Archive | April 2019

Antony of Egypt: the Original Christian Hermit, and What Made Him Do It

Image: artmajeur.com

Image: artmajeur.com

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.

Remains of monastic settlements

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.

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“The Parson’s Converted!” William Haslam and the 1850s Revival in Cornwall

There cannot be many preachers converted during one of their own sermons, but this was the happy fate of William HaslamOrdained 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.”

Baldhu church, Cornwall, scene of Haslam’s conversion

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.

A contemporary illustration of an unidentified revival preacher

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.”

A ‘drawing room meeting’, for prayer and enquiry

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.

Portraits from Christian Community: the Work of Moravian Artist, Johann Valentin Haidt

Portrait of Anna Maria Lawatsch. Moravian archives.

I recently discovered the paintings of a little-known but remarkable artist, who has greatly enriched our understanding of the 18th century Moravian Church through a series of portraits of some of its first-generation members in America.

Johann Valentin Haidt (1700-1780), son of a Danzig jeweller, studied painting at Venice, Rome, Paris, and London, where he finally settled and worked as a watchmaker. He grew weary of the deistic Enlightenment thinking of the day and was drawn to the plainer, more sincere devotion of the Moravians. In 1740, at one of their gatherings, he was profoundly moved. “There was shame, amazement, grief and joy, mixed together, in short, heaven on earth. Therefore I had no more question as to whether I should attach myself to the Brethren.”

Haidt and his family soon moved to the birthplace and European headquarters of Moravianism, at Herrnhut in Germany. It was a time of change in the movement and Haidt hit on a novel idea. He wrote to the founder, Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, asking permission to paint rather than the usual Moravian missional activities. He felt he could better preserve and proclaim the central message of their faith in paint than in word. So he began painting biblical and spiritual works, while still accepting some secular commissions.

In 1754 Haidt was ordained a deacon in the Moravian Church and was sent to America. A year later he was based at their communitarian colony at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, headquarters of their operations in America. He was sent on missionary journeys to Native Americans from Maryland to New England, but he continued to paint, which among other things brought some income into the movement. He also taught painting. Sarudy’s blog offers fascinating details.

Portrait of Christian Protten and his wife Rebecca, an ex-slave. Moravian archives.

It is his portraits of members of the Bethlehem colony, though, that are Haidt’s lasting legacy. They put a human face to a story that can otherwise be just names, events and places. Sarudy reproduces several from the archives at Bethlehem and Herrnhut. An image search online produces several more. Thanks to the Germanic efficiency of Moravian record keeping, journaling and letter writing, together with their tradition of recording the final reminiscences of members on their deathbeds, we have the precious chance to match a portrait with biographical details. Two examples are the sitters reproduced in this post.

Anna Maria Lawatsch (1712-1760) is pictured above in the plain, even austere dress of a married Moravian woman, not least the Mittel-European two-layer headdress or Haube. The only colourful aspect of women’s clothing was their ribbons: red for young girls, pink for eligible maidens, blue for wives, and white for widows. Anna Maria was an ‘Eldress’, overseer of the community houses for single women and married couples, in several colonies, including Herrnhut. The link quotes extensively from her writings. On her tombstone at Bethlehem the ‘virtue name’ Demuth (humility) is added to her name.

Christian Protten (1716-1769) was the son of a Dutch sailor and an African princess of the Ga tribe. His mixed race features and hair are clear in the portrait. In Denmark he met Zinzendorf and went to Herrnhut. The link reveals some racial prejudice towards him there (he was ‘a wild African’), so he was sent on mission to Ghana; his strained relationship with Zinzendorf, including seasons of ‘shunning’ and a time of separation from his mulatto wife; and final reconciliation and the founding of the first Christian grammar school in the Ga tribal lands of Ghana.

The Power of God: the Jeffreys Brothers’ Remarkable Healing Ministry

Image: thebeausejourpulpit.wordpress.com

I had not been aware of the existence of the George Jeffreys and Stephen Jeffreys Official Website, but I’m delighted that I found it here. The founders of the Elim Pentecostal Church were certainly innovative in obeying the Great Commission to proclaim the gospel.

Their methods were bold and apostolic. In the economic depression of the 1920s and 30s, with dole queues and poverty, they would target an industrial city and rent a large hall. They were unknown, unsupported and often opposed by local churches. Meetings went on for weeks, the hall at first almost empty, but once news of the miraculous signs was out, it would be crammed. After the campaign they would buy a disused building, renovate it together, and Jeffreys would install a man he had trained up, to be pastor of the new church. In this way, several hundred new churches were planted all over Britain.

Here, with due acknowledgement to the Jeffreys blog, is a contemporary report of a campaign which they held in Liverpool, UK, in March 1926.

“Revival Fires are burning in Liverpool. Although the campaign only started on Sunday 14th March, by the middle of the week the church was packed out. Hundreds have been saved and there have been many remarkable healings.” It was not long before the secular press began to report what was happening in these meetings, including the Yorkshire Observer, which referred to “the extraordinary scenes being reported at a disused Liverpool Chapel.” The Daily Despatch of 18th March carried the following report: “Remarkable scenes of religious fervour are being witnessed at the little chapel in Windsor Street. Several remarkable ‘cures’ have been claimed by sick and maimed people who have been anointed with oil during the campaign. Several of the patients whom the pastor described as being under the power of God, swooned and lay trembling for some moments.”

Crowds gather for an afternoon meeting in Liverpool

The Daily Despatch went on to list some of the healings that had already taken place including a five year old girl suffering from Infantile Paralysis, a woman healed of deafness, a man from heart disease, and two people from paralysis. On the following day (19th March), five days after the commencement, the Daily Despatch carried the following report:

“Hundreds of people had to be turned away from yesterday’s services. Queues began to assemble outside the chapel two hours before the meeting commenced. As soon as the doors were open crowds began to clamour for admission, choking the aisles and every available inch of space. A crowd just as large could not gain admission and had to remain outside, while a few yards along the street other evangelists conducted open-air services until long after ten o’clock. So great was the pressure inside that the pastor was unable to anoint any of the people with oil and the service was terminated prematurely. Nevertheless a number of people testified to healing including a woman who had been dumb for many years, and two women healed of deafness.”

Stephen Jeffreys’ son Edward reported on a campaign in Swansea, Wales: Miracles of healing of the most amazing character took place. The blind received their sight; cripples threw away their crutches; the deaf answered questions; withered and twisted arms were raised, and there were many other remarkable cures from heart trouble, rheumatism, neuritis, paralysis, ruptures, haemorrhages and other complaints.

At Hull, in the north-east of England, George and Stephen ministered together. Testimonies were reported in the July 1922 issue of the ‘Elim Evangel’.

‘One woman told of nineteen long years of suffering through paralysis, but when anointed by Pastor Jeffreys she was completely healed. Another lady related how after four years of suffering from hip disease, during which time she had undergone no less than four serious operations and had lain in irons for over three years, her case was pronounced as absolutely hopeless by the physicians. God stepped in and marvellously delivered her and now she is able to do her own housework.

‘One of the cases which excited most interest was that of a young man whose condition was pitiable in the extreme. Paralysed in almost every limb and unable to speak intelligibly, he was as helpless as a child. What a change was wrought in him. I remember so well the evening when, full of new life, he swung his arms above his head and then in the exuberance of his joy jumped again and again, demonstrating the reality of his healing.’
A link that has, unfortunately, been taken down, recorded eye-witness accounts of the 1932 in Exeter, south-west England. Here, onlookers heard bones crack as they were divinely reset. Most remarkable of all, though, was the case of a young girl born without eyes. George Jeffreys prayed several times over her: “Lord Jesus, give this little girl her eyes, just now!” Eye-witness Amos Pike tells what happened next: “Suddenly, this girl was looking at us – with two beautiful, big blue eyes!”
To show that this was not an exercise in Christian marketing, I close with a quotation from the Birmingham Sunday Mercury, of 31 January 1926. The secular journalist relates episodes from George Jeffreys’ campaign in Plymouth, Devon. It includes this:
‘Even sceptical policemen, whose duty it is to regulate the throng, have been swept off their feet by what they have seen and heard. One night two girls, one blind and the other dumb [mute], inquired of the officer nearby their way to the service. An hour or so later he was amazed when the couple returned to him, literally dancing for joj, the dumb girl speaking and the blind girl. seeing.’

 

How Needy is ‘Needy’? Some Early Church Thoughts

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.

 

Having a Grateful Heart: Thoughts from Church Fathers and from Today

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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.

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.”

His contemporary John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, is similarly insistent in his Homily 25 on St. Matthew:

Let us give thanks to God continually. For, it is outrageous that when we enjoy His benefaction to us in deed every single day, we do not acknowledge the favour with so much as a word; and this, when the acknowledgement confers great benefit on us. He does not need anything of ours, but we stand in need of all things from Him.

In point of fact, thanksgiving adds nothing to Him, but it brings us closer to Him. For if, when we recall the benefactions of men, we are the more warmed by affection for them; much more, when we continually bring to mind the benefits of the Master towards us, shall we be more earnest with regard to His commandments.

For this cause Paul also said, Be ye thankful. For the best preservative of any blessing is the remembrance of that blessing, and a continual thanksgiving for it .

God’s Bigger Picture: the Hypocrite Who Became a Fruitful Preacher

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.

 

One of the chapels where Keach preached

One of the chapels where Keach preached

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.

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