March 14, 2015
Marc Baer, Mere Believers: How Eight Faithful Lives Changed the Course of History. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013. 190 pages. $22.00
Although I double-majored in English and history as an undergraduate, when I moved on to graduate school, I narrowed my focus to English. I did so, not because I lost my love for history--that I will never do--but because I was deeply troubled by changes in the academic field. Whereas mainstream readers still gravitate toward biographies of the key figures in world history, by the 1970s, the academic world had all but abandoned the Great Man theory of history.
In its place, it adopted a deterministic, anti-humanistic (Darwinian-Marxist) view that locates the causes of events, not in the personalities and choices of people like Alexander, Caesar, Augustus, Cleopatra, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I, but in material forces and natural processes: heredity, the means and modes of economic production, social and political structures of power, geography and climate, disease and drought, etc. Alexander and Caesar were not, of course, discarded, but they were increasingly reduced to products of their socio-economic milieu. Indeed, even in my own field of English, there were those who insisted the same thing be done to the great poets from Homer to Virgil to Dante to Shakespeare to Milton.
Meanwhile, those in academia who insisted on treating the decisions of kings, statesmen, generals, explorers, and diplomats as both free and effective (for good or ill) were labeled bourgeois and anti-progressive. Worse yet, a historian who suggested that the Christian faith of a statesman might be the chief factor in his choices--more important than social-economic-political-behavioral-environmental factors--would be soundly dismissed as either hopelessly naïve or a "fundamentalist" in disguise.
Thankfully, over the last few decades, a number of academic Christian historians (Mark Noll and George Marsden, for example) have helped reclaim and restore both a human and a divine dimension to history. While taking into account the undeniable influence of natural factors, they nevertheless treat man as a moral-ethical creature whose choices matter and God as a Creator who is intimately involved in the course of history. It is in the tradition of this much-needed reclamation that Marc Baer, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Hope College (Holland, MI), has gifted us with a collection of brief biographies of Christian figures who decisively shaped the world around them.
Mere Believers: How Eight Faithful Lives Changed the Course of History spans the last three centuries, recounting the lives and legacies of eight Englishmen: Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-91), Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), Hannah More (1745-1833), William Wilberforce (1759-1833), Oswald and Biddy Chambers (1874-1917; 1884-1966), G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), and Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957). Though each biography stands on its own, Baer finds creative ways to connect his subjects via the causes they fought for and the people who influenced them.
In constructing each of his biographies, Baer follows a few simple but effective ground rules. First, he relies as often as possible on primary sources, especially those written by his subjects. In fact, he ends each chapter with an excerpt from one of their key writings. This lends an immediacy and authenticity to his portraits and allows him to capture their character in a short space. He succeeds in letting them speak in their own language and out of their own passions rather than imposing twenty-first-century prejudices upon them.
Second, he does not idealize his subjects. He lets us see their stubborn and prideful side as well as their courage and charity. Third, he does not explain away their conversion by recourse to psycho-analytical lingo, but takes seriously their change of heart and mind. Fourth, he allows us to get inside his eight faithful Englishmen as they struggle to discern their specific calling. Fifth, he shows how, by being true to their callings, they were able to truly alter the beliefs, mores, and even behaviors of their fellow citizens.
Baer is to be commended for introducing his readers to the remarkable Selina Hastings, a woman of aristocratic privilege whose adult conversion to Christ allowed her to mature from a self-righteous philanthropist into a joyful giver of charity and a brave supporter of evangelical ministers. What makes this life so fascinating is the way Baer sets it against the rise of Methodism; in fact, he holds up Hastings as "the world's first Methodist" (p.20).
It is good to be reminded that the established church of the eighteenth century was just as scandalized by altar calls, public confessions, and displays of emotion in worship as many mainline churches are today. In a passage that stopped me dead in my tracks, Baer quotes the reaction of the Duchess of Buckingham to the Methodist preaching Hastings patronized: "Their doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect toward their superiors, in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting" (p.10).
Though the background of Nigerian-born slave Olaudah Equiano could not have been more different from that of Hastings, both believers, because of their belief, came to be champions of human liberty. Both gained the courage to re-imagine themselves and their callings (an important theme that runs through all of Baer's lives) and that re-imagining had repercussions in England and across the globe.
In a bold statement that one rarely sees in the work of academic historians, Baer makes it clear why both Olaudah Equiano and the Christian faith deserve a place in any account of eighteenth-century European history: "Although an audacious claim, it could be argued that because Equiano became a believer the enslavement of Africans by Europeans came to an end" (p.24). By intelligence, perseverance, and entrepreneurial skill, Equiano was able to purchase his freedom, but it was his conversion that truly set him free and led him to write a "530-page autobiography" (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano) that became "an essential text for British and American abolitionists" (p.35).
Olaudah's Narrative not only opened western eyes--especially Christian eyes--to the horrors and injustices of slavery; it "demolished the argument that Africans were an inferior people [who] were less human than Europeans" (pp.37-8). In that sense, Equiano's success at coming to a full understanding of his own rich humanity, an understanding that would not have happened apart from his reading of the Bible, helped thousands of others find their own.
It is clear from reading Mere Believers that Dr. Baer is a professor who has a passion for helping his students to discern God's calling upon their lives. (Full disclosure: my son is currently one of his students at Hope College.) Each of his biographies captures, usually in a single sentence, the full dimensions of his subjects' unique calling: "Equiano would eventually be able to define his identity as an African Christian called to live in a land of exile never to return home, so that other Africans would never again be forced to leave their homes for a land of exile" (p.33). That's not only good writing; it's a primer on the mysterious ways that God shapes our destinies, using all our experiences, good or bad, to serve his greater purposes.
Whereas Hastings surrendered her aristocratic reputation and pride of place to serve the poor and the outcast, Hannah More rose from "a provincial female of very modest social background . . . to the very center of British culture and society" (p.43). By means of her prodigious talents as a writer of multiple genres, "she was able to network with the artistic, literary, and political giants of her age" (p.42): among them, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Samuel Johnson, and Edmund Burke.
In the end, however, More followed Hastings into a willing social humiliation that won her the sneers of many fashionable critics but gained her a vast audience of common readers eager to live out a life of virtue. Indeed, in what is surely the most audacious of all Baer's claims, he argues "that no one played a more important role in preventing revolution in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain than did Hannah More--not the prime minister William Pitt, not Lord Nelson and the British navy, not Edmund Burke and his book Reflections on the Revolution in France, not the police nor the army, but one physically frail woman--Hannah More" (p.49).
How did she do this? By countering the revolutionary, utopian claims made in Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man through writing and publishing phenomenally successful stories on the rewards of virtue and the dangers of vice. In other words, More, like all the figures in Mere Believers, used her gifts and talents to challenge people's hearts, souls, and minds. She forced people to examine themselves on the nature of the moral life, as Wilberforce would do on the issue of slavery, the Chambers on the life of the mind, Chesterton on the inherent dignity of every human being no matter the strength of his genes or his IQ, and Sayers on the importance of working to the best of one's ability.
Mere Believers is a good and instructive read for students and teachers alike, but it would have benefited from the addition of two things. First, it needs to include a timeline that charts, in parallel columns, key dates in the lives of the eight figures covered and in the histories of England, France, and America. Second, it has a gaping hole at its center that desperately needs to be filled: no Victorian lives are told.
Given that England was at the height of her political and cultural power during the long reign of Queen Victoria, it would have been instructive to include a life of, say, Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Newman, one or both of the Brownings, David Livingstone, Charles Dickens, Christina Rossetti, General Gordon, or even Queen Victoria herself. True, none of these quite fit the evangelical mode of Hastings or More or Wilberforce, but that could have been remedied by focusing instead on Hudson Taylor or General Booth. Still, readers will be more than rewarded by the eight lives that do greet them in all their passion, commitment, and creative confusion in the pages of Mere Believers.
Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include From Achilles to Christ, Literature: A Student's Guide, and Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Victorian Age