Archive | August 2017

Strategic Giving: the Visionary Generosity of John Thornton

Image: joeybonifacio.com

This story appeared on the BBC News website. An Oxford University academic has pledged to donate one million pounds to charitable causes in his lifetime, and has set up systems for regular giving to start delivering on this undertaking. Dozens of people have joined him in this initiative to “Give as Much as you Can”.

John Thornton (1720-1790) would have rejoiced. Historically, he marks the start of a significant shift in Christian social entrepreneurship. Having begun with sheer philanthropy, giving large sums to good causes, he came to see that strategic giving and the creation of enterprises would benefit the needy more in the long term.

He was one of the richest men in England, having made a fortune trading between Hull and the Baltic states. A devout Christian, Thornton gave the equivalent today of £25,000 to good causes, every year for fifty years (well over a million in his lifetime). He provided food and blankets for the starving. He paid debts and fines to get the poor released from debtors’ prison. He supported missionary societies and funded the distribution of bibles.

John Thornton

In time, Thornton realised the greater good that would come from having men of influence in key positions. So he used his wealth to ‘buy’ the livings of important parishes, so the he could install the minister. Most notably, he brought John Newton, the converted slave ship captain and author of “Amazing Grace”, from rural obscurity to the church in Lombard Street in the city of London, which was attended by members of parliament, bankers and successful merchants. This greatly furthered the Evangelical cause, which lay at Thornton’s heart.

Lady Huntingdon's College

Lady Huntingdon’s College

He also came to see the value of education and training. He aided Lady Huntingdon in setting up her ministers’ training college at Trefeca, South Wales, with an interest-free loan. He ploughed funds into a school for native American Indians in Connecticut, and founded Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, a prestigious establishment where a hall of residence still bears his name.

A curious juggling of values had to be maintained. Thornton never missed the chance to make a profit in business, but at home he was scrimping and saving in order to have more to give. What he started was carried on by his son Henry with his friends William Wilberfore (his cousin’s husband), Zachary Macaulay, Henry Venn and the rest, who not long hence would form the Clapham Sect, the archetypal Christian social entrepreneurs.

Advertisements

Mothering Churches: the Courage of Marie Monsen

Image: rcmi.wordpress.com

Chinese Christian women at prayer today.   Image: rcmi.wordpress.com

Marie Monsen (1878-1962) is a name held in high honour among Christians in China, yet she is barely known in the West, even in her native Denmark.

In 1900, a nationalist uprising in China, the ‘Boxer Rebellion‘, had seen many foreign missionaries slaughtered. Suspicion and fear were everywhere. Even so, Monsen travelled alone to Henan province in September 1901, to work for the Lutheran China Mission Association.  Soon after her arrival, a bad fall left her unconscious and concussed for a number of days. Then came bouts of malaria and doctors thought she would die, but God spared her for 31 years of fruitful service.

Two things marked out her ministry as different from most other missionaries. First, her devotional life. She had an uncanny sense that the Lord was directing her, speaking clearly in words that seemed almost audible. She sensed that God intended to move powerfully in China, and she prayed fervently for 20 years until it began – a revival that is still continuing and is being called ‘the biggest revival in history‘. In order to serve her Lord better, she remained a lifelong celibate. She also endured severe trials with fortitude and trust.

600055_3242881005596_205895015_n

Then, courage. She was fearless, traveling hundreds of miles through bandit-infested territory to share the gospel. Once, the ship she was on was captured by pirates. She was no respecter of persons: she would tell church leaders to their face that they were hypocrites! A present-day house church leader writes: ‘She didn’t speak smooth words to impress the people. Instead, she brought fire from the altar of God.’  She took the emphasis off the human wisdom so prized by Chinese, and showed each person they were individually responsible before God for their own inner spiritual life. For this she was greatly loved, and church leaders saw her as ‘mother in Christ’.

Monsen was bold enough to say no to prospective baptism candidates on occasions. She discouraged ‘cultural’ emotion (Chinese weep easily). She cared nothing for numbers, but wanted to be sure each soul had left the way of destruction and truly encountered God. Don’t gather unripe fruit was a maxim of hers.

In his best-selling book The Heavenly Man, Brother Yun tells of how Chinese believers were incredulous to find that Marie Monsen’s grave in Denmark was unmarked. Here you can read what they did about it!

The Christian Imperative of a Grateful Heart

15459946421_b57e2b5681_o

Image: flickr.com

I have been considering gratitude. Living as I do in the UK, where it is almost expected to moan about almost everything, it can seem that gratitude has all but died – a quaint hangover from former, more stilted days.

It has been said that thanksgiving is a lens through which to view our entire lives. In a perceptive article, Michael Zigarelli calls gratitude “a parent virtue” from which others spring. He sees gratitude as a pathway to permanent change in the human heart.

King David in the book of Psalms often makes mention of ‘the sacrifice of praise’. This is usually interpreted as a public act of thanksgiving in the context of worship. To David, it is clearly a delight to offer such gratitude. By contrast, there is a sober reminder in the New Testament: Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him. (Romans 1:18–21)

An old post on Christianblog.com, since taken down, made this useful point:

The attitude of gratitude takes a conscious effort to master. Bombarded by negatives every day and surrounded by selfish people who are only looking out for themselves makes it extremely difficult to stay thankful. But, if the effort is made to always remain thankful no matter what the circumstances; the reward will be one of peace in the midst of the storm, joy in the midst of despair and a willingness to share of all one has.”

Here, David Burchett considers the correct response when our act of generosity towards someone is not received as rapturously as we would secretly like and expect.

Going back in time (hey, this is a history blog!), I am also reminded of this section from the “Long Rule (alternatively “Detailed Rule”) for Monks, by Basil of Caesarea († 379).

“What words can adequately describe God’s gifts? They are so numerous that they defy enumeration. They are so great that any one of them demands our total gratitude in response.

[Basil lists the beauty of creation, God’s constant provision, His merciful care, redemption through the cross, release from the slavery of sin, and adoption into God’s family for eternity.]

How, then, shall we repay the Lord for all his goodness to us? He is so good that He asks no recompense except our love: that is the only payment he desires. To confess my personal feelings, when I reflect on all these blessings I am overcome by a kind of dread and numbness at the very possibility of ceasing to love God and of bringing shame upon Christ because of my lack of recollection and my preoccupation with trivialities.”

Signs and Wonders: the Remarkable Ministry of Maria Woodworth Etter

Maria in preaching pose

The remarkable Maria Woodworth Etter (1844-1924) was a true pioneer in the history of “signs and wonders” in the church. A diminutive, uneducated woman from the backwoods of Ohio, she was rough-speaking and marked by suffering (five of her six children died).

Even so, she felt a call from God at age 35 to proclaim the gospel. It was a day where women could not vote, let alone preach. So she asked God to qualify her. She records: The power of the Holy Ghost came down like a cloud. I was covered and wrapped in it. I was baptised with the Holy Ghost and fire, with power which has never left me.  [‘A Diary of Signs and Wonders’]

She began touring with a gospel tent. This was well known in America, but Maria’s meetings were different. People fell to the ground and lay for hours. Some saw visions of heaven, which they reported to the audience. Others spoke in tongues. Angelic singing was heard, even by journalists.

God used her most strikingly, though, in healing. People travelled hundreds of miles to be prayed for by her. She believed and taught that every need was already supplied in Christ’s atonement.  She got people to lift their hands and praise God from the heart; then she would command the sickness to go. In her various books and in press reports of the day, there are ample testimonies of the crippled running, cancers disappearing, decayed organs restored, the deaf hearing, and the mentally ill recovering.

1356127224_5745_ropes

What makes Maria Woodworth Etter stand out is the magnitude of the healings that took place in her campaigns. Many of these read like the Book of Acts. For this alone she has been called “perhaps the greatest woman evangelist in the history of the Church“. Here are a few examples, taken from her book A Diary of Signs and Wonders (1916, reissued by Harrison House).

Regenerated tissues

‘A sister had met with an accident five years before. Her hip [muscles] had wasted away and for three years she had not left her bed. I saw she was in a terrible condition, but I knew there is nothing too hard for the Lord. I told her to put her trust in Him, then I prayed and she arose, perfectly healed of all her diseases, and went shouting around the house.’

Some sickness linked to demonic oppression

‘A little girl was carried into the meeting [at Springfield, Illinois, c.1884], as helpless as a baby. She had spinal meningitis, was paralysed all over, her brain was impaired, her head dropped on to her chest, and she had no use of her back and limbs. She had been so for six months, and for four months had only eaten nothing but drunk a little milk.

I laid hands on her and commanded the unclean spirits to come out of her. In five minutes she could sit up straight and lift her hands above her head. Five minutes more and she could talk and stand up… The next morning she was the first one up, running from house to house telling what God had done for her.’

Maria later in life

Maria later in life

Miraculous healing of multiple diseases

‘[A man of 64 in Indianapolis] had had piles for 30 years. He had had them cut and burned off four times; then cancer commenced. He got so bad that he had to sit on an inflated ring, and his wife had to flush his bowels twice a day, using a long syringe and tube and 2 quarts of water. Then he would bleed and it was so offensive that she could hardly do it.

‘The bowel was all gone on the left side for ten inches up; the backbone was exposed, having no flesh on it. He also had rheumatism… God converted and healed him all at once, in less than 15 minutes. He was baptised with the Holy Ghost and is now one of God’s little ones. There is nothing too hard for our God!

Healing as a pointer to God’s heart

‘[In Muscatine, Iowa], a lady came to the meeting suffering greatly. Eight months before, she had fallen down a flight of steps; her arm and wrist had been broken and her fingers crushed. The arm and hand were very swollen and inflamed. Doctors gave her no hope of ever being able to use the arm or hand.

‘When we prayed for her, the people crowded around to see what would happen. When they saw her begin to move her fingers and hand, and saw the swelling going down, and saw her stretch out her arm, then clap her hands shouting “I am healed!”, they could scarcely believe their eyes. Strong men, who were not believers, wept and said “Surely God is here!”

Helping the Poor to Save: How Henry Duncan Pioneered Ethical Banking

Image: sswm.info

Image: sswm.info

Ethical banking‘ is increasingly under discussion in the West, as greed and fraud undermine public confidence in existing systems.

There are those who believe Savings Bank idea is well suited to the new world of “microfinance”. It is a system that would allow people in developing countries to save some of their earnings for future needs.  All of which takes the Savings Bank a full circle, away from national financial institutions and back to its local, small-scale roots. It all goes back to a largely unsung Scottish pastor, who became a giant of Christian social entrepreneurship.

Henry Duncan (1774-1846) had some experience in banking as a young man, but saw his future as a minister. In 1799 he accepted a pastorate in Ruthwell, a village on the Solway Firth in Scotland.

They were hard times. War with France had brought rampant inflation. The cost of grain went up by over 300% in 15 months, while a farm labourer might earn 5 pence a day. Rural communities were devastated, whole families destitute. Duncan preached faithfully, but he also acted. He bought consignments of Indian corn from the docks and sold it to the poor at cost price. He provided the flax needed for local women to start a cottage industry. He employed the men to turn the land adjoining the manse into a garden which, in time, people would come from miles around to admire.

Henry Duncan

But Duncan saw that something had to be done longer term. He picked up an idea once touted by Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, but which few had tried so far: the Savings Bank. It would be run on sound business principles, offering secure investment with a fair interest rate. His model would meet a desperate need and, if successful, could be rolled out in other places.

In 1810 he opened his books in a formerly derelict cottage at Ruthwell which he had persuaded an Earl to release to him. Today it houses the Savings Bank Museum. After one year, funds stood at £151 – a considerable achievement in those impoverished days. Duncan’s other forte being publicity, he founded a local newspaper and with characteristic gusto spread the word about the Savings Bank. The idea caught on, and within five years there were banks around the United Kingdom.

Duncan’s original savings bank

Much came down to Duncan’s personal vision and energy. He underwrote the expenses himself (with much travelling to London to secure legislation), taking no expenses from the bank. He had to be a diplomat, agitator and defender, which at times exhausted him. He became friends with many of the great and good of the day, including the socialist pioneer and benefactor Robert Owen. He became something of a celebrity, but did all he could to escape this, saying his prime duty was to save souls.

The enormity of Duncan’s achievement is that this was no city enterprise, no work of high financiers. Duncan did it all on a church minister’s stipend! Its genius is the sheer ‘portability’ of the initiative. What began in a remote village backwater in Scotland became one of the formative impulses behind the Co-operative Bank, the first UK bank to introduce an Ethical Policy back in 1992, and many other micro-finance enterprises around the world.

How Needy is ‘Needy’? Some Early Church Views

Basil of Caesarea  (330-379) was a highly influential leader in the Early Church, who laboured and wrote extensively for the rights of the poor. His stance on wealth and poverty is blunt and uncompromising. It is also very relevant to today, where consumerism has achieved almost god-like status.

This piece shows that Basil was also a keen and unflinching observer of human nature – and human excuses. The writer identifies ‘the human tendency to adjust the definition of “need” to fit one’s current level of income.’

Basil was on to this 1600 years ago. His homily (practical sermon) on the man in Jesus’ parable, I Will Tear Down My Barns [and Build Bigger Ones], treats the barns not so much as symbols of wealth but rather as representing our definition of needs based on our circumstances.

‘In effect’, continues the article, ‘Basil says that if we never have any extra to share, this is due to the fact that whenever we find ourselves in possession of a surplus, we immediately adjust our definition of need to fit the new situation.’

(You say) “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again?

In his sermon “To the Rich”, Basil sees this as a form of madness. “Those who have acquired wealth and have great possessions, desire more of the same, nursing the sickness by perpetual accumulation. Having so much here and now fails to bring them happiness, since they grieve over what they don’t have, and convince themselves they’re lacking. ‘We’re poor!’, they say. And it’s true, because a poor person lacks much, and much are you lacking because of your insatiable desires! What was it that killed Naboth? [1 Kings 21] Was it not King Ahab’s greed for his vineyard?”

And so, Basil concludes, you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them – which applies to any level on the scale of wealth.

Salisbury foodbank volunteer Jill Plant

Increasing numbers of UK people are reliant on Food Banks  Image: mirror.co.uk

The issue of varying levels of need came particularly to a head in the monasteries. After all, if you live together, perceived inequality can be a death-knell. So Benedict of Nursia (480-c.545) had to address the matter in his Rule (which still governs Benedictine houses today, 1500 years later). He does so with great wisdom, rooted in scriptural principles, in Chapter 34:

Whether All Should Receive in Equal Measure What Is Necessary:  It is written, “Distribution was made to everyone according as he had need” (Acts 4:35). We do not say by this that respect should be had for persons (God forbid), but regard for infirmities. Let him who hath need of less thank God and not give way to sadness, but let him who hath need of more, humble himself for his infirmity, and not be elated for the indulgence shown him; and thus all the members will be at peace. 

Above all, let not the evil of murmuring appear in the least word or sign for any reason whatever. If anyone be found guilty herein, let him be placed under severe discipline.

I get the feeling that if this sentiment was more universally accepted and applied, a good measure of stress could be removed from our lives today.

 

Gerald of Aurillac: the Warrior Nobleman Who Lived Like a Monk

Gerald depicted as holding both the sword and the church

Gerald depicted as holding both the sword and the church

Count Gerald of Aurillac [pronounced ‘Oriac’] (855–909) was a remarkable man: an aristocratic warrior, a celibate and a devoted, self-denying disciple of Jesus. He inherited large estates in the Auvergne region of central France. He was trained as a soldier and given the best education. Expectations were high. Yet Gerald wanted to give it all up and be a monk! His friend, bishop Geusbert of Rodez, advised him not to: he could better use his status and gifts by doing good in secular life.

So Gerald lived as much like a monk as he could without actually becoming one. He chose not to marry but to stay celibate; in fact, his family line died out with him. Under his hat, the crown of his head was shaved like a monk’s. His biographer records that he surrounded himself with people of good character and morals, refusing all who simply wanted to curry the favour of a powerful man.

As a secular overlord, Gerald had military responsibilities. He was determined in his conscience never to shed blood himself, however, so he and his bodyguards fought with the flats of their swords and the butts of their spears – to show that it was God alone who gave them victory. In private, Gerald made no show of his great physical strength, choosing rather to enjoy conversation and the improvement of his mind through study.

He fasted often to concentrate his mind while performing his duties as landlord and judge. Even when hosting the feasts required by his status, he ate and drank sparingly. He shared food with the poor, dressed soberly, and used his family’s wealth to found new monasteries. He commissioned a church to be built on his estate, which in time became a Benedictine abbey. Gerald placed himself in submission to the abbot.

The remains of Gerald's church, adjoining its successor

The remains of Gerald’s church, adjoining its successor

He embraced this rigorous self-control because he wanted above all to serve God more effectively. Without the inbuilt restraint of monastery walls and routines, Gerald knew he had the harder task of being disciplined himself.

Gerald suffered from a skin complaint and in later years went blind. He was cared for by the monks whose life he had so diligently ‘shadowed’. When he died, he was buried in the church he had founded. A lifelong celibate, he is celebrated in the Roman Catholic church today as the patron saint of bachelors!

 

%d bloggers like this: