Review: Journals of Anthony Norris Groves (2 vol.)

Author: Anthony Norris Groves (1795-1853) was a central figure in the founding of the Plymouth Brethren, best known for his Christian primitivism as applied to ecclesiology and missiology. He authored the booklet Christian Devotedness to expound his views, and he also served briefly as a missionary in Baghdad and afterwards ministered throughout India. A 2005 biography calls him “the Father of Faith Missions”.

Overview:

The journals of Anthony Norris Grove record his journey to Baghdad and his mission term there. They were originally published in two volumes:

  1. Journal of Mr. Anthony N. Groves, during a Journey from London to Bagdad, through Russia, Georgia, and Persia. Also, A Journal of Some Months’ Residence at Bagdad.
    This journal covers the journey which took place from June to December 1829. After a hiatus, the journal then contains “observations from Bagdad” from February to April 1830.
  2. Journal of a Residence at Bagdad during the Years 1830-1831.
    The second journal continues in medias res from the first, and covers from April 1830 to November 1831 and was published in 1832. During this time, his wife and youngest child died, as Baghdad was ravaged by a regional cholera epidemic and a city-wide flood, both together prompting a famine. Groves stayed in Baghdad until May 1833.

Long stretches of his journals record current events of the region, as well as Groves’ theological reflections. In fact, in the first sentence, Groves calls the collection “memorandums and reflections (for a journal it cannot be called)” (p. 1). The publishers were, of course, undeterred by the author’s intent!

He was accompanied by his wife Mary Bethia (Thompson) Groves, their two children, “his sister and another lady, a young Scotch missionary,” and John Kitto, who was deaf (v. 1, p. 3). They were joined by Mrs. Taylor, an Armenian and the wife of Major Taylor, who was to await them in Shusha (present-day Azerbaijan). In Tbilisi, they learned that he was in fact in Baghdad, almost 500 miles beyond Shusha. They had already travelled 1700 miles over land.

This was not the only change of plans. After arriving in Baghdad, Groves writes of plans to explore Kurdistan and survey the needs of Assyrian Christians in northern Mesopotamia; he mulls going to Basra, Bushehr, Shiraz, and Isfahan, little knowing the dangers of travelling in the region, or the disasters that awaited in Baghdad.

Timeline of Groves’ Mission to Baghdad

1829—June 12—The band set sail toward Copenhagen.
June 16—They land in Denmark for several days.
July 3—They reach Kronstadt (St. Petersburg).
July 23 to August 3—They are in Moscow.
August 8—They meet a Moravian colony at Sarepta (Krasnoarmeisk, near Volgograd, Russia).
August 11 to 23—They meet a Mr. G. in Astrakhan, working on a Persian Bible translation. Here Groves first mentions the “plague” (cholera) in Yerevan (Erivan), now the capital of Armenia. Cholera would continue to travel and eventually claim his wife, more than a year later.
September 1—They reach Tbilisi (Teflis), and hear that Major Taylor is in Baghdad, not Shusha (Shushee).
September 3 to 29—They spent a month in Shusha (present-day Azerbaijan), their original intended destination.
October 6—They reach Tabriz, lodging with the ambassador Colonel MacDonald and Mohammad Ali Khan, who had an English wife.
November 10—They leave Tabriz for Baghdad.
December 6—They reach Baghdad at daybreak, meeting Major Taylor. Groves’ journal here breaks off.
1830—February 14—Groves’ journal on Baghdad resumes. Having few auspicious opportunities, Pfander and Groves are working toward starting a school for Armenian children, with the hope of also learning (and teaching?) Arabic.
March 29—Roman Catholics (Arabic speakers) agree to send children to learn English. But Major Taylor soon asks them to postpone this aspect, the Muslims being “jealous” about teaching in Arabic.
April 19—School commences, 43 boys and 2 girls. (v. 1, p. 206)
April [May?] 2—The second volume of his journal begins. He says they have 58 boys and 9 girls. (v. 2, p. 1) Dates of the two volumes are somehow misaligned.
July 12—Reports of cholera at Tabriz.
September 14—Mosques ban Muslims from receiving books from the mission band.
October 10—Mary gives birth to a daughter.
1831—March 28—Cholera reaches Baghdad. At its peak thousands are dying every day.
March 29—The school breaks up.
April 10—The Tigris River floods, threatening Baghdad.
April 27—The flood breaks through the city wall, inundating Baghdad. Tens of thousands die as cholera and whole neighborhoods collapse.
May 14—His wife Mary dies of cholera.
May 24—John Kitto falls ill. He recovers.
August—Throughout August, Arab looters break into their home multiple times.
August 24—His baby dies “without a sigh”.
November 7—Groves stops keeping a journal.
1833—May 21—Groves departed Baghdad for Bombay. (See his Memoirs, p. 226.)

The Theology of Anthony Norris Groves

The following are some theological distinctives of Anthony Groves, which he shared with the Plymouth Brethren movement:

  • Literal reading of Scripture, which included pacifism and head coverings. Groves treated the New Testament as his “missionary manual”.
  • Rejection of church hierarchy, including ordination. Groves writes that the laying on of hands has no meaning if it does not confer the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • Rejection of a state church. Groves speaks disparagingly of churches with state backing. In this the Plymouth Brethren are aligned with the Moravians, Anabaptists, and other “Free” churches (Free Church of Scotland, Congregationalists, Evangelical Free, etc.).
  • Pacifism. Groves takes literally Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek”. Thus, he travelled through Kurdistan with no armed guard, which was considered highly unusual.
  • “Faith” missions. In a well-known pamphlet published several years before he left for Baghdad, Groves taught that ministers should never solicit funds. This idea found its roots in Pietist thought, and was further popularized by George Müller and Hudson Taylor. (I plan to assess this teaching in upcoming posts.)

Lessons from Groves’ Journals

There are many valuable statements in Groves’ journals showing the need for reform in churches and missionary sending agencies. Most of these are directed toward his Anglican upbringing; Brethren teaching is very disdainful of centralized, state-controlled churches.

Groves also criticized a colonial spirit, in which missionaries depended on trade or the colonizing state for finances, mixing moral and material incentives.

“The colonizing spirit extinguishes that of the missionary.”

Anthony Norris Groves, Journal (vol. 1), p. 65, dated August 18, 1829

Several times in his journals, he portends an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that would make language study needless.

“Much time will be required in acquiring a facility in the language . . . till the Lord is pleased to pour down from on high, his gifts of the Spirit.”

Anthony Norris Groves, Journal (vol. 2), p. 252, dated September 14, 1831

In the same year and volume, he makes similar statements on March 16 (p. 84) and October 28 (p. 281). These are interesting as showing the radical, missionary roots of the Plymouth Brethren. For more on missionary tongues, see this review.

Criticisms

Overthinking Circumstances

Anthony Norris Groves is a very important figure for missiology. One biographer calls him “the Father of Faith Missions”. Groves is also hailed as one of the earliest Protestant missionaries to Arabic-speaking people. He hardly ministered to Arabs, though, and does not have a positive word about them in all his journals. Although five-sixths of Baghdad (by his estimate) is Arabic-speaking, he interacts mainly with Armenians, and is distracted by Persian and Turkish. I believe that his mission band could have made more headway with any one of these groups if they had been more focused and strategic. As it was, they taught Armenian (Christian-background) children because this was the only work read for them to do—but it doesn’t seem that anyone got very far in any of the languages. This is not surprising for a first term; but it’s not exemplary either.

As soon Groves’ wife Mary fell ill with cholera (May 7, 1831), he speaks of her being “taken away”, and what a wife she “has been” to him. On June 17, his daughter also falling ill, he writes, “when the Lord takes from me this sweet little flower, I shall indeed be desolate.” But his daughter did not die for several months! This seemed morbidly pessimistic, and not a Christian attitude to take—especially for someone who writes so much of “faith”. It was characteristic of the religion of the time period (early 1800s) to fatalistically over-interpret the circumstances as “Providence”.

Literal Interpretations and the Old Covenant

It is a major fault of his theology that he tries to take all Scripture at face value, practically ignoring context, author, and audience. As a result, he lives on the wrong side of the covenant. If something good happens, he’s full of praise for God’s favor. If something bad happens, God was taking away an idol because of the hardness of their hearts. Scripture invites us to see God’s activity everywhere, but it is dangerous to try to see divine motive in each and every circumstance.

Before the plague reaches his house, he writes first that it has not reached Baghdad; then that it has not reached the Christian Quarter; then that it has not reached his house. He thinks God has kept the “angel of death” away from their doorstep, and that the Lord has “commanded the man with the ink-horn to write [them] down to be spared” (alluding to Ezekiel 9). He quotes Psalm 91, that the plague will not touch them. Finally, when his wife, her servant, and their daughter all die, he is left in a shambles. He writes that he has misunderstood Psalm 91. After he is bereft, he says Mary must have been an idol to him, that God had to take away.

“I had intentionally renounced the world, yet the Lord saw that I held more of it than I knew in the dear object he has removed.”

Anthony Norris Groves, Journal (vol. 2), p. 162, dated May 21 1831

How selfish and self-centered, to think that God would “remove” your family by death for your own spiritual formation! This blended image of the bright, resurrected Jesus as the darkly angel of death is the bastard child of his imbalanced theology of faith, which yields an ascetic obsession with “unlimited dependence” on God. It sees God’s agency and purpose in the sick room where Jesus instead took the hand of the dying and bid them stand. Death is an enemy and the human response is to grieve. David sings, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.” (Ps. 119:71, NIV) Celebrating a God who “turns evil to good” is a far cry from saying that God ordained the death of a family member for your spiritual good.

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