authorized biography, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. I admit I had mixed emotions when I first heard of this project. Vaughn was well aware that she was going to be up against a number of expectations. She had access to Elisabeth’s multiple journals as well as many friends and relatives.

Of course, Elisabeth didn’t start out as the Elisabeth Elliot of such wisdom and depth. She began life as Betty Howard. Her early journals reflect a normal girlhood and a fair amount of teenage angst over boys and disagreements with her mother. Yet even as young as eleven, she showed a depth of thought and desire to follow and obey God. Betty Stam, who was killed by the Chinese along with her husband, John, had been a guest in the Howard home and made a great impression on young Betty. As a child, Betty Howard wrote and took Betty Stam’s prayer for her own.

Vaughn goes on to follow Betty’s education, meeting of Jim Elliot, and the long wrestling over whether they should marry. Jim had thought God wanted him to be a single missionary. When he became attracted to Betty, he wasn’t sure whether that was a result of God’s leading or his own desires. It took a few years to figure out. Finally he and Elisabeth married and worked among the Quichua Indians in Ecudaor. Then there are the details leading up to the Waodani outreach, the men’s deaths, Elisabeth’s wrenching grief, working with Rachel Saint, and return to the US.

The biography stops there, with a second volume in the works. I hadn’t realized that this was only part one until I started reading it. I wish that had been made more plain, but it wouldn’t have affected my desire to own and read the book.

Elisabeth was a critical thinker and wrestled with the ways of God, pat, churchy answers, what worldliness and being a missionary even meant, and so much more. She was strongly introverted and could come across as distant and aloof (when she first met Jim’s parents, he told her she had “made a universally horrible impression.”) She could seem unemotional, but she poured out her emotions in her journals.

One thing that Elisabeth discovered in her walk of faith was that God’s ways are inscrutable. She was a gifted linguist, and her first mission was an effort to reduce the Colorado language to writing. But the one man who knew both Spanish and Colorado well and who was willing to help her was senselessly murdered. Her careful work and notes were stolen. Her husband died. Her time of living with the Waodani bore some fruit but was fraught with frustrations. She felt all her work to that point was in ashes.

But she knew God was good and trustworthy, and the best thing, the only thing she could do was obey him, even when she didn’t understand. Her experiences and wrestling over issues of faith and practice made her who she was and gave her a depth and realism that struck chords with other women.

I felt overall that the biography did a good job. Ellen didn’t put Elisabeth on a pedestal, nor did she present her as unworthy of esteem. My one criticism is that, perhaps in an effort to show that Elisabeth was an ordinary woman and not a super-saint, some excerpts from her journals were shared that I can’t imagine Elisabeth would have wanted public. I understand why some people destroy their journals and letters before they die. I’m thankful Elisabeth didn’t, and I appreciate the insight they gave into her thinking. Still, some of it was probably not meant for public consumption.

Also, an index would have been helpful.

I’m looking forward to the next volume. I knew much about Elisabeth’s early life from her writings, but I’m not as familiar with the second half. I did learn several new things, however. For instance, I didn’t know (or forgot, if I had known) that Elisabeth was told about and wanted to go to the Waodani long before she and Jim married, and that part of the groups urgency to reach them was “rumors that the Ecuadorian government and the oil companies might well solve the ‘Waodani problem’ by using the military” (p. 139). Also, Through Gates of Splendor was written in a six-week period while she was in a hotel and her folks took care of her daughter. The publishers urgently wanted the story to be available. In her previous writings, I had sensed some tension between her and Rachel. The problems there are detailed here, and understandable. They were two very different personalities with completely different methods and training. I appreciate Elisabeth’s discretion in not dragging all of it out into the public eye.

I appreciate this summation of the Elliots near the end of the book:

Whether you agree or disagree with their choices, whether you resonate or not with their particular personalities, the takeaway from their lives is a reckless abandon for God. A willingness to cast off any illusions of self-protection, in order to burn for Christ. An absolutely liberating, astonishing radical freedom that comes only when you have, in fact, spiritually died to your own wants, ambitions, will, desires, reputation, and everything else (p. 274).

A couple of my friends reviewed this book as well:

Michele: A Life of Reckless Abandon for God
Ann: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot

(Sharing with Tell His Story, InstaEncouragements, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

(I’m counting this book for the Biography category of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.)

Book Review: The Answer Is…

Even if you’ve never watched the game show Jeopardy!, you are likely familiar with the program and its host, Alex Trebek. He had never planned to write about his life, though he had been urged to several times. But after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, he received such an outpouring of love and support, he thought perhaps he should share with his supporters “a little more about the person they have been cheering on”. He also said in one interview that he noticed chemo patients didn’t have much to do while receiving treatment, so he thought he’d provide “a little light reading.” And he also thought that someone would probably write about him at some point, so he wanted to have his say first . (As it happened, the biography Who Is Alex Trebek? by Lisa Rogak was released the same day as Alex’s autobiography. Because of that, I suspect her book might not have been authorized.)

The title of Alex’s book is the phrase he spoke when revealing clues on Jeopardy!: The Answer Is… (by the way, I didn’t realize the exclamation mark was part of the show’s name until reading this book). The chapter titles are formatted like the questions and answers from the show: “The answer is . . .Neckties” or “Who is . . .The Great Gildersleeve?”

Alex’s subtitle, Reflections on My Life, aptly describes the book. Most of the chapters aren’t long and don’t go into great detail. He shares some memories from his family, growing-up years in Canada, his beginnings in show business, and various memories from his 36-year run as Jeopardy! host. He philosophizes a little about different topics..

I’ve watched the show occasionally for decades (I even remember the original Jeopardy! with Art Fleming), but my husband and I have watched regularly the last few years.So I enjoyed reading about the show, especially the chapters on Ken Jennings’ and James Holzhauer’s, historic runs as Jeopardy champions. I’m glad they included a picture of the “script sheet” Alex uses as he hosts (I had thought the clues and answers must come up on a computer screen at his podium, but they are printed out). I liked that photos are scattered throughout the book rather than just on a few glossy pages in the middle.

I enjoyed learning more about Alex personally as well. He insisted that he be called the host of the show rather than the star. He feels viewers see him “not so much as a showbiz personality but as an uncle” (p. 221). He has always come across as someone who doesn’t take himself very seriously.

I was surprised to find a lot of swear words in the book. Alex said he started cursing deliberately because he “needed a vice.” He felt held back from “becoming one of the guys” in his early career because “people can be suspicious of someone who’s so chaste.” Later he felt that cursing “didn’t help me become one of the guys. It just made me look like a jerk. My bad” (p. 93).

I’m always interested in people’s encounters with spiritual truth. Though Alex was raised Catholic, he says he believes “we are all part of the Great Soul—what some call God. We are God and God is us. We are one with our maker. How do I know this? It’s not that I know it. It’s that I feel it.” However, he says that, facing the end of his life, “I’ve been thinking more and more about that old line they used to use in the military: ‘No one’s an atheist in a foxhole.’ If ever there was an opportunity to believe in God—a god—this might be a good one. Trebek, now that you’re on the verge. What have you got to lose?” (p. 284). I hope he had an opportunity to hear, understand, and truly consider the gospel before his passing.

Except for the swearing, this was a nice overview and a bit of insight into the man so many of us knew and loved.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Panosian: A Story of God’s Gracious Providence

Dr. Edward Panosian is one of the most beloved professors of my alma mater. But Panosian: A Story of God’s Gracious Providence by Chris Anderson would be beneficial to more than those who knew the doctor as a teacher. It’s not only the fascinating story of God’s hand in one family’s life. It’s the story of a people that were almost completely wiped out in the nearly forgotten Armenian Genocide.

Dr. Panosian taught several history and church history courses at Bob Jones University, but he’s most well-known for History of Civilization. Nearly every freshman took that course. For me, that class was the first time history “clicked” for me as something other than meaningless names and dates.

Students quickly became aware of Panosian’s distinctive voice and mastery of his subject. He pointed out God’s hand throughout history and made history interesting and relevant to students.

Soon students came to know their professor’s kindness, warmth, humor. He is known for many famous sayings, which Anderson lists in the book. He was a fixture riding his bike around campus.

When Dr. Panosian introduced himself the first day of class, he mentioned that he was Armenian. I thought something like, “Huh. I’ve never heard of anyone from Armenia before.” In those pre-Google days, I was, sadly, not curious enough to look up Armenia then. But there was a reason I had never heard of Armenians.

Armenia was a small Christian part of the Ottoman empire, a mostly Muslim entity. Armenians were persecuted for decades, but their ill-treatment culminated in mass murder, rape, exile, forced marches after WWI. Dr. Panosian’s great-grandfather was murdered by a mob in his family home, in front of his wife and children. His grandmother could not escape with all the children. She took one ill son with her to America, and the rest were taken to an orphanage run by German missionaries in Beirut. She didn’t see them or hear from them for nine agonizing years. That they survived and were found is miraculous.

Dr. Panosian’s father’s story is also told, and then we learn how God led Dr. Panosian to his university, wife, and calling.

Betty Panosian taught speech, particularly storytelling. For years she told and read classic stories that were heard on a local radio station Friday nights. She has narrated a few books, and she and Dr. Panosian read Scripture on Scripture Meditations 1 and 2 CDs (some of the latter can be heard here).

Some might be familiar with Dr. Panosian through the university’s Unusual Films productions or through his multiple roles in various Shakespeare plays. His foray into acting had an amusing beginning.

Dr. Panosian also, at someone’s suggestion, created presentations of famous people in history, like Martin Luther, telling their story from a first person point of view. He has given these presentations at a number of churches around the country.

I have several places marked in the book. Here are just a few quotes:

After risking everything to come to America, and after enduring grueling journeys across the Atlantic in cramped and squalid ships, immigrants now had to fret about whether they would actually be let in. It wasn’t a given. Ellis Island was a place of inspection, interrogation, and sometimes quarantine. For some, it was a place of rejection. Imagine arriving so close to the American “Paradise,” only to be sent back to the very country you had fled. For some, Lady Liberty was a sentry, not a hostess. Debates over immigration policies are nothing new. If anything, the debate over granting asylum to refugees was more volatile a century ago than it is today (p. 62).

Betty Panosian tells how she needed a tutor to help her catch up in a class she missed part of to participate in a radio program: “I looked around the class to see who made the As, and I saw Ed. He always knew everything. And so I asked him if he’d help me; and he’s been helping me ever since” (p. 127).

When Dr. Panosian taught his last History of Civilization class after 48 years, he quipped, “This is the end of the history of civilization  as we have known it” (p. 144).

You might recognize author Chris Anderson’s name from his penning hymns like “His Robes for Mine” and “My Jesus Fair.”

I got both the paperback copy of this book plus the audiobook when it came out later. The audiobook is read primarily by Anderson, with Dr. Panosian reading parts. Betty Panosian and a few other voices contribute as well. It was so good to hear the Panosians’ voices again.

Here is a book trailer for this volume:

This trailer is a bit longer, with Dr. Panosian telling some of his story.

Though this book will have special meaning to those who knew the Panosians personally, I think anyone could gain much by reading it.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery

WilberforceA few years ago a video titled Amazing Grace and a companion book, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas, were published to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain.  I saw and enjoyed the film, but somehow was not aware of the book until this year.

Wilberforce did not accomplish abolition single-handedly, of course, but he was the driving force behind abolition and a host of other social causes.

William was born into a well-to-do family. He was always small, with poor eyesight and stomach issues (modern historians think he suffered from ulcerative colitis all his life). But he had a sparkling wit, an entertaining personality, and loads of ambition.

As a boy he stayed for two tears with an aunt and uncle to attend school nearby. Unbeknownst to William’s parents, these folks were Methodists whose frequent guest was John Newton. Methodists were thought at the very least to carry religion too far, as evidenced by the nickname used for them, Enthusiasts. Others thought they were radicals. Newton and Wilberforce seemed quite fond of each other, but William’s mother whisked him away as soon as she became aware of the religious climate of her relatives’ home.

Before long William forgot his early religious leanings and became the life of many parties. If he wasn’t hosting, he was a frequent guest. Deaths of his grandfather and uncle had left him wealthy. His friend William Pitt, who was planning to enter into politics (and eventually became Prime Minister), urged William to enter politics as well. William became a Member of Parliament (MP) as an independent at the age of 21. Then he set his sights on “the most coveted seat in all of Parliament” (p. 42), Yorkshire, and was elected to it at the age of 24.

That same year, William was on a holiday with friends and spent most of the journey with the brilliant Isaac Milner. As they traveled, they read and discussed The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Phillip Doddridge. William had a tendency to think through every aspect of a decision before making it. He came to an intellectual agreement of Christianity’s doctrines first, then heart and will yielded to what he thereafter called “the Great Change.”

At first he thought such a change would necessitate his leaving government. John Newton encouraged him to “stay his post” and assured him God could use him where he was. Newton wrote to his friend, William Cowper, of Wilberforce: “I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide!! But they are not incompatible” (p. 61).

As William began to be convicted with how he used his resources and time, his attention was drawn to those in need. Slavery was just a given fact in Britain then. The entire economy was built upon it. Because most of the slaves were in the West Indies, they were hardly thought of. But as word began to get out of their harsh and inhumane treatment, various individuals began to call for action on their behalf. Writers and poets like Hannah More and William Cowper used their pens. Artist and industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, of Wedgwood pottery fame, produced medallions with a cameo of a slave kneeling and asking, “Am I not a man and a brother?” People who had been aboard slave ships reported their findings. Others circulated and signed petitions. They thought Wilberforce should be their voice in Parliament, and after giving the matter his characteristic thorough consideration, he agreed.

They thought it would be an easy victory. Who, after all, would disagree with their cause? The ones who benefited from the slave trade, first of all, not only opposed any reforms but used lies and other tactics to sway public opinion. Then when the French Revolution broke out, anything smacking of liberty and equality was decidedly unpopular.

It was twenty long years before legislation passed to outlaw the slave trade. But even then there was still work to be done in enforcing it, dealing with smugglers who would fly other countries’ flags so as not to be stopped, etc. Those fighting for abolition realized they could not stop there: they needed to fight for emancipation.

Abolition of slavery was one of two main objectives in Wiliiam’s life: the other was the “reformation of manners.” By “manners” he did not mean etiquette and politeness. The Clapham Sect or society was a group of people who want to change some of the cruelties common in society then, like hangings for small offenses, public dissection of criminals’ bodies, and even bull-baiting and bear-baiting. Wilberforce financed schools for the poor run by Hannah More and her sisters even though society at large thought their education would either be fruitless or would upset “the order of things.” He was involved in penal reform, improving conditions for laborers, and a host of other causes. Yet he felt he had not done enough. He wrote to a friend:

I am filled with the deepest compunction from the consciousness of my having made so poor a use of the talents committed to my stewardship. The heart knows its own bitterness. We alone know ourselves the opportunities we have enjoyed, and the comparative use we have made of them…. To your friendly ear… I breathe out my secret sorrows. I might be supposed by others to be fishing for a compliment. Well, it is an unspeakable consolation that we serve a gracious Master, who giveth liberally and upbraideth not…. I always spoke and voted according to the dictates of my conscience, for the public and not for my own private interest…. Yet I am but too conscious of numerous and great sins of omission, many opportunities of doing good whether not at all or very inadequately improved.

In his later years he turned his attention to India and the East India Company’s abominable practices like keeping underage mistresses (what we would call a child sex trade today, only it was legal at the time) and the country’s inhumane practices like burning widows at their husband’s funeral pyres.

By the end of his life, most of his wealth was gone. He had heavily invested in his oldest’s son’s business venture, which failed. But before that he had given much to various causes and needs. He had to sell his home and take turns living with his two other sons.

Though most of the book focuses on Wilberforce’s public life, the author gives us glimpses into his private life as well. William married later in life, but was absolutely smitten once he found his wife. Visitors to the Wilberforce home would find the family in the midst of mild but happy bedlam with children and animals running around indoors and out.

Wilberforce was sometimes called the moral conscience of the nation. He did not ask for that position nor think of himself that way, but his character was such that, when he saw a wrong he could help to right, he felt obligated to do so.

My only complaints with the book were with some aspects of the author. Though Wilberforce is an admirable man, and even Lincoln and Frederick Douglass cited him as inspiration, Metaxas laid the praise on a little thick at times. Plus I felt too conscious of Metaxas as the author: usually in a biography the author does not insert himself into the subject’s story so much. Part of that insertion was evidenced in seeming attempts to be witty and clever. Plus, everything I have ever read about writing encourages using recognizable words, not in an attempt to “dumb down” the text, but to make it more accessible to the average reader. But this author sprinkled his narrative with words like uxoriousness that did increase my vocabulary but interrupted the text while I looked them up.

Oddly, Metaxas does not have a list of footnotes or endnotes with citing the sources he used, though he does close with a list of other worthy Wilberforce biographies.

However, overall I thought this was a very good book. I knew a bit about Wilberforce from the Amazing Grace film, Hannah More‘s biography, and assorted other references, but I was glad to hear about the rest of his life and to have a fuller picture of the character of the man himself. He is an example for all of us to use our resources and influences to help others.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne

Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne by Douglas V. Mastriano is the newest biography of York and will, I am sure, be the definitive resource on him for years to come.

Alvin York was the third of eleven children born to a farming family in Pall Mall, TN in the late 1800s. The children had very little education because they were needed to help at home. Alvin was the oldest child at home when his father died, so he took on the responsibility to care for the family. He was a hard worker, but he was prone to drinking and fighting even though he was a church-goer. In his late twenties he was saved at a revival service in his church, and his life turned around.

When Alvin was drafted at the age of 29, he tried to register as a conscientious objector. He believed, as did his church, that “Thou shalt not kill” included war. His application and an appeal were rejected because the church did not have an official policy against war. Once in the Army, Alvin kept his feelings quiet as long as he could because he knew the taunts and accusations of cowardice he would receive from the other men. Finally he told his superior officers, Captain Danforth and Major Buxton. He had proved himself as a hard worker and a steady character, so both officers felt he was in earnest. Both were Christians, and one suggested they talk it out not as private and officers, but as Christian brethren. In a thoroughly cordial conversation, Alvin brought up verses that seemed to oppose military action while the others brought up verses that support it. Alvin asked for a leave to think and pray and went home for ten days. After a considerable time at a particular mountain where he liked to go and pray, he went back to the Army at peace about being a soldier.

On October 8, 1918, Alvin, a corporal at this point, fought the Germans with his battalion in the Argonne forest in France.  They were fired at by a German machine gun. Of the seventeen Americans, six were killed and three were wounded. York was the ranking officer left standing. York, a crack shot from years of hunting, took out the machine gun operator, six Germans coming at him with bayonets, and ended up capturing 132 German soldiers as prisoners of war. Later he was promoted to sergeant and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

When York came home to fame and acclaim, he did not want to make a profit off his service. “This uniform ain’t for sale,” he would say.

York returned to his farm in TN and married the girl who had waited for him, Gracie. With his eyes opened from his travel and experience, York wanted to make improvements for his people. He advocated for paved roads into the area and built schools. He accepted invitations to encourage troops and the war effort and to talk about his faith, but he didn’t like to talk about his exploits, which was what most people wanted to hear. He only relented when doing so might help earn money for the schools he was building: he never profited from such money for himself. Jesse Lasky was a movie producer who pursued York for 23 years, trying to get the rights to his story to make a film. When events were steaming up before WWII, York was one of the advocates for the US entering the fray. He felt Hitler needed to be stopped, as soon as possible. Many Americans, including influential ones like Charles Lindbergh, felt that the US should stay out of the fighting. Lasky finally convinced York that a film about his life would not only help young men who faced some of the same struggles he had, but it would inspire patriotism that would help support the WWII effort. York agreed and used the proceeds to fund an interdenominational Bible school. The film Sergeant York was Lasky’s most successful film, earning Gary Cooper an Academy Award for his portrayal of York. I enjoyed reading some of the background information about the film and the differences between the film and real life.

Some of York’s most inspiring words were spoken at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, May 1941:

There are those in our country who ask me…”You fought to make the world safe for Democracy. What did it get you?” Let me answer them now. It got me twenty-three years of living in an America where humble citizens from the mountains of Tennessee can participate in the same ceremonies with the president of the United States. It got me twenty-three years of living in a country where liberty is stamped on men’s hearts. By our victory in the last war, we won a lease on liberty, not a deed to it. Now after 23 years, Adolf Hitler tells us that lease is expiring, and after the manner of all leases, we have the privilege of renewing it, or letting it go by default….we are standing at the crossroads of history. Important capitols of the world will either be Berlin and Moscow or Washington and London. I for one pref Congress and Parliament to Hitler’s Reichstag and Stalin’s Kremlin. And because we were for a time side by side, I know this unknown soldier does too. We owe it to him to renew that lease of liberty he helped us to get.

I’m surprised that the concept of having a lease on liberty, which has to be renewed from time to time, rather than a deed, has not been quoted more often.

Mastriano goes into detail concerning York’s early life in Pall Mall, his struggles, his service, and the events in his life after the war. Some stories in York’s time exaggerated his efforts, claiming that his victory was single-handed, or at least nearly so. Neither York nor the Army made these claims, and York credited the other soldiers for their efforts and ultimately God for His enabling and protection. But the attention on him caused pushback from others. Some thought he seemed too good to be true and suggested his exploits were created or exaggerated by the military for propaganda purposes. Mastriano, a military man himself, takes great care to detail and substantiate everything concerning York. His efforts even extended to traveling to France and making an extensive search over the area where York fought on October 8, 1918. Even though the location and details were substantiated before York’s Medal of Honor, some have argued that the lack of the known spot where York fought raised a question mark over the validity of the claims made in his behalf. A wrong map that was discredited yet still placed in the archives contributed further confusion. Mastriano spent twelve years and thousands of hours researching York, traveling, and even searching for artifacts in the Argonne. His findings were scientifically studied and authenticated, resulting in the Sergeant York Historic Trail and Monument.

Though I have never seen the Sergeant York film, I had heard of it and was aware of the barest details of York’s story. My interest was piqued by hearing a series on York on the Adventures in Odyssey radio program, which I like to listen to while doing dishes. When I searched for a biography, I was delighted to find this one. I listened to the audiobook, but if I had been thinking, I would have gotten the print version for the pictures and maps and such. Usually when you purchase a book from Audible, you can get the Kindle version at a lesser price, but the Kindle version of this book is the most expensive I have ever seen. I just now found it in our library system, so I’ll look for it next time I go there.

York’s is an inspiring story not just for his military victory, but for his character. I’m happy to have read and learned more about him.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Book’s You Loved)


Book Review: The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

Helen Keller Many people are familiar to some degree with Helen Keller’s story of being locked in a dark and silent existence until her teacher, Anne Sullivan, found a way to communicate with her. The first part of The Story of My Life is in Helen’s own words. The second part is made up of her letters, from the time she was a little girl to the time of the book’s publication, showing the growth and development of her ability to communicate. The final section of the book, “A Supplementary Account of Helen Keller’s Life and Education,” shares more information by the editor of the book, John Macy, and includes letters from Anne Sullivan.

Helen was only in her early twenties and a junior in college when she wrote her part of this book. She began with her birth in Alabama in 1880, her family background, and what she could remember of her home and early childhood. When she was nineteen months old, she came down with “acute congestion of the stomach and brain” (Wikipedia says it was likely scarlet fever or meningitis). She survived the illness but lost her sight and hearing. She made her will known by signs or acting out what she wanted, but there was still much she could not express. She could tell other people communicated differently, put her hand on their lips, and then got extremely angry and frustrated that she could not talk the way they did.

The desire to express myself grew. The few signs I used became less and less adequate, and my failures to make myself understood were invariably followed by outbursts of passion. I felt as if invisible hands were holding me, and I made frantic efforts to free myself. I struggled–not that struggling helped matters, but the spirit of resistance was strong within me; I generally broke down in tears and physical exhaustion. If my mother happened to be near I crept into her arms, too miserable even to remember the cause of the tempest. After awhile the need of some means of communication became so urgent that these outbursts occurred daily, sometimes hourly.

When Helen was six, her parents took her to a doctor in Baltimore, who referred them to Alexander Graham Bell, who suggested Michael Anagnos of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. Mr. Agagnos sent them Anne Sullivan.

I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.

Anne started spelling the names of objects with a manual alphabet with her fingers in Helen’s hands, and although Helen could mimic what Anne did, Helen didn’t make the connection that the letters spelled the names of the objects. Then came the famous incident in which Anne spelled “water” while Helen’s hand felt water pouring from a pump. Suddenly the light dawned and the connection was made, opening up the world of language and communication for Helen. It took a while, though, to go from learning nouns to making sentences and learning abstract concepts.

In her narrative in the book, Helen recounted her education, various incidents in her childhood, people she met, books she read. She was determined to go to college: “A potent force within me, stronger than the persuasion of my friends, stronger even than the pleadings of my heart, had impelled me to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear. I knew that there were obstacles in the way; but I was eager to overcome them.” Anne went with her and spelled out the classroom lectures in Helen’s hand. Helen had to get textbooks printed in Braille. Different types of Braille caused difficulty in an examination where the raised print was different from what she was used to, yet Anne was not allowed to spell into Helen’s hand for the exam. She referred to “…those dreadful pitfalls called examinations, set by schools and colleges for the confusion of those who seek after knowledge.”

Despite the obstacles, Helen enjoyed learning in the midst of other students and interacting with them.

But I soon discovered that college was not quite the romantic lyceum I had imagined. Many of the dreams that had delighted my young inexperience became beautifully less and “faded into the light of common day.” Gradually I began to find that there were disadvantages in going to college.

The one I felt and still feel most is lack of time. I used to have time to think, to reflect, my mind and I. We would sit together of an evening and listen to the inner melodies of the spirit, which one hears only in leisure moments when the words of some loved poet touch a deep, sweet chord in the soul that until then had been silent. But in college, there is no time to commune with one’s thoughts. One goes to college to learn, it seems, not to think. When one enters the portals of learning, one leaves the dearest pleasures–solitude, books and imagination–outside with the whispering pines. I suppose I ought to find some comfort in the thought that I am laying up treasures for future enjoyment, but I am improvident enough to prefer present joy to hoarding riches against a rainy day.

Every one who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory. One more effort and I reach the luminous cloud, the blue depths of the sky, the uplands of my desire.

But I do not blame any one. The administrative board of Radcliffe did not realize how difficult they were making my examinations, nor did they understand the peculiar difficulties I had to surmount. But if they unintentionally placed obstacles in my way, I have the consolation of knowing that I overcame them all.

She did indeed overcome the obstacles and earned her degree, the first blind and deaf student to do so.

I realize now what a selfish, greedy girl I was to ask that my cup of happiness should be filled to overflowing, without stopping to think how many other people’s cups were quite empty. I feel heartily ashamed of my thoughtlessness.

It is only once in a great while that I feel discontented, and allow myself to wish for things I cannot hope for in this life. But, as you know, my heart is usually brimful of happiness. The thought that my dear Heavenly Father is always near, giving me abundantly of all those things, which truly enrich life and make it sweet and beautiful, makes every deprivation seem of little moment compared with the countless blessings I enjoy.

I enjoyed reading Anne Sullivan’s side of things, too, and wish I could share several quotes about how her philosophy of educating Helen developed. Even though Anne herself had attended the Institute, she had to come up with her own methods on the spot to teach Helen. She determined to teach her in a natural and not a “classroom” way, at least until Helen learned to communicate well. Anne’s letters here were informally written to a lady at the Institute who was like a mother to her, and I am so glad these letters were included rather than formal reports: they reveal much of her heart.

It is a rare privilege to watch the birth, growth, and first feeble struggles of a living mind; this privilege is mine; and moreover, it is given me to rouse and guide this bright intelligence.

If only I were better fitted for the great task! I feel every day more and more inadequate. My mind is full of ideas; but I cannot get them into working shape. You see, my mind is undisciplined, full of skips and jumps, and here and there a lot of things huddled together in dark corners. How I long to put it in order! Oh, if only there were some one to help me! I need a teacher quite as much as Helen. I know that the education of this child will be the distinguishing event of my life, if I have the brains and perseverance to accomplish it.

One aspect of Helen’s education that I did not quite pick up on was how it became so public. A lot of that publicity seemed to come from Mr. Anagnos, but I don’t know if he was just excited about it or promoting the work of the Institute or what. Major frustrations for Anne were the exaggerations of Helen’s accomplishments or Anne’ abilities in the news, or the judgments of her methods by people who had no real idea of what was involved.

Mr. Macy, the book’s editor, spends a great deal of time on one blight of Helen’s career or education. Helen had written a story and sent it to Mr. Anagnos, who then had it printed in the newspapers. Alert readers wrote in to say that the story resembled one written by another author and accused Helen of plagiarism. Helen was only eleven at the time, and an investigation was made. Neither Anne nor Helen’s mother had read to Helen the story which she was accused of plagiarizing: they had not even heard of it. Finally the story was tracked down at a home Helen had visited some years before. Evidently someone there had read it to her, and she had forgotten the incident, but retained bits of the story in her own imagination. Included in this book is a letter from the author of the original story, saying that she did not believe Helen repeated the story as her own on purpose, and she thought Helen even improved upon her story in some places. She concluded:

Please give her my warm love, and tell her not to feel troubled about it any more. No one shall be allowed to think it was anything wrong; and some day she will write a great, beautiful story or poem that will make many people happy. Tell her there are a few bitter drops in every one’s cup, and the only way is to take the bitter patiently, and the sweet thankfully.

As a Christian, I enjoy learning about a person’s spiritual development. This post is already long, so I don’t feel I can share many of the quotes I have marked on this aspect, but I think Helen was greatly confused. Anne recorded that she tried to avoid the topic of religion as she felt unqualified to deal with it. Wikipedia records that Helen eventually followed someone who taught universalism.

I did not know until scanning the Wikipedia article on Helen that Anne married Mr. Macy, the editor, a couple of years after the book was published! I read a Kindle edition, but apparently the one I have is no longer available. There are various Kindle editions available, however. In the version I read, the formatting wasn’t done well: sometimes it was hard to tell when a quote from a letter ended and the editor’s words began. Some of the letters are indented, but many are not. I also just discovered that the book is online here and includes pictures that are not in my Kindle edition, including some samples of Helen’s writing. The original book was published in 1903: this particular edition was published in 2014, and I wish they had included an afterword about the rest of Helen’s life, but I had to peruse Wikipedia for that.

I had only known the bare basics of Helen’s early life, probably from the movie The Miracle Worker, and I very much enjoyed learning more about her and Anne.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved and Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Jane Austen: Christian Encounter Series

Jane AustenBiographers of Jane Austen have a difficult task because Jane’s sister, Cassandra, destroyed much of her correspondence. But Peter Leithart endeavors to give us a sense of her in Jane Austen, part of publisher Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounter series. He draws from what letters we do have from her as well as others’ writings and remembrances of her. In his introduction he writes:

In the brief compass of this biography, I have tried to capture the varied sides of Austen’s character. Early biographers often turned her into a model of Victorian Christian domestic femininity, and emphasized her Christian faith in an evangelical idiom she never used. In reaction, many more recent biographers all but ignore her faith. Both of those extremes distort Austen’s life and personality. I have tried to depict accurately the depth and sincerity of her Christianity, as well as her Anglican discomfort with religious emotion, but without losing sight of the other sides of her complex character –her playfulness, her satiric gift for ridicule, her ‘waspishness,’ her rigid morality. I have attempted to capture Jane Austen in full.

I particularly enjoyed these observations:

The best marriages in Austen’s novels are marriages of minds and temperament, marriages that make both husband and wife more fully themselves.

Austen believed there was a moral dimension to social behavior. Manners and morals do not exist in separate realms of life. Manners are a moral concern, and morals take specific shape in the gestures of manners.

Jane…was satirizing Romanticism before Romanticism existed.

Sir Walter Scott wrote of Austen’s “exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.”

This being part of a Christian Encounter Series, part of it focuses on her faith. This was what particularly drew me to this book, because some kind of faith is evident in her books, but I wasn’t sure if it was a general, surface faith or a heartfelt personal one.

In his biographical sketch of his sister, Henry described her piety: “Jane Austen’s hopes of immortality were built upon the Rock of ages. That she deeply felt, and devoutly acknowledged, the insignificance of all worldly attainments, and the worthlessness of all human services, in the eyes of her heavenly Father. That she had no other hope of mercy, pardon, and peace, but through the merits and suffers of her Redeemer.” Jane never used such Evangelical language, preferring the more formal cadences of prayer-book Anglicanism, but that doesn’t falsify the substance of Henry’s characterization.

The Austens’ Christianity was not the excitable Christianity of Bunyan or John Newton, but a cooler, more rational and more ethically focused Christianity, which expressed itself chiefly in acts of charity.

Despite her comparative reticence and her careful avoidance of moralizing, Austen’s faith was sincere and deep.

Biographers minimize Austen’s Christianity mainly because they cannot believe that her acerbic, sometimes childishly cruel wit, her satires of the clerical imbecilities of Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, and her playful silliness are compatible with deep Christian faith…the assumption that Christian faith is incompatible with a satirical spirit is entirely wrongheaded.

Long-time readers here know that I generally love biographies, but, although I hate to do so, I must admit this is not a favorite. First of all, Leithart begins by going into great detail about a plethora of Jane’s relatives. That section got quite confusing and, though some of that information was necessary to understand Jane in context, to me the bulk of it detracted from rather than enhanced focus on her. Secondly, Leithart insists on calling her “Jenny” at least half the time, if not more, without documenting that she was ever called that. In my search to discover whether she was actually ever called Jenny, I came across this review of this book which mentions that her father spoke of her as “Jenny” to his sister shortly after Jane was born. But that hardly qualifies it as a permanent nickname, especially since none of the other correspondence or memorials of her call her Jenny. To make it worse, Leithart speaks of “Jenny” as if she were the “real” Austen. He evidently used the name to emphasize her child-likeness.

Childlikeness might not strike us an apt description of a “serious” novelist like Austen, but this only highlights how pretentious we are about art and artists. Anyone who spends her life making up stories has got to have more than her fair share of whimsy, and nearly all Austen’s virtues, personal and artistic, as well as nearly all of her vices, are those of a woman who, at the center of her soul, remained “Jenny Austen” all her life.

She recognized her own smallness, and she achieved artistic greatness because she recognized her limitations and joyfully worked within them, because she refused to outgrow being Jenny.

Quotes like these samples seem to imply that she was conscious of “being Jenny” when her “being Jenny” seems to me to be an implication only of Leithart.

Leithart comes across to me as pretentious in other ways as well: in his coining of his own word for Jane Austen mania (“Janeia”), in his criticism of other Austen biographers, and in what seems to me to be his mischaracterizations of her (“In another age, Austen might have written for Saturday Night Live.”)

There is an odd mix-up of characters from different books when Leithart says “Fanny Price is ignored and lost within the constant din of domestic life. She feels liberated when Frank Churchill shows up to take her into the open air.” Fanny is from Mansfield Park and Frank is from Emma.

While I don’t know that Leithart accurately “captured” Austen, this book does present a compact overview of her life, times, and career.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)



Book Review: Fierce Convictions

I really didn’t know anything about Hannah More when I first saw Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More – Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior making the rounds a couple of years ago, but so many bloggers spoke positively of it that I requested it for the next gift-giving occasion. It turns out I am in good company: in his preface to this book, Eric Metaxas said he hadn’t know much about her, either, until doing research for his book on William Wilberforce, and then he got so excited, he tried to include as much about her as he could. When he met Prior and found out her doctoral dissertation was on More, he urged her to write a book.

Hannah was born to a family of five daughters in 1745. Her father being a teacher and her own thirst for learning led to her receiving an education beyond the norm for girls in that era. She and her sisters established a school together as they got older. Hannah wrote some plays for the students that were well-received. She was engaged for a long period of time, but the marriage never went forward. In a transaction common for the day, her former fiance offered her an annuity “sufficient to allow More to pursue a literary vocation as compensation for the time she devoted to him” (p. 37).

An influential friend sent a copy of one of her plays to David Garrick, a famous actor of the day; thus “the door to the literary capital of England was opened” (p. 49). Hannah became friends with a number of Londoners, including Garrick and his wife, Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, William Wilberforce, and a host of others. She was so close to Wilberforce that one of her anonymous publications was thought to be his. She was included in the Bluestocking Circle begun by “one of the wealthiest and most influential women of the day” (p. 76), Elizabeth Montagu. More’s influence and literary career grew.

But for various reasons, More became disenchanted with life in London and moved to Cowslip Green in between two villages.

More had always been bemused–and sometimes amused–by the excesses and superficialities she witnessed [in London]. So while the glistening of the fashionable life grew ever duller over several years, hints of More’s doubts about this fool’s gold can be found even from her earliest seasons there. It is clear that she was undergoing a greater sense of calling to more serious work, to more devotion in her faith, and with it to ministry in serving others (p. 95).

She was given a book of John Newton’s letters which she described as “full of vital, experimental religion” – vital meaning, according to Prior, “‘full of life,’ so opposite the stale, dead religion found in many Church of England members” (p. 105).

The word experimental alluded to the growing emphasis during the eighteenth century on the importance of individual experience in religious practice, the need of each person to have an authentic and personal faith rather than simply to adhere to rote tradition (p. 105).

Wilberforce had originally “thought that being a sincere Christian required withdrawing from the corrupt corners of human business” and was inclined to “retreat from public life in favor of a course devoted to piety.” John Newton encouraged him to “stay at his post, and neither give up work, nor throw away wealth; wait and watch occasions, sure that He, who put him at his post, would find him work to do” (p. 113). Later Wilberforce’s “influence dissuaded [Hannah] from her growing inclination to shrink from the world” (p. 117). Thank God that both of these people “stayed at their post.” “Even John Wesley sent Hannah a message through her sister: ‘Tell her to live in the world; there is the sphere of her usefulness; they will not let us come nigh them” (p. 203). The bishop of London asked her, “Where can we find any but yourself that can make the ‘fashionable world’ read books of morality and religion, and find improvement when they are only looking for amusement?” (p. 202).

More joined with Newton, Wilberforce, and others involved in fighting the slave trade.

As a goldfish swimming in a bowl doesn’t know what water is, so a person living in eighteenth-century Great Britain–immersed in an economic and social structure built on the slave trade–could not easily, if at all, see slavery for what it was. To do so required, it seemed, a certain kind of perceptiveness of mind and spirit. Hannah More was one of the few who possessed it (p. 108).

Even Wilberforce acknowledged that the fight against slavery could not by won in Parliament alone, that “more is to be done out of the House than in it,” that “changing the minds in Parliament would require changing the heart of the nation first” (p. 128).

The battle against slavery was, in many ways, led by the poets–and other writers and artists–who expanded their country’s moral imagination so it might at last see horrors too grave for the rational mind to grasp (p. 128).

Hannah used her influence and her pen to fight against slavery, a fight which took over forty years. She also used it to encourage education, especially for girls and for the poor, and to provide edifying reading material. Prior explained that tracts or pamphlets at that time were like blog posts today, and Hannah used them for educational, religious, and sometimes political causes, eventually leading to the establishment of Cheap Repository Tracts.

But she did more than write. She and her sisters started a number of schools for the poor, financed by Wilberforce, fighting against the opinion of the time that the poor should not be educated or taught to read (some thought the poor would have no use for it: others thought it might disturb the order of things). She became one of the few female members of what was called the Clapham Sect – not a sect as we think of it today, but a group of influential “like-minded believers, ‘bound together by shared moral and spiritual values, by religious mission and social activism, by love for each other, and by marriage,’ [who] changed history as they sought to serve God in every area of their lives, personal and public, at home and abroad” (p. 167). “The efforts of the Clapham community were three-pronged: they aimed at alleviating the suffering and oppression of the lower classes, reforming the excessive and negligent behaviors of the upper classes, and advancing Christianity at home and throughout the world” (pp. 173-174).

She was not flawless. Some of her views would have modern readers scratching their heads, and Prior does an excellent job explaining them in the context of Hannah’s times. But she yielded herself, her influence, her energy, her finances, and her pen to God and was used mightily by Him. One quoted source said, “What Wilberforce was among men, Hannah More was among women” (p. 240).

Somewhere between Birrell’s hatred and Roberts’s hagiography is a woman who was at once ordinary and remarkable. She was a woman with virtues and flaws, faith and fears, vision and blind spots. But she was also one whose unique gifts and fierce convictions transformed first her life and subsequently her world and ours (p. 253).

To Walpole, More was testimony, in the words of one of her early biographers, that “the most implicit faith and the most devoted zeal in Christianity could consist with the highest mental attainments; and that the most devoted piety was no obstacle to cheerfulness and humor” (p. 170).

In the epilogue Prior also shares some reasons why More is not more well-known today, among them the modernist movement, which “rejected the values that most defined the Victorian age: duty, family, piety” (p. 252). In addition, her one novel “is practically unreadable for most readers today. tastes have changed, and the art of the novel has progressed toward more nuance and complexity than the plain didacticism of More’s novel” (p. 235). But I am glad that Prior brought her to our attention and shared her life with us.

It took me just a little while to truly get into the book. I am not sure if it took that long to get into the rhythm of Prior’s style or if it just got more interesting to me around the time that Hannah went to London, and more so when she decided to leave. I especially appreciated Prior’s couching everything into its historical setting so that we weren’t getting just the facts, but truly understanding how historical events and beliefs affected Hannah and how she in turn affected them.

And on a completely separate note, one of Prior’s explanations helped me better understand Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility:

During the so-called long eighteenth century (1660-1830), a “cult of sensibility” arose that exalted the outward manifestations of emotional sensitivity–weeping, fainting, and the like–as the marks of morality and refined character, to the point that sensibility became more important than benevolent or moral actions (p. 185).

In context, Prior said this about More’s writing concerning animal cruelty. She sought to raise awareness of some of the brutal practices of the day in order to stop them yet did not devolve into “emotional indulgence” and “inordinate affection” the “cult of sensibility” employed towards animals (p. 197).

I’ll close with a few favorite quotes from More herself:

It should be held as an eternal truth, that what is morally wrong can never be politically right (p. 136).

I am at this moment as quiet as my heart can wish. Quietness is my definition of happiness (p. 69).

Atrocious deeds should never be called by gentle names (p. 205).

God can carry on his own work, though all such poor tools as I were broken (p. 247).

The more I see of the ‘hounoured, famed, and great,’ the more I see of the littleness, the unsatisfactoriness of all created good; and that no earthly pleasure can fill up the wants of the immortal principle within.

Bible Christianity is what I love…a Christianity practical and pure, which teaches holiness, humility, repentance and faith in Christ; and which after summing up all the Evangelical graces, declares that the greatest of these is charity (p. 155).

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)



Book Review: Eight Women of Faith

8 Women of FaithEight Women of Faith by Michael A. G. Haykin is a series of essays about different women of faith between 1537 and 1826 and how they ministered to the church in their time. Karen Swallow Prior asserts in her forward to the book that we tend to focus on the one thing that women cannot do* and even use that to suppress them in other ways, instead of celebrating and encouraging the many things they can do, and this book is an attempt to highlight a few of the many ways women can be used by God.

After a brief introduction of an abbreviated history of thought on what women were and were not allowed to do in the church and a bit of background into how the book came about, Haykin proceeds with his essays. The eight women he discusses are:

Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554). The author details how Jane came to saving faith in Christ and the series of events in which Jane became queen for nine days (at her family and others’ direction, not her own ambition) until her disinherited cousin, Mary (of Bloody Mary fame) “marched on London with an army” (p. 26) and almost everyone turned to her, even those who had previously supported Jane. Jane was arrested and imprisoned, and Mary, a “die-hard Catholic,” sent one of her “most able chaplains” seasoned in debate (p. 21) to convert Jane to Catholicism. There are several pages of Jane’s record of the conversation, and it’s amazing that a teenager could be so firm in her faith and so ably answer this man from Scripture. My favorite part from this chapter is from a note Jane wrote shortly before she died to her sister:

I have here sent you, good sister Katherine, a book, which, although it be not outwardly trimmed with gold, yet inwardly it is more worth than precious stones. It is the book, dear sister, of the Law of the Lord. It is his testament and last will, which he bequeathed to us wretches, which shall lead you to the path of eternal joy. And if you with a good mind read it, and with an earnest desire follow it, it shall bring you to an immortal and everlasting life. It will teach you to live and learn you to die (p. 33).

Margaret Baxter (1636-1681) was the wife of esteemed Puritan pastor and writer Richard Baxter. In this chapter the author gives a brief history of opinions on marriage from early Christians through the Puritans. He gives some background information on both Richard and Margaret and how they came to trust in Christ and to marry. They were vastly different, in age, finances, and personality, and she struggled with anxiety after almost having died four times and witnessed a number of atrocities. But they appreciated each other’s gifts. He “freely admitted that Margaret was better than he at solving problems relating to financial and civil affairs” and “practical issues of the Christian life” (p. 48). A couple of favorite quotes of Baxter’s:

My dear wife did look for more good in me than she found, especially lately in my weakness and decay. We are all like pictures that must not be looked at too near. They that come near us find more faults and badness in us than others at a distance know.

When husband and wife take pleasure in each other, it uniteth them in duty, it helpeth them with ease to do their work, and bear their burdens; and it is not the least part of the comfort of the married state (p. 51).

Anne Dutton (1692-1765) was a Calvinistic Baptist writer even though that profession was not encouraged for women at the time. She wrote “tracts and treatises,…sacred correspondence, and poems” and corresponded regularly with George Whitfield and Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, and others (p. 57). The Puritans “splintered into three major groups: the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and the Particular or Calvinistic Baptists” (p. 57), and Anne spent a lot of writing defending her beliefs, critiquing others’ teaching, and weighing in on controversies of the day.

Sarah Edwards (1710-1758) was the wife of Jonathan Edwards, leading figure in the “Great Awakening.” After very little biographical information, the author spends much of the chapter on Edwards’ writing about his wife “as a model of a Spirit-filled person” as opposed to some of the fanaticism and excesses of the day (p. 68).

Anne Steele (1717-1778) also came from a Calvinistic Baptist family, remained single on purpose, and wrote several hymns, and was known as “the Baptist equivalent of Isaac Watts” (p. 81).

Esther Edwards Burr (1732-1758) was the third daughter of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, and the author concentrates her chapter on her writings about friendship.

Ann Judson (1789-1826) and her husband Adoniram were America’s first missionaries. The author tells of her own conversion, Adoniram’s proposal, which not only included marriage but also life as missionaries in Asia, the voyage there, the struggles learning the language, and their first few years.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is, as I’m sure everyone knows, one of England’s most famous and most beloved novelists. A line in the notes and references at the end of the book says that “Religion to her was a private matter: to discuss it in a novel would have been a breach of good taste” (p. 148). But from her letters and what she does say in her novels, and especially a prayer she wrote, the author brings out strands of her beliefs.

My thoughts:

I was actually fairly frustrated with this book, but the primary reason for that was my own fault. I was expecting it to be more biographical, like When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give Up, which I read recently. So I was dismayed to find out that the chapters were essays. They did, however, contain a good bit of biographical information.

My secondary frustration had to do with Haykin’s choices of what he put in and left out. Granted, when you’re writing just a few pages of a life about which books have been written, you can’t include everything, and different authors would make different decisions about what to emphasize. Ann Judson and Sarah Edwards were the two with whom I was most familiar, having read a number of biographies of Ann in particular (I wrote about Ann here and Sarah here and here). The great bulk of the most interesting part of Ann’s life was summarized in the last paragraph of the chapter. The author spent a great deal of time on Adoniram and Ann’s study concerning infant baptism (paedobaptism). They came from a tradition of infant baptism, and as they studied, they began to question it, studied some more, and eventually came out on the side of believer’s baptism, being baptized after one has made a profession of faith. This incident is important for a number of reasons. It shows their character and concern for truth and fidelity to Scripture (which was the main theme of the chapter). They had not wanted to make this change: Ann “felt afraid [Adoniram] would become a Baptist, and frequently urged the unhappy consequences if he should. But he said his duty compelled him to satisfy his own mind, and embrace those sentiments which appeared most concordant with Scripture” (p. 108). Once it became clear to both of them, they felt they had no choice but to make it known and deal with the consequences, which included leaving the mission board that had just formed in order to send them out, seeking Baptist support, facing the dismay and even anger of their friends and colleagues. So, yes, for all those reasons this was important. But if you’re writing 14 pages of a person’s life, do you want to spend 5 pages on this? A good page and a half or so was spent on listing the books the Judsons studied on this issue and telling us about the authors: in my mind, these books and authors could have been a footnote or end note with much less detail.

But aside from that, the book does share a lot of good information about these women and does meet its purpose in showing a variety of ways in which women have used their gifts to minister to others. I especially enjoyed the chapter on Lady Jane Grey. I knew her basic story and had read a fictional account of her life, but I appreciated learning more about her. I felt this chapter was the best written in the book, with a good blend of historical and biographical detail. I had read a magazine article on Margaret Baxter which made me want to read more about her, so I as glad to find more here. I had not heard on Anne Steele or Anne Dutton before. One of the main reasons I got this book, besides liking biographies and seeing it recommended by other bloggers I respect, was to find out more about Jane Austen’s faith. I had deduced that she was God-fearing in the sense that most of society in England was in those days, but I had wondered about her personal faith. I was a little disappointed in that there is just not much information available, especially with her feeling it was a private matter, and it’s not entirely certain that the lengthy prayer that was shared was hers. But I enjoyed the author’s tracing the way she dealt with preachers in her books.

So…mixed emotions about this book. There were parts I did enjoy and learned from, but I don’t think I will be seeking out any more books by Haykin any time soon.

* I know that there are a variety of opinions among my readers concerning what women can and can’t do in the church, but I would ask that you not make this post a place for that debate. I shared my own views here.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday and Carole’s Books You Loved)