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.
Bramwell Booth was the first Chief of Staff of the Salvation Army and succeeded his father, William, as General in 1926. A year earlier, he published his Echoes and Memories (available as .PDF file here), a valuable collection of reminiscences going back to the early days of the movement.
One subject he covers is signs and wonders – manifestations of supernatural power. He clearly experienced plenty of them, but is careful to keep an open mind: According to Salvation Army Commissioner, Elijah Cadman, “Strange, beautiful things happen when God has His own way with a man or woman.” All my life I have been interested in what are sometimes spoken of as bodily manifestations, though I have had a considerable degree of misgiving.
One of the earliest instances of this happening was in the course of a mission to Cardiff by Robert Aitken. I was walking up the street one day when I saw Mr Aitken approaching. A number of men, on seeing him, flocked to the door of a public house and jeered at him as he passed, one of them offering him a pot of liquor. Mr Aitken turned sharply round and said to him in his deep voice, but with extreme tenderness, ‘Oh, my lad, how will you bear the fires of hell?’ At those words the man instantly dropped on the pavement. He fell like a piece of wood, apparently losing all consciousness for the moment. One or two people assisted him, Mr Aitken looking on, and presently there on the side walk he came to himself and sought the mercy of God, afterwards, as I learned, becoming an earnest Christian man.
Physical healings are recorded, as well as many instances of supernatural joy are recorded. One case from January 1878:
“William Corbridge led a Hallelujah Meeting till 10pm. Then we commenced an all-night of prayer. 250 were present. A tremendous time. From the very first Jehovah was passing by, searching, softening and subduing every heart. The power of the Holy Ghost fell on Robinson (he was a North Country pitman of especially powerful build) and prostrated him. Another man entered into full liberty, and then he shouted, wept, clapped his hands, danced amid a scene of the most glorious and heavenly enthusiasm. Others, meanwhile, were lying prostrate on the floor, some of them groaning aloud for perfect deliverance … It was a blessed night.”
Booth records a number of visions received by people who fell flat under the Holy Spirit’s influence (though he admits these were not numerous and that people seemed coy to talk about them).
One of these cases was a woman called Bamford, an Officer from Nottingham. After a visitation of this kind, which came upon her during an ‘All night of Prayer’ in which she lay for nearly five hours unconscious, during which time her countenance was most evidently brightened, she gave a picture of something she had seen, relating chiefly to the blessedness of the redeemed. It made a profound impression upon my own heart, and, I believe it afterwards helped her to win hundreds of souls for God, for she constantly referred to it in her work as an Officer.
Interesting to note is the response of the Army’s leaders to such manifestations during a service: While never opposing or deprecating such experiences, we took care to have the people receiving them removed from the public gathering as soon as it was possible. This rapid removal from the open meeting was a wise thing. It effectually prevented any vain or neurotic persons from drawing attention to themselves.
“Some of my best men are women“, said William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. The Army recognised spiritual gifting and cared nothing for gender. The Booths’ own fearsomely talented and God-loving daughters led the way. William himself was known to give over the platform to his teenage daughter Kate, who could often reach people’s hearts better than he could.
Similarly, if the Army was looking to plant a new church (in their jargon, ‘start a corps’), they frequently sent in a team of young, sometimes teen-aged women. And they did the job! Here is one example among many.
The great question in most churches which are at all earnest in their work, is how to reach the masses. Sounds relevant? This isn’t some present-day church growth report; it comes from an English newspaper, the Northern Daily Express, of 4th March 1879, and concerns events in Gateshead.
The journalist comments that the section of the community that lies outside the usual compass of religious life comprised most of the audience. More unusual still, the work which experienced ministers and the ordinary agencies of churches had failed in, has been attempted by a few young women. These were the “Hallelujah Lasses”, the stormtroopers of the early Salvation Army.
Some six or eight weeks ago, about half-a-dozen young women made a raid under the banner of a Gospel mission among the lowest classes in the town, and they have succeeded in the most remarkable manner… They have got such a hold upon the masses as to tame some of the worst of the characters. A thorough transformation has been effected in the lives of some of the most thoughtless, depraved and criminal.
These women, most in their twenties, hired music-halls for their meetings. Despite the sneers from all sides, within a short time these places were filled to overflowing for three hours, and hundreds are unable to gain admission.
What can have enabled these Salvation Army girls to achieve such breakthroughs? Much comes down to the ‘first love’ fire of a new movement in the flower of its vigour. But we must see in action here the twin elements of BLOOD and FIRE that were to become the Army’s motto. A total conviction of the power of Jesus’ redeeming blood to save even the worst, together with the freshness of the Holy Spirit’s filling (for which Salvationists spent whole nights of prayer) kept them pressing into territory where other feared to go, and expecting results.
They also used the power of personal testimony. The journalist tells of the roughest and most criminal of people glorifying God for their soul’s salvation. And the Army used the passion of youth: One youth, who is evidently not more than fourteen, is quite a phenomenon, and certainly has a marvellous utterance for one so young and inexperienced. On Saturday night, we were told, he spoke for twenty minutes, and carried the audience so fully away with him, that in the midst of his address three or four persons went up to the penitent form [benches placed at the front of the hall, where people could come and kneel, pray, repent and receive personal prayer].
The journalist concludes, perceptively, that what is needed in the work now is consolidation – some agency to carry the converts beyond the few simple truths they have got hold of, and to give them an interest in the work when the excitement of the change and the effort has passed away.
For further information about the Hallelujah Lasses, and the example of ‘Happy Eliza’, follow this link to The Victorian Web.
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!
In 1737, the Moravian Church sent a team to start a mission and community settlement in South Africa. They chose some land east of Cape Town and called it Genadendal (Grace Valley). You can see images of the subsequent settlement here.
The local tribe, the Khoi, were impoverished and dispersed but the Moravians reached out to them and began a school for their children. One of the first Khoi to be baptised was a woman called Tikhuie, whom the missionaries named Magdalena. Her husband, a skilled hunter, kept the community supplied with meat.
Some of the missionaries died of disease, however, and the leader grew lonely and, in 1744, was recalled to Germany. Everyone thought the community was finished. They reckoned without ‘Lena’ Tikhuie! Having learnt to read at the mission school, she gathered the people daily under a tree and taught them the scriptures.
Years passed. Travellers returning to Europe brought tales of an African woman leading a church at Grace Valley. Finally, in 1792, nearly fifty years after the withdrawal, the Moravians sent a fresh team to re-found Genadendal. On their arrival, they found the ruins of the original houses, but to their astonishment there was Lena Tikhuie, frail and almost blind, still holding the ground and ministering to the little congregation, daily, under the tree. Her well-worn bible was still with her, wrapped in sheepskin.
The missionaries were told, “Every evening we all, men, women and children, would go to old Lena. She would fall on her knees and pray. When her eyes would let her, she read from the New Testament.” As families grew, parents taught their children to pray. When Lena couldn’t read, a younger woman did it for her.
Lena became a living legend in the area. People came to see her. One, the wife of a high official in the British government, wrote: “It was like creeping back seventeen hundred years to hear from the coarse but inspired lips of evangelists the simple, sacred words of wisdom and purity.”
Lena never knew when she was born, but she lived a long life, always thanking God for His great grace. When she died in 1800, her faithful perseverance had become legendary throughout South Africa. She was one of the first indigenous church leaders in South Africa, certainly the first woman, and she had led the congregation at Genadendal for fifty years.
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.”
In AD635, two men were sent out on apostolic missions and, in the face of great dangers, broke through with the gospel in unreached lands. Aidan was a fiery Irishman, Alopen a refined Persian. Both were monks, both gifted communicators. Entirely independently, both were commissioned and sent to start churches: one at the North-West frontier of civilisation, the other in the far East. Aidan became the Apostle of northern England, Alopen the Apostle to China. Despite their extraordinary linked destiny, they never met or even knew of each other.
Britain at the turn of the 600s was a battleground of warring tribal kingdoms, most of them pagan. A Christian prince named Oswald was sent to the Celtic monastery on the Scottish island of Iona for his own safety. In 634 he felt ready to deliver his kingdom, Northumbria, in the north of England. He defeated the invaders and was crowned king.
One of his first acts was to ask Iona to send someone to convert his pagan subjects. An envoy was sent but returned saying that the Northumbrians were obstinate barbarians, beyond redemption! At this, an Irish monk named Aidan spoke up: it was foolish to expect pagans to accept the strict rules of a Celtic monastery – they must be met on their own level, with grace and humility. For this, Aidan himself was appointed for the apostolic mission to re-evangelise the north of England. It was AD 635.
He established his base on Lindisfarne, an island off the east coast, which became known as Holy Island. Why an island? Because road travel was dangerous because of robbers, and much of the business of life was done by sea. From here teams went out with the gospel, planting churches and establishing centres at Melrose, Jarrow and Whitby. By the time he died in 651, Northumbria was almost wholly evangelised.
Aidan succeeded by developing key relationships with those who helped to expand the work, and by wise and creative planning. He didn’t do all the work himself – at first, he couldn’t even speak the language but needed interpreters. He appointed and trusted many workers. Other noted Celtic saints, Hild (or Hilda), Chad and Cuthbert, built up important ministries under his covering.
But Aidan was a communicator. He could empathise. Any gifts he received from the wealthy, he gave to the poor. This included a fine stallion given to him by the king. The king was furious, but Aidan replied: “Is the son of a mare more important to you than a son of God?” The humbled king knelt and asked forgiveness.
Aidan’s primary witness was through the genuineness of his life. He refused personal gain, showed no partiality (rebuking kings when they needed it), and practised rigorous self-denial. If the king came to Lindisfarne, he had to eat the same food as the monks and beggars. Aidan’s approach was “Do as I do”, not “Do as I say”, and because his life was open to all, people gladly followed and the Church was built.
ALOPEN: APOSTLE OF THE EAST
In ancient times, China was better known in the West than you might suppose. For centuries a trade route called the Silk Road had linked China with Persia and the West. Arab and Persian merchants settled in China, and Chinese envoys reached ancient Rome. But by the 5th and 6th centuries, tribal wars had shut the Silk Road and made China a closed empire.
The arrival of the T’ang Dynasty (AD 618-877) changed all this. The Chinese army crushed the rebels and a golden age of Chinese culture began. The capital, Chang-an (modern Xi-an), was the largest walled city ever built, with two million inhabitants. The reopening of the Silk Road in 632 brought a new cosmopolitan flavour. The Emperor, T’ai Tsung (known today as Taizong), tolerated all religions and encouraged the discussion of foreign ideas.
The Church saw its opportunity and took it. In 635, the Assyrian archbishop Yeshuyab sent an apostolic team, led by a learned and wise monk named Alopen. They accompanied a traders’ camel train and arrived at Chang-an.
Alopen had done his homework. He knew the very formal Chinese culture and the need to avoid open war with the Buddhists. So for three years, he and Chinese converts worked on the first Christian book in the Chinese language: The Sutra of Jesus Messiah. A sutra was the way Buddhists presented their teachings, as a series of discourses. Alopen was playing them at their own game.
Much reads strangely to Western ears: Jesus is “the Heaven-Honoured One”, the “Master of the Victorious Law”, who has sent “the Pure Breeze” (the Holy Spirit) from “our Three-One”. But the Emperor was pleased with what he read and in 638 made a decree: Alopen’s religion was “wonderful, spontaneous, producing perception and establishing essentials for the salvation of creatures and the benefit of man“. The Emperor commanded that a Christian religious centre be built from public funds in the Western merchants’ quarter of the city.
From this base, with a core of just 21 Christians, the gospel spread out into the land. Four regional centres were built and by the time of the next Emperor, Kuo Tsung, there were churches in ten provinces. Alopen was made bishop (or in the quaint Chinese, “Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire”) and the Church was able to put down firm roots in China – which it would need when persecution was unleashed by Empress Wu in 690.
The New Testament says that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-20). By their labours, endurance, anointing and above all love, they become fathers to the churches, as Paul, Peter and the others did in the Early Church. It may still be debated whether there are apostles today of the calibre and stamp of Jesus’ Twelve, but the apostolic heart should be something we long to see outpoured more and more, if the Church is regain (and retain) her radicality.
For previous posts on the Serampore Covenant, follow these links: part 1 , part 2 , part 3 and part 4. Section 8 of the 1805 covenant made by William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward is the longest of all. It covers long-term vision and short-term goals for their mission. There is plenty here that is relevant for today.
In a clear swipe at Baptist traditions back home in the UK, where only one man was “the Minister”, Carey states: If the practice of confining ministry of the word to a single individual in a church be once established among us, we despair of the Gospel ever making much progress in India by our means. It is only by means of native preachers that can we hope for the universal spread of the gospel throughout this immense continent.
Carey’s vision is clear: a body of native missionaries, used to the climate, acquainted with the customs, language, modes of speech and reasoning of the inhabitants, able to become familiar with them, enter their houses, sleep on their floors or under a tree, and who may travel [far and wide] almost without any expense. This page shows how such a vision is being implemented today, with great effect.
Where does this leave Western missionaries? Basically, to be fathers, mentors and enablers. Carey writes of forming usefulness, fostering every kind of genius, and cherishing every gift of grace in them. As the first generation of native evangelists begins to form, the incumbent Western missionary’s task is to superintend their affairs, give them advice in cases of order and discipline, and correct any errors into which they may fall – but also to enjoy the partnership with them, their steadfastness in faith, and keep pointing them to new openings for church-planting. Books like this show that this quality of spiritual fathers and mothers is a desperate need in churches today.
An interesting decision made by Carey’s team was not to change the names of native converts when they got baptised. Other missionary organisations either gave completely new, ‘Christian’ names or added one. For Carey, the New Testament was evidence enough not to do this; the Apostle Paul saw no need to change names like Epaphroditus or Sylvanus, even though they were derived from pagan gods. For the ‘Serampore Trio’ it was essential to avoid alienating their target audience by suggestions of superiority or judgementalism. Far more important was to foster, by all means at their disposal, a new heart, a moral and divine change in their conduct.
Here ends this fascinating, courageous and visionary document. It shows how timeless are many of the issues raised in the proclamation of the gospel, but also how each age and culture is unique and will require particular sensitivity and research. Carey and his team were bold to put in print their own considered strategy, which history shows to have been remarkably effective. Today’s students of ‘missional‘ communities and methods could do a lot worse than starting with the Serampore Covenant of 1805!