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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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.

Book Review: Occupy until I Come: A. T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World.

Occupy until I Come: A. T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World.

by Dana L. Robert, Grand Rapids, Mich. : W.B. Eerdmans Pub., c2003. A Library of Religious Biography Series.

 I’m reading a diverse number of biographies at present ranging from literary, historical, through to biography of the arts and group biographies. I am particularly interested in those biographies that tell of faith and how it contributed both to the biographee’s life and to society. As I searched Hewitson Library catalogue for biographies of people of faith for my project, I discovered Dana Robert’s biography of Arthur T. Pierson (1834-1911).

I became aware of Dr. Dana Robert’s research when I first started exploring a topic for a Masters on women in mission way back in the early 1990s. Her numerous journal articles and finally her book American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice, (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997) updated a gap that appeared missing in mission literature at the time. Dana Robert has undertaken that task again in her biography of Rev. Arthur T. Pierson by bringing to our attention a hugely significant personality in the world of foreign missions in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.

References to Arthur T. Pierson’s writing are splattered throughout the early NZ Presbyterian Mission records as the Foreign Missions Committee developed strategies for missionary expansion into South China and North India during the first decades of the twentieth century. His many writings on mission were resources used in devotional material and missions’ studies by Bible Classes and Presbyterian Women’s Mission Union for a number of years. So I found it illuminating to follow his complex life and journey of faith.

I was keen to discover how Dana Robert dealt with Pierson’s religious faith and its interconnection with his surrounding society and the culture in which he lived. Often historians, particularly New Zealand historians, have difficulty mapping the role of religion and faith and its response to society and global society.  Did Dana Robert interweave Pierson’s theology and faith and draw out his response to his daily life, within his family and his ministry, within the dramatic cultural changes in American society that occurred during his life? I was not disappointed. Dana Robert takes us on an engaging journey as we follow his Presbyterian Calvinist traditionalism forward to a late nineteenth century American fundamentalist, pietistic and premillennial theology and faith during a somewhat tumultuous period of America’s history.

Pierson’s first experience of religious emotionalism was as a young lad at a Methodist Revival meeting, which led onto his ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ during his ministry training at the Union Theological College in New York in 1858. His efforts to reconcile science and the Bible while in his first parish almost caused him to loose his faith as he worked through days of depression. Despite the heavy criticism he received a few years later,  Pierson justified the Civil War as a ‘sacred mission’ on the grounds that the Puritan fathers brought the gospel as a lighthouse to the land. An end to slavery was ‘God’s battle’ and the sacrifice of life was a positive for the evangelisation of America.

His later highly successful ministry in the large elite parish of Fort Street, Detroit, during the 1870s, resulted in a further ‘crisis of faith’. Although he was a dynamic preacher, influenced the post-civil war evangelical identity, reshaped Michigan Presbyterianism, and helped develop its foreign mission programme, his inability to reach the urban poor with his literary style of ministry finally caused his ‘biblical conscience [to] leave him guilt ridden’. After a year of struggling with his ‘spiritual level of consecration’ he made the move towards a highly successful evangelistic ministry. Two parishes further on opportunities opened to bring his missionary zeal to the centre of his and others’ ministries.

Dana Robert skilfully sets the rise of America’s urban problems, the increased immigration and growing poverty as a further motivation for a world mission; only ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ would change hearts and alleviate social problems’, he believed. He set about developing programmes to mobilise and support faith missions across the western world. He is reputed to be the one behind the Student Volunteer Movement’s watchword, ‘the evangelisation of the World in this generation’, led by the well-known John Mott. His writings were prolific during this period. He edited the interdenominational magazine the Missionary Review of the World from 1888 until his death in 1911, and spoke at hundreds of gatherings on both sides of the Atlantic. Dana Robert draws out Pierson’s desire and urgency to maintain unity within Christendom, in particular a transatlantic evangelicalism.Pierson believed the effort of bringing the world to Christ would usher in Christ’s return.

I am intrigued by his continuing relationship with the US Presbyterian Church and its difficulty in accepting his re-baptism in the late 1890s, which, for them, was a step too far. I admire Pierson’s wife, Frances and their seven children. Dana Robert has given them a well-balanced place in Pierson’s over-all story. Without their committed support for his ministry through his quite tumultuous and factious times, living within a limited income during his mission phase, and coping with following him from place to place and back and forth across the Atlantic, would he have achieved what he did?

I thoroughly enjoyed this biography. Dana Robert’s choice of title based on the story of the talents in Luke is excellent, reflecting as it does Pierson’s goal as he strove to keep ‘God’s business productive’.

 

 

Do I write a Biography? – that is the Question.

Why have I this urge to write a biography, I ask myself? I have never been a great reader of biography or autobiographies. In fact, I can count on one hand those I remember reading in my younger years. As a schoolgirl I chuckled over Doris Gordon’s life as backblocks Doctor, and was only partially moved by the story of Mary Slessor, which my Bible Class leader encouraged all her girls to read. Whether it’s because I was drawn to the world of medicine or whether biographies of women only focussed on women who achieved the ‘unexpected’, I read the biography of Agnes Bennett, by Cecil & Celia Manson and the autobiography Lady Doctor, by Frances L. Preston. My mother gave me Somers Cooks’, A Friend in Need: Nurse Maud her Life and Work, but its almost immaculate condition raises some doubts. Did I ever read it? Family tales of the years of the great depression my father told encouraged me to search out other stories. Mary Findlay’s Tooth and Nail and Robyn Hyde’s Godwits Fly are two that I vividly recall. These auto/biographies still sit on my bookshelves.

Attending University in my late 30s opened a new world. Those long and daunting subject ‘recommended readings’ that were distributed at the beginning of each course included auto/biographies. Some I read with enthusiasm, such as the two volumes of Harriet Martineau’s autobiography, Raewyn Dalziel’s biography of Julius Vogel and Frances Porter’s detailed and exciting biography of Jane Maria Atkinson, Born to New Zealand. Pressure of time meant I only dipped into others, now long forgotten. At the time I was hopeful they just might contribute towards a respectable exam pass rate. So in many ways it was surprising that I chose as my Post Graduate Diploma thesis, the life of the Dunedin woman Mary Downie Stewart. Reflecting on the reasons why I chose this direction may explain my present urge to write a biography on Mary (Molly) Dorothea Whitelaw (nee Shannon).

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