African Studies Quarterly

Trevor Huddleston: A Life. Robin Denniston. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. 288 pp. Cloth: $35.


Robin Denniston has written a 'celebration' of Father Trevor Huddleston (1913-1998), who was a brother in the Community of the Resurrection (CR), a High Anglican monastic group. Denniston previously edited his subject's 1956 book Naught for Your Comfort about Huddleston's Christian ministry work to the residents of Sophiatown, Johannesburg. Naught for Your Comfort ranks alongside Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country as an impassioned cry for human dignity and, it provides much insight on white Christians and liberal South Africans who were sympathetic to the anti-apartheid movement in its infancy. Huddleston's observations are especially important, since he arrived in South Africa as the ANC Youth League was forming and became a key ally to the anti-apartheid cause until his recall in 1956, by his monastic Superior.

Denniston traces Huddleston's growth from a popular spiritual counselor into a political ally of Sophiatown's people. He became a key figure opposing the destruction of the township, since it was the only one offering Johannesburg's Africans freehold tenure. During his residency in Sophiatown, Huddleston befriended luminaries like Oliver Tambo, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Huddleston's campaigning to save Sophiatown launched his 40-year anti-apartheid career, which included his leadership of Britain's Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) from 1981 to 1998 and trustee work for the International Defense and Aid Fund (IDAF).

Denniston's biography draws Huddleston in warm, yet evenhanded, colors. His strengths, foibles and weaknesses are detailed and the author's well-executed work remains accessible to both general readers, as well as those interested in monastic life or racial justice. The book is also invaluable to academic researchers intrigued by Huddleston's life and faith. Denniston writes frankly about Huddleston and the strains brought on him by his 1956 recall. Beyond delving into Huddleston's complex personality, Denniston discusses Huddleston's single-minded anti-apartheid crusade, his service as bishop of Masasi (Tanzania), Stepney (London) and Mauritius and his relationships and conflicts with his South African friends, such as Tambo and Tutu.

Denniston's investigation does not shy away from controversial territory. Indeed, he confronts and rejects suspicions that Huddleston had unhealthy and inappropriate attitudes and feelings toward children (p. xxii). The author also shares the reflections of Father Nicolas Stebbing CR, who was a caretaker and confidant during Huddleston's final years. Stebbing, for example, wonders whether Huddleston suffered from constant bouts of depression. To his credit though, Denniston merely provides evidence and information, but leaves it to the readers to decide if Huddleston's actions and personality displayed any depressive tendencies.

The author also stresses the importance of looking at Huddleston's career within the context of his spiritual development. Failure to do so makes his struggle incomprehensible. Huddleston saw an interconnection between faith and opposition to apartheid that many did not recognize. He could, for example, be abrasive with adversaries, such as Margaret Thatcher or Enoch Powell and equally difficult with allies. Additionally, Huddleston's recall from Sophiatown in 1956, his nervous breakdown in 1974 (fearful of public charges of child abuse), his agonizing over returning to South Africa, and the difficulties of his infirmity all exacerbated an already prickly temperament.

As for the importance of Huddleston's contribution to the broader anti-apartheid movement through his work with AAM and IDAF, Denniston acknowledges that the onus is on future historians to research both AAM and IDAF further (p. xxii). Still, one cannot help but wonder whether there is more symbolism than achievement in his anti-apartheid activity outside South Africa. Unfortunately, Denniston's failure to offer even a preliminary assessment of these anti-apartheid activities outside South Africa's borders limits the reader's ability to gauge Huddleston's political significance.

Another shortcoming in the book is the author's treatment of South African political history; the history is little more than background information and contains minor inaccuracies throughout. Mistakes like using the word "Inkomat" (p. 163) instead of "Inkomati" (site of a 1984 'truce' between Mozambique and South Africa) betray a weakness that may, for more knowledgeable readers detract from the book's many strengths.

Despite its flaws, this volume is a worthy contribution and should serve as a corrective to Africanists who see missionaries only in material roles and who fail to give due weight to spiritual concerns underlying day-to-day missionary interactions with Africans and other colonial Europeans.


David Leaver
Raymond Walters College
University of Cincinnati