Review: Mere Believers

Mere BelieversMere BelieversMarc Baer. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013.

Summary: Can individuals seeking to live faithfully to their calling change history? These profiles of eight British believers demonstrate that “mere believers” can indeed have a transformative influence in matters both of the heart and of the intellect.

Marc Baer, a professor of modern British history begins this book by narrating his own journey to faith during graduate school. And then he goes on to explain how and why he chose to write about the eight British figures profiled in this book (six individuals and a couple). Four he sees as those whose calling is a matter of the heart as they passionately gave themselves to causes of social justice and societal improvement. The latter four he identifies as those whose transformed intellect was employed in commending the Christian faith.

In the first group, he begins with Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, whose calling is reflected in her philanthropy and her efforts to improve the quality of preaching through the formation of a preachers academy and her ongoing support of a number of these ministers. Then we have the former slave Olaudah Equiano, whose narrative of his life and speaking on behalf of abolition played a crucial role in the abolition of slavery in the British empire, in concert with the efforts of the next two individuals. Hannah More was a gifted playwright, who, in addition to her advocacy for abolition, wrote Village Politics, which may have dissuaded her people from following France down the path of revolution, a series of popular tracts promoting moral improvement and religious faith, and several books related to forming the character of young women. Finally, we have William Wilberforce, a rich and gifted young member of the House of Commons whose conversion leads to devoting his life to slavery’s abolition, as well as a variety of other social justice issues, in concert with his friends in the Clapham Sect.

The first persons we meet in the second group are Oswald and Biddy Chambers. Oswald thought he was called to a ministry in the arts, only to find himself called to the work of training others in Christian thought and discipleship. This eventually led to service as a World War 1 chaplain, and strangely, to his premature death. Biddy was a full partner in his work, joining him both in lectures and hospitality. After his death, she took his papers and edited them into a number of books, the most famous of which is My Utmost for His Highest, a devotional guide given to many young believers (I still have a copy given me by a mentor) that fuses keen intellectual and spiritual insight. G. K. Chesterton not only wrote prolifically as an apologist for Christian faith who could turn arguments on their head, but campaigned vigorously against eugenics, forestalling Britain from going down the road Germany pursued. Dorothy L. Sayers, left an ad agency to write, first murder mysteries, and then plays and even a theology of work, perhaps her signal contribution as she saw Christian faith freeing people not from work but to work with excellence.

What I appreciated about this work is that Baer has given us brief vignettes of eight truly interesting people. He doesn’t spare us their flaws, whether it be Hannah More’s temper, Oswald Chambers’ struggles with doubt and despair, Chesterton’s gluttony, or Sayers’ illegitimate child. He sets them in their time, narrates their conversion stories (all as adults) and their search for their callings. Then, rather than an exhaustive treatment of their lives, he focuses on a particular pattern of faithfulness to that call and its impact on society and history. The chapters conclude with a “text” illustrative of the person’s thought and questions for reflection.

This is a helpful book both for those wondering about the difference Christian faith makes, and for those seeking to discern their own calling. What is so helpful is that we have eight unique individuals of differing temperament, gifts, and social situations (from wealthy heiress to former slave), and both men and women. We see that no matter who we are, we may find a life of meaning and significance as we pursue the calling of “mere believers.”

A Call For a New Generation of Abolitionists

HannahMore220px-Olaudah_Equiano_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15399220px-William_wilberforceHannah More. Olaudah Equiano. William Wilberforce. One an heiress and accomplished playwright. One a former slave. And one a member of Parliament. These three and their circle of friends, notably a group called the Clapham Sect, came together and used moral suasion and political influence to move a nation to act against its own economic interest to abolish, first the slave trade and then slavery in Great Britain and the British colonies.

I’d been reading a collection of short biographies titled Mere Believers by Marc Baer and had just read about these three when I had a meeting with two men seeking to be modern-day abolitionists in the former eastern bloc country of Moldova. Much of their work consists of social entrepreneurship that creates jobs and economic opportunity to enable those who are victims of sex and labor trafficking in their country make a new start in life. The struggling economy of Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, makes it a target for traffickers, who often lure women out of the country with promises of jobs only to force them into the sex trades.

It reminded me again of the ugly truth that there are more people in some form of involuntary servitude today than at the height of the slave trade — 27 million by some estimates with up to 13 million being children. Estimates are that this is at least a $32 billion industry world-wide, third in illegal activities only to drugs and arms trading. What is particularly sobering is that this is illegal activity, although because of the lucrative economics, law enforcement officials often are complicit in allowing this activity to continue in many countries. This includes forced prostitution of women and children, child pornography, and forced labor.

This even occurs in the heart of middle America. In January, we learned of arrests of traffickers in my community who were detaining at least 7 women who were forced to engage in prostitution and to sleep in the massage parlors where they were exploited. Two of the locations were within ten minutes of my home.

Prostitution is often debated as to whether it should be included in trafficking of persons. Yet the average age when women enter prostitution is 14. Prostitutes are beaten an average of twelve times a years and are twenty times more likely to be murdered than the average American. Seventy-two percent have fled situations of physical or sexual abuse when they were children. It was statistics like these that led one of our local judges to launch an innovative sentencing diversion program called CATCH (Changing Actions To Change Habits) to help women appearing before his bench to leave the sex trades instead of going to prison.

This is not a hopeless situation. There is much both at home and abroad that can be done:

  1. Pass and fund tougher law enforcement. A coalition of religious groups, social agencies and legislators in my state have done this.
  2. Support agencies that rescue and provide aftercare including job placement help to victims. The one I had the chance to learn about working in Moldova is called Kingdom Paradigm. One of the foremost groups doing this work is International Justice Mission, founded by former U.N. human rights investigator, Gary Haugen.
  3. Address the demand side of the equation. This includes prosecuting the perpetrators (‘johns’ and child pornography users and makers). It means cultivating a culture where we raise men to respect both women and themselves. (“Real men never pay for or force sex.”) And it means attention to the sourcing of everything from our electronics to our clothes.

While I’m on the subject, I want to give a shout-out for an event this weekend for those in the Columbus area. Students from several area law schools, local attorneys and a collegiate ministry are co-sponsoring a symposium on Saturday October 17 at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State. Speakers include Judge Paul Herbert, who founded the CATCH program I mentioned above, and other anti-trafficking researchers and advocates. Information and registration can be found here.

The commodification of people is a double-edged sword. When we tolerate the commodification of some, we create a society in which all of us are commodities rather than human beings of dignity and inherent worth. We cannot deny the human rights of some without placing those of all of us in jeopardy. There is a new generation of abolitionists taking the places of More, Equiano, and Wilberforce. The question is whether we will heed their call and join their efforts.

Review: John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

William Wilberforce has always been a “hero” in politics for me. His determined and principled opposition to slavery over forty years led to its abolition in the British Empire. In reading this biography of John Quincy Adams, I discovered that he (along with Lincoln and some others) is a candidate for America’s Wilberforce.

In recent years, he has often been overshadowed by his father, but it can be argued that his contribution to the early history of our country might rival that of his father, even though both were ineffective Presidents (perhaps for some of the same reasons).

As a boy, he watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from across the bay in Quincy. He sailed to France with his father who served as our first ambassador to France, pursued by British warships, who if successful would have hanged the father and impressed the son. Associating with Franklin, Jefferson, and leading figures from many European countries, he quickly learned the ways of diplomacy.

After Harvard, and his defense of the Washington administration against the likes of Citizen Genet, he was named to a post in Holland, a crossroads “listening post” for Europe. Subsequently, he was named to a post in St Petersburg as America’s first ambassador to Russia. He made key trade deals that greatly facilitated America’s economic future. Under Madison, he was instrumental in negotiating an end of hostilities in the War of 1812. Then under James Monroe, he served as Secretary of State, the stepping stone to the Presidency in those days. He formulated the policy that became known as the Monroe Doctrine, asserting US opposition to any further colonization of the Americas.

Daguerrotype of John Quincy Adams, first former president to be photographed.

Daguerrotype of John Quincy Adams, first former president to be photographed.

He did not run for President. He allowed his name to be put forward, but not at the head of any party (a practice he adhered to for the rest of his life). Nor did he campaign for office, opposed as he was by the likes of Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. Jackson actually won a plurality of both the popular and electoral votes but not a sufficient number, setting the stage for the “Corrupt Bargain”, a conversation between Adams and Clay where no quid pro quo was stated but the result of which was that Clay directed his electors to Adams and Adams made him Secretary of State. Much like our current situation, Adams was able to do little, a victim of Congressional gridlock as Jackson mobilized opposition to all of Adams policies. Adams didn’t help matters by refusing to respond in kind and by elevated language in speeches that alienated him from all but the elite. It seems that he inherited qualities from his father that rendered him ineffective in this regard. Needless to say, Jackson soundly defeated him in the next election.

He was perhaps the first ex-President to distinquish himself for his post-Presidential work. He was elected to the House of Representatives where he served until the day of his death, collapsing in the House chambers and expiring on the premises. He fought vociferously to abolish the Gag Rule that prevented debate or even citizen petitions to introduce the topic of the limitation or abolition of slavery. He resisted efforts at expulsion and was the first congressional voice to speak against this practice, working with a young Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, one of his speeches clearly anticipates Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Unger covers all this history in a readable style free of dense academic prose and of reasonable length (364 pages with notes, bibliography, and indexes). I would highly recommend this if you would like to discover this lesser known but important figure in American history.

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