posted December 16, 2013

Book Considers “How Eight Faithful Lives Changed the Course of History”

Dr. Marc Baer of the Hope College history faculty is the author of “Mere Believers: How Eight Faithful Lives Changed the Course of History,” written for a general audience and published earlier this fall by Wipf and Stock Publishers of Eugene, Ore.

A specialist in modern British history, Baer focuses on eight men and women who lived in Great Britain between the beginning of the 18th century and the middle of the 20th century, and the difference that they—and their Christian faith--made to the world.

The title “Mere Believers” is derived from a phrase coined by C.S. Lewis, reflecting that while those whose lives Baer explores represent a variety of traditions within Christianity, they are part of a larger community of faith.  The group is also diverse in terms of background and experience, ranging from Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, who in the 18th century used her wealth to support the Methodist movement that was outcast during her times; to Olaudah Equiano, a former slave from Nigeria who purchased his own freedom and advocated abolition in the 18th century; to 18th-century politician William Wilberforce, who shifted his priorities from career ambition to abolition; to Dorothy L. Sayers, the 20th-century, mystery novelist who also wrote extensively about the importance of finding one’s calling.

As he developed “Mere Believers,” however, Baer was no less intrigued by what his eight subjects shared beyond Christian faith itself:  it was in adulthood that each made the commitment to be guided by that faith.

“I was interested in people who were dissatisfied with the way they thought about the world and as adults were led by that dissatisfaction to read the Bible and discover Jesus Christ,” said Baer, who is a professor of history and chairperson of the department.

Mindful of Wilberforce’s definition of a Christian as “a pilgrim travelling on business through a strange country,” Baer wondered, “Did their Christianity change their country?  Led to business, as Wilberforce phrased it, did reorienting their hearts and minds result in any measurable consequences for their culture?  Was the world better or worse because of them?”

In addition to Hastings, Equiano, Wilberforce and Sayers, the book features Hannah More, an 18th-century author who advocated for social justice; Oswald and Biddy Chambers, husband and wife, who called for the integration of spirit and intellect as they engaged in ministry in the early 20th century; and writer/commentator G.K. Chesterton, who in the early 20th century criticized popular fads that ran counter to a higher good, and was especially a strong opponent of eugenics.

Reviewer Dr. Mark Noll, who is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, has praised the book, noting, “Marc Baer has written a book that is as thoughtful and insightful as it is encouraging.  “‘Mere Believers’ documents the ordinary humanity of individuals who made extraordinary contributions.  It is biography at its best.”

The author of two scholarly books as well as numerous articles published in professional journals, Baer approached his subject as a trained historian but wrote with a lay audience in mind.  He was particularly interested in considering the message that his eight subjects’ lives might offer to contemporary readers as they consider their own priorities.  As he developed the book, he used draft chapters in the “Senior Seminars” he taught at Hope, which are courses that encourage students to reflect on their life view and sense of calling, and he also shared portions with an adult Sunday school class at his church.

“I think a lot about, and try to have my students think about, discerning vocation,” he said.  “This book is about how this cast of characters discerned vocation.”

A member of the Hope faculty since 1983, Baer has spent more than four decades researching modern British cultural, social and political history.  His other two books are “Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London” (Oxford University Press, 1992) and “The Rise and Fall of Radical Westminster, 1780-1890” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).  He has received a variety of external grants in support of his research, work in which he involves students.  He is the founding director of the college’s Pew Society Program (now called Kleisis), which mentors students considering an academic career with an emphasis on Christian vocation, and spearheaded the college’s biennial Veritas Forum, a three-day event which considers Christian faith and the life of the mind from a variety of perspectives.

Copies of “Mere Believers:  How Eight Faithful Lives Changed the Course of History” are available for $22 at the college’s Hope-Geneva Bookstore, which is located on the ground level of the DeWitt Center, 141 E. 12th St., and can be called at 800-946-4673 or (616) 395-7833.  More information about the book is available online at marcbaer.net.