William Wilberforce as an Older Man

William Wilberforce as an Older Man

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

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

William Wilberforce Statue in Hull England

William Wilberforce Statue in Hull England

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

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

William Wilberforce Two Great Objects Quote

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

William Wilberforce Quote 2

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

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

William Wilberforce as a Young Man

William Wilberforce as a Young Man

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

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

Prime Minister William Pitt

Prime Minister William Pitt

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

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

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

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

William Wilberforce as an Older Man

William Wilberforce as an Older Man

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Mary Woolnoth Church, modern London

St. Mary Woolnoth Church, modern London

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie

Modern Medical Missionaries

Modern Medical Missionaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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