Marie Monsen (1878-1962) is a name held in high honour among Christians in China, yet she is barely known in the West, even in her native Norway.
In 1900, a nationalist uprising in China, the ‘Boxer Rebellion‘, had seen many foreign missionaries slaughtered. Suspicion and fear were everywhere. Even so, Monsen travelled alone to Henan province in September 1901, to work for the Lutheran China Mission Association. Not long after her arrival, she fell down some stairs and hit her head so hard that she was unconscious several days. The trauma left her unable to study language for two years. For six years she suffered debilitating headaches, as well as dysentery, malaria, pain, and frustration. The first 20 years of her service were God’s learning curve for her, causing her to be constantly aware of her weakness and to cast herself on Him in constant dependence. Marie learned the power of endurance. This blog post from Sarah Alexander gives more details.
Monsen’s devotional life was her mainstay. taken to a new level in the 1927 Shantung Revival. She had an uncanny sense that the Lord was directing her, speaking clearly in words that seemed almost audible. She sensed that God intended to move powerfully in China, and she prayed fervently for 20 years until it began in Shantung in 1927 – a revival that is still continuing and is being called ‘the biggest revival in history‘. In order to serve her Lord better, she remained a lifelong celibate. She also endured severe trials with fortitude and trust.
Her courage was remarkable. She was fearless, traveling hundreds of miles through bandit-infested territory to share the gospel. Once, the ship she was on was captured by pirates. When an invading army of looters was ravaging a whole city, Monsen urged the Christians not to fear but to pray; the looters were prevented from coming near her mission compound because of angels standing sentry over it! This and many more examples can be found in her book A Present Help: Standing on the Promises of God.
She was no respecter of persons: she would tell church leaders to their face that they were hypocrites! A present-day house church leader writes: ‘She didn’t speak smooth words to impress the people. Instead, she brought fire from the altar of God.’ She took the emphasis off the human wisdom so prized by Chinese, and showed each person they were individually responsible before God for their own inner spiritual life. For this she was greatly loved, and church leaders saw her as ‘mother in Christ’.
Monsen was bold enough to say no to prospective baptism candidates on occasions. She discouraged ‘cultural’ emotion (Chinese weep easily). She cared nothing for numbers, but wanted to be sure each soul had left the way of destruction and truly encountered God. Don’t gather unripe fruit was a maxim of hers.
When she died, Monsen was buried in at Solheim cemetery in Bergen, Norway. In his best-selling book The Heavenly Man, a leader of the Chinese house church movement, Brother Yun, tells of how Chinese believers were incredulous to find that Marie Monsen’s grave in Denmark was unmarked. So they made the need known and donations came in, such that in 2001 a monument was erected to one of God’s outstanding (but humble) warrior women.
Lorenzo Dow (1777-1834), from Connecticut, USA, took eccentricity to a new level. From childhood he knew sweeps of emotion beyond his fellows, higher highs and deeper lows. His conversion experience was unusually dramatic too: in a dream, he was carried off to hell by a demon, and cried to God that he deserved it – but begged for mercy. He knew amazing peace and joy and woke up loving God.
At 21, he was accepted as a circuit preacher by the Methodists. Later he was an independent evangelist. He quickly gained a reputation, both for his appearance and his methods. Lorenzo usually had just the clothes he stood up in, which he wore until they were so unsightly that some person in the audience would donate a replacement – which might not be the right size. He had a beard down to his chest and never combed it. He didn’t always wash. After his death, one obituary said: Who will forget his orangutan features, his outlandish clothes, the beard that swept his aged breast, or the piping treble voice in which he preached the Gospel of the Kingdom.
He and his wife Peggy embraced poverty for the gospel’s sake. They would often sleep rough in the woods. Peggy wrote a journal of these times, later publicised as Vicissitudes in the Wilderness (available online here).
Dow’s preaching mannerisms were a revelation. A generation before, the great open-air preacher George Whitefield was passionate but serious and measured. Lorenzo Dow shouted, screamed, wept, begged, insulted, and challenged people’s complacent beliefs. He told stories and jokes. It is recorded that he could hold an audience of 10,000 spellbound. He gained the nickname “Crazy Dow” and happily accepted it. Lorenzo himself wrote a retrospective account of his many experiences, The Dealings of God, Man, and the Devil (available online here).
He had a keen eye for the theatrical. He loved to turn up at a public event, go to the centre or on to the stage (uninvited) and announce loudly that he would preach on that spot in one year’s time. One famous episode took place in Westminster, Maryland, and he repeated it elsewhere. Seeing a boy with a trumpet, he enlisted his help: after the start of a service in a meeting hall, the lad was to climb an adjoining tree and wait for a signal. Inside, Dow preached a “fire and brimstone” message. In a great crescendo he cried: ‘If Gabriel were to blow his trumpet announcing the day of Judgment is at hand, would you be ready?’ It was the signal. The boy blew the trumpet! People screamed and rushed to the front to seek mercy and make peace with God. The boy made a quick getaway!
His engagement to Peggy was suitably unusual. He would marry her, he said, but “if you should stand in my way in the service of the gospel, I will pray to God to remove you!” Stout-hearted Peggy said yes nevertheless and they married in 1804. She accompanied him on many of his travels, which were long and arduous. They would camp in the woods without a tent, hearing wolves but trusting God. This they did out of love for the hundreds of settlers, born and bred in the wilderness, and now adult, who had never seen a preacher.
One record exists of Dow arriving at a village in Alabama: his pantaloons were worn through, and for several hundred miles he had ridden without a cloak, for he had sold it. He was barefoot and his umbrella was held by just three spokes. Small wonder that Peggy entitled her autobiography Vicissitudes in the Wilderness. When Peggy died, Lorenzo married Lucy, who was every bit as feisty as he: at their wedding she promised “to be a thorn in his flesh and a sword in his side”!
Despite their grinding poverty, however, Dow made a point of refusing lavish gifts from well-wishers, accepting only the bare essentials. Such a lifestyle took a toll on his health. He had asthma and malaria and, like the great Methodist circuit preacher Francis Asbury, could not stand for a whole preaching but had to lean on something.
Dow was a phenomenon, a source of entertainment as well as awe. Many a child was christened Lorenzo in his honour. But he also provoked opposition, especially in southern states, where he opposed slavery. He was sometimes pelted with stones, eggs, and rotten vegetables. That never stopped him; he simply walked to the next town and gave the same sermon again! At Jacksonborough, Georgia, he was abused and attacked so badly that, on leaving, he “shook off the dust from his feet” [Matthew 10:14] and cursed the place. Within a few years, all that was left of Jacksonborough was the home of his hosts – the rest had been abandoned and fallen into ruin.
In all, Dow made three trips to Britain, where he longed to preach the gospel to Roman Catholics. He was received as something of a curiosity but his preaching was respected everywhere. He introduced a group of Methodists to the American-style “camp meeting“, where revivalist preachers spoke to crowds in giant open-air congregations, which might last 3 days. As a result, Hugh Bourne and the Primitive Methodists began holding them in England.
The editor of his journal continued: “His eccentric dress and style of preaching attracted great attention, while his shrewdness, and quick discernment of character gave him no considerable influence over the multitudes that attended his ministry. Who has not heard of Lorenzo Dow? He was one of the most remarkable men of his age for his zeal and labor in the cause of religion. It is probable that more persons have heard the Gospel from his lips, than any other individual since the days of Whitefield.”
There cannot be many preachers converted during one of their own sermons, but this was the happy fate of William Haslam. Ordained 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.’
‘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.’
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.
Some of God’s radicals operated in days when the Church was strong and advancing. Others lived in times of hardship, confusion and decline. Their (equally heroic) task was to lead the way to restoration; to ‘rebuild the walls’, like Nehemiah in his day. One such ‘rebuilder’ was Menno Simons (1496-1561).
Born in rural Friesland, son of a dairy farmer, he showed piety and intelligence and at the age of 28 he became a Roman Catholic priest. But he was nagged by inner doubts about some aspects of Catholic practice, so he read widely, including the (officially banned) Martin Luther. The burning of an Anabaptist believer as a heretic, not far from Menno’s home, threw him into mental turmoil. The Anabaptists were everywhere condemned, but their teachings resonated in his own heart. As he studied scripture, he became convinced that he was called to walk with these persecuted brethren.
At this very point, however, the Radical Reformers’ movement was in turmoil. One group, at Münster in Germany, had fallen into religious mania. Nearer to home, a group of Anabaptists had occupied the cathedral in Bolsward and proclaimed revolution. Both groups had been ruthlessly wiped out by the authorities. Even so, Menno sensed that the Anabaptists were at core ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (the Bible, Mark 6:34). In this darkest hour, he felt an inner call from God.
I renounced my worldly reputation and my easy life, he wrote, and I willingly submitted myself to distress and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ. I surrendered my soul and body to the Lord … and commenced in due time … to teach and to baptize, to till the vineyard of the Lord,… to build up His holy city and temple and to repair the tumble-down walls.
For the next twenty years he and his family were fugitives. Always in danger, with a price on his head, Menno toured Holland and northern Germany, never staying in one place longer than a few months. He preached, baptised and reconciled brethren. He wrote letters and books setting out a balanced Anabaptist theology. One of his key themes was the ‘new creation’: people, the Church and society can be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the love of Christ. In this lies hope for mankind’s future, in any age.
Menno was never captured. Even so, his hardships left him crippled in later years. Only one of his children reached adulthood. And he bore the constant burden of care for the Church. If Almighty God had not preserved me, he wrote, I would have gone mad. For there is nothing on earth that my heart loves more than the Church, yet I must live to see her in this sad affliction.
So he pressed on. Through his labours, Anabaptism was not only saved from extinction but given new vigour. Mennonites gained a foothold in northern Europe, then in America, and they still exist in significant numbers today. Menno’s was an apostolic ministry, not in the out-front manner of a Paul but the more hidden manner of an Epaphras or a Titus. It was also truly radical in that Menno searched for the roots of New Testament Christianity, returned to those roots, and did all he could to protect, strengthen and publicise these roots. Menno offers today’s evangelical Christians an inspiring model of leadership that balances zeal and discipline, passion and theological depth, courage and wisdom.
Following a much-publicised exorcism, the whole neighbourhood paying attention, he took deliberate steps to dampen any thrill-seeking tendencies. He refused anything that smacked of sensationalism or a personality cult.
Blumhardt was also conservative in his ecclesiology: he firmly believed in the established church. He was familiar with developments across the Channel in England, which by this time had seen the Quakers, then the Great Awakening, the powerful movings of God associated with the Wesleys and George Whitefield (an overview of which is given here). These times of the in-breaking of God’s power had led to large numbers leaving the Anglican communion to found new groups and movements.
By contrast, Germany had always been resistant to sectarianism – look how it treated the Anabaptists. But in Blumhardt, the message of renewal and the manifest power of God with signs and wonders came from a solid son of the church who had no intention of seceding from it. This resonated far and wide, and Blumhardt’s parsonage welcomed thousands of visitors, including author/parson Eduard Mörike and novelist Hermann Hesse.
A number recorded their reactions.
1. FAITH. “He really does believe! It isn’t magic!”, wrote Blumhardt’s bishop. Real faith, “the faith that pulls the fire from heaven” (Salvation Army hymn) has always fascinated and attracted. People want to believe in the miraculous. Blumhardt made it seem quite ordinary.
2. HOPE. Blumhardt’s heightened understanding of light and darkness (through the exorcism of 1842) made him see that God was ready at any moment to invade the darkness of human life with the light that is the real Jesus – not of “religion” but of life . Darkness, he wrote, is contrary to our nature if we are of God, so there will always be a way to escape from it if we put our trust in Him.
3. LOVE. “Love is his religion”, wrote a noted painter. Blumhardt’s God was compassionate, offered hope, gave repentance and a new start even to the most damaged and dirty, and any manifestation of healing or the miraculous was a signpost to that nature in Him. This too is timelessly attractive, especially to Christians stultified by habit – what Blumhardt called “religion”.
All of these, Blumhardt believed, were available within the orbit of the church. But because of much encrusting of habitual “church-ianity”, God’s lavish heart in these areas had to be actively preached, which is what Blumhardt gave himself to doing – while resisting any temptation to cast the church aside in favour of ‘freer’, individual spirituality.
In the early 18th century, a revival took place in middle Europe that has received little attention. It had something most unusual about it: it was a revival among the children.
Lutherans were being increasingly marginalised by the Roman Catholic authorities in Silesia, (the borderlands of Poland and Czech today), but the schoolchildren would not accept this. Some time in 1707, the children of Sprottau (today Szprotawa) started to meet in the field outside the town, two or three times a day, to pray for peace in the land and for freedom of religion. They would read some Psalms, sing hymns and pray. There are reports of them falling on their knees, some even lying prostrate, and repenting of their sins. Then, when the right moment seemed to have come, they would close with a blessing.
The movement spread through the mountain villages of Upper Silesia and into the towns. Not all adults were happy about this, fearing the consequences; some tried locking their children in the house, but they would climb out of the windows! In some villages, Roman Catholic children joined the Lutheran children to pray. Reports began to circulate in local newsletters, spreading ever wider until the news was known in England and Massachusetts. To some it became known as the Kinderbeten (children’s prayer) Movement.
Some adults were drawn to the move of God. They would form a circle around the praying children. In some places, the combined number might reach 300 souls. Magistrates brought pressure to bear to disperse these meetings. One bailiff came with a whip, but when he heard the prayers, he could not use it.
Out of this “children’s revival” grew a movement of renewal that touched the area. In time, it found its centre in the Lutheran Jesuskirche church in Teschen (now Cieszyn), which opened in 1750. Here, so many attended services that hundreds had to stand outside the building. Sunday services began at 8 a.m. and continued through the day, in several languages. In turn, the Teschen church provided some of the original members of Count Zinzendorf’s community and fellowship at Herrnhut, known in the English-speaking world as the Moravians.
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.
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.
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.