Book review: The Life and Times of Stephen Neill

[An extended version of a book review to appear in the journal Anglican and Episcopal History.]

The career of Stephen Neill (1900-84) was among the most truly global of all Christian lives. Born and educated in England, he went to India in 1924 as a missionary, became a theological educator, was ordained priest in the Anglican church, and in time was made bishop of the diocese of Tinnevelly (Tirunelveli). Leaving India in 1945 for Geneva, he was among those who formed the World Council of Churches, a remarkably prolific author, an editor of the work of others, and assistant bishop to the archbishop of Canterbury. He was professor of ecumenics and theology at the University of Hamburg (1962-68) until, at the age of 68, he took on the task of forming a new department at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. Retirement was as a residential guest at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, during which he completed his autobiography, God’s Apprentice, which was published in 1991, after his death.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this variety and geographical reach, Neill’s career has not been fully taken into account by historians of twentieth century Christianity. As such, Dyron Daughrity, professor of religion at Pepperdine University in California, has placed historians greatly in his debt in producing this biography, the fruit of two decades’ engagement with Neill. The source material is copious: more than sixty books, and innumerable articles and reviews, which Daughrity (quite reasonably) does not attempt to list in full. Crucially, a chance conversation with N. T. Wright, bishop of Durham, revealed the existence of an extended unpublished version of Neill’s autobiography, in Wright’s possession. Building on Daughrity’s earlier work on Neill, most notably a 2008 study of Neill’s early career, this new book fills what was a significant gap in the literature, and is unlikely to be superseded.

That such a gap in the literature has persisted might have been explained by the scattered and multilingual nature of the relevant archives. A great many of the biographers of Neill’s generation have been friends or close colleagues of their subject; of these, Neill had relatively few that lived long enough to take the job on. But the gap is perhaps more readily explained by the revelation, made in 1991 by Richard Holloway (soon to be bishop of Edinburgh) while reviewing God’s Apprentice, of the circumstances in which Neill left India, which Neill had omitted from his account. Neill had been accused of inflicting corporal punishment on adult men in his pastoral care, for which purpose he carried a whip, causing scandal in the diocese. Holloway did not know, but Daughrity lays out, that the pattern continued when, remarkably, Neill returned to England to take up a Cambridge chaplaincy; it was known to colleagues in Germany; accounts survive of the same in Kenya. Donald Coggan, of the same wing of the Church of England, disclosed that he had known of it for many years, as had Lesslie Newbigin, a colleague from the WCC days in Geneva. Troubled all his life by insomnia and depression, Neill was (in Holloway’s words) ‘banished’ to spend the rest of his life ‘wandering the earth as a theological mercenary’ (202), leaving behind him a trail of damaged people who ought to have been able to place their trust in him.

Much historical work remains to reckon with the ways in which all the churches dealt, and failed to deal, with abuse of all kinds. Precisely what it was, in the kind of evangelicalism in which Neill was raised, that gave rise to the kind of understanding of sin, repentance and punishment in which Neill placed the kind of discipline he meted out, remains to be explored fully. (Readers may no doubt hear the resonances with the recent scandal in England associated with Emmanuel Church Wimbledon). Daughrity’s study will be a significant resource in those enquiries, as it will in assessing Neill’s scholarly output, on which his reputation is likely to depend. But his achievement as a biographer – and it is no mean achievement – is to steer a course between hagiography and censure, laying out Neill’s undoubted (indeed prodigious) achievements, alongside such grim failures, giving each its due weight while allowing the reader to draw their conclusions.

For this reviewer, Neill’s strengths, through a kind of inability to assess them rightly and temper their exercise, became his weaknesses also. His appetite for work, and tolerance of physical hardship when in India, was great; his commitment to prayer and preaching was genuine and strenuous. Neill’s intellect was formidable, and his facility with other languages remarkable; Daughrity rates him ‘without question, one of the greatest minds in the twentieth century’ (288). As a statement concerning Neill’s facility, this is clearly true, but questions remain over the enduring worth or otherwise of some, though not all of his books. One cannot avoid a suspicion of a certain superficiality in a career that produced a book each year in the midst of extremely heavy commitments and persistent ill health, and much of the time without access to the requisite library facilities. This readiness to write on everything – from St John Chrysostom to the gospels, the medieval Church of England to Kierkegaard, from the history of mission in India to psychology – is the confidence of one who delayed taking up a Cambridge fellowship to go to India, was offered a bishopric at 32 (which he refused) and continued to hear often from others of how brilliant was the mind he possessed.

It was also the confidence of one without a doubt in his mind that western mission to Asia and Africa was at base a dispensation of wisdom and civilisation for which the recipient populations ought to be grateful, and could not expect to manage without. Though he was by all accounts loved in India in the 1940s, a colleague in Nairobi three decades later regarded him as at base a racist, who knew little of Africa and was disinclined to learn. It is this unreconstructed understanding of mission which arguably vitiates much of his work. But it was this self-confidence, added to a quick and explosive temper, that made him autocratic and dismissive of the views of others; the same Kenyan colleague found him surprised that African colleagues might refuse to agree with him; in every situation he alienated those who might have become allies. It is at least possible that the his mysterious breach with the missionary Amy Carmichael in the 1920s was in part due to some similar clash of wills. And this unshakeable sense of his own correctness was part of the abuse: dealing the final blow to Neill’s career in India, Neill’s superior Foss Westcott (metropolitan of India, Burma and Ceylon) noted with some surprise the lack of any kind of acknowledgment from Neill of the harm that had been caused. Remarkably, Neill thought it appropriate to put himself forward to succeed Westcott later that year, so complete was his self-belief.

Though overall the book succeeds, there are some imperfections in its execution. Nearly half the narrative is devoted to the two decades in India, and the remaining forty years occupy a similar length. This perhaps matches the importance of those years to Neill; in a sense he never recovered from his departure. But while the account of the Indian period is richly contextualised from archival and other sources, the chapters on Hamburg and Nairobi are notably more reliant on Neill’s own account, which (as, by this point, Daughrity has already shown) was not always full or frank, and on interviews; one wonders whether the university and college archives in Hamburg, Nairobi and Oxford might have yielded information of importance. In the later chapters in particular the narrative energy of the prose flags, such as in the place-by-place relation of Neill’s study tour of Africa in 1950 (228-37), or in the potted summaries of the various books and articles. From time to time, names appear in the narrative for the first time without being introduced. The list of archives consulted is incomplete, Lambeth Palace Library having been omitted. However, these are relatively minor criticisms of what is a major piece of work. Well produced by the Lutterworth Press, which was itself associated with Neill, and reasonably priced, it will be essential reading for historians of world Christianity in the twentieth century.

A Wordly Christian: The Life and Times of Stephen Neill. By Dyron B. Daughrity. (Cambridge, England: Lutterworth, 2021, pp. x, 401. £75 (hardback), £25 (paperback), £16 (epub).

For further reflections on the business of Christian biography, see posts on John Stott, and Michael Ramsey and Walter Hussey.

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