Review: Josephine Butler, A Very Brief History by Jane Robinson (SPCK, 2020)

Jane Robinson has written an entertaining and insightful history of the Victorian social activist and campaigner, Josephine Butler. Though perhaps less well known today, Butler was an enigmatic writer, speaker and advocate, seeking justice in a broken society. Robinson paints a vivid picture of Butler’s life and legacy in just eight short chapters, and writes in a playful, captivated style, betraying an eager fascination with her subject matter. This tempts Robinson at times to being overly colloquial, but on the whole this more informal and engaged approach to biography simply invites the reader in to share in the subject of her amazement.

Butler truly led a fascinating life, and Robinson is rightly passionate about sharing something of her story. Josephine Butler, A Very Brief History, does just that.

A Life Lived in Scandal

Butler lived in (p.3) a “society governed by clearly defined boundaries and roles, where success meant doing exactly what was expected.” Born into a middle class family in the 19th century, Butler was destined to be a wife of good standing, raising a loving family and supporting her well-to-do husband. As Robinson unpacks, Butler achieved all of this (despite the realities of human relationships painting a far more real picture than those stereotypes!), but equally rose to the forefront of national campaigns for political, moral and social sexual equality.

Butler fought against legislation that led to brutal sexual abuse of women across the county. She stood up for victims of illicit prostitution slave-trades, frequently inviting abused women to stay with her and her family. She also openly supported women getting the vote (although as Robinson notes, her time was focussed on achieving other matters, and the vote was not given to women until well after death.) Butler sought enormous societal reform, seeking to protect marginalised and vulnerable women and girls who suffered greatly in Victorian England.

She was a prolific writer and correspondent, as well as an accomplished speaker, leading national crusades on topics ranging from education (which led to the establishment of Girton and Newnham Colleges for the education of women at Cambridge) to sexual protection for young women.

She was truly a remarkable woman, standing up for the rights of women in a society that was institutionally pitted against them. Her stances on women’s rights and public persona led to huge opposition, and often painful social stigma. Her position caused scandal and outrage, and was never an easy road for her to walk. But she took this stand because underlying her passion for equality and security, was a heart for the Lord Jesus.

A Life Lived in Grace

Robinson makes it abundantly clear that Butler sought to live out her life as she did because she trusted not in a religious legalism, but in a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, as Robinson points out, Butler was known as (p.55) “not the least churchy” but rather strong in the conviction of a need for a personal relationship with Christ. She sought to graciously and lovingly care for the abused and downtrodden because she herself had been shown immeasurable grace.

Butler appeared to be unusually open about her relationship with her Saviour, and Robinson reports that it is quite clearly this relationship that sustained her long campaign for equality. As she fought her good fight, it was the strength of her Saviour that upheld her.

And thus she extended this grace to others. This, for me, was the appeal of Butler’s story and therefore of the book. Those whom society shunned, abused and used were those to whom Butler tended. Those who looked hopelessly lost in their sin or suffering, Butler actively sought out. Josephine Butler was clearly a woman of immense resolve, and took great joy in loving the most unloveable members of Victorian society. She was a champion of equality, a fierce advocate for the image of God to be cared for and celebrated, and a wonderful witness to the grace of the Gospel. “Butler considered prostitutes…sinners,” (16) yet “she also maintained that sinfulness was not endemic; it could be cured.” Armed with a Gospel heart for the lost, Butler reached out to those whom society deemed unloveable and irredeemable.

Conclusion

Josephine Butler was clearly an incredible woman, and Robinson’s book introduces the reader to her story in a manner which makes for very easy reading. The author perhaps takes her own thoughts on the causes which Butler might support today a little too far (Robinson suggests that had Butler been born a century later p.69 “she might well have campaigned for safety over celibacy, and free love over bounden duty (given that the two were not indivisible, which for Victorian Christians was debatable).”) But on the whole Robinson has written a brilliant short biography of Butler’s life. This book holds up Butler as an example, illuminating the life of someone little known in 2020, but who just 100 over years ago was enormously influential, as she sought to love practically from a heart won for Christ.

Book Review: The Cure for Unjust Anger by John Downame, ed. Brian D Hedges (RHB 2020).

The Cure for Unjust Anger

Another book review of a new title available at Free Church Books, this time a new edition of an early Puritan classic from Reformation Heritage Books, one that is certainly a timely publication.

John Downame was clearly a perceptive analyst of the human state, and considers the topic of anger through a measured Biblical and practical approach. Though written nearly four centuries ago, this book cannot be read without the heart being confronted with the depth and depravity of our sin. Brian Hedges, who has edited this edition, has retained many of the marvellous turns of phrase that Downame so ably employs to convey his message.

The Cure for Unjust Anger considers anger in its entirety, both just and unjust. Just anger is the right response to the defamation of God’s glory in creation, and it is a good thing. Indeed, Downame holds up Scripture to show that (p8) “anger in its own nature is just and holy.” But it is not just anger that overtakes the mind and the heart, it is unjust anger, and it is on this distortion of our emotions that Downame focuses the majority of his book.

Unjust anger leads us away from the things of God, to the selfish interests of our own fallen hearts. Downame diagnoses the problem, considers the causes and highlights the dangers (the ‘evil effects’) of untreated unjust anger, before mercifully offering the remedy for sin-sick souls. This is a welcome word to sinful hearts, and it is wonderfully written. Every assertion is swiftly backed up by Scripture, and historical examples are drawn from throughout God’s Word.

I was struck by the insightful manner in which Downame wrote. A personal challenge arose in his sixth chapter: a worrying characteristic of unjust anger is (p58) “the amount of time it lasts.” For “when anger is retained for too long, it becomes hatred.” When we have been wronged, we can rightly or wrongly convince ourselves that our anger is justified, but when that wrong has been righted, to hold on to our anger is merely affording the Enemy an opportunity to further poison our hearts towards the other. Sin, as Downame points out, is the ultimate root cause of all anger, so we must strive to put this to death, rather than to feed it or let it fester in our hearts. We, I, must confront the anger we hold on to in our hearts. All this, Downame conveys in a few short paragraphs, for Hedges has edited this edition into very short sections, themselves in small chapters. This makes the wisdom of Downame easily consumable, whilst helping the reader thoughtfully consider each challenge that Downame presents.

Unjust anger, to some extent, is a sin of which we are all guilty. This is a helpful and short book to help us challenge that sin, and to see the hope of healing found in the Gospel. I would encourage you to pick up a copy and dive in. Brian Hedges has edited this version into an incredibly readable volume, with footnotes explaining terms or phrases of a more archaic nature. Though the US spelling may stick out to some(!), this is a fantastic edition with a really helpful message. I am encouraged to see a more little-known Puritan classic reprinted for a modern audience, and would gladly commend it as a short but helpful meditation on the sin of unjust anger.