J. C. Ryle as Model Churchman

I first encountered J. C. Ryle in a seminary course. It was David Jones’ basic ethics course. That class changed my trajectory for seminary and also introduced me to an outstanding author.

Ryle’s Holiness is one of the most overlooked Christian classics. It deserves to be continually in print, widely read, and often referenced. The book is a means of grace; the biography of the man who wrote it helps explain why.

Iaian Murray, co-founder of Banner of Truth Trust, has published a number of volumes on church history including several biographies. Every book of his that I’ve read has been well done. J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone is no exception.

The volume contains thirteen chapters, which progress through Ryle’s life from childhood to the influence of his work after his death. Throughout his life, Ryle’s character is revealed in a way that helps explain the power behind his plainspoken writing.

Ryle was the son of a wealthy man and member of parliament who went bankrupt do to some bad decisions. The blessing of the bankruptcy was that it pushed J. C. Ryle into ministry to support himself. However, according to Murray, the elder Ryle’s debts were source of moral burden to the son, who tried to repay his father’s creditors, even on a meager salary.

The portrait of J. C. Ryle that emerges from these pages is one of a churchman. He was ordained into the Church of England and eventually rose through the ranks to become the first bishop of Liverpool.

However, Ryle’s rise was not due to politicking and compromise. In a time when liberalism was rampant within the Church of England and factions within the state church were attempting to reunite with Rome, Ryle vocally opposed both liberalism and ritualism.

In fact, Ryle was a conservative combatant in an era that, according to comments by Ryle, sounds much like our own day. In a collection of sermons, Home Truths, Ryle wrote:

“It is not Atheism I fear so much in the present times as Pantheism. It is not the system which says nothing is true, so much as the system which says everything is true. It is the system which is so liberal, that it dares not say anything is false. It is the system which is so charitable, that it will not allow everything to be true. It is the system which is so scrupulous about the feeling of others that we are never to say they are wrong … What is it but a bowing down before a great idol speciously called liberality? What is it all but a sacrificing of truth upon the altar of a caricature of charity? Beware of it if you believe the Bible.”

Ryle was a churchman in the best sense of the word. He took his pastoral responsibilities seriously, visiting many of the homes in his sprawling parish regularly. He preached to the people, not over their heads. He saw writing as an important part of his ministry, but not one that would allow him to forgo his local responsibilities.

As Ryle wrote in Charges and Addresses, he was leery of “a growing disposition throughout the land, among the clergy, to devote an exaggerated amount of attention to what I must call the public work of the ministry, and to give comparatively too little attention to pastoral visitation and personal dealing with individual souls.”

This meant that preaching was important and public polemics were important, but pastoral ministry was paramount to Ryle. There was no room for the celebrity pastor in Ryle’s worldview.

Part of Ryle’s story must include the death of those close to him. Ryle was single when he began his ministry, which, of course, makes getting married that much more difficult. He lost his first wife after a few years to a lingering illness and had to board his child elsewhere. He would remarry two more times, each time outliving his wives due to illness. Ryle’s life was one that witnessed to suffering and yet found the joy of the Lord within that experience. The power of his sermons and books was shaped by the pain in his life and the goodness of God through that pain.

Murray’s biography of Ryle is a worthwhile read. It synthesizes the bits of biography we have about Ryle and brings them to light for our contemporary era. Murray shows what made Ryle useful to God. While our calling may not be identical, and the circumstances may have changed, there is much in Murray’s portrait of Ryle that deserves attention and mirroring by current or future pastors.

Read Murray’s book. After you do that, read Ryle. It will be worth your time, without a doubt.

J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone
$18.00
By Iain H. Murray

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Martin Luther - A Children's Biography

October 2017 will mark 500 years since Luther published his famous 95 Theses, which are often said to have kicked off the Protestant Reformation. A recent children’s biography on Luther by Simonetta Carr provides a delightful way to introduce the early German Reformer to children.

This volume is the latest edition in the series, Christian Biographies for Young Readers, which is published by Reformation Heritage Books. It is a beautifully illustrated, full color volume, that is likely to delight the reader even as it instructs.

Often children’s biography falls into the trap of hero worship. Obviously, a publisher like Reformation Heritage views the Protestant Reformation in a positive light. Thus it stands to reason they would celebrate Luther’s life and contribution to Church History. Carr, however, manages to avoid the pitfall of hagiography by presenting Luther’s story with its good and bad points.

This book critiques Luther for his coarse language and diatribes against the Jews later in his life, but it does not let those real, yet unfortunate failings diminish the impressive and exciting story of the monk turned Reformer. Roman Catholics or others who view the Protestant Reformation as a tragedy, and thus see Luther mainly negatively, will likely balk at the generally positive view Carr presents of his life and work. However, for most Protestant Christians, this volume strikes the proper note.

In recounting the life of Luther, Carr celebrates the recovery of the gospel from the twisted medieval traditionalism espoused by the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. Unlike many histories, this volume rightly argues that indulgences were the presenting problem, but the deeper issue was the loss of the gospel in the regular teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. That is why Luther’s ministry was so important; he was not dividing the universal church, he was seeking to preserve the gospel and was subsequently attacked by the traditionalists who elected to remain in error.

Some biographies work best if told as a story. Because of Luther’s wide range of activities and overall significance, Carr chose to tell his story in roughly chronological, but mostly topical chunks. There are seven chapters with 4-7 pages each. The chapters discuss his early life, clerical training, desire for reform, alienation from Roman Catholicism, attempts at Reform, marriage and family life, and broader ministry. The volume also includes a timeline, a collection of interesting facts about Luther, and a selection from Luther’s Short Catechism. Even young readers will walk away with a sense of the importance of Luther and an understanding of his life and work.

Much like other biographies in this series, Carr’s book about Luther is full-color throughout. Carr combines new illustrations from Troy Howell with historical engravings and paintings, along with photographs of some of the sites as they appear now. This breaks up the text and makes the book as a whole a feast for young eyes. (Older eyes will appreciate it, too, and may have to be reminded this book is for the kids.)

Whether you are looking for a gift for a child, seeking a volume for homeschool history, or simply building your library, this volume is worth purchasing. It is historically accurate, delightfully illustrated, with an appropriately critical tone. It represents both a celebration of the recovery of the gospel with a recognition of the pervasiveness of human sin, even among our heroes. Reformation Heritage Books should be applauded for continuing the series and publishing excellent children’s volumes like this one.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews with no expectation of a positive review.

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling - A Review

Charles Williams stands in literary history among the group of men called the Inklings.  Most famously, that group includes J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Often Owen Barfield is mentioned along with them, too.  Williams gets discussed but often on the fringes—a much less known person than Lewis or Tolkien. He remains known, in part, because of his association with the other two.

Whereas there are many biographies (authorized and otherwise) on Lewis and Tolkien, there have been few on Williams. Recently Oxford University Press has published a lengthy biography on Williams by poet and literary critic, Grevel Lindop.

Who is Williams?

It is appropriate that OUP publish this biography of the third Inkling because Williams’ biography is as much the history of OUP as it is the story of his own life. He worked for many years as an editor at Amen House, the London office of the Oxford University Press. During World War II, he worked for OUP in Oxford proper.

For the student of English literature, particularly of modern British literature, Williams’ life and work is interesting because of his interactions with the intelligentsia of that era. He corresponded in detail with Dorothy L. Sayers. He was friends with T.S. Eliot. He interacted with Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manly Hopkins and others. Some of these, even more than Tolkien and Lewis, are names that haunt the syllabi in colleges to this day. Williams helped shape the literary history of the English language due to his significant position as an editor of volumes, curator of anthologies, and author of prefaces and introductions. Lindop chronicles the work of Williams quite adeptly along those lines.

Williams was also a creator of literature. He wrote poetry, plays, and novels. Some of them are still in print today. In this endeavor Williams was, perhaps, no less avid than some of his more popular friends. However, he was much less successful.

Although he wrote numerous novels, plays, and poems, he was regularly in financial difficulty. (This stemmed in part due to the low wages paid by OUP.) Yet he, like many other creative people, was frantic to put his vibrant imaginations onto paper and thus bring others into the worlds he was creating. He often published without pay and when he was paid, it was often very little. In that regard little has changed in the literary world.

He was enthralled with the Arthurian legends as well as with mystic and sometimes occult practices. Williams was involved in several secret organizations that incorporated various magical rituals, mystical concepts such as sharing the pain of others, and syncretistic practices that melded Christianity with pagan rites. Most of what Lindop describes is rather benign and not dark magic, as it were, but Williams had shaky theology to say the least.

His Theology and Praxis

Williams was obsessed with his notion of Romantic Theology and wrote a book by that title. The concept is that through romantic love one could have a spiritual experience. Lindop deals with this in some detail, but it is not a fully orthodox conception of worship. However, it points toward some of the disturbing aspects of Williams’ amorous life.

He married a woman for whom he experienced something akin to love at first sight. He and his wife, whom he nicknamed Michal after David’s wife, remained married until his death just before the end of World War II. However, Williams was not faithful to her in any true sense of the word.

According to Lindop, it does not appear that Williams committed physical adultery with any woman. However, he committed many emotional affairs with young women around the office of Oxford University Press. In these relationships Williams often released sexual energy through mildly sadomasochistic practices like light spanking, striking palms with rulers, and other minor forms of “discipline.” Often these encounters occurred in broad daylight in the offices of OUP. In many of these interactions, Williams acted as a spiritual mentor to the young ladies, thus inculcating their devotion and submission to his odd practices.

Williams also developed the idea that the biblical mandate to “bear one another’s burdens” included the ability to suffer by proxy for an individual—to take on the physical and emotional pain of someone, whether known or not, and thus reduce it. He was quite active in organizing these activities among what seems to be a fairly broad group of spiritual followers. 

Relative Obscurity

The unwholesome affections and spiritualism help explain why Williams, even when he is read, does not resonate with as wide an audience as Lewis and Tolkien. Certainly, as Lindop documents, Williams was as innovative as the two more famous Inklings, perhaps even more innovative. But his gospel was tainted by spiritualism and distorted understanding of love. This cannot help but come through in his writing. While Lewis and Tolkien are telling the greatest story ever through their myths, Williams was caught up in spiritualism that effectively drew his mind from the truth.

Also, where Lewis and Tolkien understand joy and hope, Williams led an unhappy and unfulfilled life. He was constantly nervous. He was always something of a social oddity. He withdrew from his family often to be creative and productive. Lindop paints the portrait of one who well knew suffering, but little knew joy. This, too, seasons his writing and helps explain why he continues to be read but rarely devoured by generations of devotees, like those that follow Lewis and Tolkien.

Lindop’s biography of Charles Williams is good. The research is well done, with many footnotes and ample evidence of thorough research into Williams’ extensive correspondence and his voluminous literary estate.  This is a book that needed to be written and has been written well. If it fails to inspire as much as a biography of another Inkling, that is likely because a fair telling of the life of Charles Williams cannot be a happy story if it is to be an honest one.

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling
$33.52
By Grevel Lindop

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Marie Durand - The Story of Faithfulness in Persecution

If you haven’t heard of Reformation Heritage Books before today, you’ve been missing out. They produce a number of fine volumes on theology, particularly on Puritan theology.

One of the most significant contributions they are making to the life of the church is the Christian Biographies for Young Readers series. These are fully illustrated, hardbound books that are suitable early elementary through middle school. The books include drawings and paintings of historic scenes as well as contemporary photos of historical sites.

Summary

The latest edition in this series highlights the life of Marie Durand. Durand was a French Protestant who was born in the early eighteenth century. As a Protestant in Catholic France, her family was at times tolerated, but later on most of the family was arrested for meeting together and worshipping according to their conscience.

As a result of her faith, which led her to disobedience to the crown, Durand spent thirty-eight years in prison. She lived the first 19 years of her life free, though with threat of persecution through many of those years. Nearly her entire adult life was lived in the small confines of the Tower of Constance, where she and a number of other Protestant women and children were imprisoned. Snow and rain fell through the grating in the roof and through the slitted windows. Their meager provisions had to be augmented by their families and friends on the outside.

Inside, Durand served as a teacher to the children, letter writer for many of the other prisoners, and also spiritual leader because of her ability to read and write better than others. Her role was significant, and yet the reality is that she spent nearly four decades in a small one-room prison with only occasional opportunities to go outside into the fresh air.

While the women, including Marie Durand, were imprisoned, their husbands were made to be galley slaves. Or, like Marie’s brother Pierre, were executed outright if they persisted in preaching the Protestant faith.

And yet they persisted.

Analysis and Conclusion

This is what makes this biography so powerful and timely. Durand’s story reminds us of what real persecution looks like. This is not merely social marginalization but absolute, unfettered, and unreasoning punishment. Many men and women lost their lives in exchange for an unsullied conscience.

This book is written as a third person historical biography. In other words, it is not a story book, but a work of non-fiction directed to the young. This is the sort of story that can provide the sort of vicarious memory that a young Christian may need when attempting to sort through the social consequences of a vibrant Christian faith in the coming years. This volume shows that others have paid a greater price, and that it was worth it.

The author, Simonetta Carr, is a native of Italy with a multicultural background. She has been an elementary school teacher, a home-school teacher of eight, and a writer for newspapers and magazines. The book is illustrated by Matt Abraxas who is an artist by trade who lives on Colorado.

These books are not inexpensive, but they are well constructed. The illustrations draw the reader in and help to make the story come alive. This would be a suitable volume to incorporate into a homeschool unit, or as part of church library. The entire series would make an exceptional Christmas or birthday gift for a young reader. This is the sort of reading that will stick to a child’s ribs and provide encouragement in a time of need.

This is the ninth book in the series. Previous titles include John Calvin; Augustine of Hippo; John Owen, Athanasius; Lady Jane Grey; Anselm of Canterbury; John Knox; and Jonathan Edwards. Hopefully there are more planned in the near future. If the future volumes are as good as this one, the church will be blessed.

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was received from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews with no expectation of a positive review.

Ulrich Zwingli - A Bitesize Biography

William Boekestein’s contribution to the Bitesize Biography series, Ulrich Zwingli, is the latest of these little books to make it to press. I’ve previously reviewed the volumes on John Chrysostom and George Whitefield. All have been enjoyable and engaging.

Ulrich Zwingli follows the basic formula of the series, which includes a timeline, a brief introduction, and a walk through progression to importance, major conflicts, and reason of significance. The volumes all end with a summary of the legacy of the individual. This means that these books, including Boekestein’s recent edition, have all the pieces necessary to a good biography.

Summary

Zwingli is an interesting character within Church History and often less covered than other reformers, like Luther and Calvin. This is, as Boekestein notes, in part due to Zwingli’s untimely death, which prevented him from publishing revisions (as Calvin) or as much (as Calvin and Luther).

Zwingli was a first generation Reformer. His shift from the Catholic Church occurred roughly simultaneously with Luther and in parallel. While there was undoubtedly some interaction between the two early on, the theological movement away from the Roman church had a basically independent genesis for each of the men.

Unlike Luther, however, who had a political power to support his religious efforts at Reform, Zwingli became much more involved in the daily political squabbles of his Swiss canton. This also contributed to the diminished literary production of Zwingli, as well as some of the attitudes toward reform, which for Zwingli required convincing many more people along the way. Switzerland was also in a more precarious political situation because of the small size of the Cantons and their proximity to Italy.

Boekestein highlights these differences and brings out some of the unique contributions that Zwingli, often considered the father of the Reformed faith, makes to church history. This story is told in a winsome manner, in general. The writing is alive and engaging. This volume, like the previous in the series, is an enjoyable evening read for someone interested in history and theology.

Analysis

My greatest point of contention with this volume is the Boekestein diverges from the pattern, which is generally descriptive theologically and historically, to insert a paedobaptist polemic into the volume. Certainly the issue of the proper subject of baptism is bound to come up in a volume on Zwingli, since it was Zwingli’s teaching in Zurich that lead Conrad Grabel and others to follow the text of Scripture to the doctrine of believer’s baptism.

Dealing with the controversy was inevitable, but this doctrine is handled differently than other controversies. Unlike the concern over iconogrophy, marriage of clergy, and the controversy of the Lord’s Supper, all of which Zwingli engaged in and which Boekestein covers descriptively, this volume presents a defense of Zwingli’s position and describes the Anabaptists as “rebaptizing” repeatedly, instead of presenting their belief that they were merely baptizing for the first time.

I appreciate Boekestein’s desire to demonstrate the importance of the doctrine, due to his commitments to a covenantal understanding of salvation, which leads to the idea that baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of the covenant. However, this digression into polemicism is a blemish in an otherwise excellent volume, and completely unnecessary for the project under consideration. As a Baptist, I obviously reject the notion that infant baptism is preferable to believer’s baptism, and would have preferred if this controversy had been handled in the same manner as the others.

One danger of descriptive biographies like this is the potential to devolve into hagiography. Thankfully, Boekestein does not do this. He relates in general terms the sexual sin Zwingli participated in before finally getting married. The volume also relates some of Zwingli’s failures in judgment, including his support of the persecution of the Anabaptists. These are points that much be discussed, but which do not diminish the overall contribution Zwingli made to the history of the church.

I am pleased to see that this latest volume includes a brief list of recommended reading, which was a lacuna I first noted in my review of the volume on John Chrysostom. Boekestein provides a single paragraph summary of where the interested reader should go for more on Zwingli, which makes the helpful approach of the Bitesize Biography series even better.

Conclusion

Laying aside the small digression discussed above, this is an excellent volume. This was an enjoyable little book to dive into, sitting in my overstuffed chair on an evening near the end of the semester. There is healthy balance between history, theology, and good story telling that make this entire series a treasure for the contemporary church.

I recommend this series, and this book, heartily. These books make good pleasure reading for adults, and would be useful volumes for studying church history in the upper grades of a homeschool curriculum. I look forward to many more volumes to come in the series.

Ulrich Zwingli
$11.99
By William Boekestein

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

George Whitefield - A Bitesize Biography

Reading biographies is something that I find both enjoyable and beneficial, particularly when I am learning about the life of a brother or sister in Christ who has lived well. Thus it is little surprise that I deeply enjoyed the most recent entry into the Bitesize Biographies series, published by EP books. I previously reviewed Earl Blackburn’s volume in the series, which had John Chrysostom as its subject. That review can be found in the November 2014 issue of Themelios, the journal of The Gospel Coalition.

 Michael Haykin, a professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written a brief volume on the life and work of George Whitefield. Haykin presents a vision of Whitefield that reclaims him from the revivalistic excesses of other itinerate preachers, demonstrates his thoroughgoing Calvinism, and clears him from accusations of antinomianism. Whitefield was a faithful, Anglican who saw God’s sovereignty over salvation as an encouragement to evangelize and exhort others toward personal holiness.

 Unlike his contemporaries and friends, Charles and John Wesley, Whitefield understood that Christian perfection is a product of divine work that will be completed at a future date. He wrestled with his own sinfulness, yet still saw fit to call others to repentance. In Whitefield’s words:

It is good to see ourselves poor, and exceeding vile; but if that sight and feeling prevent our looking up to, and exerting ourselves for our dear Saviour, it becomes criminal, and robs the soul of much comfort. I can speak this by dear-bought experience. How often have I been kept from speaking and acting for God, by a sight of my own unworthiness; but now I see that the more unworthy I am, the more fit to work for Jesus, because he will get much glory in working by such mean instruments; and the more he has forgiven me, the more I ought to love and serve him. Fired with a sense of his unspeakable loving-kindness, I dare to go out and tell poor sinners that a lamb was slain for them; and that he will have mercy on sinners as such, of whom I am chief.

Such is the motivation of a man who made seven trips across the Atlantic to America to preach up and down the East Coast, proclaiming Christ to many who had not heard the gospel before. Such is the attitude of the man who preached tens of thousands of times to crowds as large as 30,000. Such is the character of a man that would preach in the open air when it was common for scoffers to throw rocks and seek to do harm to the preacher to disrupt the presentation.

Whitefield is a worthy subject of such a biography. This format of very brief, but well-researched biographies is a helpful tool for Christian discipleship. Reading a popular-level account of the life of a significant believer reminds the reader that great things are possible for those who are faithful to use their talents according to their calling. It is also a testimony of God’s faithfulness, as he raised up someone to preach and through him revived true religious fervor despite the moral decay in Britain and America in the 18th century.

If you’ve ever been interested in reading Christian biographies, the Bitesize Biography series is a great place to start. They are affordable and accessible. They are written by authors who are academically qualified and who have a desire to provide an aid for discipleship. I cannot commend this book or this series highly enough for personal or church libraries.

Bitesize Biographies: George Whitefield
$9.32
By Michael A. G. Haykin

Note: A copy of this book was provided to me without charge by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. All opinions are my own.

Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians

Dorothy Day holding up a prison dress. Photo courtesy of Jim Forest through a Creative Commons license.

The Armchair Theologians series from Westminster John Knox is, as one expects by the title, designed to be an accessible and entertaining approach to the biographies of some of the most significant theologians. The authors for these volumes are always fans of the biographical subject. Therefore, there tends to be a bias toward the views of the subject, with a very minimal critique offered.

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty’s recent contribution to the series on the socialist Catholic, Dorothy Day fits into the series well. On the whole, Hinson-Hasty celebrates the life and work of Day, only stopping to critique Day in those places where she was not sufficiently feminist. Therefore, Day’s negative view of abortion, willingness to get married, and traditional views on sexual orientation are noted as blemishes on her record and excused based on chronologically inferior cultural influence.

Setting aside the somewhat hagiographic aspects of this work, and the series in general, which are native to this approach, this volume in particular is a very helpful means of getting introduced to the lives of significant theologians. In fact, the whole series by Westminster John Knox is enjoyable because the authors like the subject. This makes the prose more lively in many cases.

At just about 200 pages, Hinson-Hasty provides an overview of Day’s life and work that covers the major epochs in her life, the main thrust of her work, and helps to place Day in her cultural context. Additionally, the author shows how Day’s ideas have been appropriated and applied to contemporary social justice movements. This makes the book a useful introduction into the topic.

Before reading Hinson-Hasty’s book, Dorothy Day was relatively unknown to me. In fact, this is one of the reasons I requested this book for review. I have read excerpts of her writing in my time as a seminary student, but had learned very little about her. 

Dorothy's last meeting with Mother Teresa. This occurred in Dorothy's room at Maryhouse in Manhattan. Eileen Egan is on the left. The photo was taken in 1979, the year before Dorothy's death, by Bill Barrett. (Marquette University Archives) Photo Credit to Jim Forest through a Creative Commons license.

Dorothy's last meeting with Mother Teresa. This occurred in Dorothy's room at Maryhouse in Manhattan. Eileen Egan is on the left. The photo was taken in 1979, the year before Dorothy's death, by Bill Barrett. (Marquette University Archives) Photo Credit to Jim Forest through a Creative Commons license.


Dorothy Day was not a professional theologian or ethicist. In fact, she had no academic credentials to speak of. She was, however, a writer and a social activist who was key in the labor movement in a particular era of American history. Day’s life demonstrates that all the degrees in the world do not make one influential, and that influence can be gained by continual, faithful witness.

Day was nothing if not a legitimate practitioner of her views. She was a socialist, and so she lived in community. She was a strong advocate of a “peace ethic” and so she went to a great distance not to have hierarchical relationships, or even rules, in the open communities in which she lived.

Dorothy Day was influential for some of the liberation theologians. Her writing in the Catholic Worker, as pro-socialist newspaper, helped to shape the thinking of many of the Latin American liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez. Much like Gutierrez would later do, Day lived in poverty in the slums rather than doing her philanthropic theologizing from a distant suburban neighborhood.

It is for her integrity that Day deserves the most praise. She authentically lived in community with people from any and every social background. She sought to do her work for the poor from among the poor. This helped keep her faithful to her message, and lends credibility to her writing. Hinson-Hasty helped me gain a new appreciation for Dorothy Day through her presentation of Day’s life in this biography.

In the end, while I do not agree with the author’s theological positions, this is a helpful book. In fact, all of the Armchair Theologians are worthwhile reads when you are trying to get a quick overview of the life of a significant Christian thinker.

I commend this book and the entire series to readers because, in a world awash with information, such brief biographies provide engaging and informative introductions. While not suitable for academic research, they are beneficial for personal edification.

Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians
$14.56
By Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty


Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. All opinions expressed are my own.

David Livingstone, Abolitionist

“To all our subjects who may see this and also to others, may God save you, know that we have prohibited the transport of slaves by sea in all our harbours and have closed the markets which are for sale of slaves through all our dominions. Whoever therefore shall ship a raw slave after this date will render himself liable to punishment and this he will bring upon himself. Be this known.” – From a notice, posted on a customhouse in Zanzibar on June 5, 1873, about 1 month after David Livingstone’s death.

Every biography of David Livingstone picks up on a different aspect of his life. He’s hailed as a paragon of missionaries for abandoning the colonial model of a mission station to push to the interior of Africa. Unfortunately, by most ways missionaries are measured, he was not terribly successful, with few converts in his lifetime. He is sometimes celebrated as a scientist due to his medical discoveries, particularly his pioneering of the treatment of quinine for the prevention and treatment of malaria. Often he is known as a great explorer because of his expeditions into the heart of Africa to map the territory and to attempt to find the headwaters of the Nile.

Jay Milbrandt’s recent biography, The Daring Heart of David Livingstone: Exile, African Slavery, and the Publicity Stunt that Saved Millions highlights an element of Livingstone’s life that is often little publicized: Livingstone was passionate about ending the brutal slave trade in East Africa. In fact, the closing of the slave markets in Zanzibar, highlighted in the statement above, was one of the greatest accomplishments of his career, which unfortunately he did not live to see.

Reading of Livingstone’s life is heartbreaking. He failed at several major efforts. He won the hearts of the people of Britain and America due to his discoveries and his missionary accounts. But then he lost the crowd’s applause due to his public failures, which were driven in part by his personal weaknesses. He was, at times, a poor leader. By any reasonable metric he was a terrible father whose children barely knew him, if at all. Still, his wife had every reason to despise him and yet she loved him. I have read several biographies of Livingstone before. I have at times wondered why he is such a celebrated hero. Milbrandt has done a service by highlighting Livingstone’s greatest achievement.

This is a dark book at many points. In order to illustrate the importance of Livingstone’s fight against the slave trade, Milbrandt reveals some of the gruesome details of the conditions in East Africa during Livingstone's time.

For example, in order to destabilize conditions in an otherwise generally peaceful region of Africa, slave traders sent parties in to murder as much as to capture slaves. Villages would be wiped out with a few survivors taken captive, tied together, and sent on a death march toward the coast where they would be sold to the highest bidder. Disease, starvation, and exhaustion took the lives of many of the captives before they reached their destinations.

Livingstone records something more horrifying than the direct deaths due to the brutal slave raids:

“The strangest disease I have seen in this country seems really to be the broken-heartedness, and it attacks free men who have been captured and made slaves. . . . They ascribed their only pain to the heart, and placed the hand correctly on the spot, though many think that the organ stands high up under the breast bone. Some slavers expressed surprise to me that [their slaves] should die, seeing they had plenty to eat and no work . . . it seems to be really broken-hearts of which they die.”

Their families slaughtered, the captives in the slave camps died because their freedom was gone. They ceased to live because they had nothing left to live for. Slavery was a misery worse than the physical ailments that beset them. The blackness of the evil of slavery in that context must be understood if the value of Livingstone’s life work is to be recognized.

One of the more intriguing twists in Livingstone’s fight for abolition is that it was a publicity stunt that had the most impact in stopping the brutal slave trade. Livingstone had been reported dead by some of the natives who had accompanied his expedition to find the headwaters of the Nile. In order to scoop the British papers, the New York Herald sent Henry Morton Stanley to go find the wayward explorer.

Against all odds, Stanley was successful. After a series of interviews over a period of four months, Stanley left Livingstone, unable to convince the explorer to return to civilization. Livingstone did, however, send journals and letters with Stanley, which were influential in spurring political action in Britain to lean on the African nations to end their trade in slaves.

Contributing to the building momentum toward abolition was the dynamic between Britain, who had ended slavery in the early 19th century, and the United States, who had only ended their barbaric human trafficking after a bloody and divisive Civil War. Stanley’s efforts, funded by a US paper helped to shame the British into a more forward action against the slave trade.

Stanley’s encounter also provides a less biased picture of the man who was David Livingstone. Though Stanley was not particularly religious, he wrote this about Livingstone:

“His religion is not of the theoretical kind, but it is a constant, earnest, sincere practice. It is neither demonstrative nor loud, but manifests itself in a quiet, practical way, and is always at work . . . In him, religion exhibits its loveliest features; it governs his conduct not only toward his servants. . . . Religion has tamed him, and made him a Christian gentleman.”

Stanley’s admiration for the man, despite his failings, helps explain why Livingstone’s legacy is as great as it is. It also helps to explain why his wife, Mary, risked disease and death to be with her husband, though he had frequently left her behind for years at a time during his explorations. It also explains why so many of the Africans loved the man so dearly.

As Milbrandt aptly writes, “Livingstone’s story is one of failure and falling from grace. But it is also a story of relentless commitment that brings redemption we may never know, and a story greater than we could ever image. This is David Livingstone’s legacy.”

I am thankful to Jay Milbrandt for investing his time to write this biography. He has done a good thing to draw out the victory against slavery that came through Livingstone’s work. Milbrandt illustrates the reality that many great men and women had serious failings, and that despite these failings their memories should not be cast aside forever, nor should their weaknesses be ignored.

Though Livingstone did not accomplish all he set out to do, a worthy tribute was once paid to him in a speech made by an old African man that had once met the explorer:

“A white man who treated black men as his brothers, and whose memory would always be cherished all along the Rovuma Valley after we were all dead and gone. A short man with a bushy moustache, and a keen piercing eye, whose words were always gentle, and whose manners were always kind, whom as a leader it was a privilege to follow, and who knew the way to the hearts of all men.” 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Sufferings in Africa: The Account That Helped End Slavery

The book was originally published in 1817. It is the account of James Riley, an American sea captain, who was shipwrecked on the Western coast of Africa, captured by natives, sold as a slave, and subsequently redeemed by a British businessman. (Only a few years after open conflict between the U.S. and Britain!)

It  is largely an account of the misery of travel across the Saharan desert. It describes the practices used by the camel caravans to survive and the struggle Riley and his crew had to maintain the will to live despite the depredations of the desert, the little hope of a positive outcome, and the misery of a dearth of melanin under a scorching sun. 

Near the end of the 1847 edition of his book, Riley wrote this important plea for assistance in ending slavery:

I will exert all my remaining faculties in endeavors to redeem the enslaved and to shiver in pieces the rod of oppression; and I trust I shall be aided in that holy work by every good and every pious, free, and high-minded citizen in the community, and by the friends of mankind throughout the civilized world
Read More

Sam James - Missionary Hero

The fact that Sam and his wife Rachel served for 51 years is impressive in and of itself. I dream of being that faithful for so long.

That they served in Vietnam for many of those years makes the feat even more astounding. James recalls of his decision to serve in Vietnam:

"I didn't know any Vietnamese people. I'd never heard the Vietnamese language. . . . It was just something the Lord laid on my heart that I couldn't get away from. . . . Sometimes I think the call of God is something of a mystery."

Read More