Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography— A Review

Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography

The Faith of the 20th Century’s most Influential Woman — A Review

by Harold Ivan Smith. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

I enjoy pondering on an author’s dedication. Some can open a window on any number of emotions experienced by the author at the conclusion of a completed text. Others can be coded messages to those closest to the writer, they can also be witty, they raise questions for the reader about the context of names and places, and they can often set the tone for the forthcoming read. The dedication written by Harold Ivan Smith author of Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography, The Faith of the 20th Century’s most Influential Woman, [Eleanor Roosevelt]  sets the tone of this biography for me, at a number of levels. He thanked ‘the Archivist ‘par excellence’ for his ‘sage advice’ to set himself the task of exploring ‘the spirituality of Eleanor’ Roosevelt. Archivists are aware of potential areas of their collections that are under researched. That ‘moment of indecision’, which many writers experience, myself included, meant he was advised to, “Write the Book!” and another wise counsel with a head full of stories of Eleanor Roosevelt, helped him ‘clear hurdles throughout the entire [writing] process’.

Harold Smith sets the perimeter of his focus from the outset. ‘Eleanor’s faith was personal but never private’, he writes. She never hesitated to share in her conversations, writings, speeches and activities, her ‘reading of scripture, the examples of Jesus, her own prayers and the divine call to work for a more just and peaceful world.’ By opening with ‘What Religion Means to me’, an article Eleanor wrote in 1932, in the magazine Forum, Smith conveys Eleanor’s faith as central to her role as First Lady during her years in the White House and those that followed until her death in 1962. Spirituality, to Eleanor, was ‘that feeling of having something outside of one’s self and greater than one’s self to depend on.’ An Episcopalian, her evolving ecumenical spirit meant for her that ‘all people are one in Christ’. This resulted in a broad and liberal faith in which social justice was an imperative, especially for those most vulnerable. She held a deep love for the Bible and learned off by heart the New Testament, in French. This held her in good steed when challenged and criticised by the conservative Christian community. Framed on her bedroom wall were the words ‘Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace’; words she also carried on her person. These words became her prayer for action evidenced in all her activities.

Growing up in such a diverse and gathered population as found in the United States, it is difficult to escape the biases and prejudices that can evolve and become rooted in a culture. Eleanor was confronted by many of these in her comfortable and elite environment. Anti-Semitism that surrounded her during her growing up, both within her family and American society at large caused her some angst as she reached adulthood; Jews were viewed as too powerful, too financially and politically influential and were ‘a menace to America’. Despite her latent bias Eleanor, guided by her belief in the God-given worth of peoples regardless of creed or race, stepped out to do all she could for the persecuted Jews of WWII. This is one of the most poignant yet chilling chapters in the biography and is a reminder of how continuing prejudices that emerge as a result of the social affects of modern warfare become deeply rooted in society. Her tireless efforts for rehabilitation of the Jews led to an appointment to the United Nation Delegation on Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Concerns Committee where, as Convener, the same determination saw the Declaration on Human Rights be put in place and her commitment to the creation of a Jewish homeland – Israel. Her greatest regret at the end of her life, one she could not be dissuaded from, was that she should have done far more.

Although Eleanor was heavily criticised and judged for her Jewish stance, so she was on her advocacy for Civil Rights and the ending of segregation. Her unyielding opposition and outspokenness to segregation made her extremely unpopular, particularly in the South. She was much maligned by harsh and often brutal criticism. It distressed her that the Bible could be used in two such opposing points of view, but she did not waiver from her firmly held belief that there was one fundamental law –  to love one another and to care for the ‘least of these’.

Eleanor regularly reminded her readers in the post-World War II era of unrest, that America, as a Christian country did not mean exclusion. ‘Differences in religious belief are inherent in the spirit of true democracy’, she wrote. ‘One’s Christianity and one’s democracy should lead to greater tolerance.’ Her support of the ecumenical activities brought to Americans attention the significance of accepting a diversity of religious practices. ‘I think I believe that the Lord looks upon all His children with compassion and allows them to approach Him in many ways’.

Eleanor, a Spiritual Biography is an insightful exploration of the faith journey of an extraordinary woman who lived through a dysfunctional childhood, a challenging marriage, a political role she did not desire, economic and political upheavals, and shifting societal turbulence. Often the religious motivation that supports a person’s activism is glossed over or taken for granted. Harold Smith however, has gone to considerable effort to draw together Eleanor Roosevelt’s beliefs and Biblical understandings in relation to her activism and American culture during her life time as she perceived it. Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography is a well researched and enlightening read.

 

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The Trout Fishing Holiday that Didn’t Happen – Dr James and Mrs Moffatt in New Zealand.

Rev Dr. Ian Fraser

’I did work hard on the Saturday & Monday & just got everything perfect, silver, flowers, bedrooms, table,’ wrote Molly Whitelaw to her mother in November 1934. Her preparations were in honour of the visit of Dr. James Moffatt and his wife and the Rev. Dr. Ian Fraser. The young Ian Fraser fell under this great theologian’s scholarly spell during his post-graduate studies at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, during 1931 and 1932. It was not only James Moffatt’s scholarship that won the hearts of overseas theology students, however, but the couple’s amazing hospitality, friendship, and support they willingly extended. Mrs Moffatt, Ian Fraser noted, was their ‘mother away from home’. On completion of his time in New York, Fraser managed to extract a promise from Moffatt to visit New Zealand, during his forthcoming sabbatical in 1934.

Their arrival in Auckland was greeted with enthusiasm across the religious community. Auckland city honoured him with a civic reception where the deputy-mayor, acknowledged his theological scholarship and that the people of Auckland ‘were deeply interested in his visit and they still considered the Bible as the greatest Book in the world.’ Three of Moffatt’s past students contributed to the welcome: the Revs James A Thomson and James McKenzie studied with Moffatt in Glasgow 1918-1919, and Dr Ian Fraser with him in New York.

James Moffat commented that he preferred a scarlet covered Bible (1919). He never understood why Bibles had black covers.

The name of James Moffatt was possibly best known among church-going New Zealanders through his translation of the New Testament in Modern Speech, which ‘placed English-speaking people in his debt’, according to James Thomson. The translation, however, touched a number of ‘nerves’ of those lovers of the poetic Authorised Version. His greater ‘colloquial approach and undue freedom’ was not to everyone’s liking. In 1924 he completed the Old Testament translation; his critics were no more impressed then, than they were a decade earlier with the publication of his New Testament translation. By the time of his visit in 1934, Dr James Moffatt’s prolific writings continued to be regularly reviewed in Church and local papers and were no doubt added to many ministers’ theological libraries.

Ian Fraser accompanied the Moffatt’s on the Express train south for a short stay with the Whitelaw’s at the Te Awamutu Manse. Molly in her typical gossipy-style letter to her mother gave the pertinent details of interest. ‘Dinner was perfect,’ she wrote, ‘our well practiced menu of clear soup, turkey with cauliflower, green peas, new potatoes, fruit salad & cream in individual glasses, lemon drink & ginger beer to imbibe & coffee.’

She noted the stress of the Auckland programme over the three previous days had tired Moffatt who retired to husband ‘Alan’s study to smoke & write letters to his children’ while Molly and Mrs Moffatt shared their common Scottish memories. These conversations, along with the evening discussions, including Rev Julian Blanchard, who had joined them for the evening buoyed Molly no end. As she reflected on the visit Molly realised that living in the small rural community of Te Awamutu and since the birth of her son Alastair, she had been starved of the familiar stimulating, intellectual conversation of a past life.   ‘It was like a visit from very old friends bringing back the atmosphere of the Edinburgh days, & all the intellectual as well as spiritual satisfaction of friendship with people … who combined scholarly minds and strong intellects with a simple faith,’ she commented to her mother.

Adding to the delight of their visit was the jaunt to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves the following day. A system of underground limestone caves with waterfalls as well as thousands of glow-worms left the Moffatts’ in awe.   Mrs Moffatt’s appreciation would have been music to the ears of those who accompanied them. ‘It was so marvellously beautiful’, she told the New Zealand Herald. ‘We have never seen anything like it elsewhere’.

James Moffatt and his wife continued their travels to Rotorua for the promised stint of trout fishing. Attractions at the popular tourist centre, where scores of visitors sought ‘cures in its medicinal waters’, included natural hot springs, bubbling mud pools, geysers and the famous model Maori pa at Whakarewarewa, appeared to take priority – no trout were fished for. A visit was also undertaken to the Presbyterian Maori Mission in Whakatane. They then headed south with  two further civic welcomes planned at Levin, where Ian Fraser was the Presbyterian minister, and in the capital city, Wellington. Both were well patronised and in Wellington many people outside strained to hear the speeches through doors and open windows, fortunately on a ‘glorious summer’s day’.

In all centres Moffatt gave a similar message peppered with frank comment and humour. Bearing in mind the sense of unrest emerging out of Germany at the time, he emphasised the need to move beyond the superficiality of language and seek greater understanding, mutual respect and co-operation within countries and between nations in their aims for welfare and peace. With regard to Church and State, he suggested, ‘they should be like strawberries and cream – they should be taken together’. The church he reasoned was ‘the creation of character, which was what the civic authorities relied upon.’

To ministers present at various gatherings he stressed, ‘Preach about God and preach about 20 minutes’, and warned them against becoming ‘maids of all work’. ‘You cannot expect your ministers’, he stated, ‘to do their proper work if they are serving tables’; an interesting turn of phrase considering today’s perspective with its greater focus on a ‘servant’ ministry. Congregations, he continued, needed to be more considerate to their ministers and if they were, ‘would get more out of them in realities’.

It was only in Wellington that acknowledgement of Mrs Moffatt presence was reported. Rev Julian Blanchard emphasised they were also welcoming Mrs Moffatt, as well as her husband, stressing her role as a helpmeet. ‘She had watched over the doctor’s studies, and those who profited by his writings owed her a debt of gratitude because her personal safeguard had enabled him to pursue the studies that had placed the world in his debt’.

In his final interview he side-tracked that importunate question visitors are so often confronted on his impressions of New Zealand. Not interested in voicing these, he responded that ‘it was a wonderful country and that he and Mrs Moffatt had been overwhelmed with kindness’. No, he had not fulfilled his wish to go trout fishing but smiling broadly, instead he noted, ‘I gave six sermons and 23 addresses’. He assured his interviewer, ‘I am coming back again for the trout.’ They left Auckland on 11 December for Vancouver.

 

Suffragists and Virago Books and Rebecca West

It’s easy to forget what one has on ones library shelves, I realise.  I was reminded of this as I began to sort my bookshelves. What fun I’ve had thumbing my way through forgotten titles. I was particularly delighted to discover a number related to the UK suffrage movement. I noted inside A Guid Cause-The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland, by Leah Leneman, that this book was purchased at the Women’s Berkshire Conference, held at Vassar College in 1993.

My most vivid memories from that Conference was being part of a group of women with like-minded interests, being presented with new ideas through some wonderful presentations, meeting historians that I had high regard for, and most of all sharing all this with my son and daughter-in-law. I do recall morning and afternoon tea baskets piled with large and tempting looking muffins only to be reminded that some baking in the US had a tendency to be drier than New Zealand commercial baking. Another memory that has remained with me is the hum of motorway traffic throughout the night and just how far sound can travel. I did get rather carried away with the bookstalls at the Conference and arrived home with a small suitcase filled with some great purchases. There were no excess weight charges, yet it was a heavy bag; maybe weight wasn’t such a problem then?

I stray a little, back to the Suffrage collection in my library. The majority of these books are Virago Press publications, which multiplied somewhat when I studied women’s history at University. The University Bookshop in Great King Street, Dunedin, had periodic sales where I gathered a good many of them. The Press, formed in 1977 as a feminist publishing company, not only brought to our attention women fiction authors that had long been forgotten, women authors popular in their time but out-of-print, but also the writings of feminists thinkers such as Shelia Rowbotham, Adrienne Rich, Elaine Showalter among others. A series, which covers early women travellers, is totally fascinating and the more recent modern novels of Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters and others have since been included.

Biographies, some covering Victorian women as well as those well-known and not so well known Suffragettes dominate this collection of mine. Names such as May Sheepshanks, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst of course, Lady Constance Lytton, Alice Weldon, Hannah Mitchell, Rebecca West and Margaret Macpherson; most housed on a high shelf that I had rarely stretched up to retrieve. Sadly from the perspective of my current research, most of these biographies focus on women outside Scotland, reflecting very much the focus of previous decades. Militarism versus Feminism; Writings on Women and War, edited by Margaret Kamester and Jo Vellacott is proving significant however, highlighting  a non-militant and pacifist approach, which Molly Whitelaw and her parents supported.

It is Rebecca West’s (now Dame Rebecca) journalistic pieces and essays in The Young Rebecca; Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-1917, ed. by Jane Marcus, I am marvelling at. What an amazing young journalist who fearlessly expressed her opinions, generally in the radical and feminist press, The Freewoman and The Clarion, and later the Fleet Street, Daily News. [Coincidently, the newspaper where Alastair Shannon, Molly’s brother, began his career in journalism in 1918.] That Rebecca West could offer such frank opinions highlights the shift that had occurred in newspaper journalism towards mass readership during the first decades of the 20th century. News moved from direct reporting to one of journalistic interpretation, where it was heavily edited, rewritten and contextualised. This new approach helped to influence public opinion for or against any single issue.[1] Women’s pages also became a popular feature from the turn of the century. In fact the New Zealand Presbyterian Outlook, under the editorship of the Rev. Rutherford Waddell, introduced a column Women’s Outlook from 1893.

One hundred years on, West’s writing has a resonance that continues to parallel women’s issues even today. So much so, I feel as if we’ve not come as far as we would like to believe. She confronted issues on equal pay; she challenges writers’ narrow and conservative opinions on the issues of, marriage, divorce, education and capitalism. These journalist pieces are all very quotable. In an article on ‘Wages and Women: Black-legging and Timidity’ she takes to task a writer who suggests that the required wireless operators on American coastal shipping could be ‘,a self-reliant woman with cool nerves and efficient brain’.

This alluring argument she declares is ‘powder in the jam, the snake in the grass, the wolf in feminist’s clothing’. ‘Why,’ she asks, ‘this sudden lyric outburst of feminist enthusiasm? Probably she is less expensive… The underpayment of women is one of those “nine-pence for four-pence“ tricks that capitalists have ever loved to play … They say to women “We deduct four-pence from your wages so that we can pay men larger wages, and then they can support you as their wives” … A woman, according to a capitalist, is an air-bubble blown between earth and sky, with no human ties of any sort.’

Her attack on the Labour Party of the day, when they broke their pledge to oppose the Government’s refusal to grant votes for women in 1912, has an altogether too familiar ring to the modern ear as political parties ‘flip-flop’ and backtrack. She considered the decision of the Labour Party a national disaster. She writes, ‘[t]he point lies not in the merits of Woman Suffrage at all, but in the fact that the Labour Party has refused to carry out a principle for which socialism has always stood; that it has made a promise and broken it; that it did it out of cowardice; and that it has sold itself to the Liberal Party body and soul.’

On the surprising recommendation of the Majority Report on changes to the divorce laws at the end of 1912 she expresses some pleasure. But she does consider it’s not the responsibility of the State to decide whether a marriage is unhappy or has become dangerous to the society and therefore should be dissolved. ‘Submission to unhappiness,’ she states, ‘is the unpardonable sin against the spirit just as submission to poverty is the unpardonable sin against the body.’

Although West was not supportive of the militant action of the Suffragettes she was somewhat bemused with the reaction to the burning down of the tea-house in Kew Gardens. She notes ‘it was only a little one’; the tea-house that is. What surprised her most however, was the public’s reaction. ‘I have no idea why the public should suddenly show a maudlin affection, such as they usually reserve for the royal family, for the late tea-house, but I can understand why all those who love the good, the true and the beautiful must unite in deploring the bomb outrage upon the house at Walton Heath’. A house owned by Sir George Riddell owner of the conservative imperialist The News of the World, a journalistic ‘fertiliser’ … that nourishes the imagination of a million and a quarter Englishmen every Sunday morning.’ Lloyd George, an ardent anti-suffragist was about to move into this now shattered home so in effect the suffragists ‘killed two birds with one stone’ to put it rather crudely. After dipping further into other militant acts and the resultant punishments, West begins her conclusion by considering the causes behind such militant acts and their programmes of hunger strikes and punishment of forced feeding. ‘Perhaps’, she wonders, ‘I over-rated the orchids. Perhaps, so long as the country tolerates a state of things which drives women of fire and honour to seek such torturing ways of death, it is right to destroy all the lies of beauty that pretend that the world is a fine and lovely place. Perhaps it is right to punish the gross for their destruction of the spiritual beauty of revolt by destroying the tangible beauty, which is all they [the Government and authorities] can understand’.

‘… We are paying the price for our toleration of a Government that upholds the cause of anti-suffragists and the will of the parasite women’.

Her articles ‘were serious and unsettling no less for radicals than the rest of the population’. Her comments at times especially regarding men could be ‘acid and cutting’. ‘English women are handicapped by the fact that men have passed laws encouraging female morons’. She was an outstanding critic whether through her book reviews, essays or her political commentary, especially if socialists were falling short of their values. Her journalist writing reflected her breadth of reading and her ability to get to the core of the issue being debated.

Rebecca West would continue to write fiction, biography, critical essays and reviews, even travel books until her death in 1983 at the age of 91. I found her reflection on the Nuremberg trials A Train of Powder, which I read twice, to be astonishing as she explored the ‘nature of crime and punishment, innocence and guilt, and retribution and forgiveness’; a truly evocative piece of journalism.

[1] Donald Matheson, Media Discourses, Open University Press, England 2005.

1960: ‘A Thrilling General Election’

Keith Holyoake and Walter Nash are both trying to enter the House of Representatives at the same time, Nash trying to push the revolving door to the left and Holyoake trying to push it to the right. Arnold Nordmeyer and Jack Marshall are amongst the bystanders. Reference Number: B-056-104, Minhinnick, Gordon (Sir), 1902-1992. New Zealand Herald, 25 November 1960.

Being a somewhat ‘political animal’ my curiosity as to where Molly Whitelaw sat on the political fence has been at the forefront of my mind as I research her life. Finally, all has been revealed! A letter written to her son, Alastair, 22 November 1960, gave me further insight into her values and beliefs as they have formulated from the outset of my research.

Molly heads this letter:

‘WELL! NATIONAL IS IN, with 39 certain, 2 probable.

LABOUR IS OUT, with 31 certain, 2 probable.

In doubt 6.’

She continues, ‘A very thrilling election. Daddy in the Middle Room with his big wireless; and mother in kitchen, Election spread, out on table so she could mark in Progressive Reports, with her little wireless … The result was a wonderful relief, although rejoicing was tempered by sympathy with Mr. Nash [the Labour Prime Minister 1957-1960]… Such a valiant protagonist for the old ideals of Michael Joseph Savage [a founder of the Labour Party in New Zealand]… Socialism is, fortunately, not to be the ruling power in NZ. I think the day of fighting for the “under-dog” is over in NZ. The Welfare State is well established and the danger of increasing slackness in all personal effort and initiative was apparent. Freedom in individual enterprise is absolutely essential if NZ is to be encouraged to work hard as other countries especially near-by Australia. Paternalism was sapping strength.’

Molly acknowledges that she can’t ignore the personal element in their vote and their pleasure at National’s success. Is the crux of her pleasure a long-seated belief based on her Scottish Presbyterian understanding of the deserving and undeserving poor? Her concluding sentence points in that direction.  ‘Mr Holyoake’, the new Prime Minister, ‘will be at least more understanding of the rights of the hardworking “haves” as well as the laziness of many of the “have-nots … they act like spoilt children.’

Whether her son agreed with his mother’s sentiments is another matter. A letter earlier in 1960 from her brother Alastair suggests otherwise. ‘ He [son Alastair] seems to belong to the Liberal leftish persuasion.’ The two Alastair’s apparently ‘always had tremendous arguments’. Son Alastair ‘implicitly believes in the power of ‘Democracy’ to solve all ills on the political plane’, writes Molly’s brother, who considered Democracy was in decline, dying in ‘seeds of its own defeat.’ What was lacking, he considered was ‘True leadership, GOD-inspired Rulership…’ in fact, along with a ‘united Christendom’, and ‘a stability of character in the people’, which was dissipating he concluded.

I have found myself pondering on both Molly and her brother’s comments in light of New Zealand’s most recent General Election and the possible outcomes from the MMP process of electoral parties negotiations and compromises. For most who participated in the democratic process, these negotiations create tension. There will be many who will be delighted with the final decision – if it agrees with how they voted; there will be those who will express apprehensive as to whether the compromise reached are to their satisfaction;  and those who feel let down even angry, and many emotions in between. We cannot avoid acknowledging that political decisions influence us whether we want to recognise it or not and these decisions and the results will have some affect on our view of the world around us.

But what is it that influences our personal political decisions? They are, of course, many and varied and generally founded on a multitude of influences that impinge on our everyday personal and public lives. Our innate ‘tribal’ instincts come into play; where and what we have taken on board from our parents and their parents; how well we have prospered or not prospered in our daily life and when, where, why and how this occurred; how we perceive our own place within our families, communities, society, the nation and the world. Our responses will also reflect the values we hold about the ‘other’ in relation to ourselves.

As I delve further into ‘finding’ Molly, these avenues of influence will require considerable exploration, further reading and analysis. But what a lot of fun!

James Wigston Shannon – Coal-miner turned Presbyterian Minister

It is a fascinating exercise to piece together a life. There are facts, there are impressions and there are imaginations, but the life lived, largely remains hidden and untold. In the case of James Wigston Shannon, Molly Whitelaw’s father, facts exist for his ordination and induction into South Street United Presbyterian Church in Elgin, Moray in 1889 along with his later ministries. Unlike her mother’s family of which she was intensely proud, Molly makes next-to-no reference to her father’s past. The one lead she gives is a connection with her Irish roots. The name Shannon suggests this. The other facts known are his attaining a MA from the University of Glasgow and the completion of his theological training in 1889, but what of life before these two happenings?

I keep asking myself if it is really necessary to know more about James and his past? Can I manage to piece together Molly’s life without this knowledge? No doubt, I can. Molly was close to her father, regularly referring to his love of people, his wisdom and his solid faith; his contribution to many of her decisions held a significant place in her life. These tempting insights she reflects on pushed me to seriously see what I could discover.

University of Glasgow Graduate Record

As we do today, I ‘googled’! University of Glasgow records confirmed the MA was gained in 1886. A 1900 on-line publication of the History of the United Presbyterian Church, which I discovered was held in the Hewitson Library, Knox College, Dunedin, informed me on the Elgin Parish, but gave no personal information. After hitting numerous dead ends, and rather reluctantly, I succumbed and paid to search the Ancestry genealogy site (my 14 day free use had expired). Following the various leads that come up on such a site has been helpful at one level and frustrating at another. But along with the British Newspaper site, similar to our Papers Past but not as user friendly, I began to build a profile.

John Shannon, James’ father arrived with his family, in West Scotland around 1841, when Ireland was experiencing political and religious strife and the beginning affects of the potato famine. The 1851 census lists his occupation an iron-sand miner.John Shannon married Mary Wigston in 1853 and settled in and around Carluke Parish, central Lanarkshire. He continues mining until in 1873, he died of a lung disease as a consequence of long-term mining.

James born in 1858, was the third of nine children. His primary schooling took place at Braidwood School, but not all of it. The 1871 and 1881 censuses indicate he lived at home and both years give his occupation as a coal-miner. In 1871, he was 13 years old, just a young lad to go into the mines! His brothers also became coal-miners, although a couple went into other occupations later in life. His sisters were domestic servants until their marriage. At this point of the research a sharp class difference exists between Molly’s Renton family links, an upper- middle class drapery merchant family, and this Irish coal-mining, working class family.

During the decade 1881 to 1891 however, James’ life took a highly significant turn. What these records don’t tell us is why or how? During 1883 he began a degree course in Arts at Glasgow University, then completed his theology course at the United Presbyterian Theological College in Edinburgh mid-1889. Was it through these years that he met his future wife Agnes Elizabeth Renton who lived in Edinburgh? That question must be put to one side at present. More importantly how did his change of direction come about? Had he planned for this from an earlier age? Were the family closely connected to the church to influence him? Was there a friend/minister who may have encouraged him to enter ministry? What level of schooling entitled him to enter a University?  Did he receive a scholarship or equivalent to complete a degree? What was happening within the community or Scotland that turned his attention to a change of direction for his life?

The Moody and Sankey religious revival campaigns passed through Lanarkshire in 1876, what affect could they have had on an impressionable 18 year old who may not have wished to be always a coal-miner? Newspapers indicate that Joseph Cook, the evangelist, visited Harestanes in 1882, where James lived with his mother who had remarried. Did his visit add to what James had already experienced or did he experience a conversion then?  My exploration thus far then, adds further mystery and many more questions.

I doubt these questions will be easily answered from this distance. So more threads are added to the already existing lose threads that are lying to one side of my research. Me thinks it becomes increasingly clear that the best way to resolve these growing mysteries and to be able to weave these threads into my story, is with a trip to Scotland !

James Wigston Shannon, came to New Zealand under the Presbyterian Home Mission scheme in April 1921. He began his ministry at Morere-Nuhaka. In August 1923, he transferred to Matawhero, Gisborne. He died in office January 1926.

Alastair Shannon, POW Camp Afion Karahissar, and ‘Morning Knowledge’

Troops being led away by the Turkish Captors at Kut-al-Amara May 1916. from https://norfolkinworldwar1.org/tag/mesopotamia/

The place names of Mosul, Basra, Fallujah, Baghdad, so familiar to us today through the continuing violence of war in Iraq, came to the attention of many British in much earlier wars. The failure of the Mesopotamian (Iraq) Campaign and the five-month siege of Kut-al-Amara and its devastating results in April 1916 however, stunned the British public.

In an attempt to offer positive news to the British public after significant failures in the war effort, the Gallipoli campaign being one, the 6th Indian Battalion under the leadership of General Charles Townshend set out to take Baghdad from the Ottomans. The bloody battle of Ctesiphon laid to rest any of the initial progress made by Townshend. His 10,000 British and Indian troops, 3,000 of them sick and injured, and 3,500 non-combatants were forced to retreat to the fortress garrison of Kut-al-Amara.

The fortress sat in a loop on the Tigris River enabling the Turks to encircle it keeping up continual pressure on the sieged site. Various British relief contingents failed to break through the Turkish ranks causing a further 22,300 deaths, injuries and imprisonments. Besides continuous sniper fire and shelling of those trapped within Kut, ‘the lack of food, medical help, extreme cold temperatures and torrential rain and flyblown living conditions’, resulted in approximately 1,750 further deaths. After 147 days under siege Townshend surrendered to the Turks on 29 April 1916.

Within the group was Molly Whitelaw’s brother, John Alastair Shannon of the Highland Light Regiment. Having been captured in the December 1915, he had been reported missing. The Shannon’s much wished-for news that Alastair, their son and brother, was alive in a POW Camp in Anatolia was confirmed in July 1916.

British officers, on an excursion with their dogs from the prison camp at Afion Karahissar. They are wearing civilian clothing and the mountain that marks the city stands in the background. These POW’s lived in the lower camp at Afion Karahissar. from ‘Pursuit of an Unparalleled Opportunity’.

References in Molly Whitelaw’s papers indicate Alastair was part of the ‘Death March’ that crossed 1900 kms of Syrian Desert where thousands died of ‘dysentery, beri-beri, scurvy, malaria, enteritis’ and exhaustion. Of the 2,500 white British prisoners who set out on the march, only 856 survived. Shannon spent the rest of the war in Anatolia, quite possibly at Afion Karahissar, with at least 100 British Officers. He was repatriated in December 1918.

In my attempts to discover further information about this period of Alastair Shannon’s life the Internet threw up a review of a book he published in 1920: Morning Knowledge: the Story of the New Inquisition. A review noted it, ‘a queer but striking book …it makes silence the feature of the religious history. It is fantastic, very fresh and partly amusing; a little Bergsonian and pragmatist; but for a young man most remarkable.’

My curiosity was aroused. What was Bergsonian thought I wondered, what did Alastair have to say in his treatise and did he in any way influence my subject, Molly Whitelaw? I set out to track down this publication. This wonderful site, ‘Forgotten Books’, came to the rescue and over several months I have attempted to come to grips with Shannon’s arguments, some I identify with but others I find esoteric and somewhat confusing- but then I am no philosopher. The dedication caught my attention. To those held captive by intellect whose hearts have been set at liberty by the thunderbolt of a wounded God. The essence of his thinking is reflected in this dedication.

In the desert space under the ‘great rock of Afion Kara Hissar’, in what appears to be a relatively moderate Anatolian Officers’ Prison Camp, Shannon (he was a 2nd Lieutenant) set about to write a philosophical treatise on life, death, time, space and silence in relation to war, the value of human life and questions of faith. It took one year of his two-and-a half-year imprisonment to complete.

Shannon was studying philosophy when World War I broke out. Professor Henri Bergson, the French Thinker, who became an influential popular force in the first half of the 20th century, described by some as having a cult following, where ‘women flocked to his meetings’, made a considerable impression on Shannon.

Professor Henri Bergson, 1927. Wikimedia

Shannon’s ‘wilderness’ experience opened the opportunity for him to question and test this new philosophy outside the academic environment. For this young man in his early twenties, whose war experiences forced him to find new meaning, Bergson opened possibilities for the re-visioning of self, i.e. a new self-consciousness, leading to a new theory of life. In particular, Shannon desired to test this new thinking alongside his knowledge of the Christian faith in which he was brought up, against these new experiences of war to reconceptualise the meaning of life and to enable a freedom of belief beyond the dogmas that had surrounded him. Bergson’s writings appear to sit comfortably with an evangelical outlook and they held considerable appeal to the American liberal religious wing. His writings provided a framework for theologians, such as Alfred North Whitehead, someone who fascinated me in my younger days. Shannon’s book could well slot into the field of Process Theology.

It’s an intriguing text. Shannon presents his ‘inquisition’ as a dialogue between himself (Peter) and a friend he calls Jack. He introduces into the dialogue a scientist to consider ‘life the subject matter versus sciences dealing with Matter; intuition the method as opposed to intelligence used by science.’ The Padre’s theory of man did not suffice these ‘inquisitors’, as the definition of God was too bound in dogma. A philosopher confronts them as a sceptic, which leads to a discussion on what is and how to reach ‘pure truth’. At this stage of the debate, I identified with Atherton, the philosopher, when he stated, ‘I have often dived deep, but I haven’t ever got such a rick in the back as you are giving me, Peter!” And so for the next 100 or so pages they continued their inquisition as if ‘on the road to Emmaus’; exploring the question of how God or ‘life’ could be spoken of in the midst of the tragedy the world was experiencing. Shannon finally resolved, to his satisfaction, a new meaning of life/God and how change can be approached through the silence of the ‘wounded God’ – ‘a silence born of suffering’… ‘This was the dreaded Silence, the Silence where lies all the suffering of the universe, all the travail of Creation longing for birth, God’s infinite pain’. He concluded, ‘Life is action, is expression. Our inquiry into the Meaning of Life is resolving itself into an Expression of the Art of Living’. But he had only reached the ‘Morning of Knowledge’ further exploration of was necessary for full knowledge of life.

It is a powerful point of ‘arrival’, however. Written as a ‘lament’, with mystical overtones, Shannon (Peter) comes to terms with death, death of friends, death of those he led in battle and the death of his inner person. He reached his lowest point of being, but the desert experience brought him unexpected life.

‘A Song in the Night’. (A few verses below extracted from his lament)

“Comrades that I loved fell at my side, silently
embracing the Unknown; without a sigh, without a
moan, they dropped like stones at my feet.
I passed on, my Beloved, trampling their poor bodies into the
reeking clay, crushing with my boots the faces I had
known so well.’

” The ranks clash together.
The bellows of rage blacken the face of the sun.
The bayonets sink deep, deep.
O God of Heaven, every thrust made is a thrust
into one’s own heart.
There is something broken there.
It will never be healed —
Your ear close. Beloved!
Closer! Let it be whispered to you only:
I have slain my friends.’

” O Love, Love, what misery is this Thou showest
me? Blind my eyes that I see not. Take this memory
from me. I am strong enough to die, but I am not
strong enough to see others die. This pain Thou
imposest upon me is more fearful than any wound.
Hide me, crush me, O Thou Beloved of my soul.
Guide these flying bullets into my heart. They cannot
make it sorer than it is, they will not sear it deeper. . . .’

” Thou did’st not hear my prayer. Thou gavest
no answer to my sorrowful desire.
Instead Thou did’st lead me into the deserts of the East
and give me responsibility over men. . . . ‘
….
” Then of a sudden, O Darling of my heart, my eyes
were opened, and I knew. I saw Thee battling for me
in the moonlight. Thou earnest to me in the form of
a Turkish artillery officer, limping on one foot, sup-
ported by two soldiers.’

” The bayonets were lowered. I was saved; saved
from myself.
My self-love sprang up in a roaring burst of flame.
The moon was dimmed by it.
In a moment of time I had learned the whole lesson of life,
that Thy most wondrous Love, Dear-heart, had striven
through all to set me free from body and spirit, to set
me free!’
….
” The dawn breaks, my Own, my Sweet. The birds
are beginning to chirp under the eaves. The sky is
silver; but the stratus clouds low-lying in the East are
tinged with gold. A new day wakes, the best day that
was ever given to Thee and me. I have told Thee of
my so great love, of my Death and of my Agony and
of my Resurrection.’

 

References: There are numerous accounts, diary entries histories and images of the Siege of Kut and the Iraq Campaign and the eventual capture of Baghdad on the internet for those interested.

‘The Barron Crescent’  in Shot in the Dark,  tells the story of the Siege of Kut

Eastern Nights – and Flights: A Record of Oriental Adventure, by Alan Bott, covers the story of Afion Karahissar POW Camp

Information on Bergson I also retrieved off various sites on the Internet. Encyclopedia.com has a succinct overview of Bergson’s thinking.

Loyal Royalist Follows Visit of Queen Elizabeth II, January 1954.

Image Reproduced courtesy of Upper Hutt City Library

I have just finished reading a series of letters Molly Whitelaw wrote to her family enthusiastically describing her impressions of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Wellington in January 1954. The letters brought back my ten-year-old memories of standing outside Taita South School, in the Hutt Valley, waving my flag (Union Jack) as she passed by in an open car. Then, opening my Facebook that evening, there was a 35 mm movie of the Queen’s Coronation Royal visit to Dunedin in January 1954, produced by members of the Otago Cine Club. With this serendipitous happening I can’t but help share some of Molly’s impressions of the young Queen as she followed her around Wellington.

On a ‘superlatively beautiful afternoon’, dressed to the nines in her grey-green shantung outfit made my Madame Baraldi of Jacqmars, London, Molly and husband Alan, in his attire and top hat, and son Alastair in ‘suitably-aged double-breasted blue jacket and grey tie’ attended the Royal Garden Party at Government House. Wandering the ‘beautifully cultured lawn’ she delighted in meeting many friends and admiring the colourful dresses and ‘the pretty hats large and small, such as the Queen favours’. The appearance of the royal couple sent ripples through the crowd as they slowly moved around. Molly, disappointed that she had only a back view of the Queen, described her in great detail anyway, down to her ‘softly-tanned creamy skin, her ‘bamboo-cream pure shantung outfit and cap of ostrich feathers’. But, ‘by a marvellous stroke of good fortune,’ the Queen turned towards them, stopping to speak to a uniformed group. With a perfect view, she shared an exuberant description to the family of the Queen’s poise and bearing, graceful half-bows and ‘sweet gravity, which characterises her in most of her portraits and photographs’.

Added to all this excitement was watching son Alastair, recently returned from his compulsory military training, participating in a 100 strong Royal Guard of Honour marching in from the Wellington Cenotaph and later at the opening of Parliament.Molly’s pride evident as she wrote, ‘I must say they marched well; and their bayonets flashed as they presented arms in one shining, simultaneous row of steel’.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on Parliament Building steps. Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref: 1/4-106770-F

Molly the royalist, took every opportunity to view her new Monarch. The Queen, wearing her magnificent Coronation Gown, when standing on the steps of Parliament was ‘a resplendent and beautiful figure’. Through her binoculars at Athletic Park she followed the open car as it travelled among the children, but she noted that the Queen smiled very little. Then, there was the return from the Races, and from Masterton when she wore ‘a most becoming red hat’ and on this occasion Molly noted her ‘smiling gaily’. Making it to Paraparaumu Airport, on their way to Napier, Molly’s last view ‘of the beloved Royal pair was a white plane, flying off into a blue sky, with that precious burden en route to Blenheim’.

Duke of Edinburgh talking to attendees at State Funeral. Alexander Turnbull Library, Date: 31 Dec 1953 From: Crown Studios Ltd. Ref: 1/4-106733-F

Molly and her husband Alan had the occasion to observe the Duke more closely than most New Zealanders. The worst train accident in New Zealand occurred at 10.20pm on Christmas Eve, 1953, when the Wellington to Auckland Express plunged into the flooded Whangaehu River at Tangiwai, in the central North Island. Of the 285 passengers and crew, 151 lost their lives with 21 unidentified at the time. The Duke attended the State Funeral at the Wellington, Karori Cemetery, and laid a wreath where the mass burial took place. Molly was greatly moved by the Duke’s ‘natural and compassionate manner and gentle, sympathetic words’. Alan Whitelaw in his capacity as a local minister had spent a week supporting the families who had lost their loved ones and were unable to return home with the bodies. It was therefore, appropriate for Molly and Alan to attend the Funeral Service. The accident left a shadow over Christmas 1953, for many across New Zealand. ‘Tangiwai’ takes its name from ‘the tears that come from great sorrow’ – ‘Weeping Waters’.