John Wycliffe(This Perspective is a bit longer and denser than my normal postings. But I trust you’ll find it worthwhile to plow through the entire post.)

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Conferences are being held, sermon series are being preached, a number of books have been published and innumerable blogs are being written to mark this tremendously significant occasion in history—the restoration of sound biblical beliefs and practices to Christ’s universal Church.

In the coming weeks I intend, Lord willing, to share a series of mini-biographies on several of the key leaders of the Reformation. Reading these brief accounts of their lives brings the benefits of (1) gaining a basic understanding of this vital period in Church History, (2) coming to have a deepened appreciation of the priceless Christian heritage that God provided for us in sovereignly bringing about the Reformation, and (3) being encouraged and challenged to make sure that our own Christian beliefs and practices are biblically sound and spiritually vibrant.

John Wycliffe window in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

John Wycliffe window in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

This first article features John Wycliffe (also commonly spelled Wyclif), who is sometimes called the Morning Star of the Reformation. He lived and died more than a century before the Protestant Reformation took place, but his influential teachings played a significant role in laying the groundwork for some of the reformations that occurred later.

It’s first necessary to briefly (in just two paragraphs! Smile) describe the religious and political setting of the era in which Wycliffe lived. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church and its popes had held unrivaled religious and political power throughout central and western Europe. But in the 1300s seismic shifts took place that began to change that. In the first place, the rise of nation-states and strong monarchies weakened the Church’s and the Pope’s claim to political authority and significantly diminished material revenues given to the Church. In order to supplement flagging revenues, the Church and Pope came up with a variety of questionable and objectionable measures such as instituting new taxes, charging significant fees for church service opportunities, and selling indulgences for the supposed remission of sins.

Secondly, France and England were continually at war throughout the fourteenth century, and other developing countries ended up picking sides in the ongoing conflicts, thus creating further disunity in Europe and the Church. Thirdly, from 1305 to 1377, in what is known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, six successive popes, all of French origin, chose to reside in the town of Avignon, near the border of France, rather than in Rome. For both religious and political reasons, many opposed and resented that change of location. Fourthly, the Great Schism of the Papacy took place from 1377 to 1407, in which period two separate successions of Popes, each with its own College of Cardinals, existed in Rome and Avignon, further splintering the Church.

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

John Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire, England, around 1330. Virtually nothing is known about his childhood. He was educated at Oxford University, earning the Master of Arts degree (1361), the Bachelor of Divinity (another master-level degree, about 1369) and the Doctor of Divinity (1372). In addition to studying and teaching at the university throughout those years, he was appointed as the rector of a Lincolnshire church and funded part of his education through that income. As was often done in that era, Wycliffe was actually an absentee rector through much of his career, needing only to provide a substitute to fulfill his pastoral responsibilities. Wycliffe became Oxford’s leading philosopher and theologian.

One of the burning issues of that era was the question of lordship or dominion. All agreed that the right to rule was granted by God. But some thought that only those appointed by the Church had the divine right to exercise such authority, while others believed that secular rulers who had not committed grievous sin were also qualified to govern. Wycliffe supported the latter position and further taught that any leaders, sacred or secular, who persisted in sin should be removed from office. He even went so far as to teach that secular authorities had the responsibility to remove unrepentant churchmen from office, as well as the right to seize the property of corrupt church officials.

Wycliffe's Lutterworth Church

Wycliffe’s Lutterworth Church

These teachings, which were not motivated by political aspirations on Wycliffe’s part, brought him into favor with England’s secular rulers but into disfavor with not a few Church leaders. As a result, in 1377 the Pope condemned Wycliffe’s teachings, and the English Bishops tried to put Wycliffe on trial. But John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and one of the most powerful people in England, intervened on Wycliffe’s behalf, and he was not brought to trial.

In the years that followed, the early years of the Great Papal Schism, Wycliffe continued to develop and teach other ideas that would have spelled his doom at any earlier time in the Middle Ages. He taught not only that the Bible is free from error or contradiction, but also that it contains the whole of God’s revelation and all that is necessary for salvation. There is no need for further teaching to be supplied by church tradition, the Pope or any other source. And all other authorities (including church tradition, canon law, councils and even popes) must be attested by the Scriptures.

The Wycliffe Bible

The Wycliffe Bible

Wycliffe also taught that the Bible is to be available to all Christians – laypersons and clergy alike. The latter conviction led some of Wycliffe’s followers, likely under his supervision, to translate the Bible into the common language of the English people. That translation, commonly called the Wycliffe Bible, was made from the Latin Vulgate rather than from the original Hebrew and Greek sources.

Concerning the papacy, Wycliffe taught that it was an office instituted by man, not by God. The Pope’s authority is confined to the church rather than extending to secular government. Furthermore, the Pope’s authority depends on his having the moral character of the Apostle Peter in leading a poor and humble life spent in the service of the Church and providing a clear example of Christian goodness. Such teaching implied the rejection of nearly all the recent popes in Wycliffe’s time. At first Wycliffe taught a Pope who does not follow Jesus Christ is the Antichrist. He later declared that the institution of the papacy itself is Antichrist.

Wycliffe challenged a wide range of medieval beliefs and practices: pardons, indulgences, absolutions, pilgrimages, the worship of images, the adoration of the saints and the distinction between venial and mortal sins. He gained the greatest opposition by rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that in Christian Communion the bread and wine (or juice) become the actual body and blood of Christ. Wycliffe believed, rather, that the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood, that Christ is present in the communion elements sacramentally but not materially.

John Wycliffe's remains being exhumed, burned and poured in the River Swift

John Wycliffe’s remains being exhumed, burned and poured in the River Swift

Because of such beliefs, Wycliffe was no longer allowed to teach at Oxford beginning in 1382. That same year William Courtenay, the new Archbishop of Canterbury and a longtime opponent of Wycliffe, convened a church council in which a number of Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned as heresy. Wycliffe withdrew to Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where he had been the absentee rector since 1374. There he devoted himself to writing and lived out the final years of his life in peace. After suffering a stroke in December, 1384, he died that New Year’s Eve.

John Wycliffe's preachers, the Lollards

John Wycliffe’s preachers, the Lollards

Wycliffe received a Christian funeral and was buried in consecrated ground of the Church. But in 1414 the Council of Constance condemned him as a heretic. Consequently, his remains were disinterred and burned, and his ashes were thrown into the River Swift.

During his lifetime some of Wycliffe’s disciples went out into country villages and byways to minister to neglected souls there. They carried with them portions of the Wycliffe Bible and helped spread his teachings. They were derogatorily dubbed Lollards, which means “mumblers.” After Wycliffe’s death they were persecuted and became an underground, lower-class movement. But their ongoing influence helped pave the way for and bring about the English Reformation in the 1500s.

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Sources consulted: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 1, pp. 324-48; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 233-48; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Wyclif,” A. N. S. Lane (Moody, 1988), pp. 173-77.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Shortly after her release from a German concentration camp Corrie ten Boom started traveling throughout her home country of Holland and then to other countries of the world, sharing her hope-filled message of God’s love, forgiveness, healing and joy even in life’s darkest, most desperate circumstances. For more than three decades she crisscrossed the globe, sharing the Gospel of Christ and her Christian testimony in over sixty countries.

Corrie had a remarkable ability to communicate effectively with all different kinds of people in all varieties of settings. She shared the message of God’s love and salvation with royalty in palaces, government officials in embassies, celebrities at posh social gatherings, intellectuals and students in universities and schools, illiterate local people in their villages, upstanding citizens in service clubs, criminals in prisons, patients in hospitals and beggars on the street. Corrie seemed at ease and effective whether ministering to thousands in a large crusade or church meeting or to a single individual in an airport or restaurant.

While it was rewarding to minister around the world, it certainly was not an easy life. She normally soldiered through the challenges and hardships of itinerant ministry with remarkable willingness and selflessness. But occasionally the difficulties and sacrifices took a toll on her, and she was tempted to give in to self-pity or to give up altogether. Invariably at those times, the Lord brought circumstances into her life that helped her through the discouragements and renewed her determination to carry on in the ministry He had for her.

Once while ministering in Japan Corrie arrived at an evening church service feeling thoroughly sorry for herself. She was very tired and her stomach was upset from the unusual food she had been eating. Corrie longed for a good European meal back in Holland, a table where she would not have to sit cross-legged on the floor and a soft bed rather than the hard mats on which the Japanese slept.

At the church service that night Corrie spotted a bent little man in a wheelchair. His face bore the happiest expression she could imagine. After the service Corrie’s interpreter introduced her to the man. He smiled broadly when she inquired about several small packets wrapped in brown paper and tied with string on his lap.

Carefully unwrapping one of the packages to show Corrie its contents, he explained, “This is the Gospel of John, written in Braille. I have just finished it.” He went on to share that this was the fifteenth time he had written the Gospel of John in Braille. He had also written other Gospels as well as many shorter portions of the Bible for the blind.

“How did you come to do this?” she asked.

The man proceeded to tell Corrie about the Bible women in Japan who travel from village to village, taking copies of the Bible along with Christian books and pamphlets to those who are hungry for God. “Our Bible woman is very ill with tuberculosis,” he said, “but she travels every week to sixteen villages, even though she will soon die.”

“When I heard about it,” he continued, “I asked the Lord what I could do to help her. Although my legs are paralyzed, and I cannot get out of the wheelchair, in many ways I am healthier than she. God showed me that though her hands are shaky and my legs paralyzed, I could be the hands, and she the legs. I punch out the pages of Braille, and she takes the Bible around to the villages and gives them to the blind people, who miss so much because they cannot see.”

Corrie left the church that evening filled with shame. “Here was I,” she later divulged, “with two good legs for traveling all over the world, two good lungs and two good eyes, complaining because I didn’t like the food!”

She also related the valuable lesson she learned through that incident: “These precious people had discovered a sure cure for self-pity – service to others. … The best antidote I know for self-pity is to help someone else who is worse off than you.”

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Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

A fuller account of Corrie ten Boom’s upbringing, early years of ministry, heroic endeavors during World War 2 and fruitful worldwide ministry in the closing decades of her life is provided in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Corrie’s inimitable telling of the events of her life is found in her autobiographical works such as The Hiding PlaceTramp for the Lord, and Jesus Is Victor. Carole Carlson’s Corrie ten Boom: Her Life, Her Faith is an excellent one-volume account of Corrie’s life and ministry.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

 

Artist's depiction of Corrie and Betsie ten Boom reading God's Word to fellow prisoners

Artist’s depiction of Corrie and Betsie ten Boom reading God’s Word to fellow prisoners

(Parental advisory: Some of the content of this Perspective is unsuitable for young children.)

Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie were imprisoned in Ravensbruck, the notorious Nazi women’s concentration camp, during World War 2. Of over 130,000 prisoners incarcerated at Ravensbruck, only 40,000 survived. But the ministry of Corrie and Betsie while there shows the incredible power of God’s Word to bring light and life to the darkest, most-desperate human situations.

At the Ravensbruck processing center for new arrivals each woman had to surrender whatever possessions she had brought to the camp, strip off every scrap of clothes and walk naked past a dozen watchful guards into the shower room. After showering she was given nothing more than a thin prison dress and a pair of shoes to wear. Corrie and Betsie begged a guard to show them the toilets and were tersely ordered to use the drain holes in the shower room. There, behind a stack of old wooden benches piled in a far corner, they hid a compact Bible, a vitamin bottle and a blue sweater they had brought to the prison.

Ravensbruck female prisoners at roll call, in The Hiding Place movie

Ravensbruck female prisoners at roll call, in The Hiding Place movie

After showering and selecting their prison clothes from heaps on the floor just inside the shower room door, Corrie sought to hide their little bundle of precious possessions under her prison dress. She afterward related: “I flattened it out as best I could … but there was no real concealing it beneath the thin cotton dress. And all the while I had the incredible feeling that it didn’t matter, that this was not my business, but God’s. That all I had to do was walk straight ahead.

“As we trooped back out through the shower room door, the S.S. men ran their hands over every prisoner, front, back and sides. The woman ahead of me was searched three times. Behind me, Betsie was searched. No hand touched me. At the exit door to the building was a second ordeal, a line of women guards examining each prisoner again. I slowed down as I reached them but the officer in charge shoved me roughly by the shoulder. ‘Move along! You’re holding up the line!’ And so Betsie and I arrived at Barracks 8 in the small hours of that morning, bringing not only the Bible, but a new knowledge of the power of Him whose story it was.”

Roll call began promptly at 4:30 each morning, was held out in the predawn chill and sometimes lasted for hours. Throughout that time the prisoners were required to stand at parade attention. Immediately next to them were located the punishment barracks. Of the overwhelming nightmarish suffering they observed in those days, Corrie later wrote: “From there [the punishment barracks], all day long and often into the night, came the sounds of hell itself. They were not the sounds of anger, or of any human emotion, but of a cruelty altogether detached: blows landing in regular rhythm, screams keeping pace. We would stand [at role call] in our ten-deep ranks with our hands trembling at our sides, longing to jam them against our ears, to make the sounds stop. …

Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom

“It grew harder and harder. Even within these four walls [of Barracks 8] there was too much misery, too much seemingly pointless suffering. Every day something else failed to make sense, something else grew too heavy. ‘Will You carry this too, Lord Jesus?’ ”

However, Corrie also testified of a redemptive spiritual reality that God brought about through their ministry of His Word in that blackest of settings: “But as the rest of the world grew stranger, one thing became increasingly clear – and that was the reason the two of us were here. Why others should suffer we were not shown. As for us, from morning until lights-out, whenever we were not in ranks for roll call, our Bible was the center of an ever-widening circle of help and hope. Like waifs clustered around a blazing fire, we gathered about it, holding out our hearts to its warmth and light. The blacker the night around us grew, the brighter and truer and more beautiful burned the Word of God. ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us’ [Romans 8:35, 37].

“I would look about us as Betsie read, watching the light leap from face to face. More than conquerors. … It was not a wish. It was a fact. We knew it, we experienced it minute by minute – poor, hated, hungry. We are more than conquerors. Not ‘we shall be’. We are! Life in Ravensbruck took place on two separate levels, mutually impossible. One, the observable, external life, grew every day more horrible. The other, the life we lived with God, grew daily better, truth upon truth, glory upon glory.”

Betsie gradually weakened and died at Ravensbruck. A short while later, due to a clerical error, Corrie was released. She went on to devote the remainder of her life to sharing and showing the light and hope of God’s Word to benighted, hopeless people around the world.

 

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Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

A fuller account of Corrie ten Boom’s upbringing, early years of ministry, heroic endeavors during World War 2 and fruitful worldwide ministry in the closing decades of her life is provided in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Corrie’s inimitable telling of the events of her life is found in her autobiographical works such as The Hiding Place, Tramp for the Lord, and Jesus Is Victor. Carole Carlson’s Corrie ten Boom: Her Life, Her Faith is an excellent one-volume account of Corrie’s life and ministry.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) is best known through the book and movie The Hiding Place for the courage, faith and love she and her family members manifested by harboring Jews from Nazis during World War 2 and while being imprisoned in a German concentration camp. But most people know little or nothing about the first half century of Corrie’s life – formative decades filled with active, fruitful service of the Lord and others.

Corrie’s parents, Casper and Cor ten Boom, were devout Dutch Reformed Christians with hearts of warm devotion for the Lord and compassionate concern for the people around them. In addition to raising their four children, Casper and Cor invited three of Cor’s sisters, two spinsters and a widow, to live in their modest home in Haarlem, Holland. Casper struggled to support so many people on his limited income as a watchmaker, but the family was rich in many other ways.

Corrie ten Boom (standing) with her family

Corrie ten Boom (standing) with her family

Every morning and evening without fail, regardless of whatever else was on the family schedule, Casper gathered the entire household for the reading of a chapter of Scripture and prayer. Casper and Cor saw to it that their three daughters received a secondary education while their son achieved both university and seminary degrees. The children were also taught an appreciation for hymns and classical music, with each child learning to sing and play one or more musical instruments. Guests were frequently at the family dinner table, and Mrs. ten Boom was constantly baking a loaf of bread or cooking a pot of porridge to be delivered to some pale young mother or lonesome old man.

In addition to graduating from secondary school, Corrie completed a course of studies at a Bible school in Haarlem. She played a major role in helping to care for family members at home and in assisting her father with his watchmaking business. In an era and a country where young women were not involved in the business world, she went to school in Basel, Switzerland, for two years to learn the watchmaking trade. She eventually became the first licensed woman watchmaker in Holland.

Ten Boom Home and Watchshop in Haarlem, Holland

Ten Boom Home and Watchshop in Haarlem, Holland

As the years passed, Corrie’s mother and three maternal aunts passed away. Corrie’s brother Willem and sister Nollie were both married and established households of their own, while Corrie continued to live in her girlhood home with her father Casper and her sister Betsie. For several months following World War 1, Casper, Corrie and Betsie took into their home a small group of frightened and undernourished German boys and girls. In 1925 the ten Booms took in the son and two daughters of a missionary couple serving in Indonesia. In the years that followed, eleven different foster children stayed in their home, with as many as seven living there at the same time.

Besides working at the watch shop and helping care for the children, Corrie taught Sunday school and Bible classes in the public schools. At the encouragement of a friend, she started a ministry to teen girls. Corrie’s exceptional organizational and leadership abilities were soon manifested. In a short time she recruited forty leaders to work with the large numbers of girls who flocked to her youth club. Club meetings consisted of games, music and a Bible study, while training activities included instrumental music, singing, sewing, handcrafts, folk dancing and gymnastics.

Corrie organized a number of such clubs. Before long a club meeting was being held every night. Girls who desired to learn more about spiritual matters were encouraged to join a confirmation class in one of the local Dutch Reformed congregations.

Corrie Ten Boom as a young lady

Corrie Ten Boom as a young lady

Another ministry that Corrie started up was a Sunday afternoon ‘church’ service for individuals with learning difficulties. If a disabled boy or girl wanted to join one of her clubs, or if a pastor approached her about such a person who was disrupting the normal Sunday service, she invited those individuals to her ‘special’ church. Corrie was burdened to share the Gospel with these people who could not understand a sermon but needed the Savior. She carried out this compassionate ministry for two decades.

A summer camp ministry for members of her various girls’ clubs was another of Corrie’s ventures. Early outings were done with tents while later ones were held at a plain log cabin that had room for about sixty girls. The highlight of each day was the evening campfire when the girls sat around the fire, wrapped in blankets, to sing and listen to Corrie’s meditation. They enjoyed her great sense of humor and her wonderful stories that always had a significant spiritual point.

Corrie’s girls clubs paved the way for the founding of the Girl Guide clubs of Holland, a European equivalent of the Girl Scouts of America. Corrie promoted a definite spiritual emphasis in the Girl Guide organization, believing that girls needed to be won to Christ rather than merely taught to be good citizens.

All too soon the events of World War 2 swirled down upon Holland, and the girls’ clubs were forced to close. The last time Corrie met with her club members, the girls struggled to sing the national anthem through their tears. “Girls, don’t cry,” she encouraged them. “We have had great fun in our clubs, but that wasn’t why we came together. Jesus makes us strong, even in times of war and disaster.”

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Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

A fuller account of Corrie ten Boom’s upbringing, early years of ministry, heroic endeavors during World War 2 and fruitful worldwide ministry in the closing decades of her life is provided in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Corrie’s inimitable telling of the events of her life is found in her autobiographical works such as The Hiding Place, Tramp for the Lord, and Jesus Is Victor. Carole Carlson’s Corrie ten Boom: Her Life, Her Faith is an excellent one-volume account of Corrie’s life and ministry.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Mary Slessor (seated) with a Nigerian family

Mary Slessor (seated) with a Nigerian family

Throughout her thirty-eight year missionary career in southern Nigeria, West Africa, Mary Slessor (1848-1915) exhibited the spirit of a true pioneer missionary. She was never content to settle down permanently in one location, but was always seeking to advance Christ’s kingdom work into hitherto unreached areas.

The first twelve years of her missionary career were spent along the coastal region of Calabar, where Scottish missionaries of the United Presbyterian Church denomination had ministered for three decades. Mary then gained permission from the UPC Foreign Mission Committee to carry out missionary service in the previously unreached Okoyong region, which she did for the next seventeen years. (See my June 21, 2017, Perspective for a summary of her courageous, compassionate service during those first two periods of her missionary career.)

In 1904 she once again gained the Foreign Mission Committee’s permission to expand her work further inland to a pair of unreached tribes, the Ibo and the Ibibios. Slavery, human sacrifice and cannibalism had been carried out among them from time immemorial. While the British Government was seeking to curtail those practices, they were known to persist, especially in more isolated regions.

Mary Slessor at a Nigerian village

Mary Slessor at a Nigerian village

In opening that new work, Mary was initially granted one year in which to carry out itinerate ministry in the area. She took with her a small group of Christian teenagers whom she had trained in Okoyong to assist her in the new ministry. Amazingly, by the end of that year of itinerating, Christian schools and congregations had been established in six towns and villages along Enyong Creek which ran between the Ibo and Ibibios.

When Mary’s year of ministry travels concluded, her mission board desired her to resume her former responsibilities back in Okoyong. But she could not reconcile herself to that prospect, explaining: “There is an impelling power behind me, and I dare not look backward. Even if it cost me my connection with the Church [denomination] of my heart’s love, I feel I must go forward. I am not enthusiastic over Church methods. I would not mind cutting the rope and going adrift with my bairns, and I can earn our bite [food] and something more.” She was greatly relieved when the Mission decided to free her from normal responsibilities at a fixed base so from that point forward she could act as a pioneer missionary.

Mary Slessor and adopted children

Mary Slessor and adopted children

Her advance into Ibibios territory was aided by the fact that the British government was building roads in that region. “Get a bicycle, Ma,” government officials said, pointing to the road, “and come as far as you can. We will soon have a motor car service for you.” At fifty-seven years of age Mary gamely learned to ride a bicycle after a government official presented her with a brand new model from England.

The early months of 1909 found Mary covered with painful boils from head to foot. “Only sleeping draughts keep me from going off my head,” she related. She later became severely ill from blood poisoning. She was taken to Duke Town near the coast where members of the mission attentively nursed her back to heal. But after five weeks of such care she was eager to resume her ministry responsibilities inland, and did so before some officials and doctors thought it fully advisable.

Mary Slessor Memorial in Dudee, Scotland

Mary Slessor Memorial in Dudee, Scotland

Eventually her health declined to the point that the Mission’s doctor forbad her to travel by bicycle. Hearing of her need for an alternative means of transportation, a group of ladies in Scotland sent her a Cape cart, a basket-chair on wheels capable of being maneuvered along quite easily by two boys or girls.

In the closing years of her life Mary established churches and schools in the villages of Ikpe, Odoro Ikpe and Nkanga further up Enyong Creek. She carried out ministry at those locations unaided by fellow missionaries. To her deep disappointment, the Mission had already concluded that health conditions were not safe enough in that region to place other missionaries there. To the end, however, she continued to be assisted by several African girls who lived with her as foster daughters.

Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

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A fuller account of Mary Slessor’s storied missionary career in Calabar is recorded in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). W. P. Livingstone’s Mary Slessor of Calabar, Pioneer Missionary (originally published 1916) is the classic full-length biography of her life. Bruce McClennan’s Mary Slessor, A Life on the Altar for God (Christian Focus, 2015) is a more recent full account of her life.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Stained Glass Church Window of Mary Slessor in Calabar

Stained Glass Church Window of Mary Slessor in Calabar

Mary Slessor (1848-1915), a Scottish Presbyterian, served as a missionary to Calabar (southern Nigeria), West Africa, for thirty-eight years. At that time Calabar was considered one of the deadliest and most degraded countries in all of Africa. While the European slave trade had been largely abolished in Calabar decades earlier, the country’s population continued to be ravaged by intertribal warfare, disease and superstitious pagan practices. Mary compassionately, courageously pioneered in areas of Calabar that other missionaries and even traders avoided.

For the first several years of her missionary career, Mary ministered in two mission settlements, Duke Town and Old Town, on the Calabar River, about forty miles from the coast. She was soon placed in charge of the mission work at Old Town and its three small outstations. In those locations she held regular school sessions for both children and adults during the week, then led worship services and a Sunday School on the Lord’s Day.

One of the horrifying, superstitious practices that Mary and the other missionaries strove to overcome was the custom of killing twin babies. Calabarians believed that the father of one of the twin infants was an evil spirit and that at least one of the twins was a monster. Twin babies were seized, their backs were broken and they were thrown out into the bush to be eaten by wild animals or insects. The infants of slave mothers who died were also left in the wild to perish. The missionaries rescued both those types of endangered infants whenever they could and took them to the missionary compounds where they were cared for and protected.

Mary Slessor and adopted children

Mary Slessor and adopted children

Mary spoke out against the evils of those forms of infanticide and took several such rescued children under her care. At any given time throughout her missionary career she usually had a number of rescued and orphaned children she was foster parenting. At first the people of Calabar viewed this with suspicion, thinking Mary was in league with a devil and expecting to see her suffer ill effects as a result. But in time their superstitious suppositions faded, and she became known everywhere as “the white Ma who loves babies.” (In Calabar and neighboring regions “Ma” was a term of respect for a mother.)

After twelve years of service in Calabar, Mary was granted the longtime desire of her heart when she was given permission to carry out pioneering missionary work in the previously unreached Okoyong region, a densely forested wedge of land between the Cross and Calabar rivers north of Old Town. The Okoyongese practiced witchcraft and animal sacrifice. They plundered property and slaves from neighboring tribes. They commonly used two superstitious trials-by-ordeal to determine a person’s guilt or innocence if suspected of a crime: boiling palm oil was poured over the hands of a suspect or he was required to drink water mixed with ground powder from the poisonous esere bean. As a result, many innocent people were left badly burned or dead. The illness of a freeman was invariably considered the result of someone having practiced sorcery against him. The local witchdoctor was called to supposedly identify the guilty individuals, who were then executed by decapitation. When a chief died, many individuals were put to death to accompany him into the spirit world. Liquor, guns and chains were practically the only items of commerce that entered Okoyong. Gin or rum was in every home and was drunk by every adult and child, beginning from infancy.

Statue of Mary Slessor Holding Twins in Calabar

Statue of Mary Slessor Holding Twins in Calabar

Mary ministered among these desperately needy Okoyongese for many years. Initially she taught school and held Sunday worship services at two substantial neighboring villages, Ekenge and Ifako. She also helped undermine the prevailing and devastating liquor traffic in Okoyong by introducing more beneficial forms of legitimate trade. Okoyongese began giving their time, attention and effort to producing palm kernels and oil to trade with Calabarians in exchange for cloth, pots, dishes and other useful items. In addition to material benefits for the Okoyongese, this trade also resulted in a considerable reduction in the amount of time they spent in useless drinking and fighting.

Eventually the day came when, at Mary’s insistence and for the first time in the known history of Okoyong, the death and funeral of a chief took place without the traditional sacrifice of other individuals to accompany him into the afterlife. Chiefs and other free people, one by one and unknown to each other, secretly came to Mary to thank her for her love and courage as well as for all the peaceful, life-giving policies she was promoting. They encouraged her to keep a brave heart and to continue doing away with the old customs that invariably produced death.

Mary Slessor

Mary Slessor

Mary did continue to manifest marked courage in her dealings with the Okoyongese. On numerous occasions she was seen taking large, drunken mean by the neck, pulling them away from their alcohol and throwing them to the ground! She once stopped and confiscated a canoe-load of machetes that were being taken upriver for use in war. Several times she played a key role in preventing tribes from going to war with each other. On one such occasion she intervened between two tribes that were on the brink of attacking each other. Though her heart was beating wildly, she stood between them and made them pile their rifles on opposite sides of her. With mounds of weapons heaped up over five feet high on both sides, she then negotiated a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

Four years after beginning her ministry in Okoyong, the British Government asked Mary to carry out a new judicial responsibility in that region. For many years British authorities had exercised only minimal influence over the coastal regions of Calabar, while tribes like the Okoyongese further up the Cross River wholly ignored and opposed British directives. Recognizing Mary’s unique position and influence in Okoyong, British authorities asked her to organize and supervise an indigenous court and empowered her to do all that was necessary to promote the reception of new laws in the region.

Mary presided over the court at various locations throughout Okoyong. Large groups of tribal leaders came to consult her about adjusting their customs to the new laws. Through these activities justice was promoted for the local people and the rule of law was promoted in the region. Though Mary did not relish that type of service, she sought to carry it out faithfully, believing it to be part of the ministry the Lord had for her to do. Those efforts helped to greatly reduce such practices as killing infant twins, the poison bean ordeal and executing individuals at the deaths of chiefs. Mary gained a reputation as a tough but just judge, and Okoyongese

Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

came from great distances to have their trials held before her.

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A fuller account of Mary Slessor’s storied missionary career in Calabar is recorded in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). W. P. Livingstone’s Mary Slessor of Calabar, Pioneer Missionary (originally published 1916) is the classic full-length biography of her life. Bruce McClennan’s Mary Slessor, A Life on the Altar for God (Christian Focus, 2015) is a more recent full account of her life.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Mary Slessor
Mary Slessor (1848-1915) was one of the most celebrated Christian missionaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For thirty-eight years she carried the Gospel to savage, degraded tribes in the dense forests of Calabar (southern Nigeria), West Africa, courageously pioneering in areas that other missionaries and even traders avoided.

Mary’s girlhood and early adult years were filled with both extreme difficulties and encouraging spiritual influences. Both the negative and positive facts of her girlhood were used of God to forge within her the selfless, indomitable spirit that would be needed to fulfill the career of daunting, heroic service He had for her.

Stained Glass Church Window of Mary Slessor in Scotland

Stained Glass Church Window of Mary Slessor in Scotland

Mary’s father, Robert, after losing his job as a shoemaker in Aberdeen, Scotland, due to his drinking problem, moved his family to Dundee, where he worked in one of the city’s mills. As Robert descended deeper into alcoholism, conditions grew increasingly desperate for the family. Any money he could lay his hands on was spent on alcohol, and his wife was often left with nothing to feed and clothe the children.

Saturday nights were tense, fearful occasions for Mary and her mother. Having received his weekly pay in cash, Robert would stay out late drinking and then stumble home thoroughly inebriated. When his wife and Mary, the eldest daughter, offered him the supper they had denied themselves in order to provide for him, he often threw it into the fire. Sometimes when he became violent Mary was forced to flee into the streets where she wandered, alone and sobbing, in the dark.

Not many months after their move to Dundee, Mrs. Slessor had to enter one of the factories to help support her family. Mary was left to care for her siblings and undertake many of the household responsibilities. When Mary was just eleven years old, she too was put to work in a factory to help supply needed income for the family. At first she was a “half-timer” in a textile factory, working half the day and attending a school connected with the factory the other half.

By the time she was fourteen Mary had become a skilled weaver and went to work fulltime while continuing her education at the school by night. She arose at five o’clock each morning to help with household chores before going to the factory and needed to carry out similar duties after returning home at night. When Mary’s father died, the pressures on her remained enormous as she had become the primary wage earner for the family. Her life at that time was said to be “one long act of self-denial.”

Mary SlessorMary’s mother was a gentle, devout Christian. She always took her children to the regular church services and had them attend the church’s Sunday School. Mrs. Slessor also had an active interest in the foreign missionary enterprises her Presbyterian denomination was carrying out in India, China, Japan, South Africa and Calabar (the southeastern coastal region of modern Nigeria).

Despite Mary’s wearisome work hours, she was active in the ministries of her church. In addition to attending a Bible class for teens and adults, she participated in the weeknight prayer meetings and taught a class of “lovable lassies” in the Sabbath School. Mary’s church started a mission to reach needy young people in the tall tenements of Dundee’s slums, and she taught classes for boys and girls on Sundays and weeknights. When she and a few others attempted to carry out open-air evangelistic ministry in those underprivileged neighborhoods, roughs opposed them, pelting them with mud.

Mrs. Slessor’s children, Mary most of all, shared in her intense missionary interest. In that era missionary service was generally not open to single women. Two of Mary’s brothers showed interest in becoming missionaries but both of them died at a young age. Mary began to wonder: Would it ever be possible for her to become a missionary? Could she go in place of her brothers? Gradually those thoughts, which she expressed outwardly to no one, formed into a definite desire and determination.

When news of David Livingstone’s death reached Britain early in 1874, it created a new wave of missionary enthusiasm and played a part in leading many, Mary Slessor included, to offer themselves for service on the Dark Continent. Mary’s mother and most of her trusted spiritual confidantes encouraged her to pursue the possibility. She offered her services to the Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church in May of 1875 and was accepted as a teacher for Calabar.

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A fuller account of Mary Slessor’s formative girlhood and young adult years as well as a record of her storied missionary career in Calabar are included in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). W. P. Livingstone’s Mary Slessor of Calabar, Pioneer Missionary (originally published 1916) is the classic full-length biography of her life. Bruce McClennan’s Mary Slessor, A Life on the Altar for God (Christian Focus, 2015) is a more recent full account of her life.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Catherine Booth, Mother of the Salvation Army
For 140 years The Salvation Army (SA) has been ministering to the material and spiritual needs of underprivileged people in different parts of the world. This Perspectives article will sketch Catherine Booth’s vital role in the founding and dramatic early decades of The SA’s ministry.

In 1865 Catherine Booth’s husband, William, established The Christian Mission to minister to lower-class individuals in London’s degraded East End. Over the course of the next ten years The Christian Mission expanded to more than thirty ministry centers and preaching stations in towns scattered throughout England. In June of 1877 The Christian Mission was reorganized and renamed The Salvation Army.

William and Catherine Booth ministering in a street meeting

William and Catherine Booth ministering in a street meeting

Considerable military terminology and symbolism soon came to be used. Lay members of the mission were now soldiers, and evangelists were captains and lieutenants. Mission stations were called corps. William Booth, The Salvation Army’s general superintendent, was referred to as the General. Catherine never held a rank in The SA, but she did eventually assume the honorary title of the Army mother.

During 1878 and 1879 Catherine was kept constantly on the go, speaking at “war councils” in various cities and towns, presenting The Salvation Army flag to new corps, and explaining as well as defending the Army’s mission and methods to supporters and critics alike. Such ministries took her to fifty-nine towns in 1879. The SA was then experiencing explosive growth, growing to 130 corps and 195 officers in England that year.

Beginning in 1880 The Salvation Army’s ministry mushroomed beyond England and Wales to other parts of the world. That year and the next a dozen corps were established in both the United States and Australia. Within a year and a half of the first Salvation Army street meeting in Canada, a whopping 200 corps under the direction of 400 officers had been established in that country.

Despite its dramatic success (or because of it), The Salvation Army attracted many critics and opponents. Catherine played a major role in defending The SA against its numerous detractors. Anglican clergy denounced the Army as having no part in historic orthodox Christianity. Upper class individuals and members of the Established Church were especially critical of some of the Army’s novel methods: SA soldiers marching in the streets; “Hallelujah Lasses” preaching in the streets or speaking publicly in churches; the Gospel being preached in theatres and circuses; adapting secular tunes to many of the spiritual songs employed in their services; showcasing in public meetings trophy converts rescued from notorious pasts.

William and Catherine Booth, Founders of The Salvation Army

William and Catherine Booth, Founders of The Salvation Army

To one critic of such measures Catherine responded earnestly: “Oh, my dear sir, if you only knew the indifferent, besotted, semi-heathenish condition of the classes on whom we operate, you would, I am sure, deem any lawful means expedient, if only they succeeded in bringing such people under the sound of the Gospel. It is a standing mystery to me that thoughtful Christian men can contemplate the existing state of the world without perceiving the desperate need of some more effective and aggressive agency on the side of God and righteousness.”

The Salvation Army also experienced persecution from the “Skeleton Army.” Mobs, many of which were incited by individuals with vested interest in the alcohol industry, used intimidation and physical violence in an effort to silence Nonconformist groups that dared to challenge traditional social customs and religious beliefs. Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and The Salvation Army were all targets of such mob violence. Police and local magistrates often turned a blind eye to the brutal attacks.

In 1882 alone, sixty buildings used for Salvation Army purposes were attacked (and sometimes all but destroyed) by rioting crowds. That year 669 Salvationists were assaulted, including 251 women and twenty-three young people under the age of fifteen. A group of SA lasses in Whitechapel, East London, were tied together with rope and pelted with live coals. Two female Salvationists died as the result of injuries sustained in an attack at Guildford.

Such harrowing incidents drew considerable attention to the unjust treatment The Salvation Army was experiencing in various parts of Britain. Public sympathy began turning in its favor. The right of the Army to conduct street marches was defended in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

In 1885 the number of SA corps in Great Britain increased from 637 to 802 while foreign corps rose from 273 to 520. By the end of that year the Army had 1,322 corps and 3,076 officers stationed around the world.

Catherine Booth's Gravestone

Catherine Booth’s Gravestone

In the closing years of her life Catherine was one of the key individuals who assisted her husband in working out an extensive plan to minister to the pressing economic needs of England’s “submerged tenth,” the percentage of the nation without the basics of food, shelter and work. The Salvation Army launched a greatly expanded program for addressing those needs.

But in the Booths’ minds, social work was clearly secondary to the primary spiritual ministry of leading people to Christ. Social ministry was appropriate and necessary to alleviate human suffering and to gain a hearing for the Gospel. But lasting economic and moral reform in individual lives and in society could only come about as people were led to saving faith in Jesus Christ and had their lives transformed by His Spirit.

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A much-fuller account of Catherine Booth’s life and ministries is related in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Roger Green’s Catherine Booth, A Biography of the Cofounder of the Salvation Army (Baker, 1996) provides a more comprehensive account of her life. Other encouraging and instructive incidents from the lives of William and Catherine Booth are included in my book Timeless Stories, God’s Incredible Work in the Lives of Inspiring Christians (Christian Focus, 2010).

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

William and Catherine Booth with the first five of their young children

William and Catherine Booth with the first five of their young children

With Mother’s Day and Father’s Day just around the corner, here’s some encouragement for Christian parents from the examples of William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army. The Booths carried out their parental responsibilities with a great blend of diligence, wisdom, seriousness and even fun. Though William and Catherine were heavily involved with their public ministries, they were also devoted to the healthy upbringing of their children. Their pronounced influence on their nine children (including an adopted son) resulted in all of them growing up to become dedicated believers, with most of them entering vocational Christian service.

The Booths sought, under God, to lead each of their children to receive Jesus Christ as their personal Savior at a young age. Once after an evangelistic meeting that was being held in a tent, Catherine approached their oldest son Bramwell, who was then seven years of age. It was obvious he was under deep spiritual conviction. “You are very unhappy,” she stated tenderly, then asked, “You know the reason?” He indicated he did. But when she asked if he was ready to make a public decision for Christ, he immediately and emphatically responded, “No!” Years later he related of that moment: “She put her hands suddenly to her face, and I can never forget my feelings on seeing the tears fall through them on the sawdust beneath our feet. But I still said ‘No!’”

Bramwell Booth (son) and Evangeline Booth (daughter) as Salvation Army leaders in adulthood

Bramwell Booth (son) and Evangeline Booth (daughter) as Salvation Army leaders in adulthood

Not many months later, however, following a meeting conducted specifically for children, Catherine was delighted to find Bramwell kneeling among the group of young penitents at the close of the service. The tenderhearted lad wept aloud over his sins. When his mother knelt and prayed with him, he experienced God’s forgiveness and knew he had been saved through faith in Jesus.

Family Bible reading and prayer was an everyday occurrence in the Booth household. In keeping with William and Catherine’s conservative convictions (which were common among many Evangelical Christians of their era), drinking alcohol, smoking, dancing, playing cards, going to theatres and dressing in worldly fashions that called attention to oneself were strictly forbidden.

While the Christian Sabbath was carefully observed, the Booths believed Sunday should be a happy day. When the children were younger, Catherine held Sunday meetings for them at home. Those services included singing, praying and a Bible lesson she always sought to make interesting for her children. The children began attending public services after they were old enough to take an interest in them.

The Booths were great believers in fresh air and encouraged their children to play outdoors a great deal. The children especially enjoyed tennis, soccer and cricket. Occasionally William Booth would join his children for a lively game of Fox and Goose in which he always led the chase and provoked the squeals of excitement.

William and Catherine Booth

William and Catherine Booth

Catherine insisted on having a good degree of peace and quiet in her home, but she did not want to thwart her children’s energetic play. So the Booths had a double floor (packed with sawdust between as a sound barrier) installed between the children’s upstairs playroom and the ceiling of the house’s main story. The children could thus romp upstairs without disturbing the tranquility of the rest of the house. Many of the games the children played reflected their Christian upbringing, as when they reenacted Bible stories or held pretend revival meetings.

The Booth children were encouraged to keep a variety of pets, both as a way of enjoying some of God’s creatures and as a means of learning to care responsibly for others. Dogs, rabbits, mice, guinea pigs (the latter numbering nearly 100 at one time!) and other creatures made up the family’s revolving menagerie.

Most of the educating of the children was done at home under their mother’s watchful eye and with the help of a governess. Catherine considered it of greatest importance not only to impart knowledge but also to shape character and train the heart. Over the home’s five-foot bookcase she exercised a vigilant though broadminded censorship aimed at reserving the children’s attention for literature that was really worth their time.

William and Catherine diligently taught their children that their lives were not their own to do with as they pleased. Rather, they rightly belonged to God who had redeemed them, and their lives were to be devoted to serving Him and the needy world around them. From the time they were teens the Booth children were given significant responsibilities in their parents’ mission work. Each of William and Catherine’s children (except one daughter who had a significant learning disability) eventually served as officers in The Salvation Army, some at the highest levels.

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A much-fuller account of Catherine Booth’s life, public ministries and parental practices is related in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Other encouraging and instructive incidents from the lives of William and Catherine Booth are included in my book Timeless Stories, God’s Incredible Work in the Lives of Inspiring Christians (Christian Focus, 2010).

Christian Men and Their Godly Moms

In addition, Tim Challies is currently running a series of Saturday blogs on the helpful theme of “Christian Men and Their Godly Moms.” You’ll find a number of examples of devoted Christian mothers who profoundly impacted the lives of their children in that series at challies.com.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Catherine Booth

Catherine Booth as a young woman

When Catherine (Mumford) Booth, the future “Mother of the Salvation Army,” was just nine years old, she once saw a raucous crowd coming down the street of her girlhood town of Boston in Lincolnshire, England. The crowd shouted and jeered at a young man, obviously intoxicated, who was being dragged along by a policeman.

Catherine had often heard her father, a zealous proponent of total abstinence, speak publicly on the evils of drunkenness. A tenderhearted child, she instinctively felt pity for this individual who was obviously under the destructive influence of alcohol. Though normally shy, she now boldly stepped forward, took the drunkard’s hand and smiled up at him. That simple act of compassion and support had a calming effect on the man. Ignoring the continued ridicule of the crowd, Catherine bravely walked alongside the drunk, helping to steady him as he was led off to the town jail.

William Booth as a young man

William Booth as a young man

Catherine married William Booth, an itinerant Methodist evangelist, in June, 1855. Three years later William was appointed to be the pastor of a large Methodist congregation in the city of Gateshead in northern England. There Catherine devoted two evenings a week to house-to-house visitation in the lower-class neighborhoods of town where alcoholism and poverty prevailed. She prayed and read Scripture with people, shared and showed God’s love to them, invited them to church and succeeded in persuading a number of “drunkards to abandon their soul-destroying habits.”

Of one particularly pitiful home situation Catherine wrote: “I found a poor woman lying on a heap of rags. She had just given birth to twins, and there was nobody of any sort to wait upon her. I can never forget the desolation of that room. By her side was a crust of bread and a small lump of lard. … I was soon busy in trying to make her a little more comfortable. The babies I washed in a broken pie-dish, the nearest approach to a tub that I could find. And the gratitude of those large eyes, which gazed upon me from that wan and shrunken face, can never fade from my memory.”

In the years that followed William returned to itinerant evangelistic ministry, and Catherine began a fruitful public speaking ministry of her own. After they moved to western London in 1865, Catherine was invited to minister at a meeting of the Midnight Movement for Fallen Women. Two or three hundred prostitutes were at the meeting, and she spoke to them “as one sinful woman to another.” So fervent was her appeal, that some of them responded to her plea to reform their lives.

William and Catherine Booth

William and Catherine Booth

That summer William carried out a six-week mission in London’s East End. That section of the city was infamous for its extreme poverty, degradation and despair. Unemployment, drunkenness, prostitution and all variety of crime abounded. The East London Christian Revival Union (later renamed The East London Christian Mission) was formed to help raise prayer and financial support for the fledgling ministry. Through Catherine’s expanding ministry to well-to-do audiences in London’s West End she was able to acquaint them with and raise support for the East End mission.

William soon sensed the Lord’s leading to discontinue itinerant ministry in order to dedicate himself to this new mission. One night after walking from the East End to their home in the West End, he announced to his wife: “O Kate, I have found my destiny! As I passed by the doors of the flaming gin-palaces tonight I seemed to hear a voice sounding in my ears, ‘Where can you go and find such heathen as these, and where is there so great a need for your labors?’ And there and then in my soul I offered myself and you and the children up to this great work. Those people shall be our people, and they shall have our God for their God.”

CaCatherine Booth by Roger Greentherine later recorded her initial responses to that declaration: “I remember the emotion that this produced in my soul. I sat gazing into the fire, and the Devil whispered to me, ‘This means another departure, another start in life!’ The question of our support constituted a serious difficulty. Hitherto we had been able to meet our expenses out of the collections which we had made from our more respectable audiences. But it was impossible to suppose that we could do so among the poverty-stricken East Enders—we were afraid even to ask for a collection in such a locality.

“Nevertheless, I did not answer discouragingly. After a momentary pause for thought and prayer, I replied, ‘Well, if you feel you ought to stay, stay. We have trusted the Lord once for our support, and we can trust Him again!’”

That further step of faith and obedience eventually led the Booths to found the Salvation Army with its pronounced emphases on ministering to the spiritual and material needs of the lower classes of society. The remainder of their lives was devoted to promoting and carrying out multifaceted, large-scale ministry to hurting, needy individuals throughout Britain and the world.Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

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A much-fuller account of Catherine Booth’s life of compassionate Christian service is related in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Roger Green’s Catherine Booth, A Biography of the Cofounder of the Salvation Army (Baker, 1996) provides a more comprehensive account of her life.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie