Josephine Butler

Image credit: The London School of Economics and Political Science

I’m working on a research paper for an Old Testament class, exploring the life and exegetical work of Josephine Butler (1828-1906), an Englishwoman and social reformer dedicated to women’s equality. The more that I read about her and by her, the more profoundly I am inspired by her character and her work.

Through her deep faith and prayer life, she grew to personally identify with marginalized women – the poor and destitute, prostitutes and women in prisons and workhouses – and dedicated her life to working for social change that would improve their lives.

I came across a passage in her memoir that beautifully describes her struggle with God as her vocation to advocate for others emerged.

For one long year of darkness the trouble of heart and brain urged me to lay all of this at the door of the God, whose name I had learned was Love. I dreaded Him – I fled from Him – until grace was given me to arrive and wrestle, as Jacob did, with the mysterious Presence, who must either slay or pronounce deliverance. And then the great questioning again went up from earth to heaven, “God! Who art Thou? Where art Thou? Why is it thus with the creatures of Thy hand?” I fought the battle alone, in deep recesses of the beautiful woods and pine forests around our home, or on some lonely hillside, among wild thyme and heather, a silent temple where the only sounds were the plaintive cry of the curlew, or the hum of a summer bee, or the distant bleating of sheep. For hours and days and weeks in these retreats I sought the answer to my soul’s trouble and the solution of its dark questioning. Looking back, it seems to me the end must have been defeat and death had not the Saviour imparted to the child wrestler something of the virtue of His own midnight agony, when in Gethsemane His sweat feel like great drops of blood to the ground.

It was not a speedy or an easy victory. Later the conflict was renewed, as there dawned upon me the realities of those earthly miseries which I had realized only in measure by intuition, but later still came the outward and active conflict, with, thanks be to God, the light and hope and guidance which He never denies to them who seek and ask and knock, and which became for them as ‘an anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast.’

Looking my Liberator in the face, can my friends wonder that I have taken my place, (I took it long ago) – oh! with what infinite contentment! – by the side of her, the ‘woman in the city which was a sinner,’ of whom He, her Liberator and mine, said, as He can also say of me, ‘this woman hath not ceased to kiss my feet.’”

Josephine Butler, Josephine E. Butler: An Autobiographical Memoir

Her passion and commitment to the sufferings of women reminds me, of course, of the passion and commitment of Mary Ward, another strong and faithful Englishwomen. I look forward to continuing my study of Josephine Butler and undoubtedly I will have more to share here.