My first visit to Hillsong Church A few years ago I was preaching in London. Three congregations came together in one venue (a slightly rundown-looking school hall), and we had a wonderful time. Several people testified of healing, and at least one person responded to the call to start following Jesus. The worship band were a bit thin on the ground though, just two acoustic guitarists, so it felt a little awkward. When I asked the reason why they couldn’t gather a full band the answer was straight-forward: it was a Bank Holiday Weekend. Fair enough. That afternoon I met with two friends who are pastors in London and we jumped on the tube to go and check out the evening service of Hillsong Church. On the way there we had the kind of conversations pastors have all the time. Neither of them had ‘lost’ anyone to Hillsong but they had both had people join them who had attended Hillsong for a season and for a couple of reasons had decided to join a more local church. The reasons weren’t bad: they found making friends difficult in the relatively large Hillsong context, they preferred a more congregational ‘feel’ to the Sunday experience, rather than the strong ‘performance’ dynamic etc.
What was waiting for us – and for me in particular – was a real surprise. Hillsong London was then about 2500-strong and meeting in the Mermaid Theatre (I think) in the City itself. The first thing I noticed was that, in radical contrast to the school hall experience of the morning, Hillsong had completely ‘owned’ the space. Visually I was more aware that this was Hillsong Church than that it was a rented theatre. There was no moment when I said, ‘Oh look! Michael MacIntyre is playing here next week!’ or, ‘Look at these exciting stills from We Will Rock You.’
We arrived as the meeting began and were enthusiastically greeted and guided towards the double-doors of the auditorium. Once there we were handed on to a well-informed usher who told us that there weren’t three seats available together but they could seat us towards the front in different rows but we’d be reasonably close. Would that be OK? We nodded and obediently followed.
Focussed worship There was absolutely no sign of a Bank Holiday Weekend at Hillsong London. There was a full, well-rehearsed and (therefore) confident band, perfectly mixed, with each band-member and singer fully engaged in the exuberant act of joyfully worshipping God. Even during the first song the energy levels were high and seemed completely authentic. By the second song we were at the kind of full-throated worship that we usually experienced on the final night of some of our conferences. That thought ran through my head and, as I looked around at the congregation packed into that theatre, passionately worshipping Jesus, I couldn’t help myself, and began to weep and pray. ‘Oh God! Please give us the thousands! Please God, here in London, please give us the thousands! Here in England, please God, turn the hearts of thousands to You.’ Selah.
After what I was told was 18 minutes of worship, the rest of the service (admittedly fairly formulaic – cf. liturgical – but hey, it was working) continued. Second thought: I’d rather have 18 minutes of God-saturated, glory-filled worship than 30 or 40 minutes of tentative, not-quite-sure-what’s-happening-next worship. One last thought: it was a guest speaker but he preached from the text on the importance of relationship-building and making friends in the context of a growing church community. Bang on.
A faith-filled shot in the arm
So when my American son-in-law gave me Live, Love, Lead by Brian Houston, Hillsong’s Kiwi founder, I was intrigued and looking forward to reading it.
Confession: I read this book over a two-year period, but I’ll tell you why. It’s a mixture of the Houston/Hillsong story and faith-building positivity, scripturally based and expansive. You’re looking forward with expectation and faith in God. So my practice was to read a paragraph, or two at the most, as the final thing I did before Jo and I set off to lead the Sunday services at Jubilee Community Church in Kloof St, Cape Town. And pretty much each time I took a bite out of Houston’s positive prose it reminded me to be people-focussed, encouraging, believing God to help folk in their trials, trusting God for great things to happen in the services, that the various leaders would be genuinely blessed, and just refreshing my memory to look to God and enjoy the moment. Even when he’s describing some of the almost overwhelming challenges that he’s faced in leadership Houston meets the challenge with a robust, God-centred faith. Here’s a very short example:
‘It’s believing that God can cause things to work together for good as we simply live our lives loving him, live our lives called according to his purpose – this is what transforms us. Maybe I’m just a positive person by nature, but I expect good things each day of the year…I believe without a doubt that every single moment of every single day…can reveal God’s goodness – in my life and yours.’
It’s not a theological treatise on prayer or providence, and it’s not trying to be, but if you’re looking for the occasional shot in the arm of encouragement, and wisdom for life, as you head in to work or to worship, this may be the book you’re looking for.
An old-fashioned doctrine ‘Conviction of sin’ can be described as the personal distress and guilt that accompanies the realisation that you are a sinner and that your specific sins have offended God; that you yourself have offended God Himself and that there is a serious problem between you. You may never have felt this before but suddenly, through some kind of exposure to the Bible, or to Christian teaching, or the Ten Commandments, you are aware of a vast difference between your behaviour and the purity of God’s moral character and demands. And all of this is now revealed. If you move towards it the scene gets darker. Surely it would be better to try and ignore it all? And even though Christians assure you that genuine freedom is possible in Christ, the difficulty of pressing through ‘conviction of sin’ is that conversion to Christ – a full surrendering of sin, life, and all at the foot of the cross – is the only solution. And who could ever really do that? ‘With man it is impossible.’ (Mark 10.27)
The great 19th Century Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon grew up surrounded by the Bible. Both his grandfather and father were pastors. But he was not converted until he was fifteen. And his teenage years were filled with self-righteousness, guilt, and discomfort. The spiritual question was how to get right with God. And the spiritual problem was his inability to apply the gospel to his own heart and life – how to find forgiveness for sin, how to find relief from guilt.
The problem of the Law and sin
Spurgeon wrote, ‘One of the things that shut me up dreadfully was, when I knew the spirituality of the law…Those words spoken by the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel came to my mind : “If he trust to his own righteousness, and commit iniquity, all his righteousnesses shall not be remembered ; but for his iniquity that he hath committed, he shall die for it.” So I saw that I was, indeed, “kept under the law.” I had hoped to escape this way, or that way, or some other way. Was I not “christened” when I was a child? Had I not been taken to a place of worship? Had I not been brought up to say my prayers regularly? Had I not been an honest, upright, moral youth?Was all this nothing? “Nothing,” said the law, as it drew its sword of fire : “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” So there was no rest for my spirit, nay, not even for a moment. What was I to do? …
I do not say that all have felt the apprehension of coming judgment as I did; but this is how it came to me. I knew that I was guilty, I knew that I had offended God, I knew that I had transgressed against light and knowledge, and I did not know when God might call me to account ; but I did know this, when I awoke in the morning, the first thought I had was that I had to deal with a justly-angry God, who might suddenly require my soul of me. Often, during the day, when I had a little time for quiet meditation, a great depression of spirit would come upon me because I felt that sin –sin – SIN had outlawed me from my God.’
The threats were in capitals and the promises in small-print
‘If anyone had asked me what would become of me, I must have answered, “I am going down to the pit.” If anyone had entreated me to hope that mercy might come to me, I should have refused to entertain such a hope. … When I was for many a month in this state, I used to read the Bible through, and the threatenings were all printed in capitals, but the promises were in such small type I could not for a long time make them out ; and when I did read them, I did not believe they were mine ; but the threatenings were all my own.’
Our inability and our desire
Inevitably one of the shocks to Spurgeon was that, according to the Bible, there was nothing he could do to earn his way to forgiveness. He continues,
‘Before I came to Christ, I said to myself.“It surely cannot be that, if I believe in Jesus, just as I am, I shall be saved? I must feel something; I must do something.” I could pour scorn upon myself to think of some of the good resolutions I made! I blew them up, like children with their pipes and their soap, and fine bubbles they were, reflecting all the colours of the rainbow! But a touch, and they dissolved. They were good for nothing, – poor stuff to build eternal hopes upon. … Oh, the many times that I have wished the preacher would tell me something to do that I might be saved! Gladly would I have done it, if it had been possible. If he had said, “Take off your shoes and stockings, and run to John o’ Groat’s,” I would not even have gone home first, but would have started off that very night, that I might win salvation. How often have I thought that, if he had said, “Bare your back to the scourge, and take fifty lashes” I would have said, “Here I am! Come along with your whip, and beat as hard as you please, so long as I can obtain peace and rest, and get rid of my sin.” Yet that simplest of all matters – believing in Christ crucified, accepting His finished salvation, being nothing, and letting Him be everything, doing nothing but trusting to what He has done, – I could not get a hold of it.’ [i]
There is an answer for guilt, and shame, and, as he says here, it is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. Next time we’ll see how, through a humble but punchy gospel preacher, Spurgeon finally did ‘get a hold of it’ and go on to become one of Christendom’s greatest preachers.
[i] All quotes from The Autobiography of Charles H Spurgeon, Vol 1. (1897) London: Passmore and Alabaster, p.83-90
To read the first article in this series on CH Spurgeon click here
I first picked up The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels when I was sixteen. Of course, I didn’t feel like a precocious sixteen-year-old then. I felt like a free-thinking young intellectual discovering poetry and politics, and exploring the vast literary landscape with a hunger and delight that, frankly, I wish I could maintain now. Like many significant works of literature this little book had its own killer line. Not quite the first line, but certainly as memorable as the best of them. It read: ‘The history of all societies is a history of class struggle.’ I read on eagerly. Thus The Communist Manifesto became my first conscious encounter with what I later learned was a ‘worldview’ and it was exhilarating to read something that claimed to know what was really going on in the world.
My teenage romance with Marxism didn’t last too long and suffered numerous blows as I discovered not its power to transform but, disappointingly, its consistent failure. And when I later became president of the Students’ Union at a small college in Sussex I was appalled at the sanctimonious reverence Marx was paid. The primary example of this happened not at the National Conference but at an (ironically) exclusive and somewhat secretive gathering of three Students’ Union presidents at Sussex University. Our host, the Sussex Uni president, asked us to be seated. He then proceeded to unveil, by pulling down on a little fluffy cord, a red velvet curtain, behind which were revealed portraits first of Marx, then Lenin, and finally the then General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov. Once this ceremony was complete he opened the meeting. It was both strangely religious and hopelessly sad.
But that kind of obsequious nonsense was the least of it. The philosophy itself was problematic. Apart from his impressive, often accurate view of the past, Marx’s vision for future revolution and collective ownership had already obviously failed in the terrifyingly authoritarian regimes that claimed him as their founder. Even George Orwell said – somewhere in Homage to Catalonia – thathe only saw communism work once, and then only for about three weeks, after which the usual egotistical impulse for status reasserted itself. One set of status/power/money lovers had been replaced by another set who soon began to act like those they replaced.
The Significance of Marx
Marx and Engels felt they had discovered a scientific assessment of social progress akin to Darwin’s theory of evolution. The parallel is oddly appropriate for many Christians: we may agree with much of what both Darwin and Marx observed, but may also have considerable doubts about the projections they made based on the observation.
And so to Peter Singer’s highly readable, Marx, A Very Short Introduction. He asks, ‘Can anyone now think about society without reference to Marx’s insights into the links between economic and intellectual life? Marx’s ideas brought about modern sociology, transformed the study of history, and profoundly affected philosophy, literature, and the arts. In this sense of the term – admittedly a very loose sense – we are all Marxists now.’ (3)
Hegel, History, and God
There were a number of points at which the thinking of others encouraged Marx to see religion as ultimately negative (for Marx this inevitably meant Christianity). In describing Hegel and the young Hegelians who influenced Marx Singer writes, ‘The goal of history became the liberation of humanity; but this could not be achieved until the religious illusion had been overcome.’ (22) Of course! Singer has unintentionally sent us back to a conversation in Eden in Genesis 3. And later, ‘theology is a kind of misdirected anthropology. What we believe of God is really true of ourselves. Thus humanity can regain its essence, which in religion it has lost.’ (23) And in an inevitable statement of absolute naturalism, ‘Thought does not precede existence, existence precedes thought.’ (24) Christians love the fact that in the beginning was thought and word, and all creation came into existence as a result of thought and word. But Marx only saw the way religion created compliance rather than progress.
Economic Injustice and its Cure
When Marx came on to his views of economic injustice we find some of his arguments compelling but his solutions naive. When pointing out that driving wages down to as close as is necessary to merely keep workers alive, while keeping for themselves a significant amount of the value the workers create, Marx is highlighting a genuine manipulation of human resources. (33) Sure. We need just laws, and we ought to have them. But Marx asserted ‘the solution is the abolition of wages, alienated labour, and private property in one blow. In a word, communism.’ (36) and claimed, ‘Communism…is the genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man…It is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.’ Singer adds, ‘One might expect that Marx would go on to explain in some detail what communism would be like. He does not – in fact nowhere in his writings does he give more than sketchy suggestions on this subject.’ (37)
Marx and Engels consistently preached for a kind of millennial era of liberation, freedom from oppression, and peace among men. In one sense, the very best motivations of the communist vision are an echo of genuine Christianity, but with man, not God, at the centre. In fact it’s difficult to imagine the birth of Marxist philosophy in any but a Christian cultural environment, and a muscular 19th century Christianity at that. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,’ could have been bellowed out by William Booth and the Salvation Army; could, in fact, have been written by Luke in the Book of Acts (see Acts 2.45 [i], and 4.34 [ii]).
Marx was also echoing a widely held Christian sentiment when he asserted that history has a definite goal; that of humanity reaching its greatest potential in an era of liberation and freedom. He probably didn’t realise how much a view of God’s sovereignty, of providence, and the millennial hope he carried in his thinking about the future. Singer brings us up to post-Christian speed: ‘Few historians…now see any goal in history. They do not explain history as the necessary path to anywhere. They explain it by showing how one set of events brought about another.’ (57)
Revolution and Transformation
Marx believed that Capitalism would force its own failure as workers would realise their exploitation, rise up, and redistribute wealth on a fair and equal basis. Private property would be abolished. The State would draw the allegiance of all men and the common good would be the goal of all. Absolutely wishful thinking. Singer: ‘According to Marx’s view of history, as the economic basis of society alters, so all consciousness alters. Greed, egoism, and envy are not ingrained forever in the character of human beings. They would disappear in a society in which private property and private means of production were replaced with communal property and socially organized means of production. We would lose our preoccupation withour private interests. Citizens of the new society would find their own happiness in working for the good of all. (81) Surely only the most inexperienced revolutionary could believe that? ‘It has been said that later in life Marx developed a less Utopian view of communism, but it is difficult to find much evidence of this.’ (83) His view was so utopian in fact that he believed communism would become fully international in its reach, and therefore single nation-states would cease to exist, thus eradicating the impulse for war between nations. Armed forces would become a thing of the past. Cue not-the-only-dreamer, John Lennon. Actually though, while it’s certainly not imaginable now, it is nevertheless a hope that’s deeply embedded in the human psyche (we’re made in the image of God after all) and it echoes an idea worked out in Christian eschatology.
How do we assess Marx’s philosophy?
Singer: ‘More than a century after Marx made these predictions, most of them are so plainly mistaken that one can only wonder why anyone sympathetic to Marx would attempt to argue that his greatness lies in the scientific aspects of his work. Judged by the standards of Marx’s time, the gap between rich and poor has narrowed dramatically throughout the industrialized world…Real wages have risen. Factory workers today earn considerably more than they need in order to remain alive and reproducing…Capitalism has gone through several crises, but nowhere has it collapsed as a result of its alleged internal contradictions. Proletarian revolutions have broken out in the less developed nations [Marx predicted it would happen in the more developed ones]. (88) He supposed ‘that real wages would remain around subsistence level; in fact the increase in productivity has allowed real wages to rise.’ (91) The ‘conception of freedom Marx espoused contains within it a difficulty Marx never sufficiently appreciated, a difficulty which can be linked with the tragic mutation of Marx’s views into a prop for murderously authoritarian regimes. This is the problem of obtaining the co-operation of each individual in the joint endeavour of controlling our society.’ (92)‘Marx never intended a communist society to force the individual to work against his or her own interests for the collective good.’ (97)
Marx’s view of human nature was hopelessly optimistic. The economic injustices he identified were not simply the result of capitalist systems (though those systems enabled them) but of fallen human nature, sinful nature. And even though today we can see improvement to human rights and progress in many areas, enacted in many laws, the fundamental problem of human sin is still wildly underestimated. This doesn’t let ‘capitalism’ off the hook of course, let alone individuals greedy for their own advancement at the expense of others. In fact, those Christian leaders and pastors living in countries with ever-widening gaps between rich and poor need to develop a healthy desire and determination to work for a more just society. Nevertheless, the communism that developed in the twentieth century was never the utopia Marx dreamt of; that dreamt-of equality only ever appeared in propaganda films. Equally unconvincing are the arguments that true Marxism has never been properly tried. The reason it never lasts longer than a few weeks is because the philosophy radically over-estimates the goodness of human nature. What is needed is a philosophy that (goes beyond philosophy and) gets into the heart and changes human nature, that leads to repentance from sin and faith in Christ, and produces an unwavering resolve for social justice. To put it in the words of the most famous prayer, ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’
Marx, A Very Short Introduction is by Peter Singer and published by the Oxford University Press.
Is Singer too hard on Marx? Too soft? How does the gospel address the injustices Marx raised? Comment below.
[i] Acts 2.45 ‘and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.’
[ii] Acts 4.34 ‘there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales.’
A Mother’s Influence
There were numerous influences in young CH Spurgeon’s life: he lived for a season with his grandfather, an Independent Pastor who faithfully preached the gospel; his father who himself was a pastor; a school cook, from whom he first heard unashamed confidence in the sovereignty of God, and the doctrines of grace; and the various teachers who impressed upon him the importance of the Bible. But there was a very special place reserved for the most influential spiritual voice during his childhood and teenage years – his mother, Eliza Spurgeon.
Christian mothers should take heart from Spurgeon’s story and never give up praying for their children. Spurgeon describes more than prayer, as his mother was also instructing her children from the text of Scripture. Spurgeon mentions four key practices:
1. Sincere, heartfelt prayer, in private as well as with her children.
2. Time with the Bible, not only a Bible storybook, but actually reading a ‘grown-up’ Bible verse by verse.
3. This was followed by relevant application to each child of the verses that they read together.
4. In addition to that, she also read from the most relevant evangelistic books available. One of them was Joseph Alleine’s Alarm Call to the Unconverted – a passionate appeal (Spurgeon uses the word ‘pleading’) for those not yet right with God to consider their practices and beliefs.
‘I cannot tell how much I owe to…my good mother.’
Maybe there are some clues and keys in Spurgeon’s experience that will encourage us to be more confident in teaching our children so that they can make a well informed decision about their own faith and future. CHS writes:
‘I was privileged with godly parents…and taught the way of God from my youth up. There came a time when the solemnities of eternity pressed upon me for a decision. … When I was under concern of soul, the last persons I should have elected to speak to upon religion would have been my parents, not through want of love to them, nor absence of love on their part; but so it was. A strange feeling of diffidence pervades a seeking soul, and drives it from its friends. Yet I cannot tell how much I owe to the solemn words of my good mother. It was the custom, on Sunday evenings, while we were yet little children, for her to stay at home with us, and then we sat round the table, and read verse by verse, and she explained the Scripture to us. After that was done, then came the time of pleading; there was a little piece of Alleine’s Alarm, or of Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, and this was read with pointed observations made to each of us as we sat round the table; and the question was asked, how long it would be before we would think about our state, how long before we would seek the Lord.’
A Mother’s Prayer
‘Then came a mother’s prayer, and some of the words of that prayer we shall never forget, even when our hair is grey. I remember, on one occasion her praying thus: ‘Now, Lord, if my children go on in their sins, it will not be from ignorance that they perish, and my soul must bear a swift witness against them at the day of judgment if they lay not hold of Christ.’ That thought of a mother’s bearing swift witness against me, pierced my conscience, and stirred my heart. …
I am sure that, in my early youth, no teaching ever made such an impression upon my mind as the instruction of my mother; neither can I conceive that, to any child, there can be one who will have such influence over the young heart as the mother who has so tenderly cared for her offspring. A man with a soul so dead as not to be moved by the sacred name of “mother” is creation’s blot. Never could it be possible for any man to estimate what he owes to a godly mother. Certainly I have not the powers of speech with which to set forth my valuation of the choice blessing which the Lord bestowed on me in making me the son of one who prayed for me, and prayed with me. How can I ever forget her tearful eye when she warned me to escape from the wrath to come.
I thought her lips right eloquent; others might not think so, but they certainly were eloquent to me. How can I ever forget when she bowed her knee, and with her arms about my neck, prayed, “Oh, that my son might live before Thee!” Nor can her frown be effaced from my memory,—that solemn, loving frown, when she rebuked my budding iniquities; and her smiles have never faded from my recollection,—the beaming of her countenance when she rejoiced to see some good thing in me towards the Lord God of Israel.’’
Abundant answers to Prayer
Of course, those of us who have benefited from the ministry of CH Spurgeon are still enjoying the results of his mother’s prayers. And she was, herself, thrilled at the incredible fruit that Charles saw through his work. Long after his preaching and church-planting ministry was established he recalled a conversation with his mother about her prayers:
‘My mother said to me, one day, “Ah, Charles! I often prayed to the Lord to make you a Christian, but I never asked that you might become a Baptist.” I could not resist the temptation to reply, “Ah, mother! The Lord has answered your prayer with His usual bounty, and given you exceeding abundantly above what you asked or thought.”‘[i]
More next time…
[i] The Autobiography of Charles H Spurgeon, Vol 1. (1897) London: Passmore and Alabaster, p.67-69
To read the first article in this series on CH Spurgeon click here
Strong Meat from the Cook [i]
The first lessons I ever had in theology were from an old cook [Mary King] in the school at Newmarket where I was an usher [a kind of assistant-tutor]. She was a good old soul, and used to read The Gospel Standard. She liked something very sweet indeed, good strong Calvinistic doctrine, but she lived strongly as well as fed strongly.
Many a time we have gone over the covenant of grace together, and talked of the personal election of the saints, their union to Christ, their final perseverance, and what vital godliness meant, and I do believe that I learnt more from her than I should have learned from any six doctors of divinity of the sort we have nowadays.
There are some Christian people who taste, and see, and enjoy religion in their own souls, and who get at a deeper knowledge of it than books can ever give them, though they should search all their days. The cook at Newmarket was a godly experienced woman, from whom I learned far more than I did from the minister of the chapel we attended.
I asked her once, “Why do you go to such a place.” She replied, “Well, there is no other place of worship to which I can go.” I said, “But it must be better to stay at home than to hear such stuff.” “Perhaps so,” she answered “but I like to go out to worship even if I get nothing by going. You see a hen sometimes scratching all over a heap of rubbish to try to find some corn; she does not get any, but it shows that she is looking for it, and using the means to get it, and then, too, the exercise warms her.” So the old lady said that scratching over the poor sermons she heard was a blessing to her because it exercised her spiritual faculties and warmed her spirit.
On another occasion I told her that I had not found a crumb in the whole sermon, and asked how she had fared. “Oh!” she answered, “I got on better tonight, for to all the preacher said, I just put in a not, and that turned his talk into real gospel.”
A former student remembers the fifteen year-old Spurgeon
A fellow assistant-tutor at the small ‘school’, later Prof JD Everett, of Queen’s College, Belfast, remembered Spurgeon with affection:
“In the summer of 1849, when I was not quite eighteen, I went to Newmarket to assist in a school… I was left for a week or so as the sole assistant. I was then relieved of part of my duty by a lad of fifteen, who came as an articled pupil. This was Charles H. Spurgeon, and for the next three months we shared the work between us. We boarded in the house, occupied the same bedroom, took our walks together, discussed our common grievances, and were the best of friends.
He was a keen observer of men and manners, and very shrewd in his judgments. He enjoyed a joke, but was earnest, hard-working, and strictly conscientious. … He was a delightful companion, cheerful and sympathetic ; a good listener as well as a good talker. And he was not cast in a common conventional mould, but had a strong character of his own.”
CHS willing to learn from the most humble
“As to the early history of his theological views, I can add something to what has been already published. In Mr. Swindell’s household there was a faithful old servant,—a big, sturdy woman, who was well known to me and all the inmates as ‘cook.’ She was a woman of strong religious feelings, and a devout Calvinist. Spurgeon, when under deep religious conviction, had conversed with her, and been deeply impressed with her views of Divine truth. He explained this to me, and told me, in his own terse fashion, that it was ‘cook’ who had taught him his theology. … It is no discredit to the memory of a great man that he was willing to learn from the humblest sources.”
When the above article appeared in print, Mr. Robert Mattingly, of Great Cornard, Sudbury, wrote to the same paper:“About twenty-five years ago, I became acquainted with the [the cook], Mary King by name. She was then living in cottage lodgings, facing St. Margaret’s Church, Ipswich, and was a member of the Bethesda Strict Baptist Church, close by. She was a staunch Calvinist, logical, clear-headed, and had a wonderful knowledge of the Bible.
I have often heard from her lips the account of her [conversations] with the youthful Spurgeon, of which she was naturally not a little proud, as he had then attained the height of his marvellous popularity.”
Spurgeon hears of Mary King’s financial troubles and supports her
“During my acquaintance with her, I learned that she had outlived all, or nearly all, of a small income (I do not remember from what source). I wrote to Mr. Spurgeon, acquainting him with the facts, and received from him a prompt reply, thanking me for my letter, sending a hearty greeting to his old friend, and with characteristic generosity he enclosed a cheque for £5, with a request that I would minister to her immediate necessities, pay her 5s. a week, and generally use my discretion in dispensing the amount in his behalf. This I did, and reported to Mr. Spurgeon from time to time, always receiving a fresh cheque when the fund in hand became exhausted, and this was continued until her death about three years later.”[ii]
For the first in this series on CH Spurgeon click here
[i] See Heb 5.12, and 1 Cor 3.2. The King James has ‘strong meat’, although the newer versions tend to have ‘solid food’.
[ii] The Autobiography of Charles H Spurgeon, Vol 1. (1897 London: Passmore and Alabaster) p.53-55
I was about the age of fourteen when I was sent to a Church of England school,—now called St. Augustine’s College, Maidstone. We had three clergymen who came by turns to teach us their doctrines ; but, somehow or other, the pupils did not seem to get on much…
One of the clergy was, I believe, a good man ; and it is to him I owe that ray of light which sufficed to show me believers’ baptism…
He seemed always to have a respect for me, and gave me The Christian Year, in calf, as a reward for my great proficiency in religious knowledge. Proceeding with the Catechism, he suddenly turned to me, and said,
Clergyman — Spurgeon, you were never properly baptized.
Spurgeon — Oh, yes, sir, I was ; my grandfather baptized me in the little parlour, and he is a minister, so I know he did it right !
C.—Ah, but you had neither faith nor repentance, and therefore ought not to have received baptism !
S.—Why, sir, that has nothing to do with it ! All infants ought to be baptized.
C.—How do you know that ? Does not the Prayer Book say that faith and repentance are necessary before baptism ? And this is so Scriptural a doctrine, that no one ought to deny it. (Here he went on to show that all the persons spoken of in the Bible as being baptized were believers ; which, of course, was an easy task, and then said to me,—) Now, Charles, I shall give you till next week to find out whether the Bible does not declare faith and repentance to be necessary qualifications before baptism.
I felt sure enough of victory; for I thought that a ceremony my grandfather and father both practised in their ministry must be right ; but I could not find it,—I was beaten,—and made up my mind as to the course I would take.
C. —Well, Charles, what do you think now ?
S. —Why, sir, I think you are right ; but then it applies to you as well as to me!…
C.—Well, then, you confess that you were not properly baptized ; and you would think it your duty, if in your power, to join with us, and have sponsors to promise on your behalf?
S.—Oh, no ! I have been baptized once, before I ought ; I will wait next time till I am fit for it.
C.—(Smiling.) Ah, you are wrong ; but I like to see you keep to the Word of God! Seek from Him a new heart and Divine direction, and you will see one truth after another, and very probably there will be a great change in those opinions which now seem so deeply rooted in you.
I resolved, from that moment, that if ever Divine grace should work a change in me, I would be baptized, since, as I afterwards told my friend the clergyman, ” I never ought to be blamed for improper baptism, as I had nothing to do with it ; the error, if any, rested with my parents and grandparents.” [i]
[i] CH Spurgeon, Autobiography vol 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1962), p.33-36
To read the first article in this series on Spurgeon click here
To read how Spurgeon learned great theological truths from the school cook click here
‘Minnows! Minnows!’ said my colleague and much-loved pastor Don Smith, as he threw the book down on to the table. It span towards me. ‘Don’t bother with these minnows!’
I could see that the book was a new volume about the great 19th century preacher CH Spurgeon.‘It’s like reading about a mighty whale through the eyes of a minnow: they want to tell you his secret, or make him agree with their views, or try and make him more respectable. You’re better off going to the man himself!’
Don and I were in the early stages of planting a church in the English coastal town of Eastbourne and our respect for each other, and our friendship, instantly sprang from our mutual admiration of the great preachers of church history, and especially Spurgeon.
There are a number of factors which make Spurgeon such an attractive subject for preachers and leaders in church life today, and as this series develops, we’ll enjoy them, drawing primarily on his own statements so that you get the whale and not the minnow. And all hopefully in bite-sized chunks.
We will be inspired by the fact that:
– After his conversion Spurgeon immediately began evangelising, and many doors opened for him
– He was an instant success with the working class, but treated with suspicion by well-educated, respectable ministers
– His sermons were so effective that literally thousands were converted
– His initial preaching in London drew sensational crowds and the interest of the secular press
– He was unashamedly committed to preaching from the Bible
– He was a proud Dissenter, never giving in to the pressures of elitist Christianity
– He was solidly calvinistic in doctrine and without doubt one of the most effective evangelists of the 19th century
– He was a master of off-the-cuff preaching, with an astonishing gift for illustration
– His collected sermons fill sixty-three large volumes. That series is the largest set of sermons by a single author in the history of Christianity
– Spurgeon is history’s most widely read preacher apart from the Biblical ones
– He was able to plant over two hundred churches from the time he founded a pastor’s college
– He suffered terrible losses in his personal life, and drew close to God, finding such tenderness in the presence of God that it deeply affected his preaching and writing
– He was committed to prayer, and to the church prayer meeting
– He enjoyed a beautiful family life, caring for his wife through her disability, and enjoying raising his sons
– He was theologically conservative but wide open to the supernatural activity of the Spirit
– He was committed to personal evangelism
– He was entirely self-educated, having neither university nor seminary training
– He was a voracious reader who soon became a bestselling author
The list goes on. If you’re a leader or a preacher in the Christian church the example and the wisdom of CH Spurgeon will delight your soul, inspire your faith, and spur you on to love and good works. I hope you enjoy this series.
CS Lewis talked about the quest to gain access to the ‘inner ring’, something he was unable to do at Oxford due to the snobbery of the English establishment, and the embarrassment Lewis caused fellow academics by writing about the devil as though he were a real being.[i] As you gain entrance to one ring, you discover yet another further in which holds yet more influence. Every effort is made to progress to the inner rings. Entrance becomes more costly. You can forfeit your soul as you gain the world. Once inside each ring, you strengthen its walls so that it remains difficult for others to enter (one UK pastor was telling me of South African émigrés to England who, having scrambled to get British passports and residency, are now solidly and immovably pro-Brexit).
Of course for outsiders like Lewis, slowly earning your way to an inner ring may not only take years but may turn out to be a hollow promise after all. But the nature of the old British establishment was that if you were born into the right family, went to the right school, had the right kind of accent and bearing, you could skip all those tawdry outer rings and accelerate right to the centre of things where commoners rarely, if ever, appear. The inner rings are inevitably smaller, and fewer people share the high-octane experience of access to key decisions and key information.
What MI6, the UK’s secret intelligence organisation, hadn’t bargained for was that once their trusted men were in the inner ring it was practically the only place they could let their guard down and share their experiences without fear of a snooping ear. And boy did they offload. Here were brothers, comrades, co-spies in a world where no one else knew their true work, not even their wives. And, from the 1930s through to the early 1960s, one man in particular – charming, intelligent, a veritable Bond – was picking them clean of every detail, every initiative, and every name.
Entrance into the UK spy organisation’s inner rings was surprisingly easy for Kim Philby. He simply asked a friend of his father’s to recommend him. ‘I know their people!’ was recommendation enough. In the 1940s the old boy network was considered as sound as a pound. A typical Eton old boy was as British as you could be. But it was at Cambridge that Philby first encountered the vision of a communist society. And it was an idealistic vision that held his loyalty for the remainder of his life. In fact he was so devoted to this ideal that he gave uncritical obedience to his KGB handlers from first to last. Philby’s beliefs as a student were well known, but when the Soviets recruited him they advised him not to join the Communist Party but rather to appear to grow out of that youthful phase and adopt more right-wing views. He obeyed, and became the KGB’s most senior operative; one who infiltrated the British security system to the highest levels. Philby, the Eton and Cambridge old boy, who loved cricket and was a thoroughly good egg, was ushered into the inner ring, and became the most notorious spy of his generation. He was so thoroughly British that the British refused to doubt him, and the KGB refused to trust him.
As Ben Macintyre describes in this highly readable account of Philby’s adventures, he actually became head of the UK’s anti-Soviet division – an almost unbelievable feat. The most senior Soviet spy in Britain became the head of the Britain’s anti-Soviet operations. And the information Philby was sending to the Soviet Union was so thorough and so accurate that the KGB began to be suspicious of him and had him followed.
After two other well-to-do Cambridge recruits were exposed as Soviet spies and defected, the spotlight fell (accurately) on Philby. He must have tipped them off. The CIA in America was certain of it. MI5 (British security service) and MI6 (British foreign intelligence service) had differing views on Philby. MI5 were convinced he had been a double-agent. MI6 thought those horrible people at MI5 were just slandering him, and had nothing concrete against him. And so, as an old boy truly in the security of a tightening inner ring, Philby was exonerated and declared to be so in Parliament by fellow-Etonian, Harold Macmillan. Incredibly, a few years later he was working for MI6 again.
Of course, it all finally caught up with him, and he was probably (Macintyre, and others infer) allowed to escape to Moscow where he received by the Soviet authorities. It was hardly a hero’s welcome for a lifetime or risk and deceit. He was kept at arms length. He lived in a small flat, avidly reading through old cricket games in old copies of the Times when he was able to get them, desperate of news from home. A humbling isolated end. A Briton in exile.
Philby’s betrayal, not only of country, but of friends, was intensely difficult to process by those who were closest to him. They were left devastated by his defection when the watertight evidence was revealed. We’re told Nicholas Elliot, in MI6, never fully recovered from the shock of it all. His closest friend was working for the Communists. He re-lived whole segments of his life with a new perspective. The realisation that he had spilled the beans on numerous activities which was relayed to the Soviet Union must have been unbearable to him. And the American James Angleton, another close friend, nearly destroyed the CIA through increasingly invasive internal witch-hunts prompted by the post-Philby paranoia.
Suave, sophisticated, well educated, gracious, the quintessential British gentleman, Kim Philby deceived them all. And all for an ideal it seems he didn’t care to review beyond his earlier infatuation with it. Somehow he looked past Stalin’s crimes and doggedly held on to a pristine ideal. He looked past the ruthless disappearance of KGB handlers who were suddenly under suspicion, and kept looking for the communist dream. He didn’t live to see the fall of it all along with the Berlin Wall in 1989.
As a result of his winnowing work he frustrated numerous cold-war operations, sent hundreds of agents to their deaths, and told a gazillion bare-faced lies, not least of which were his declarations of innocence in his mother’s flat before a crowd of reporters after Macmillan’s statement in the House of Commons. You can see footage of that and of him speaking in the USSR here
‘Meet it is I set it down that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’, said Hamlet. Macintyre’s superbly readable account of the secret world of high-class spies has certainly been one of my most engaging reads of this year, and is a subject which continues to fascinate. Surely it’s time for a film version.
Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends. Published in the UK by Bloomsbury.
Douglass began teaching other slaves to read in clandestine Sunday School settings, one of which was violently broken up when the slave-owners discovered it. Eventually, disguised as a sailor, he made his daring escape to the northern states and won a tenuous freedom as a fugitive slave. Soon his incredible speaking gifts and his story made him a key player in the abolitionist movement in America. Preaching from church to church, and speaking from meeting to meeting he quickly became one of America’s most famous orators. In fact, scepticism that he was the real deal was a spur to autobiography: an audience member stated that Douglass could not possibly have accomplished such learning and oratorical skill because he recognised him as the former slave Fred Bailey. Douglass thanked his self-contradicting opponent for inadvertently verifying his story and began work on his Narrative. He travelled to Ireland, England, and Scotland commanding enthusiastic crowds. Several British abolitionists organised payment to Thomas Auld, Douglass’s legal ‘owner’, to release him permanently from slavery. This payment of £150 was obviously controversial for some of the abolitionists but for Douglass it legally ensured his freedom on American soil.
Douglass and Lincoln In America he vigorously campaigned against slavery, launched and edited a newspaper, and continued to expose and rebuke the hypocrisy of religious slaveholders.
Douglass’ story is of immense importance in itself, apart from his critique of the American church. Read ‘What America Owes to Frederick Douglass’ here He was so influential that Lincoln invited him to the White House on several occasions as advisor during the Civil War. When Douglass attended Lincoln’s second inauguration he wrote, ‘I had for some time looked upon myself as a man, but now in this multitude of the elite of the land, I felt myself a man among men.’ When Douglass met Lincoln at the reception afterwards (after being temporarily blocked by security) they discussed the inauguration speech. Lincoln told him ‘There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.’ [i]
In the post-war period he worked for the full civil rights of freed slaves, as well as supporting women’s rights in the US. He later served in a variety of positions for the US government as a member of the Republican Party. You can read more about his life and work in David Blight’s excellent biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Simon & Schuster (Oct 2018).
Biblical Christianity enables us to critique and reject error Douglass was careful to draw a distinction between the Christianity of the Bible and the practices of those who called themselves Christian in pre-emancipation America. It was the gobsmacking (and, frankly, terrifying) blindness of some Christians of that period that spurred me to include Douglass’s story in the Church History Review even though he’s not an evangelist or church leader. Having finished the first version of his autobiography, Douglass wrote:
‘I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.’ [ii]
Post-civil war America and the African American Struggle On an historical and sociological note, British academic Ali Rattansi, surveying the post-civil war period wrote,
‘The historical and continuing impact of racism on African American lives is hard to exaggerate. As some have remarked, for several centuries after the forced arrival of blacks from Africa as slaves from the 17th century onwards, they had to suffer under a system of affirmative action for whites. The formal emancipation of the slaves resulted only in an extraordinarily lop-sided playing field on which it was impossible for the blacks to enjoy equal opportunities without serious redress and redistribution to counter generations of cumulative inequality. The latter never occurred.
African Americans freed from slavery found the post-emancipation US a hostile and dangerous country with entrenched inequalities and high levels of official and unofficial opposition to black advancement. To take one telling example, from the 1860s to the 1930s, under the Federal Homestead Act the American government allocated at low or no cost some 246 million acres of land for farm homesteads, much of it taken from Native Americans, to about 1.5 million people, almost entirely from the white population…Many blacks found themselves having to labour in the same plantations and fields as before, and their segregated schools, housing, and other facilities had a level of resources well below those enjoyed by the white population.’ [iii]
[i] The Washington Posthere [ii] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p. 71(Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)
[iii] Ali Rattansi, Racism, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: 2007 OUP) p.143-4
For the first post in this series on Frederick Douglass click here
David Blight, in his major biography of Douglass, makes it clear that Douglass had become a Christian in his teens. His passion for reading and rhetoric grew as he grappled with The Columbian Orator (an anthology of speeches and essays) and the Bible. He loved to hear preachers and discussed stories and verses from the Bible with an older Christian brother.
Then the famous American Methodist ‘revivals’, or Camp Meetings, came to the south. And they were hugely popular. The modern Christian finds it bizarre that slave-owners may have experienced conviction of sin at these meetings, and even a belief in Christ, yet didn’t repent of their most obvious sin. Douglass recalls seeing one of his masters repentant, dishevelled, at the front of a meeting. They returned more pious, more committed to prayer, but just as vicious in their cruelty towards slaves as they were before. In fact, things could get worse.
‘I was blind, but now I…I’m still blind.’
It’s not surprising that Douglass questioned the reality of this version of Christianity. It had no positive effect on the slave-owners’ behaviour towards his slaves. He doesn’t doubt the gospel itself, but exposes the way the white community avoided applying its reforming power to the obvious sin of racial discrimination and domination. The internalised rigour that was applied to the comparatively petty aspects of private behaviour and motive became a terrorising aspect of their brutality towards the slaves. There was now a religious reason for whipping and beating: thought, motive, suspicion of devilishly inspired rebellion; the demonising of the black man. The practices existed before, of course, but were now reinforced and exaggerated by religious zeal. What former slaver and hymn writer John Newton saw, was not only Christ but in Christ the impulse for repentance, including of slavery itself. But these guys didn’t see it at all.
‘Religious slaveholders are the worst!’
Douglass wrote, ‘I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.
‘A merciless, religious wretch’
It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighborhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, religious wretch…
Whipping in advance of deserving it…
Mr. Hopkins was even worse than Mr. Weeden. …The peculiar feature of his government was that of whipping slaves in advance of deserving it. … His plan was to whip for the smallest offences, to prevent the commission of large ones. Mr. Hopkins could always find some excuse for whipping a slave…. A mere look, word, or motion,—a mistake, accident, or want of power,—are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,—one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself; and nothing less than a flogging will do for him. Does he, while ploughing, break a plough,—or, while hoeing, break a hoe? It is owing to his carelessness, and for it a slave must always be whipped. Mr. Hopkins could always find something of this sort to justify the use of the lash, and he seldom failed to embrace such opportunities. … And yet there was not a man any where round, who made higher professions of religion, or was more active in revivals,—more attentive to the class, love-feast, prayer and preaching meetings, or more devotional in his family,—that prayed earlier, later, louder, and longer,—than this same reverend slave-driver, Rigby Hopkins.’ [i]
‘Examine my heart, Lord’
And so my brother, my sister, my fellow white believer: what are we to make of such things? Is there any aspect of your own life where you allow for racial discrimination, or where you resist the reforming power of the gospel to affect any prejudice against people of colour? Have you identified that resistance as suspicious? Have you probed its reasons, and are you deliberately challenging your own assumptions? The story of Frederick Douglass presents both challenge and hope. More next time…
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t usually like this kind of book. Everything within me recoils at ‘The 12 Indistinguishable Keys to Success’, ‘The 32 Incomprehensible Laws of Leadership’, or ‘The 7 Insufferable Characteristics of a Winner’.
But we have a free library at Jubilee where people drop a book and take a book and I check the shelves once a week to make sure no Watchtower publication sneaks in unnoticed. And my son-in-law, a mild-mannered, gifted administrator, gave me a few books for the library including this one. Easy to read, with short chapters largely dealing with the character of a leader, I thought I would read it before adding it to the collection.
And now I’m recommending it! It has some features which could put you off. So better to consider those up front. This is a ‘90s book written for the US market. So it is very ‘American’ in that kind of celebratory way that can grate on some readers. This comes through primarily in the illustrations of against-all-the-odds achievers in sport, business, war, although there are non-US characters in there too. But is there really anything wrong with Maxwell drawing primarily from his own context? A second drawback for some Pastors might be that Maxwell doesn’t open a passage of Scripture and expound it (we might be grateful for that), nor does it include many specific church-related illustrations. But, seriously, we read lots of those books. You may already be a good preacher, or counsellor; this book is to help you become a better leader.
I was challenged and helped by both the content and structure of the book. Maxwell’s insistence that you actually examine yourself and your leadership style as you progress through the material is excellent. Each chapter takes a leadership quality, illustrates how that quality has helped a leader move forward, gives three or four reasons why this quality is indispensable for you and those you lead, and then gives several practical applications to your own life so you can assess where you are and make improvements. It’s not just theory; it’s practical. It’s the good stuff that we need.
Some of the leadership qualities are: Character, Charisma, Communication, Competence, Discernment, Generosity, Initiative, Listening, Problem Solving, Relationships, Self-Discipline, Serving, Teachability.
OK. Some quotes to whet your appetite (excuse the generic masculine pronouns)
Crisis doesn’t necessarily make character, but it certainly does reveal it.
Unaddressed cracks in character only get deeper and more destructive with time.
Quote from Charles Schwab: ‘I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greateer effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.’
When it comes to charisma, the bottom line is othermindedness.
Good leaders, the kind that people want to follow, do more than conduct business when they interact with followers. They take the time to get a feel for who each one is as a person…If you’re in the habit of listening only to the facts and not the person who expresses them, change your focus – and really listen.
More than 50 percent of all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies had C or C- averages in college…And more than 50 percent of all millionaire entrepreneurs never finished college.
The truth is that you can never lead something you don’t care passionately about.
Insecure leaders are dangerous – to themselves, their followers, and the organizations they lead – because a leadership position amplifies personal flaws.
An insecure leader [is] someone who cannot genuinely celebrate his people’s victories.
Learn to walk slowly through the crowd…The next time you attend a function with a number of clients, colleagues, or employees, make it your goal to connect with others by circulating among them and talking to people. Focus on each person you meet. Learn his name if you don’t know it already. Make your agenda getting to know each person’s needs, wants, and desires. Then later when you go home, make a note to yourself to do something beneficial for half a dozen of those people.
If what you did yesterday still looks big to you, you haven’t done much today.
Quote from Ray Kroc: ‘As long as you’re green, you’re growing. As soon as you’re ripe, you start to rot.’
Words. Communication. Style
I saw this book in a book sale a while ago and knew I’d enjoy it. Steven Pinker is a charming, wild-haired Psychology Professor at Harvard, a cognitive scientist with a passion for words. He’s written an informal yet rigorous writer’s guidebook in which he debunks both the grammatical pedant and the pretentious academic, and pleads for an easy‘classic style’. He acknowledges that changes are happening, that the English-speaking world seems to have become less formal. He’s not pushing for plain English (although that movement has done much good) but acknowledges the real need for clarity, grace, and coherence in our writing. Just good well-designed writing style. ‘Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.’
There’s plenty of advice on sentence construction, grammar and punctuation, all of which is given in a disarmingly conversational style and with much humour. The humour makes the medicine go down easily: The compulsion of writers to ‘call a spade successively a garden implement and an earth-turning tool’ is just silly.
At the end of the book there’s a large section devoted to the technical problems you’ve always wondered about (and even that is very interesting).
I was continually pleased with his critique of the pretentious use of latin words which tend to make us sound clever but often don’t help us communicate clearly. His mockery of business-speak is both welcome and satisfyingly merciless, and he emphasises the importance of being more aware of how we are coming across, rather than how we think we’re coming across. That’s a key issue for every preacher, and every writer. Very helpful.
So, if you’re keen to improve your writing skills this would be worth buying (even at full price). Here are some juicy quotes for fun:
Dickens describes a man “with such long legs that he looked like the afternoon shadow of somebody else.”
The nominalization rule takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like -ance, -ment, -ation, or -ing. Instead of affirming an idea, you effect its affirmation; rather than postponing something, you implement a postponement. The writing scholar Helen Sword calls them zombie nouns because they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion. They can turn prose into a night of the living dead.
A writer who explains technical terms can multiply her readership a thousandfold at the cost of a handful of characters, the literary equivalent of picking up hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk.
if your intuitions about who and whom are squishy, insert he or him in the gap instead
and ‘Shakespeare and his contemporaries frequently used who where the rules would call for whom and vide versa.
Some thoughts on the so-called multiverse
My only regret regarding this excellent book is that Pinker inserts his own belief bias into what otherwise would be an objective treatment of language. But then, why shouldn’t an author subtly slip his own bias into his own book? It’s not so much the commendation of Richard Dawkins (the quotation is indeed an excellent piece of writing), but the addition of an unexpected segment on the multiverse. If you’re not familiar with the idea of the multiverse it is a fantastical idea which is offered as an explanation of why Earth is so uncannily suited to life. And unless you’re in a very generous mood it merely presents itself as a rather opportunistic Design Avoidance Mechanism. Christians believe God created the universe and the life that exists within it. Cosmologists, whatever their personal belief, have spoken with awe of the incredibly finely tuned universe, of the balance of multiple constants in nature without which life wouldn’t be possible. These variables are so precise, and so stable, that it’s almost beyond belief that there isn’t an intelligent mind behind it all: the presumption of Darwinian-style unguided evolution doesn’t seem to fit the evidence. It’s all too precise to just have happened. So an unprovable and unfalsifiable idea is suggested that maybe there are millions, even trillions, of universes (a multi-verse). If there were then it might be possible that amongst all those universes just one might turn out by chance to have exactly the right conditions to sustain life. And it just so happens that that’s the one we’re in. In Pinker’s defence, after demonstrating the writer’s skill in explaining this idea he does, a couple of pages later, mention that the author points out that the idea is not yet proven (in fact there is, of course, absolutely no evidence for it). But it’s a convenient Design Avoidance Mechanism. One does sometimes feel that by the appeal to millions and millions of years for the evolutionary magic to work, and now the appeal to trillions and trillions of unseen universes for the context in which that magic could work, that we may be just blending fact with fiction, like in all the best magic stories.
Having said that, it’s not something that hindered my enjoyment of the book, or that restrains my warm recommendation of it.
Lessons in Digging
When my wife and I first moved to South Africa we employed a gardener. This was a new thing for us. In the UK and the USA I was the one who struggled with the lawnmower. In South Africa you employed people to do that. We became aware that there was a kind of emotionally remote relationship to gardeners, cleaners and so on. It felt different than just employer/employee. The difference was more pronounced. And it was racial. I have never heard of a white cleaner, or gardener in this part of the world.
One day, between the digging and the weeding, I asked our gardener what his interests were, or if he had studied. He said he used to have a keen interest in history. My face lit up! This was a great connection!
‘Oh! I also enjoy history! I’m fascinated by different periods of the past.’
‘No, but I hate history,’ he replied, looking toward me, ‘I don’t enjoy history at all.’
‘But why? How can you hate ‘history’?’ said Mr Stupid.
‘It made me angry. Very, very angry. So I stopped. I had to stop reading it.’
CS Lewis on White Supremacy
CS Lewis, in the excellent collection Christian Reflections, writes tellingly when he seeks to apply some of the ‘cursings’ we find in the Psalms. WARNING! This never-quoted section in Lewis’s writings may shock you:
‘I am inclined to think that we had better look unflinchingly at the work we have done; like puppies, we must have ‘our noses rubbed in it’. A man, now penitent, who has once seduced and abandoned a girl and then lost sight of her, had better not avert his eyes from the crude realities of the life she may now be living. For the same reason we ought to read the psalms that curse the oppressor; read them with fear. Who knows what imprecations of the same sort have been uttered against ourselves? What prayers have Red men, and Black, and Brown and Yellow, sent up against us to their gods or sometimes to God Himself? All over the earth the White Man’s offence ‘smells to heaven’: massacres, broken treaties, theft, kidnappings, enslavement, deportation, floggings, beatings-up, rape, insult, mockery, and odious hypocrisy make up that smell.’ 
I understand that it is quite natural for me, as a white man, not to want ‘my nose rubbed in it’, yet I don’t see how I can assist, support, or generate change in my context without at least attempting to understand, and to feel, something of the struggle and pain of others.
Frederick Douglass, both in his autobiography and in speeches, hits out not only at white slave owners but at a complicit church. He doesn’t hold back. He doesn’t write off true Christianity; he doubts whether the church, in his experience, was practising real Christianity. He writes:
‘I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighborhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, religious wretch … His maxim was, Behave well or behave ill, it is the duty of a master occasionally to whip a slave, to remind him of his master’s authority. Such was his theory, and such his practice.’ 
These things are surely not easy for anyone to process. Acknowledging the terrible crimes of history ought not push us away from the Christian faith, properly understood and applied. That’s not Douglass’s point. He appeals for genuine Christianity to rebuke the counterfeit.
And as we consider these things, we should ask questions of our own processes and practices today. Acknowledging our history or our bias should help Christian believers reapply the historic gospel, with all its liberating power through faith in Jesus Christ, to our own lives and churches. The gospel should convict us, humble us, and then renew our minds, liberating us from both shame and anger. Coming to the cross of Christ, acknowledging and repenting of our sin, will enable us to receive empowering grace, the grace to be changed personally, and the grace to persevere until we accomplish genuine change around us:
‘Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’
To read the next post in this series, on how religious legalism made the slaveholders even more vindictive, click here
For the first post in this series on Frederick Douglass click here
 CS Lewis, Christian Reflections, The Psalms, (1981 Glasgow: Fount/Collins) p.153
 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p.46(Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)
CS Lewis and John Betjeman When I picked up A.N. Wilson’s highly readable C.S. Lewis – A Biography I thought Lewis might get a little rough treatment. That’s because I’d already seen how Wilson dealt with him in his biography of John Betjeman.
It’s true that Lewis and Betjeman couldn’t stand each other, but it wasn’t entirely Lewis’s fault. Lewis, a young man, had become a Tutor of English at Magdalen College, Oxford. Betjeman was one of his first difficult students. To Betjeman Lewis seemed overly serious, unimaginative and hard. To Lewis Betjeman appeared affected, unintelligent and lazy, regularly failing to hand in essays on time. In fact, on one occasion Lewis was pleasantly surprised by Betjeman submitting a decent essay and looked forward to the tutorial. He later wrote in his diary, ‘I soon discovered [the essay] to be a pure fake, for he knew nothing about the work when we began to talk. I wish I could get rid of the idle prig.’[i]
He did eventually, and possibly unnecessarily. Betjeman never forgave him and, in letters written years later, referred to Lewis as ‘my old enemy’.
His career Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast on November 29, 1898 and died on November 22, 1963. Although bright, he hated school and was moved from place to place until his father finally agreed to have him privately tutored. After gaining a triple first at Oxford he became Tutor of English Literature and Language at Magdalen, Oxford, a position he held for nearly 30 years. Shockingly, he was never made Professor until he was invited by Cambridge University to take the Chair of Medieval English Literature where he served until retirement.
His literary ambition was to be a poet, but he is best known for the Narnia Chronicles a series of children’s books. Through the influence of friends such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and others he moved from atheism to theism and finally to Christianity. He wrote some of the most influential Christian books of the 20th Century and was the central member of an influential literary circle called ‘The Inklings’.
A.N. Wilson’s C.S. Lewis – the best bad biography I’ve read! It’s a speedy, engaging, infuriating read. Wilson is rightly peeved by attempts to ‘canonize’ Lewis. ‘There are those readers who are so uplifted by the sublimity of Lewis at his best as a writer that they assume that he was himself a sublime being, devoid of blemishes.’ Even though that is an exaggeration one can understand Wilson’s desire to describe the man more realistically. There’s a difference, however, between bringing a man back down to earth and burying him.
After reading Wilson I also read an earlier Lewis biography to get a little balance. Wilson refers to (and draws heavily from) Green and Hooper’s biography from the early 70s. Undeniably less well written, I didn’t, however, find it gushing with hero-worship. Surprised by Joy although frustrating for different reasons, is also essential reading.
Why is ANW’s biography of Lewis ‘bad’? Where to begin? First of all, it must be said that since writing about Lewis, A.N. Wilson has had a change of heart about Christianity itself, and has moved from atheism to the Christian Faith. This does, in some degree, temper our response to what appears to be one of his aims in the biography: to discredit Christianity itself. This constant sneering disrupted my enjoyment of the book, like an irritating fly.
From the cover endorsements to Wilson’s clunky misunderstanding of ‘A Grief Observed’ (Lewis’s most authentic, mature expression of belief was doubt, supposedly) the reader senses a quiet celebration that this is the book that humiliates Lewis and his faith. With a silent nod and smile, we can breathe a sigh of relief, congratulate Wilson and go back to our skepticism unscathed: Lewis has been put in his place.
My copy is the Harper Perennial 2005 edition (which I understand includes some revisions based on reader’s reactions to the first edition of 1990). Before this, I don’t recall ever seeing the cover of a biography which says more about the biographer than the subject:
‘Wilson’s biography is probably the best imaginable…he is a brilliant biographer.’ Anthony Burgess (front cover).
‘The more biography Wilson writes, the better he gets – this life of CS Lewis is his best yet. It’s a vivacious and compassionate book. Wilson’s range of interests makes him an ideal match for the subject.’ Andrew Motion
‘It seems fitting that AN Wilson should have written the definitive biography of Lewis, and it is a superb job.’ John Bayley
The fact that the cover endorsements are primarily about Wilson’s literary skill, rather than Lewis’s, should be a clue: this is a take-down!
But enough of covers. It’s an odd thing to be forced to ask yourself a series of distracting questions as you move through the book: Does the biographer respect the subject?
Did he understand the nature of religious conversion and its implications? Does he understand the role and limitations of Christian apologetics?
He exposes the jealousies and nastiness of CSL’s peers but is ANW himself entirely free from such nastiness given that he appears to support their criticisms?
Why the persistent schoolboy name-calling, likening CSL to a low-class ‘police court solicitor’ (a disrespectful mocking of CSL’s father’s occupation)? Yet, even schoolboys have an opportunity to respond. Lewis has no ability to respond.
While there may be some debate about the nature of CSL’s relationship to Mrs. Moore in the early days, are we to believe that CS Lewis cherished being both a domestic and sexual masochist? You needn’t be a Freudian scholar to have a few chuckles at some of Wilson’s psychoanalytical observations.
The bigger question is if Wilson is so repelled by Lewis’s Christianity and by Lewis as a personality, then why on earth write a biography of him? May we ask for a proper revision?
What we have here is a gossipy attempt to cut the puffed-up Lewis down. Positively tabloid my good man! It just makes Wilson appear pompous and mean-spirited.
In an attempt at balance, Wilson writes, ‘Insufferably annoying as he may have been in life, there was also something glorious about him.’[ii] Seriously? Glorious?
Lewis’s Reluctant Conversion It may have struck you as odd that Lewis is usually quoted as describing his conversion negatively. He says that in 1929 he ‘gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.’[iii]
But actually, as both ANW and Green/Hooper helpfully point out, this was an intellectual assent to theism, not his decision to follow Jesus Christ which came about two years later. Wilson adds that Lewis, at the time, was emphasizing his unwillingness to accept any high sounding ‘divine call’ which might undermine him.
He still considered himself a ‘prodigal’ looking for any opportunity to escape the inevitable. Green/Hooper write of Lewis’s 1929 experience, ‘This conversion was, however, to theism pure and simple, and not to Christianity. He knew nothing about the incarnation at this stage.’[iv]
Lewis, Tolkien and Dyson Although in his autobiography Surprised by Joy Lewis only touches on the events surrounding his Christian conversion Green/Hooper describe it in some detail:
‘Lewis was still thinking about myth and resurrection when, on Saturday evening (19 September 1931), he invited Tolkien and Hugo Dyson to dine with him at Magdalen. Probably none of them had any idea what a momentous impact this night’s conversation would have to Lewis…In Lewis’s rooms they talked about Christianity till 3.00am when Tolkien left to go home. After seeing him through the little postern door that opens on to Magdalen Bridge, Lewis and Dyson continued the discussion for another hour, walking up and down the cloister of New Buildings…On Monday, 28 September, Lewis and Warren [his brother] took a picnic lunch to Whipsnade Zoo…But something happened to Lewis on the way to Whipsnade for, as he says in Surprised by Joy: ‘When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did…It was…like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.’
A few days later (1 October) Lewis wound up a long letter to Arthur Greeves with the news: ‘I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ…My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.’[v]
Lewis on ‘Low Church’ and ‘High Church’ Lewis was not a so-called ‘high church’ Anglican. In fact, he was forthright on this point. ‘I’m not…what you call high. To me the real distinction is not high and low, but between religion with a real supernaturalism and Salvationism on the one hand, and all watered down modernist versions on the other.’[vi]
Lewis on Adam as an Historical Figure On one evening, fellow academic Helen Gardner was dining with Lewis and a number of others at Lewis’s home. Wilson writes:
‘Conversation at the table turned on the interesting question of whom, after death, those present should most look forward to meeting. One person suggested he would like to meet Shakespeare; another said St. Paul.
‘But you, Jack,’ said the friends (or, as Helen Gardner felt, the disciples), ‘who would be your choice?’
‘Oh I have no difficulty in deciding,’ said Lewis. ‘I want to meet Adam.’ He went on to explain why, very much in the terms outlined in A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’, where he wrote: ‘Adam was, from the first, a man in knowledge as well as in stature. He alone of all men ‘had been in Eden, in the garden of God.’…He had ‘breathed the aether and was accustomed to converse with God ‘face to face’.
Be that as it may, Adam is not likely, if she has anything to do with it, to converse with Helen Gardner. She ventured to say so. Even, she told Lewis, if there really were, historically, someone whom we could name as ‘the first man’, he would be a Neanderthal ape-like figure, whose conversation she could not conceive of finding interesting.
A stony silence fell on the dinner table. Then Lewis said gruffly, ‘I see we have a Darwinian in our midst.’’[vii]
The inclusion of this incident may be intended to make Lewis appear either misogynistic, self-serving, rude, a fundamentalist or all of the above. The point, though, is that Lewis did consider Adam to be a real historical figure.
C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and J.R.R Tolkein There are numerous other small points of interest like this one. Lewis’s resistance to modern poetry alienated him from the emerging generation of poets. His own relative failure as a poet, especially as a narrative poet, even after publishing two books of poetry, was a source of sadness to him. And indeed, for those of us who have actually put in the hours to read every published poem by Lewis, we concur that he wasn’t a success (although there are a few brilliant pieces).
Some may, however, sympathise with him when considering the work of the modernists’ leading light T.S. Eliot. Lewis wrote:
‘For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening – any evening – would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.’[viii]
Wilson also describes such fascinating moments as when CSL and Tolkien decide they’ve had enough of the popular novels being published and made a commitment to each other that they will write ‘better’ books: ‘I’m afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves!’ What a result!
C.S. Lewis – never Professor of English at Oxford Is it not strange that Lewis never became a Professor at Oxford?
Wilson gives us the reason:
‘It could be said that Lewis was exiled, in some sense, for his refusal to toe the line. It was not his failure to be a good graduate supervisor which cost him the Oxford chair, it was Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.’[ix]
In 1954, however, Cambridge established a new ‘Chair’ of English and Lewis was invited, and accepted the position: Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature. His lectures were sensationally popular.
Other Biographers Towards the end of Wilson’s book, apart from a somewhat rushed feel, there is an attempt to undermine other biographers and historians of Lewis. Hooper is dismissed as unreliable. Wheaton College is snubbed with characteristic upper-class English pomposity: It’s not a real University is it, after all? Once again, we hear the persistent drone undermining Lewis’s Christianity: it’s that pesky fly again.
There is much to enjoy in Wilson’s biography but so much that is disappointing. In a book so littered with uncharitable moments, perhaps Wilson’s final paragraph gives a typical example: ‘Those who knew Lewis in the days of his flesh might suppose that he would chiefly be remembered as a vigorously intelligent university teacher and critic who also wrote some children’s stories.’
So that’s it then! Lewis, phenomenally popular during his own lifetime and an inspiration to thousands of Christian intellectuals, is triumphantly minimised and dismissed: not a Professor, not a best-selling author, just a ‘university teacher who wrote children’s stories’.
It’s time for a better CS Lewis Biography To coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death in 2013, when he was honoured in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, Alister McGrath released a new biography of Lewis. For a review in Christianity Today check here. Readers of that biography may still feel we need something more like Wilson in style and more like Hooper in appreciation. But that’s another story.
And yet…history reveals to us that racism can be so ingrained that it needs particular, persistent attention – exposure and rejection – before it falls. It’s a bondage that needs particular deliverance, and then disciplined follow-up, before it is purged from the human heart. Even after conversion. How was it that so many church-goers could be either supportive of or complacent about apartheid in South Africa?
The problem isn’t with the gospel
The inadequacy isn’t with the gospel, which has the power to change us inwardly and unite us (Col 3.11). Perhaps our preachers and teachers continually pass over the implications of the gospel when it comes to racism; worse, perhaps many don’t even see it.
And this essentially brings me to why I have included a series on Frederick Douglass on a website focussed on Church History. Undoubtedly one of America’s greatest social reformers and a very powerful speaker (just read his July 4th address), Douglass wasn’t a churchman. His story is here not because he was a church leader, but because of his experience of church leadership. What shook me to the core was the following account of the conversion of one of his masters and the subsequent increase of cruelty by this man towards his slaves. Those of us inspired by reformers like Wilberforce, MLK and Luthuli, or preachers of such moral clarity as Wesley or Spurgeon, and who love stories of revival, must surely cover our faces in confusion when we read accounts like this:
‘In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways…Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty…
He made the greatest pretensions to piety. His house was the house of prayer. He prayed morning, noon, and night. He very soon distinguished himself among his brethren, and was soon made a class-leader and exhorter. His activity in revivals was great, and he proved himself an instrument in the hands of the church in converting many souls. His house was the preachers’ home. They used to take great pleasure in coming there to put up; for while he starved us, he stuffed them…
While I lived with my master in St. Michael’s, there was a white young man, a Mr. Wilson, who proposed to keep a Sabbath school for the instruction of such slaves as might be disposed to learn to read the New Testament. We met but three times, when Mr. West and Mr. Fairbanks, both class-leaders, with many others, came upon us with sticks and other missiles, drove us off, and forbade us to meet again. Thus ended our little Sabbath school in the pious town of St. Michael’s.
I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture—“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”[i]
It is hard to believe that such a man was actually converted. What can we say to such things? Racism should die under the gospel…and yet…
To read the next post in this series, including CS Lewis on white supremacy, click here
For the first post in this series on Frederick Douglass click here
[i] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p.32-34 (Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)
While Frederick Douglass was probably in his early teens his owner died and the estate needed to be valued for redistribution among the owner’s children. This valuation included all the slaves the dead man had possessed.
Valued along with the cattle
‘I was immediately sent for, to be valued with the other property. Here again my feelings rose up in detestation of slavery. I had now a new conception of my degraded condition… We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine.
There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination. Silvery-headed age and sprightly youth, maids and matrons, had to undergo the same indelicate inspection. At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder.
The trauma of being separated
After the valuation, then came the division. I have no language to express the high excitement and deep anxiety which were felt among us poor slaves during this time. Our fate for life was now to be decided. We had no more voice in that decision than the brutes among whom we were ranked. A single word from the white men was enough—against all our wishes, prayers, and entreaties—to sunder forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and strongest ties known to human beings.
The threat of cruelty
In addition to the pain of separation, there was the horrid dread of falling into the hands of Master Andrew. He was known to us all as being a most cruel wretch,—a common drunkard, who had, by his reckless mismanagement and profligate dissipation, already wasted a large portion of his father’s property. We all felt that we might as well be sold at once to the Georgia traders, as to pass into his hands; for we knew that that would be our inevitable condition,—a condition held by us all in the utmost horror and dread.
Frederick’s brother abused terribly
I suffered more anxiety than most of my fellow-slaves. I had known what it was to be kindly treated; they had known nothing of the kind. They had seen little or nothing of the world. They were in very deed men and women of sorrow, and acquainted with grief. Their backs had been made familiar with the bloody lash, so that they had become callous; mine was yet tender; for while at Baltimore I got few whippings, and few slaves could boast of a kinder master and mistress than myself; and the thought of passing out of their hands into those of Master Andrew—a man who, but a few days before, to give me a sample of his bloody disposition, took my little brother by the throat, threw him on the ground, and with the heel of his boot stamped upon his head till the blood gushed from his nose and ears—was well calculated to make me anxious as to my fate. After he had committed this savage outrage upon my brother, he turned to me, and said that was the way he meant to serve me one of these days,—meaning, I suppose, when I came into his possession.
Will not a righteous God visit for these things?’ (emphasis added)[i]
To read the next post in this series click here
For the first post in this series on Frederick Douglass click here
[i] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p. 27-28, 29 (Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)
Believe it or not, acts had been passed in the Southern States forbidding any person to teach a slave to read.[i] But at about the age of twelve Frederick Douglass moved to a new owner and the owner’s young wife, a Mrs Auld, was unaware of this. When her husband discovered what she had been doing, he forbade her to continue, forcefully arguing that by reading and learning the slave would become discontented and yearn for freedom. A door had been opened. ‘What he most dreaded, that I most desired,’ wrote Douglass. From that time on, secretly and cleverly, Douglass learnt how to read from the white children he met doing errands.
Learning to read – a curse
‘The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity.’[ii]
A good Irishman
‘The light broke in upon me by degrees. I went one day down on the wharf of Mr. Waters; and seeing two Irishmen unloading a scow of stone, I went, unasked, and helped them. When we had finished, one of them came to me and asked me if I were a slave. I told him I was. He asked, “Are ye a slave for life?” I told him that I was. The good Irishman seemed to be deeply affected by the statement. He said to the other that it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should be a slave for life. He said it was a shame to hold me. They both advised me to run away to the north; that I should find friends there, and that I should be free. I pretended not to be interested in what they said, and treated them as if I did not understand them; for I feared they might be treacherous. White men have been known to encourage slaves to escape, and then, to get the reward, catch them and return them to their masters. I was afraid that these seemingly good men might use me so; but I nevertheless remembered their advice, and from that time I resolved to run away.’[iii] 25
To read the next post, how Frederick and his fellow-slaves were ‘valued’ along with cattle click here
For the first part in this series on Frederick Douglass click here
[i] See https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/education/docs1.html and http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/slaveprohibit.html
[ii]Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p.24(Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)
[iii] ibid p.25
One of the challenges American abolitionists faced was the assertion of pro-slavery advocates that the living and working conditions of slaves weren’t as bad as supposed. They claimed that, in many instances, where slaves were consulted, they said their masters were kind, and their situations pleasing. Case closed. Frederick Douglass, in his autobiography, gives a typical instance of how this false impression was both obtained and maintained:
‘To describe the wealth of Colonel Lloyd would be almost equal to describing the riches of Job. He kept from ten to fifteen house-servants. He was said to own a thousand slaves, and I think this estimate quite within the truth. Colonel Lloyd owned so many that he did not know them when he saw them; nor did all the slaves of the out-farms know him. It is reported of him, that, while riding along the road one day, he met a colored man, and addressed him in the usual manner of speaking to colored people on the public highways of the south: “Well, boy, whom do you belong to?” “To Colonel Lloyd,” replied the slave. “Well, does the colonel treat you well?” “No, sir,” was the ready reply. “What, does he work you too hard?” “Yes, sir.” “Well, don’t he give you enough to eat?” “Yes, sir, he gives me enough, such as it is.”
The colonel, after ascertaining where the slave belonged, rode on; the man also went on about his business, not dreaming that he had been conversing with his master. He thought, said, and heard nothing more of the matter, until two or three weeks afterwards. The poor man was then informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader. He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death. This is the penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions.
It is partly in consequence of such facts, that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family. If they have any thing to say of their masters, it is generally in their masters’ favor, especially when speaking to an untried man.’[i]
I should give a warning to the reader about the graphic nature of what follows, although no warning was given to the child who witnessed it.
The abolitionists condemned the brutality of slave owners, in defiance of repeated attempts to portray the system as somehow beneficial. This account of a single incident from the childhood of Frederick Douglass brings home the reality.
This post is part of a series on Frederick Douglass (the first part here). Why is it here on the Church History Review? Because, as you track Douglass’ story you’ll see how it interacts with the church (in some instances a church experiencing revival) and presents lessons a challenge to how the church ought to respond to pressing social issues.
Douglass writes, ‘I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he [the Master, a ‘Captain Anthony’] used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.
I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.
This occurrence took place very soon after I went to live with my old master, and under the following circumstances. Aunt Hester went out one night,—where or for what I do not know,—and happened to be absent when my master desired her presence. He had ordered her not to go out evenings, and warned her that she must never let him catch her in company with a young man who was paying attention to her belonging to Colonel Lloyd. The young man’s name was Ned Roberts, generally called Lloyd’s Ned. Why master was so careful of her, may be safely left to conjecture. She was a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions, having very few equals, and fewer superiors, in personal appearance, among the colored or white women of our neighborhood.
Aunt Hester had not only disobeyed his orders in going out, but had been found in company with Lloyd’s Ned; which circumstance, I found, from what he said while whipping her, was the chief offence. Had he been a man of pure morals himself, he might have been thought interested in protecting the innocence of my aunt; but those who knew him will not suspect him of any such virtue. Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d—-d b—h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, “Now, you d—-d b—h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!” and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over.’[i]
To read the next post in this series click here
For the first part in this series click here
[i] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p.3-4 (Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)
One of the aims of the Church History Review is to enable the reader to enter history, to provide a door through which you can discover lessons from the past to help you today. We’re inspired by those who have, through faith and patience, overcome almost impossible obstacles.
When I was in the USA earlier this year I stayed in a southern state and wanted to read more of its history. I found a little second-hand bookstore and spent some pleasant hours searching through the shelves for poetry and biography from the area. Like many in the UK in the 1970s, my family had eagerly watched each episode of Alex Haley’s Roots TV series. I was also aware that some former American slaves had written their biographies and discovered this bookstore had two or three. Their stories, told in such close and honest detail, are deeply shocking. I have only been in one significant car accident. As I pulled out onto a main road a speeding driver who wasn’t concentrating smashed into the back of my car. He hit me so hard the back of my driver’s seat broke, and the car was written off. Reading these narratives, particularly the one I will focus on in the next few posts, was a similar kind of experience. You might not want to be exposed to such a jarring experience, but let me urge you to read on for at least the following reasons:
history – I want to know what was actually going on. understanding – autobiography (as with poetry) helps me connect with another person’s experience. It informs my humanity. It can change my perspective and behaviour. context – I felt, as I read Douglass’ story, that I gained a fuller understanding of the USA itself – missing puzzle pieces fell into place; and actually not only the US picture, but any postcolonial or mutli-cultural context. Christian instruction – as we’ll see, Douglass had a strong and justified critique of the failure of the church to apply the gospel to issues of racism
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on a plantation in Maryland before the American Civil War. In 1838 when he was twenty he made a dangerous and daring escape and became an influential speaker in the growing abolitionist movement in the North. His first book was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave published in 1845 and from which the following extracts are taken:
My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me.
My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.
I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home. She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work. She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise, unless a slave has special permission from his or her master to the contrary—a permission which they seldom get, and one that gives to him that gives it the proud name of being a kind master.
I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us. Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering. She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew any thing about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care…’ [i]
Salvation Army scraps (part three) The modern (post-modern, post-post-modern) quest for purpose continues to generate a myriad of insightful seminars, ‘life-coaches’, book deals, promo guest appearances, wellness plans and disciplines. Many seem to benefit from these moments, and even Christians make their selections from the wisdom buffet and serve up motivational quotes on social media. All well and good. But for the Christian, is there not already in place, already embedded in the very nature of the thing, a driving, momentous cause propelling them forward?
A little decoration, a little flourish here and there, is no doubt good if you have the main structure in place, but if you’re trying to live on flourishes instead of building on a solid foundation you may one day be shattered by a storm. Or end up merely numb, desperately trying to find excitement surrounded by a seemingly inexhaustible collection of useless trinkets.
Leaders like William Booth stir us because they bring us back to the essential stuff. We need that. I really am trying to finish this series on Booth and the Salvation Army with this post of quotes, the first of which states Christian purpose powerfully.
Booth on Purpose in Life ‘What are you living for? What is the deep secret purpose that controls and fashions your existence? What do you eat and drink for? What is the end of your marrying and giving in marriage – your money-making and toilings and plannings? Is it the salvation of souls, the overthrow of the kingdom of evil and the setting up of the kingdom of God? I am not censorious. If I know my own heart, it is full of yearning for the happiness of all men…[but] I must push this question. Have you the assurance that the ruling passion of your life is the same as that which brought Christ to the manger, led Him to fight the foul fiend of Hell in the wilderness, bore Him onward on the back of suffering and tears and ignominy and shame, sustained Him in drinking the cup of anguish and enduring the baptism of blood, bore Him through Gethsemane, nailed Him to the Cross of Calvary and enabled Him in triumph to open the gate of the Kingdom? Is that what you are living for? If not, you may be religious – a very proper person amongst religionists – but I don’t see how you can be a Christian.’ [i]
Booth in 1911 (the year before his death): ‘The helping of the wretched, and the saving them out of the earthly, hellish conditions in which such multitudes live, and the saving of souls of the people in larger numbers, and the organizing them when they are saved for still further victories, is the dream of almost every hour of my life.’ [ii]
Booth on the need for courageous leadership ‘Heroism is, comparatively speaking, out of fashion here. In fact, there is no call for it. The milk-and-water type of man, who neither creates enthusiasm nor rouses opposition, is a model leader of modern religion. Nothing is to be done that is contrary to the taste or liking of anybody else.’ [iii]
The Salvation Army and women’s rights
Woman has won her place in The Army. She has won a very wonderful place in the world by means of The Army. It may be worth while to remark here that, though seldom acknowledged, there is little doubt that the women of The Army have played a part in the general emancipation of woman which we see to be going on in the Western nations. In the political struggle, The Army, of course, has taken no part, but in the higher realms of the fight, the hand of the Salvation woman, both Officer and Soldier, has helped to carry the banner to victory. The women who marched at the head of the little bands of despised Salvationists in years gone by were accustoming the public mind to the spectacle of woman in command, of woman taking an active unshrinking share in public duty, and overcoming by the grace of God her supposed inferiorities. Thus we may truly say that we were opening a door through which women might carry the Message of Love and Life to multitudes who would never receive it save from a woman’s lips. That door will never again be shut. (italics in the original) [iv]
For the first post in this series on the Salvation Army click here
[i] The War Cry, Feb 21, 1885. Quoted in The Founder Speaks Again (London: Salvationist Publishing and Supplies, 1960), p.59-60
[ii] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 2, p.306
[iii] The Founder Speaks Again (London: Salvationist Publishing and Supplies, 1960), p.176 [iv] Quoted in Bramwell Booth, Echoes and Memories (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1925), p.172
Salvation Army Scraps (part two. Part one here) It is not widely known that the early Salvation Army was, by any standards, pretty charismatic. It’s a bit awkward. Their meetings seem to be, frankly, a little out there. But, as with many other movements that in reality created powerful evangelistic and missional communities, their claim was that the effects were nothing but the work of the same Holy Spirit that empowered the early church.[i]
Humphrey Wallis: Not only were there prostrations, but numerous cases of physical healing. The saved railway guard and Salvation Army Officer, James Dowdle, with his wife, had almost embarrassing cures occur during their services. One, a lame girl, was healed, and her father, to whom the news was immediately taken by an alarmed spectator, said, ‘Walking and cured in The Salvation Army is she? I’ll cure her of that blasphemous nonsense,’ took his stick and came to thrash her. On seeing his daughter, who had limped in distortion and pain for years, straight and joyous, her crutches carried by a woman behind her, the stick fell from his hand, and he could do nothing but marvel. [ii]
Elijah Cadman on these phenomena: These “Fits” and the bodily cures were nothing to do with any of us. They were manifestations of the power of God. We could not say when, where, or how they would occur, and we certainly did not know how God worked – we only saw them as signs of His presence. [ii]
Healings and Levi-whaaat?!? Bramwell Booth: Instances of levitation also took place in our services, and well authenticated stories came before me from time to time. Of these, however, I do not write now, except to say that I cannot doubt that everything about them was open and true. Nor can I dwell at any length upon equally well authenticated instances of Divine healing. The Army has ever had in its ranks in various parts of the world a number of people unquestionably possessed of some kind of gift of healing. If extravagances have gathered round the subject in some quarters, they ought not to be permitted to obscure the central fact, which is that the healing of the sick by special immediate Divine interposition, in answer to prayer and faith, has undoubtedly occurred. Surely there is nothing surprising in this. On the contrary, it would have been surprising had it been otherwise. [iii]
Extreme and overpowering joy, ecstasy In the United States, in the earlier days, we had a record of somewhat similar experiences, except that there they generally took the form of extreme joy. One of the peculiarities of the prostrations and trances and the like in Europe has been the great solemnity which has nearly always marked their occurrence, no matter whether they concerned those who were outside or inside The Army. But in the United States it was rather the other way about. In these demonstrations of the Spirit, the reality of which no one would challenge who knew what had really happened, there was an accompaniment of overpowering joy, exhibited in singing, and sometimes in a disposition to dance, or to remain for a long period in a kind of ecstasy. The practical effects, however – and it is by their practical effects that all these things must be judged – were very much the same there as elsewhere. [iv]
To read the next post, and Booth’s amazing challenge to us to find purpose in life, click here
For the first post in this series on the Salvation Army click here
[i] See Acts 2; the Moravians, the Methodists.
[ii] Humphrey Wallis, The Happy Warrior (London: Salvationist Publishing, 1928), p.109, 111
[iii] Bramwell Booth, Echoes and Memories (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1925), p56-57
[iv] ibid. p58
Salvation Army Scraps (part one)
I’m surrounded by odds and ends. Details too important to leave out. I’m not so keen on very short posts (as you, dear reader, already know), and don’t want to split all this into bits. So here are some riveting, powerful, juicy scraps fallen from the table of the Salvation Army’s early history. Enjoy!
Was William Booth’s multi-site church the largest church in Victorian London?
Richard Collier writes, ‘One week-night London survey of this era  tallied almost 17000 worshipping in Army barracks, as against 11000 in ordinary churches.’ It’s certainly true that no-one gathered a larger crowd than CH Spurgeon with his dynamic evangelistic and Calvinistic preaching. He was seeing 5000 in each Sunday meeting, and much larger crowds at special events. But the Salvation Army were organised much like the multi-site churches of today, with a distinct leadership over the whole, but individual leaders breaking through into new territory across the city. If we consider a multi-site church as being the largest church in a town or city we may, perhaps, have to review our opinion that Spurgeon had the world’s largest church of the day. [i]
Booth on the Russian Revolution
‘The news of the Russian Revolutionary Upheaval, with its scenes of bloodshed and disorder, has upset me terribly…To what will it lead and where will it end? O my God, my God, what an awful suffering state this world has come to, notwithstanding all that has been done for it during the 2,000 years that have passed since Jesus Christ shed His Blood on its behalf! How feeble and powerless all our efforts have been. I was awfully depressed yesterday – but there is no alternative but to push on. If we cannot remove the mountains of misery we can move some of the little hills.’ [ii]
William Booth to Churchill: ‘You’re not converted!’
On meeting with Winston Churchill (then, Home Secretary) in 1910 where Booth had outlined the Salvation Army’s strategy for helping those in British prisons: ‘We parted in the most genial manner – Mr Chruchill saying with a smile, “Am I converted?” We had talked much about conversion from our standpoint.
“No,” I said, “I am afraid you are not converted, but I think you are convicted.”
He added something about my seeing what was in him. To which I replied, “What I am most concerned about it not what is in you at the present, but what I can see of the possibilities of the future.” [iii]
To read the next post, and stories of miraculous healings taking place in the Salvation Army, click here
For the first post in this series on the Salvation Army click here
[i] Richard Collier, The General Next to God (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins 1965) p.90
[ii] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 2:213
[iii] ibid 2:299
As we bring our series of posts on the Salvation Army to a close (there may be one or two more), let’s hear from William Booth himself. This is a short clip where with great skill he brings the needs of those most disadvantaged to those most powerful in order to resource his mission. (3.02)
The following video includes footage of a Salvation Army ‘Open Air’ in 1904. (2.26)
The Salvation Army were committed to evangelism, but also developed ministries and even companies to help address social problems. Here’s s short clip about the Salvation Army’s Match Factory. (0.34)
Even towards the end of his life Booth continued personally evangelising and incorporating the most recent technologies to get the attention of those outside the churches. For many in Great Britain the first time they saw a car come through their town or village there was an old, bearded Moses-like figure standing in the back of it, preaching about Jesus Christ and how to get right with God. Here’s some footage. (2.26)
By the time Booth died the Salvation Army was one of the world’s most respected movements of social engagement. Below is a news reel showing how London came to a standstill for Booth’s funeral. (4.28)
Finally, a superb trailer for a new documentary about Booth. (1.10)
To read the next post, and how William Booth told Churchill, ‘You are not converted!’ click here
For the first post in this series on the Salvation Army click here