Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom

Corrie and Betsie ten Boom were courageous, compassionate Dutch Christians who helped harbor Jews from the Nazis in Holland during World War 2. After the sisters were arrested for doing so, they were imprisoned at Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp.

In their barracks, they were shown to a series of massive square platforms, stacked three levels high and placed so close together that people had to walk single-file to pass between them. Rancid straw was scattered over the platforms, which served as communal beds for hundreds of women. Corrie and Betsie found they could not sit upright on their own platform without hitting their heads on the deck above them. They lay back, struggling against nausea that swept over them from the reeking straw.

Suddenly Corrie started up, striking her head on the cross-slats above. Something had bitten her leg. “Fleas!” she cried. “Betsie, the place is swarming with them!” Descending from the platform and edging down a narrow aisle, they made their way to a patch of light. “Here! And here another one!” Corrie wailed. “Betsie, how can we live in such a place?”

Womens' Barracks in a German Concentration Camp

Womens’ Barracks in a German Concentration Camp

“Show us. Show us how,” Betsie said matter-of-factly. It took Corrie a moment to realize that her sister was praying. “Corrie!” Betsie then exclaimed excitedly. “He’s given us the answer! Before we asked, as He always does! In the Bible this morning. Where was it? Read that part again!”

Corrie checked to make sure no guards were nearby, then drew from a pouch a small Bible she had managed to smuggle into the concentration camp. “It was in First Thessalonians,” she said, finding the passage in the feeble light. “Here it is: ‘Comfort the frightened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus …’ ” (1 Thessalonians 5:14-18).

Betsie ten Boom

Betsie ten Boom

“That’s it!” Betsie interrupted. “That’s His answer. ‘Give thanks in all circumstances!’ That’s what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this barracks!”

Corrie stared at her incredulously, then around at the dark, foul-smelling room. “Such as?” she inquired.

“Such as being assigned here together.”

Corrie bit her lip. “Oh yes, Lord Jesus!”

“Such as what you’re holding in your hands.”

Corrie looked down at the Bible. “Yes! Thank You, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here! Thank You for all the women, here in this room, who will meet You in these pages.”

“Yes,” agreed Betsie. “Thank You for the very crowding here. Since we’re packed so close, that many more will hear!” She looked at her sister expectantly and prodded, “Corrie!”

“Oh, all right. Thank You for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed, suffocating crowds.”

“Thank you,” Betsie continued on serenely, “for the fleas and for …”

That was too much for Corrie. She cut in on her sister: “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”

“ ‘Give thanks in all circumstances,” Betsie corrected. “It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.” So they stood between the stacks of bunks and gave thanks for fleas, though on that occasion Corrie thought Betsie was surely wrong.

As the weeks passed, Betsie’s health weakened to the point that, rather than needing to go out on work duty each day, she was permitted to remain in the barracks and knit socks together with other seriously-ill prisoners. She was a lightning fast knitter and usually had her daily sock quota completed by noon. As a result, she had hours each day she could spend moving from platform to platform reading the Bible to fellow prisoners. She was able to do this undetected as the guards never seemed to venture far into the barracks.

One evening when Corrie arrived back at the barracks Betsie’s eyes were twinkling.   “You’re looking extraordinarily pleased with yourself,” Corrie told her.

“You know we’ve never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room,” Betsie said, referring to the part of the barracks where the sleeping platforms were. “Well—I’ve found out. This afternoon there was confusion in my knitting group about sock sizes, so we asked the supervisor to come and settle it. But she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t step through the door and neither would the guards. And you know why?” Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice as she exclaimed, “Because of the fleas! That’s what she said: ‘That place is crawling with fleas!’ ”

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten BoomCorrie’s mind raced back to their first hour in the barracks. She remembered Betsie bowing her head and thanking God for creatures that Corrie could see no use for.

May our own hearts and lips overflow with gratitude this Thanksgiving season and throughout the year. Even when faced with deeply trying and discouraging circumstances, we can identify numerous blessings that the Lord continues to pour into our lives. Some of those blessings come as a result of the difficulties we’re facing. As we focus on the Lord’s blessings, we will be heartened and enabled to persevere through life’s discouragements. And we’ll never fail to appropriately honor God by thanking Him for His ever-present blessings.

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You will find this and many other inspiring incidents from the life of Corrie ten Boom in her own book, The Hiding Place, and in two of my works, Women of Faith and Courage and Timeless Stories.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie


John Piper

John Piper

In his excellent book for pastors, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper includes a chapter on “Brothers, Read Christian Biography.” His encouragements to do so, of course, apply not only to vocational ministers but to all Christians. So please consider his perspectives for your own spiritual benefit. And if you think these thoughts would encourage and profit your own pastor, perhaps you’ll want to share this blog with him.

Brothers, We Are Not Professionals by John PiperHere are some of Piper’s key thoughts on this subject in his own words: “Hebrews 11 is a divine mandate to read Christian biography. The unmistakable implication of the chapter is that if we hear about the faith of our forefathers (and mothers), we will ‘lay aside every weight, and sin’ and ‘run with endurance the race that is set before us’ (Heb. 12:1). If we asked the author, ‘How shall we stir one another up to love and good works?’ (10:24), his answer would be: ‘Through encouragement from the living (10:25) and the dead (11:1-40).’ Christian biography is the means by which the body life of the church cuts across the centuries.”

“[God] regularly uses human agents to stir up His people. So the question for us is: Through what human agents does God give us vision and direction and inspiration? For me, one of the most important answers has been great men and women of faith who, though dead, are yet speaking (Heb. 11:4).”

“Christian biography, well chosen, combines all sorts of things pastors [and other Christians] need but have so little time to pursue. Good biography is history and guards us against chronological snobbery (as C.S. Lewis calls it). It is also theology—the most powerful kind—because it bursts forth from the lives of people. It is also adventure and suspense, for which we have a natural hunger. It is psychology and personal experience, which deepen our understanding of human nature (especially ourselves). Good biographies of great Christians make for remarkably efficient reading.”

“Since biography is its own best witness, let me tell a little of my own encounter with biographies. Biographies have served as much as any other human force in my life to resist the inertia of mediocrity. Without them I tend to forget what joy there is in relentless God-besotted labor and aspiration.”

John Calvin

John Calvin

Piper then cites the examples of Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin. Of the latter he writes: “How Calvin could work! After 1549, his special charge in Geneva was to preach twice on Sunday and once every day of alternate weeks. On Sunday, August 25, 1549, Calvin began to preach on Acts and continued weekly in that book until March 1554. On weekdays during this time, he preached through eight of the minor prophets as well as Daniel, Lamentations and Ezekiel. But what amazes me is that between 1550 and 1559 he took 270 weddings. That’s one every other week! He also baptized (about once a month), visited the sick, carried on extensive correspondence, and sustained heavy organizational responsibilities.”

“When I look at Calvin and Edwards and their output, it is hard for me to feel sorry for myself in my few burdens. These brothers inspire me to break out of mediocre plodding.”

“George Mueller has been a pacesetter for me in prayer. His Autobiography is an orchard of faith-building fruit. In one section he tells us, after forty years of trials, ‘how to be constantly happy in God.’ He said, ‘I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord.’ ” Piper then relates how that for ten years Mueller would go to prayer first thing in the morning, but often suffered from wandering thoughts for up to half an hour.

George Mueller

George Mueller

Mueller himself describes a significant change he then made in his personal devotions routine and the benefits that yielded: “I began to meditate on the New Testament, from the beginning, early in the morning … searching into every verse for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, thanksgiving or supplication. So that though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer.”

Comments Piper: “I have found Mueller’s way absolutely crucial in my own life: be with the Lord before I am with anyone else and let Him speak to me first.”

Piper shares a number of other personal encouragements he has received from historic Christian biography in his book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (Broadman and Holman, 2002), chapter 13, “Brothers, Read Christian Biography” (pgs. 89-96).

The Swans are Not SilentPiper not only reads biography but also has written seven outstanding volumes of historic Christian biography in his “The Swans Are Not Silent” series published by Crossway. Each of those volumes contains a trio of biographies on noteworthy, influential Christians of the past.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie


William Wilberforce as a Young Man

William Wilberforce as a Young Man

Properly balancing work, ministry and family responsibilities is not an easy feat to accomplish. Sometimes the pressures of seeking to do so are considerable. And even when we’re giving it our best we don’t always feel like we’re doing a very good job of maintaining a proper balance.

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a leading Member of Parliament (MP) in the British House of Commons whose enormous efforts helped bring about extensive social and moral reforms in nineteenth century England (see my September 13 & 28, 2016 Perspectives). But Wilberforce also serves as an encouraging example of an individual who did a good (though not always perfect) job of caring for and ministering to his family while at the same time carrying out his heavy vocational responsibilities.

Barbara Spooner Wilberforce

Barbara Spooner Wilberforce

Wilberforce was thirty-seven years old when, on April 15, 1797, he first met Barbara Spooner, the young woman who would become his wife. By that time he had been leading the political fight to end the British slave trade for nine years, and another decade would elapse before that battle would be won. By all reports, Barbara was physically attractive and, like Wilberforce, was an ardent Evangelical Christian. Just eight days after their first meeting Wilberforce proposed marriage by letter, and Barbara accepted that same day, also by letter. They were married five weeks later. Theirs was a happy marriage that lasted till Wilberforce’s death thirty-six years later.

William and Barbara had six children in ten years, four boys and two girls. Wilberforce sometimes had to be away from his family, a circumstance he strongly disliked, while attending to parliamentary duties in London. But when home, Wilberforce was very attentive and involved in the lives of his family members. With them he played games, read, went on walks, observed nature, went to museums, picnicked and celebrated holidays.

Kensington Gore House in London

Kensington Gore House in London

The Wilberforce home was a little eccentric and rather lax. Numerous pets, including a rabbit, were kept in the house. Barbara’s strong suit was not as “domestic engineer,” and the servants were allowed to be somewhat too laid back in their responsibilities. Sometimes the Wilberforces’ guests, who tended to be numerous, had to wait till odd, late hours for meals.

But William Wilberforce was very regular in his personal and family devotions. He habitually dedicated the first hour to hour and a half of the morning to personal Bible reading and prayer. Then, after a late breakfast, he led his family in a briefer time of Scripture reading and prayer, always kneeling for the latter.

One way in which Wilberforce sought to compensate when he needed to be away from his family members was by writing them many letters. His missives were full of warm affection and sound advice. Throughout his life he wrote a total of hundreds or even thousands of letters to his wife and children. One son collected and numbered all 600-plus letters that his father wrote just to him!

Barbara Spooner Wilberforce with child

Barbara Spooner Wilberforce with child

In 1808, after the birth of their last child, Wilberforce moved his family to Kensington Gore House in London so he could be with them more, even when Parliament was in session. Four years later, one of Wilberforce’s small children began to cry when placed on his lap, and the nursemaid commented of the child, “He always is afraid of strangers.” The incident led Wilberforce to resign his position as MP of Yorkshire (England’s most powerful county) and to become MP of a smaller and much less demanding constituency.

Sadly, William and Barbara’s two daughters died as young women, one at age twenty-two of tuberculosis and the other at thirty years of age from complications resulting from a chest infection. Three of the Wilberforces’ sons gained top university honors and entered pastoral ministry. Two of those wrote a comprehensive five-volume biography on the life of their beloved and esteemed father after his death. Unfortunately, the oldest Wilberforce son lost the family’s considerable fortune in the mismanagement of a large dairy operation late in his father’s lifetime.

William Wilberforce was obviously sensitive about and determined in his efforts to strike a proper balance in fulfilling his work and family responsibilities. Though he sometimes struggled to do so as well as he would have liked, he continued to work at it. As a result, he achieved a good degree of success in appropriately discharging both responsibilities. With God’s help and their own conscientious effort, committed Christian parents can do the same today.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

William Wilberforce as an Older Man

William Wilberforce as an Older Man

On Sunday, October 28, 1787, a year and a half after William Wilberforce’s Christian conversion, he wrote on a blank page in his diary: “God Almighty has placed before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [morals].” Wilberforce’s decades-long battle to help bring an end to slavery throughout the British Empire is well known. His equally-determined endeavors to promote a broad range of other social reforms and philanthropic causes are little known today so are well worth recalling.

Wilberforce (1759-1833) had a long and influential career as a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. In addition to the abolition of slavery, Wilberforce championed some seventy other legislative causes for the welfare of both people and animals. Several of those causes included: small pox inoculation; public relief of poverty; popular education; injustices of the penal code; prison reforms; child labor laws (protecting child factory workers and chimney sweeps); eliminating bear baiting and other forms of cruelty to animals.

William Wilberforce Statue in Hull England

William Wilberforce Statue in Hull England

Besides the anti-slavery issue, another twenty-year political battle that Wilberforce was part of (from 1793 to 1813) was to gain the right for Christian missionaries to minister in India. The powerful British East India Company fiercely opposed missionary activity in its trading domain, claiming (without an evidential basis) such efforts would cause agitation among non-Christian people groups and would adversely affect EIC financial profits. Significantly, Wilberforce himself always declared that gaining the right for missionaries to serve in India was the greatest cause he had lived for, not even excepting the emancipation of the slaves. He doubtless thought that due to the eternal benefits that came to countless people through the passage of the missionary legislation.

Wilberforce generously used much of his personal wealth to help support many individuals and charities. Before marrying, he donated 2,000 pounds per year (fully one-fourth of his annual income) to charity. Wilberforce personally supported nearly every charitable institution in London and Yorkshire (England’s most powerful county and the one he represented in Parliament). He also financially supported numerous young men training for pastoral ministry, as well as many other young people preparing for other careers (including the Bronte sisters who eventually gained literary fame). Wilberforce helped keep many individuals out of debtor’s prison and assisted in funding the erection of a number of churches. He was instrumental in founding the forerunner of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Britain’s National Gallery of Art, London University, and the British and Foreign Bible Society.

William Wilberforce Two Great Objects Quote

Rather ironically in light of his tremendous generosity, and through no fault of his own, Wilberforce lost his fortune near the end of his life. By the time Wilberforce was seventy years old, his oldest son had run the large dairy farm in which Wilberforce had invested much of the family fortune deep into debt. Over 50,000 pounds were owed. Wilberforce decided he needed to lease the estate and mansion where he had been living in retirement years to generate income. The final three years of his life he lived with two of his other sons, both of whom served as ministers.

William Wilberforce Quote 2

A number of beneficial biographies have been written on Wilberforce in recent years: William Wilberforce, A Hero for Humanity, by Kevin Belmonte (Zondervan, 2007); Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas (Harperone, 2008);Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce, by John Piper (Crossway, 2007). Belmonte’s and Metaxas’s works are full-length biographies while Piper’s booklet of sixty-four pages focuses more specifically on Wilberforce’s conversion and Christian convictions that were at the foundation of his remarkable career of public service.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

William Wilberforce as a Young Man

William Wilberforce as a Young Man

Sometimes carrying out a particular ministry that the Lord would have us to fulfill requires not just weeks or months of effort. Sometimes it demands many years or even several decades of unrelenting, determined endeavor. But with the renewed encouragement, strength and tenacity that God Himself provides, we can successfully fulfill even the longest-term tasks to which He calls us.

William Wilberforce’s relentless efforts to bring an end to slavery in the British Empire are a sterling and instructive example of that. From the time he was twenty-eight years of age, Wilberforce felt definitely led of the Lord to do what he could to stop the British slave trade. As a Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons, Wilberforce initially intended to move for the abolition of the slave trade in February, 1788. But that month he became dangerously ill with ulcerative colitis (an excruciating, stress-induced condition of the digestive tract) and was told he might not live two more weeks.

Prime Minister William Pitt

Prime Minister William Pitt

However, Prime Minister William Pitt, Wilberforce’s close friend and powerful political ally, got the ball rolling for Wilberforce during his illness. Pitt was able to pass legislation to conduct a formal government investigation of conditions in the slave trade.

Debate on Wilberforce’s bill for abolishing the trade did not start for three more years, until April, 1791, and it was defeated. When Wilberforce again moved for the slave trade’s abolition in 1792, the House of Commons voted to gradually eliminate the trade over the next four years. But the following year, 1793, the House refused to confirm that decision because France had just declared war on Britain, and many concluded it was not the right time to address the deeply divisive issue of slavery.

Those were extremely difficult years for Wilberforce. He was accused of undermining the British economy and received death threats on his life. He was challenged to a duel (which he refused on Christian principles) by anti-abolitionists who still strongly supported the slave trade.

In 1796 Wilberforce’s renewed motion that the slave trade be abolished was narrowly defeated by a vote of 74 to 70. Twelve supporters of his bill carelessly missed the session when that vote was taken, instead being at a new opera with free tickets supplied by anti-abolitionists! Wilberforce was bitterly disappointed at that tragic development and shortly thereafter suffered a serious relapse of intestinal problems.

William Wilberforce as an Older Man

William Wilberforce as an Older Man

The struggle to abolish the slave trade dragged on eleven more years. Every year from 1797 to 1803 the abolition cause suffered setbacks. Finally on February 23, 1807, the House of Commons voted to abolish the trade by an overwhelming majority of 283 to 16. Slave trading and the shipping of slaves to or from British territories were outlawed. Nearly twenty years had passed since Wilberforce had first agreed to lead the legislative effort to end slavery.

In the 1810s Wilberforce campaigned to emancipate slaves and completely abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. In 1821, due to failing health, he turned over the leadership of that legislative responsibility to Thomas Buxton, a young Quaker MP whose efforts at prison reform Wilberforce greatly admired. Wilberforce officially retired, for health reasons, four years later, at age sixty-five.

On July 26, 1833, Wilberforce received news that a bill for the complete abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire was now assured of becoming law. England was willing to give twenty million pounds to purchase the freedom of the 800,000 slaves in Britain’s colonies.

Just three days later, William Wilberforce died at age seventy-three. Forty-six years had elapsed since he was first led of God to take up the cause of ending slavery.

A number of beneficial biographies have been written on Wilberforce in recent years: William Wilberforce, A Hero for Humanity, by Kevin Belmonte (Zondervan, 2007); Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas (Harperone, 2008); Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce, by John Piper (Crossway, 2007). Belmonte’s and Metaxas’s works are full-length biographies while Piper’s booklet of sixty-four pages focuses more specifically on Wilberforce’s conversion and Christian convictions that were at the foundation of his remarkable career of public service.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

Wlliam WilberforceWilliam Wilberforce (1759-1833) is best known as the extraordinary Member of Parliament whose tenacious efforts played a prominent role in bringing an end to the British slave trade. Wilberforce testified that his slavery abolition endeavors and his many other philanthropic works never would have come about without what he always called his “Great Change” – his Christian conversion.

Wilberforce was born in Hull, on the east coast of England, on August 24, 1759. The Wilberforces were a well-to-do merchant family, extravagant socialites who enjoyed lots of balls, lavish dinner parties, the theatre and card parties.

When William was just eight years old, his father Robert died at age forty. A short while later William’s sister Elizabeth died at fourteen years of age while at boarding school in London. Through that double shock William’s mother, also named Elizabeth, became gravely ill and only gradually recovered.

William WilberforceFor two years during his mother’s recovery, while William was between the ages of 10 and 12, he was placed under the guardianship of his uncle and aunt, William and Hannah Wilberforce. William and Hannah were committed evangelical Christians and good friends of John and Polly Newton, whom they often visited in Olney, where Newton pastored an Anglican Church. Newton took an interest in young William Wilberforce, and a fond friendship developed between the pastor and the boy during that time.

Elizabeth Wilberforce, like the Newtons, belonged to the Church of England. But she strongly disapproved of Dissenters, Methodists and other evangelists with whom William and Hannah Wilberforce and the Newtons associated. So when Elizabeth regained her health, she brought her son, at age twelve, back home to live with her in Hull. There she worked hard to stifle the religious convictions he had gained from his guardians, viewing them as unhealthy and extreme. Instead she sought to help him acquire a taste for the world and its diversions. At first this seemed distasteful to William but gradually he came to relish it.

William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity by Kevin BelmonteAt age seventeen William Wilberforce entered St. John’s College, Cambridge. He loved to socialize with his fellow students and was the life of the party with his lively spirit, quick wit, entertaining conversation and wealth. He had a gift for classical languages and literature but partied so much that he largely squandered his college years.

Wilberforce desired to enter politics. Just days before his twenty-first birthday, he was elected as MP (Member of Parliament in the House of Commons), representing his hometown of Hull, one of England’s most important port cities. During his early years in parliament his primary concern was gaining the approval of others and prominence. He quickly became known as an eloquent speaker and powerful debater. He was not above bribing voters (buying votes was a common practice in that day) and bitterly attacking and humiliating political opponents with sarcasm.

Wilberforce belonged to five clubs made up of well-born young men with similar political convictions. Drinking and heavy gambling were part of those clubs. Wilberforce was pained to see some young men lose far more than they could afford through gambling.

In March of 1784, at age twenty-four, Wilberforce pulled off an unlikely political victory by being elected as the MP representing Yorkshire County, where he had few contacts. Yorkshire was the most powerful county and one of the most coveted political seats in all of England.

Wilberforce’s “Great Change,” his gradual process of coming to embrace Christian beliefs, began that same autumn and continued for a year and a half, through the spring of 1786. During that period of time Wilberforce became convinced of and personally embraced the truths of Christianity, including the Deity of Jesus Christ, His atoning death on the cross for sin and the Bible as God’s authoritative Word.

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric MetaxaxIn December 1785, Wilberforce made a secret visit to John Newton who, at age sixty, was then pastoring in London. Newton affirmed Wilberforce’s newfound Christian convictions and encouraged him to serve God by remaining in Parliament. They had other visits, which were enormously reassuring to Wilberforce, that winter and the following spring.

There were several noticeable, positive results of Wilberforce’s conversion: (1) He became kind and forbearing rather than being irritable and employing biting sarcasm with family members and political opponents. (2) He dropped out of all five of the worldly clubs he had been a member in and gave up gambling. (3) He took greater care to be present for every debate in the House of Commons in an age when legislators were commonly absent, and did the thankless work of serving on countless committees. (4) For the next seven to eight years he devoted much of his free time to making up for the educational opportunities he had squandered in college. Ever after he was a diligent lifelong reader and student, with his coat pockets often being full of books. (5) Instead of using politics to further his own prominence, he used it to diligently serve God and his fellow human beings. (I plan to devote a future blog to the significant ways in which he did that.)

Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce by John PiperA number of beneficial biographies have been written on Wilberforce in recent years: William Wilberforce, A Hero for Humanity, by Kevin Belmonte (Zondervan, 2007); Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas (Harperone, 2008); Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce, by John Piper (Crossway, 2007). Belmonte’s and Metaxas’s works are full-length biographies while Piper’s booklet of sixty-four pages focuses more specifically on Wilberforce’s conversion and Christian convictions that were at the foundation of his remarkable career of public service.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

John NewtonIn recent Perspectives (June 13 & 28, 2016) I have shared the testimony of how John Newton, author of the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace,” was brought from fierce spiritual rebellion to saving faith in Jesus Christ, then how he went on to play a part in bringing an end to the British slave trade that he was once a part of. In this Perspective I’d like to relate a few highlights of Newton’s forty-three year career as a faithful, fruitful Christian minister. His example is instructive for all Christians (not just vocational ministers) in their service for Christ.

After leaving the slave trade at age twenty-nine, Newton served for nine years as Tide Surveyor in the Customs and Excise office at Liverpool. With a staff of fifty-five people under him, he was responsible for searching for smuggled goods in all vessels coming into port. By the time he was thirty-three years of age, Newton concluded (after months of earnest prayer about the matter) that God was calling him to be a vocational minister. But five more years would pass before he was able to start pastoring. During that rather unsettling period of Newton’s life he was turned down for, or declined himself, pastoral ministries in the Established Church (Church of England), Dissenting churches, itinerant Methodist ministry and starting a church of his own in Liverpool.

Finally at age thirty-eight he was ordained as a minister in the Church of England and began pastoring a parish in Olney, Buckinghamshire, about seventy miles northwest of London. Under Newton’s ministry in that small agriculturally-based market town, the church grew and soon needed to add a balcony to accommodate the increased attendances. In the era before Sunday Schools, Newton devoted Thursday evenings to children’s services, which were sometimes attended by a couple hundred young people. He also started a weeknight prayer meeting for adults which eventually grew so large it had to be moved from a cottage to the grand hall of the local Earl’s mansion house.

John Newton's Olney HymnsDuring his years in Olney, Newton was a faithful friend and neighbor to a poet named William Cowper (pronounced Cooper). Both Newton and Cowper were prolific hymn writers, and together they published a popular collection called The Olney Hymns. Besides “Amazing Grace, John Newton’s hymns still sung today include “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” while two of Cowper’s enduring hymns are “There Is a fountain Filled with Blood” and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Sadly, Cowper had a history of suicidal depression. After six pleasant years, Newton had to carefully shepherd Cowper through six dark and dangerous years, during which Cowper was convinced he had been rejected by Christ and was again suicidal.

Shortly after moving to Olney, at the ongoing insistence of friends, Newton published his personal testimony in book form. It became a bestseller in England and America, and led to his gaining prominence on both sides of the Atlantic. Newton was also a prolific letter writer. His thoughtful missives were of striking style and savory spiritual content. These were considered so worthwhile that Newton was encouraged to publish them. He eventually did so in a two-volume work entitled Cardiphonia (meaning “utterance of the heart”), and it too became a bestseller.

At age fifty-four Newton was called to pastor St. Mary Woolnoth Church, a prominent Anglican congregation in the heart of London. That church also grew under his capable pastoral ministry. So many strangers came to hear Newton preach that the church’s regular attendees complained they could not get to their normal seats!

St. Mary Woolnoth Church, modern London

St. Mary Woolnoth Church, modern London

During both his pastorates, Newton often traveled to visit friends in other locations. While doing so, he was frequently invited to speak in churches or house meetings. Often large audiences turned out to hear him. But many Anglican churches refused their pulpits to him due to his clear evangelical convictions.

Newton became largely deaf and blind in his latter years, but he insisted (against the advice of close associates) on continuing to pastor his church. He preached and quoted Scripture from memory. But his mind sometimes wandered in the middle of discourses and at times his understanding seemed unclear.

Near the end of his life Newton told a man who came to visit him: “My memory is nearly gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” At his death at age eighty-two on December 21, 1807, Newton immediately passed into the presence of his Savior in heaven.

A number of excellent biographies have been written on Newton’s extraordinary life and ministry: John Newton, From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, by Jonathan Aitken (Crossway, 2007 & 2013); “But Now I See,” The Life of John Newton, by Josiah Bull (Banner of Truth, 1998, a reprint of a work first published in 1868); The Life of John Newton, by John Newton and Richard Cecil (Baker, 1978, a reprint of a work originally published in the 1800s); John Newton, The British Slave Trader Who found “Amazing Grace,” by Catherine Swift (Bethany, 1991, a somewhat shorter account of Newton’s life).

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

When John Newton, eventual author of the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace,” first came to saving faith in Jesus Christ, he did not immediately renounce the slave trade that he was then part of. The story of why that was the case is worth considering and has relevance to our own moral blind spots today.

When Newton (1725-1807) became a convinced Christian at twenty-three years of age, he was serving as first mate on a trading vessel in the Triangular Trade (TT). In the TT, cutlery, wool and guns were shipped from England to the Grain Coast (modern Sierra Leone) of western Africa. From there Africans were taken as slaves to the West Indies. Normally around twenty percent of the slaves died aboard ship in that Middle Passage of the TT. Sugar, rum and spices were then taken back to England.

Newton was disgusted by the revolting aspects of the slave trade – the squalor, horrid smell, deaths, etc. But that was more due to the inconvenience those caused himself rather than out of pity for slaves. Slaves were viewed more as cattle than as humans. Slave trading was considered a perfectly legitimate, even respectable vocation.

Three weeks after his twenty-fifth birthday Newton set sail as captain of a small trading vessel in the TT. He faced grave and constant dangers from a rebellious, mutinous crew as well as a near slave insurrection when twenty Africans escaped their chains temporarily. Newton’s treatment of the slaves became more civil – the crew was not allowed to abuse them, they were not packed as tightly, the hold was hosed down periodically to reduce the smell, and they received an improved diet. During that voyage, six crew members died from fever, which was not at all abnormal. Only six slaves died, which was highly unusual.

Before a serious seizure forced Newton to retire from the sea trade at age twenty-nine, he was twice captain of a large trading vessel in the Triangular Trade. In the 1752 voyage of his ship “only” 28 of 174 slaves died in the Middle Passage. The following year only 87 slaves were transported and none of those died.

After working in the Customs and Excise Office at Liverpool for nine years Newton was ordained as a minister in the Church of England at age 38. That same year, 1753, his personal testimony was published in book form. After devoting a chapter to the deplorable treatment of slaves in that trade, he wrote: “The reader may perhaps wonder, as I now do myself, that knowing the state of this vile traffic as I have described, and abounding with enormities which I have not mentioned, I did not at the time start with horror at my own employment as an agent in promoting it. Custom, example [of others], and interest [i.e., personal financial gain] had blinded my eyes. I did it ignorantly, for I am sure had I thought of the slave trade then as I have thought of it since, no considerations would have induced me to continue in it. Though my religious views were not very clear, my conscience was very tender, and I durst [dared] not have displeased God by acting against the light of my mind.”

While in his first pastorate at Olney, seventy miles northwest of London, Newton befriended and made a positive impression on a young teen, William Wilberforce, who often visited Newton’s home and church with his uncle and aunt, William and Hannah Wilberforce. (William and Hannah were William’s guardians at the time and good friends of John and Polly Newton.) Young William Wilberforce went on to become a Member of Parliament just before his twenty-first birthday and came to Christian faith at age twenty-six. By that time Newton was serving a prestigious congregation in London. He affirmed Wilberforce’s newfound Christian convictions and encouraged him to serve God by remaining in Parliament.

In 1788, one month before Wilberforce first introduced legislation to abolish Britain’s slave trade, Newton published a best-selling, highly-influential pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade.  In it he detailed the degrading, inhumane, brutal and murderous aspects of the slave trade, not only for male and female slaves but also for their captors. When Wilberforce renewed his legislation in the House of Commons for the abolition of slavery in 1791 and 1792, Newton preached sermons against slavery. Newton also bore powerful, informed testimony against the slave trade before a Select Committee of the House of Commons.

The battle to abolish British slavery stretched out for decades. On May 1, 1807, just months before Newton’s death, an Act of Parliament was passed, making it illegal to ship slaves from any British territory. Less than three months after Newton’s death, in March, 1808, another Act of Parliament forbade the landing of slaves onto British territory. The Emancipation Act, setting free all slaves and completely abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire, was officially brought about in August, 1833, one month after the death of Wilberforce.

John NewtonThe initial moral blindness of not only Newton but also Britain and America (including many evangelical Christians in those countries) with regard to the slave trade should lead us to careful personal introspection. What are the widely-accepted evils of our own day that even large numbers of professing Christians are blind toward and participants in? May God graciously grant us as individual Christians and as the Christian Church collectively the ability to perceive, repent of and actively warn against the tragic moral and spiritual blind spots of our own generation.

A number of excellent biographies have been written on Newton’s extraordinary life and ministry: John Newton, From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, by Jonathan Aitken (Crossway, 2007 & 2013); “But Now I See,” The Life of John Newton, by Josiah Bull (Banner of Truth, 1998, a reprint of a work first published in 1868); The Life of John Newton, by John Newton and Richard Cecil (Baker, 1978, a reprint of a work originally published in the 1800s); John Newton, The British Slave Trader Who found “Amazing Grace,” by Catherine Swift (Bethany, 1991, a somewhat shorter account of Newton’s life).

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie


John NewtonJohn Newton, author of the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace,” was born on August 4, 1725, in London, England. His father was the captain of a merchant ship and gone from home for months at a time. John’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was just seven years old. After being sent to boarding school for the next four years, John’s father took him on his first sea voyage to the Mediterranean (Italy, Spain, Greece and North Africa) at age eleven. While on another voyage with his father at fifteen years of age John picked up a book in a Holland marketplace simply because it had an English title, Characteristics. Written by a “Freethinker” who espoused Deism and moral relativism, the volume proved spiritually misguiding to John.

Two years later John met and fell in love with Mary Catlett (more commonly called Polly), who was three years his junior. At age eighteen, Newton was pressganged into service on the HMS Harwich. He was promoted to the rank of Midshipman and became a professing atheist through the influence of a fellow officer. When he learned the ship was to go to the East Indies for five years, he couldn’t bear the thought of being away from his beloved Polly that long. He deserted ship, intending to find his father who could have him transferred to the Merchant Navy. Instead, Newton was caught, stripped of his office and flogged before the entire ship’s company till he lost consciousness.

Shortly before he turned twenty, Newton was traded to a merchant captain whose ship was sailing to the Grain Coast (modern Sierra Leone), on the west coast of Africa. Newton proved to be a terrible blasphemer and troublemaker on ship. Upon reaching Africa, he was permitted to stay on a small island off the coast of Sierra Leone, where a Mr. Clow was establishing a plantation using slave labor.

John Newton QuoteClow’s African wife, Pey Ey, the daughter of a powerful chief, envied and disliked Newton intensely. While Clow was away on a trading mission, Newton became desperately ill and weak, and Pey Ey starved and mocked him. He was reduced to sneaking out at night to dig up roots with his bare hands in order to stave off hunger. Back from his trading mission, Clow believed his wife’s unfavorable report of Newton and put him to work as a slave on his plantation. When Clow went on his next voyage, he took Newton with him, and left him chained to the deck of the ship whenever he went ashore.

Another English trader moved to Clow’s island and, at age twenty-one, Newton was freed into his care. Newton was sent inland to trade for ivory, gold, jewels and slaves. In the process he began to embrace native African beliefs and even considered moon worship.

Joseph Manesty, a longtime friend of Newton’s father who had recently extended his trade to Sierra Leone, discovered John seemingly by chance, but actually in God’s providence. In order to collect the father’s reward for returning his missing son, Manesty lied to Newton by telling him a legacy of 400 pounds per year (then a considerable fortune) had been left to him in England.

Back on ship, Newton was excessively profane, blasphemous and irreverent. He ridiculed the teachings of Jesus and tried to turn people away from faith in Christ. But a sudden turning point came when the ship nearly sank in a ferocious storm. A man who went on deck in Newton’s place as John turned back to fetch a knife was instantly washed overboard and drowned. After that Newton started diligently reading the New Testament, stopped cursing altogether and eventually professed faith in Jesus Christ.

At age 23 Newton returned to Africa as first mate of a trading vessel. Incredibly, back on Clow’s island Newton began to drift from the Lord and toward African paganism once again. But when John became deathly ill he earnestly sought God’s mercy and was raised back to health.

John Newton biographyAfter that Newton never again strayed from the Lord throughout the remainder of his long life. Instead, he eventually went on to faithfully serve Christ as a Gospel minister and an ardent opponent of the slave trade. (Lord willing, I intend to share those aspects of Newton’s life in future Perspectives.)

A number of excellent biographies have been written on Newton’s extraordinary life and ministry: John Newton, From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, by Jonathan Aitken (Crossway, 2007 & 2013); “But Now I See,” The Life of John Newton, by Josiah Bull (Banner of Truth, 1998, a reprint of a work first published in 1868); The Life of John Newton, by John Newton and Richard Cecil (Baker, 1978, a reprint of a work originally published in the 1800s); John Newton, The British Slave Trader Who found “Amazing Grace,” by Catherine Swift (Bethany, 1991, a somewhat shorter account of Newton’s life).

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

Modern Medical Missionaries

Modern Medical Missionaries

One of the characteristics that has always impressed me about highly committed servants of Jesus Christ is that they continue to actively serve Him to the very end of their lives. Long after others have retired from their vocations and various forms of Christian service, these deeply dedicated Christian servants continue right on actively ministering for the Lord in whatever ways they are able. For them there is no such concept as retiring from the Lord’s work. They may not be able to serve Christ as actively or in all the ways they did in younger years. But they continue to serve Him to the full extent of their physical strength and other capacities (even as those are diminishing) to the end of life.

Dr. Carl Becker (1894-1990), who some say was the most outstanding medical missionary ever to serve in Africa, was a definite example of ongoing active service of Christ in the latter years of life. (See my May 2, 2016 blog, “Dr. Carl K. Becker – Africa’s Greatest Medical Missionary,” for a summary of his remarkable ministry career.) In 1964, after serving in Belgian Congo (modern Democratic Republic of the Congo) for thirty-five years, Becker was forced to flee his medical missionary compound at Oicha and the country in order to escape Simba rebels who were intent on capturing and executing him. Though seventy years of age at the time, he did not entertain thoughts of returning to the United States to retire. Instead he spent fifteen months serving at two medical missionary stations in neighboring Uganda, while awaiting the opportunity to return to Congo.

Dr. Carl K. BeckerAt the end of 1965 Becker was the first doctor to return to the vast area of northeast Congo. Following the recent violent uprising, the spiritual and medical needs throughout the entire region were enormous. In addition to rebuilding the work at Oicha, Becker desired to fulfill a longtime dream of founding an inter-mission medical training center at Nyankunde. While taking the lead in establishing that training center, Becker also regularly returned to Oicha and other mission stations to help promote their medical mission endeavors.

Then in the middle of 1966, Becker fell by a Congo roadside after suffering three heart seizures in one day. For two hours he lay quietly, completely helpless. But gradually his strength revived and he returned to Nyankunde. After a good night of rest, he appeared at the hospital early the next morning and insisted on resuming his normal medical routines.

“Why, Dr. Becker, you should be ashamed of yourself,” a nurse reprimanded him. “You shouldn’t be working like this after suffering three heart attacks yesterday. You should be resting in bed!” To which Becker responded softly, “If this is to be my last day on earth, I certainly don’t want to spend it in bed.” After which he promptly returned to his medical duties.

By the end of that year the Inter-Mission Evangelical Medical Training Center was opened at Nyankunde, with four mission boards cooperating in the shared venture. The center soon had six doctors and thirty African students receiving advanced medical training. As many as 1,500 people per day came to the Nyankunde hospital for treatment. The Nyankunde Center supervised and assisted hospitals at Oicha, Rethy and Aba as well as many smaller dispensaries. The doctors made monthly visits to those three remote hospitals, performing twenty to twenty-five operations per visit.

Another Hand on MineBecker’s responsibilities included supervising the Nyankunde Center, maintaining oversight of the Oicha hospital and visiting three other outlying dispensaries each month. He continued his active medical missionary work until he was eighty-three years of age. He then returned to the United States, having served as a medical missionary for forty-seven years.

Like Dr. Carl Becker, may each of us who follow Jesus Christ, faithfully and actively serve Him through all the years of life He entrusts to us. Much more inspiration may be gained from Becker’s outstanding example of lifelong Christian service by reading William Petersen’s excellent biography, Another Hand on Mine, The Story of Dr. Carl K. Becker of Africa Inland Mission.