I have recently finished reading Bob Holman’s biography of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929), known to the World War 1 generation worldwide as “Woodbine Willie.” For some time I had been attracted by the story of a volunteer army chaplain who offered cigarettes (Woodbines) and prayers to troops in the trenches, then went ‘over the top’ with them into the hail of bullets – and won a gallantry medal for it. This book taught me a lot more about Kennedy, not least his almost mesmeric gift of oratory, which made him an influential national figure after the Great War.
Holman (who died in June 2018 – read his obituary here) is an ably qualified biographer, having been an eminent university professor who gave up his privileged life to become a community worker on a deprived inner city estate, because at root he was a man of the poor. In this he mirrors Kennedy. This Christian care and his sensitivity to human need and pain shines through his research, a good part of which involved interviews with people who had known, heard and been impacted by Kennedy.
We meet “Willie”‘s courageous wife Emily who, even after the enforced separation of war, allowed him to be absent from the family several days a week for the rest of his life, as he pursued a punishing schedule of speaking and preaching engagements. We learn of the many networks with which he was involved after the war, like the Industrial Christian Fellowship and the National Mission for Repentance and Hope, and his partnership with some of the leading Christians of the day, like Tubby Clayton, the founder of Toc H, and William Temple, future Archbishop of Canterbury. And Holman unpicks the political complexities of the immediate post-war years, the rise of Christian socialism, and presents Kennedy’s unique position of great popularity with working people, intensely social while refusing all things socialist on ideological grounds.
My abiding impressions from the book, though, are these. First, Kennedy’s amazing and oft-cited ability to hold an audience spellbound by his passion and his down-to-earth realism. This was honed in the army, where hundreds of unwilling ‘squaddies’ were marched to church expecting to be bored or to cause disruption, but were transfixed and changed by what they heard. After the war, people travelled many miles to hear him, some moved to tears.
Next, the sheer burden on army chaplains in the trenches: holding services, encouraging the troops before military action, tending maimed men in hospital tents without morphine, burying the dead in ground that might be destroyed by the next shell, and writing letters to wives and parents informing them that their dear one was dead. The horror kept some chaplains safely away from the front, but Kennedy stayed right there with the men, and they loved him for it. He spoke their language – and wrote it too, in two popular books, Rough Talks from a Padre and Rough Rhymes by a Padre. Just one example will give the flavour.
If ‘e moves again I’ll get ‘im. Take these glasses ‘ere and see.
What’s that? Got ‘im through the ‘ead, Sarge? Where’s me blasted cup o’ tea?
I was both shocked and challenged by the effect that extreme human suffering could have on theology. As chaplain, Kennedy was dispensing Holy Communion to men who in all likelihood could be blown to pieces within days. Is it wrong, he wrote, to see in them His Body and His Blood? They are His; He is their Father and His heart must bleed in them. In a letter to the mother of a devout corporal newly killed, he wrote: Thank you, corporal, for dying for me. And in one poem: Dear Lord, I hold my hand to take Thy Body, broken once for me. Accept the sacrifice I make, my body, broken, Christ, for Thee.
While some of the organisational and contextual material regarding particular movements can read a little tediously, Holman’s work is to be welcomed and applauded for the way it presents a complex, flawed but utterly genuine Christian man seeking to address issues of moral, social and political immensity in the early 20th century with the not inconsiderable gifts that God had given him.
Humanly speaking, Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In God’s plan, though, he was in the right place and destined to be a shining example of gratitude to God in the direst of circumstances.
He had just been made Lutheran minister of the walled town of Eilenburg, north-east of Leipzig, when the Thirty Years War broke out. It lasted for the rest of his life, almost exactly 30 years. For all this time he served the townsfolk and the many hundreds of refugees who sought shelter there.
Soldiers were billeted in his house and they stole his belongings and the food meant for his family. But this was small compared to the suffering in the town. In 1637 a plague swept through the overcrowded slums, and in that one year alone, 8,000 people died. At that time there were four pastors in the town. One fled for his life and never returned. Two others contracted the plague while serving the sick and died.
As the only pastor left, Rinkart was in constant demand, visiting and comforting the sick and dying, and sometimes conducting funerals for 40-50 persons a day. In May of that year, his own wife died. Before long, plague victims had to be buried in trenches without services.
Even worse was to follow. After the plague came a famine so extreme that thirty or forty persons might be seen fighting in the streets for a dead cat or crow! Rinkart and the town mayor did what they could to organize relief. Rinkart himself gave away everything but the barest rations for his own family, and his doorway was usually crowded with starving wretches. So great were Rinkart’s own losses and charitable gifts that he had the utmost difficulty in finding bread and clothes for his children, and was forced to mortgage his future income for several years.
Yet, living in a world dominated by death, Martin Rinkart’s spirit was unbroken and clung to the true life of God. After years or horror and agonies, he wrote a prayer for his children to offer to the Lord. It was soon turned into a hymn, known to the English-speaking world through Catherine Winkworth’s translation. It is a remarkable testimony to the faith of a remarkable man but also to the triumph of generosity and thankfulness over bestiality and despair.
Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother’s arms,
Hath led us on our way,
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace,
And guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills,
In this world and the next!
The next three sections of the 1805 covenant made by the “Serampore Trio”, William Carey, William Ward and Joshua Marshman (click here for for part 1 of this post), are shorter and deal with the practical issues of missionary service.
First comes a pledge of committed urgency. We do well always to fix in our minds that life is short and that all around us are perishing. Where has this urgency gone in the West today? There should be an urgency to show love, as Jesus did (‘the love of Christ compels us’, 2 Corinthians 5:14). There should also be an urgency because the time is short (1 Corinthians 7:29). Whatever happened to the concept of hell? Jesus mentioned it often; we don’t. For a deeper look at this debate, see John Blanchard’s book, “Whatever Happened to Hell?” In this article, Kevin Halloran assesses why many preachers avoid the subject of hell altogether. In this piece, Tim Keller offers some practical guidance for ‘preaching hell in a tolerant age’.
Carey admits that, in a hot climate, it is easy to run out of energy, but calls their team to consistent action: to carry on conversations with the natives almost every hour in the day; to go from village to village, from market to market; to talk to labourers and servants. And he quotes the Apostle Paul on ‘being urgent in season and out of season’ (2 Timothy 4:2).
Next, the trio pledge to ‘Christocentric’ mission. It would be very easy to preach nothing but truths for many years, without being useful even to one soul! The expiatory death and all-sufficient merits [of Jesus Christ must be central]. Oh that these glorious truths may ever be the joy and strength of our own souls!
Here again, contemporary Christianity has drawn back from the full force of this – witness the involved debate over “penal substitution” among church leaders, which, curiously enough, began with the aim of opening the gospel to more people.
Then comes a pledge to being available and approachable. We must on all occasions be willing to hear their complaints, give them the kindest advice, and make decisions regarding their affairs in the most open, upright and impartial manner. Any heated or haughty behaviour by the missionaries will sink their character in the eyes of their audience. We must at all times treat them as our equals. We can never make sacrifices too great, when the eternal salvation of souls is the object.
This surely corresponds with today’s emphasis on “incarnational” missiology – being like Jesus among those we hope to reach. Yet again, Carey and his fellow-covenanters show remarkable relevance to missional questions of today.
Article 7 is longer and deals with areas of behaviour appropriate to missionary work in another culture, and the priorities that William Carey and his companions should set themselves. A real missionary becomes, in a sense, a father to his people, is the crucial sentence here. Carey echoes the Apostle Paul, who wrote of ‘becoming a father’ to his converts (the Bible, 1 Corinthians 4:15). God’s workers should feel all the anxiety, tender solicitude, and delight in their welfare and company that a natural father would feel for his offspring.
Carey and his covenanted partners, Joshua Marshman and William Ward, pledge first to build up and watch over the souls entrusted to them, to spend time with them daily, and with great patience to see them thoroughly grounded in the foundation of their hope. But the practical must go with the spiritual: they must help them into habits of industry and to find jobs with the least danger of temptation.
Carey stresses that Indian converts have made considerable sacrifices, even been cast out from their families, so cannot expect help to come from that quarter. If we do not sympathise with them in their temporal losses for Christ, we shall be guilty of great cruelty.
The missionaries understand also that the native religion of any converts will have given them no adequate sense of the seriousness of sin or its consequences. So these things must be taught and consistently restated. Even so, reproof must be gentle, and great grace and forbearance shown. We ought not, even after many falls, to give up and cast away a relapsed convert while he manifests the least inclination to be washed from his filthiness.
These points, taken together, run uncannily close to a current shift of emphasis in missional churches. Long emphasis on “Behave – Believe – Belong” (where loving acceptance is dependent on jumping through a number of hoops) is turning towards “Belong – Believe – Behave”, where all are welcomed with loving concern, as Jesus Himself welcomed the crowds; then the teaching is given and a sifting takes place. This article explains more, while this one addresses how to communicate sin in today’s postmodern world.
In reaching out to women, the missionaries pledge to be especially wise, given that Indian women were generally segregated from men. Female help is invaluable, and we must afford our sisters all possible assistance. A European sister may do much for the cause by promoting holiness and stirring up zeal in female native converts. By God’s grace, they conclude, their women may become instrumental in promoting the salvation of the millions of native women who are in great measure excluded from all opportunities of hearing the words of life.
Section 8 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.
The document ends with three shorter sections. Numbers 9 and 10 deal with the spiritual side of the mission. Here we are on known ground. The ‘Serampore Trio’ pledge devotion to the Bible and to religious education. We consider the publication of the Divine Word throughout India as an object which we ought never to give up until it is accomplished.
This meant translation (in time, Carey and his team would translate the gospels into forty Indian languages and dialects, in addition to Christian tracts) and publication, for which they had their own printing press, run by William Ward. Over and above this, the missionaries covenant to explain and distribute, and to excite attention and reverence for, the Word of God.
Free schools for Indian children were seen as a priority. The progress of divine light is gradual, so religious education for children was a vital tool. The missionaries should establish, visit, encourage and recommend these at every opportunity.
Section 10 is a commitment to fervent, believing prayer, both individual and corporate. The concluding section 11, however, is anything but traditional missionary fare! It is a passionate recommendation of common purse Christian community living (the Bible, Acts 2:42), and a withering blast against any lessening of covenant commitment or a turning back to selfish, independent ways. Let us give up ourselves unreservedly to this glorious cause. Let us never think that our time, our gifts, our strengths, our families, or even the clothes we wear, are our own.
The Serampore team had embraced a shared purse around 1804, so they are able to testify: No private family ever enjoyed a greater portion of happiness, even in the most prosperous gale of worldly prosperity, than we have done since we resolved to have all things in common. This book looks at the biblical and historical evidence for Christian community living; this one looks at its relevance for today.
Having renounced self-centred living for the sake of the gospel, and having reinforced this by a pledge of loyalty and accountability, Carey, Marshman and Ward warn severely against turn back from it. Woe to that man who shall ever make the smallest movement towards doing things on his own. The moment it is admitted that each brother may act independently, a worldly spirit, quarrels and every evil work will succeed.
It is this formal, solemn and very human pledge of covenant that makes the Serampore mission both different and compelling. High standards indeed, but they were crowned with success. If we are enabled to persevere [in these principles], we may hope that multitudes of converted souls will have reason to bless God to all eternity for sending His gospel into this country. And succeed they did, as these links eloquently show.
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!
William Booth (1829-1912), Founder-General of the Salvation Army, certainly favoured the ‘in your face’ approach. With these words he began the front page article of the first issue of The War Cry, on 27 December 1879: Why a “War Cry?” Because The Salvation Army means more war!”
Today, the Army’s ‘fight’ against poverty and marginalisation takes many forms, from questions in parliament to individuals giving a few pounds to a homeless charity. But Booth’s radical eye saw deeper than mere deprivation and squalor: he saw inner lostness, people without hope because God’s love was not made real to them. Some churches tried, but in the main, Christians ‘walked by on the other side’. Not so the Salvation Army!
The cry of slaughtered millions rises up louder and louder to heaven, crying to our inmost souls, with irresistible violence, to arise and fight more furiously than ever for the salvation of our fellows from the forces of evil which are dragging them drunken, befouled, degraded, wretched down to an eternity of woe.
You can feel the passion, the indignation, Christ’s own love for the poor! Jesus our King, the dying Jesus of Calvary, still looks weeping on doomed cities and multitudes wandering without a shepherd, and begs us to lay down our lives for them as He laid down his life for us.
If radicality has to do with roots, Booth bores into the very core of them, rebuking Christians for their lethargy, their compromise and their lack of real devotion to the cause of Jesus’ kingdom.
God will have his own people to repent and do their first works. He will have them abandon forever all friendship with the world, and all parley with evil hearts. Let all that name the name of Christ depart from iniquity. No more unbelief; no more pride; no more worldly pleasure or worldly dress or show; no more covetousness or self-seeking!
Armybarmy.com is the web page of a think tank and renewal group within today’s Salvationist ranks. Their wonderfully named Journal of Aggressive Christianity reproduced Booth’s original article as the front page of their own first issue in 1999. You can read the General’s entire broadside here. Prepare to be stirred!
William’s wife, Catherine (1829-1890), is held by many to have been the ‘power behind the throne’ in the Salvation Army. Her faith was unswerving and she saw the need for Christians – with God’s help – to awaken lost souls from their sleep, by whatever means. In 1880 she published Papers on Aggressive Christianity. You’ll find a free download here. Here is a flavour:
Many do not recognize the fact as they ought, that Satan has got men fast asleep in sin and that it is his great device to keep them so. He does not care what we do if he can do that. We may sing songs about the sweet by and by, preach sermons and say prayers until doomsday, and he will never concern himself about us, if we don’t wake anybody up. But if we awake the sleeping sinner he will gnash on us with his teeth. This is our work – to wake people up!
Oh, people say, you must be very careful. You must not thrust religion down people’s throats. Then, I say, you will never get it down! What! Am I to wait till an unconverted, godless man wants to be saved before I try to save him? He will never want to be saved till the death rattle is in his throat. What! Am I to let my unconverted friends and acquaintances drift down quietly to damnation, and never tell them about their souls, until they say, ‘If you please, I want you to preach to me’? Is this anything like the spirit of early Christianity?
Small wonder, perhaps, that the Army had the impact that it did on the areas of greatest poverty (spiritual and material) on two continents.
Arnold of Soissons (1040-1087) was a Belgian career soldier in the service of Henri I of France. At some point he experienced a religious awakening and joined the Benedictine abbey of St Medard at Soissons, France. Here he must have shown considerable potential, as he was made abbot in his thirties – a role of great responsibility. For a short time he was even bishop of Soissons, though against his will, and when an opportunity came, he withdrew and founded a new monastery at Oudenburg in Flanders.
The Benedictine order already had a long history of brewing beer. There were several reasons for this. The founder, Benedict of Nursia, stipulated in his early 6th century Rule for the life of monks that they should not live off charity but rather earn their own keep and donate to the poor by the work of their hands. So monasteries produced cheese, honey, beeswax, wool and much else, selling what they did not need themselves. Besides, they were to practise hospitality, so beer was available to serve to guests and pilgrims.
Another reason was the health-giving property of beer itself. It was cheaper than wine and could be produced in colder climates. It required water to be boiled before fermentation, making beer safer to drink than water, since drinking water at the time could be unsanitary and carry diseases. The beer normally consumed during the day at this time in Europe was called small beer, having a very low alcohol content, and containing spent yeast. The drinker had a safe source of hydration, plus a dose of B vitamins from the yeast. It has been estimated that the average monk drank more than 20 pints a week!
That’s where Arnold came in. He encouraged local peasants to drink beer instead of water. This meant more sales for the monastery, but it is likely he shared the recipe with them, for the sake of public health. And, when a cholera epidemic (spread by water) ravaged the region, the Oudenburg area stayed safe while thousands elsewhere died. On another occasion, he prayed to God to increase the beer supply of a monastery after part of its roof had collapsed and destroyed the majority of the barrels. The prayer was answered and the supply of beer supernaturally restored. A neat take on Christ’s miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish that fed the 5,000?
These (and other signs) were interpreted as miracles, and after his death he was quite rapidly canonised by the Roman Catholic Church. St. Arnold is traditionally depicted with a hop-pickers mashing rake in his hand, to identify him as patron saint of brewers. He is honoured in July with a parade in Brussels on the “Day of Beer.”
From 2001, her face was on every Bank of England £5 note, but who was Elizabeth Fry? She was born into a banking family in Norwich, England, in 1780. When she was 18, she heard a Quaker preacher and was converted. She joined a Quaker assembly, where a woman had a prophecy for her: “You are born to be a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame.”
Immediately, Fry was moved to charitable acts. She collected old clothes for the poor, visited those who were sick in her neighbourhood, and started a Sunday School to teach children to read. Marriage took her to London, and motherhood kept her so busy that after 12 years she lamented: “I fear my life is slipping away to little purpose.” How wrong she was!
Another Quaker minister told her of the horrifying conditions in the capital’s prisons. Fry went to the infamous Newgate jail to see for herself. She found hundreds of women and their children living violent lives in unsanitary conditions and sleeping on the floor without bedding.
Fry sprang into action. Immediate practical needs had to be met. She enlisted local women to make clothes for the children. She got permission to start a school for prison children. She founded an organisation of women who would visit prisoners, pray and read scriptures with them, and provide them with materials to sew and knit goods which could be sold to give them some income.
But more visionary action was required if lasting change was to happen. Fry took to spending some nights in the jail and invited members of the aristocracy to come and do so too, to experience at first had the inhumane conditions. Her brother-in-law, a Member of Parliament, also promoted her work in government circles.
The atmosphere at Newgate changed so noticeably that Fry’s model was followed in other towns and even abroad. She became well known. She was the first woman ever to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee, leading to a series of prison reforms in the 1820s. Queen Victoria admired her and made donations.
Fry’s work didn’t stop there. Even while raising 11 children and suffering from what today would be called post-natal depression, she established a night shelter for the homeless in London; campaigned for more humane treatment of orphans; raised awareness of the plight of newly-released prisoners with nowhere to go; began an outreach ministry to sailors and founded a school for nurses. It was nurses trained at Fry’s school who went with Florence Nightingale to the Crimea.
She was incensed at the transportation of women prisoners to Australia. The night before they left, there were always riots in the prisons. The women would reach Australia penniless and with dependent children, leaving prostitution as the only option for many. Elizabeth lobbied parliament and personally visited all deportees, giving them materials for making clothes on the voyage which they could sell on arrival.
Together with her husband, Fry also agitated against capital punishment. At that time, upwards of 200 crimes were punishable by death. After initial indifference in high circles, they gained the ear of Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, who met with them and started the process of penal reform.
Elizabeth’s motives in all these activities were avowedly Christian. Her faith was the centre of all she did. Quakers allowed anointed women to preach, and Elizabeth did so. It is said that her voice carried such emotion that hard hearts would weep.
“Let us cleave to God in spirit,” she exhorted, “and make it the first business of our lives to be conformed to His will and live to His glory, whether prosperity or adversity be our portion, and though our years pass away like a brief tale. Through His unbounded love, the blessings of the Most High will rest upon us.”
Fry proved it. The prophecy was fulfilled absolutely. Called “the Angel of Mercy” in her lifetime, when she died in 1845 over a thousand people lined the way to her grave, to honour the passing of a truly great woman.
In popular usage today, the term “entrepreneur” seems to mean little more than someone who started their own business. The term is much wider, however, and history reveals a noble line of social entrepreneurs, many of them Christian.
According to this article, a social entrepreneur is usually a creative individual who questions established norms and their own gifting, spirit and dynamism to enrich society in preference to themselves. We’re talking about a blend of philanthropist, visionary, business thinker and ‘go-getter’ – and for a Christian, a strong faith.
Christian social care is as old as Christianity itself, of course. The Bible states that caring for widows and orphans is foundational to godliness (James 1:27). Perhaps the first instance of a more visionary enterprise was Basil the Great’s Basiliad in 4th century Caesarea.
This was a ground-breaking philanthropic foundation where the poor, the diseased, orphans and the aged could receive food, shelter, and medical care free of charge. It was staffed by monks and nuns who lived out their monastic vocation through a life of service, working with physicians and other lay people.
In his funeral address for Basil, his great friend Gregory, bishop of Nazianzus, said: Go forth a little way from the city, and behold the new city, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury of the wealthy… where disease is regarded in a religious light, and disaster is thought a blessing, and sympathy is put to the test. Oration 43, Available online at www.newadvent.org/fathers)
This ‘New City’ was the culmination of Basil’s social vision, the fruit of a lifetime of effort to develop a more just and humane social order within the region of Caesarea, where he grew up and later served as a priest and a bishop.
This line continued primarily through Christian hospitals, only really broadening to other areas with the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. As poverty increased and health deteriorated through the factories, a window of opportunity opened for Christian social entrepreneurs. Suddenly prison reform, schools for poor children, cooperative societies, trustee savings banks and suchlike were big on the agenda, and gifted Christian men and women stood up with vision and application to see them through.
Basil of Caesarea wrote his sermon To the Rich sixteen centuries ago, but the context was strikingly similar to today. ‘Those who have recently grown rich desire more of the same,’ he writes. ‘They ought to be happy and contented, but immediately they yearn to be equal with the super-rich.’ Meanwhile, the hungry poor huddled in misery in doorways.
A time of crisis had struck in the form of a great famine. Everyone was afraid of what might come. Social structures were under threat, established patterns of life could not be trusted. Not unlike the global threat of terrorism today.
Basil used the opportunity to press for justice, mercy and equality, but above all for simplicity.
“The soul becomes like the things it gives itself to,” he writes in his Homily on Humility, “and takes the character and appearance of what it does. So let your demeanour, your dress, your walking, your sitting down, the nature of your food, the quality of your manner, your house and what it contains, aim at simplicity.”And let your speech, your singing, the way you relate to your neighbour, be in accord with humility rather than with vanity. In your words let there be no empty pretence, in your singing no excess sweetness, in conversation be not ponderous or overbearing. In everything refrain from seeking to appear important.”
Most of all, Basil pressed for a voluntary redistribution of wealth and resources, as in the first Church at Jerusalem. As this writer sees it, Basil ‘saw it as a rule of life for all Christians. Moved by the extreme social needs of the population, and enlightened by the Scriptures, Basil insisted that the produce of the earth was intended for all. While God the Creator had indeed distributed it unevenly, he had done this with the intention that the rich should share with the poor.’
To Basil, a refusal to embrace simplicity and sustainability is a crime. “Someone who steals clothes off someone’s back is called a thief. Why should we refer to the one who does not clothe the naked, while having the means to do so, as anything else? The bread that you have belongs to the hungry, the clothes that are in your cupboard belong to the naked, the shoes that are rotting in your possession belong to the barefooted, the money that you have buried belongs to the destitute. And so you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them.” (Homily I Will Tear Down My Barns)
Readers today may be more familiar with Richard Foster’s seminal work, Celebration of Discipline, which first appeared in 1978. Here are a few of the practical disciplines for a simpler life that are advocated there. The echoes of Basil sixteen centuries earlier are unmistakable.
* Buy things for their usefulness rather than for status. Basil: ‘When I enter a house and see it shimmering with every kind of crass trinket, I realise that the owner may have given what was soulless a facelift, but he has an unbeautified soul‘.
* Develop a habit of giving things away. Basil attacks the ‘strange madness’ whereby, ‘when wealth overflows, it gets buried in the ground in secret places, “in case they need it one day”.’ And this, while the poor and hungry clamour at their gate.
* Reject anything that will breed oppression of others. Basil castigates the rich: ‘How many people could one of your gold-encrusted fingers release from debt? How many broken-down homes could be rebuilt? You say you are doing no-one an injustice, yet you plunder so much for yourselves!‘
* Learn to enjoy things without owning them. Basil: ‘The world was created for the common benefit of all. The animals use in common the plants that grow naturally from the earth, and all living creatures permit each other to satisfy their need for food. But we hoard that which is common, and keep for ourselves what belongs to many others.’
This story appeared on the BBC News website. An Oxford University academic has pledged to donate one million pounds to charitable causes in his lifetime, and has set up systems for regular giving to start delivering on this undertaking. Dozens of people have joined him in this initiative to “Give as Much as you Can”.
John Thornton (1720-1790) would have rejoiced. Historically, he marks the start of a significant shift in Christian social entrepreneurship. Having begun with sheer philanthropy, giving large sums to good causes, he came to see that strategic giving and the creation of enterprises would benefit the needy more in the long term.
He was one of the richest men in England, having made a fortune trading between Hull and the Baltic states. A devout Christian, Thornton gave the equivalent today of £25,000 to good causes, every year for fifty years (well over a million in his lifetime). He provided food and blankets for the starving. He paid debts and fines to get the poor released from debtors’ prison. He supported missionary societies and funded the distribution of bibles.
In time, Thornton realised the greater good that would come from having men of influence in key positions. So he used his wealth to ‘buy’ the livings of important parishes, so the he could install the minister. Most notably, he brought John Newton, the converted slave ship captain and author of “Amazing Grace”, from rural obscurity to the church in Lombard Street in the city of London, which was attended by members of parliament, bankers and successful merchants. This greatly furthered the Evangelical cause, which lay at Thornton’s heart.
He also came to see the value of education and training. He aided Lady Huntingdon in setting up her ministers’ training college at Trefeca, South Wales, with an interest-free loan. He ploughed funds into a school for native American Indians in Connecticut, and founded Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, a prestigious establishment where a hall of residence still bears his name.
A curious juggling of values had to be maintained. Thornton never missed the chance to make a profit in business, but at home he was scrimping and saving in order to have more to give. What he started was carried on by his son Henry with his friends William Wilberfore (his cousin’s husband), Zachary Macaulay, Henry Venn and the rest, who not long hence would form the Clapham Sect, the archetypal Christian social entrepreneurs.
The Church was not well placed to cope with this new climate. For centuries, the beating heart of the faith had been in the monasteries, which were almost always in the country, sticking to ancient traditions and out of touch with new social developments. Women who wanted to live radically for God had few openings. The time was ripe for a new expression of the kingdom of God. A group called the Beguines rose to the challenge.
This was a spontaneous movement that began with a group of praying women in Liège, Belgium, in the 1190s. Not wanting either of the usual options of marriage or a nunnery, these radical women pioneered a new form of community. They pledged themselves to prayer, poverty and celibacy. Seeing how society was changing, they chose to stay in the towns, especially the poor suburbs, where they could serve the people with Jesus’ love.
Adult women during the Middle Ages were expected to live under the guardianship of a man, either within the household as a wife and mother, or dedicated to the Church as a nun. The Beguines deliberately lived outside of these boundaries. Women who entered Beguinages (Beguine houses and/or convents) were not bound by permanent vows, in contrast to women who entered convents. They could enter Beguinages having already been married, and they could leave the Beguinages to marry. Some women even entered the Beguinages with children.
They aimed to recover the simplicity, love and outreach of the early Church. They preached (which was not allowed), and in the language of the people, not Latin. Their communal settlements had a hospital, a place of worship, and work-shops for spinning, lace-making and other crafts that were to generate an income. They held literacy classes for poor children, supported widows, and took in orphans. And at every turn, they proclaimed God’s love for the poor.
Beguines had no mother-house, nor common rule, nor any appointed head the order. Every community was complete in itself and fixed its own order of living. Members were of varied social status: some admitted only ladies of high degree; others only the poor; others again received women of every condition, and these were the most densely peopled. Several, like the great Beguinage of Ghent, in Belgium, numbered around a thousand.
In the beginning, the clergy’s attitude towards Beguines was ambivalent. They could not fault their chastity and charity, yet the fact that they existed without men (except for priests and confessors to lead them) was greatly mistrusted. They were never an approved religious order, yet they were granted special privileges and exemptions customary for approved orders. The Church, however, did not approve of their lack permanent vows. Women were not supposed to have that much freedom. In time, Beguines were treated as heretics and persecuted.
A male offshoot began, taking the name Beghards, but never made the same impact as the women – perhaps because they were not so very different from the Franciscan friars. It was the Beguines, the visionary women who created a visible kingdom of God, who made the lasting mark. They heard the pulse of the society God had placed them in, and met its need. The movement multiplied, and by 1270 there were Beguine communities in most towns in Belgium, Holland and North Germany.
FOR FURTHER READING
This piece gives more information (not that much is known) about Lambert le Bègue, parish priest of St Christopher’s in Liège in the latter part of the 12th century. He was a reformer who preached against abuses in the established church. It is generally assumed that the name Beguines was derived from his own, as it was he who urged a new movement of godly women who would rise up to serve their generation.
Here is a general sketch of the Beguine movement and its spirituality.
This more scholarly account discusses the characteristics of Beguine life and looks at the possible reasons for their eventual decline.
An article by Marianne Dormann looks further into the spiritual devotions of the Beguines, chiefly using The Mirror of the Soul, by Marguerite Porete, a French Beguine who was burned at the stake for supposed heresy in 1310.
For some old photographs and illustrations of Beguine houses, look no further than here.
Finally, in this piece, Marvin Anderson considers the contemporary implications of the Beguines’ rediscovery of lay ministry and grassroots evangelism.