Tim Challies maintains an outstanding daily blog at www.challies.com on a wide range of important issues from a sound Evangelical Christian perspective. While most of Tim’s features have to do with pressing contemporary topics, he also has a strong interest in historic Christian matters, especially those that help believers live for and serve the Lord well today.
Tim recently posted a blog entitled “Biographies for People Who Have Never Read a Biography”. It’s a relatively brief and very beneficial article that provides three tips for getting started in reading Christian biography. Tim also succinctly describes ten manageable biographies from which readers could choose in beginning to delve into this type of profitable reading.
I’d encourage you to check out this
article and Tim’s remarkable blog. I think you’ll be glad you did.
It seems that many Christian ministers aspire to serve in a larger city and church setting which carries with it a degree of prestige and prominence. Not a few Christian ministers struggle a bit to serve contentedly in a smaller church and community context which may bring less esteem and eminence.
Faithful ministers with appropriate
motives are needed in both larger and smaller ministry contexts, of course. Whatever
size ministry setting Christians find themselves in, they need to realize the
crucial importance of the service opportunities God has entrusted to them
presently. And they should willingly give themselves to carry out heartily
their present ministry responsibilities.
Andrew Murray eventually became the
most prominent pastor in South Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But
the first eleven years of his pastoral career were spent ministering in a
smaller, isolated community and in a vast, sparsely-populated frontier region.
He gave himself wholly to that demanding ministry and as a result experienced a
good degree of fulfillment and fruitfulness in it.
Murray was born and spent the first
ten years of his life in Graaff-Reinet, Cape Colony, South Africa. After
spending a decade getting his secondary and university education in Scotland
and Holland, he returned to South Africa in 1848 to begin serving as a minister
at age twenty. He was assigned to serve as the first pastor of a new town and British
military outpost, Bloemfontein, which had been established two years earlier
beyond the northern border of Cape Colony.
During the 1830s and 1840s around 20,000
Boers (Dutch farmers) had migrated from Cape Colony to the immense regions
north of the Orange and Vaal Rivers. In addition to ministering at
Bloemfontein, Murray served as the first settled minister to the voortrekkers
(Dutch pioneers) in that vast frontier region of nearly 50,000 square miles.
When Murray arrived at Bloemfontein
it had about fifty houses, a few stores and shops, a courthouse and prison, a
military fortress and barracks, and a schoolhouse which doubled as a church
meeting house until a separate church building could be erected. As
Bloemfontein was home to a British military outpost, most of the town’s
residents were English. Initial attendance at the Sunday afternoon
English-speaking worship service averaged around seventy. A smaller Dutch-speaking
worship service was held Saturday evenings. Sunday school classes were held for
English and Dutch children as well as the children of a group of African
Bushmen who lived nearby Bloemfontein.
The plains throughout that region
teemed with a wide variety of game and wild animals. Once while traveling to
hold services at a location about seventy miles from Bloemfontein, Murray had
to cross a wolf-infested plain at a time when they were very fierce. After
fording a river, he dismounted to rest his horse. When the grazing animal heard
a pack of wolves approaching, it spooked and ran off. Carrying his pack on his
shoulders, Murray had to walk some twelve or fifteen miles to the nearest
house. “How did you do it?” the surprised farmer who lived there inquired. ”I
knew I was in the path of duty,” Murray answered calmly, “so prayed to God to
keep me, and walked straight on. The wolves snapped at me but did not touch
Between 1849 and 1852 Murray carried
out four ministerial tours in the area north of the Vaal River known as the
Transvaal. During the first itineration, which lasted just over six weeks, he
traveled some 800 miles on horseback and by ox-drawn wagon. He conducted a
total of thirty-seven services at six different locations. In addition, he baptized
567 children and interviewed well over 300 young people for church membership,
167 of whom were accepted upon their clear profession of faith in Christ Jesus
While Murray would wear a beard throughout most of his adult life, at this time he was still clean shaven and looked quite boyish. But he quickly gained the respect of the Transvaal Boers through his serious, confident demeanor, his overwhelming fervency and his willingness to sacrifice himself for their spiritual wellbeing.
A contemporary testified of the
intensity and gravity with which Murray ministered on the frontier: “When
preaching, so absorbed was he in his message that should he by his violent
gestures knock down Bible and reading desk of the impromptu pulpit, he would
not notice it. Solemn were the confirmation services when, before the final
confirmation promise was made, he would lift his hand, and with deep emotion
would adjure them not to reject the Savior, saying, “If you do and promise
falsely to be true to Christ, this hand will witness against you in the day of
The residents of some of the areas
where Murray ministered pleaded with him to accept their call to leave
Bloemfontein and come as their settled pastor. When two men arrived from a
settlement some 300 miles beyond where Murray was ministering during his first
Transvaal tour, he had to tell them that he would not be able to come and
minister in their area for eight months.
He afterward wrote his parents: “When
the men heard that they could not be visited for such a time, they were in
tears, as they had hoped I might go with them, and when they left again they
could not speak. I hardly know what to say when the people begin to discourse
about their spiritual destitution and their desire after the Word. Suppose
another minister should refuse to come here, but be willing to take
Bloemfontein, what would you think of my coming here? … The way in which some
of the people here plead really moves my heart. Many are in a fit state for
receiving the seed of the Word. May the Lord in His mercy help them.”
Murray had promised to visit the
Transvaal’s northernmost Dutch settlement at Zoutpansbergen during his fourth
ministry tour. But when word came that the settlers at that location were
suffering from repeated attacks of malaria and that several individuals had
already died, he was strongly advised not to proceed into that unhealthy
region. Since arrangements had already been made for the services there,
however, Murray considered it his duty to fulfill his ministerial obligation.
After he arrived there he learned
that in recent weeks twenty-four of the 150 settlers at Zoutpansbergen had
perished from malaria, eighteen of those within a fortnight of contracting the
disease. No home had been spared from death. The majority of those isolated
people had not had access to religious services for several years and were
overjoyed with this opportunity.
Stained Glass Church Window of Mary Slessor in Calabar
Mary Slessor (1848-1915), a Scottish Presbyterian, served as a missionary to Calabar (southern Nigeria), West Africa, for thirty-eight years. At that time Calabar was considered one of the deadliest and most degraded countries in all of Africa. While the European slave trade had been largely abolished in Calabar decades earlier, the country’s population continued to be ravaged by intertribal warfare, disease and superstitious pagan practices. Mary compassionately, courageously pioneered in areas of Calabar that other missionaries and even traders avoided.
For the first several years of her missionary career, Mary ministered in two mission settlements, Duke Town and Old Town, on the Calabar River, about forty miles from the coast. She was soon placed in charge of the mission work at Old Town and its three small outstations. In those locations she held regular school sessions for both children and adults during the week, then led worship services and a Sunday School on the Lord’s Day.
One of the horrifying, superstitious practices that Mary and the other missionaries strove to overcome was the custom of killing twin babies. Calabarians believed that the father of one of the twin infants was an evil spirit and that at least one of the twins was a monster. Twin babies were seized, their backs were broken and they were thrown out into the bush to be eaten by wild animals or insects. The infants of slave mothers who died were also left in the wild to perish. The missionaries rescued both those types of endangered infants whenever they could and took them to the missionary compounds where they were cared for and protected.
Mary Slessor and adopted children
Mary spoke out against the evils of those forms of infanticide and took several such rescued children under her care. At any given time throughout her missionary career she usually had a number of rescued and orphaned children she was foster parenting. At first the people of Calabar viewed this with suspicion, thinking Mary was in league with a devil and expecting to see her suffer ill effects as a result. But in time their superstitious suppositions faded, and she became known everywhere as “the white Ma who loves babies.” (In Calabar and neighboring regions “Ma” was a term of respect for a mother.)
After twelve years of service in Calabar, Mary was granted the longtime desire of her heart when she was given permission to carry out pioneering missionary work in the previously unreached Okoyong region, a densely forested wedge of land between the Cross and Calabar rivers north of Old Town. The Okoyongese practiced witchcraft and animal sacrifice. They plundered property and slaves from neighboring tribes. They commonly used two superstitious trials-by-ordeal to determine a person’s guilt or innocence if suspected of a crime: boiling palm oil was poured over the hands of a suspect or he was required to drink water mixed with ground powder from the poisonous esere bean. As a result, many innocent people were left badly burned or dead. The illness of a freeman was invariably considered the result of someone having practiced sorcery against him. The local witchdoctor was called to supposedly identify the guilty individuals, who were then executed by decapitation. When a chief died, many individuals were put to death to accompany him into the spirit world. Liquor, guns and chains were practically the only items of commerce that entered Okoyong. Gin or rum was in every home and was drunk by every adult and child, beginning from infancy.
Statue of Mary Slessor Holding Twins in Calabar
Mary ministered among these desperately needy Okoyongese for many years. Initially she taught school and held Sunday worship services at two substantial neighboring villages, Ekenge and Ifako. She also helped undermine the prevailing and devastating liquor traffic in Okoyong by introducing more beneficial forms of legitimate trade. Okoyongese began giving their time, attention and effort to producing palm kernels and oil to trade with Calabarians in exchange for cloth, pots, dishes and other useful items. In addition to material benefits for the Okoyongese, this trade also resulted in a considerable reduction in the amount of time they spent in useless drinking and fighting.
Eventually the day came when, at Mary’s insistence and for the first time in the known history of Okoyong, the death and funeral of a chief took place without the traditional sacrifice of other individuals to accompany him into the afterlife. Chiefs and other free people, one by one and unknown to each other, secretly came to Mary to thank her for her love and courage as well as for all the peaceful, life-giving policies she was promoting. They encouraged her to keep a brave heart and to continue doing away with the old customs that invariably produced death.
Mary did continue to manifest marked courage in her dealings with the Okoyongese. On numerous occasions she was seen taking large, drunken mean by the neck, pulling them away from their alcohol and throwing them to the ground! She once stopped and confiscated a canoe-load of machetes that were being taken upriver for use in war. Several times she played a key role in preventing tribes from going to war with each other. On one such occasion she intervened between two tribes that were on the brink of attacking each other. Though her heart was beating wildly, she stood between them and made them pile their rifles on opposite sides of her. With mounds of weapons heaped up over five feet high on both sides, she then negotiated a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
Four years after beginning her ministry in Okoyong, the British Government asked Mary to carry out a new judicial responsibility in that region. For many years British authorities had exercised only minimal influence over the coastal regions of Calabar, while tribes like the Okoyongese further up the Cross River wholly ignored and opposed British directives. Recognizing Mary’s unique position and influence in Okoyong, British authorities asked her to organize and supervise an indigenous court and empowered her to do all that was necessary to promote the reception of new laws in the region.
Mary presided over the court at various locations throughout Okoyong. Large groups of tribal leaders came to consult her about adjusting their customs to the new laws. Through these activities justice was promoted for the local people and the rule of law was promoted in the region. Though Mary did not relish that type of service, she sought to carry it out faithfully, believing it to be part of the ministry the Lord had for her to do. Those efforts helped to greatly reduce such practices as killing infant twins, the poison bean ordeal and executing individuals at the deaths of chiefs. Mary gained a reputation as a tough but just judge, and Okoyongese
Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie
came from great distances to have their trials held before her.
Mary Slessor (1848-1915) was one of the most celebrated Christian missionaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For thirty-eight years she carried the Gospel to savage, degraded tribes in the dense forests of Calabar (southern Nigeria), West Africa, courageously pioneering in areas that other missionaries and even traders avoided.
Mary’s girlhood and early adult years were filled with both extreme difficulties and encouraging spiritual influences. Both the negative and positive facts of her girlhood were used of God to forge within her the selfless, indomitable spirit that would be needed to fulfill the career of daunting, heroic service He had for her.
Stained Glass Church Window of Mary Slessor in Scotland
Mary’s father, Robert, after losing his job as a shoemaker in Aberdeen, Scotland, due to his drinking problem, moved his family to Dundee, where he worked in one of the city’s mills. As Robert descended deeper into alcoholism, conditions grew increasingly desperate for the family. Any money he could lay his hands on was spent on alcohol, and his wife was often left with nothing to feed and clothe the children.
Saturday nights were tense, fearful occasions for Mary and her mother. Having received his weekly pay in cash, Robert would stay out late drinking and then stumble home thoroughly inebriated. When his wife and Mary, the eldest daughter, offered him the supper they had denied themselves in order to provide for him, he often threw it into the fire. Sometimes when he became violent Mary was forced to flee into the streets where she wandered, alone and sobbing, in the dark.
Not many months after their move to Dundee, Mrs. Slessor had to enter one of the factories to help support her family. Mary was left to care for her siblings and undertake many of the household responsibilities. When Mary was just eleven years old, she too was put to work in a factory to help supply needed income for the family. At first she was a “half-timer” in a textile factory, working half the day and attending a school connected with the factory the other half.
By the time she was fourteen Mary had become a skilled weaver and went to work fulltime while continuing her education at the school by night. She arose at five o’clock each morning to help with household chores before going to the factory and needed to carry out similar duties after returning home at night. When Mary’s father died, the pressures on her remained enormous as she had become the primary wage earner for the family. Her life at that time was said to be “one long act of self-denial.”
Mary’s mother was a gentle, devout Christian. She always took her children to the regular church services and had them attend the church’s Sunday School. Mrs. Slessor also had an active interest in the foreign missionary enterprises her Presbyterian denomination was carrying out in India, China, Japan, South Africa and Calabar (the southeastern coastal region of modern Nigeria).
Despite Mary’s wearisome work hours, she was active in the ministries of her church. In addition to attending a Bible class for teens and adults, she participated in the weeknight prayer meetings and taught a class of “lovable lassies” in the Sabbath School. Mary’s church started a mission to reach needy young people in the tall tenements of Dundee’s slums, and she taught classes for boys and girls on Sundays and weeknights. When she and a few others attempted to carry out open-air evangelistic ministry in those underprivileged neighborhoods, roughs opposed them, pelting them with mud.
Mrs. Slessor’s children, Mary most of all, shared in her intense missionary interest. In that era missionary service was generally not open to single women. Two of Mary’s brothers showed interest in becoming missionaries but both of them died at a young age. Mary began to wonder: Would it ever be possible for her to become a missionary? Could she go in place of her brothers? Gradually those thoughts, which she expressed outwardly to no one, formed into a definite desire and determination.
When news of David Livingstone’s death reached Britain early in 1874, it created a new wave of missionary enthusiasm and played a part in leading many, Mary Slessor included, to offer themselves for service on the Dark Continent. Mary’s mother and most of her trusted spiritual confidantes encouraged her to pursue the possibility. She offered her services to the Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church in May of 1875 and was accepted as a teacher for Calabar.
When Catherine (Mumford) Booth, the future “Mother of the Salvation Army,” was just nine years old, she once saw a raucous crowd coming down the street of her girlhood town of Boston in Lincolnshire, England. The crowd shouted and jeered at a young man, obviously intoxicated, who was being dragged along by a policeman.
Catherine had often heard her father, a zealous proponent of total abstinence, speak publicly on the evils of drunkenness. A tenderhearted child, she instinctively felt pity for this individual who was obviously under the destructive influence of alcohol. Though normally shy, she now boldly stepped forward, took the drunkard’s hand and smiled up at him. That simple act of compassion and support had a calming effect on the man. Ignoring the continued ridicule of the crowd, Catherine bravely walked alongside the drunk, helping to steady him as he was led off to the town jail.
William Booth as a young man
Catherine married William Booth, an itinerant Methodist evangelist, in June, 1855. Three years later William was appointed to be the pastor of a large Methodist congregation in the city of Gateshead in northern England. There Catherine devoted two evenings a week to house-to-house visitation in the lower-class neighborhoods of town where alcoholism and poverty prevailed. She prayed and read Scripture with people, shared and showed God’s love to them, invited them to church and succeeded in persuading a number of “drunkards to abandon their soul-destroying habits.”
Of one particularly pitiful home situation Catherine wrote: “I found a poor woman lying on a heap of rags. She had just given birth to twins, and there was nobody of any sort to wait upon her. I can never forget the desolation of that room. By her side was a crust of bread and a small lump of lard. … I was soon busy in trying to make her a little more comfortable. The babies I washed in a broken pie-dish, the nearest approach to a tub that I could find. And the gratitude of those large eyes, which gazed upon me from that wan and shrunken face, can never fade from my memory.”
In the years that followed William returned to itinerant evangelistic ministry, and Catherine began a fruitful public speaking ministry of her own. After they moved to western London in 1865, Catherine was invited to minister at a meeting of the Midnight Movement for Fallen Women. Two or three hundred prostitutes were at the meeting, and she spoke to them “as one sinful woman to another.” So fervent was her appeal, that some of them responded to her plea to reform their lives.
William and Catherine Booth
That summer William carried out a six-week mission in London’s East End. That section of the city was infamous for its extreme poverty, degradation and despair. Unemployment, drunkenness, prostitution and all variety of crime abounded. The East London Christian Revival Union (later renamed The East London Christian Mission) was formed to help raise prayer and financial support for the fledgling ministry. Through Catherine’s expanding ministry to well-to-do audiences in London’s West End she was able to acquaint them with and raise support for the East End mission.
William soon sensed the Lord’s leading to discontinue itinerant ministry in order to dedicate himself to this new mission. One night after walking from the East End to their home in the West End, he announced to his wife: “O Kate, I have found my destiny! As I passed by the doors of the flaming gin-palaces tonight I seemed to hear a voice sounding in my ears, ‘Where can you go and find such heathen as these, and where is there so great a need for your labors?’ And there and then in my soul I offered myself and you and the children up to this great work. Those people shall be our people, and they shall have our God for their God.”
Catherine later recorded her initial responses to that declaration: “I remember the emotion that this produced in my soul. I sat gazing into the fire, and the Devil whispered to me, ‘This means another departure, another start in life!’ The question of our support constituted a serious difficulty. Hitherto we had been able to meet our expenses out of the collections which we had made from our more respectable audiences. But it was impossible to suppose that we could do so among the poverty-stricken East Enders—we were afraid even to ask for a collection in such a locality.
“Nevertheless, I did not answer discouragingly. After a momentary pause for thought and prayer, I replied, ‘Well, if you feel you ought to stay, stay. We have trusted the Lord once for our support, and we can trust Him again!’”
That further step of faith and obedience eventually led the Booths to found the Salvation Army with its pronounced emphases on ministering to the spiritual and material needs of the lower classes of society. The remainder of their lives was devoted to promoting and carrying out multifaceted, large-scale ministry to hurting, needy individuals throughout Britain and the world.
Fanny Crosby, the most prominent hymn writer of the nineteenth century, composed the lyrics for some 9,000 songs over the course of her songwriting career, which stretched out for more than fifty years. Through the years a number of fascinating true stories were preserved about how some of those songs came to be written or how they were used of the Lord to bring spiritual benefit to individuals.
Fanny composed over 1,000 hymns for William Howard Doane, a hymn writer and publisher from Cincinnati, Ohio. Not long after Fanny and Doane first met, he stopped by her New York apartment with the declaration, “I have exactly forty minutes before my train leaves for Cincinnati. Here is a melody. Can you write words for it?”
“I will see what I can do,” Fanny replied. She later related: “Then followed a space of twenty minutes during which I was wholly unconscious of all else except the work I was doing.” At the end of that time she recited the words to “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” to Doane, who quickly copied them down before dashing off to catch his train.
William Howard Doane
Probably more real-life incidents came to be known involving that hymn than any other song Fanny ever wrote. One of the most touching involved a pastor, Dr. John Hall, who went to see the ailing daughter of one of his parishioners. When the girl’s father came downstairs in tears, the clergyman asked, “My dear friend, what is the trouble? Has the little girl gone home?”
“No,” the father answered, “but she has asked me to do something that I cannot do. Anything that wealth might buy she may have. But I cannot sing ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus’ for I never sang a note in my life.”
“Oh, I will go up and sing it for her,” the minister responded reassuringly. He did, and the child slipped into eternity just as he sang the hymn’s last two lines:
Wait till I see the morning
Break on the golden shore.
The words from another of Fanny’s best-known hymns, “My Savior First of All,” were once used of the Lord to safeguard a number of people from spiritual deception. A man suddenly appeared in London, claiming to be the Messiah. Charismatic and persuasive, he drew large crowds for many weeks. But one evening as he was speaking in a public square, a small Salvation Army band passed by singing “My Savior First of All” with its closing lines, “I shall know Him, I Shall know Him, By the print of the nails in His hand.”
The sizeable crowd spontaneously joined in singing that chorus. Presently someone pointed at the self-proclaimed Messiah and challenged, “Look at his hands and see if the print of the nails is there.” When no such marks were revealed, the man promptly lost his following.
Money meant little to Fanny. She normally lived in simple apartments, sometimes in a rather poor part of town. She was extremely generous. Often she gave all the money in her possession to help some needy individual, then asked the Lord to provide what she needed for her own food, rent and other basic necessities of life.
One day someone said to her, “If I had wealth I would be able to do just what I wish to do, and I would be able to make an appearance in the world.”
“Take the world but give me Jesus,” Fanny instantly replied. That remark led her to write one of her most famous hymns, which bore those words as its title.
In an era filled with prominent Gospel song composers, Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) became the world’s premiere hymn writer of her day. A number of her hymns are still sung and appreciated by Christians around the world today. The fascinating story of how God used the seeming tragedy of Fanny going blind as an infant as part of developing her for her primary lifework is briefly related in my December 13, 2013, Perspective on “God’s Constructive Use of Misfortune.” In this Perspective we’ll explore other remarkable aspects of Fanny’s phenomenal hymn writing career.
During the course of her songwriting career, which stretched out for more than fifty years, Fanny composed the lyrics for some nine thousand songs. The vast majority of those were hymns. Nearly two-thirds of those songs were written for the Biglow and Main Company. Of the 5,959 poems she submitted to that New York firm, only about 2,000 were actually published. Often when the publisher requested works on a certain subject, she would submit three or four possible pieces on that theme. Normally only one of that grouping would be selected for publication.
For two decades Fanny composed between one-third and one-half of the selections included in the various hymnals published by Biglow and Main. She contributed large numbers of hymns for the works produced by other publishers as well. Most of her poems appeared under the name of ‘Miss Fanny J. Crosby’. But to make the massive volume of her contributions less conspicuous, she also employed an extensive array of pen names, initials and even symbols. The use of pseudonyms was a common practice by hymn writers in that day. But no other hymnist came anywhere near the whopping total of 204 different self-designations that Fanny employed.
Fanny Crosby in older age
Among Fanny’s best-known hymns were: “All the Way My Savior Leads Me”; “Blessed Assurance”; “Close to Thee”; “I Am Thine, O Lord”; “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross”; “My Savior First of All (I Shall Know Him)”; “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior”; “Praise Him! Praise Him!”; “Rescue the Perishing”; “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”; “Saved by Grace”; “Savior, More than Life to Me”; “Take the World but Give Me Jesus”; “’Tis The Blessed Hour of Prayer”; “To the Work! To the Work!”; “When Jesus Comes to Reward His Servants.”
Virtually all the songs destined to become Fanny’s most prominent works were composed in the first decade of her hymn writing career. Scores of others gained varying degrees of popularity for a time but not in the same abiding fashion. Interestingly, one other of Fanny’s most famous hymns, “To God Be the Glory,” did not gain widespread popularity until it was commonly used in Billy Graham crusades in the mid-twentieth century.
Fanny wrote so many hymns in her lifetime, in fact, that more than once she forgot that she was the author of a song that she heard and was blessed by. Once, many years after first meeting Dwight Moody’s famous song leader, Ira Sankey, she attended a Bible conference where he led the congregation in singing “Hide Me, O My Savior, Hide Me.” She afterward revealed, “I did not recognize this hymn as my own production, and therefore I may be pardoned for saying that I was much pleased with it.”
“Where did you get that piece?” she asked the song leader. Supposing she was merely joking, he did not respond to her question. But after the song was used again in the afternoon service, she insisted, “Mr. Sankey, now you must tell me who is the author of ‘Hide Me, O My Savior’.” “Really,” he replied good-naturedly, “don’t you recall who wrote that hymn? You ought to remember, for you are the guilty one.”
Fanny Crosby & Ira Sankey
Fanny did not become wealthy through her voluminous hymn writing. She was commonly paid a dollar or two for each of her poems, the standard fee with which publishing companies normally compensated their poets. She did not share in the considerable profits that her poems helped bring to the companies that published her songs. She seems never to have resented this arrangement or to have thought of it as anything other than normal music publication procedure.
During the final two decades of Fanny’s life, various Christian acquaintances made definite efforts to insure she would not live in impoverished circumstances. These well-intentioned friends may have failed to realize fully that Fanny’s financial condition was due in large part to her own generosity and outlook on money. She never expected to be paid more than the minimal going rate for the many hymns she produced for various publishers. She frequently refused honorariums for her numerous speaking engagements. Often she gave all the money in her possession to help some needy individual, then asked the Lord to provide what she needed for her own food, rent and other basic necessities of life.
Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) is well-known as the prominent blind hymnwriter of the nineteenth century. Some of her hymns are still sung today, including “Blessed Assurance,” “Redeemed,” “To God Be the Glory” and others. The story of her brush with death and subsequent conversion as a young woman is less well known.
At age fifteen Fanny entered the New York Institution for the Blind (NYIB), where she was a student for eight years before becoming a teacher there in 1843. In May of 1849, when Fanny was twenty-nine years old, a cholera epidemic broke out in New York City. Students at the NYIB were given an early dismissal to summer vacation that month, thinking they would be safer away from the city. But a number of students were unable to return to their homes elsewhere. So Fanny and some other faculty members decided to remain, being convinced that God would take care of them and they could be of some help.
By mid-July over 2,200 New Yorkers had perished from the dread illness. In the end, twenty members of the NYIB contracted cholera and ten died from it. Fanny assisted the Institution’s physician, Dr. Clements, in making pills to try to fight the sickness. A school just one block from the NYIB was turned into a cholera hospital. The Institution’s sick were taken there, and both Clements and Fanny served there. Frequently as she sat by a patient’s bedside at night the stillness was shattered by the harsh cry of a city official outside the door of some bereaved home nearby, “Bring out your dead.”
After several nights of almost no sleep near the end of July, Fanny felt like she might be coming down with the sickness. But after taking a generous dose of medication and getting a long night of sleep she felt fully restored. Hearing of her close call, however, the NYIB’s superintendent sent Fanny to her home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for the remainder of the summer. After the first hard frosts of fall it was deemed safe for people to return to New York City, and the Institution reopened in early November.
Fanny Crosby as a young woman
Fanny’s experiences in the cholera epidemic brought her face to face with her own mortality and likely played a part in life-changing spiritual developments that took place in the months to follow. Dating back to her first years at the NYIB she had attended the class meetings at the Eighteenth Street Methodist Church. In those early days at the Institution she was timid and never spoke in public if she could at all avoid doing so. She would attend the class meetings and play piano or guitar for them on the condition that she would not be called on to speak. Though Fanny had been raised in a devout Christian home before coming to the NYIB, by her own admission she had by this time grown somewhat indifferent toward spiritual matters.
In the autumn of 1850 revival meetings were held at the Methodist Broadway Tabernacle on Thirtieth Street. Fanny and some others from the NYIB attended the meetings each night. Twice when the invitation was given at the close of the service, she went forward, seeking peace from her inner spiritual struggles, but found none. Finally on November 20 she went to the altar alone. As she prayed, the congregation began to sing Isaac Watts’ grand old hymn, “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed?” When they reached the great words of consecration contained in the last verse – “Here, Lord, I give myself away” – Fanny expressed that commitment as the desire of her heart, yielding her life to Jesus Christ. Immediately her “very soul was flooded with a celestial light” and she sprang to her feet, literally shouting, “Hallelujah!”
New York Institution for the Blind
A week later she gave a public testimony at the class meeting of her recent conversion. When a good friend challenged her to make a complete surrender of her will to God, she did so by promising to do her duty whenever the Lord should make it clear to her. A few weeks later she was asked to close one of the meetings with a brief prayer. Her first thought was, “I can’t.” To which her conscience responded, “But your promise.” Some sixty years later she testified, “And from that hour I believe I have never refused to pray or speak in a public service, with the result that I have been richly blessed.”
The Lord used Fanny to bring great glory to Himself and abundant blessing to countless people. She went on to write several thousand hymns and to carry out a broad-ranging speaking ministry. Well into her eighties she traveled widely, ministering in churches, Bible conferences, rescue missions, YMCAs and various other settings. Fanny never tired of testifying, through her songs and speaking, of what Christ had done for her or of pointing others to Jesus as their Savior.
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
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.
That 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.
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
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.
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.