Antony of Egypt was a true pioneer, whose influence is still felt today. What makes him so remarkable is that he did what he did long before it made sense to do such things, but by doing it he blazed a trail for posterity.
Evangelical Protestant historians explain the migration to the desert by thousands of monks, nuns and hermits as a reaction against the political “Christendom” created by Constantine I and his successors in the 4th century. Yet Antony had already made his statement a generation earlier, at a time when the Early Church was still supposed to be in its bloom.
Born in Egypt about AD 251, his parents died when he was young, leaving him a small fortune. One day he heard a Christian quote Jesus’ words: If you would be perfect, go sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow Me (Matthew 19:21). They cut him like a knife. He sold his estate and became the disciple of a godly priest.
Yet his heart grew restless. He didn’t belong to the world he saw around him. He felt a strong pull to the desert beyond the Nile. Here hot and cold, flood and drought engaged men in a daily, physical battle for life itself. To Antony, this mirrored the human soul in its battle between flesh and spirit, love for God and love of self. Here too was a pioneering adventure, where only the real would make it.
So Antony went to live alone in the desert. Friends sent food every few days; all else depended on his survival skills. His experiences were later dictated to a follower – and what reading they make! He fought boredom and guilt, sexual temptations and hunger for possessions. He gives graphic accounts of battles with demons, but also of sweet times of communion with Jesus. He also learned the importance of manual work for focusing the mind; he wove reed baskets and sold them in town.
His reputation spread and men came to the desert to be near him. Reluctantly, in AD 305, he left his solitude and spent six years drawing these disciples into a community of hermits. In time, some 5,000 were under his authority. They lived alone or in pairs in the week, then came together on Sundays for worship, fellowship and mutual support. He taught them the foundational principles that he had based his own life on: love, patience, celibacy, gentleness and humility. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh, he taught. Gain your brother, and you have gained God. Offend your brother, and you sin against Christ.
Antony was well aware of the prophetic power of his act of renunciation of ‘normality’. A time is coming when men will go mad, he is recorded as saying, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”
A monastery built in the vicinity of Antony’s original community still exists and is a popular tourist destination. But Antony himself found celebrity unpalatable and withdrew deeper into the desert, where he lived to be over 100. He appeared only twice: to strengthen persecuted brethren in Alexandria, and to counter a dangerous heresy. His burial place was kept secret, since he feared men’s idolatry. Today, Antony is acknowledged as the founding ‘Desert Father’ (though Paul of Thebes was the first hermit); the man who broke the mould and let passion for Jesus create a new, living ‘wineskin’ (Matthew 9:17) for the Holy Spirit’s life.
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.
At the west door of Peterborough Cathedral, in England, the visitor is greeted by this graphic medieval pillar base. It depicts St Peter conquering the magician, Simon Magus, who had offered Peter money if he would empower him to transmit the Holy Spirit like the apostle did (Acts 8:9-24). From here we get the sin of “simony” (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges). The strategic placement of such a sculpture at Peterborough was a statement: as you enter these holy precincts, abandon all thought of selfish human gain.
But why is Simon represented in the sculpture as being cast head first into hell? This does not come from the New Testament account but from the pages of an Early Church work that I am inclined to call “the first Christian novel”.
A 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.