I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
I recently reviewed a new book about Ida B. Wells for The Englewood Review of Books. The book, Passionate for Justice: Remembering a Woman We Should Have Never Forgotten, was co-written by a retired white pastor and an African American professor. It was that subtitle that caught my eye. Wells has become a hero of mine; I included her in the acknowledgments at the end of my book. I’ve read much of what she wrote and I love driving visitors by her house, just a couple of miles from where our church meets for worship. The more I’ve learned about this journalist and activist who was also a Christian, the more puzzling it’s been that more people aren’t familiar with her. So you can imagine why this book grabbed by eye.
Here’s my confession, something I didn’t mention in the review: I was kinda disappointed by the book. I remember doing research in the University of Chicago Library which holds the Ida B. Wells papers and coming across an entry in her journal. She was 19 or 20 years old and had just returned from a New Years Eve service at her church. In this entry she describes her desire to grow in her faith in the coming year, to live out her beliefs with greater intention. Something about her words really impacted me. The incredible work that Wells had done as one of the very few people speaking out against lynching had been driven, I realized, in large part by her Christian faith.
A few years ago I heard a black pastor lament that one of the tragedies of race is how it keeps us from entering the experiences that human beings ought to share naturally with one another. I’ve thought about her observation a lot and I think it gets to my disappointment with Passionate for Justice. I wanted a book that introduced or reintroduced Wells to American Christians – especially the non-black Christians who have likely never heard of her – as a Christian.
Of course, this book wasn’t written with this in mind, so I’ve no reason to be let down. But still, it’s reminded me that there are far too many Christians who don’t know about Wells as someone whose faith is worthy of esteem and imitation. When I was a student at Wheaton College Graduate School one of my professors, in passing, mentioned the importance of reading Christian biography. The stories of the faithful saints who went before us can help us find our own way along the narrow way of Jesus. But race has kept a bunch of us of us from knowing many of these saints and their stories.
So, if you don’t already, get to know Saint Ida B. Wells. A Sword Among Lions and To Tell the Truth Freely are both good biographies. This is a good collection of some of her journalism and advocacy and it includes Frederick Douglass’ fantastic introductions.