If you think about it, being “extreme” is a very fluid concept, having a lot to do with local, cultural and temporal factors. As someone has said: “A fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than you do.” So, for 21st century Western minds, the idea of hair shirts, heavy penances and dangerous levels of self-denial seems weird and wholly unnecessary. Yet in a more Eastern context, and in the 5th century, such ‘extreme holiness’ was not only accepted, but praised.
One who took it to new heights (literally, see below) was Simeon Stylites (sty-ly-tees). Born c. 388 in what is now Kozan, Turkey, he showed great hunger for God as a child, and at 16 entered a monastery. However, his superiors found his asceticism so intense and exaggerated that they asked him to leave. So Simeon found a hut and lived there as a hermit, fasting for weeks at a time. Then he moved to a rocky outcrop on a mountain. Local people, seeing him as a holy man, brought him food. As his fame spread, people came from further afield seeking counsel and prayer.
This led Simeon to the decision for which he is remembered today (and for which he qualifies as one of God’s oddballs). In order to get away from distraction and celebrity, he found a pillar in an old ruin, about 9 feet (3m) high and constructed a platform on top of it. This became his home, but also a powerful visual symbol: unable to be separate from the world horizontally, he was doing so vertically!
As crowds and sightseers increased, Simeon simply found a higher pillar, his final dwelling being one c. 50 feet (16m) high at Afrin, 60 miles from Aleppo in Syria. His living-platform had a baluster around it and Simeon wore a chain, partly for self-abnegation, partly for health and safety! Wellwishers used a ladder to bring him food and milk. Some climbed up for a word of wisdom or prophecy from the holy man. The bishop of Antioch came and celebrated Communion with Simeon on the platform. Theodosius II, emperor of Byzantium, came to consult with Simeon. And certain clerics, jealous of his fame, challenged him to come down from his pillar as proof of his humility. As he began to climb down, they relented and let him stay.
Simeon’s platform being only 3 feet (1m) or so in diameter, he developed an unusual way of praying. He bowed until his head almost touched his knees, then straightened again. One onlooker records counting Simeon doing this 1,244 times in one session, at which point the counter gave up, exhausted. And when Simeon died, in September 459, after 37 years on his pillar, his body was found bent double in this posture of prayer. Simeon was buried at Antioch with great ceremony, while back in the wilderness, his disciples continued pillar-dwelling for another generation. In time, a great cathedral was built around the pillar itself, the ruins of which can be seen today.
Some wish to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of Hell!
So wrote the famous missionary from Northamptonshire, Charles Thomas Studd (1860-1931). He was from a privileged background and had played cricket for England in the 1882 match won by Australia, which was the origin of Ashes.
A year later, he heard the American evangelist D L Moody at Cambridge and was deeply convicted of God’s claim on his life. With six friends, Studd pledged his life to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him, he declared. As proof of ‘burning his boats’, he waived his right to a considerable fortune. In 1885, the “Cambridge Seven” set off for China. It was a high-profile action by some of the cream of England’s youth, and it made a great impression.
For the rest of his life, Studd worked hard on the mission field in China, India, Sudan and the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo). His wife Priscilla worked tirelessly to promote the missions back in Britain. It was Studd himself, however, who made the biggest noise through his writings – and one in particular: The Chocolate Soldier. It is a rallying cry to rank alongside William Booth’s Darkest England.
Heroism is the lost chord of present-day Christianity, he writes. Then, with exquisite irony, he likens Western Christians to chocolate Christians, dissolving in water and melting at the smell of fire. Sweeties they are! Lollipops! Living their lives in a cardboard box, each clad in his frilled white paper to preserve his dear, delicate constitution. He parodies the great martial hymn ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ in a “chocolate” version:
Mark time, Christian heroes, never go to war. Stop and mind the babies, playing on the floor…
Studd echoes a concern of his day, that increased leisure was feminising young men; and he points a finger of blame at self-satisfied and risk-averse Christianity. Many fine youngsters are turned into chocolates by ‘old prophets’ – preachers who have lost their fire [referring to an episode in 1 Kings 13].
By contrast, Studd made it his practice to take the costly way, so he could model it for others. To him, Christians are the true heroes: braver than the bravest, scorning the soft seductions of peace and her oft repeated warnings against hardship, disease, danger and death, whom he counts among his bosom friends. So he lived in a mud hut, refused vacations and would not be hindered by disease or disappointment. His motto (which was later expanded into a hymn) was: “Only one life,‘twill soon be past; and only what’s done for Christ will last.”
This fired the imagination of hundreds back home, who came to find him in Africa and sit at his feet. From these, Studd believed a muscular succession would come, carrying the same spirit that had always gripped him. I will blaze the trail, he wrote, though my grave may only become a stepping stone that younger men may follow.
We ought not to forget the equally brave sacrifice made by Studd’s wife, Priscilla. Unable to travel with him on account of their four daughters, she chose before God not to impede him on his course, but to stay home, pray, and fund-raise for him – and rely on letters from the ‘front’!
I was delighted to discover Barbara Wells Sarudy’s post in the ‘It’s About Time’ blog devoted to a little-known but remarkable painter, who 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.
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.
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.
Courageous faith isn’t just for special, brave people. Some of God’s heroes had to overcome serious limitations, even to get started. One such was James Parnell. He was a delicate lad, short for his age and sensitive. He loved Jesus and sensed there must be more than going to the parish church.
In 1653, when he was 16, he heard of George Fox, the leader of the Quakers, who was in prison in Carlisle. Weak as he was, James walked the 150 miles and, fainting with exhaustion, was allowed to visit Fox. We have no record of their conversation, but Parnell was filled with the Holy Spirit and commissioned by Fox to be an evangelist.
He had just two years of life left, but they were amazingly fruitful. A colleague at the time wrote: ‘He was of a poor appearance, a mere youth, coming against giants; yet the wisdom of man was made to bow before the Spirit by which he spoke.’
Disinherited and turned out of home by his parents, Parnell set about the work of the gospel. Sometimes with a partner, sometimes alone, he went from house to house, ‘preaching, praying, exhorting, and turning the minds of all sorts of people to the light of Jesus.’ He was ridiculed for his short stature, and often after preaching he was exhausted. Faith kept him going.
Hearing that two Quakers had been whipped at Cambridge, he went there and preached himself. He continued in the east of England, strengthening the Quaker assemblies. Finally, Parnell was arrested and imprisoned in Colchester. “I am committed to be kept a prisoner, but I am the Lord’s free-man,” he wrote. His jailers starved him for days at a time, then let him climb down a rope to get food. The jailer’s wife and daughter used to beat him, and on occasions he was locked outside in mid-winter.
It was too much for his weak constitution. One day he had no strength left to climb the rope but fell to the concrete below, and died of his injuries. He was just 18 years old. He was the first of several hundred Quaker martyrs. His message to all of us is summed up in the last words he sent to the Quaker believers in Essex: “Be willing that self shall suffer for the truth, and not the truth for self.”
Count Gerald of Aurillac [pronounced ‘Oriac’] (855–909) was a remarkable man by anybody’s standards: 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.
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!
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.
John Piper, in a perceptive article on Spurgeon and adversity, sees several contributing factors to Spurgeon’s depression.
Overwork. His friend, missionary David Livingstone, said he did the work of two men every day: running his orphanage (Spurgeons, still a leading charity today) and a church of 4,000 members (the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London); editing a magazine, writing books, answering several hundred letters a week – the list goes on. Spurgeon saw this as a virtue (“If we die early because of excessive labour, there is more of heaven“). Today, many would seriously question his ‘work – life balance’.
Pain and sorrow. He married Susannah in 1856. Their twin sons were born the day after the horrific stampede at a service where he was preaching in 1856, where seven people were trampled to death. So for Spurgeon, even the gift of fatherhood was a mixed blessing. They had no more children. When Susannah was 33, she became an invalid and remained so until she died, 27 years later. Spurgeon himself suffered so badly from gout that he felt he was being bitten by snakes. He was known to say that the pain would be the end of him.
Hostile criticism. Perhaps because he was a larger than life figure and popular, Spurgeon was attacked from all quarters of the Church. In 1857 he wrote: “Down on my knees have I often fallen, with the hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me; in an agony of grief my heart has been well-nigh broken.”
Yet it was the trauma of the seven people trampled to death in the Royal Surrey Gardens that broke something in him, at only 22 and newly wed. In his first book, The Saint and His Saviour, he described his agony:
When the storm was over, a kind of stupor of grief ministered a mournful medicine to me. I sought solitude, where I could tell my griefs to flowers and the dew could weep with me. Here my mind lay, like a wreck upon the sand, incapable of its usual motion. I was in a strange land, and a stranger in it. My thoughts, which had been to me a cup of delights, were like pieces of broken glass, the piercing and cutting miseries of my pilgrimage.
In time, Spurgeon learned to rise from this deep pit of ‘shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness‘ and make his mark on church and nation. Eventually, he could even see divine providence behind it.
By nature a fighter, Spurgeon initially refused to accept depression. He called it his “worst feature.” “Despondency is not a virtue; I believe it is a vice. I am heartily ashamed of myself for falling into it, but I am sure there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God.” With the passing years, as bouts of depression continued to lay him low, he came through to various conclusions, which may be of help to anyone who struggles with the ‘all-beclouding hopelessness.’
In an early (1859) sermon, ‘The Sweet Uses of Adversity‘, he writes: Perhaps in your own person you are the continual subject of a sad depression of spirit? and offers some thoughts. These could be seen as the standard Christian answers, even a little pat.
- It may be that God is contending with you that he may show his own power in upholding you (much as the parent of a gifted child delights to see it put through hard questions, because he knows the child can answer them all).
- Perhaps, O tried soul, the Lord is doing this to develop graces in you. Afflictions are often the black mounts in which God sets the jewels of his children’s graces, to make them shine the better.
- God is chiselling you, making you into the image of Christ. None can be like the Man of Sorrow unless they have sorrows too.
We sense two things emerging. First, an undefensive acceptance that bad and painful things happen, and we may never know why. The great preacher who could analyse most things in life and present them in a 3-heading sermon, could not analyse pain and depression.
Second, a more mature response to the issue of depression, born of his experience. In a later sermon, ‘When a Preacher is Downcast‘, he stresses the need for wisdom, recreation, for time spent enjoying nature, and for vacations to maintain a healthy soul. He also brings in the positives of his experience in the dark valleys of depression.
- This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry. The cloud is black before it breaks and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy.
- Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer blessing. So have far better men than I found it. The scouring of the vessel has fitted it for the Master’s use. Immersion in suffering has preceded the filling of the Holy Ghost. The wilderness is the way to Canaan. The low valley leads to the towering mountain. Defeat prepares for victory. The raven is sent forth before the dove. The darkest hour of the night precedes the day-dawn.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) hit the headlines young and never left them. He could quote whole sections of the New Testament from memory. He had a library of 10,000 books and had read them all. In his teens he could understand deep theological points that confused many adults. At only 19 years of age, he was invited to pastor a respected Baptist church in London.
Large crowds came to hear him. His biblical prowess was obvious but his style unorthodox, his sermons more like stories. He quoted from the newspapers and took everyday situations, making spiritual points out of them, so that anyone could understand his message. He became a sensation, becoming known as ‘the Prince of Preachers’.
Disaster was to strike, however. In 1856, when he was preaching at the 10,000-seat music hall of the Royal Surrey Gardens, a prankster shouted “Fire!”. In the stampede, 7 people were trampled to death. Spurgeon was devastated. ‘Perhaps never a soul went so near the burning furnace of insanity,‘ he wrote later, ‘yet came away unharmed. ‘From that day on, he knew bouts of dark depression.
What’s more, he suffered from Bright’s disease, rheumatism and gout, so severe that, in his final years, he was regularly too ill to preach and had to go the South of France to convalesce. Even so, Spurgeon continued to pour himself into God’s work, not least through his magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, and his many books (which are still widely read today). He stood as a bulwark against Higher Criticism, the rationalist theology coming from Germany, which threatened to undermine the true biblical faith.
One fruit of Spurgeon’s battle with depression is that he wrote about it. When a Preacher is Downcast was one sermon, pregnant with his own experience.
‘Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited with it at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts on it…
Most of us are in some way or other unsound physically… As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off balance? These infirmities may be no detriment to a man’s special usefulness. They may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualification for his peculiar course of service…Where in body and mind there are predisposing causes to lowness of spirit, it is no marvel if in dark moments the heart succumbs to them.
The preacher’s work has much to try the soul. The loneliness of God’s prophet tends to depression. How often do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us? After pouring out our souls over our congregations, we feel like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break.
In 1858, at the age of 24, he wrote: “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.” In his ‘Lectures to My Students’, he made this observation:
Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discourses. One would as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness.
Yet even here he can sound a note of hope: The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back. It was to this heavenly hand that Spurgeon constantly looked, as we will see in a following post.