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.
Samuel Chadwick was born in the industrial north of England in 1860. His father worked long hours in the cotton mill and, when he was only eight, Samuel went to work there, too, as a means of supporting the family. Devout Methodists, they attended chapel three times on Sunday, and as a young boy, Chadwick gave his heart to Christ. Listening to God’s word week by week, he often felt the inner call to serve Jesus. It seemed impossible, as he was poor and uneducated, but in faith he made preparations. After a twelve-hour factory shift he would rush home for five hours of prayer and study.
At the age of 21 he was appointed lay pastor of a chapel at Stacksteads, Lancashire. He found the congregation self-satisfied, but Chadwick threw himself into the work with great optimism. He had been trained to prepare well-researched and interesting sermons as the sure way to bring in the crowds. He recalled later: “This led unconsciously to a false aim in my work. I lived and laboured for my sermons, and was unfortunately more concerned about their excellence and reputation than the repentance of the people.”
Soon, however, his sermons were exhausted and nothing had changed. Staring defeat in the face and sensing his lack of real power, an intense hunger was kindled within him for more of God. At this point he heard the testimony of someone who had been revitalised by an experience of the Holy Spirit. So, with a few friends he covenanted to pray and search the scriptures until God sent revival.
One evening he was praying over his next sermon, when a powerful sense of conviction settled on him. His pride, blindness and reliance on human methods paraded before his eyes as God humbled him to the dust. Well into the night he wrestled and repented, then he got out his pile of precious sermons and threw them on the fire!
The result was immediate – he was baptised with the Holy Spirit and with fire [Luke 3:16].
“I could not explain what had happened, but it was a bigger thing than I had ever known. There came into my soul a deep peace, a thrilling joy, and a new sense of power. My mind was quickened. I felt I had received a new faculty of understanding. Every power was vitalised. My body was quickened. There was a new sense of spring and vitality, a new power of endurance and a strong man’s exhilaration in big things.”
The tide turned. At his next service, seven people were converted (“one for each of my barren years”), and he called the whole congregation to a week of prayer. The following weekend most of the church was filled with the Holy Spirit and revival began to spread through the valleys. In the space of a few months, hundreds were converted to Jesus, among them some of the most notorious sinners in the area.
The pattern was repeated over the next few years as Chadwick moved to various places. 1890 saw him in Leeds, where the power of God was so strongly upon him that the chapel was full half an hour before the service began, and police had to control the crowds. Chadwick records: “We were always praying and fighting [the devil], singing and rejoicing, doing the impossible and planning still bigger things. The newspapers never left us alone, and people came from far and wide.” Within a few years, the chapel had to be demolished and a substantial Mission Hall built.
Always a man of the people, Chadwick would spend his Saturdays mixing with local workers. Once, when his wife was away, he teasingly invited anyone who was lonely to come for Saturday tea. He expected about a dozen. 600 turned up! Yet God had already catered: one church member was a baker and had been awoken by the Lord with the order to bake for all he was worth!
Chadwick was a man of prayer and urged others to it too. “The one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying,” he wrote. “He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work and prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom – but trembles when we pray!”
The final phase of Chadwick’s life was spent as Principal of Cliff College, a Methodist training school for preachers, and it was here that he wrote his famous book, The Way to Pentecost, which was being printed when he died in 1932. In it we read: “I owe everything to the gift of Pentecost. For fifty days the facts of the Gospel were complete, but no conversions were recorded. Pentecost registered three thousand souls. It is by fire that a holy passion is kindled in the soul whereby we live the life of God. The soul’s safety is in its heat. Truth without enthusiasm, morality without emotion, ritual without soul, make for a Church without power.”
There is a story frequently told concerning the Dutch Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons. Some recent research suggests that the episode is of later origin and concerns a different Anabaptist minister, Hans Buscher, but the anecdote and the truth it contains are important whoever the protagonist was. The story goes that Menno escaped arrest one day through a “white lie”.
He was fleeing for his life, riding next to the coachman at the front of a coach (see image below). They were overtaken by the sheriff’s officers, who stopped them and asked: “Is Menno Simons in the coach?” Menno bent down and called to the passengers inside: “They’re asking if Menno Simons is in the coach.” The reply was negative, so he said to his pursuers: “They say no.” And the officers left.
Even so, the moral question remains: should he, as a Christian leader, have told a ‘white lie’? You might say it wasn’t a lie at all, as he was in front of, not in the coach. But he willfully deceived the officers. By so doing, he was free to continue supporting the underground believers. Had he owned up, he would have faced martyrdom and the Anabaptist movement would have lost its key leader in the North.
As we know from politics today, there are ways of saying things that do not necessarily constitute a lie, but would lead the hearer to believe something other than what you are saying. Much comes down to motive. To Jesus (in the matter of healing on the Sabbath), saving life outranked killing [Mark 3:4]. King David told a half-truths in 1 Samuel 21:2 and 27:10, and the Bible narrative does not suggest that he committed a sin. It was strategic answering, for God’s higher purpose.
Seeing that we began with Menno Simons, let us hear from two noted Mennonite scholars, Alan and Eleanor Kreider. They gave a lecture in 2001 entitled Economical with the Truth: Swearing and Lying, An Anabaptist Perspective. This used to be available online but unfortunately no longer seems to be so. They detect in modern society a crisis of truthfulness in which people swear oaths, but then are “economical with the truth.” They point to how the 16th century Anabaptists made much of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not swear at all… Let your yes be yes, and your no be no” (Matthew 5:33-37).
They cite patristic writers. According to Clement of Alexandria around AD 200, Christians were “addicted to the truth.” Apollonius, who was martyred in Rome in the late second century, at his trial gave witness that the Christians “have been ordered by Jesus never to swear and in all things to tell the truth . . . for from deceit comes distrust.” They also quote Menno Simons himself:
If you fear the Lord and . . . are asked to swear . . . continue in the Lord’s Word which has forbidden you so plainly to swear, and let your yea and nay be your oath as was commanded, whether life or death be your lot, in order that you by your courage and firm truthfulness may admonish and reprove others. [As a consequence], we by the fear of God dare not speak anything but the truth; [we] esteem every word which comes from our mouth as virtually an oath.
We sense convictions in the man that would not have let him lie barefacedly on that carriage.
However, the Kreiders are quick to admit: the Anabaptists, of course, struggled to live up to their vision. Their vision was not simply one of not swearing; it was of being people of transparency who belonged to communities of truthfulness. Like most Christians throughout time and space, the Anabaptists didn’t always do what they wanted to do. Occasionally, as we have noticed, they swore oaths, especially when they were recanting to be able to return from banishment to return to their families. And they often asked – what does truthfulness require? What does it mean, when in danger, to tell the truth?
Here we see that there are other considerations that might have justified a certain “economy with the truth”. An article in Christianity Today, ‘The Seven Levels of Lying’, picks this up with the more recent example of Corrie ten Boom lying to the Gestapo to protect the Jews that her family was hiding. ‘What ten Boom’s case shows is not that lying is honoring to God, but rather that human circumstances can degenerate into something so depraved that lies get mixed in with acts of faith.’
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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.
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 sorcerer 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.
In 1737, the Moravian Church sent a team led by Georg Schmidt to start a mission and community settlement in South Africa. They chose some land east of Cape Town known as “the ravine of baboons” and here they founded their settlement, Genadendal (Grace Valley). You can see images of the subsequent settlement here.
The local tribe, the Khoi, were impoverished and dispersed but the Moravians reached out to them and began a school for their children. One of the first Khoi to be baptised was a woman called Tikhuie, whom the missionaries named Magdalena. Her husband, a skilled hunter, kept the community supplied with meat.
Some of the missionaries died of disease, however, Schmidt grew lonely, and in 1744 he was recalled to the mother colony at Herrnhut, Germany. Everyone thought the community was finished. They reckoned without ‘Lena’ Tikhuie! Having learnt to read at the mission school, she gathered the people daily under a tree and taught them the scriptures.
Years passed. Travellers returning to Europe brought tales of an African woman leading a church at Grace Valley. Finally, in 1792, nearly fifty years after the withdrawal, the Moravians sent a fresh team to re-found Genadendal. On their arrival, they found the ruins of the original houses, but to their astonishment there was Lena Tikhuie, frail and almost blind, still holding the ground and ministering to the little congregation, daily, under the tree. Her well-worn bible was still with her, wrapped in sheepskin.
The missionaries were told, “Every evening we all, men, women and children, would go to old Lena. She would fall on her knees and pray. When her eyes would let her, she read from the New Testament.” As families grew, parents taught their children to pray. When Lena couldn’t read, a younger woman did it for her.
Lena became a living legend in the area. People came to see her. One, the wife of a high official in the British government, wrote: “It was like creeping back seventeen hundred years to hear from the coarse but inspired lips of evangelists the simple, sacred words of wisdom and purity.”
Lena never knew when she was born, but she lived a long life, always thanking God for His great grace. When she died in 1800, her faithful perseverance had become legendary throughout South Africa. She was one of the first indigenous church leaders in South Africa, certainly the first woman, and she had led the congregation at Genadendal for fifty years.