Alonso Rodriguez [1532-1617] is a shining example of ‘blooming where you’re planted’. He didn’t found churches, win crowds to Jesus or conquer heresy. He was one of God’s ‘unknowns’, who won hidden victories: over failure, sickness, loss and heartbreak.
He was a wool merchant with a wife and three children, but by the time he was 40, they had all died and his business had collapsed. His life in ruins, he asked to join the Society of Jesus, at that time a newly-formed mission movement in the Catholic church. They said no: he was uneducated. So Alonso tried to study – and failed. In desperation he begged the Provincial of the order for a chance, who finally said he could be a servant at their mission in Majorca.
At this point a confusion arises: there was another Alonso Rodriguez, born only 2 years apart, who was also in the Society of Jesus at the same point, and who is credited (though some dispute his authorship) with a 3- volume devotional tome, ‘The Practice of Christian Perfection’. The two have been widely confused by commentators since.
Our Alonso spent the rest of his life on the island as a porter. While other members took the gospel around the world, Alonso ran errands, delivered messages, received guests and carried bags – for 46 years! This is how he is represented in the painting above: door keys at his side, but behind all his actions an angel of God, and the full approbation of heaven.
He had a nervous twitch and was often sick, but everyone could see he knew God. Students came to him for wisdom and prayer. One, Peter Claver (1581-1654), set out as a missionary to slaves in Colombia because of a prophecy from Alonso. Claver is remembered in the Roman Catholic Church as patron saint of foreign missions.
When Alonso was old, his superiors asked him to write down his experiences. After his death, these papers were found to contain the fruits of much meditation, faithfulness and service to Jesus, whom he loved passionately. Here is an example:
I put myself in spirit before our crucified Lord, bearing great sufferings for me. I consider how much I owe Him and what He has done for me. As love is paid for in love, I must imitate Him. Thus, amid hardship and trial, I stimulate my heart and encourage myself to endure, for love of the Lord who is before me, until I make what is bitter sweet.
Perhaps this is what attracted the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to devote a poem in 1918 to God’s servant, Alonso Rodriguez:
HONOUR is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.
Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alonso watched the door.
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, some of them lying prostrate, and 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.
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.
J.B. (John Bertram) Phillips (1906-1982) is remembered today chiefly for his paraphrase of the New Testament: The New Testament in Modern English. A canon in the Anglican church, he realised that people did not easily understand the English of the Authorised Version, so he began his own, readable version in the air-raid shelters of London during the Blitz of 1941. It was described by one reviewer as “making St. Paul sound as contemporary as the preacher down the street” and “transmitting freshness and life across the centuries”.
What is less well known is that Phillips suffered mental affliction for many years – and wrote about it. It seems his father was never satisfied with anything John did as he was growing up. This turned him into a perfectionist. Yet, because he was always falling short of his own standards, he constantly struggled with self-recrimination and a fear of failure. He could not bear any criticism.
Phillips received hours of counselling, but to little avail. Throughout his life, even as he helped others with their spiritual doubts, he knew mental troubles of his own (including ‘visitations’ from C S Lewis, who was already dead). Yet he never let the fears and guilt overcome him. He worked hard, writing, counselling and addressing large audiences.
One fruit of his struggles is that Phillips thought through the dark things of human life, prayed, then wrote about them. Here is how he describes his battles:
“I can with difficulty endure the days, but I frankly dread the nights. The second part of almost every night of my life is shot through with such mental pain, fear and horror that I frequently have to wake myself up in order to restore some sort of balance.”
His writings offer a rational, sensible account of the Christian faith, devoid of frills and triumphalism. It is no surprise that his biography, by his widow Vera and Edwin Robertson, is called The Wounded Healer – because this is what Phillips became. They write:
“While he was ministering to others he was himself powerfully afflicted by dark thoughts and mental pains. He knew anxiety and depression from which there was only temporary release. And while he never lost his faith in God, he never ceased to struggle against mental pain.”
Phillips won through, in part, by choosing to be a giver. Through his books and his wide correspondence, he ministered to people going through their own darkness. At times, the most helpful thing he could offer was his own experience. In one letter to a fellow struggler he wrote:
“As far as you can, and God knows how difficult this is, try to relax in and upon Him. As far as my experience goes, to get even a breath of God’s peace in the midst of pain is infinitely worth having.”
Perhaps, in the final resort, Phillips’ experience was akin to his paraphrase of 1 Peter 5:7 : “You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, for you are his personal concern.”
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.
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 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.
A standard definition of a novel today is “a fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters” (Free Dictionary). It may be entirely fictitious or based on a true story.
That being so, a question arises: could there be a novel from Early Church times? It sounds fanciful, but there is indeed a curious 4th century Christian text that ticks most of these boxes – at least in a rudimentary form.
Centuries ago, scholars gave it the off-putting name Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions. Today, we might call it Peter and the Sorcerer: the Showdown, and people might read it. Because that’s what it is. It takes the characters of Simon Magus, the sorceror in Acts 8:9-24, and the Apostle Peter, and constructs an imaginary disputation between them over several days. That much is standard Early Church fare.
There is another story line, though: how Peter’s disciple Clement is reunited with his scattered family. On the shores of the island of Aradus, Peter encounters a beggar woman, who has lost the use of her hands. After evading his questions at first, a recognition (hence the title) takes place: the woman is Clement’s long-lost mother. They are reunited and Peter heals her of her ailment. The party travels to Laodicea, where two men with new names (given by the church) turn out to be Clement’s brothers, whom he supposed to be dead.
To this day, scholarly opinion is divided on the Recognitions, but some things are clear. It was penned in Syria around AD 350 and reworks some other known material called the Clementine Homilies, removing bits that had been condemned as heretical. It was written in Greek but we have it only in the Latin translation by Rufinus. However, there is ample evidence that it draws on much earlier material, in all likelihood from the early Jewish Christian camp. Some experts link it to the group known as Ebionites.
You can read the full text of the Recognitions via this link. Don’t expect a gripping read, though: much of the material is theological and the translation is into very stilted English.
Bramwell Booth was the first Chief of Staff of the Salvation Army and succeeded his father, William, as General in 1926. A year earlier, he published his Echoes and Memories (available as .PDF file here), a valuable collection of reminiscences going back to the early days of the movement.
One subject he covers is signs and wonders – manifestations of supernatural power. He clearly experienced plenty of them, but is careful to keep an open mind: According to Salvation Army Commissioner, Elijah Cadman, “Strange, beautiful things happen when God has His own way with a man or woman.” All my life I have been interested in what are sometimes spoken of as bodily manifestations, though I have had a considerable degree of misgiving.
One of the earliest instances of this happening was in the course of a mission to Cardiff by Robert Aitken. I was walking up the street one day when I saw Mr Aitken approaching. A number of men, on seeing him, flocked to the door of a public house and jeered at him as he passed, one of them offering him a pot of liquor. Mr Aitken turned sharply round and said to him in his deep voice, but with extreme tenderness, ‘Oh, my lad, how will you bear the fires of hell?’ At those words the man instantly dropped on the pavement. He fell like a piece of wood, apparently losing all consciousness for the moment. One or two people assisted him, Mr Aitken looking on, and presently there on the side walk he came to himself and sought the mercy of God, afterwards, as I learned, becoming an earnest Christian man.
Physical healings are recorded, as well as many instances of supernatural joy are recorded. One case from January 1878:
“William Corbridge led a Hallelujah Meeting till 10pm. Then we commenced an all-night of prayer. 250 were present. A tremendous time. From the very first Jehovah was passing by, searching, softening and subduing every heart. The power of the Holy Ghost fell on Robinson (he was a North Country pitman of especially powerful build) and prostrated him. Another man entered into full liberty, and then he shouted, wept, clapped his hands, danced amid a scene of the most glorious and heavenly enthusiasm. Others, meanwhile, were lying prostrate on the floor, some of them groaning aloud for perfect deliverance … It was a blessed night.”
Booth records a number of visions received by people who fell flat under the Holy Spirit’s influence (though he admits these were not numerous and that people seemed coy to talk about them).
One of these cases was a woman called Bamford, an Officer from Nottingham. After a visitation of this kind, which came upon her during an ‘All night of Prayer’ in which she lay for nearly five hours unconscious, during which time her countenance was most evidently brightened, she gave a picture of something she had seen, relating chiefly to the blessedness of the redeemed. It made a profound impression upon my own heart, and, I believe it afterwards helped her to win hundreds of souls for God, for she constantly referred to it in her work as an Officer.
Interesting to note is the response of the Army’s leaders to such manifestations during a service: While never opposing or deprecating such experiences, we took care to have the people receiving them removed from the public gathering as soon as it was possible. This rapid removal from the open meeting was a wise thing. It effectually prevented any vain or neurotic persons from drawing attention to themselves.