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.

Dr. Carl K. BeckerAfrica has been blessed with a long line of outstanding Christian medical missionaries. Such remarkable individuals as David Livingstone, Albert Schweitzer and Helen Roseveare come readily to mind.  “But if one medical missionary to Africa were to be singled out,” states missiologist Ruth Tucker, “for his length of service combined with his extraordinary dedication to saving the lives and improving the health standards of the African people, it would surely be Carl Becker, the great munganga [doctor] of the Congo.”

Carl Becker (1894-1990) was born and raised in Manheim, Pennsylvania. After receiving his medical training at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, he successfully practiced medicine in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, for seven years. In 1929 Becker and his wife, Marie, left Boyertown to go to the Belgian Congo (modern Democratic Republic of the Congo) under the Africa Inland Mission. In doing so, Becker exchanged an annual income of $10,000-plus for a missionary’s salary of $720 per year.

Five years later Becker moved with his wife and two children to the tiny mission station of Oicha in the dense Ituri forest to work among the Pygmies and other jungle tribes. In that unlikely spot, among towering mahogany trees, Becker and his associates built a highly effective medical compound. With no long-range plan and no budget for expansion, rooms and buildings were added as they became necessary, and were often paid for out of Becker’s personal salary of just sixty dollars a month.

A Leper's Hands

A Leper’s Hands

Becker’s weekends were devoted to itinerant evangelistic ministry in the surrounding villages. Mass evangelism was carried out to the hundreds of Africans who came to Oicha each day for medical treatment. Young Christian patients being treated at the hospital were also helped to grow in their faith.

Medical ministry brought about the fruitful evangelization of two area people groups which had long been intensely discriminated against, Pygmies and lepers. As a result of the care and love they received from Becker and his Christian staff, thousands of them were drawn to faith in Christ.

With Becker being the only resident medical doctor at Oicha, an astounding total of more than 3,000 operations were performed each year and some 500 babies were delivered annually. While treating all variety of injuries and diseases, Becker did extensive research and specialized in the treatment of leprosy. By the early 1950s he was treating some 4,000 resident patients at his 1,100-acre leprosy village. The results were so impressive that medical missionaries and leprologists from all over the world visited Oicha to learn from Becker.

From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, 1983 editionHe also treated patients with mental illness, including some individuals who were so severely disturbed that their relatives thought they were demon possessed. Becker established a mental ward and a psychiatric clinic at Oicha. However, according to Becker’s biographer, William Petersen, the doctor “remained convinced that simple Christianity was the soundest general therapy for the mentally upset, that the Gospel of love and hope alone can banish superstition and fear.”

Becker narrowly escaped from the Congo in 1964 when it became known that Simba rebels, rapidly closing in on Oicha, were intent on capturing and executing him. Some might have thought that the good doctor, then seventy years of age, would consider retiring at that point. But a year later he was back in Oicha, rebuilding the ministry that Simba guerrillas had destroyed the previous year. And his active missionary service in Africa stretched out for another dozen years beyond that.

Art Buchwald, the prominent American newspaper columnist, once penned this remarkable tribute: “In all of Congo, the man who made the greatest impression on us was an American missionary doctor named Carl K. Becker. … We couldn’t help thinking as we left Oicha that America had its own Dr. Schweitzer in Congo.”

Another Hand on MineBut Ruth Tucker seems correct in suggesting that the greatest tribute ever paid to Becker may have been this one made by one of his African medical trainees: “Many missionaries had preached Jesus Christ to me, and many missionaries had taught Jesus Christ to me, but in the munganga I have seen Jesus Christ.”

Much profit may be gained by reading William Petersen’s excellent biography, Another Hand on Mine, The Story of Dr. Carl K. Becker of Africa Inland Mission. Ruth Tucker’s outstanding work, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, A Biographical History of Christian Missions, contains a helpful summary of Becker’s life (pages 339-342).

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

Gladys Aylward

Gladys Aylward

Gladys Aylward (1902-1970), a plucky British missionary to China, was once led of the Lord to minister for several months in China’s second largest prison. At the same time, she was ministering at a nearby leper colony, and the Christians there earnestly prayed for her prison ministry.

Of her daily evangelistic ministry in the prison courtyard, Gladys related: “Rows and rows of horrible, dirty, cruel-faced, degraded men were lined up, with jailers at the end of each row. They were shouting, laughing and jeering. I was so small that a kind of little mound had to be built up for me to stand on. I talked to them, I told them stories, then they trotted off. Day after day I stood on that little mound, my heart hammering wildly, but with the knowledge of the terrible, desperate need of these men driving me on.”

Other Christians joined Gladys in the prison ministry, and after a few months forty prisoners had been converted and were in a class preparing for baptism. But thousands of prisoners still mocked at God’s Word, and the widespread spiritual blessing that the Christians had been diligently asking the Lord to bring to the prison had not come.

One of the prisoners Gladys sought to minister to was a murderer, of whom she reported: “Mr. Shan was young, handsome and arrogant, but there was something about him I felt to be utterly evil. He looked at me in a horribly offensive fashion and said unrepeatable things. I disliked him intensely, but I prayed for him, and I got my friends to pray for him. One day I tried to speak to him, but with an oath he turned and spat in my face, and I felt I almost hated him.”

Chinese prisoners like those to whom Gladys Aylward ministered

Chinese prisoners like those to whom Gladys Aylward ministered

Once after Gladys finished speaking in the courtyard, the prisoners formed into their lines to return to their cells. They always had to move at a trot, and were not to speak or be spoken to as they moved along. But that day, as Gladys saw Mr. Shan approaching, she sensed the Lord’s definite leading to speak to him. She was so agitated that she leaned forward, placed her hand on his shoulder and burst out, “Oh, Mr. Shan, aren’t you miserable?”

He threw off her hand with a horrible curse then angrily asked, “What is it to do with you if I am miserable?” “Because I am so happy,” she replied. “Of course you are,” he shot back. “Doesn’t the door open for you whenever you want to go out?” “Ah, that isn’t the reason,” she responded. “It is because Jesus Christ died for me.”

Shan moved on, and Gladys suddenly realized, to her dismay, that she had just violated one of China’s strictest unwritten laws – that no woman touches a man in public. She left the prison that day depressed and ashamed.

Meanwhile, Shan followed the line of prisoners to an inner courtyard where he sat down on a stone, his head bowed in his hands. Moments later, Dhu Cor, the first man who had been converted in the prison, saw Shan sitting there and asked, “Are you going to be ill?”

“Did you see what she did?” Shan queried.  “What?” Dhu Cor responded.  “She touched me.”  “No. That is a lie!”  “It is no lie. She put her hand on my shoulder.”  “I cannot believe it.”  Another prisoner who had been listening stated, “What he says is true. She did touch him.”

But then Shan gasped, “She touched me as if she loved me!” “Perhaps she does love you,” Dhu Cor replied. “What, a clean woman like her, love me, a murderer, who has cursed her and spat at her?!” Shan asked incredulously. “Yes,” responded Dhu Cor, “I believe she could because she believes that God loves you no matter what you have done.”

Gladys Aylward

Gladys Aylward

Mr. Shan’s heart was opened to the message of God’s love, and he trusted in Christ Jesus as his Savior from sin. His conversion was the beginning of a marked spiritual awakening that took place at the prison. Prisoners spent hours listening to the reading and teaching of God’s Word and hours more on their knees in prayer. So many prisoners were saved that afterward it took three full days of continuous baptisms for all of them to publicly profess their faith in Christ through that means.

The prison warden, convinced by the obvious alteration he had seen in even the most hardened criminals, was converted. He readily proclaimed that what he had been unable to do in five years, the power of the glorious Gospel of Christ had accomplished in one.

This true incident from Gladys Aylward’s ministry is recorded in her autobiography (co-authored with Christine Hunter), Gladys Aylward, The Little Woman. Other worthwhile books on Glady’s remarkable life and ministry include: A London Sparrow, The Story of Gladys Aylward, by Phyllis Thompson; Gladys Aylward, The Courageous English Missionary, by Catherine Swift.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

Gladys Aylward

Gladys Aylward

Gladys Aylward (1902-1970) grew up in London, England. She was raised in a Christian home and attended church and Sunday school as a girl. But as she entered young adulthood she became impatient with religious matters. Her one great ambition was to become an actress. While working as a housemaid in London, she took drama classes in the evening.

One evening, instead, she attended a church service, although she hardly knew why. There she heard again the Gospel truths she had been taught as a child, realized that God had a claim on her life, and placed her trust in Christ Jesus as her Savior from sin.

Sometime later Gladys read a magazine article that spoke of millions of Chinese who had never even heard of Jesus, a thought that staggered her. She spoke with friends and relatives about that alarming situation but none of them seemed too concerned. Before long Gladys came to sense that God was directing her to go as a missionary to China.

She learned of the China Inland Mission training school for prospective missionaries in London.  She went through three months of its training program but was rejected as a suitable missionary candidate due to her lower academic performance.

For a time she served with a ministry in Swansea that sought to rescue young women from prostitution and drunkenness. While she thought that ministry worthwhile, she could never escape the thought that God desired her to be serving in China.

Gladys Aylward with one of her many adopted orphans

Gladys Aylward with one of her many adopted orphans

As Gladys endeavored to read and study through the Bible, she was arrested by the story in Genesis 12 of God calling Abraham to leave his relatives and country, to go to a distant land, and to be used there as a blessing to others. Her attention was also drawn to the example of Moses in the early chapters of Exodus. In order to carry out the challenging mission God called him to, he had to leave the comfort and security of the work and family he enjoyed in Midian. Gladys couldn’t help but draw parallels to her own situation and sense of God’s call on her life.

Eventually she returned to London and resumed working as a parlor maid. The third day on her new job she began reading the narrative concerning Nehemiah. She could relate to his being burdened over a distressing, distant situation that he could do nothing about. But after reading Nehemiah 2, she was filled with elation and exclaimed, “But he did go. He went in spite of everything!” From that Scripture passage Gladys was convinced that God was giving her marching orders – to go, as Nehemiah had in his own time and place, to play a part in addressing the concerning situation in China that had been so long on her heart.

She laid her Bible on her bed as well as her copy of a Daily Light devotional guide and all the money she possessed – only two and a half pence (cents). “O God,” she prayed simply, “here’s the Bible about which I long to tell others, here’s my Daily Light that every day will give me a new promise, and here is two and a half pence. If You want me, I am going to China with these.”

Just then her new mistress rang the service bell to summon her. “I always pay the fares of my maids when I engage them,” the mistress informed Gladys. “How much did you pay getting here?” When Gladys told her, the mistress promptly gave her three shillings, slightly more than she had paid for her travel fare. “So in a few moments my two and a half pence had increased by three shillings,” Gladys afterward related. (A shilling was worth twelve pence.)

Gladys worked hard, scrimped and in time saved up enough money to buy a one-way railway ticket to China. At last, at age thirty, she traveled to China to assist an aging lady missionary in her ministries in the mountains of Shansi Province in northeast China.

Gladys Aylward quotationThat was just the beginning of Gladys’s many years of devoted, sacrificial, faith-filled service in China. Her colorful missionary career there included ministries to muleteers, women, orphans, refugees, prisoners, soldiers and others. Her years of service were full of adventures, dangers, remarkable providential protection and provision, as well as much spiritual fruit.

After World War 2 Gladys helped establish and carry out ministries to Chinese refugees and orphans in England, Formosa (modern Taiwan) and Hong Kong. She also traveled widely throughout Britain, Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Korea and Japan, sharing of and raising funds for her ongoing ministries.

Books worth reading on Gladys Aylward’s life and ministry include: Gladys Aylward, The Little Woman (her autobiography, co-authored with Christine Hunter); A London Sparrow, The Story of Gladys Aylward, by Phyllis Thompson; Gladys Aylward, The Courageous English Missionary, by Catherine Swift; The Small Woman: Gladys Aylward, by Alan Burgess.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

William SangsterWilliam Sangster (1900-1960) was a prominent evangelical Methodist minister in Britain. From 1939 to 1955 he pastored Westminster Central Hall, a prestigious Methodist church not far from Westminster Abbey in London. During World War 2 the basement of Sangster’s church was used as an air raid shelter. For 1,688 nights Sangster ministered to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of all types of people who gathered there for safety. After the war he spearheaded a spiritual renewal movement in Methodist churches across the country.

In 1958, however, Sangster was diagnosed as having an incurable disease that caused progressive muscular atrophy. When he learned of the diagnosis, he made four resolutions: “I will never complain. I will keep the home bright. I will count my blessings. I will try to turn it to gain.” Later he wrote: “There have been great gains already from my sickness. I live in the present. I am grateful for little things. I have more time – and use it – for prayer.”

Over the course of two and a half years he experienced the gradual paralysis of his muscles, which left him with no voice and able to move only two fingers. With them he communicated with others by writing, but eventually even that became illegible.

John 11:25On Easter morning, just a few weeks before his death, he managed to write: “How terrible to wake up on Easter and have no voice to shout, ‘He is risen!’  Far worse, to have a voice and not want to shout.”

This Easter season may our hearts and mouths be full of exuberant praise for our risen Savior Jesus Christ. He not only conquered death Himself. His resurrection is the guarantee that all who believe in Him, even should they die before His return, will similarly be raised from the dead to experience life eternal with Him in heaven.

The Apostle Paul states of those who die believing in Jesus as their Savior: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. … But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when He comes, those who belong to Him” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23).

Christ's ResurrectionAnd Jesus Himself declares: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

Such a Savior is worthy of our deepest gratitude and highest exaltation!

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

David Livingstone as a younger adult.

David Livingstone as a younger adult.

David Livingstone’s storied thirty-three-year career as a missionary, explorer and slave trade opponent in the southern half of the African continent led to his becoming a missionary legend and a British national hero. He was honored with a burial in Westminster Abbey.

But initially his qualifications for missionary service were seriously questioned, and he was nearly not approved to serve with the missionary society under whose auspices he first went to Africa. His early history as a would-be missionary suggests important lessons about persevering through discouragements in preparing for and pursuing the ministries we sense God is calling us to undertake.

Livingstone was raised in a pious but poor family in Blantyre, Scotland. From the time he was ten years old he worked long, taxing hours in a cotton mill while pursuing his education on the side. He came to saving faith in Christ Jesus at age nineteen. Two years later he sensed God’s leading to prepare to become a medical missionary.

Thoroughly independent, at first he planned to work his way through medical school then pay his own way in going to the foreign field. But during his second year of medical training, friends encouraged him to apply for service under the London Missionary Society (LMS).

The LMS Directors provisionally accepted Livingstone as a possible missionary candidate and, in the fall of 1838, sent him for a period of probationary training under Rev. Richard Cecil at Chipping Ongar, not quite thirty miles northeast of London. Livingstone and six other probationers studied theology as well as Latin, Greek and Hebrew under Cecil’s tutelage.

The students were also given the responsibility of leading, in rotation, the daily family worship sessions that were held in Cecil’s home. They were further required to prepare sermons that were submitted to Cecil for editing. Those sermons were then committed to memory and delivered to village congregations in the area.

David Livingstone buying a book as a boy - London Missionary Society painting

David Livingstone buying a book as a boy – London Missionary Society painting

Livingstone’s first attempt at preaching proved a disaster. One Sunday he was sent to deliver the evening message at a church in nearby Stanford Rivers. After reading the scripture text for his sermon very deliberately, Livingstone suddenly found that he could not recall a single word of his intended discourse. After a painful silence, he blurted out, “Friends, I have forgotten all I had to say,” then hastened, humiliated, out of the chapel.

Early in 1839 Cecil submitted his report on the current mission students to the LMS Board. Due to Livingstone’s hesitating manner in leading family worship and while praying during weekday chapel services, as well as his failed first attempt at preaching, Cecil’s report on Livingstone was rather mixed:

“His heaviness of manner, united as it is with a rusticity, not likely to be removed, still strikes me as having importance. But he has sense and quiet vigor; his temper is good and his character substantial, so that I do not like the thought of his being rejected.” Cecil thought Livingstone was “hardly ready in point of knowledge” to go to a theological college but stated his hope that his plodding Scottish charge “might kindle a little.”

Having read the report, the Mission Board was about to decide against Livingstone as an acceptable missionary candidate. But one of the Directors “pleaded hard” that Livingstone’s probationary period should be extended, with the result that it was. Six months later Livingstone was finally approved to serve as a missionary with the LMS. After finishing 1839 under Cecil’s further training in Chipping Ongar, Livingstone moved to London for a year of additional medical education. He sailed for South Africa in December 1840.

Gravestone of David Livingstone, Westminster Abbey.

Gravestone of David Livingstone, Westminster Abbey.

What does Livingstone’s example in this early phase of his history have to teach us?  When we sense God leading us to a particular ministry, we should diligently prepare for it. Even if at first we don’t seem (to ourselves or others) highly qualified for our future course of service, we should persevere in preparing for it if we remain convinced that the Lord is still leading us that direction. If God is, indeed, leading us into a particular course, He will give us success in becoming well prepared for it and will direct others to affirm and support us in pursuing it.

From a different angle, perhaps the Lord has us in a position to guide and encourage along an individual of less-than-obvious qualifications who nonetheless senses God’s leading to a particular ministry. Let’s seek to be careful and to be guided by God’s Spirit ourselves in how we advise that person. The Lord may use us to help bring to light a diamond in the rough.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

David Livingstone

David Livingstone

My primary publisher, Christian Focus Publications, has blessed me with a grand opportunity this year – to write a new biography on David Livingstone, the eminent missionary explorer to Africa. I’m deeply grateful to both God and CFP for this privileged opportunity, and greatly look forward to carrying it out with the Lord’s help.

Here are five main reasons I’m looking forward to writing this book:

(1) David Livingstone (1813-1873) is one of the premier missionaries in the annals of Christian missions. Through his extensive pioneer explorations in southern Africa, he prepared the way for the spread of Christianity and helped bring about an end to the slave trade throughout that portion of the Dark Continent. He gained tremendous acclaim during his lifetime. Since his death, untold thousands have been inspired by his example to undertake missionary or other forms of active, sacrificial Christian service. It truly is a privilege to research and write the life story of such a prominent, significantly-used servant of Christ.

(2) Livingstone has good name recognition, especially through Henry Stanley’s immortal greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” But a relatively small percentage of people know much about the good doctor other than that he was a famous missionary and explorer in Africa. This is a wonderful opportunity to help many people learn a great deal about Livingstone’s:

  • challenging and formative upbringing
  • Christian convictions that motivated and guided him
  • expansive (and sometimes controversial) missionary vision
  • phenomenal explorations – remarkable for their distances, difficulties and discoveries
  • tireless determination to stamp out the African slave trade
  • honest struggles as a husband and father.
David Livingstone & Family

David Livingstone & Family

(3) Livingstone possessed many outstanding strengths, including: his granite convictions; his unwavering devotion to fulfill what he perceived to be his divine mission and duty; his huge vision in various undertakings; his astounding determination and perseverance through all types of hardships and sacrifices; his unflagging courage; his highly respected character; his effectiveness in working with different races and classes of people. Such an individual has much to teach us.

(4) To be sure, Livingstone had weaknesses and failures as well. His fierce independence sometimes created marked relational difficulties. He was rather neglectful of his family. As a leader he could be dictatorial. A few of his cherished ambitions and undertakings failed to materialize or even turned out poorly.

Recent Livingstone biographies, apparently eager not to portray him as a plaster saint or larger than life, seem to relish the opportunity to emphasize his shortcomings and failures. They often judge him by contemporary standards and perspectives rather than by those of his own day. Some secular biographies of Livingstone exhibit little or no understanding of or appreciation for his spiritual perspectives and convictions. While I intend to acknowledge rather than ignore Livingstone’s shortcomings, I also anticipate being able to rightly provide a more positive and accurate assessment of his life and ministry.

Sculpture of David Livingstone Being Attacked by a Lion

Sculpture of David Livingstone Being Attacked by a Lion

(5) One aspect of pioneer missionary biography I’ve always enjoyed is the real-life adventure side of it. Who needs fiction when there’s such thrilling history to read?! Livingstone’s entire career as a missionary, explorer and slave trade opponent in Africa brims over with adventure and excitement, harrowing dangers and fascinating discoveries, triumphs and tragedies.

I’ll likely provide periodic perspectives from David Livingstone’s life in this blog as I write his biography. In the meanwhile, for a brief, beneficial summary of Livingstone’s life, see “David Livingstone,” by Brian Stanley, in Great Leaders of the Christian Church, ed. by John Woodbridge (Moody, 1988), pp. 329-333. A number of informative and helpful articles on different aspects of Livingstone’s life and ministry can also be found in Christian History, Issue 56 (Vol. XVI, No. 4), published by Christianity Today, Inc., 1997.

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

Shoemaker and apprentice pix 1William Carey (1761-1834) is commonly credited with being “the father of modern missions.” He grew up in Paulerspury, Northamptonshire County, England. Carey was a spiritually indifferent boy, despite the fact that his devout parents taught him to read the Bible from a very early age and religiously took him to the village’s Anglican Church. As a young teenager Carey was apprenticed to a shoemaker named Clarke Nichols in the neighboring village of Piddington. There Carey gravitated toward irreligious companions and became addicted to “lying, swearing and other sins.”

However, a fellow apprentice, John Warr, regularly talked with Carey about religious and spiritual matters. Warr attended the worship services of a nearby group of Dissenters, who were also known as Nonconformists. Like most Englanders in that day, Carey despised Dissenters for not adhering to the Church of England. Though Carey arrogantly argued against Warr’s views on Christianity, the latter’s earnest verbal witness and consistent Christian lifestyle began to have a positive influence. Carey started attending church more frequently in hopes of finding relief from the growing burden he had come to have on his soul. He also determined to set aside his habitual sins and sometimes sought to pray when alone.

Paulerspury Anglican Church as where Carey attended as a boy.

Paulerspury Anglican Church as where Carey attended as a boy.

God used an incident that occurred just at that time to show Carey the badness of his own heart and his need for a complete spiritual transformation. It was customary in that part of the country for apprentices to collect “Christmas boxes”—small cash gifts, sometimes collected in earthenware boxes—from the tradesmen with whom their masters had dealings. (These gifts were considered a token of Christmastime goodwill toward the apprentices for their service of the tradesmen throughout the year.) That Christmas season Clarke Nichols sent Carey to Northampton, six miles northwest of Piddington, having given him money with which to purchase some supplies for his master. Nichols also gave Carey permission to collect “Christmas boxes” for himself from the Northampton tradesmen whom they serviced.

From Mr. Hall, an ironmonger, Carey received a shilling, worth twelve pence. After collecting a few more shillings from other tradesmen, Carey went to purchase “some little articles” for himself. Only then did he discover that the shilling he had received from Hall was counterfeit, made of brass. He substituted one of Nichols’ shillings for the artificial one in order to complete the purchase. Too late he realized that his personal items had cost “a few pence” more than the gift money he had just collected. Expecting to be severely reproached by his master for his careless mishandling of money, Carey resolved “to declare strenuously” that Nichols himself had inadvertently given him the counterfeit coin when he entrusted funds to him with which to buy supplies for his master.

Carey afterward related: “I well remember the struggles of mind which I had on this occasion, and that I made this deliberate sin a matter of prayer to God as I passed over the fields [walking] home. I there promised that if God would but get me clearly over this, or in other words, help me through with the theft, I would certainly for the future leave off all evil practices. But this theft and consequent lying appeared to me so necessary that they could not be dispensed with. A Gracious God did not get me safe through.”

William Carey in middle age.

William Carey in middle age.

Nichols was suspicious and sent Warr to investigate the matter. Hall, the ironmonger, admitted having given Carey the bogus coin. Carey’s own attempted deception of his master was thus discovered and as a result: “I was therefore exposed to shame, reproach, and inward remorse, which increased and preyed upon my mind for a considerable time. I at this time sought the Lord perhaps much more earnestly than ever; but with shame and fear.”

The Lord graciously used that painful and humiliating event to help Carey realize his need to believe in and receive Christ Jesus as his Savior from sin. Not long after, when Carey was seventeen years old, he was born again spiritually through personal faith in Jesus.

This Christmas season as we celebrate the coming of Christ Jesus into the world, may we also be deeply grateful to God for showing us our own need for the Savior and for drawing us to saving faith in Him.

Copyright 2015 by Vance E. Christie