The Spirit of St. John Rivers (WTH 2.5)

(The following post contains spoilers for the novel Jane Eyre.)

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Jane Eyre. I first read Charlotte Brontë’s most famous work in my early teens– it was a school literature assignment, one which I thoroughly enjoyed. The gothic, romantic saga of orphaned and unwanted Jane was exactly my cup of tea. I had written numbers of orphan stories myself in childhood and early adolescence, and the injustices Jane faces as a child, from hard-hearted guardians to hypocritical clergymen, were the type to boil my blood with indignation. And then, of course, I found Rochester a dashing, mysterious, alluring hero; could I have changed places with Jane, he would have found no less tender, enthralled schoolgirl devotion  from me than he did from the governess Jane. My convictions about sexual morality forced me to side with Jane in leaving him once the existence of the mad wife in the attic is discovered, but my spirit was entirely with hers in forgiving Rochester for his deception and seeing him as a sorrowful victim of unscrupulous relations intent on a wealthy marriage, bound to a dreadful fate of being married to a homicidal maniac. (The sinister underside to Rochester’s story, and his treatment of his wife, did not yet occur to me, and is worth analysis, but that is not the purpose of this post.)

I don’t remember what I thought, that first reading, about the second man to enter Jane’s life– the clergyman, St. John Rivers, who turns out to be a relative of Jane’s. I think I probably skimmed most of the last third of the book, so impatient was I to get to Rochester and Jane’s blissful reunion (Bertha having been conveniently disposed of) and so St. John was nothing but a threat to that reunion, a threat who must be hastily discarded.


I have read Jane Eyre many times since junior high, but this time I found myself stuck on St. John Rivers, and not in a good way.

St. John (pronounced by my British narrator as “SIN-jun”) is an almost perfect archetype of the fanatical Christian evangelist. He is self-described as a “cold, hard, ambitious man”, but these traits are justified (in both his own mind and in Jane’s) because he uses them to further his missionary intentions. Though the reader is excluded from any scene of his missional labors in India, all the scenes and descriptions of him previous left me with the impression that, had he been born half a dozen centuries earlier, he would have had no qualms whatsoever at “converting” the pagan at the point of the sword. As it is, he is called a “stern” and “exacting” missionary, but this is again excused because after all, he’s just so darn godly that it doesn’t matter how he steamrolls the little people around him.

St. John Rivers is also a masterful spiritual manipulator. He decides that he wants to marry Jane– not because he has any affection or attraction to her, but because he thinks she would be a good missionary’s wife, an intelligent but docile “helpmeet.” He methodically sets about demolishing Jane’s resistance, with manipulation that is all the more insidious because it comes cloaked in Christian and scriptural language. When Jane refuses to marry him but offers to go to be his partner missionary in India anyway, he responds:

“Do you think God will be satisfied with half an oblation? Will he accept a mutilated sacrifice? It is the cause of God I advocate: it is under his standard I enlist you. I cannot accept on His behalf a divided allegiance: it must be entire…

“… do not forget that if you reject {my offer}, it is not me you deny, but God. Through my means, He opens to you a noble career; as my wife only can you enter upon it. Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself forever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity. Tremble lest in that case you should be numbered with those who have denied the faith, and are worse than infidels!”

“… If I listened to human pride, I should say no more to you of marriage with me; but I listen to my duty, and keep steadily in view my first aim– to do all things to the glory of God. My Master was long-suffering: so will I be. I cannot give you up to perdition as a vessel of wrath: repent– resolve; while there is yet time.”

I was driving while I was listening to this part of the book, and (my kids not being in the car at the time) I was vocally cussing out the car speakers.

The worst thing, however, is not St. John’s spiritual abuse, his narcissistic delusion that he speaks for God, or the way that he threatens Jane with hell if she dares to resist him. The worst thing is that St. John’s sisters, Jane, and through Jane’s voice Charlotte Brontë herself, consistently cast St. John as a model of a godly Christian. When she learns of what St. John is trying to get Jane to do, his sister Diana speaks sympathetically, yet she emphasizes St. John’s essential goodness, and she never offers even to talk with St. John to try to get him to lay off his ruthless pursuit of Jane in spite of her refusal. He is described enthusiastically as someone who will “stand without fault before the throne of God.” Jane herself says that, “He is a good and a great man: but he forgets, pitilessly, the feelings and claims of little people, in pursuing his own large views.”

At which point I was yelling, “THEN HE’S NOT A GOOD MAN!”

Dear reader, if any man (or woman for that matter) claims to speak for God and orders you to do something that is against your feelings or conscience or judgment or reason or heart, and threatens that God will punish you if you don’t comply, I have only one word for you.


Get as far away as fast as you can, and don’t look back. It doesn’t matter how holy you thought this person was, how much he or she is lauded by church, family, and friends, how spiritual and how godly they appear on the outside. It doesn’t matter if this person is your husband, wife, parent, sibling, pastor, teacher, or boss. Love never seeks to dominate another. The kingdom of God never comes by coercion. 

As someone who has followed stories of abuse within the evangelical church for years now, I found the story of Jane and St. John to be chillingly familiar. It’s similar to the countless stories I have read of Christian husbands (and churches) who have kept wives trapped in misery and fear by the assertion that the husband is the “spiritual head” and speaks for God in the marriage– and that therefore the wives are bound to submit to their husbands’ demands, regardless of their own feelings, convictions, or even physical or mental health. The same dynamics are at work in the pastors who prey on spiritually vulnerable women, luring them into sexual relationships with promises that “you can trust me, I speak for God, turning me down is the same as turning God down.” It’s the same mix of arrogance, self-righteousness, and delusion that has church leadership excommunicating women for divorcing their child-pornography-viewing husbands, Christian leaders turning a blind eye to the sexual molestation of children in their midst, and Christian organizations refusing to hear warnings about how their publications are being used to manipulate, dominate, and abuse.

The spirit of St. John Rivers is, tragically, alive and well in today’s modern evangelical world. It is the spirit that says: “I am the authority. Look at my credentials. Look at my giftings. Look at my achievements. Look at my theological training. Look at my knowledge of the Bible. Look at all the people who praise me. God is on my side. So never mind your instincts, ignore your own judgement, disregard your intuition, turn off your brain and and believe and act as I tell you to. How dare you think for yourself? Go against me, you go against God. Hell awaits those who set themselves in opposition to us.”

(I will write more about the threat of hell used to produce compliance. For now, I think it’s worth asking this question: how can the threat of hell co-exist with a “perfect love that casts out all fear”?)

There is another spirit whom we can choose to follow. It is a spirit who always sides with the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the wounded, the heartbroken. It is a spirit who never demands submission, but in humility seeks to serve the other. It is a spirit who tells us that the only authority is Love, and Love is kind. It is a spirit who declares that it doesn’t matter how eloquent you are, how many books you’ve sold, how many sermons you’ve preached, how many conferences you’re invited to speak at, how many people you’ve gotten to respond to your stirring altar calls– what matters is how you treat the  people around you when no one else is watching. It is a spirit who tells us that the last in the world are the first in the kingdom of God.

It is this spirit that will defeat the St. John Rivers of the world, this spirit that offers another way in the face of power-grabs and domination and manipulation. This spirit that keeps whispering to our hearts– not a demand, but a gentle invitation: Come, follow me.

4 thoughts on “The Spirit of St. John Rivers (WTH 2.5)

  1. Wild Honey

    From above:

    Jane herself says that, “He is a good and a great man: but he forgets, pitilessly, the feelings and claims of little people, in pursuing his own large views.”

    At which point I was yelling, “THEN HE’S NOT A GOOD MAN!”

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    Jane’s description of St. John doesn’t square very much with the picture of Jesus we see in John 11, the raising of Lazarus, does it? When Jesus sees the mourners, those Jane might call “little people,” his spirit is “deeply moved” and he is “greatly troubled,” even though he already knows Lazarus will be raised from the dead. Jesus is fully aware that this story will have a happy ending. Yet his response to the mourners isn’t platitudes or theology. His response is WEEPING.

    That is love. That is a man I can follow.


  2. Adrianna Card

    Preach, sister. St. John’s manipulative tactics always made my blood boil, but you bring out a great point – everyone still thinks he’s this great man??? He is a textbook abuser… He would have crushed the life out of Jane, or any woman for that matter. That is NOT anywhere close to God’s model of love. I would say St. John was almost, if not totally, devoid of any sign of Christian love, as laid out in I Cor. 13…. And without love, all his works “profit him nothing.”


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