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Review: George Müller of Bristol and His Witness to a Prayer-Hearing God

Rating: ★★★★★

Author:

Arthur Tappan (A. T.) Pierson (1837-1911) was an American Presbyterian pastor and a prolific author of biography, theology, and especially missions. He succeeded Charles Spurgeon in the Metropolitan Tabernacle pulpit and was a key influencer in the Student Volunteer Movement.

Overview:

George Müller of Bristol and His Witness to a Prayer-Hearing God (1899) is one of the great classics of Christian biography. George Müller served Christ for more than sixty years, managing Bible schools and an orphanage, as well as being a prominent public supporter of overseas missions. He is most famous for his orphanage and his lack of soliciting funds. The BBC writes,

When Müller died at the age of 92 in 1898, the Daily Telegraph wrote that he had “robbed the cruel streets of thousands of victims and the workhouses of thousands of helpless waifs”.

The author, Arthur Pierson, was his son-in-law, and had a personal knowledge of Müller’s life. The book was published in the year after Müller died and, brief as it is, is the authoritative biography of George Müller. It also masterfully explains the principles by which Müller lived, Pierson himself being a famous preacher and teacher.

Müller was strongly influenced by Anthony Norris Groves, who went to Baghdad in 1829 under a banner of Christian primitivism—meaning, he chose to travel with salary or no institutional backing. George Müller married Mary Groves in October 1830, and thus, Anthony Norris Groves became his brother-in-law; around this time, Müller also renounced his salary, believing that God called his ministers to live without a fixed income. This is known among evangelicals as “living by faith”, though it is something of a misnomer—implying, as it does, that those with fixed incomes are not living by faith—and thus, I place it between quotation marks for lack of a better term. For historical context, it’s worth noting that Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission and popularizer of “faith” missions, was not yet born at the time! Groves and Müller were very early adopters of the principles of evangelical “faith” missions.

In 1831, the Memoirs of August Hermann Francke was published, Müller soon read it. Francke had been a seminal figure in the beginnings of Protestant missions in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and he also educated and supported thousands of poor children.

Reading the life of Francke was likely a watershed moment for Müller who became, according to Pierson, “in [many] respects [Francke’s] counterpart”. Both Francke and Müller were Germans; both supported and educated poor children; both lived and ministered for decades without a fixed income; both distributed over a million Bibles and New Testaments; both supported the work of pioneer missonaries.

In February, 1832, [George Müller] had begun to read the biography of A. H. Francke, the founder of the Orphan Houses of Halle [in Germany]. As that life and work were undoubtedly used of God to make him a like instrument in a kindred service, and to mould even the methods of his philanthropy, a brief sketch of Francke’s career may be helpful.

August H. Francke was Müller’s fellow countryman. About 1696, at Halle in Prussia, he had commenced the largest enterprise for poor children then existing in the world. He trusted in God, and He whom he trusted did not fail him, but helped him throughout abundantly.

The institutions, which resembled rather a large street than a building, were erected, and in them about two thousand orphan children were housed, fed, clad, and taught. For about thirty years all went on under Francke’s own eyes, until 1727, when it pleased the Master to call the servant up higher; and after his departure his like-minded son-in-law became the director. Two hundred years have passed, and these Orphan Houses are still in existence, serving their noble purpose.

In 1834, Müller began a school in Bristol for teaching children the Bible. In 1836, this work was expanded to include an orphanage. This orphanage was the work for which Müller became most well known; but, like Francke, he was involved in a vast variety of charitable and educational endeavors. As he is presented here, Müller led a profoundly impactful life of charity based on faith and biblical principles.

The chapter on “The Word of God and Prayer” is noteworthy and is worth reading by itself. I have no other work that so clearly states the importance and practicality of using scripture in prayer. According to Pierson, Müller’s prayers were steeped in the Word of God, and were grounded in God’s promises.

The author gives ample space to describing both the principles and outcome of Müller’s prayer life; throughout the book, he often departs from the narrative to describe the theological background in which the events took place. In my view, this book is a perfect blend of biography, theology, and devotion. It constitutes a transition point between nineteenth-century memoirs, which merely list dates and events, and modern reflections which merely meditate on their meaning without giving a full historical account.

Plymouth Brethren and “Faith” Missions

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the description of Plymouth Brethren principles practiced by Müller, which are unfamiliar to many Americans. Several of my favorite theologians came out of the Plymouth Brethren, and they were a profound influence on Watchman Nee. As Pierson describes it, Plymouth Brethren doctrine involves an outright rejection of hierarchy in church organization. Thus, even group meetings do not have an appointed leader. “you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” (1 Corinthians 14:31, NIV)

There are certain aspects of this book that have been exaggerated in the context of Christian fundraising. In certain circles, greatly influenced by lives like August Francke, Hudson Taylor, and George Müller, direct soliciting of funds is practically taboo, and ministers must be supported on a “faith” basis. In reality, Francke and Müller at least, had important believing patrons that had some awareness of the day-to-day needs of their institutions. Nonetheless, these lives are remarkable confirmations of Jesus’ words:

Food and clothing “dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.” (Matthew 6:32, NLT)

I highly recommend this book to anyone embarking on a faith venture without a fixed salary. I would not advocate any restrictive version of this wherein no one may make their needs known to believers who are willing and ready to help. That’s not a principle I see in the New Testament. In my opinion, it is similar to denying medicine because you believe in healing; medicine may also be a method of healing! For all that, I have personally tested Jesus’ principles and found that our heavenly Father does know all our needs, and he does provide for his people out of his abundant mercy.

Read: You can read this book for free at Project Gutenberg, in the Kindle Store, and you can listen to it on LibriVox.

The Blue Flame and other new releases

The new hardback edition of The Blue Flame is in stock and ready to ship for just $36. With only 120 copies left, you will want to order it now before it runs out. If you haven’t bought one of the Boreham Signature Collection through Kickstarter or pre-orders, you can now order here on olddeadguys.com! You can also join our F.W.B. mailing list for exclusive updates and discounts related to new hardback releases.

We also have a few copies of Ships of Pearl left. If you missed the Kickstarter, you can still order it here.

We have several new paperbacks and ebooks issued in the past month. Here are some of the new releases we’ve put out since 2021 started.

The Footsteps of Divine Providence

In 1695, August Francke, a professor of biblical languages in Prussia (now part of Germany), was asked to take in an orphan girl; but when he went to receive her into his home, she had brought three of her sisters!

I ventured, in the Name of God, to take them all four. . . .

The Footsteps of Divine Providence, p. 41

Believing that God was the “Father to the fatherless”, he took care to see that these girls were provided for, and not long after, took in others. Eventually, his small endeavor grew to house and educate two thousand poor children.

Francke was responsible for teaching (Count) Nicolaus Zinzendorf, starting in 1710, when Nicolaus was 10 years old. Count Zinzendorf and August Francke, with help from Frederick IV of Denmark, sent many of the first Protestant missionaries.

The Footsteps of Divine Providence by A. H. Francke (paperback)
The Footsteps of Divine Providence by A. H. Francke (ebook)

Ion Keith-Falconer: The Scholar-Missionary

Ion Keith-Falconer was a record-breaking cyclist and scholar of Semitic languages who chose to live in Sheikh Othman, Yemen, to bring knowledge of the Gospel to the people of Arabia. In his twenties, he used his family’s wealth to support a number of evangelistic endeavors. He died at just 31; as his legacy, his own money supported a successor in the mission field, and many others followed him to the mission field on hearing of his life story. If you are unfamiliar with his life, I recommend starting with one of his biographies, either McEvoy’s or Robson’s; if you want the fullest version of the story, read Sinker’s, which we have published as an ebook.

Ion Keith-Falconer: The Scholar-Missionary by C. McEvoy (paperback)
Ion Keith-Falconer: The Scholar-Missionary by C. McEvoy (ebook)

Consider the Lilies: The Parables of Lilias Trotter

Lilias Trotter, founder of the Algiers Mission Band, was a friend of John Ruskin and regarded as an up-and-coming artist when she left the United Kingdom for Algeria. She devoted her life to the people of North Africa. She also wrote a number of pamphlets and articles in English and Arabic.

Three of her pamphlets—Parables of the Cross, Parables of the Christ-Life, and Parables of Hope—used plants as modern “parables” for the work of Christ in the heart. These have been collected for the first time into compilation, preserving her own original illustrations.

Consider the Lilies: The Parables of Lilias Trotter by Lilias Trotter (ebook)

The Life of Bernard Gilpin

Bernard Gilpin was a minister who lived in the early days of the English Reformation. Most famously, Gilpin’s execution was ordered by Queen Mary, but she died after he was apprehended, and he lived another twenty years. He was regarded at that time as “The Apostle of the North” because of his labor on behalf of the people of north England. You can read more about him here.

The Life of Bernard Gilpin by George Carleton (ebook)

Coming Releases

Here is a list of some titles that we expect to release before 2021 is over:

The Great Themes of the Bible (Louis Albert Banks)
Christ and His Friends (Louis Albert Banks)
The Sinner and His Friends (Louis Albert Banks)
Thinking Black: 22 Years in the Long Grass of Africa (Dan Crawford)
Back to the Long Grass: My Life with Livingstone (Dan Crawford)

A Historical and Biblical Appraisal of “Faith” Missions

The biographies of ministers like George Müller, of the Bristol Orphan Homes, and Hudson Taylor, of the China Inland Mission (now OMF International), dramatically popularized the concept of “faith” missions—meaning that missionaries or ministers are prohibited from soliciting financial help and do not receive any fixed salaries. It is worth asking, where did this idea originate, and is it a biblical model of missions?

The Beginnings of “Faith” Missions

Francke’s Foundations in Germany

In founding his orphanage, Müller was strongly influenced by the work of August Hermann Francke in Halle, Germany. In his autobiography, The Footsteps of Divine Providence, which we have just published, Francke tells of many answered prayers. In 1695, Francke set up a box for anonymous donations for the support and education of poor children. At first, he took in four; within a few years, his boarding house grew to became the largest charitable institution in the world, supported by King Frederick I of Prussia, who was a loyal patron to local Pietists.

While Francke did not outline any philosophy of giving per se, his dependence on prayer and anonymous gifts, and his living “without any settled provision” (p. 42) was an inspiration to George Müller, who read Francke’s Memoirs.

Having thus made a beginning, in the Name of GOD, to take effectual care of some poor, without any settled provision, and without any regard to human supports, I relied entirely upon Him, and so did not scruple to make daily addition to the number of our children.

The Footsteps of Divine Providence, 2021 edition, p. 42

Passages in Francke’s autobiography (published in 1701) are nearly identical to those from Müller’s biography (published in 1899):

All our provision being spent, I closely adhered in my mind to this saying, “Seek first the kingdom of GOD, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you“; avoiding temporal cares, and turning the whole bent of my soul upon a close union with GOD: and when I was now laying out the last of the money, I said in my thoughts, “LORD, look upon my necessity.” Then going out of my chamber, I unexpectedly found a student in my house, that waited for [me], and presented me the sum of seventy crowns, sent by some friends from a place above two hundred English miles distant.

The Footsteps of Divine Providence, 2021 edition, p. 61

Francke was himself of a well-to-do family, with a strong network. The charter and building materials for his boarding house were provided directly by the Elector of Brandenburg, later King of Prussia. Francke also trained and sent the first Protestant missionaries in 1706, with help from the King of Denmark. He printed more than one million Bibles in around a dozen languages. In spite of his noble connections, it is remarkable what Francke accomplished without fixed donations. Halle became a global hub for the spread of Protestant and Pietist ideas through Francke’s Foundations.

Anthony Groves and the Plymouth Brethren

Anthony Norris Groves was the first to expound the concept of “faith” stewardship, in his 1825 booklet, Christian Devotedness. Groves was one of several figures who were crucial to the beginnings of the Plymouth Brethren, alongside John Nelson Darby. Their primary theological distinctives are primitivism and literalism: Primitivism means that early church practices are considered to be normative today; literalism for the Brethren means that no Scriptural command may be side-stepped by any “cultural” interpretation. All are relevant for practice today, including the prohibition of fixed income, commands to pacifism, and head coverings for women.

Groves believed that the missionaries of the early church did not have regular incomes, which he considered “trusting in man” (Jeremiah 17:5), and he believed that societies providing a generous income for overseas missionaries had led to extravagance and became a scandal to the gospel.

In his 1825 booklet, Groves took as his theme the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:19: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.” Groves interpreted this command as a blanket prohibition against saving money. He interprets Matthew 19:24 as stating that wealth directly inhibits spiritual growth, and works against salvation: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” He refers to Luke 18:22—”sell all that thou hast”— and Acts 2—”they had all things in common”—as evidence that we believers should not have property.

In spite of his strict interpretation against salaries for missionaries, Groves did not oppose missionaries working a trade overseas (“tent-makers”), as he states several times in his journal while in Baghdad.

The Growth of “Faith” Missions

In 1852, Hudson Taylor was baptized in a Brethren assembly. He joined the Chinese Evangelisation Society, arriving in China in 1854 at the age of 21. During his first term, he faced a number of problems and prejudices, surviving a fire and an attack by bandits. In 1857, encouraged by George Müller, he left his mission society.

It was not until 1865 that Taylor founded the China Inland Mission. By the time they left in 1866, with a team of more than twenty adults, Taylor had gained the support of Charles Spurgeon and had published China’s Spiritual Need and Claims, which went through numerous editions.

Taylor became the best known figure in evangelical missions and China Inland Mission became the largest missionary society in the world. Missiologist Ralph Winter wrote:

“More than any other human being, James Hudson Taylor, that young upstart, who did not heed his station in the social order, made the greatest contribution to the cause of world mission in the 19th century.”

Ralph D. Winter, “Why is the China Inland Mission/North America‘s 100th year celebration so significant for us today?” Mission Frontiers, June 1988. [link]

In 1899, A. T. Pierson—a mobilizer of the Student Volunteer Movement and Charles Spurgeon’s successor at the Metropolitan Tabernacle—published George Müller of Bristol and His Witness to a Prayer-Hearing God. Pierson had married Müller’s daughter and held a high respect for the man whose biography he wrote.

“Not once, or five times, or five hundred times, but thousands of times in these threescore years, have we had in hand not enough for one more meal, either in food or in funds; but not once has God failed us; not once have we or the orphans gone hungry or lacked any good thing.”

George Müller to A. T. Pierson, in George Müller of Bristol, ch. VI, p. 81

The lives of Francke, Taylor, and Müller are wonderful exhibits of God’s faithfulness, and that is a faithfulness that extends, not only to missionaries, but to the merest sparrow. It is interesting, though, to contemplate how well known these men were. All three were heavily involved in writing and publishing, and all three circulated printed accounts of the progress of their ministry. None solicited funds, but continuous publishing clearly maintains the attention of like-minded believers. Though serving the poor, all three also had high connections. The monarchs of Denmark and Prussia supported Francke’s evangelical and charitable endeavors. Taylor and Müller had the ear of Charles Spurgeon, who had the ear of thousands of Londoners on a weekly basis.

“Faith” Missions Under the Microscope

What Is Faith?

From reading his journals, it becomes clear that Groves writes with an ascetic turn of mind. As a habit, he takes Scriptures “in their most unrestricted sense” (Christian Devotedness, p. 4). He speaks of being “compelled to live by faith on the divine promises day by day” (p. 30). He writes that the “primary object” of God’s government is “the development in us of the character of dear children, the essential feature of which is unlimited dependence” (p. 2).

This axiom of “unlimited dependence” has stark implications. For Groves, they mean rejecting welcome help. First, it means ministers cannot ask for money. While travelling to Baghdad, it causes Groves to write that he “foolishly” placed too much trust in his carriage (Journal, v. 1, p. 35). He goes unarmed and unescorted in Kurdistan, in a region riddled with bandits (v. 1, p. 104); not long after, a similar group is murdered (v. 2). When his wife dies, he speaks of her death as caused by his own dependence on her, and God as allowing her to die to teach him dependence (v. 2, p. 162)! He speaks of language learning as if God might at any moment give him the gift of tongues, bypassing all his labor (v. 2, p. 252).

At what point do we stop interpreting everything by “dependence”? Should we not study because the Holy Spirit leads us into truth? Should we never eat because we live not by bread alone? “Dependence” describes the act of salvation, but it is by no means an exhaustive description of the Christian life.

When Müller, Groves, and others write of doing missions “by faith”, their implication is that living with a fixed income—especially as a minister or missionary—is decidedly not living by faith. But where does this leave laymen, who toil to feed their families? Do they not live by faith? Groves allows that missionaries may work for their money (v. 1, p. 204). If working for your money is “by faith”, and tent-making is “by faith”, how is soliciting funds not “by faith”? He reduces faith to “not asking for material help” whereas biblical faith is a spiritual dependence for forgiveness and empowerment.

In the end, Groves’ theology points to a dualism in which all material things (“the flesh”) are evil, and spiritual dependence encompasses everything. This is notable when he views the beautiful God-created landscapes of the Caucasus, and can only morbidly reflect that all be destroyed (v. 1, p. 72).

Testing Brethren Hermeneutics

As mentioned earlier, “faith” missions is built on the biblical hermeneutic principles of primitivism and literalism. Both principles tend to create imbalanced practice, and not just in the area of stewardship.

In his book, Letters to a Devastated Christian, Gene Edwards points out that primitivism as it is usually expounded relies on several shaky premises. First, primitivism assumes that all aspects of the first-century church recounted in the Book of Acts are still normative. Needless to say, Edwards contends that they are not—a key example being the denial of personal property in Acts 2. Second, primitivism assumes that we know enough about early church practice to answer our questions. In defense of “faith” missions, Groves asks, “Why has this spirit for so many centuries been slumbering?” (p. 15) He presumes that, like him, the apostles never solicited funds.

Literalism is likewise appealing on the surface, but reductionist upon further inspection. Brethren doctrine “resurrected” a literal reading 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 in favor of head coverings for women. This is a passage that almost no one in recent church history has taken literally, and if Lucy Peppiatt is to be believed, no one should. One passage taken literally may involve a direct contradiction to another passage taken literally. In the case of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul writes that “long hair” is a “disgrace” on a man, but in Acts 18:18, he does not cut his hair while at Corinth! Either Paul is contradicting himself, or he has changed his mind, or there is some rhetoric involved in 1 Corinthians 11.

Testing “Christian Devotedness

In Groves’ booklet, Christian Devotedness, he advocates the “most unrestricted” interpretation of Jesus’ saying, “lay not up treasures upon earth” (Matthew 6:19). He teaches that it is an outright prohibition on saving or planning for “future or possible” needs. But Paul uses the same verb for “lay up” in 1 Corinthians 16:2, exhorting the Corinthians to prepare to be generous to the church.

“Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.”

1 Corinthians 16:2

When Paul says this, he is speaking of them accumulating a fund, so that when he comes he can transfer the money to those who need it in Jerusalem. He is also making a direct financial appeal for a specific, known need. If we can labor and save for the church’s needs, why not for our own?

Paul uses the same verb for “storing up” money again in 2 Corinthians, in an analogy:

“. . . The children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children.”

2 Corinthians 12:14

Here is only appealing by analogy to the way of the world; but Paul considers only natural that parents would save up for their children. Groves employs some sleight of hand here, saying that Paul is not asking for money. In any case, Paul is appealing to a universal principle, that parents store up provision for the needs of their children.

Pride and Faith Missions

Finally, I want to point out that “faith” missions appeals to human pride. “Faith” missions exploits monergist language to put on an air of spirituality while simultaneously setting up a new law that is not founded on sound Scripture. It sounds very noble-minded to never ask for needed funds and only direct your appeals to God in prayer, but we are never restricted to doing so in the Scriptures. In fact, asking for help from other believers may be the more Christian practice, and only seeking help in prayer may be an indicator of spiritual pride.

“The church is a company of people who have learned how to be ill and to ask for help . . .”

John Goldingay, Walk On, p. 60, paraphrasing Stanley Hauerwas, Suffering Presence, p. 80

We cannot reduce all practice into godly “dependence” and sinful “independence”; rather, we depend on Christ for spiritual help, and we also take initiative in providing for our own material needs and co-laboring with Christ in obedience to his commands.

Throughout Jesus’ life, people of all stripes pleaded with him pointedly and repeatedly for material help, and he gave it to them. The apostles did the same. There are certainly specific dangers attending financial appeals, which tempt some to give up this practice. But we address these dangers by applying sound hermeneutics, not by rejecting the whole enterprise. As Paul did, we show love by prioritizing people over finances (2 Cor. 12:14; Phil. 4:17). And we also humble ourselves in making our needs known to God and each other.

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.

Have Miracles Ceased?

“I have had some conversation with [Karl] Pfander on the cessation of miracles, and find our views very similar. He thinks with me, that the promise of miraculous interference is now as open to the faith of the church as ever, but that she ceases to exercise faith on the promises which relate to such help. As miracles were designed for unbelievers, and not for the church, we must expect to see them arise among missionaries to the heathen; but while we find hardly any missionaries at all, and of these few who enter into the spirit of faith on God’s promises, . . . there will seem to be no need of the promises of miracles.”
Anthony Norris Groves, 1829

Journal of Mr. Anthony N. Groves, Missionary, during a Journey from London to Bagdad. Also, a journal of some months’ residence at Bagdad, p. 99-100.

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Writing in the Dark

Wordsworth tells us that his greatest inspirations had a way of coming to him in the night, and that he had to teach himself to write in the dark that he might not lose them. We, too, had better learn this art of writing in the dark. For it were indeed tragic to bear the pain, yet lose what it was sent to teach us.

A. J. Gossip, The Hero in Thy Soul

Review: New Testament Greek for Teachers and Preachers

Rating: ★★★★★

Author:

Neal Windham is Professor of Spiritual Formation at Lincoln Christian University in Illinois.

Overview:

New Testament Greek for Teachers and Preachers: Five Areas of Application (1991) is an intermediate-level manual for getting the most of the Greek New Testament. He gives step-by-step instructions on how to do a word study, or a passage study, and how to use it in a sermon or lesson. The book also includes a great introduction to textual criticism, which is seldom covered in such books. Discourse is also seldom more than mentioned, and his chapter on it was brief, useful, and could easily be understood by beginning Greek students and beginning linguists. Thus, the topics covered are textual criticism, morphology, word study, syntax, and discourse. It is a very practical treatment.

Windham includes a wealth of examples of studies he’s done with applications. These examples include exactly the kinds of insights into the Greek text of the New Testament that a beginning Greek student is longing to be able to make.

My favorite part of the book was his explanation of textual criticism. In New Testament studies, textual criticism is frequently confused with higher criticism (epitomized in the Jesus Seminar), and is thus sidestepped by many theologians and popular authors. But if you buy the most popular Greek New Testament, the Nestle-Aland text, you will be faced with a “text-critical apparatus”, often taking up half of the page, giving details of minor differences in New Testament manuscripts. Windham gives a straightforward and memorable explanation for how you can get the most of the text-critical apparatus. He gives the principles by which textual experts judge what must be the original wording of a passage. We would expect to hear about the age of manuscripts and the number of manuscripts supporting a certain reading; Windham adds that we also need to assess the logical or theological difficulty of a reading. Counterintuitively, the more logically difficult reading is often judged to be the original reading, because difficulties are prone to be ironed out—not introduced—during transmission.

All of this is presented in a way that can be used for discipleship and teaching.

This book also explores the interface of modern linguistics and Koine Greek in a way that few works do. If you want more along that line, I would recommend David Alan Black’s Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.

The audience of this book is intermediate-level Greek readers. It assumes that you are at least conversant with the text of the Greek New Testament and at least know basic terminology about Greek. It would probably be difficult for beginners, unless, perhaps, they were a strong beginner or had a background in linguistics.

If you’re interested in a summary, you can read another informative review of this book here.

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Review: Purpose in Prayer

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: E. M. Bounds (1835-1913) was a clergyman in the Methodist Episcopal Church South and held a pastorate in Franklin, Tennessee. During his time in Tennessee, he led a spiritual revival and eventually began an itinerant ministry. He only published two books during his lifetime, but nine others were arranged from manuscripts and published after his death—most of them on prayer. He spent three hours a day in prayer and emphasizes a life of prayer as the one essential of the Christian life.

Overview:

Purpose in Prayer (1914) is a compilation of E. M. Bounds’ writings on prayer, with exhortations. If you enjoyed Power Through Prayer, I would recommend this as the next follow-up. Homer Hodge, the editor, calls Purpose in Prayer the companion volume to Power through Prayer. It was published the year after Bounds died.

The theological background in this book is a development on Wesleyan understandings of prayer. The first chapter bears the title, “God Shapes the World by Prayer.” This is a theme that was developed by Wesley himself.

This book contains strong medicine against fatalism and complacency. Bounds, like Wesley, sees our prayer as effecting real change in the history of the world. Some events only become possible through prayer. Prayer is not trivial; it is not just something ordained before an already-ordained event, having no power of decision in it. It creates new possibilities. There is purpose in prayer.

Some reviewers complain that Bounds doesn’t provide enough biblical backing for his assertions about prayer. In my opinion, that probably shows that they were expecting a theology book, which this is not. Moreover, Bounds does provide plenty of biblical grounding for purpose in prayer, but this is secondary to the goal of the book; his classic books are written to inspire you to pray, not to convince you of his specific theory of prayer.

I don’t recommend reading this book in a compilation (if you have a choice) because I think the compilation obscures the unity of theme that is found in this book, apart from his other books.

Read:

Like all of E. M. Bounds’ books, Purpose in Prayer is available for free in PDF format on the Internet Archive.

Similar:

If you enjoy Bounds’ books on prayer, you might enjoy Praying Clear Through by W. J. Harney. It is written in a very similar theological stream.

Quotes:

“I think Christians fail so often to get answers to their prayers because they do not wait long enough on God. They just drop down and say a few words, and then jump up and forget it and expect God to answer them. Such praying always reminds me of the small boy ringing his neighbor’s door-bell, and then running away as fast as he can go.”