Thursday, 23 December 2010

Enabling The Poor: the Origin of the Savings Bank

What comes to your mind when you think "Savings Bank"? A quaint 'olde worlde' place where an equally quaint lady issued you National Savings Certificates?

Well, this article shows how the old idea has got young again. The Savings Bank as a concept is admirably suited to the new world of "microfinance", which benefits people in developing countries by allowing them to save some of their earnings for future needs. This page shows how aid charity World Vision is implementing such an initiative in Ethiopia.

All of which takes the Savings Bank a full circle, away from national financial institutions and back to its local, small-scale roots. It all goes back to a largely unsung Scottish pastor, who became a giant of Christian social entrepreneurship.

Henry Duncan (1774-1846) had some experience in banking as a young man, but saw his future as a minister. In 1799 he accepted a pastorate in Ruthwell, a village on the Solway Firth in Scotland.

They were hard times. War with France had brought rampant inflation. The cost of grain went up by over 300% in 15 months, while a farm labourer might earn 5 pence a day. Rural communities were devastated, whole families destitute. Duncan preached faithfully, but he also acted. He bought consignments of Indian corn from the docks and sold it to the poor at cost price. He provided the flax needed for local women to start a cottage industry. He employed the men to turn the land adjoining the manse into a garden which, in time, people would come from miles around to admire.

But Duncan saw that something had to be done longer term. He picked up an idea once touted by Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, but which few had tried so far: the Savings Bank. It would be run on sound business principles, offering secure investment with a fair interest rate; it met a desperate need; and if successful, his model could be rolled out in other places.

In 1810 he opened his books in a formerly derelict cottage at Ruthwell which he had persuaded an Earl to release to him. Today it houses the Savings Bank Museum. After one year, funds stood at £151 - a considerable achievement in those impoverished days. Duncan's other forte being publicity, he founded a local newspaper and with characteristic gusto spread the word about the Savings Bank. The idea caught on, and within five years there were banks around the United Kingdom.

Much came down to Duncan's personal vision and energy. He underwrote the expenses himself (e.g. travel to London to secure legislation), taking no expenses from the bank. He had to be a diplomat, agitator and defender, which at times exhausted him. He became friends with many of the great and good of the day, including the socialist pioneer and benefactor Robert Owen. He became something of a celebrity, but did all he could to escape this, saying his prime duty was to save souls.

The enormity of Duncan's achievement is that this was no city enterprise, no work of high financiers. Duncan did it all on a church minister's stipend! Its genius is the sheer 'portability' of the initiative. What began in a remote village backwater in Scotland became one of the formative impulses behind the Grameen Bank, the "Bank for the Poor" (Grameen in Bangladeshi means 'village'), the foremost microfinance organisation in the world today.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Power Of Compassion

A contemporary of John Thornton (see last post) also deserves wider recognition. John Howard (1726-1790) had an unpromising start to life, being physically frail and showing no aptitude for learning. But at the age of 24, he inherited riches from his father (a successful London tradesman) and an estate in Bedfordshire from his grandmother.

A life of comfortable obscurity beckoned. But in Howard's case, responsibility seems to have made the man. There were two catalysts. During the "Great Awakening" he had a profound conversion experience, becoming good friends with Methodist pioneer John Wesley (there is a statue of both men together in St Paul's Cathedral in London). Howard also got married. His wife, Henrietta, was a woman of fine character and great philanthropy.

The effects were soon felt on the Bedfordshire estate. Howard was one of few landlords at that time who saw his obligation to provide properly for his workers. He refused to allow them to live in squalor and embarked on a building program of workers' cottages, which still stand today. Howard also ensured that conditions in the workhouse (orphanage) were humane, and funded the education of all children living on his estate.

The death of his wife almost broke him, but it threw him into the work that would startle the civilised world. Having become Sheriff of Bedfordshire, he got to see at first hand the horrors of the prison system. Much like credit card debtors crippled by interest today, entire families were devastated by debt: the head of the house would languish in prison long after the original debt was paid, held there by the 'fees' demanded by jailers, who had no other income. Moreover, prison conditions were overcrowded, filthy and corrupt.

At this point we see the heart of the 'social entrepreneur' awaken. A philanthropist will demonstrate sympathy ('I feel so sorry for their suffering'), even empathy ('I feel their pain because I have suffered too'), and be moved to a gesture of great generosity. But the social entrepreneur demonstrates the compassion that says 'I feel their pain - and I'm going to DO something!'

Howard began lobbying parliament. Over the next 15 years he secured changes in the law:
debtors were to be freed when the original debt was paid;
jailors were to be salaried so that 'fees' could stop;
justices could be held legally responsible for the conditions in their prisons.
To ensure these were enforced, Howard toured the counties of England, visiting and enforcing. He also drew up plans for religious education to given to all prisoners.

His labours did not go unnoticed. Requests came from other lands to visit the reformed prisons. This in turn led to Howard becoming something of a globetrotter, visiting most of the nations of mainland Europe from Portugal to Russia, advising on prison reform and enabling spiritual input to convicts. It was on a trip to Ukraine that he died. His grave there has the epitaph "Whoever you are, you are standing at the grave of your friend". Back in England, a colleague said that "from the dungeon to the throne, his name was mentioned with respect, honour and gratitude".

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Giving All You Can

This story appeared on the BBC News website on December 13. An Oxford University academic has pledged to donate one million pounds to charitable causes in his lifetime, and has set up systems for regular giving to start delivering on this undertaking. Already sixty-four people have joined him in this initiative to "Give as Much as you Can".

John Thornton (1720-1790) would have rejoiced. He fits well into this overview of Christian social entrepreneurship because he marks the start of a significant shift. Having begun with sheer philanthropy, giving large sums to good causes, he came to see that strategic giving and the creation of enterprises would benefit the needy more in the long term.

He was one of the richest men in England, having made a fortune trading between Hull and the Baltic states. A devout Christian, Thornton gave the equivalent today of £25,000 to good causes, every year for fifty years (well over a million in his lifetime). He provided food and blankets for the starving. He paid debts and fines to get the poor released from debtors' prison. He supported missionary societies and funded the distribution of bibles.

In time, Thornton realised the greater good that would come from having men of influence in key positions. So he used his wealth to 'buy' the livings of important parishes, so the he could install the minister. Most notably, he brought John Newton, the converted slave ship captain and author of "Amazing Grace", from rural obscurity to the church in Lombard Street in the city of London, which was attended by members of parliament, bankers and successful merchants. This greatly furthered the Evangelical cause, which lay at Thornton's heart.

He also came to see the value of education and training. He aided Lady Huntingdon in setting up her ministers' training college with an interest-free loan. He ploughed funds into a school for native American Indians in Connecticut, and founded Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, a prestigious establishment where a hall of residence still bears his name.

A curious juggling of values had to be maintained. Thornton never missed the chance to make a profit in business, but at home he was scrimping and saving in order to have more to give. What he started was carried on by his son Henry with his friends Wilberfore, Macaulay, Venn and the rest, who not long hence would form the Clapham Sect, the archetypal Christian social entrepreneurs - to whom we shall return.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Is There a Social Entrepreneur in the House?

I've been delving into a new area for me: the subject of Christian "social entrepreneurship". I hope to unpack it a bit in my posts this month.

According to this article, a social entrepreneur is usually a creative individual who questions established norms and harnesses entrepreneurial spirit and dynamism to enrich and help society rather than make themselves rich. We're talking about a blend of philanthropist, visionary, business thinker and 'go-getter' - and for a Christian, a strong faith.

Christian social care is as old as Christianity itself, of course; caring for widows and orphans is foundational to godliness (the Bible, James 1:27). Perhaps the first instance of a more visionary enterprise was Basil the Great's Basiliad in 4th century Caesarea. This was
"the great philanthropic foundation established by St. Basil where the poor, the diseased, orphans and the aged could receive food, shelter, and medical care free of charge from monks and nuns who lived out their monastic vocation through a life of service, working with physicians and other lay people. The New City was in many ways the culmination of St. Basil’s social vision, the fruit of a lifetime of effort to develop a more just and humane social order within the region of Caesarea, where he grew up and later served as a priest and a bishop."

This line continued primarily through Christian hospitals, only really broadening to other areas with the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. As poverty increased and health deteriorated through the factories, a window of opportunity opened for Christian social entrepreneurs. Suddenly prison reform, schools for poor children, cooperative societies, trustee savings banks and suchlike were big on the agenda, and gifted Christian men and women stood up with vision and application to see them through.

In my next posts I hope to pay tribute to a few of these and to see whether, as this site claims, the time is ripe today for a new generation of Christian social entrepreneurs.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Why Have A Covenant?

Why did the 'Serampore Trio' choose to write down their "Form of Agreement" in the manner of a legal covenant - and publish it? In today's western society, 'easy come, easy go' is so often the keynote. Political parties, churches or local clubs all lament that they can't get people to sign up. 'Quickie' divorces can end marriage vows in weeks. Life is impersonal and everything must be "now".

But there is a curious phenomenon here. Men who baulk at demands and commitments, even in their own marriage and family, can also be inspired by movies like Shawshank Redemption or Braveheart, with their 'band of brothers' flavour and 'loyalty to the death' message. (Maybe women do the same with Paradise Road?). The implication seems to be that intuitively we recognise the strength and desirability of loyalty, faithfulness and commitment, but life's experience has taught us that we're all too weak and it doesn't work - so leave it enshrined in films, don't try to live it.

But there is a reaction. Interest in covenants is growing. In churches in America, there is a mushrooming of interest in 'fireproofing' the marriage vows, born of the film Fireproof (which is popularising the term "covenant marriage" and offers specific rubrics for marriage rededications along this line).

A covenant is a statement of the basis for, and conditions of, a relationship, writes Julia Faire in her book on covenants. Covenants have the purpose of both defining and strengthening commitment and setting forth a particular course and vision for those that participate in them to follow. They have a strong biblical basis and a history of heroic observance, notably the Covenanter martyrs of Scotland.

There is a battle to be fought and won, Faire concludes, a lost generation to be won for Christ, a solid church to be built within a fragmented and unstable society. There is a need for a drawing of the lines, consolidation and fresh vision if the church is not going to largely disappear amidst the fog of confusion and disarray that characterises our present [western] society. Which makes the voice of Carey, Marshman and Ward all the more compelling today as a demonstration of the power of radical agreement and accountability, and their example so worthy of our attention - and emulation.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Serampore Covenant 6: Spiritual Life

The "Form of Agreement" ends with three shorter sections. Numbers 9 and 10 deal with the spiritual side of the mission. Here we are on known ground. The 'Serampore Trio' pledge devotion to the Bible and to religious education. We consider the publication of the Divine Word throughout India as an object which we ought never to give up until it is accomplished. This meant translation (in time, Carey and his team would translate the gospels into forty Indian languages and dialects, in addition to Christian tracts) and publication, for which they had their own printing press, which William Ward ran. Over and above this, the missionaries covenant to explain and distribute, and to excite attention and reverence for, the Word of God.

Free schools for Indian children were seen as a priority. The progress of divine light is gradual, so religious education for children was a vital tool. The missionaries should establish, visit, encourage and recommend these at every opportunity.

Section 10 is a commitment to fervent, believing prayer, both individual and corporate.

The concluding section 11, however, is anything but traditional missionary fare! It is a passionate recommendation of common purse Christian community living (the Bible, Acts 2:42), and a withering blast against any lessening of covenant commitment or a turning back to selfish, independent ways. Let us give up ourselves unreservedly to this glorious cause. Let us never think that our time, our gifts, our strengths, our families, or even the clothes we wear, are our own. Having embraced a shared purse around 1804, the Serampore team are able to testify: No private family ever enjoyed a greater portion of happiness, even in the most prosperous gale of worldly prosperity, than we have done since we resolved to have all things in common. This book looks at the biblical and historical evidence for Christian community living; this one looks at its relevance for today.

Having renounced self-centred living for the sake of the gospel, and having reinforced this by a pledge of loyalty and accountability, Carey, Marshman and Ward warn severely against turn back from it. Woe to that man who shall ever make the smallest movement towards doing things on his own. The moment it is admitted that each brother may act independently, a worldly spirit, quarrels and every evil work will succeed.

It is this formal, solemn and very human pledge of covenant that makes the Serampore mission both different and compelling. High standards indeed, but they were crowned with success. If we are enabled to persevere [in these principles], we may hope that multitudes of converted souls will have reason to bless God to all eternity for sending His gospel into this country. And succeed they did, as these links eloquently show.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Serampore Covenant 5: Strategy

Section 8 of the covenant made by Carey, Marshman and Ward is the longest of all. It covers long-term vision as well as short-term goals for its fulfilment. Much reads very relevantly for today.

In a clear swipe at Baptist traditions back home in the UK, where only one man was "the Minister", Carey states: If the practice of confining ministry of the word to a single individual in a church be once established among us, we despair of the Gospel ever making much progress in India by our means. It is only by means of native preachers that can we hope for the universal spread of the gospel throughout this immense continent.

Carey's vision is clear: a body of native missionaries, used to the climate, acquainted with the customs, language, modes of speech and reasoning of the inhabitants, able to become familiar with them, enter their houses, sleep on their floors or under a tree, and who may travel [far and wide] almost without any expense. This page shows how such a vision is being implemented today, with great effect.

Where does this leave Western missionaries? Basically, to be fathers, mentors and enablers. Carey writes of forming usefulness, fostering every kind of genius, and cherishing every gift of grace in them. As the first generation of native evangelists begins to form, the incumbent Western missionary's task is to superintend their affairs, give them advice in cases of order and discipline, and correct any errors into which they may fall - but also to enjoy the partnership with them, their steadfastness in faith, and keep pointing them to new openings for church-planting. Books like this show that this quality of spiritual fathers and mothers is a desperate need in churches today.

An interesting decision made by Carey's team was not to change the names of native converts when they got baptised. Other missionary organisations either gave completely new, 'Christian' names or added one. For Carey, the New Testament was evidence enough not to do this; the Apostle Paul saw no need to change names like Epaphroditus or Sylvanus, even though they were derived from pagan gods. For the 'Serampore Trio' it was essential to avoid alienating their target audience by suggestions of superiority or judgmentalism. Far more important was to foster, by all means at their disposal, a new heart, a moral and divine change in their conduct.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Serampore Covenant 4: Conduct

The seventh article of the covenant is longer and deals with areas of behaviour appropriate to missionary work in another culture, and the priorities they should set themselves.

A real missionary becomes, in a sense, a father to his people, is the crucial sentence here. Carey echoes the Apostle Paul, who wrote of 'becoming a father' to his converts (the Bible, 1 Corinthians 4:15). God's workers should feel all the anxiety, tender solicitude, and delight in their welfare and company that a natural father would feel for his offspring.

The 'Serampore Trio' pledge first to build up and watch over the souls entrusted to them, to spend time with them daily, and with great patience to see them thoroughly grounded in the foundation of their hope. But the practical must go with the spiritual: they must help them into habits of industry and to find jobs with the least danger of temptation. Carey stresses that Indian converts have made considerable sacrifices, even been cast out from their families, so cannot expect help to come from that quarter. If we do not sympathise with them in their temporal losses for Christ, we shall be guilty of great cruelty.

The missionaries understand also that the native religion of their converts will have given them no adequate sense of the seriousness of sin or its consequences. So these things must be taught and consistently restated. Meanwhile, reproof must be gentle, and great grace and forbearance shown. We ought not, even after many falls, to give up and cast away a relapsed convert while he manifests the least inclination to be washed from his filthiness. Could the same principles apply in a postmodern, 'post-Christian' West, asks this blog, where the very concept of sin has been relativised almost to non-existence?

In reaching out to women, the missionaries pledge to be especially wise, given that Indian women were generally segregated from men. Female help is invaluable, and we must afford our sisters all possible assistance. A European sister may do much for the cause by promoting holiness and stirring up zeal in female native converts. By God's grace, they conclude, their women may become instrumental in promoting the salvation of the millions of native women who are in great measure excluded from all opportunities of hearing the words of life.

Sunday, 14 November 2010


The next three sections of the covenant made by the "Serampore Trio" are shorter and deal with the practical issues of missionary service. First comes a pledge of committed urgency. We do well always to fix in our minds that life is short and that all around us are perishing. Where has this urgency gone in the West today? How often have you heard a "hellfire" sermon? In fact, whatever happened to the very concept of hell? Jesus mentioned it often; we don't. This article shows how we need to!

Carey admits that, in a hot climate, it is easy to run out of energy, but calls their team to consistent action: to carry on conversations with the natives almost every hour in the day; to go from village to village, from market to market; to talk to labourers and servants. And he quotes the Apostle Paul on 'being urgent in season and out of season' [the Bible, 2 Timothy 4:2].

Next, the trio pledge to 'Christocentric' mission. It would be very easy to preach nothing but truths for many years, without being useful even to one soul! The expiatory death and all-sufficient merits [of Jesus Christ] must be central. Oh that these glorious truths may ever be the joy and strength of our own souls! Here again, contemporary Christianity has drawn back from the full force of this - witness the involved debate over "penal substitution" among church leaders, which, curiously enough, began with the aim of opening the gospel to more people.

Then comes a pledge to being available and approachable. We must on all occasions be willing to hear their complaints, give them the kindest advice, and make decisions regarding their affairs in the most open, upright and impartial manner. Any heated or haughty behaviour by the missionaries will sink their character in the eyes of their audience. We must at all times treat them as our equals. We can never make sacrifices too great, when the eternal salvation of souls is the object. This corresponds with today's emphasis on "incarnational" missiology - being like Jesus among those we hope to reach.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


Articles 2 and 3 of the covenant are rooted in good sense and the wisdom born of experience in the field. The need is to converse with [Indian people] in an intelligible manner and to avoid coming across to them either as fanatics or as irrelevant. Sounds familiar? Read any piece about relevant witness in a post-modern (or 'post-Christian') society and the same issues apply. Here is an example.

So Carey, Marshman and Ward commit themselves to several things:
* conversing with sensible natives;
* reading some parts of their works;
* attentively observing their manners and customs.
They stress the need to know Indian modes of thinking, their moral values and their manners. So much is standard missionary training today, of course. But the Serampore missionaries see it as crucial to understand the way they reason about God, sin, holiness, the way of salvation, and [man's] future state. This surely parallels the move in today's 'Emerging Church' to understand where post-modern people are coming from, and then to reach out to them in Facebook evangelism or whatever.

Carey also advocates a commonsense approach to interacting with people of the Hindu majority religion. We must abstain from those things which would increase their prejudices against the gospel - in particular, English colonial haughtiness, and cruelty to animals. There should be no direct confrontations, no defacing of their statues, no disturbance of their worship gatherings. Carey praises the mild-mannered and gracious approach of the Moravian missions (see several of my previous posts) and of the Quakers among the Native American tribes. He was to enlarge on this elsewhere.

He who is too proud to stoop to others, in order to draw them to him..., is ill-qualified to be a missionary , states the Covenant. The Serampore trio pledge to follow the stated aim of the Apostle Paul, to "be all things to all men, that I may by all means win some" (the Bible, 1 Corinthians 9:22). And the section closes with a paraphrase from an unnamed missionary to North America, almost certainly either David Brainerd or John Eliot: "that he would not care if the people trampled him under their feet, if he might become useful to their souls".

Friday, 5 November 2010


Carey, Marshman and Ward preface the 'Form of Agreement' with a carefully-worded justification of their being in India at all. There is a reason for this. The Baptist Church in England at the time held a hyper-Calvinist position regarding the salvation of sinners. Forever lodged in Carey's memory was the occasion where he made known his missionary yearning at a ministers' meeting in 1786; an older pastor allegedly stood up and said: "Young man, sit down! when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine."

So Carey chooses his phrases carefully: 'We are sure that only those who are ordained to eternal life will believe, and that God alone can add to the church such as shall be saved.' Carey and several colleagues back home had challenged the prevailing determinism; he himself had preached a sermon on the necessity of missions, in which he included the memorable exhortation: Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God. Yet he was wise enough to realise that, were they to antagonise the Baptist hierarchy in England, they could easily cut off the supply of recruits and donations on which they relied.

Carey then brings the balance. 'Nevertheless, we cannot but observe with admiration that (the Apostle) Paul... was the most conspicuous for his personal zeal in the work of persuading men to be reconciled to God. In this respect he is a noble example for our imitation.' Touché? I think so!

And so to the first article of the covenant itself, which concerns urgency for lost souls. A paper that reached me only today claims that globally, 98% of Christians are neither envisioned nor equipped for mission in 95% of their waking lives. If that really is the case, then let us hear the heart expressed by Carey and his friends.

It is absolutely necessary that we set an infinite value upon immortal souls.[We should] endeavour to affect our minds with the dreadful loss sustained by an unconverted soul launched into eternity. May their case lie with continued weight on our minds.

India is a vast country, lying in the arms of the wicked one. This is no colonial pride, for Carey is just as scathing about his own roots: 'He who raised the sottish and brutalised Britons to sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, can raise these slaves of superstition... and make them worshippers of the one true God in spirit and truth'. Indeed, in faith Carey anticipates a day when He will famish the gods of India and cause these very idolators to cast their idols to the moles and the bats.'

This blog post considers reasons why the "heart for the lost" has been largely lost in Christendom today and challenges us, very practically, to do something about it. No doubt, Carey and his covenant team would long for us to do so!

Thursday, 4 November 2010


In 1793, William Carey, a shoemaker and subsequently Baptist pastor from Northamptonshire, UK, took his family to India as missionaries. They finally settled at Serampore in West Bengal.

For seven years they had not a single convert, their funds ran out and they were destitute for a time, his wife Dorothy got severely depressed and three of their children died. But by the time of his own death 41 years later, Carey had planted churches, founded colleges, overseen the translation of the gospels into forty local languages, and had secured the banning of 'sati' - the ritual burning of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. He was, and still is, a revered figure in the region. He has been hailed by many as "the father of modern missions" (which is a little unfair to the Moravians, see my earlier post).

What made the difference were some radical changes made when reinforcements arrived in 1799. Joshua Marshman, a gifted linguist, was a happily married man who saw immediately the strain in Carey's marriage and his neglect of his children (whom Marshman found rude, indisciplined and uneducated). The Marshmans took the children under their wing and brought them some much-needed love and discipline. William Ward brought a practical business brain and took the weight of administration off Carey's shoulders, as well as taking charge of the printing operation.

All this gave Carey a support structure that freed him to discover his leadership gifts. These three men thrashed through many issues and found a oneness of heart. This found an unusual expression: a brotherhood covenant pledge of loyalty and commitment. Entitled Form of Agreement, it was published in 1805 and has eleven points. Three times a year they read the pledge through at a special service and re-committed themselves to it. This covenant bond was faithfully kept by all of them until death. It was in many ways their backbone, the mainstay of the work in India.

This document well merits a closer inspection. Its context is specifically missionary - as opposed to the church covenants of membership that existed at the time. It is heartfelt, uncompromising and at times very strict. For example, the final point pronounces woes to the man who ever pulls away from the unity and does things on his own.

In my next posts I'll look at the points in turn and see what they say to us of the power of radical agreement and accountability.

Thursday, 28 October 2010


Another indigenous evangelist who deserves to be better known was Paul Adu (birth name Kwabena Mensah). He was born in 1915 in a village in Ghana, and grew up worshiping the local pagan god, as his parents did. But when he was seven, a Christian evangelist came to the village and Kwabena's older brother got converted. Kwabena too started going to the Christian meetings, to the great anger of his father, and in time he too gave his life to Christ. At his baptism he adopted the name Paul Adu.

After training at a Methodist college in Kumasi, Adu operated as an itinerant evangelist among the Ashanti people. He planted churches along the Volta River and founded a school. This was to be his pattern of action for many years to come.

When Adu was 40 years old, his zeal and application having been noted by the Methodist hierarchy, he was appointed the first African missionary for that denomination, to pioneer a work in the largely Islamic northern territories of Ghana. It was a road strewn with thorns: his second wife and one son died and his message was met with hostility.

But Adu stuck to the task. A gifted linguist, he translated prayers and the Apostles' Creed into the five local languages, but also hymns and choruses - knowing the Ashanti love to sing! He urged his converts to live at peace with Moslems, and he himself showed great tact in his dealings with their leaders.

More than this, he realised the acute needs of the area and worked tirelssly to see them met. At this time, large numbers of people were victims of river blindness, so Adu founded a school for blind children and, using volunteers, offered free education. By his own diplomatic efforts he also succeeded in getting basic medical supplies to the area, which were freely offered. Aware that peasant farmers worked long hours for their masters by day, Adu also started night schools, where they could learn new skills - and see the gospel of Jesus' love in action.

It was his complete identification with the people, his sharing in the common life of the people, that won their confidence and opened the door for the gospel. He wasn't just bringing Western-style church; Adu brought the kingdom of God, with justice, equality, respect for all types of people, and love of the poor. He retired from active mission in 1981, when he was to physically frail for the labours, and died ten years later, an honoured father figure in Christ - but largely unknown outside Ghana.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010


As you will see from my posts of 3 June and 14 October, I am researching the stories of ethnic evangelists and church-planters who are largely unknown today but who were used by God to do amazing things in their day.

Elias Letwaba was one of these. History failed to note him, and for two main reasons. First, his ministry was out in the wilds of the Transvaal bush, South Africa. Then, he was black, but belonged to a denomination (the Apostolic Faith Mission) which practised racial segregation, even holding separate baptism services for blacks and whites.

Letwaba's very birth had the supernatural about it. His mother, a nominal Christian, was visited by a man in white robes who prophesied that she would bear a son who would "carry my gospel message to many places" but suffer many trials. She didn't stay nominal after that! The Letwaba home was a house of prayer. Elias was born in 1870 and even as a boy was sensitive to God and felt tinglings in his hands when he read in the Bible of healings and deliverance. One day he prayed over a lame girl in Jesus' name - and only found out five years later that she had been healed.

He tried several churches but knew something was missing. His heart yearned for the New Testament "signs and wonders", and a people joined in their hearts. In 1908 he travelled to Doorfontein to hear the American evangelist and healer John G Lake. The power of God was very obvious in the meeting, with people being healed and set free. Lake sensed something in Letwaba and invited him on to the stage. This caused outrage among the white Christians, who were all for throwing Letwaba out. "If you throw him out, I will go too", said Lake, which stilled the storm and Elias remained on the platform. The two men became brothers from the heart; Lake invited him into his home, where Letwaba received his personal Pentecost, the 'baptism in the Holy Spirit'.

Under Lake's leadership, Letwaba began his itinerant ministry, walking hundreds of miles between far-flung villages. He prayed for the sick, many of whom were healed. After Lake returned to America in 1913, people began to recognise that Letwaba had, in some special way, inherited his mantle in 'power ministry'. On one occasion, during a heavy drought, he prayed for rain for one village, prophesying that it would happen that night (there were no weather forecasts in those days!). And the rain came.

In time, Letwaba spoke seven languages, founded and headed a Bible College with a reputation for depth and godliness, and had an apostolic circuit of thirty-seven churches. He insisted that his congregations be tribally mixed, which required up to three interpreters at every service. It has been roughly estimated that 10,000 people found healing as a result of his prayers. For all this, he remained a humble man, writing sermons pleading for personal holiness and humility, and leading by example in those areas. He died in 1959, aged 89, a father of the African church - yet surprisingly unknown outside his beloved Transvaal.

Thursday, 14 October 2010


Prince Kaboo was born in 1873, son of a chief of the Kru tribe in Liberia, Africa. When only in his teens, he was captured in a skirmish with the Grebo tribe, who used him as a pawn in extracting tribute. He was regularly whipped and tortured, and the Kru had to deliver a present every month to keep him alive. If they defaulted, Kaboo would be buried up to the neck, his face smeared with honey, and the ants would eat him alive.

One night, there was a blinding flash of light, the ropes fell off him and a voice said: "Kaboo, flee!" He ran into the jungle, travelling by night and hiding in hollow trees by day, until he reached the capital, Monrovia. Here he found work and was invited to church. Hearing how Saul of Tarsus was converted through a blinding flash of light [the Bible, Acts 9:3-19], Kaboo was astonished at the similarity to his own story, and gave his life to Christ. At his baptism he was given the name Samuel Morris.

After two years, hungry to receive training and to be empowered to preach the gospel, Kaboo was sent to America. He worked his passage, being badly treated by the ship's crew, but a number turned to the Lord through his witness.

He arrived in America aged 18 and was referred to Taylor University, a Christian foundation in Indiana. When the principal asked him what room he would like, Kaboo replied: "Give me the one that no one else wants."

Kaboo's simple godliness affected everyone he met. They often heard him calling on God in his room (he called it "talking to my Father"). He took every opportunity to witness to others, but his heart still yearned to return to Liberia with the message of salvation.

It never happened. In 1893, aged 20, he contracted an infection and died. The President of the university made this statement: Samuel Morris was a divinely sent messenger of God to Taylor University. He thought he was coming over here to prepare himself for his mission to his own people; but his coming was to prepare Taylor University for her mission to the whole world. Many of his student contemporaries volunteered for missionary service, to keep alive Kaboo's vision and to work towards his dream.

A life's work accomplished in just four years as a Christian! Behind this we can see the meeting of two crucial elements: a clear and powerful divine call and what the university President called Kaboo's sublime yet simple faith in God.

Monday, 20 September 2010


St Antony of Egypt was a true pioneer and radical, whose influence is still felt today. What makes him so remarkable is that he did what he did long before it made sense to do such things, but by doing it he blazed a trail for posterity.

It has become almost a mantra to evangelical Protestant historians that the migration to the desert by hundreds, even thousands of monks, nuns and hermits was a reaction against the official "Christianisation" of the Roman Empire by Constantine I and subsequent Emperors. But all that was 4th century - Antony had already made his statement a generation earlier, at a time when the Early Church was still supposed to be in its bloom.

Born in Egypt about AD 251, his parents died when he was young, leaving him a small fortune. One day he heard a Christian quote Jesus' words: If you would be perfect, go sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow Me (Matt.19:21). They cut him like a knife. He sold his estate and became the disciple of a godly pastor.

Yet his heart grew restless. He didn't belong to the world he saw around him. He felt a strong pull to the desert beyond the Nile. Here hot and cold, flood and drought engaged men in a daily, physical battle for life itself. To Antony, this mirrored the human soul in its battle between flesh and spirit, love for God and love of self. Here too was a pioneering adventure, where only the real would make it.

So Antony went to live alone in the desert. Friends sent food every few days; the rest depended on his survival skills. His experiences were later dictated to a follower - and what reading they make! He fought boredom and guilt, sexual temptations and hunger for possessions. He gives graphic accounts of battles with demons, but also of sweet times of intimate communion with Jesus. He also learned the importance of manual work for focussing the mind; he wove reed baskets and sold them in town.

Gradually his reputation spread, and men came to the desert to be near Antony. Reluctantly, in AD 305, he left his solitude and spent six years drawing these disciples into a community of hermits. In time, some 5,000 were with him. They lived alone or in pairs in the week, then came together on Sundays for worship, fellowship and mutual support. He taught them the foundational principles that he had based his own life on: love, patience, celibacy, gentleness and humility. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh, he taught. Gain your brother, and you have gained God. Offend your brother, and you sin against Christ.

Antony was well aware of the prophetic power of his act of renunciation of 'normality'. A time is coming when men will go mad, he is recorded as saying, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, "You are mad, you are not like us."

A monastery built in the vicinity of Antony's original community of hermits still exists and is a popular tourist destination. But Antony himself found celebrity unpalatable and withdrew deeper into the desert, where he lived to be 102. He appeared only twice: to strengthen persecuted brethren in Alexandria, and (at 101) to preach against a dangerous heresy. His burial place was kept secret, since he feared men's idolatry. Today, Antony is acknowledged as the father of the monastic life; the man who broke the mould and let passion for Jesus create a new, living 'wineskin' for the Holy Spirit's life.

Monday, 16 August 2010


The importance and impact of Menno Simons (see previous post) cannot be stressed too highly. One noted historian divides Anabaptism in the Low Countries into three phases: “before Menno”, “under Menno” and “after Menno”.

His travels in the church’s service took him from the Rhineland across the Baltic lands to Danzig (Gdansk) in Poland, and records show that he won followers wherever he went – some of whom died as martyrs, refusing to renounce the truths he had taught them. In the judgement of the Mennonite Encyclopaedia:

“Menno's significance lies in the fact that he prevented the collapse of the northern wing of the Anabaptist movement in the days of its greatest trial and built it up on the right Biblical foundation. He did this as its leader, speaker, and defender, through his preaching as he journeyed from place to place, and through his simple and searching writings. Particularly the Foundation-Book did much to restore the original Anabaptist concepts and principles, which were in grave danger of being lost. His writings were effective not so much because of their superior and logical qualities as a theological system, but because behind them stood a man formed according to the Scriptures who sincerely and honestly wanted to give all for the Christian church and the glory of God. Through Menno's courageous and devoted life a distinctive witness in the Reformation movement, representing a Christian brotherhood and a Christian way of life, was preserved.”

He knew full well that he could be arrested at any moment. He also knew the crucial importance of unity among the scattered groups of Anabaptists who claimed allegiance to him. He had to mediate and be diplomatic, yet to set a tone that others could follow. He called leaders’ conferences, he encouraged debate, he urged brotherly grace.

This has led to Menno being treated in the history books as a moderate among the Radical Reformers. Given the tight line he had to keep, this would hardly be surprising. Many of his writings restate the root principles and doctrines of Anabaptism and plead for wholesale acceptance of them.

But Menno was no lamb! One of his writings can serve as our example: ‘The Reason Why Menno Simons Does Not Cease Teaching And Writing’, written in the 1540s, is outspokenly hard-line in its exposure of sin, its naming of idols, and its call to repentance and a holy life.

“When I look to find a magistrate who fears God, rightly performs his office and uses his authority properly, I find, as a general rule, nothing but a wine-sodden Lucifer...

“Again, when I look to find true pastors and teachers, such as are sent of God, quickened by the Holy Spirit; who sincerely seek the salvation of their brethren; who are not earthly-minded, but preach the saving word of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, in purity of heart, and who are blameless in their doctrine and life - I find instead nothing but robbers of the glory of God, and murderers of souls; deceivers, blind watchmen, mute dogs, masters of sects who are carnally, earthly and devilishly minded; enemies of the cross; serving their bellies instead of serving God; false prophets, idolaters, vain talkers, liars, and tricksters. If any person does not believe my words, let him prove their walk by the word of the Lord; let him compare their doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life with the doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life of Christ, and even common sense will teach you who has really sent them, and what fruits their teachings bear!”

Menno would not be the first apostolic radical to be accused to being kindly when present and tough when writing from afar - St Paul had the same thing levelled at him [2 Corinthians 10:1]. Perhaps the underlying principle here is to show grace and understanding to open hearts, while slicing into falsehood and self-centredness in backslidden or blind hearts, with a view to winning them. We see Jesus Christ Himself doing this, so we may safely conclude that this is the heart of the true radical. And yes, where necessary, it is obnoxious!

Thursday, 5 August 2010


Some of God's radicals operated in days when the Church was strong and advancing. Others lived in times of hardship, confusion and decline. Their (equally heroic) task was to lead the way to restoration; to 'rebuild the walls', like Nehemiah in his day. One such ‘rebuilder’ was Menno Simons [1496-1561].

Born in rural Friesland, son of a dairy farmer, he showed piety and intelligence and at the age of 28 he became a Roman Catholic priest. But he was nagged by inner doubts about some aspects of Catholic practice, so he read widely, including the (officially banned) Martin Luther. The burning of an Anabaptist believer as a heretic, not far from Menno's home, threw him into mental turmoil. The Anabaptists (see my last few posts) were everywhere condemned, but their teachings resonated in his own heart. As he studied scripture, he became convinced that he was called to walk with these persecuted brethren.

At this very point, however, the Radical Reformers’ movement was in turmoil. One group, at Münster in Germany, had fallen into religious mania. Nearer to home, a group of Anabaptists had occupied the cathedral in Bolsward and proclaimed revolution. Both groups had been ruthlessly wiped out by the authorities. Even so, Menno sensed that the Anabaptists were at core 'like sheep without a shepherd' (the Bible, Mark 6:34). In this darkest hour, he felt an inner call from God.
I renounced my worldly reputation and my easy life, he wrote, and I willingly submitted myself to distress and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ. I surrendered my soul and body to the Lord ... and commenced in due time ... to teach and to baptize, to till the vineyard of the Lord,... to build up His holy city and temple and to repair the tumble-down walls.

For the next twenty years he and his family were fugitives. With a price on his head, Menno toured Holland and northern Germany, never staying in one place longer than a few months. Always in danger, Menno preached, baptised and reconciled brethren. He wrote letters and books setting out a balanced Anabaptist theology. One of his key themes was the ‘new creation’: people, the Church and society can be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the love of Christ. In this lies hope for mankind’s future, in any age.

Menno was never captured. Even so, his hardships left him crippled in later years. Only one of his children reached adulthood. And he bore the constant burden of care for the Church. If Almighty God had not preserved me, he wrote, I would have gone mad. For there is nothing on earth that my heart loves more than the Church, yet I must live to see her in this sad affliction.

So he pressed on. Through his labours, Anabaptism was not only saved from extinction but given new vigour. Mennonites gained a foothold in northern Europe, then in America, and they still exist in significant numbers today. Menno’s was an apostolic ministry, not in the out-front manner of a Paul but the more hidden manner of an Epaphras or a Titus. It was also truly radical in that Menno searched for the roots of New Testament Christianity, returned to those roots, and did all he could to protect, strengthen and publicise these roots. Menno offers today's evangelical Christians an inspiring model of leadership that balances zeal and discipline, passion and theological depth, courage and wisdom.

Monday, 2 August 2010


Historical evidence suggests that the only group among the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists) who targetted and achieved a united purpose as a movement, were the Swiss Brethren (see previous post). This has a lot to do with them being the first. By the time the word spread to Central and North Germany, persecution had already been let loose. Menno Simons , pioneer and apostolic leader of the Northern wing, was left a fugitive with a bounty on his head, travelling to support and help isolated groups of fearful believers. Regional unity was impossible under such conditions. The same was true for the Hutterites in Central and Eastern Germany.

So let's look at the third thumbnail definition of a radical movement, as used by secular historians (see post of 17 June), and see if the Anabaptists fit it. Did the Radical Reformation have as its aim a change to the current system of power ?

In any welling up of mass protest in history, there will have been hawks and doves: those who wanted revolution at any price and those who sought peaceful means. Even the mainstream Lutheran reformers had their rabble-rousing wing, under such men as Andreas Karlstadt, who led the masses in the burning of statues and Roman Catholic trappings, and who was implicated in stirring up the Peasants' War.

The Anabaptists had them too, like the fiery and unpredictable Hans Hut. These did seek an overthrow of corrupt feudal systems and rampant social and religious injustice. The Peasants' War did happen and some Anabaptists took part. Then there were the events at Münster in Westphalia where, under prolonged siege, the Anabaptist inhabitants set up their own kingdom, appointed a ruler and made new laws - a kind of shellshocked version of Calvin's Christian Republic in Geneva. It ended bloodily and was all the established churches needed to condemn Anabaptism for evermore.

The bulk of the Radical Reformation leaders, however, were against such things. Central to their beliefs were a) the separation of Church and State , and b) Christian non-violence. They accepted that the State was corrupt and might use force against them, but they were not to do so in return. It was against all their priciples to accept worldly offices such as magistrate, so there were never going to be any William Wilberforces among them.

Theirs was indeed a refusal of the world's power systems, but by another means: by "coming out, being separate and touching nothing unclean" (the Bible, 2 Corinthians 6:17). While others might seek to change the political and social systems by legislation or revolution, the Radical Reformation by and large did not see a Spartacus-like Jesus of Nazareth, but one whose kingdom was "not of this world" (the Bible, John 18:36). Their alternative was a new way of living as a collective, based on love, forgiveness and all Christian virtues.

So the Radical Reformation cannot fit the letter of the historians' third criterion, for they neither agitated politically nor (in the vast majority of cases) took part in any revolutionary activity. But in another sense, the definition scarcely fits a movement which had a different concept of 'power' , 'rule' and 'authority'. That they insisted on full observance of their belief and practice by all members, on pain of being cast out of the fellowship, shows a degree of commitment that suggests group radicality. And let's not forget, in the eyes of the State, their actions were indeed revolutionary and subversive enough to warrant every attempt to snuff them out. That, at least, is radical!

Thursday, 22 July 2010


Now let’s turn to the second suggested definition of “radicalism” (see post of 17 June). Were the 16th century Anabaptists (or Radical Reformation) an organised body rather than spontaneous local outbursts?

Immediately there's a problem. Present-day readers or groups tend to filter the data according to their own position, then make history fit that scheme. So to devout Catholics, the Anabaptists were heretics; to staunch Lutherans, they were dangerous fanatics bent on revolution. Progressive Nonconformists try to claim them as theirs - though in fact there are serious points of divergence.

Hans-Jürgen Goertz acknowledges this in his book The Anabaptists. He reappraises the evidence dispassionately and concludes that the Radical Reformation was largely a local phenomenon and cannot be taken as a united movement, whether through leadership, practice or even theology.

So do we conclude that the Radical Reformation wasn't "radical" in the sense of my earlier post, because it wasn't organised? If you're looking for a national movement, then no, you won't find one. But Goertz misses two fundamental points. The first is that the Anabaptists were outlawed from the start; arrested and imprisoned as soon as discovered; many burned to death; whole colonies forced into exile. Under such conditions it is very hard to start a national movement!

Secondly, the Radical Reformation arose in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and in time other countries eastwards, which were at that point in history hardly nations in the sense of western European monarchies like France, Spain and England. The Germanic lands were a hotch-potch of small states and dukedoms, united by language and culture but by little else. The mindset was different. 'Small was beautiful'. People thought regionally, not nationally.

So the southern wing of the Anabaptists, known today as Swiss Brethren, naturally focussed on their immediate area. On that basis, they did pursue unity and organisation. Leaders of local groups met at Schleitheim (or Schlatt am Randen) in Swabia in 1527 and thrashed through what they really believed and wanted. The result was the Schleitheim Confession, which became the seven-point manifesto and statement of faith for that part of the Radical Reformation. The very wording of the text speaks of united, organised purpose.

"The articles which we discussed and on which we were of one mind are these:
The Ban (Excommunication);
Breaking of Bread;
Separation from Abomination;
Pastors in the Church;
The Sword;
The Oath."

Here is evidence that there was unity and organisation in all three of Goertz's stated areas: leadership, practice and theology. The fact that it was not national, but only regional, is simply down to the political map of the time. All of which leads me to an initial verdict that the Radical Reformation (or at least this part of it) was indeed "radical".

Sunday, 4 July 2010


Let's start with the first of the three statements in my last post. Was the 16th century Radical Reformation (or Anabaptism) a co-ordinated movement or a largely individual protest?

Take almost any reform movement in history and it probably began with isolated rumblings of discontent, which grew more general and more vocal but awaited a defining moment: an action or the emergence of a leadership that would give the protest a voice and a cause. 'Protestantism' was already simmering under the surface of German life, but it took Marin Luther's act of nailing to the church door his 95 Theses (objections to the Catholicism of his day), to turn discontent into a movement.

A similar act could be seen as the defining moment for the Radical Reformation. Many people, particularly among the poorer classes, felt that Luther and his colleagues had not gone fare enough in their separation from the old Roman church system. They said he had "tried to mend an old kettle but had only made the hole bigger." One key area was infant baptism. At Zurich in Switzerland, one of the nerve centres of Luther's reforms, a group of leading Protestants headed by Ulrich Zwingli debated the issue. Finally, the town council sided with Zwingli and the mainstream party, declaring that infant baptism was acceptable and that nobody should oppose it.

Three leaders, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and George Blaurock, could not accept this. On 21 January 1525 they went to Manz's house to talk and pray the matter over. Blaurock then asked Grebel (who had been a minister) to baptise him with water as a believer, then Blaurock baptised the others. It was illegal but they made no secret of it afterwards, but instead went round baptising others.

The decisive moment had happened; a leadership had emerged; the 'Anabaptist' movement (coming from the Greek for 're-baptised'), or Radical Reformation, was born. This fits fairly conclusively the first criterion for "radicality".

Thursday, 17 June 2010


The discussion between David Platt and Kevin De Young, arising from Platt's book, Radical; Taking Back Your Faith From The American Dream, makes thought-provoking reading. Together with the many responses to the blog, it also shows how widely evangelical Christians differ on what "radical" really means.

"You can be radical in your own home", I read. If your definition of 'radical' is little more than the opposite of nominal, then fine - you can. But surely, committed or zealous ought to do here. By the way, isn't it sad that the old word "staunch" died the death? It had done a good job for centuries!

There is a generally accepted thumbnail definition of 'radical' used by political historians. Might it help us here? For them, it must:
a) refer to a movement, not an individual
b) be organised, not spontaneous, and
c) have as its aim a change to the current system of power.

If we are ready to accept these criteria in a Christian context, it immediately blows out the 'radical at home' idea, for you can't be a movement on your own! But questions still remain, not least regarding the categorisation of particular movements in history. The political-historical criteria by their very nature apply to movements "in the world", actively agitating for good, and not movements which sought to express their protest against the system by going "out of the world" and setting up an alternative society. Chief among these, of course, would be the Desert Fathers and the early monastic tradition.

There is, however, one movement which historians have actually called the Radical Reformation. This was the grassroots reaction in the 16th century against the system and trappings of both the Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant (Lutheran) churches. A movement sprang up, not by any means in full unity, but committed to breaking free from State-Church structures, externally imposed bishops, and the notion of salvation lying within an ecclesiastical system. They called for a return to New Testament principles of church structure and governance, a congregation's right to appoint its own elders, baptise believers, administer the sacraments and refuse to take up arms and fight wars.

Platt uses the phrase gospel-driven, grace-saturated, God-glorifying obedience, not particularly intending it as a definition, but as a description of the radical heart of Christianity. It seems to me that the Radical Reformation meets these requirements and fits the historians' definition of a radical movement. In my next posts, therefore, I'll try to give specific examples from their story and their writings that unpack this a little more.

Thursday, 3 June 2010


The Moravian Church was the subject of some earlier posts. One episode from their history speaks eloquently of radical faithfulness.

In 1737, the Moravian Church sent a team to start a mission and community settlement in South Africa. They chose some land east of Cape Town and called it Genadendal (Grace Valley). The local tribe, the Khoi, were impoverished and dispersed but the Moravians reached out to them and began a school for their children. One of the first Khoi to be baptised was a woman called Tikhuie, whom the missionaries named Magdalena. Her husband, a skilled hunter, kept the community supplied with meat.

Some of the missionaries died of disease, however, and the leader grew lonely and in 1744 was recalled to Germany. Everyone thought the community was finished. They reckonend without 'Lena’ Tikhuie! Having learned to read at the mission school, she gathered the people daily under a tree and taught them the scriptures.

Years passed. Travellers returning to Europe brought tales of an African woman leading a church at Grace Valley. Finally, in 1792, nearly fifty years after the withdrawal, the Moravians sent a fresh team to re-found Genadendal. On their arrival they found the ruins of the original houses, but to their astonishment there was Lena Tikhuie, frail and almost blind, still holding the ground and ministering to the little congregation, daily, under the tree. Her well-worn bible was still with her, wrapped in sheepskin.

The missionaries were told 'Every evening we all, men, women and children, would go to old Lena. She would fall on her knees and pray. When her eyes would let her, she read from the New Testament.' As families grew, parents taught their children to pray. When Lena couldn't read, a younger woman did it for her.

Lena became a living legend in the area. People came to see her. One, the wife of a high official in the British government, wrote: 'It was like creeping back seventeen hundred years to hear from the coarse but inspired lips of evangelists the simple, sacred words of wisdom and purity.'

Lena never knew when she was born, but she lived a long life, always thanking God for His great grace. When she died in 1800, her faithful perseverance had become legendary throughout South Africa. She was one of the first indigenous church leaders in South Africa, certainly the first woman, and she had led the congregation at Genadendal for fifty years.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


Why a "War Cry?" Because The Salvation Army means more war!" William Booth, Founder-General of the Salvation Army, certainly favoured the 'in your face' approach. With these words he began the front page article of the first issue of The War Cry, on 27 December 1879.

Today, the 'fight' against poverty takes many forms, from questions in parliament to individuals giving a few pounds to a homeless charity. But Booth's radical eye saw deeper than mere deprivation and squalor: he saw inner lostness, people without hope because God's love was not made real to them. Some churches tried, but in the main, Christians 'walked by on the other side'.

Not so the Salvation Army! The cry of slaughtered millions rises up louder and louder to heaven, crying to our inmost souls, with irresistible violence, to arise and fight more furiously than ever for the salvation of our fellows from the forces of evil which are dragging them drunken, befouled, degraded, wretched down to an eternity of woe. You can feel the passion, the indignation, Christ's own love for the poor! Jesus our King, the dying Jesus of Calvary, still looks weeping on doomed cities and multitudes wandering without a shepherd, and begs us to lay down our lives for them as He laid down his life for us.

If radicality has to do with roots, Booth bores into the very core of them, rebuking Christians for their lethargy, their compromise and their lack of real devotion to the cause of Jesus' kingdom. God will have his own people to repent and do their first works. He will have them abandon forever all friendship with the world, and all parley with evil hearts. Let all that name the name of Christ depart from iniquity. No more unbelief; no more pride; no more worldly pleasure or worldly dress or show; no more covetousness or self-seeking! is the name chosen for a web page run by a think tank and renewal group within the Salvationist ranks. Their wonderfully named Journal of Aggressive Christianity reproduced Booth's original article as the front page of their own first issue in 1999. You can read the General's entire broadside here.

Thursday, 13 May 2010


In around 1995 I was speaking to a young Salvation Army cadet in my town. I told him how inspired and challenged my own church was by the witness and the writings of William Booth. "Who?", he replied, in all seriousness. I was dumbfounded! Could it be that a movement had lost sight of its foundation (or at least its founder)?

Happily, it seems as though my young cadet may have been an exception. Having started to look at the radical outreach of the early Salvation Army in my last post, I came across this article. In it, Cadet Christopher Footer, from the Salvation Army Training College in South Australia, makes an impassioned appeal for a return to the radical heart of the gospel and the church.

He warns: This article is idealistic and primitive. It is intended to provoke thought, entice hearts and move bodies to some sort of aggressive action. And he sums up the heart of Primitive Salvationism as "charismatic-flavoured, mission-focussed heroism".

I have no doubt General William Booth would have approved of such a definition - non-theological, punchy, pragmatic and applicable. I can almost hear the "Hallelujah!"s ring out - and Ballington Booth's cornet!

I am encouraged and blessed that a new generation of Salvationists is seeking to examine their roots and look hard at the complex issues of what was for its time back then, and what is still meant to characterise the movement in the 21st century.

Saturday, 24 April 2010


A Trouble-Maker with a Vision

George Fox was born in 1624 in Leicestershire, England. These were troubled times: as a young man, Fox lived through the Civil War and the execution of the king.

His parents were devout churchgoers, but Fox records how from an early age he was disgusted with established church trappings and longed for a Christianity that would consume his whole being. He drifted around the country in a search for God. He sat in orchards reading the Bible, which convinced him that the only true church was the gathering of reborn people. He found no biblical grounds for special buildings, Sunday religion or paid clergymen.

At the age of 23 he finally found salvation and with it an experience that today we would call being baptised in the Holy Spirit. He saw a vision of heavenly glory, an ocean of light and love flowing out to cover an ocean of darkness. He knew the inspiration and revelations of the Holy Spirit, and was overwhelmed with a longing to save the lost.

In 1652 Fox felt led to climb Pendle Hill in Lancashire. Here he had a vision of thousands of souls coming to the Lord. He set off in the direction shown in the vision and, as a result, came into contact with the Westmorland Seekers (in present day Cumbria). These were groups of Christians disenchanted with denominational churches, who met together to pray and study the scriptures - much as many "de-churched" Christians do today.

In time, Fox was accepted and acknowledged as their leader. One sermon was preached to around a thousand of these Seekers at Firbank Fell, and a plaque there declares this to be the birthplace of the Quaker movement. The name came from an occasion in court when Fox told a judge to tremble at the word of God.

This new life, allied to a bold and outspoken nature, was very volatile! He sometimes wandered into a church service and addressed the people after the vicar had ended the sermon. He then fearlessly declared the narrow way of following Christ. On occasions he was set upon, beaten or put in the stocks, but always one or two who had received his words would rescue him.

The poor received his words gladly. Fox records in his journal that during his imprisonment in Carlisle in 1653, when he came near to being hanged, the rich came to gawp and triumph, while vermin-infested beggars and thieves showed him love. In time, some of these poor, uneducated folk were transformed by the Holy Spirit into valiant missionaries for Jesus Christ.

Quakerism is usually thought of as having been an intensely individual faith with its accent on personal salvation and receiving the ‘inner light’ – living in the Holy Spirit. But this overlooks a key thing. At first his network used names like Children of the Light or the Friends of Truth, which placed the emphasis on the experience of each individual. But Fox believed in Church as ek-klesia – those called out in order to be together. The assembly was important, and it was in the assembly that God was speak His prophetic word. So it was that, under Fox’s guidance, the name finally chosen for the movement – and which it still has today – is the Religious Society of Friends. Each word of that name can be meditated on, and together they present a pretty good theology of what any church is meant to be..

Note: The issue of what Church really is occupies a lot of Friends (Quakers) today, especially the younger generation. Chuck Fager gives a useful overview, which you can read here.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Radical CHURCH History (2)

The Moravians, who produced the hymn quoted in my last post, are a good illustration of what I am calling "Radical CHURCH History". They knew renewal in the Holy Spirit and did incredible missionary outreach, planting communities from Lapland to South Africa years before William Carey, the so-called 'Father of Modern Missions'. But for the Moravians, Church came first.

A motley crew were offered sanctuary and religious toleration on Count Nicholas Zinzendorf's estate in Germany. They couldn't agree, there was tension and rivalry - as I have no doubt there would be today if you threw together a random bunch of evangelical-charismatic Christians and told them to work it out! It nearly blew apart; Zinzendorf was sorely tempted to shut the thing down.

But in his heart he knew that CHURCH, the 'called-out ones' of Jesus, had to be the starting point. It was what Jesus had died for, after all. So Zinzendorf took some bold, practical steps.

We do well to note these steps. They are a world apart from today's notion that you have to start with anointed worship, seeker services, mums'n'tots groups and a youth program. But they were certainly radical - in their biblical conservatism.

He made a covenant with several brothers who shared his mind (1723).
They laid the foundation stone of a church building (1724).
They built a visible and distinctive residential community (1724).
He drew up a Church Constitution which set out the requirements of membership (1727).

Was this just Germanic efficiency? I fancy it was rather the actions of a covenant-committed core group standing by the road and looking, and asking for the ancient paths, where the good way is (Jeremiah 6:16).

The annals of the Moravian Church are quite clear that it was these concrete steps which brought an amazing change to the atmosphere and prepared the way for the much-publicised move of the Holy Spirit in a Communion service in 1728 which empowered the community for all that was to follow.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Radical CHURCH History (1)

It strikes me that, to most people, "radical church history" probably translates subliminally as "RADICAL Church HISTORY". History because, okay, that's where we're going to find some gems. Radical because hey, that's what we're wanting to get inspired by - and towards. But Church? Well that's just the context because we're Christians, isn't it?

Part of what burns in my heart and makes me do this blog is that I want to restore the value of CHURCH. I'm no Luddite, but I can't go along with the line I read in several newsletters I receive, that "we are now at last emerging from the dark days of priestly systems into the true kingdom of spiritual believers". Am I the only one who picks up behind these words a spiritualised version of everyone did what was right in their own eyes (Deuteronomy 12:8)?

Church as a living, committed band of brothers and sisters, an incarnation of the kingdom of God in shared, sacrificial lives - that to me is radical and totally relevant today. The whole "Belong - Believe - Behave" school of thought requires there to be something warm, alive and identifiable to belong to.

Christians of old understood this far better. John Cennick (1718-1755) was an evangelist and church-planter with the Moravian Church, predominantly in Ireland. He was also a hymn-writer, and today I simply offer, without comment, one of his hymns about being joined to a radical CHURCH.

Hail, church of Christ, bought with his blood!
The world I freely leave.
Ye children of the living God,
Me in your tents receive.

Bride of the Lamb, I’m one in heart
With thee, through boundless grace,
And I will never from thee part;
This bond shall never cease.

Closely I’ll follow Christ with thee,
I’ll go the appointed road;
Thy people shall my people be,
And thine shall be my God.

Now am I, Jesus, one of those,
Who in thy fold have place,
Who, gathered at the Saviour’s cross,
Enjoy redeeming grace.

O yes, nor would I change my lot
For all this world can give!
By grace I’ll keep the place I’ve got;
For thee alone I’ll live.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Archbishop Gunned Down At The Altar

I notice that on March 24, 2010, President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador issued a public apology for the murder of Oscar Romero. His countrymen have waited 30 years to hear it!

In the 1970s, El Salvador was ruled by a brutal dictatorship. The poor had their land confiscated; any who protested were never seen again. Mutilated bodies clogged the mountain streams. The Catholic Church, by not opposing this, was seen by many as supporting it. But in the darkest hour, one man stood up.

Oscar Romero had been appointed archbishop of the capital, San Salvador, because he was a safe option - he never troubled the waters. But when right-wing militias began executing 'rebels' one hundred at a time, Romero could hold back no longer. He spoke out against injustice.

‘The church’s place is beside the poor, the outraged and rejected, to speak out for them’, he declared. ‘Is our preaching so spiritual that it will not cry “Idolators!” at those who kneel before money and power? Jesus brings a kingdom where we share our wealth, so that nobody is without what they need for a dignified life’.

The powerless poor took him to their hearts, but people of influence were too afraid to join him. Posters went up: ‘Be a patriot – kill a priest!’ All his clergy drew back from him, except one, who got murdered. Romero refused to be intimidated. ‘Soon it will be my turn to die for what is right’, he declared - and continued to speak out against tyranny.

In the West, Romero was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (but Mother Teresa got it). Back home, he was top of the hit list. In 1980, while taking a friend’s funeral, Romero was gunned down at the altar by a death squad. He was 63. Even at his funeral, attended by 250,000 people, gunmen opened fire at mourners.

Yet today, democracy is bringing growth to El Salvador and churches are growing at a rate of 90% every ten years. The people are in no doubt: it is God’s blessing on the radical leader and martyr, Oscar Romero.

"One must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in risks. History demands risks of us. Those that fend off danger will lose their lives."

Oscar Romero

Passionate Past

In this blog I want to explore the Christian church's passionate past. In it you'll meet Christian radicals, the movers and shakers of past centuries. They have a lot to bless us with!