I recently rediscovered this piece on The Generosity of the Early Church. It gives a good overview of the principles and practical application of generosity in the churches of the New Testament. In its way, it also offers counter-cultural pointers for how Christians can behave in a time of crisis like Covid-19 pandemic, which can bring out greed, selfishness and corruption in any society.
It makes sense to start with what the New Testament really says about true generosity. What comes out looks rather different from the almost unquestioned acceptance by evangelical Christians today of tithing (giving 10 percent of your income) as a guide for financial giving. What follows are my own ponderings and interpretations, but they tally very well with those of the article linked to above.
God loves a cheerful giver is still the guiding principle [2 Corinthians 9:7]. Human beings are creatures of habit. Drift easily sets in and we lose the freshness of sacrificial giving and the joy of generosity. Many Christians then find convenient ways of justifying personal wealth by giving a bit here and there.
In the gospels, there are examples of ‘giving to charity‘ in today’s sense, e.g. John 13:29. Yet chiefly we are urged to show justice to the poor by identifying with them and sharing with them in the new, classless society that is the Church. That’s why the first Church in Jerusalem shared meals in homes with glad and generous hearts, and met each other’s financial needs by sacrificial giving [Acts 2:45-46].
Everyone should be a giver, out of gratitude for God’s generosity to us in salvation. How much to give? As Stuart Murray Williams cogently shows in Beyond Tithing, the tithe is an Old Testament practice which is not laid on Christians. It can be a start, but Jesus, the pioneer of a new covenant, shows a new way: give everything you can – which is usually more than you think you can.
The Apostle Paul gives some helpful guidelines:
* Give as much as you can [2 Corinthians 8:3];
* Give freely, without pressure [ibid, v.3,8];
* Give cheerfully, not grudgingly [chap.9:5-8];
* Give as an expression of care and unity in the kingdom of God [chap.8:4];
* Give, trusting God to bless and reward the lavish heart [chap.8:4].
* Give as an act of worship and thanksgiving, and be blessed in blessing others [chap.9:14-15].
Several articles have caught my attention on the subject of generosity.
Larry Jones writes about “Is Giving Really Giving?”. He questions the supposed absolute of not expecting to receive anything in return (Luke 6:35). Through the act of giving we do experience an equivalent or reward. I believe that God has created a “universal law”, whereby when we give back to Him and others, He opens up at least the possibility for equivalent rewards.
David Matthias offers an inspiring testimony of generous giving which did not involve any money changing hands! Read about how several people’s pressing needs were met by sharing possessions.
Zach Nielsen offers some challenging insights on “financial peace” – the contentment that comes through being generous and unselfish with what has been entrusted to us. His post is particularly useful in that he links to various articles for and against the notion that money is by nature a danger to faith.
Here Nielsen puts his finger on the moral and intellectual dilemma we all face vis-à-vis our wealth:
‘I’m afraid the framing of this discussion leads us to ask the wrong questions. Like the junior high boy who wonders “how far is too far” with his girlfriend, we are quickly caught up in questions about how rich is too rich, how poor is too poor, and the like. Where is the line? Do I feel guilty for having too much? Do the kids have enough? What does “enough” even mean? Should I feel guilty about not giving as much as so and so? If I give more, does that mean I am more spiritual?
‘The hamster wheel of comparison, propelled by our spring-loaded legalism, keeps spinning to exhaustion. We are all tempted to be proud about what we give or feel guilty about what we don’t.’
So, what do we do about this? How do we start to effect change in our giving? Operation Church offer the graphic above. It makes thought-provoking reading, but any Christian who is conscientiously exercised to build generosity into their life ought to look hard at the paradigm shift it advocates.
One early Christian text can help us here. The ‘Didache‘ (Greek for “teaching”) is of uncertain date, but internal evidence leads most commentators to place it at the latest AD 100. It is a short handbook of moral and practical governance for churches, perhaps in Syria, and it is anonymous.
Here are some quotations on generosity (and meanness) which carry the freshness of Early Church clarity.
Let your money sweat in your hands until you know to whom you should give it.
Be not one who stretches out his hands to receive, but shuts them when it comes to giving.
Do not hesitate to give, nor grumble when you give; remember who is the good Paymaster of the reward [i.e. God].
Share everything with your brother, and do not say it is your own; for if you are sharers in the imperishable, how much more in perishable things?
Another early Christian writing gives us valuable insights. It is the Apology (reasoned defence of the faith) by Marcianus Aristides, a converted philosopher from Athens. Some authorities suggest he had sat at the feet of the Apostle John. In all likelihood, he prepared this Apology in AD 125, because the emperor Hadrian visited Athens that year.
Here are some sentences on generosity from Aristides. His style of writing is heavy and rhetorical, and so is the Victorian English of the translation! Here I have at times modernised the phrasing without (I trust) altering the sense of what was written.
“Christians live in hope and expectation of the world which is to come. So they do not embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. If one or other of them has servants or slaves, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction.
“They love one another, esteem widows, and rescue orphans from any who ill-treat them. Whoever has [wealth] gives to him who has not, without boasting. When they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother.
“Whenever one of their number who was poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability contributes to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. If there is among them any that is poor and needy, and they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to have food which they can supply to the needy one.”
The Shepherd of Hermas is an anonymous early Church writing, probably composed in Rome around AD 140. It consists of a series of pictures or revelations made to a character named Hermas, which are then interpreted to him by an angel (called the Shepherd) or by an ageless woman, representing the Church.
One of these pictures is an allegory of generosity and how it benefits both the giver and the receiver in equal measure – which is what God intended in the first place. I have abridged it slightly, as the original is rather wordy, and modernised some of the phrasing to make it more readable.
As I was walking in the field, I observed an elm and a vine. As I considered them and their fruits, the Shepherd appeared to me and said: “These are intended as an example for the servants of God.
“The vine produces fruit; the elm is an unfruitful tree. But unless the vine is supported by the elm, it cannot bear much fruit, and the fruit which it does bear is rotten because it trails along the ground. Therefore, when the vine is cast upon the elm, it yields fruit, both from itself and from the elm.
“This is a similitude for the poor man and for the rich.” “How so, sir?” said I; “explain the matter to me.” “Listen,” he said: “The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in matters relating to the Lord, because he is distracted about his riches; he offers very few intercessions to the Lord, and those which he does offer are small and weak, and have no power above. The poor man, with fewer distractions and greater needs, is often in prayer, and his intercession has great power with God.
“So, when the rich man refreshes the poor, and assists him without hesitation in his necessities, the poor man (being helped by the rich) intercedes for him, giving thanks to God for the one who bestowed gifts upon him. This moves the rich man to continue to interest himself zealously for the poor man, that his wants may be constantly supplied. For he knows that the intercession of the poor man is acceptable and influential with God, and by it he (the rich man) is blessed.
“Thus, both accomplish their work, and it is a great work, acceptable before God. Poor men, interceding with the Lord on behalf of the rich, increase their riches; and the rich, again, aiding the poor in their necessities, satisfy their souls. Both, therefore, are partners in the righteous work.”
There cannot be many preachers converted during one of their own sermons, but this was the happy fate of William Haslam. Ordained in 1842, he was initially more concerned with church decor and starting an orchestra than with finding the power of God. But God had other ideas!
Haslam’s congregation at Baldhu in Cornwall, UK, included many from a revivalist Methodist background. Their regular testimonies of conversion, and the clear evidence that they had found something transcendent, bored into Haslam’s heart. Eventually, he consulted another vicar, Robert Aitken, who spoke of new birth (John 3:16) and rivers of living water (John 7:38). They prayed, but Haslam felt nothing.
The next Sunday, he felt too troubled to preach. He determined to say a few words on the need for conversion and then dismiss the congregation. He recounts what happened next:
“Something was telling me, all the time, ‘You are no better than the Pharisees. You do not believe He has come to save you any more than they did.’ I do not remember all I said, but I felt a wonderful light and joy coming into my soul, and I was beginning to see what the Pharisees did not. Whether it was in my words, or my manner, or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden, a local preacher, who happened to be in the congregation, stood up, and putting up his arms, shouted out in Cornish fashion, “The parson is converted! The parson is converted! Hallelujah!”
In another moment his voice was lost in the shouts and praises of three or four hundred of the congregation. Instead of rebuking this extraordinary ‘brawling’ as I should have done in former time, I joined in the outbreak of praise, and then gave out the Doxology – “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”, and the people sang it over and over again.”
Haslam’s own account of what happened next is graphic. “On the Monday after my conversion, our weekday service was filled to excess. I was just telling of how God pulled me out of a desolate pit, when someone gave a shriek and began crying aloud for God’s mercy. This was followed by another, then another, until preaching was impossible. I cannot tell how many found peace that night, but there was great rejoicing.” A series of midweek meetings started in a cottage, and there, too, the mighty power of God was felt, with people falling prostrate in conviction of their sins.
At one service in the church, many fell down, crying for mercy. Haslam continues: “I gave out a hymn and went among the ‘slain of the Lord.’ After about an hour, someone suggested that we should go to the school-room, as it was getting dark. “When I reached the place, I found it impossible to get in, for all was full and a crowd hung about the door. I finally climbed in through the window and stood on a table.”
The noise of prayer and repentance was such that Haslam could not preach. He went among the people, and as each found peace and began praising God, they were asked to leave and make room for others. In this way the meeting went on until ten o’clock, when Haslam left. He returned the next morning to see how they were getting on and noticed many strangers who had not been there before, but had been drawn by the Spirit of God. All alike were too absorbed in God to heed Haslam’s presence.
And so the work of God continued uninterrupted, day and night, for eight days. It was the start of a series of ‘mini-revivals’ in Cornwall and beyond over the coming years. You can read about it in Haslam’s autobiography, From Death Unto Life, which is available online here.
A series of midweek meetings started in a cottage, and there, too, the mighty power of God was felt, with people falling prostrate in conviction of their sins. At one service in the church, many fell down, crying for mercy. Haslam continues: “I gave out a hymn and went among the ‘slain of the Lord.’ After about an hour, someone suggested that we should go to the school-room, as it was getting dark. The men and women in distress of soul were carried there, praying as they went.
“When I reached the place, I found it impossible to get in, for all was full and a crowd hung about the door. I finally climbed in through the window and stood on a table.” The heat of the room and the noise of the people was such that Haslam could not preach. He went among the people, and as each found peace and began praising God, they were asked to leave and make room for others. In this way the meeting went on until ten o’clock, when Haslam left. It continued uninterrupted all night and all the next day, and so on for eight days!
Haslam went daily to see how they were getting on, noticing many strangers who had not been there before, but had been drawn by the Spirit of God. Yet all alike were too absorbed in God to heed Haslam’s presence.
At first Haslam could not fully accept the uninhibited shouting of praise and loud cries of repentance but after a while came to terms with what the Cornish called “wrestling in prayer.” Revival was a noisy business and the Holy Spirit worked in “holy chaos.”
The revival touched all walks of life. Haslam began ‘Drawing-Room Meetings’ for more well-to-do enquirers, many of whom were touched by God’s power. The cottage meetings for ordinary villagers continued for some years and open-air preaching reached large numbers.
One spectacular example was at Mount Hawke in 1852. Haslam preached on John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” He records: “A mighty power of the Spirit of the Lord came upon the meeting and several hundred fell on their knees simultaneously. The strange thing was that the power of God appeared to pass diagonally through the crowd, so that there was a lane of people on their knees, six to eight feet wide, banked on either side by others standing.”
The fruits of the revival were many and lasting in that part of Cornwall. Haslam records that young children in the Sunday schools would all start crying at the mention of God’s love. Notorious local sinners were converted and became soul-winners. Many Christians received prophetic dreams and visions, some being led by specific words from God to meet previously unknown seekers of God. There was also evidence of healings.
Lastly, and perhaps above all, there was a deep and all-pervading joy which attracted others like a magnet, to seek Jesus for themselves.
In 1793, William Carey, a shoemaker and subsequently Baptist pastor from Northamptonshire, UK, took his family to India as missionaries. They finally settled at Serampore in West Bengal. For seven years they had not a single convert, their funds ran out and for a time they were destitute. His wife Dorothy got severely depressed and three of their children died.
By the time of his own death 41 years later, however, Carey had planted churches, founded colleges, overseen the translation of the gospels into forty local languages, and had secured the banning of ‘sati’ – the ritual burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. He is still a revered figure in India and has featured on postage stamps.
What made the difference? Mainly some radical changes made when reinforcements arrived in 1799. Joshua Marshman, a gifted linguist, was a happily married man who saw immediately the strain in Carey’s marriage and his neglect of his children (whom Marshman found rude, indisciplined and uneducated). The Marshmans took the children under their wing and brought them some much-needed love and discipline. William Ward brought a practical business brain and took the weight of administration off Carey’s shoulders, as well as taking charge of the printing operation.
All this gave Carey a support structure that freed him to discover his leadership gifts. These three men thrashed through many issues and found a oneness of heart. This found an unusual expression: a brotherhood covenant, a pledge of loyalty and commitment. Entitled Form of Agreement, it was published in 1805 and has eleven points. Three times a year they read the pledge through at a special service and re-committed themselves to it. This covenant bond was faithfully kept by all of them until death. It was in many ways their backbone, the mainstay of the work in India.
This document has received little attention, but it well merits a closer inspection. Its context is specifically missionary – as opposed to the church covenants of membership that existed at the time. It is heartfelt, uncompromising and at times very strict. For example, the final point pronounces woes to the man who ever pulls away from the unity and does things on his own.
The Form of Agreement opens with a carefully-worded justification of their being in India at all. There is a reason for this. The Baptist Church in England at the time held a hyper-Calvinist position regarding the salvation of sinners. Forever lodged in Carey’s memory was the occasion where he made known his missionary yearning at a ministers’ meeting in 1786; an older pastor allegedly (some say apocryphally) stood up and said: “Young man, sit down! when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.”
So Carey chooses his phrases carefully: ‘We are sure that only those who are ordained to eternal life will believe, and that God alone can add to the church such as shall be saved.’ Carey and several colleagues back home had challenged the prevailing determinism; he himself had preached a sermon on the necessity of missions, in which he included the memorable exhortation: Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God. Yet he was wise enough to realise that, were they to antagonise the Baptist hierarchy in England, they could easily cut off the supply of recruits and donations on which they relied.
Carey then brings the balance. ‘Nevertheless, we cannot but observe with admiration that (the Apostle) Paul… was the most conspicuous for his personal zeal in the work of persuading men to be reconciled to God. In this respect he is a noble example for our imitation.’ Touché? I think so!
And so to the first article of the covenant itself, which concerns urgency for lost souls. Recent research claims that 98% of Christians worldwide are neither envisioned nor equipped for mission in 95% of their waking lives. If that really is the case, then let us hear the heart expressed by Carey and his friends.
It is absolutely necessary that we set an infinite value upon immortal souls. [We should] endeavour to affect our minds with the dreadful loss sustained by an unconverted soul launched into eternity. May their case lie with continued weight on our minds.
India is a vast country, lying in the arms of the wicked one. This is no colonial pride, for Carey is just as scathing about his own roots: ‘He who raised the sottish and brutalised Britons to sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, can raise these slaves of superstition… and make them worshippers of the one true God in spirit and truth’. Indeed, in faith Carey anticipates a day when He will famish the gods of India and cause these very idolators to cast their idols to the moles and the bats.’
This blog post considers reasons why the “heart for the lost” has been largely lost in Christendom today and challenges us, very practically, to do something about it. No doubt, Carey and his covenant team would long for us to do so!
Articles 2 and 3 of William Carey’s 1805 Serampore Covenant are rooted in good sense and the wisdom born of experience in the field. The need, they write, is for a contextualised gospel: to converse with [Indian people] in an intelligible manner and to avoid coming across to them either as fanatics or as irrelevant. Sounds familiar? Read any piece about relevant witness in a post-modern (or ‘post-Christian’) society and the same issues apply. Here is an example from the UK Evangelical Alliance.
So Carey, Marshman and Ward commit themselves to several things:
* conversing with sensible natives;
* reading some parts of their major writings;
* attentively observing their manners and customs.
They stress the need to know Indian modes of thinking, their moral values and their manners. So much is standard missionary training today, of course. But the Serampore missionaries see it as crucial to understand the way they reason about God, sin, holiness, the way of salvation, and [man’s] future state. This surely parallels the move in today’s ‘Emerging Church’ to understand where post-modern people are coming from, and then to reach out to them in social media evangelism or whatever.
Carey also advocates a common sense approach to interacting with people of the Hindu majority religion. We must abstain from those things which would increase their prejudices against the gospel – in particular, English colonial haughtiness, and cruelty to animals. There should be no direct confrontations, no defacing of their statues, no disturbance of their worship gatherings. Carey praises the mild-mannered and gracious approach of the Moravian missions and of the Quakers among the Native American tribes. He was to enlarge on this elsewhere.
He who is too proud to stoop to others, in order to draw them to him…, is ill-qualified to be a missionary , states the Form of Agreement. The Serampore trio pledge to follow the stated aim of the Apostle Paul, to “be all things to all men, that I may by all means win some” (the Bible, 1 Corinthians 9:22). And the section closes with a paraphrase from an unnamed missionary to North America, almost certainly either David Brainerd or John Eliot: “that he would not care if the people trampled him under their feet, if he might become useful to their souls”.
To be continued…
I recently wrote about William Haslam’s conversion during his own sermon (read it here). In the course of researching it, I stumbled upon another example, perhaps even more remarkable. For, while Haslam was at least sincere in his pre-conversion labours, Elias Keach (1665-1699) was a deceiver.
He was the son of a noted Baptist preacher in London, Benjamin Keach, but he grew up wild and undisciplined. To escape his parents’ influence, he crossed the Atlantic to Philadelphia around 1686. To gain acceptance and respectability, he dressed in black with a clerical collar like a minister. When it was discovered whose son he was, preaching invitations started coming in and large numbers came to hear him.
Keach had sat through enough of his father’s preaching to know the basics of a solid sermon. His text and theme are not known, but what happened half way through the sermon hit the local headlines. Keach stopped short, looking astonished, and could not speak. The congregation assumed he might be unwell, but in reality he was under strong conviction for his hypocrisy. When the deacons asked him what was wrong, he burst into tears and confessed that he was an impostor. He threw himself on the mercy of God and pleaded for the pardon of all his sins.
In his turmoil, Keach sought out Thomas Dungan, an old friend of his father. Dungan had exercised a faithful but unremarkable ministry at Cold Springs, Pennsylvania. Dungan led Keach to assurance of salvation in Christ and baptised him on his testimony of genuine conversion. It wasn’t long before the church recognized his skill in communication and ordained him into the gospel ministry.
He travelled throughout the Philadelphia area, preaching and baptising. He founded the first permanent Baptist church there, at Pennepack. He continued this work further afield in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, before returning to England in 1692. Some regard him as the first Baptist apostle to that area of America.
So, in one story, we have two instances of God’s wisdom being greater than ours. Elias Keach fled from his Christian legacy but got converted in his own sermon. And, though he lived only one year beyond Keach’s conversion, Thomas Dungan raised a greater harvest of souls in that one act than he had in a lifetime of pastoral ministry.
I have long valued the writings of Victorian clergyman and author George MacDonald (1824-1905). I’m not alone! C S Lewis openly acknowledged: I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. J R R Tolkien cited him as an influence. W H Auden valued him highly and wrote an Afterword to Macdonald’s fantasy novel ‘The Golden Key’.
MacDonald was friend and mentor to the young Lewis Carroll, who tried out sample chapters of Alice on MacDonald’s children. It was largely on the strength of their enthusiastic response that Carroll submitted his manuscript for publication, and the rest is history!
It is chiefly MacDonald’s fantasy novels and fairy tales that are still read today. As Lewis and Tolkien were to do after him, he found that by removing moral and spiritual truths from their usual context and relocating them in a different world altogether, they can be brought to life and shine with fresh revelation. “I write, not for children,” he wrote, “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” This essay by Robert Trexler explores further MacDonald’s use of myth. See also Catherine Barnett’s perceptive piece, ‘Tolkien, MacDonald and the Cauldron of Story’.
But it is a very different work that I want to flag up here. At an uncertain date, following the deaths of two of his adult children, MacDonald produced A Book of Strife, in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul. It is available for download here. So personal is it that he published it privately for his circle of friends, printed only on right-hand pages, so that the reader could make comments or notes on the other. It was made public only after his death.
MacDonald muses and wrestles with God in imagined conversations, set in 7-line stanzas, one for each day of the year. Stripped of easy answers by deep pain, he reflects upon God, crises of faith, the human condition, sickness, suffering and loss. The whole collection is intensely personal and rooted in the here and now, all myth laid aside.
Can anything go wrong with me?, I ask,
And the same moment, at a sudden pain,
Stand trembling. Up from the great river’s brim
Comes a cold breath; the farther bank is dim;
The heaven is black with clouds and coming rain;
High-soaring faith is grown a heavy task,
And all is wrong with weary heart and brain. [September 12]
This stands in the tradition of Christian mystical verse, and it is clear that MacDonald was a poet (esteemed, indeed, by Tennyson, Longfellow and Walt Whitman). The mystics sought to raise the profile of intuition, experience and desire in the process of faith. ‘Consolations’ and ‘desertions’ were their bread and butter. For MacDonald, trust and hope are never far away, however, and end up strengthened.
When I no more can stir my soul to move,
And life is but the ashes of a fire;
When I can but remember that my heart
Once used to live and love, long and aspire;
Oh be Thou then the first, the one Thou art.
Be Thou the calling, before all answering love,
And in me wake hope, fear and boundless desire. [January 10]
From the late 5th to the 7th centuries, a powerful renewal took place in the churches of Britain. From their coastal bases in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, courageous evangelists known today as the Celtic Christian missionaries planted churches and communities around the British Isles.
From the biographies of these pioneers we quickly see what importance they gave to deep relationships. Each brother or sister was to have an anamchara, or “soul friend”, who would be for them a blend of mentor, spiritual director and close friend.
The abbess Brigid (died 525) said that “a person without an anamchara is like a body without a head” – lacking true sight and sense. By their norms, a soul friend is a person who will allow me to tell the whole truth about myself, and to encourage me to seek healing and restoration.
The trailblazer was Finnian (died 549), founder of the great monastery of Clonard. If Patrick had been the pioneer, Finnian was the spiritual father, who guided many of the early Celtic missionary leaders, like Columba of Iona and Ciaran of Clonmacnoise. He genuinely loved these sons and brothers. In his letters to Ciaran, he would call him “dear one” and “o little heart”, always adding a personal blessing.
Ciaran clearly learned this love, too. He and Kevin of Glendalough were true heart-friends. When Ciaran lay dying, he refused to let go until Kevin had come. When he did, the two spent several hours in conversation, then shared the Communion bread and wine together. Ciaran blessed Kevin and gave him a little bell as a sign of their lasting unity. Then he died.
Women had these relationships, too, and not just among themselves. In one 8th century text we read: “Between Patrick and Brigid, pillars of the Irish, there existed so great a friendship of charity that they were of one heart and one mind.”
Ita, abbess of Killeedy, was mentor to so many male leaders that she is known as “the foster mother of the Saints”! She was especially close to Brendan, sometimes called “the Navigator” because of his voyages. Their biographers record how Brendan would smile warmly whenever he thought of Ita, many miles away; and how Ita would feel the slow drag of time whenever Brendan was away.
In 6th century Ireland, all the movers and shakers of Celtic Christianity had their “soul friends” and were, in turn, “soul friends” to others. They had a particular way of befriending that intentionally honoured and nurtured the life of the soul. It involved mutual encouragement, confession and telling the truth in love.
For 200 years, the Celtic missionary leaders had a common vision of reality. They also seem to have shared intuitions and discernment, particularly regarding future leaders. One story goes that Brendan the Navigator came to the monastery of Emly in Munster, where the patriarch Ailbe had presided for many years. Brendan burned with questions, but Ailbe’s was a silent order! The monastery schoolmaster (who was allowed to speak) had to rebuke Brendan and his companions for chatter. But Brendan persisted and Ailbe, recognising in the young man all the qualities of a future leader, broke his own rule and spoke, teaching him many things.
What shines clearly from the written lives of the Celtic saints is the profound respect they showed for each other’s wisdom and guidance, regardless of age or gender differences. They saw each brother or sister as a potential source of precious blessings from God. The biographies often convey this symbolically, through the gesture of giving gifts. Although they lived poor, special gifts conveyed profound respect and mutuality: a ring, a bell, a hand-made wooden box, or maybe a horse.
The Celtic missionaries’ understood that, however essential and fulfilling a deep human bond might be, it could not take the place of a friendship with God. Indeed, relationships of this quality flowed directly from such a love-bond with God. They are essentially spiritual bonds. The Celtic missionaries saw God as the true friend, the pattern of all friendship, the centre of a wheel in which all human soul-friendships are vital spokes.
One example illustrates this well. When his mentor died, Finbar (died 633) felt bereft, so he went to see his friend Eolang. Eolang had been praying and had received a word from God for Finbar. He knelt before him and said: “I offer you my church and my soul”. Finbar wept and would have none of it, but Eolang persisted. “Let it be so, for this is the will of God. You are dear to Him and you are greater than I. Only grant me that we may live and die in the same place.” Here it is clear that the heavenly dimension enriched the human beyond what it could have achieved itself.
The Celtic anamcharas appreciated that solitude and companionship had to be kept in a creative balance. Both were essential for what they called “soul-making”: the lifelong process of making peace with God, with oneself, with others, and with all of creation. Soul friends are committed to helping one another make this journey successfully.
The need for such committed love has perhaps never been greater than in the post-Christian West, where there can be highly suspicious of heart-closeness, especially same-gender and cross-generational. The Celtic missionaries’ way offers a poignant reminder of what has gone missing.
In the same Western society there is also profound alienation, loneliness and fear, which is now being recognised in healthcare circles as a killer. Can we believe for a new generation of Christians to arise with the same pioneering spirit as the Celtic saints, to find today’s expression of “soul friend” mutuality?
As 2019 ends, I can look back on four years of blogging. Christian biography and church history aren’t exactly niche markets, so I’m actually pretty delighted that my blog now receives on average 40 views a day. Thanks to all of you who call by, send comments, disagree agreeably, or encourage me.
So, which posts had the most views and/or generated the most discussion in 2019?
This was a pleasure to research and is one of my more academic posts. It was well received by Christians of all persuasions, as well as by history buffs.
This biographical outline of a ‘wild man’ among the Methodist circuit riders of 18th century America found a resonance – perhaps among people fed up with “same old”?
This plain-spoken country woman experienced spiritual phenomena reminiscent of the Acts of the Apostles. Her ‘Diary of Signs and Wonders’ is remarkable for a time when women could not vote, let alone preach. A true trailblazer, but surprisingly unknown outside her native America.
Here I explored a historical and theological subject that can – and did – arouse partisan feelings. That was reflected in responses, across social media, from academic support and exchange of ideas to actual abuse. See what you think – and maybe join the discussion?
The winner, by a country mile, is also my all-time most read post. The labours of Stephen and George Jeffreys in the UK in the depression of the 1920s and 1930s. illustrated by press reports of the time, seems to offer hope to readers that ‘God can do it again’ – that in hard times, the Holy Spirit can break into people’s lives more easily, and word of it spread like a welcome flame.
“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.
The great question in most churches which are at all earnest in their work, is how to reach the masses. Sounds relevant? This isn’t some present-day church growth report; it comes from an English newspaper, the Northern Daily Express, of 4th March 1879, and concerns events in Gateshead.
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.
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.