Book Review: Women of Devotion Through the Centuries -- By: Evelyn Bence

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 16:1 (Winter 2002)
Article: Book Review: Women of Devotion Through the Centuries
Author: Evelyn Bence

Book Review:
Women of Devotion Through the Centuries

Reviewed by

Evelyn Bence

Reviewed by Evelyn Bence, a frequent contributor to Priscilla Papers and author of Prayers for Girlfriends and Sisters and Me (Servant-Vine, 1999).

Cheryl Forbes’s first book, released in 1983 when she held a managerial position at Zondervan, was titled The Religion of Power. As that title suggests, she holds strong views. “At a certain point, a Christian must say no to maneuvers and manipulations, to politics and pretendings.” Forbes now is in secular academia, teaching rhetoric in writing, and she’s turned her research attention to selected women who have unwittingly wielded a great deal of influence if not power, particularly in the twentieth century: devotional writers or compilers, principally a woman known for decades as Mrs. Chas. E. Cowman and the earlier Mary Wilder Tileston, compiler of the 1884 book of 365 dated readings, Daily Strength for Daily Needs (still in print).

Forbes, who is married but has never taken her husband’s name, first took an interest in the publishing history of Lettie Cowman’s (yes, she had a personal name) compiled daybook Streams in the Desert, in print since 1925, largely with Zondervan, and rival to My Utmost for His Highest (Oswald Chambers) “as the best-known fundamentalist devotional of the twentieth-century.” The Cowmans founded the Oriental Missionary Society, now OMS International, which Lettie “ran” after Mr. Cowman’s death (at 56 after a long illness); as a widow she also wrote a magazine column and published seven books, including a biography of “Greatheart,” as she came to call her husband.

“Much of Mrs. Cowman’s life” was “a strange blend of bathos and business,” says Forbes, whose book is an unusual blend of women’s history, literary criticism, and chatty personal comment (“it would not have surprised me had I learned that she kept the room where he died as a shrine”).

Cowman’s devotional formula—a daily scripture followed by several related quotations—predated her, in volumes such as Tileston’s Daily Strength, owned and dog-eared (“held together with a rubber band”) by Cowman. Other “scrap-book” devotionals were published and popular, but Tileston’s devotionals (she published some thirty) and Cowman’s have remained popular, Forbes proposes, for their common and unusual elements.

First, they provide “something for everyone.” Cowman, in the forefront of the Holiness movement, selectively cut and pasted from sources clearly outside her theological camp, such as George Eliot and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Tileston, whose personal theology is harder to d...

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