In my reading of Church history, I regularly find colourful characters who didn’t fit the usual pattern but whom God used in surprising ways. Perhaps it was always so? As early as Genesis 20, King Abimelech of Gerar talks with God and behaves uprightly, yet the patriarch Abraham cannot see the possibility of good in anyone in Gerar.
One of these “oddballs” – outsiders who were, in God’s view, very much “in” – was an unnamed woman from Cornwall, England, in the 1850s. We meet her in William Haslam’s autobiographical From Death Into Life (download free here). Haslam was greatly used by God in a revival in Cornwall, with many conversions and amendment of life. Yet it almost never happened, because Haslam nearly died – but for the pipe-smoking prophetess. We read:
[There was] ‘a tall, gaunt, gipsy kind of woman, whom they called “the wise woman.” She had a marvellous gift of healing and other knowledge, which made people quite afraid of her. This woman took a great interest in me and my work, and often came to church and house meetings.
‘One day she visited the parsonage and said “Have you a lemon in the house?” I inquired and found that we had not. “Well then,” she said, “get one, and some honey and vinegar, and mix them all together. You will need it. Mind you do, now.” Then she put the bowl of her pipe into the kitchen fire and, having ignited the tobacco, went away smoking. The servants were much frightened by her manner.’
[Later that day, Haslam was caught in a thunderstorm and held house meetings in wet clothes all evening.]
‘At three o’clock in the morning I awoke, choking with a severe fit of bronchitis. I had to struggle for breath and life. After an hour or more of the most acute suffering, my dear wife remembered the lemon mixture, and called the servant to get up and bring it. It was just in time. I was black in the face with suffocation, but this compound relieved, and, in fact, restored me. I was greatly exhausted with the effort and struggle for life, and after two hours I fell asleep. I was able to rise in the morning, and breathe freely, though my chest was very sore.
‘After breakfast, the “wise woman” appeared outside the window of the drawing-room, where I was lying on the sofa. “Ah, my dear,” she said, “you were nearly gone at three o’clock this morning. I had a hard wrestle for you, sure enough. If you had not had that lemon, you know, you would have been a dead man by this time!”
‘That mysterious creature, what with her healing art, together with the prayer of faith and the marvellous foresight she had, was quite a terror to the people. One day she came, and bade me go to a man who was very worldly and careless, and tell him that he would die before Sunday. I said, “You go, if you have received the message.” She looked sternly at me, and said, “You go! That’s the message!” So I went. The man laughed at me, and said, “That old hag ought to be hanged.” I urged him to give his heart to God, and prayed with him, but to no effect. The following Saturday, coming home from market, he was thrown from his cart and killed.
‘She was not always a bird of evil omen, for sometimes she brought me good news as well as bad. One day she said, “There is a clergyman coming to see you, who used to be a great friend of yours, but since your conversion he has been afraid of you. He is coming; you must allow him to preach; he will be converted before long!” Sure enough, my old friend W. B. came as she predicted. He preached, and in due time was converted, and his wife also.’
‘Her sayings and doings would fill a book; but who would believe these things?‘
It should be pointed out that Cornwall has a long tradition of village ‘wise women’, an ancient line of pagan folk medicine and healing in the Celtic tradition. This was usually opposed and denounced as witchcraft by the Church, but it seems from the Haslam episode that some wise women were at home with Christianity – and their spirituality at times welcomed by the converted.
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.
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 there 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.
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).
‘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.’
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!”
On account of the many unusual things she had experienced, and the evident Holy Spirit power in her gatherings, Maria was welcomed by early Pentecostals as a forerunner of their own movement. She worked alongside several pioneers like F F Boswell and John G Lake, who called her “Mother Etter”.
John Wesley, the ‘father’ of Methodism, liked to consider himself a true son of the Anglican church, not the leader of a sect. He felt keenly the criticism that, in founding Methodism, he had stepped outside the Anglican apostolic succession. He was also well aware that, having been only an Anglican priest and not a bishop, he could not himself ordain anyone to a higher office than that – but would need to in order to cover Methodism’s spread in two continents.
As a churchman, Wesley still believed there was divine merit in an apostolic succession, as it conveyed the historic commission of Jesus to Peter. So it was that, against the advice of some of his inner circle, Wesley contacted Erasmus (Gerasimos), Orthodox bishop of Arcadia in Crete, now living in exile in Amsterdam. Wesley had Erasmus’s credentials checked with the Metropolitan (Archbishop) of Smyrna and was satisfied. So, on a visit to London in 1763, Erasmus consecrated Wesley a ‘bishop of the Christian Church’ and ordained several Methodist preachers as priests.
Wesley could not make known his episcopal consecration because of strict laws (Praemunire) forbidding any activity seen to promote foreign powers – in this case, the Pope. But it gave him the authority that he felt he needed for proper ordination in a recognised succession. It was on that basis that he consecrated Thomas Coke to be bishop of the Methodists in America.
At home, Wesley determined to appoint John Fletcher as his successor. Swiss by birth, Fletcher was an Anglican priest but became an ardent Methodist. From 1757 onwards, when Fletcher was 28, he became Wesley’s coadjutor. Wesley wrote in his journal: “Mr. Fletcher helped me again. How wonderful are the ways of God! When my bodily strength failed, He sent me help from the mountains of Switzerland; and a help meet for me in every respect: where could I have found such another?” Fletcher quickly became the most influential person in Methodism next to John and Charles Wesley.
Fletcher’s numerous writings clarified and synthesized Wesley’s developing ideas. Wesley said they frequently consulted one another on the most important issues and that their friendship was sealed with mutual loyalty. Wesley further said: “We were of one heart and one soul. We had no secrets between us for many years; we did not purposely hide anything from each other.” Wesley spoke of “the strongest ties” between them and wrote of Fletcher: One equal to him I have not known—one so inwardly and outwardly devoted to God. So blameless a character in every respect I have not found either in Europe or America; nor do I expect to find another this side of eternity.
In 1773, Wesley invited Fletcher to become his successor. He told him that he was the only person qualified to serve as his sole replacement, noting his popularity with the preachers and his “clear understanding…of the Methodist doctrine and discipline.” Fletcher did not think it was the proper time to take on this responsibility. He believed his continuing task was to write as an interpreter of Wesley’s theology. In 1776, Wesley repeated the invitation, adding: “Should we not discern the providential time?”
Again, Fletcher declined. He knew that he was in failing health. So Wesley decided on a different path of action. At the Methodist Conference of 1784 (Fletcher’s last before he died aged 55), Wesley announced that, for the British Isles at least, he would nominate 100 preachers to serve jointly as his successors. For America, being a different context, he specifically appointed Thomas Coke to be the first “bishop”. He, in turn, appointed the great circuit rider, Francis Asbury.
It is also noteworthy that the handing on of the Bible that Wesley used for field preaching became a traditional symbol of Methodist succession.
On the 22nd Nov 1891 Allister Smith and four Salvation Army volunteers arrived at the Amatikulu River in Natal. After several days of visiting peoples’ homes they organised a series of evangelistic meetings. On the first night Smith preached the gospel and although they had decided not to make an appeal for responses after the […]
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.
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!
Alonso Rodriguez [1532-1617] is a shining example of ‘blooming where you’re planted’. He didn’t found churches, win crowds to Jesus or conquer heresy. He was one of God’s ‘unknowns’, who won hidden victories: over failure, sickness, loss and heartbreak.
He was a wool merchant with a wife and three children, but by the time he was 40, they had all died and his business had collapsed. His life in ruins, he asked to join the Society of Jesus, at that time a newly-formed mission movement in the Catholic church. They said no: he was uneducated. So Alonso tried to study – and failed. In desperation he begged the Provincial of the order for a chance, who finally said he could be a servant at their mission in Majorca.
At this point a confusion arises: there was another Alonso Rodriguez, born only 2 years apart, who was also in the Society of Jesus at the same point, and who is credited (though some dispute his authorship) with a 3- volume devotional tome, ‘The Practice of Christian Perfection’. The two have been widely confused by commentators since.
Our Alonso spent the rest of his life on the island as a porter. While other members took the gospel around the world, Alonso ran errands, delivered messages, received guests and carried bags – for 46 years! This is how he is represented in the painting above: door keys at his side, but behind all his actions an angel of God, and the full approbation of heaven.
He had a nervous twitch and was often sick, but everyone could see he knew God. Students came to him for wisdom and prayer. One, Peter Claver (1581-1654), set out as a missionary to slaves in Colombia because of a prophecy from Alonso. Claver is remembered in the Roman Catholic Church as patron saint of foreign missions.
When Alonso was old, his superiors asked him to write down his experiences. After his death, these papers were found to contain the fruits of much meditation, faithfulness and service to Jesus, whom he loved passionately. Here is an example:
I put myself in spirit before our crucified Lord, bearing great sufferings for me. I consider how much I owe Him and what He has done for me. As love is paid for in love, I must imitate Him. Thus, amid hardship and trial, I stimulate my heart and encourage myself to endure, for love of the Lord who is before me, until I make what is bitter sweet.
Perhaps this is what attracted the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to devote a poem in 1918 to God’s servant, Alonso Rodriguez:
HONOUR is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.
Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alonso watched the door.
J.B. (John Bertram) Phillips (1906-1982) is remembered today chiefly for his paraphrase of the New Testament: The New Testament in Modern English. A canon in the Anglican church, he realised that people did not easily understand the English of the Authorised Version, so he began his own, readable version in the air-raid shelters of London during the Blitz of 1941. It was described by one reviewer as “making St. Paul sound as contemporary as the preacher down the street” and “transmitting freshness and life across the centuries”.
What is less well known is that Phillips suffered mental affliction for many years – and wrote about it. It seems his father was never satisfied with anything John did as he was growing up. This turned him into a perfectionist. Yet, because he was always falling short of his own standards, he constantly struggled with self-recrimination and a fear of failure. He could not bear any criticism.
Phillips received hours of counselling, but to little avail. Throughout his life, even as he helped others with their spiritual doubts, he knew mental troubles of his own (including ‘visitations’ from C S Lewis, who was already dead). Yet he never let the fears and guilt overcome him. He worked hard, writing, counselling and addressing large audiences.
One fruit of his struggles is that Phillips thought through the dark things of human life, prayed, then wrote about them. Here is how he describes his battles:
“I can with difficulty endure the days, but I frankly dread the nights. The second part of almost every night of my life is shot through with such mental pain, fear and horror that I frequently have to wake myself up in order to restore some sort of balance.”
His writings offer a rational, sensible account of the Christian faith, devoid of frills and triumphalism. It is no surprise that his biography, by his widow Vera and Edwin Robertson, is called The Wounded Healer – because this is what Phillips became. They write:
“While he was ministering to others he was himself powerfully afflicted by dark thoughts and mental pains. He knew anxiety and depression from which there was only temporary release. And while he never lost his faith in God, he never ceased to struggle against mental pain.”
Phillips won through, in part, by choosing to be a giver. Through his books and his wide correspondence, he ministered to people going through their own darkness. At times, the most helpful thing he could offer was his own experience. In one letter to a fellow struggler he wrote:
“As far as you can, and God knows how difficult this is, try to relax in and upon Him. As far as my experience goes, to get even a breath of God’s peace in the midst of pain is infinitely worth having.”
Perhaps, in the final resort, Phillips’ experience was akin to his paraphrase of 1 Peter 5:7 : “You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, for you are his personal concern.”
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.