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.
My reading gives me the impression that sustainability is being taken more seriously by Christians, particularly the ‘millennial’ generation. Sustainable living is a Christian calling, declares Calvin College. Tearfund and the Jubilee Centre have produced five Bible studies on Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living. There is a network of Christian leaders advocating sustainability: check out their webpage.
Basically put, sustainability is the belief that there are enough resources on earth to provide for its population, if only these resources could be used wisely and equally. So, is this a new fad? Could it be that sustainability is in the New Testament mandate? It is certainly the thought behind 2 Corinthians 9:8. God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.
But there is a much stronger tie-up with the monastic community vision. Basil, bishop of Caesarea (c.330-379), wrote at some length on this issue. In his sermon “To the Rich”, he writes:
“But how do you make use of money? By dressing in expensive clothing? Won’t two yards of tunic suffice you, and the covering of one coat satisfy all your need of clothes? Is it for food’s sake that you have such a demand for wealth? One loaf is enough to fill a belly.”
If you have been blessed with more money and goods than others, it is so you can meet the needs of those others, he argues.
‘It takes wealth to care for the needy; a little paid out for the needs of each person, and all at once there is sharing. Whoever loves his neighbour as himself [as Christ taught], will not hold on to more than his neighbour has.’
Basil inveighs against those “who leave grain to rot but will not feed the starving”, who choose ivory sofas and silver tables when ordinary wood is just as suitable. This is more than cheap swipes at material wealth. For Basil, a man steeped in the Christian community vision of the Desert Fathers, the inherent sin of such behaviour is its refusal to accept simplicity for the sake of sustainability. It is as much a sin against the earth as it is against the poor.
This is the context in which Basil in his day, and concerned Christians today, saw the devious lie of consumerism and turned against it.
In my research, I am always delighted to discover one of God’s “unknowns” who achieved great things. One such was ethnic evangelist and church-planter, Elias Letwaba.
History failed to note him, and for two main reasons. First, he wasn’t active in the cities; his ministry was out in the remote bush of the Transvaal, South Africa. And he was black, but belonged to a denomination (the Apostolic Faith Mission) which practised racial segregation, even holding separate baptism services for blacks and whites.
Letwaba’s very birth had the supernatural about it. His mother, a nominal Christian, was visited by a man in white robes who prophesied that she would bear a son who would “carry my gospel message to many places” but suffer many trials. She didn’t stay nominal after that! The Letwaba home was a house of prayer. Elias was born in 1870 and even as a boy was sensitive to God and felt tinglings in his hands when he read in the Bible of healings and deliverance. One day he prayed over a lame girl in Jesus’ name – and only found out five years later that she had been healed.
He tried several churches but knew something was missing. His heart yearned for the New Testament “signs and wonders”, and a people joined in their hearts. In 1908 he travelled to Doorfontein to hear the American evangelist and healer John G Lake. The power of God was very obvious in the meeting, with people being healed and set free. Lake sensed something in Letwaba and invited him on to the stage. This caused outrage among the white Christians, who were all for throwing Letwaba out. “If you throw him out, I will go too“, said Lake, which stilled the storm and Elias remained on the platform. The two men became brothers from the heart; Lake invited him into his home, where Letwaba received his personal Pentecost, the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit‘.
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 Potgietersrus 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.
In time, Letwaba spoke seven languages, founded and headed a Bible College with a reputation for depth and godliness, and had an apostolic circuit of thirty-seven churches. He insisted that his congregations be tribally mixed, which required up to three interpreters at every service. It has been roughly estimated that 10,000 people found healing as a result of his prayers. For all this, he remained a humble man, writing sermons pleading for personal holiness and humility, and leading by example in those areas. He died in 1959, aged 89, a father of the African church – yet surprisingly unknown outside his beloved Transvaal.
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, screamed, wept, begged, insulted, and challenged people’s complacent beliefs. He told stories and jokes. 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).
He had a keen eye for the theatrical. He loved to turn up at a public event, go to the centre or on to the stage (uninvited) and announce loudly that he would preach on that spot in one year’s time. One famous 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!
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.
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.”
I recently posted a couple of pieces on ‘masculine Christianity’. One name that deserves to be better known in this regard is Peter Orseolo (928-927) – little known today but a role model in many ways.
His life reads rather like a novel. Adventure, intrigue, unusual twists in the plot, it’s all there. He was a nobleman from Venice and even as a youth had a reputation for strength. So, when Venice needed a commander to lead a fleet against the pirates who terrorised the Adriatic, they chose Orseolo – aged only 20. What’s more, he won a great victory, sweeping the marauders from Venetian shores.
In 976 there were riots in Venice. The Doge (the chief magistrate and ruler) was murdered and a large part of the city destroyed by fire. A strong and competent leader was needed, so whom did they choose? Peter Orseolo was made the new Doge and set about the huge task of reconstruction.
He showed himself a remarkable statesman and one of the greatest rulers of Venice. He made peace between enemies. He built hospitals and set up social programs to care for widows, orphans and pilgrims. He began rebuilding St Mark’s Cathedral, icon of the city.
Then, in September 978, at the height of his powers, Orseolo disappeared! Not even his wife and son knew where he was. An extensive search finally traced him to a Benedictine monastery in the mountains between France and Spain. Had he felt crushed by responsibilities? Perhaps, but he revealed later that God had been troubling his heart for ten years over the call to renounce everything to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Orseolo cut himself off from all his past life and achievements and put himself under the guidance of the abbot of Cuxa, dedicating himself to prayer. The fighter who had defeated pirates and political enemies now took on the harder conflict of dethroning self. The man who had ruled a city state now took a vow of obedience! It sounds ironic, but did not Jesus himself teach that true greatness lay not in lording it over others but in humbling oneself and becoming a servant? (Matthew 20:25-27)
But the lion did not altogether become a lamb! He brought to the monastery his fighting spirit, attracting spiritual brothers and sons by his steely determination and innate leadership charisma.