In his autobiographical masterpiece, Confessions, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) has much to say about human relationships. I have been gleaning some of his insights on true heart-friendship.
Broken-hearted at the death of a childhood friend, Augustine relocated to Carthage in 376 as a tutor in rhetoric. Here, with students who in some cases were not much younger than he, he found solace from his grief. It was a joy to him to talk and jest together, to do kindness to each other; to read pleasant books together; to play the fool or be earnest together; to dissent at times without discontent, as a man might with his own self. These and other similar expressions, proceeding out of the hearts of those who love and are loved in return, [expressed] in the countenance, speech, eyes, and a thousand pleasing gestures, were like fuel to melt our souls together, and out of many make us one.
Project this description forward sixteen centuries and you have today’s “soap opera” model of friendship. To anyone fed a diet of these programs, Augustine’s circle at Carthage was pretty high on the scale. Affection, arguments, horseplay, kindness – surely this is as good as it gets? And this is precisely where we see the alarming erosion of personal relationships today: people have to be guided by the media, and don’t even realise when they’re being sold short!
Augustine, however, was still not satisfied. Looking back later, he saw that his Carthage circle were chums, mates, buddies, but not friends of the heart. They were, if you like, the outer circle of relationships that everyone needs.
It was in Milan that things changed. He found a wise mentor in the bishop, Ambrose, and set his heart on becoming a Christian. He lodged with several young men, two of whom became lifelong friends: Alypius and Nebridius. Book 6 of the Confessions tells us more about them.
“Alypius was very fond of me because he saw me as good and learned, and I was very fond of him because of his natural tendency towards virtue which was remarkable in one so young.” The relationship went deeper because they opened up to each other their weaknesses, struggles and confusion. In later years Augustine called Alypius “the brother of my heart” and wrote to Jerome: Anyone who knows us both would say that he and I are distinct individuals but one in mind, in harmony and trusty friendship.
Nebridius, “a really good and pure young man, had come to Milan for no other reason than that he might live with me in a most ardent search after truth and wisdom.” Here too the relationship deepened through vulnerability and honesty: “Together we sighed and together we wavered.” Nebridius also watched over Augustine, reining in his intellectual curiosity and protecting him from heresies. “He set me before myself, forcing me to look into my own face.”
Here, then, is the inner circle of friendship – the relative few within our circle with whom we can drop our guard and let our true self be known. It is this that turns ‘chums’ into true heart-friends.
What makes Augustine so readable on this subject is the sheer humanity and honesty of his approach. His autobiographical Confessions make no attempt to cover his colourful pre-conversion life, where “the madness of lust” made him live “a life in which I was seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving”.
His conversion experience at age 33 took place in the company of a friend, Alypius, and for the rest of his life he lived in various forms of Christian community, surrounded by others, sharing his life with them. Some of these were particularly close to his heart. With hindsight, Augustine reassesses some earlier relationships which had seemed to be ‘the real thing’, but which proved not to be, as they were founded on two close but wrong ‘cousins’. Let us consider two of these: sex and infatuation (or co-dependency).
In Books 3-6 of the Confessions we find a young woman, whom he does not name, who became the mother of his child. “I loved the idea of love”, he writes, “but I muddied the clear spring of friendship with the dirt of lustful desire.” The couple remained together for 13 years and the bond clearly went deep. When his commitment to his faith led to them parting, “my heart, which clung to her, was broken and wounded and dripping blood.” He adds that the woman never took another man. In a culture where the term “friend” was usually only applied to men, Augustine says a lot about this relationship by referring to his ex-partner as his “friend”.
So, sexual union is not the fulfilment of the heart’s desire for friendship. In our day, when sex is billed as everything and leaves hearts broken and empty when it turns out not to be so, such a voice needs to be heard. But what does it offer instead?
In Book 4 we read of a childhood friend in his native Tagaste (in modern Algeria). They were the same age and had played and gone to school together. The friendship with this lad continued into manhood. It was “sweeter to me than anything I had ever known. My soul could not be without him.” Augustine was devastated when his friend died of a fever. “Tears took the place of my friend in my heart’s love. I was in misery, for I felt that my soul and my friend’s had been one soul in two bodies.”
At this point, many a 21st century reader will be thinking “he must of been gay”, even as the archetypal male heart-bond of David and Jonathan in the Bible is interpreted as “gay” in some circles today (1 Samuel 20:17; 2 Samuel 1:26). But we should always remember that such a branding of all same-sex attraction is an invention of the 19th century; it was not thought about that way in previous times and we must avoid crude retro-projections of modern interpretations.
More useful to us is Augustine’s own judgement with the benefit of hindsight: “We depended too much on each other… He was not a friend in the true meaning of friendship.” Here, then, is the second ‘near miss’ on the road to deep heart-friendship: the persuasive but largely mythical idea of the “bosom buddy” who will meet all your emotional needs and where the relationship seems to require little real work.
Maria Woodworth Etter (1844-1924) was a true pioneer in the history of “signs and wonders” in the church. A diminutive, uneducated woman from the backwoods of Ohio, she was rough-speaking and marked by suffering (five of her six children died). For more details, see this useful blog post by Shawn Stevens.
Even so, she felt a call from God at age 35 to proclaim the gospel. It was a day where women could not vote, let alone preach. So she asked God to qualify her. She records: The power of the Holy Ghost came down like a cloud. I was covered and wrapped in it. I was baptised with the Holy Ghost and fire, with power which has never left me. [‘A Diary of Signs and Wonders’]
She began touring with a gospel tent. This was well known in America, but Maria’s meetings were different. People fell to the ground and lay there for hours. Some saw visions of heaven, which they reported to the audience. Others spoke in tongues. Angelic singing was heard, even by journalists.
God used her most strikingly, though, in healing. People travelled hundreds of miles to be prayed for by her. She believed and taught that every need was already supplied in Christ’s atonement. She got people to lift their hands and praise God from the heart; then with authority she would command the sickness to go. In her various books and in press reports of the day, there are ample testimonies of the crippled running, cancers disappearing, decayed organs restored, the deaf hearing, and the mentally ill recovering.
What makes Maria Woodworth Etter stand out is the magnitude of the healings that took place in her campaigns. Many of these read like the Book of Acts. For this alone she has been called “perhaps the greatest woman evangelist in the history of the Church”. Here are a few examples, taken from her book A Diary of Signs and Wonders (1916, reissued by Harrison House).
‘A sister had met with an accident five years before. Her hip [muscles] had wasted away and for three years she had not left her bed. I saw she was in a terrible condition, but I knew there is nothing too hard for the Lord. I told her to put her trust in Him, then I prayed and she arose, perfectly healed of all her diseases, and went shouting around the house.’
Some sickness linked to demonic oppression
‘A little girl was carried into the meeting [at Springfield, Illinois, c.1884], as helpless as a baby. She had spinal meningitis, was paralysed all over, her brain was impaired, her head dropped on to her chest, and she had no use of her back and limbs. She had been so for six months, and for four months had only eaten nothing but drunk a little milk.
‘I laid hands on her and commanded the unclean spirits to come out of her. In five minutes she could sit up straight and lift her hands above her head. Five minutes more and she could talk and stand up… The next morning she was the first one up, running from house to house telling what God had done for her.’
Miraculous healing of multiple diseases
‘[A man of 64 in Indianapolis] had had piles for 30 years. He had had them cut and burned off four times; then cancer commenced. He got so bad that he had to sit on an inflated ring, and his wife had to flush his bowels twice a day, using a long syringe and tube and 2 quarts of water. Then he would bleed and it was so offensive that she could hardly do it.
‘The bowel was all gone on the left side for ten inches up; the backbone was exposed, having no flesh on it. He also had rheumatism… God converted and healed him all at once, in less than 15 minutes. He was baptised with the Holy Ghost and is now one of God’s little ones. There is nothing too hard for our God!‘
Healing as a pointer to God’s heart
‘[In Muscatine, Iowa], a lady came to the meeting suffering greatly. Eight months before, she had fallen down a flight of steps; her arm and wrist had been broken and her fingers crushed. The arm and hand were very swollen and inflamed. Doctors gave her no hope of ever being able to use the arm or hand.
‘When we prayed for her, the people crowded around to see what would happen. When they saw her begin to move her fingers and hand, and saw the swelling going down, and saw her stretch out her arm, then clap her hands shouting “I am healed!”, they could scarcely believe their eyes. Strong men, who were not believers, wept and said “Surely God is here!”
Her work did not go unopposed. Medical practitioners sought to get her committed as insane, but the press generally defended her. The manifest healings spoke eloquently of God’s grace working through her. We sense something of the personal cost in this report from the St Louis Globe of 1890:
The meeting was one of the most disorderly that has ever been witnessed under the tent, for no sooner would someone throw up his or her hands in a religious ‘trance,’ than the crowd would stand up on the seats, push forward, and do everything but literally climb over each other to see the person. Mrs. Woodworth’s face had a harassed or troubled look, but she still possessed the same pleasant welcoming smile which she always wears; and she walked up and down the platform making the same graceful curving gestures which many claim to be her method of hypnotizing her followers.
On account of the many unusual things she had experienced, and the evident Holy Spirit power in her gatherings, Maria was welcomed by early Pentecostals as a forerunner of their own movement. She worked alongside several pioneers like F F Boswell and John G Lake, who called her “Mother Etter”.
Lorenzo Dow (1777-1834), from Connecticut, USA, took eccentricity to a new level. From childhood he knew sweeps of emotion beyond his fellows, higher highs and deeper lows. His conversion experience was unusually dramatic too: in a dream, he was carried off to hell by a demon, and cried to God that he deserved it – but begged for mercy. He knew amazing peace and joy and woke up loving God.
At 21, he was accepted as a circuit preacher by the Methodists. Later he was an independent evangelist. He quickly gained a reputation, both for his appearance and his methods. Lorenzo usually had just the clothes he stood up in, which he wore until they were so unsightly that some person in the audience would donate a replacement – which might not be the right size. He had a beard down to his chest and never combed it. He didn’t always wash. After his death, one obituary said: Who will forget his orangutan features, his outlandish clothes, the beard that swept his aged breast, or the piping treble voice in which he preached the Gospel of the Kingdom.
He and his wife Peggy embraced poverty for the gospel’s sake. They would often sleep rough in the woods. Peggy wrote a journal of these times, later publicised as Vicissitudes in the Wilderness (available online here).
Dow’s preaching mannerisms were a revelation. A generation before, the great open-air preacher George Whitefield was passionate but serious and measured. Lorenzo Dow shouted, wept, begged, jumped on tables, argued with imaginary opponents, and challenged people’s complacent beliefs. He told stories and jokes. On one occasion, mid-sermon, he snapped his Bible shut and jumped out of the window on to his waiting horse and rode off. He loved to turn up at a public event, go to the stage (uninvited) and announce loudly that he would preach on that spot in one year’s time. It is recorded that he could hold an audience of 10,000 spellbound.
He gained the nickname “Crazy Dow” and happily accepted it. Lorenzo himself wrote a retrospective account of his many experiences, The Dealings of God, Man, and the Devil (available online here). In it he gave to the English language the proverb, “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
An oft-quoted episode took place in Westminster, Maryland, and he repeated it elsewhere. Seeing a boy with a trumpet, he enlisted his help. After the start of a service in a meeting hall, the lad was to climb an adjoining tree and wait for a signal. Inside, Dow preached a “fire and brimstone” message. In a great crescendo he cried: ‘If Gabriel were to blow his trumpet announcing the day of Judgment is at hand, would you be ready?’ It was the signal. The boy blew the trumpet! People screamed and rushed to the front to seek mercy and make peace with God. The boy made a quick getaway! This and other anecdotes can be found here.
His engagement to Peggy was suitably unusual. He would marry her, he said, but “if you should stand in my way in the service of the gospel, I will pray to God to remove you!” Stout-hearted Peggy said yes nevertheless and they married in 1804. She accompanied him on many of his travels, which were long and arduous. They would camp in the woods without a tent, hearing wolves but trusting God. This they did out of love for the hundreds of settlers, born and bred in the wilderness, and now adult, who had never seen a preacher.
One record exists of Dow arriving at a village in Alabama: his pantaloons were worn through, and for several hundred miles he had ridden without a cloak, for he had sold it. He was barefoot and his umbrella was held by just three spokes. Small wonder that Peggy entitled her autobiography Vicissitudes in the Wilderness. When Peggy died, Lorenzo married Lucy, who was every bit as feisty as he: at their wedding she promised “to be a thorn in his flesh and a sword in his side”!
Despite their grinding poverty, however, Dow made a point of refusing lavish gifts from well-wishers, accepting only the bare essentials. Such a lifestyle took a toll on his health. He had asthma and malaria and, like the great Methodist circuit preacher Francis Asbury, could not stand for a whole preaching but had to lean on something. He had a special jerkin made with several belts, to enable him still to sit erect on a horse; after that he used a horse and cart.
Dow was a phenomenon, a source of entertainment as well as awe. Many a child was christened Lorenzo in his honour. But he also provoked opposition, especially in southern states, where he opposed slavery. He was sometimes pelted with stones, eggs, and rotten vegetables. That never stopped him; he simply walked to the next town and gave the same sermon again! At Jacksonborough, Georgia, he was abused and attacked so badly that, on leaving, he “shook off the dust from his feet” [Matthew 10:14] and cursed the place. Within a few years, all that was left of Jacksonborough was the home of his hosts – the rest had been abandoned and fallen into ruin.
In all, Dow made three trips to Britain, where he longed to preach the gospel to Roman Catholics. He was received as something of a curiosity but his preaching was respected everywhere. He introduced a group of Methodists to the American-style “camp meeting“, where revivalist preachers spoke to crowds in giant open-air congregations, which might last 3 days. As a result, Hugh Bourne and the Primitive Methodists began holding them in England.
The editor of his journal continued: “His eccentric dress and style of preaching attracted great attention, while his shrewdness, and quick discernment of character gave him no considerable influence over the multitudes that attended his ministry. Who has not heard of Lorenzo Dow? He was one of the most remarkable men of his age for his zeal and labor in the cause of religion. It is probable that more persons have heard the Gospel from his lips, than any other individual since the days of Whitefield.”
Plough Publishing House has embarked on a bold and very welcome move – to publish, for the first time in English, the works of two remarkable men: Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880) and his son, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842-1919).
“What do such wildly diverse movements as religious socialism, neo-orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, and such Christian thinkers like Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann, have in common?”, writes one of the series’ editors. They all trace their Christian understanding of the world and God’s kingdom to Johann Christoph Blumhardt, a humble pastor in Germany who lived in the 19th century.”
Mention could also be made of revivalist South African preacher, Andrew Murray, who was profoundly moved on a visit to Möttlingen. This was the village in South-West Germany where Johann Christoph was the Lutheran pastor. He served unremarkably until 1842, when circumstances plunged him into the realm of ‘deliverance ministry’ and healing prayer. A young woman exhibiting the classic symptoms of demonisation, as shown in the Gospels, was released after an intensive season of prayer, spiritual battle and exorcism.
“Möttlingen was swept up in an unprecedented movement of repentance and renewal. Stolen property was returned, broken marriages restored, enemies reconciled, alcoholics freed, and more amazingly still, an entire village experienced what life could be like when God ruled.” People started arriving from miles around, drawn by the manifest power of God and the possible hope of freedom in their own lives. Such success was, in fact, embarrassing for Blumhardt, who was a solid and unflamboyant character and freely admitted that he was no expert in these matters.
Even so, “Blumhardt’s parsonage eventually could not accommodate the numbers of people streaming to it. He thus began to look for a place with more room and greater freedom. He moved his family to Bad Boll, a complex of large buildings which had been developed as a spa around a sulfur water spring. His biographer [in German] recounts in vivid detail one story after another of how through the small circle at Bad Boll, desperate individuals of all stripes— burdened with mental, emotional, physical and spiritual maladies—found healing and renewed faith.”
Blumhardt had the courage to work through the ideological issues (and plenty of opposition) and to conclude emphatically that the Kingdom of God was perennially able to break into everyday life, with whatever manifestation of the divine or miraculous that the Holy Spirit might choose.
Blumhardt was not a theologian and did not attempt a reasoned theology of his stance. He was a practical man, full of compassion, who was wise enough to realise that the damaged, the sick and the demonised need compassion and hope in their damaged souls every bit as much as healing or exorcism. His sermons pleaded, cared, pointed to a God who is love and who wants us to know it. Part of his legacy is his unshakable conviction of ‘realised eschatology’: the belief that the promises of scripture for the end times are meant for the Church now.
Blumhardt offers hope to Christians who long for the transcendental, for God’s power to be seen in today’s world. He was convinced that the Old Testament prophecy of Joel, quoted by Peter when the Holy Spirit was first outpoured (Acts 2:17) had only been partly fulfilled; that the generous and saving God in whom he believed had so much more for the Church to discover and to use for God’s glory and the blessing of multitudes.
From Bible College onwards, he had had dealings with missionaries, doctors and exorcists, who had first hand experience of the power of the risen Christ to free those enslaved by evil. So when the young woman in Möttlingen was delivered from evil after eighteen months of prayer and spiritual warfare, Blumhardt was convinced of two things: Jesus is victor and His kingdom has come on earth. His experiences of healings at the sanatorium of Bad Boll caused him to interpret this in-breaking of God’s kingdom in an individual way. Jesus was doing for precious people what He did as He walked the earth: making the blind see, opening the prison door and releasing the bound (see Luke 4:16-21).
As Johann Blumhardt lay dying in 1880, he spoke a blessing over his son Christoph (1842-1919): that he might conquer in the strength of Jesus, the victorious Christ.
Christoph, like his father, had trained as a pastor. He was, by all accounts, controversial. The novelist Hermann Hesse recalls him saying that “a Mohammedan with a real and honest heart is closer to God than many Christians.”
Blumhardt grew increasingly disillusioned with the established church, so he returned to Bad Boll and assisted his father with the work there, until Johann’s death passed the mantle to him. He held healing crusades, which carried the same power his father had known.
But Christoph was on a different, more radical road. “A Christian must be born twice“, he wrote: “once from the human to the spiritual, and once from the spiritual to the human“. In other words, a spirituality or church commitment which had no interest in addressing the sufferings of people and the ills of society was a comfortable lie.
Christoph had a more developed notion of God’s kingdom. In later years he claimed that his father’s compassionate heart had swayed him in favour of the individual, whereas Christ the King has His kingdom rule – a rulership that includes all things, the universe, the earth, nations and structures. This kingdom was wider than the Church and not best expressed in a religious system which was a preserve of the middle-class, concerned only with power and influence.
Johann had begun with the ‘cosmic’ through the exorcism at Möttlingen (see previous post). His son saw the ‘cosmic’ aspect of the kingdom of God – that it was a Body hastening the return of Jesus Christ by shining as a light in darkness, a ‘city on a hill’ (Matthew 5:14). Johann had acted as if the Kingdom was part of the Church; for son Christoph, the Church is part of the Kingdom.
“We Christians think of a heavenly kingdom; I came to see that God intended an earthly kingdom, or rather, a heavenly kingdom on earth. God’s name was to be hallowed on earth, His kingship seen on earth, His will done on earth. The earth should announce eternity: God on earth.”
In a number of writings, Christoph Blumhardt presented his understanding of the kingdom of God and how it is forever breaking in to life on earth – for that was always God’s intention.
“The angels have God in heaven, I have not – I want to pray down here. I must have God here. The earth is the stage set for the kingdom of God, because the kingship of God is in direct relationship with this earth: the Saviour, down here. God’s intention is the here and now: Jesus challenging poverty, sin and misery on earth.”
A post on the John Mark Ministries blog considers the significance of Blumhardt’s writings on the kingdom of God. ‘His ideas had seminal influence on Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann – theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger. Despite this legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown. To begin with, Blumhardt’s life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity.
‘Blumhardt did not care about matters of religion and church, of worship services and dogma, not even of inner peace and personal redemption. For him, faith was a matter of the coming of God’s kingdom, of God’s victory over darkness and death here and now. The kingdom of God was the creative reign of Christ’s peace and justice on earth. His vision of God’s righteousness on earth was an unconditional and all-embracing one: God’s love reconciles the world, liberates suffering, heals economic and social need – in short, it renews the earth.’
Blumhardt believed that the prophets and Jesus wanted a new world: the rulership of God over all reality. He could not identify with most Christians’ longing for heaven and enduring this earthly life as a necessary precursor. In his view, heaven must come down to earth.
“Many people long and yearn for heaven; they stretch out toward heaven. I would like to tell them: Let your minds reach to the heights that we can already perceive on earth. Down here is where Jesus appeared, not above in the invisible world. Here on earth he wants to appear again and again. Here on earth we may find him.”
In 2006 in County Tipperary, Ireland, an ancient book was found preserved in a peat bog. Now known as the Faddan More Psalter, it contains manuscripts of the biblical Psalms and has been dated to c.800 AD. What is intriguing, however, is the fact that the cover is of a style not commonly found in Western Europe, being more typical of the Eastern Mediterranean, and in the binding were found pieces of papyrus, also from the Levant (or maybe Sicily).
It is not the only pointer to links between Celtic Christianity and the Coptic monasteries of Egypt. A tantalising reference in a 9th century text mentions “seven monks of Egypt in Disert Uilaig” (on the West coast of Ireland). ‘Disert’ (desert) in various forms is found in place names in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. It was the term used by hermits and monks for their own settlements, originating in the actual wildernesses of Egypt and Palestine and then being accepted in the Latin churches as a generic term for a solitary place where a group of monks or anchorites established themselves.
Does this prove an Irish-Egyptian Christian link in the first millennium? Probably not, but there are further pointers. Before the Roman Empire, Celtic-speaking peoples were settled in much of West and Central Europe. Their trade routes spread further still, over the Alps into Italy and down the Danube to the Levant. Celtic warriors were valued as mercenaries. They fought with Hannibal against Rome, and in the 3rd century BC they supported the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. Many Celts intermarried with Egyptians and remained by the Nile; the Greek historian Polybios records that their mixed-race children were known as e pigovoi.
There was a known maritime trade route between the eastern Mediterranean and the British Isles since the Bronze Age, because tin from Cornwall was needed for the production of bronze for tools and weapons. Celts were also renowned craftsmen, and items of jewellery have been found in Egyptian tombs that are usually identified as Celtic (though some dispute this).
Early Christian writings are clear that John Cassian (360-435), the noted ascetic and theological writer, made a tour of the monasteries of Palestine and Egypt and brought that spirituality back to the South of Gaul. The monastery he founded at Marseille had a rule of life modelled on the Coptic, and its influence spread northwards. Not far away, on the island of Lérins (Lerinum), off Cannes, St Honoratus founded a monastery c.400 which followed the Egyptian rule until the introduction of the Benedictine rule in the 6th century. It is held by some that St Patrick of Ireland came to Lérins and learned Coptic spirituality and practice, but the detail may be apocryphal. Certainly Patrick quotes from Coptic sources in his Confessio.
In the mid-5th century, the Church was torn by a disagreement over a point of doctrine about the nature of Christ. It is known today as Monophysitism. The monks of Palestine and Egypt were on one side of the debate, the power-holding bishops on the other. When the Council of Chalcedon in 451 ruled for the bishops’ position, many monks chose to flee from what they saw as error, and sought new places for their ‘deserts’. This diaspora may well have led some to the Celtic Christian lands.
Finally, Robert Ritner makes a convincing case for parallels between Irish and Coptic Christian art, sculpture and architecture. Egyptian motifs not known in the Roman Christian traditions of Western Europe are found in Ireland. Examples are:
- the handbell used by mendicant monks, which a Coptic bishop received at his consecration, and which appears on the 8th century Bishop’s Stone in Killadeas, County Fermanagh
- preference for the T-shaped “Tau cross” rather than the Western shepherd’s crook for bishops (though the Latin churches did sometimes use the Tau cross)
- the absence of a mitre on the head of bishops, but instead a crown with a jewel
- the prevalence of Egyptian monastic pioneers, St Antony and Paul of Thebes on early medieval Irish high crosses [I am indebted to Gilbert Markus for pointing out to me that this could just as easily have sprung from Jerome’s Life of Paul, which popularised the life of Antony in the West]
- angels in the Celtic illustrated masterpiece, the Book of Kells (c.800), holding strange sticks with circles on the end, which turn out to be flabella, processional fans used to cool important people in the heat of the eastern Mediterranean, and certainly not in Ireland! The imagery can only have been imported from the Coptic context.
[this revision incorporates additional material provided by several people who read the first version. I am indebted to them, especially Meredith Cutrer and Gilbert Markus.]
“Some of my best men are women“, said William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. The Army recognised spiritual gifting and cared nothing for gender. The Booths’ own fearsomely talented and God-loving daughters led the way. William himself was known to give over the platform to his teenage daughter Kate, who could often reach people’s hearts better than he could.
Similarly, if the Army was looking to plant a new church (in their jargon, ‘start a corps’), they frequently sent in a team of young, sometimes teen-aged women. And they did the job! Here is one example among many, taken from an English newspaper, the Northern Daily Express, of 4th March 1879, and concerns events in Gateshead.
The great question in most churches which are at all earnest in their work, is how to reach the masses. The journalist comments that the section of the community that lies outside the usual compass of religious life comprised most of the audience. More unusual still, the work which experienced ministers and the ordinary agencies of churches had failed in, has been attempted by a few young women. These were the “Hallelujah Lasses”, the stormtroopers of the early Salvation Army.
Some six or eight weeks ago, about half-a-dozen young women made a raid under the banner of a Gospel mission among the lowest classes in the town, and they have succeeded in the most remarkable manner… They have got such a hold upon the masses as to tame some of the worst of the characters. A thorough transformation has been effected in the lives of some of the most thoughtless, depraved and criminal.
These women, most in their twenties, hired music-halls for their meetings. Despite the sneers from all sides, within a short time these places were filled to overflowing for three hours, and hundreds are unable to gain admission.
What can have enabled these Salvation Army girls to achieve such breakthroughs? Much comes down to the ‘first love’ fire of a new movement in the flower of its vigour. But we must see in action here the twin elements of BLOOD and FIRE that were to become the Army’s motto. A total conviction of the power of Jesus’ redeeming blood to save even the worst, together with the freshness of the Holy Spirit’s filling (for which Salvationists spent whole nights of prayer) kept them pressing into territory where other feared to go, and expecting results.
And they were tenacious. As E S Turner points out: ‘In the words of the War Cry, they ‘would arrest [a young man’s] attention and talk to him, one on one side, and another on the other, thus keeping up a continual fire and volley of advice. Many a poor fellow was thus extricated from the Devil’s clutches’ and taken to the hall ‘surrounded and saturated by such mighty influence as would drive the Devil out and “Let the Master in”’.’
They also used the power of personal testimony. The journalist tells of the roughest and most criminal of people glorifying God for their soul’s salvation. And the Army used the passion of youth: One youth, who is evidently not more than fourteen, is quite a phenomenon, and certainly has a marvellous utterance for one so young and inexperienced. On Saturday night, we were told, he spoke for twenty minutes, and carried the audience so fully away with him, that in the midst of his address three or four persons went up to the penitent form [benches placed at the front of the hall, where people could come and kneel, pray, repent and receive personal prayer].
The journalist concludes, perceptively, that what is needed in the work now is consolidation – some agency to carry the converts beyond the few simple truths they have got hold of, and to give them an interest in the work when the excitement of the change and the effort has passed away.
For further information about the Hallelujah Lasses, and the example of ‘Happy Eliza’, follow this link to The Victorian Web.
The most fruitful African ethnic evangelist and church-planter in early Pentecostalism was Elias Letwaba (1870-1958). History has largely forgotten him, for two main reasons. First, his ministry was conducted out in the remote bush of the Transvaal, South Africa. Secondly, he was native African, from the Ndebele tribe. The Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM), to which he allied himself, was at first racially inclusive but increasingly embraced segregation, even holding separate baptism services for blacks and whites. In this article, historian Barry Morton writes: ‘records were typically kept on white Pentecostal leaders and their congregations, while the African membership was usually undocumented.’
From a young age, Letwaba was was sensitive to God and gifted with languages, eventually speaking seven. He also experienced supernatural gifts. Morton urges caution here, because a regrettable tendency developed in the African Pentecostal context to solicit funding through accounts of miracles, some of which may have been glamourised. Even so, we read that Letwaba felt tinglings in his hands when he read Bible accounts of healing. 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, then 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, invited him on to the stage and kissed him. This won Letwaba’s heart but caused division among the white believers, some of whom wanted him thrown out. The story goes that Lake declared: “If you throw him out, I will go too.” 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‘.
When Lake and his team left for Bloemfontein, they invited Letwaba to go with them. Under Lake’s training, Letwaba began an itinerant ministry, walking hundreds of miles between far-flung villages. He was often beaten, kicked and verbally abused, but when he prayed for the sick, many were healed. From time to time, Lake would come to Letwaba’s home in Potgietersrust and the two would minister to people together – always attended with remarkable divine happenings.
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.
Morton again: ‘Letwaba, although never nominally in charge, was the de facto leader of the AFM’s African membership for almost 50 years. His success as an evangelist, his renown as a man of God, and his indefatigable work rate meant that he enjoyed tremendous respect throughout the church.’ He was salaried by the AFM and attended its ministers’ conferences – the only African leader to be so treated.
Seeing the great need for training ethnic Christian workers in tribal areas, Letwaba founded the Patmos Bible School at Potgietersrust in 1924 (he even made the bricks on his own farm). An intake of twelve students could live in and study the Bible, as well as general studies and public speaking. Nearby, he opened a primary school for hundreds of children.
This article on the ‘Healing and Revival’ blog shows the extent of his labours: ‘Letwaba had the care of thirty-seven churches. On Sundays he would lead services at five or six locations and would start at 5:30 in the morning and continue until 9:00 at night. He also taught six hours a day at the Bible school. He continued the school until 1935 when he was 65 years old. His congregations were tribally mixed, and often his sermons had to be given through two or three interpreters.’
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 was also inclusive, welcoming to his campaigns and churches people of all tribes. He died in 1959, aged 89, a father of the African church – yet regrettably unknown outside his beloved Transvaal.
One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is because they so seldom visit them. John Wesley
John Wesley (1703-1791) is rightly honoured as a travelling evangelist, revivalist preacher, theological writer, and pioneer of the Methodist movement. Less well known are his lifelong labours on behalf of justice for the poor and destitute.
As a student at Oxford, he was impacted by Jesus’ call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, and visit those who are in prison (Matt.25:35-40). He would fast regularly, dedicating the money he would otherwise have used for dining – as well as all the money, food, and clothing he could solicit from others – for the poor, whom he would regularly visit. This remained a passion throughout his life. Even at age 80, he trudged the snowy streets of London, begging alms for the poor, making himself ill in the process.
It was this proximity with destitution and misery that moved him from distant sympathy to a visceral bond with suffering humanity – a course he urged on all Christians. After spending three days visiting the sick and others at the abominable Marshalsea paupers’ prison (which he described as “a picture of hell upon earth”), Wesley records in his journal: “I found not one of them unemployed who was able to crawl about the room. So wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection, ‘They are only poor because they are idle.’ If you saw these things with your own eyes, could you lay out money in ornaments or superfluities?”
Wesley’s asceticism was not designed to save his own soul, but rather so that he might give the more generously to the poor. Throughout his life he was not ashamed to beg for them. From the sale of books and pamphlets during his lifetime he is estimated to have amassed £30,000 which he gave away. In 1785 he formed the Strangers’ Friend Society “instituted for the relief not of our [Methodist] society but poor, sick and friendless strangers”.
He built schools and almshouses, and established free medical dispensaries in London, Bristol and Newcastle. He recognised the injustices which meant that so many were condemned to a life of poverty, speaking of “the many who toil, and labour, and sweat … but struggle with weariness and hunger together“. Once, when asked by a tax official to declare all his silver plate on which he should be paying excise duties, he replied: “Sir. I have two silver teaspoons at London, and two at Bristol. This is all the plate I have at present; and I shall not buy any more while so many around me lack bread.”
Mark Mann writes that ‘out of the Foundry [in Bristol], the early Methodists provided much that a contemporary rescue mission might: food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and even financial support in the form of small loans to those without work wanting to start their own businesses. Wesley also founded a home for poor widows, a home for orphans, and several schools aimed especially at the education of poor children.’
In every town where a large church had been planted, Wesley would always appoint seven or twelve men with the special task of visiting and caring for the poor. And this was not only spiritual help, but also the giving of food, clothing and coal for the winter.
In his extensive diary this heart of compassion often shines through. For example, in 1742 at Newcastle, “I walked down to Sandgate, the poorest and most contemptible part of the town, and began to sing a Psalm. Three or four people came out to see what was the matter, who soon increased to four hundred. They stood and gaped at me in astonishment… [That afternoon,] the hill was covered from top to bottom. I knew only half would be able to hear my voice. After preaching, the poor people pressed around me out of pure love and kindness, and begged me most earnestly to stay with them a few days.”
A year later, also near Newcastle, we read: “I had a great desire to visit a village of coal-miners that has always been in the front rank for savage ignorance and wickedness. I felt great compassion for these poor people, the more so because all men seemed to despair of them. I declared to them Him who was ‘bruised for our iniquities’. The poor people came quickly together and gave earnest heed to what I said, despite the wind and snow. As most of them had never claimed any belief in their lives, they were the more ready to cry to God for the free redemption which is in Jesus.” He would subsequently refer to the converts there as “my favourite congregation.”
In his book Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics, Theodore Jennings shows how Wesley’s theology demystifies wealth. In absolute contrast to today’s “prosperity gospel”, he ‘regarded Ananias and Sapphira’s sin (Acts 5:1-11) as akin to the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden. It was the first test of early church, and exposes the love of money as her primal enemy. Therefore the love of money, even possessing excess money, is an ever-present danger to the Christian.’ In later life, however, Wesley ‘was oft to say that the Methodists had proven exceptional at following the first two parts of his essential teaching on wealth (earn all you can and save all you can) but an utter failure at the third (give all you can).’
Even so, his efforts were not in vain. Of Bolton, Lancashire, where the mob had once tried to lynch him, he wrote in 1749: “My heart was filled with love and my eyes with tears. We were able to walk the streets unmolested, none opening his mouth except to thank and bless us.” He could write of many places: “The streets do not now resound with cursing; the place is no longer filled with drunkenness and uncleanness, fighting and bitterness. Peace and love are there.”
When, many years later, a young preacher visited a poor part of Cornwall, he remarked to a miner what an upright people they seemed to be. “How did it happen?” He asked. The old miner bared his head and said, “There came a man among us. His name was John Wesley.”
Basil of Caesarea (330-379) was a highly influential leader in the Early Church, who laboured and wrote extensively for the rights of the poor. His stance on wealth and poverty is blunt and uncompromising. It is also very relevant to today, where consumerism has achieved almost god-like status.
This piece shows that Basil was also a keen and unflinching observer of human nature – and human excuses. The writer identifies ‘the human tendency to adjust the definition of “need” to fit one’s current level of income.’
Basil was on to this 1600 years ago. His homily (practical sermon) on the man in Jesus’ parable, I Will Tear Down My Barns [and Build Bigger Ones], treats the barns not so much as symbols of wealth but rather as representing our definition of needs based on our circumstances.
‘In effect’, continues the article, ‘Basil says that if we never have any extra to share, this is due to the fact that whenever we find ourselves in possession of a surplus, we immediately adjust our definition of need to fit the new situation.’
(You say) “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again?
In his sermon “To the Rich”, Basil sees this as a form of madness. “Those who have acquired wealth and have great possessions, desire more of the same, nursing the sickness by perpetual accumulation. Having so much here and now fails to bring them happiness, since they grieve over what they don’t have, and convince themselves they’re lacking. ‘We’re poor!’, they say. And it’s true, because a poor person lacks much, and much are you lacking because of your insatiable desires! What was it that killed Naboth? [1 Kings 21] Was it not King Ahab’s greed for his vineyard?”
And so, Basil concludes, you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them – which applies to any level on the scale of wealth.
The issue of varying levels of need came particularly to a head in the monasteries. After all, if you live together, perceived inequality can be a death-knell. So Benedict of Nursia (480-c.545) had to address the matter in his Rule (which still governs Benedictine houses today, 1500 years later). He does so with great wisdom, rooted in scriptural principles, in Chapter 34:
“Whether All Should Receive in Equal Measure What Is Necessary: It is written, “Distribution was made to everyone according as he had need” (Acts 4:35). We do not say by this that respect should be had for persons (God forbid), but regard for infirmities. Let him who hath need of less thank God and not give way to sadness, but let him who hath need of more, humble himself for his infirmity, and not be elated for the indulgence shown him; and thus all the members will be at peace.
Above all, let not the evil of murmuring appear in the least word or sign for any reason whatever. If anyone be found guilty herein, let him be placed under severe discipline.”
I get the feeling that if this sentiment was more universally accepted and applied, a good measure of stress could be removed from our lives today.
Eusebius was a 4th century bishop of Caesarea who wrote a history of early Christianity based on a number of sources, some of which no longer exist. He quotes Philo, a 1st century Jewish historian, who made mention of Christian all-night vigils and the hymns which they recite and how, while one man sings in regular rhythm, the others listen and join in the refrain.
The phrase “hymns which they recite” is particularly interesting. The pagan official Pliny uses the same Latin phrase, carmen dicere. Does this suggest that hymns were spoken rather than sung? Philo suggests that singing happened but still uses “recite”. Historian Ralph Martin has studied this phrase in a number of historical contexts and you can find his article here.
Augustine of Hippo describes church singing in 4th century Alexandria as more like speaking than singing. Augustine himself, incidentally, was in favour of liberated praise (without instruments) and accepted dancing, though only “in line” (not free expression). For more on this, see Laura Hellsten’s piece, Dance in the Early Church.
Perhaps there was a specific reason for the general mistrust of musical accompaniment. In those days, pipe, harp and drum were intimately linked to the pagan cults, e.g. of Pan, with their sensuous worship and often shameless revelries. Christians, mindful of the apostolic direction that everything should be done decently and in order [1 Corinthians 14:40], avoided musical instruments. Jerome wrote that a Christian maiden ought not even to know what a flute is, or what it is used for.
Liturgy (an order of service with fixed elements) came in early to Christian worship. There is possible evidence of a ‘Jerusalem’ liturgy, instituted by the Apostle James, and an ‘Alexandrian’ liturgy attributed by some to Paul’s fellow-labourer John Mark. Singing was a key element, but in the stylised manner of Jewish psalmody and response singing. As John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, put it: David formerly sang in psalms, and we also sing today with him. He had a lyre with lifeless strings; the Church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, certainly, but with a more seemly piety.
One of the reasons why music did not take a central place in early Christian worship is that the central element of their meetings was the sharing of the bread and wine, the Eucharist or anamnesis, whether in the context of a church service or in the agapë, the ‘love meal’ in homes. Ignatius, who was made bishop of Antioch in AD 67, when a number of the Apostles were still alive and active, describes the Christian church as “a Eucharistic community” which realised its true nature when it celebrated Communion.
In turn, this emphasis might be due to the belief among first generation Christians that the sharing of the bread and wine was to be done “until Jesus returns”, which they believed would be soon, perhaps in their own lifetime. When this did not materialise, a Christian liturgy for worship began to develop, described for us by early apologists like Justin Martyr and Hippolytus. It involved greeting, reading from scripture, responsive (antiphonal) singing, baptisms, a sermon, prayers, the offertory, the communion and a blessing. Here is an extract from Justin, c. AD 150:
‘On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen.
There is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.’
The first hymn with actual musical notation which we possess, the “Oxyrhynchus hymn“, is from the 3rd century. At the same point, the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to the theologian Hippolytus, shows that the singing of psalms with Alleluia as the refrain was a feature of early Christian agape feasts.
It wasn’t until around 375 that antiphonal singing of psalms became popular in the Christian East; in 386, Ambrose of Milan introduced this practice to the West. Around 410, Augustine of Hippo described the responsive singing of a psalm at Mass. Sources are few and inconclusive regarding how Christian chant / song developed, but we do know that by 678, Western (Roman) chant was being taught at York. Distinctive regional traditions of Western plainsong (or plain chant) arose during this period, notably in the British Isles (Celtic chant), Spain (Mozarabic), Gaul (Gallican), and Italy (Old Roman and Ambrosian). It used a musical stave of four lines, not the five used today.
We can safely say that by this stage, sung worship was an established part of Christian services, albeit without instruments. William J Stewart (in this link) assembles an array of patristic statements against instrumental music in the church; for example, Tertullian declares instrumental music to belong only “to the entertainment of heretics.”
There is some debate over a date for the arrival of the earliest church organs. Tradition has it that Pope Vitalian I introduced an organ in the year 666, but there is no supporting evidence, ecclesiastical or secular, for what would have been a monumental event. Primitive organs certainly existed in the 8th century, for Charlemagne was sent one by the Caliph and had it installed in the cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle. Even so, it is unlikely that the first organs accompanied the singing; rather they had their own bespoke ‘slot’ in the worship service. Scholarly opinion (see the overview by Brooks Cochran here) veers towards the 10th century as the start of organ accompaniment to singing – and it created considerable division between purists and modernisers (see Wayne Wells’ article here). Even in the 13th century, Aquinas declared “Our Church does not use musical instruments.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia concludes: “For almost a thousand years Gregorian chant, without any instrumental or harmonic addition was the only music used in connection with the liturgy. The organ, in its primitive and rude form, was the first, and for a long time the sole, instrument used to accompany the chant.” [Vol. 10, pg. 657]
I ought to mention the following quotation, which appears on many a web page about Christian worship today, and is attributed to Augustine of Hippo.
I praise the dance, for it frees people from the heaviness of matter and binds the isolated to community.
I praise the dance, which demands everything: health and a clear spirit and a buoyant soul.
Dance is a transformation of space, of time, of people, who are in constant danger of becoming all brain, will, or feeling.
Dancing demands a whole person, one who is firmly anchored in the centre of his life, who is not obsessed by lust for people and things and the demon of isolation in his own ego.
Dancing demands a freed person, one who vibrates with the equipoise of all his powers.
I praise the dance. O man, learn to dance, or else the angels in heaven will not know what to do with you.
This discussion at historum.com reveals the true author as Georg Götsch, a German music teacher active in the early 20th century, particularly in the German Youth Movement. He refers the quotation back to Augustine, but without reference. It would be hard to reconcile the sentiments of joy and buoyancy with the bishop Hippo who wrote: “It is better to dig or to plough on the Lord’s day, than to dance. Instead of singing psalms to the lyre or psaltery, as virgins and matrons were wont to do, they now waste their time in dancing, and even employ masters in that art.” (8th sermon)