“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” This insightful statement, attributed to Alexander the Great, sums up how crucial it is for any movement to have the right leaders at the helm as they move into their future.
Established denominations have always faced this need, and history has shown inspired choices but also many more appointments based on politics or outward gifting rather than God’s clear choosing (shades of the calling of the shepherd boy David over his more ‘macho’ brothers, 1 Samuel 16:7). The many “new churches” that sprang up in the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 70s are having to face the issues too. Their leaders are now in their seventies at least. Having turned away from traditional ordination, what models are there for succession? Does any one seem more fruitful than others? And when should a senior pastor initiate the process?
The earliest church communities had been founded by itinerant apostles and their teams. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that, when a need arose, suitably qualified men would be considered before God by the governing corpus of apostles, with prayer and fasting [Acts 13:1-3]. On one occasion we find the drawing of lots [Acts 1:21-26. The apostle’s (or apostles’) selection was ratified by the assembly of the local church, leading to commissioning. There is, however, little practical documentation of how prospective successors and key leaders were trained.
With time, the cultural contexts in which those churches were planted produced a variety of patterns for local leadership, some informed by Jewish models, others by Greco-Roman society. By the end of the 1st century, the pattern that emerged was a threefold, “cascade” structure:
(1) A single pastor-bishop, elected by each community and commissioned by a senior apostolic bishop. He presided over all aspects of the congregation’s life and worship. According to Hippolytus’s ‘Apostolic Traditions’, an episkopos, or senior bishop, should be at least 50 years of age. He was empowered to commission and ordain the second tier, namely:
(2) A shared ministry of leaders known as presbyters / priests / elders, elected by the local church-community, who oversaw the life of the church-community under the leadership of the bishop. These were empowered to commission and ordain the third tier, namely:
(3) Service-oriented ministers, called deacons, who assisted the bishop and the presbyter-elders in both ministry and worship [Acts 6:1-7].
In the first generations of the church, each man in tier 1 was expected to find, train and commission men into tier 2. In time, however, training became more a matter of schools; candidates were sent away from churches to be trained as leaders, rather than being trained within them.
Men in tier 2 were expected to find, train and commission both men and women to serve as deacons.
It is sometimes argued that the Didache (or ‘Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’), dated by most scholars to the late 1st century, disproves such a ‘cascade’. Chapter 15 contains the words: Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. Some observers see in the words “for yourselves” a more democratic, grass-roots process than a monarchical one. However, the Didache may simply be describing the process we find in Acts 6, where the Jerusalem congregation was told to put forward suitable and respected candidates, whom the apostles then commissioned by the laying on of hands. For further discussion of the Didache on leadership, follow this link.
The Ordained Ministry in the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic Church, chapter ‘Ministry in the Second Christian Century, 90 – 210 AD’, which includes a detailed look at Hippolytus’s Didascalia (‘Apostolic Traditions’).
Thomas M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries.
Since posting this, I have received some helpful insights and comments from David Valentine, via the ‘Patristics for Protestants’ Facebook page. He has kindly given his permission to reproduce them here.
On the tier 1 bishops, for example, the evidence for such mono-episcopacy is far thinner than this article would suggest. As the big promoter of this model, Ignatius of Antioch appears to be the exception rather than the norm – and even he is not inside the first century, as the article implies. The evidence of Clement of Rome, Hermas, Justin and every Roman source (before we even reach non literary evidence such as archaeology) is of a more collegiate, team-based leadership, at least in the imperial capital, until near the end of the second century, when Irenaeus starts providing bishop lists that lack any corroborating evidence in the surviving literature before his time. He may be publishing something accurate, but we lack the evidence to check this and everything else says no, at least for Rome. In Alexandria, working back from Origen’s time (only decades after Irenaeus, and less after Hippolytus) the same pattern seems to be repeated as with Rome: teams of presbyters working together, with a fairly sudden appearance of mono-episcopacy in the first half of the third century, even later than Rome. Smaller cities may have had single leaders earlier, but in the case of Antioch alone (a big city) we have this strong tier 1 model.
Some excellent Anglican studies have suggested that the role of ‘bishop’ was simply that of the relatively rich householders who hosted meetings. It was only good manners that the hosts should preside, unless an apostle or prophet (according to Didache) was present; but this was not simply intended to perpetuate the existing social structure within the Church for all time.
I agree with your observation that the apostles tended to let local churches sort themselves out and be as autonomous as possible, with exceptions as the apostles discerned the need for more direction. Clement of Rome does point to an ongoing respect for the appointments of the apostles, but he can be placed as early as AD 68 – contemporary with the last canonical literature – rather than the ’90’s.
Having waded and brooded for some years on these things, I remain sceptical about what happened after the apostles. We just don’t know if there was a scheme of succession and how it worked. Paul’s own trajectory could even have set a precedent for charismatic leadership appointed in each generation by God.
If the Lord could simply leapfrog the Twelve and start a new stream with a fresh appointment, then Paul’s model of seeking ‘the right hand of fellowship’ to ensure continuity while starting a whole new apostolic stream, could have been perpetuated after him, as it has throughout church history. Wesley, for example, sidestepped Anglican tradition and initiated his own ‘apostolic stream’ by ordaining ministers, and this fresh stream has continued through Methodism and Pentecostalism. Perhaps Paul is the real precedent here.
I had not been aware of the existence of the George Jeffreys and Stephen Jeffreys Official Website, but I’m delighted that I found it here. The founders of the Elim Pentecostal Church were certainly innovative in obeying the Great Commission to proclaim the gospel.
Their methods were bold and apostolic. In the economic depression of the 1920s and 30s, with dole queues and poverty, they would target an industrial city and rent a large hall. They were unknown, unsupported and often opposed by local churches. Meetings went on for weeks, the hall at first almost empty, but once news of the miraculous signs was out, it would be crammed. After the campaign they would buy a disused building, renovate it together, and George Jeffreys would install a man he had trained up, to be pastor of the new church. In this way, several hundred new churches were planted all over Britain.
Here, with due acknowledgement to the Jeffreys blog, is a contemporary report of a campaign which they held in Liverpool, UK, in March 1926.
“Revival Fires are burning in Liverpool. Although the campaign only started on Sunday 14th March, by the middle of the week the church was packed out. Hundreds have been saved and there have been many remarkable healings.” It was not long before the secular press began to report what was happening in these meetings, including the Yorkshire Observer, which referred to “the extraordinary scenes being reported at a disused Liverpool Chapel.”
The Daily Despatch of 18th March carried the following report: “Remarkable scenes of religious fervour are being witnessed at the little chapel in Windsor Street. Several remarkable ‘cures’ have been claimed by sick and maimed people who have been anointed with oil during the campaign. Several of the patients whom the pastor described as being under the power of God, swooned and lay trembling for some moments.”
The Daily Despatch went on to list some of the healings that had already taken place including a five year old girl suffering from Infantile Paralysis, a woman healed of deafness, a man from heart disease, and two people from paralysis. On the following day (19th March), five days after the commencement, the Daily Despatch carried the following report:
“Hundreds of people had to be turned away from yesterday’s services. Queues began to assemble outside the chapel two hours before the meeting commenced. As soon as the doors were open crowds began to clamour for admission, choking the aisles and every available inch of space. A crowd just as large could not gain admission and had to remain outside, while a few yards along the street other evangelists conducted open-air services until long after ten o’clock. So great was the pressure inside that the pastor was unable to anoint any of the people with oil and the service was terminated prematurely. Nevertheless a number of people testified to healing including a woman who had been dumb for many years, and two women healed of deafness.”
Stephen Jeffreys’ son Edward reported on a campaign in Swansea, Wales: Miracles of healing of the most amazing character took place. The blind received their sight; cripples threw away their crutches; the deaf answered questions; withered and twisted arms were raised, and there were many other remarkable cures from heart trouble, rheumatism, neuritis, paralysis, ruptures, haemorrhages and other complaints.
At Hull, in the north-east of England, George and Stephen ministered together. Testimonies were reported in the July 1922 issue of the ‘Elim Evangel’.
‘One woman told of nineteen long years of suffering through paralysis, but when anointed by Pastor Jeffreys she was completely healed. Another lady related how after four years of suffering from hip disease, during which time she had undergone no less than four serious operations and had lain in irons for over three years, her case was pronounced as absolutely hopeless by the physicians. God stepped in and marvellously delivered her and now she is able to do her own housework.‘One of the cases which excited most interest was that of a young man whose condition was pitiable in the extreme. Paralysed in almost every limb and unable to speak intelligibly, he was as helpless as a child. What a change was wrought in him. I remember so well the evening when, full of new life, he swung his arms above his head and then in the exuberance of his joy jumped again and again, demonstrating the reality of his healing.’
‘During the laying on of hands, a middle-aged woman who was kneeling stood up and cried: “I can see! I can read!” Then, trembling with awe, she read aloud the words of the printed text above her head. Afterwards, she told [Jeffreys] that she had been almost totally blind for years, that she could not distinguish objects owing to a ball of fire in front of her eyes, but the moment his hands touched her, the ball of fire was taken away.’ (Leeds Mercury, 6 April 1927)‘[I saw] a tall, stout, elderly man, standing with his two arms stretched high above his head and then jumping in the air… Again and again he jumped, while we were told that for 16 years he had suffered agony from sciatica and had suddenly been relieved of all pain. A girl, deaf for eleven years, was now hearing all that was said to her in the lowest of voices. An elderly lady suddenly took off her glasses, delightedly exclaiming “I can see better without them!”, while her son tells [Jeffreys] that she has been almost blind for more years than he can tell.’ (Yorkshire Evening Post of 7 April 1927)
‘Even sceptical policemen, whose duty it is to regulate the throng, have been swept off their feet by what they have seen and heard. One night two girls, one blind and the other dumb [mute], inquired of the officer nearby their way to the service. An hour or so later he was amazed when the couple returned to him, literally dancing for joy, the dumb girl speaking and the blind girl seeing.’
Church history rightly remembers Nicholas, Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760) as a significant figure. He was a religious and social reformer, founder of the Christian community and mission centre at Herrnhut in Saxony, Germany, from which grew today’s Moravian Church. Under his leadership, missionary teams carried the gospel everywhere, from the Inuit of Labrador to the Zulus of South Africa.
It was a phenomenal achievement. What is far less known is how near the whole movement came to collapse, and how it was rescued and restored. In many ways, we will find here a model of good practice in leadership succession and generational transition in a church. The largely unsung hero was Zinzendorf’s successor, August Spangenberg (1704-92).
He had been a theology lecturer but threw in his lot with the Moravians, aged 29. He became the movement’s theologian, apologist, statesman and corrector – for sixty years! At first, he was an assistant to Zinzendorf, who sent him to Pennsylvania to establish churches, communities and schools – and to address opposition from other denominations. Zinzendorf sought Spangenberg’s mentoring when he was preparing for his own Lutheran ordination. If the count was the visionary of the Moravian movement, Spangenberg was his interpreter and enabler.
However, all was not well in the church. Zinzendorf was more of a visionary than a practical administrator. Under his leadership, the church’s expansion was funded by personal loans. By the 1750s, expenditure was out of control and the church had over-extended itself. This precipitated a spectacular crash in the church’s credit rating and reputation. Detractors used the opportunity to attack them. One major objection was to Zinzendorf’s devotion to the wounds of Jesus, which some saw as too Catholic, others as plain weird.
Zinzendorf died in 1760 with the Moravian church in a precarious position. Spangenberg was recalled from America and, although Moravian leaders saw themselves as equals, Spangenberg was clearly first among them. Under his leadership, the church felt compelled to turn inwards for a season, to address very real issues. They looked at what was central to their call and the way it had hitherto been expressed, and realised that some realignment was necessary.
They took responsibility for the debts and introduced financial controls. They avoided bankruptcy and achieved financial stability.
They apologised for any extra-biblical teaching, admitting that some of the contentious areas had been Zinzendorf’s “private opinions”, which church members were not required to endorse.
They reiterated their commitment to the Bible and to mission.
These reforms worked, much to Spangenberg’s credit. With disasters averted and unhelpful trappings removed, the vibrant church life and gospel endeavour initiated by Zinzendorf flourished. The Moravians concentrated on what they did best: community and mission. Their fruit was remarkable and highly esteemed. While the Great Awakening won souls in ‘Christian’ Britain and America, the Moravians reaped a harvest among the unconverted in other lands. As the 18th century ended, the Moravians had been successfully rehabilitated as the model of a missional church.
1. The Moravian Church teaches that it has preserved apostolic succession. In Berlin in 1735, several Moravian Brethren from Herrnhut received episcopal ordination from the two surviving bishops of the Unitas Fratrum (the Bohemian Brethren or Hussites). They considered it important to preserve the historic episcopate.
2. In their earlier years, the Moravians took literally Acts 1:26, the drawing of lots, to determine the will and guidance of God. Their covenant of 1727 included the stipulation that at any time, there should be 12 elders leading the church, all appointed by ‘the lot’. Thereafter, ‘the lot’ was used to help decide key matters like the election of elders, or whom to send on mission. Once the lot was consulted, the decision was seen as binding, since God’s Spirit had spoken.
The usual method was to place two pieces of paper in a box, one with “The Saviour approves” written on it, the other with “The Saviour does not approve”. After corporate prayer, a member of the elders’ council then pulled out one of these papers.
‘The lot’ came to be mistrusted. Some feared leaders could manipulate the lot by rewording and redrawing it until they got the answer they wanted. Others, influenced by the Enlightenment, suggested that God was too rational to use such a haphazard system and that the lot was just a matter of luck. By 1800 it was no longer being used in the Moravian churches.
For further insights, see Nigel Tomes, After the Founding Fathers; Historical Case Studies.
In the early 18th century, a revival took place in middle Europe that has received little attention. It had something most unusual about it: it was a revival among the children.
Lutherans were being increasingly marginalised by the Roman Catholic authorities in Silesia, (the borderlands of Poland and Czech today), but the schoolchildren would not accept this. Some time in 1707, the children of Sprottau (today Szprotawa) started to meet in the field outside the town, two or three times a day, to pray for peace in the land and for freedom of religion. They would read some Psalms, sing hymns and pray. There are reports of them falling on their knees, some even lying prostrate, and repenting of their sins. Then, when the right moment seemed to have come, they would close with a blessing.
The movement spread through the mountain villages of Upper Silesia and into the towns. Not all adults were happy about this, fearing the consequences; some tried locking their children in the house, but they would climb out of the windows! In some villages, Roman Catholic children joined the Lutheran children to pray. Reports began to circulate in local newsletters, spreading ever wider until the news was known in England and Massachusetts. To some it became known as the Kinderbeten (children’s prayer) Movement.
Some adults were drawn to the move of God. They would form a circle around the praying children. In some places, the combined number might reach 300 souls. Magistrates brought pressure to bear to disperse these meetings. One bailiff came with a whip, but when he heard the prayers, he could not use it.
Out of this “children’s revival” grew a movement of renewal that touched the area. In time, it found its centre in the Lutheran Jesuskirche church in Teschen (now Cieszyn), which opened in 1750. Here, so many attended services that hundreds had to stand outside the building. Sunday services began at 8 a.m. and continued through the day, in several languages. In turn, the Teschen church provided some of the original members of Count Zinzendorf’s community and fellowship at Herrnhut, known in the English-speaking world as the Moravians.
At the west door of Peterborough Cathedral, in England, the visitor is greeted by this graphic medieval pillar base. It depicts St Peter conquering the magician, Simon Magus, who had offered him money if he would empower him to transmit the Holy Spirit like the apostle did (Acts 8:9-24). From here we get the sin of “simony” (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges). The strategic placement of such a sculpture at Peterborough was a statement: as you enter these holy precincts, abandon all thought of selfish human gain.
But why is Simon represented in the sculpture as being cast head first into hell? The account in Acts 8 makes no mention of it. Looking at other literature from the Early Church period, it seems that Simon’s mystique grew with the years. [I must express my gratitude here to Gilbert Markus for giving me a number of leads, not least other pictures. See also an informative blog post here.]
The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus records a Simon from Cyprus, who was a friend of Felix, the Roman governor of Judea (before whom St Paul appeared), and who claimed to be a magician. Wind forward almost 100 years and Justin Martyr writes that Simon was from Gitta (modern Nablus) in Samaria and ‘taught a wicked and deceitful doctrine’. Also, that he was venerated as a god in Rome and elsewhere because of his magic powers.
There are passing references to Simon in other texts, but it is in the 4th century that he really ‘took off’ – in more ways than one! Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386) in his Catechetical Lecture 6: 14-15 writes: ‘This man, after he had been cast out by the Apostles, came to Rome, and gaining over one Helena, a harlot, was the first that dared with blasphemous mouth to say that it was himself who appeared on Mount Sinai as the Father, and afterwards appeared among the Jews, not in real flesh but in seeming, as Christ Jesus, and afterwards as the Holy Spirit whom Christ promised to send as the Paraclete. And he so deceived the City of Rome that Claudius set up his statue, and wrote beneath it “To Simon the Holy God”.’
The Apostles Peter and Paul having come to Rome, they opposed Simon, who ‘promised to rise aloft to heaven, and came riding in a demon chariot on the air. But the servants of God fell on their knees and… launching the weapon of their concord in prayer against Magus, struck him down to the earth,’ [where he died of his injuries].
Raising the stakes further is a work from Syria of c.350, the anonymous Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, which reconstructs a lengthy and wholly fictitious debate over several days between St Peter and Simon Magus, less as a sorceror than as a founder of heresies. Noteworthy here is the evident nervousness that Simon was able to produce in the Apostle.
But first prize has to go to the 4th century Acts of Peter and Paul. Here we find elements from all the other accounts, woven together in the setting of a supposed debate between Simon and the apostles Peter and Paul, in the presence of the Emperor Nero, no less. One detail shows that the story has been transposed: a reference to ‘the prefect Agrippa’. No such person held that rank in Rome at that point, but there was Herod Agrippa II, client king of territories bordering Judea, who also examined St Paul (Acts 26). This strongly suggests that Simon Magus’s power and influence was limited to Palestine and did not extend to Rome.
Even so, it is an exciting read. Nero makes the Campus Martius available for Simon’s solo flight and invites crowds. When Simon falls, he lands in a street known as ‘Sacra Via’ (sacred way) and his body breaks into four parts. Nero, who believed in Simon’s power, waits for the corpse to revive after three days. When it doesn’t, Nero’s anger is turned on the Christians (who tell him it isn’t going to work for him).
It certainly seems that Simon Magus, with his wizardry and evident charisma, was a popular character in stories over the first Christian centuries – a kind of bedtime story, a moral tale to children, perhaps, a warning against flying high and turning against God (Acts 8 is clear that Simon believed the gospel at first). And carved in stone, his partly apocryphal story became a useful ‘fire and brimstone’ admonition against self-interest and simony for the first millennium.
In my reading of Church history, I regularly find colourful characters who didn’t fit the usual pattern but whom God used in surprising ways. Perhaps it was always so? As early as Genesis 20, King Abimelech of Gerar talks with God and behaves uprightly, yet the patriarch Abraham cannot see the possibility of good in anyone in Gerar.
One of these “oddballs” – outsiders who were, in God’s view, very much “in” – was an unnamed woman from Cornwall, England, in the 1850s. We meet her in William Haslam’s autobiographical From Death Into Life (download free here). Haslam was greatly used by God in a revival in Cornwall, with many conversions and amendment of lives. Yet it almost never happened, because Haslam nearly died – but for the pipe-smoking prophetess. We read:
[There was] ‘a tall, gaunt, gypsy kind of woman, whom they called “the wise woman.” She had a marvellous gift of healing and other knowledge, which made people quite afraid of her. This woman took a great interest in me and my work, and often came to church and house meetings.
‘One day she visited the parsonage and said “Have you a lemon in the house?” I inquired and found that we had not. “Well then,” she said, “get one, and some honey and vinegar, and mix them all together. You will need it. Mind you do, now.” Then she put the bowl of her pipe into the kitchen fire and, having ignited the tobacco, went away smoking. The servants were much frightened by her manner.’
[Later that day, Haslam was caught in a thunderstorm and held house meetings in wet clothes all evening.]
‘At three o’clock in the morning I awoke, choking with a severe fit of bronchitis. I had to struggle for breath and life. After an hour or more of the most acute suffering, my dear wife remembered the lemon mixture, and called the servant to get up and bring it. It was just in time. I was black in the face with suffocation, but this compound relieved, and, in fact, restored me. I was greatly exhausted with the effort and struggle for life, and after two hours I fell asleep. I was able to rise in the morning, and breathe freely, though my chest was very sore.
‘After breakfast, the “wise woman” appeared outside the window of the drawing-room, where I was lying on the sofa. “Ah, my dear,” she said, “you were nearly gone at three o’clock this morning. I had a hard wrestle for you, sure enough. If you had not had that lemon, you know, you would have been a dead man by this time!”
‘That mysterious creature, what with her healing art, together with the prayer of faith and the marvellous foresight she had, was quite a terror to the people. One day she came, and bade me go to a man who was very worldly and careless, and tell him that he would die before Sunday. I said, “You go, if you have received the message.” She looked sternly at me, and said, “You go! That’s the message!” So I went. The man laughed at me, and said, “That old hag ought to be hanged.” I urged him to give his heart to God, and prayed with him, but to no effect. The following Saturday, coming home from market, he was thrown from his cart and killed.
‘She was not always a bird of evil omen, for sometimes she brought me good news as well as bad. One day she said, “There is a clergyman coming to see you, who used to be a great friend of yours, but since your conversion he has been afraid of you. He is coming; you must allow him to preach; he will be converted before long!” Sure enough, my old friend W. B. came as she predicted. He preached, and in due time was converted, and his wife also. Her sayings and doings would fill a book; but who would believe these things?‘
It should be pointed out that Cornwall has a long tradition of village ‘wise women’, an ancient line of pagan folk medicine and healing in the Celtic tradition. This was usually opposed and denounced as witchcraft by the Church, but it seems from the Haslam episode that some wise women were at home with Christianity – and their spirituality at times welcomed by the converted.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) hit the headlines young and never left them. He could quote whole sections of the New Testament from memory. He had a library of 10,000 books and had read them all. In his teens he could understand deep theological points that confused many adults. At only 19 years of age, he was invited to pastor a respected Baptist church in London.
Large crowds came to hear him. His biblical prowess was obvious but his style unorthodox, his sermons more like stories. He quoted from the newspapers and took everyday situations, making spiritual points out of them, so that anyone could understand his message. He became a sensation, becoming known as ‘the Prince of Preachers’.
Disaster was to strike, however. In 1856, when he was preaching at the 10,000-seat music hall of the Royal Surrey Gardens, a prankster shouted “Fire!”. In the stampede, 7 people were trampled to death. Spurgeon was devastated. ‘Perhaps never a soul went so near the burning furnace of insanity,‘ he wrote later, ‘yet came away unharmed. ‘From that day on, he knew bouts of dark depression.
What’s more, he suffered from Bright’s disease, rheumatism and gout, so severe that, in his final years, he was regularly too ill to preach and had to go the South of France to convalesce. Even so, Spurgeon continued to pour himself into God’s work, not least through his magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, and his many books (which are still widely read today). He stood as a bulwark against Higher Criticism, the rationalist theology coming from Germany, which threatened to undermine the true biblical faith.
One fruit of Spurgeon’s battle with depression is that he wrote about it. When a Preacher is Downcast was one sermon, pregnant with his own experience.
‘Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited with it at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts on it…
Most of us are in some way or other unsound physically… As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off balance? These infirmities may be no detriment to a man’s special usefulness. They may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualification for his peculiar course of service…Where in body and mind there are predisposing causes to lowness of spirit, it is no marvel if in dark moments the heart succumbs to them.
The preacher’s work has much to try the soul. The loneliness of God’s prophet tends to depression. How often do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us? After pouring out our souls over our congregations, we feel like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break.
In 1858, at the age of 24, he wrote: “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.” In his ‘Lectures to My Students’, he made this observation:
Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discourses. One would as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness.
Yet even here he can sound a note of hope: The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back. It was to this heavenly hand that Spurgeon constantly looked, as we will see in a following post.
John Piper, in a perceptive article on Spurgeon and adversity, sees several contributing factors to Spurgeon’s depression.
Overwork. His friend, missionary David Livingstone, said he did the work of two men every day: running his orphanage (Spurgeons, still a leading charity today) and a church of 4,000 members (the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London); editing a magazine, writing books, answering several hundred letters a week – the list goes on. Spurgeon saw this as a virtue (“If we die early because of excessive labour, there is more of heaven“). Today, many would seriously question his ‘work – life balance’.
Pain and sorrow. He married Susannah in 1856. Their twin sons were born the day after the horrific stampede at a service where he was preaching in 1856, where seven people were trampled to death. So for Spurgeon, even the gift of fatherhood was a mixed blessing. They had no more children. When Susannah was 33, she became an invalid and remained so until she died, 27 years later. Spurgeon himself suffered so badly from gout that he felt he was being bitten by snakes. He was known to say that the pain would be the end of him.
Hostile criticism. Perhaps because he was a larger than life figure and popular, Spurgeon was attacked from all quarters of the Church. In 1857 he wrote: “Down on my knees have I often fallen, with the hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me; in an agony of grief my heart has been well-nigh broken.”
Yet it was the trauma of the seven people trampled to death in the Royal Surrey Gardens that broke something in him, at only 22 and newly wed. In his first book, The Saint and His Saviour, he described his agony:
When the storm was over, a kind of stupor of grief ministered a mournful medicine to me. I sought solitude, where I could tell my griefs to flowers and the dew could weep with me. Here my mind lay, like a wreck upon the sand, incapable of its usual motion. I was in a strange land, and a stranger in it. My thoughts, which had been to me a cup of delights, were like pieces of broken glass, the piercing and cutting miseries of my pilgrimage.
In time, Spurgeon learned to rise from this deep pit of ‘shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness‘ and make his mark on church and nation. Eventually, he could even see divine providence behind it.
By nature a fighter, Spurgeon initially refused to accept depression. He called it his “worst feature.” “Despondency is not a virtue; I believe it is a vice. I am heartily ashamed of myself for falling into it, but I am sure there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God.” With the passing years, as bouts of depression continued to lay him low, he came through to various conclusions, which may be of help to anyone who struggles with the ‘all-beclouding hopelessness.’
In an early (1859) sermon, ‘The Sweet Uses of Adversity‘, he writes: Perhaps in your own person you are the continual subject of a sad depression of spirit? and offers some thoughts. These could be seen as the standard Christian answers, even a little pat.
- It may be that God is contending with you that he may show his own power in upholding you (much as the parent of a gifted child delights to see it put through hard questions, because he knows the child can answer them all).
- Perhaps, O tried soul, the Lord is doing this to develop graces in you. Afflictions are often the black mounts in which God sets the jewels of his children’s graces, to make them shine the better.
- God is chiselling you, making you into the image of Christ. None can be like the Man of Sorrow unless they have sorrows too.
We sense two things emerging. First, an undefensive acceptance that bad and painful things happen, and we may never know why. The great preacher who could analyse most things in life and present them in a 3-heading sermon, could not analyse pain and depression.
Second, a more mature response to the issue of depression, born of his experience. In a later sermon, ‘When a Preacher is Downcast‘, he stresses the need for wisdom, recreation, for time spent enjoying nature, and for vacations to maintain a healthy soul. He also brings in the positives of his experience in the dark valleys of depression.
- This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry. The cloud is black before it breaks and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy.
- Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer blessing. So have far better men than I found it. The scouring of the vessel has fitted it for the Master’s use. Immersion in suffering has preceded the filling of the Holy Ghost. The wilderness is the way to Canaan. The low valley leads to the towering mountain. Defeat prepares for victory. The raven is sent forth before the dove. The darkest hour of the night precedes the day-dawn.
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)
In a collection of pamphlets at the Bodleian Library in Oxford I came across a short account dating from the remarkable Christian revival of 1859 in Northern Ireland. It is written by an anonymous clergyman and entitled Revival in Belfast, the Meeting of the Wee Ones (Dublin, 1860).
Having heard of a group of children meeting regularly to pray and intercede for God’s work in their lives and His blessing on their land, he went to see for himself. The meeting was held in a large attic on the outskirts of Belfast. This is what he found.
He arrived to find the steps crowded with children, and he helped some of them up to the attic level. A mother who saw him exclaimed: “Oh no, here’s a minister! He’ll stop the wee ones!” But he assured her he had come only to learn. She told him the meeting had been going on every evening for two months, from 7.30 till 10. The minister counted 48 children squatting on the floor, eager and reverent. When one of the candles fell on a boy’s head and singed his hair, there was not a stir, not even a titter; he quietly picked it up and put it back.
At the far end of the loft were benches occupied by 70-80 adults, but it was the children who led. The leader, a lad of 13, prayed with power and conviction: Show us our mountain of sin, so we can feel you are our Saviour from them. Jesus, you can set us free for ever! Loose the bonds, Jesus, our Deliverer! Teach us truth and purity! Search all our thoughts, examine our hearts, show us all the things that are hateful in your sight! Burn out our inmost sins and wicked thoughts, against you and against each other. Burn them out, o pure Jesus, but save us in the burning!
A boy of 12 tried to read from the scriptures but got stuck on the long words, so exhorted instead: Won’t you come to Jesus and be baptised in the Spirit? Oh come away from the devil and come to Jesus! Prepare the way of the Lord! You know you don’t feel free from the devil! Jesus wants to come to you!
And so it continued, the boys speaking one by one in orderly fashion. One needed practical help: his parents could not afford the next week’s rent. The children all got out the pocket money and the need was met.
Then, to the clergyman’s shock, the girls began to pray. A 17 year old prayed fervently for the conversion of her family and for forgiveness for all her ingratitude to God. Then, ‘a small girl of about 10 arose, frail in body and clothed in rags. Trembling with the Lord’s anointing, she raised her hands and proclaimed Jesus crucified for our sins. The power fell instantly. A teenage boy slumped to the floor. Many began to weep. Two or three 12-year-olds lay prostrate on the floor. Cries filled the air: “Mercy! Jesus, can you save me? Help, I’m finished!” Others felt the touch of God’s mercy and sang loud praises, tears streaming down their beaming faces.’
Finally, well past ten o’clock, the gathering ended with a favourite hymn from the Primitive Methodist hymnal, Ye sleeping souls, arise!, and one humbled but inspired clergyman returned to his hotel praising the Lord.