Category Archives: The Vault

Tokichi Ishii’s Text

This essay, summarizing the inspirational story of Tokichi Ishii, is one chapter in A Bundle of Torches, coming back to print in January 2022 in the newest addition to the F. W. Boreham Signature Series. The full story of Tokichi Ishii, A Gentleman in Prison (1922) will also be returning to print.  Ishii's remarkable story was first published in Japanese in 1919 under the title 聖徒となれる悪徒: 石井藤吉の懺悔と感想 ("The Scoundrel Who Became a Saint").  Editions followed in English (1922), Danish (1923), German (1924), Dutch (1925), Hungarian (1927), Chinese (1933), and Arabic (1980).

I

The spiritual pilgrimage of Tokichi Ishii is, Dr. Kelman declares, the strangest story in all the world. It is, he adds, one of our great religious classics. ‘There is in it something of the glamour of the Arabian Nights and something of the hellish nakedness of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Horror. There is also the most realistic vision I have ever seen of Jesus Christ finding one of the lost. You see, as you read, the matchless tenderness of His eyes and the almighty power of the gentlest hands that ever drew a lost soul out of misery into peace.’

The story was first told in the saloon of the Empress of Russia. The cold winds swept across the sea, having a touch of the northern ice in them, and a group of passengers had gathered in a sheltered spot. They were relating to each other all kinds of experiences with which they had met. But, after a while, every narrative was overshadowed and driven into the oblivion of forgetfulness by the story that was told by Miss Caroline Macdonald, a quiet little Scottish lady. As soon as she had finished her amazing recital, everybody felt that they had been listening to one of the world’s most thrilling and absorbing romances. It is, as Mr. Fujiya Suzuki, M.P., says, just such a story as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Tokichi Ishii is Jean Valjean over again, but Jean Valjean with a profound spiritual experience. Dr. Kelman, who was of the party on board the Empress of Russia, insisted that the story, which had already been published in Japanese, must be translated into Western tongues. And, as a consequence, here it is! It is worthy, as the publishers claim in their introductory note, to be cherished among the classical prison documents which are among the priceless treasures of the Christian Church. It is entitled A Gentleman in Prison; and he would be of cold blood and sluggish soul who could read it without deep emotion. Nor is its interest merely—or mainly—sentimental. ‘The most striking aspect of the book for many readers will be its psychology.’ Dr. Kelman declares, ‘One can imagine the glee with which Professor William James would have seized upon it and given it world-wide fame. The narrative discloses a true psychologist, full of curiosity about himself and bewildered by the masterless passions of his amazing soul.’ It has, too, a very high apologetic value. If I knew a man who had any doubt about the reality of religion, or about the existence of God, or about the eternal Deity of Jesus Christ, I would rather hand him a copy of A Gentleman in Prison than any volume of argument or of divinity that has ever been published. If A Gentleman in Prison did not scatter his scepticism, nothing would.

II

The book is dedicated To All in Every Land Who Have Never Had a Chance. Ishii certainly never had. He was born in heathenism; his father was an inveterate drunkard; his mother was the daughter of a Shinto priest. Up to the time of his death, he only knew two Christians; and he met them during the brief period of his last imprisonment, and after he himself had avowed his faith in Christ. At the age of thirteen he had to decide whether he would steal or starve. He resolved the problem in the way in which most of us, similarly situated, would have settled it. He stole. ‘This,’ he says, ‘was the beginning of my life of crime. As I look back now I realize keenly how easily a child is influenced by bad friends and surroundings.’ Stealing quickly led to gambling; gambling led to more stealing; and stealing and gambling together soon plunged him into prison. In prison he consorted with hardened criminals who laid themselves out to make the boy as callous as themselves. ‘The fact of the matter is,’ says Ishii, and he underlines the words, ‘the fact of the matter is that a prison is simply a school for learning crime.’ He was an apt pupil. During the years that followed, he committed one atrocity after another in the most shameless and audacious fashion. He spent most of his time in gaol; and, immediately upon his release, he committed some new felony or murder which once more brought the police upon his trail. And, on the twenty-ninth of April, 1915, his career of crime reached a hideous climax. He murdered the geisha girl who waited upon him at a tea-house near Tokyo. This, the most dastardly and dreadful of all his misdeeds, nevertheless had in it the germ that developed into better things.

III

Ishii crept away from the tea-house without leaving any clue that could lead to the conviction of the culprit. But, some time afterwards, when he was imprisoned on a later charge, he overheard his fellow-prisoners discussing the tea-house murder. A man named Komori, the lover of the girl, was, they said, being tried for the murder of the geisha. Within the grimy soul of Ishii a knight lay slumbering, and this startling news awoke him. ‘For a moment,’ Ishii says, ‘I could scarcely believe my ears. But upon enquiry I found that the men knew the facts, and that it was actually true that an innocent man—the lover of the dead girl—was on trial for her murder. I began to think. What must be the feeling and the suffering of this innocent Komori? What about his family and relatives? I shuddered to think of the agony that must have been theirs. I kept on thinking; and, at last, I decided to confess my guilt and save the innocent Komori.’

It is this quality in Ishii that led Dr. Kelman to call the book A Gentleman in Prison. ‘At his worst,’ the doctor says, ‘he retains the pride and honour of a gentleman; and, in the supreme test, insists on dying to save an innocent man. Cruel as a tiger, he yet responds, like a charming little child, to any kindness shown him. In the midst of a career of systematic and outrageous vice, he sometimes acts in a spirit which many of the elect might envy.’

During the days that followed his confession, Ishii laboured ceaselessly to establish Komori’s innocence by proving his own guilt. Never in all the calendars of crime did a man work so hard to prove his innocence as Ishii worked to collect evidence that would secure his own conviction. To strengthen his case, he made a clean breast of all his offences; and owned frankly that he was the murderer of several victims whose deaths had been shrouded in impenetrable mystery.

The trial of Ishii for the murder of the geisha girl dragged on for days and months. It was one of the most baffling cases in the criminal records of Japan. At length Ishii was found Not Guilty. ‘I was greatly disheartened about this,’ he says, ‘for I knew that if I were acquitted the innocent Komori would suffer the penalty of the crime. I was so distressed about it that I could not sleep.’ He instructed his lawyer to leave no stone unturned in getting justice done. In accordance with the provisions of Japanese law, he appealed against his acquittal; the case was reheard in the Appeal Court; and Ishii—to his delight—was sentenced to death.

IV

Like everybody else, Miss Macdonald, who lived in Tokyo, was profoundly interested in the strange case, and determined, if possible, to visit Ishii in prison. ‘Early in the morning of New Year’s Day,’ Ishii says, ‘a special meal was brought me instead of the ordinary prison fare; and I was told that two ladies—Miss Macdonald and Miss West—had sent it. Who could these persons be? I had never heard of them before. There was no reason why I should receive anything from people I did not know, and I told the official that I could not accept the gift.’ The gaoler induced him, however, to reconsider his proud decision. ‘The food was sent to me during the first three days of the New Year. A few days later a New Testament was received from the same source; but I put it on the shelf and did not even look at it.’ In the end, however, the monotony of his prison life proved too much for his pride.

‘I took the New Testament down from the shelf,’ he says, ‘and, with no intention of seriously looking at it, I glanced at the beginning and then at the middle. I was casually turning over the pages when I came across a place that looked rather interesting.’ It was the passage that tells how Jesus set His face like a flint to go to Jerusalem, although He knew that it was certain death to do so. The conception appealed to Ishii’s sense of daring, of gallantry, of adventure. He laid the book aside, but he resolved to dip into it again. When next he picked it up, it opened by chance at the story of the man who had a hundred sheep, and who, leaving the ninety and nine in the fold, went out into the mountains to search for that which was lost until he found it. Again Ishii was interested, though not quite as deeply as before. But he promised himself that he would give the little book a third trial. He did.

‘This time I read how Jesus was handed over to Pilate by His enemies, was tried unjustly and put to death by crucifixion. As I read this I began to think. Even I, hardened criminal that I was, thought it a shame that His enemies should have treated Him in that way. I went on, and my attention was next taken by these words: And Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. I stopped. I was stabbed to the heart as if pierced by a five-inch nail. What did the verse reveal to me? Shall I call it the love of the heart of Christ? Shall I call it His compassion? I do not know what to call it. I only know that, with an unspeakably grateful heart, I believed. Through that simple sentence I was led into the whole of Christianity.’

On each of the following pages, Ishii harps upon his text. Every time he repeats it, it seems more wonderful to him. ‘The last words that a man utters,’ he says, ‘come from the depths of his soul; he does not die with a lie upon his lips. Jesus’ last words were: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do; and so I cannot but believe that they reveal His true heart.’

‘I wish to speak,’ he says again later, ‘of the greatest favour of all—the power of Christ, which cannot be measured by any of our standards. I have been more than twenty years in prison since I was nineteen years of age, and during that time I have known what it meant to endure suffering. I have passed through all sorts of experiences and have often been urged to repent of my sins. In spite of this, however, I did not repent, but, on the contrary, became more and more hardened. And then, by the power of that one word of Christ’s, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, my unspeakably hardened heart was changed, and I repented of all my crimes. Such power is not in man.’

V

What was it in that dying prayer that so affected Ishii? He was impressed by the possibilities of a cry from the Cross. And, indeed, those possibilities are appalling. Jesus was still the Son of God, and the hands that were nailed to the tree were the creators of both nails and tree. He could have asked His Father and immediately have received more than twelve legions of angels. When they taunted Him on His inability to save himself, He could have left the Cross in an instant, and, with angelic bands for His escort and heavenly music ringing in His ears, could have returned to His Father, leaving the world to its inevitable doom.

Or, without forsaking the work which He had set Himself to do, He might have called down fire from heaven upon His murderers. He might have cried ‘Father, destroy them!’ and withered them where they stood.

Or, without in any way acting inconsistently with His divine nature, He might have cried ‘Father, judge them: vengeance is Thine; do Thou repay!’

But, no! Father, forgive them, he prays, for they know not what they do. Did he scan those murderous faces, listen to their oaths and jests, and wonder what plea He could justly urge in extenuation of their awful deed? There was only one thing to be said on their behalf, and He discovered and presented that one plea. So skilful and masterly an Advocate is He who ever liveth to intercede for us! Forgive them, for they know not what they do! The plea in that prayer broke the heart of Ishii. It went to his soul, he says, like a five-inch nail.

VI

The New Testament of Ishii’s contains a striking statement which, during his last imprisonment, he may have noticed and pondered. It is to the effect that he that is in Christ Jesus is a new creation. It is the only phrase that can possibly convey an impression of the transformation that overcame Ishii. He became literally and actually, a new creation in Christ Jesus. He was made all over again. And, from his point of view, it seemed as if the world about him had been made all over again. ‘It was only after I came to prison,’ he says, ‘that I came to believe that man really has a soul. I will tell you how I came to see this. In the prison yard chrysanthemums have been planted to please the eyes of the inmates. When the season comes, they bear beautiful flowers, but in the winter they are nipped by the frost, and wither. Our outer eye tells us that the flowers are dead, but this is not the real truth. When the season returns the buds sprout once more and the beautiful flowers bloom again. And so I cannot but believe that if God in His mercy does not allow even the flowers to die, there surely is a soul in man which He intends shall live for ever.’ Here was fresh vision vouchsafed to the eyes of this new creation; and, in keeping with it, there was a new and radiant joy in his heart.
‘Today,’ he writes, in that wonderful journal that he kept all through his last imprisonment, ‘today I am sitting in my cell with no liberty to come and go, and yet I am far more contented than in the days of my freedom. In prison, with only poor coarse food to eat, I am more thankful than I ever was out in the world when I could get whatever food I wanted. In this narrow cell, nine feet by six, I am happier than if I were living in the largest house I ever saw. The joy of each day is very great. These things are all due to the grace and favour of Jesus.’ The Governor of the prison, Mr. Shirosuke Arima, heard of Ishii’s extraordinary bearing, and decided to visit him. ‘One day,’ he tells us, ‘I went to see Ishii in his cell and found him sitting bolt upright and looking very serious. My first glance showed him to be a powerfully built fellow, with heavy bushy eyebrows and a large flat nose. I could not help thinking that, if his heart were as rough as his exterior, one would have every right to fear him. But his eyes told a different story. They shone with a quiet beautiful light; his cheeks were clear and healthy looking, and his spirit was brimming over with gentleness. My heart went out to him with a great tenderness.’

Miss Macdonald was Ishii’s last visitor. ‘We both knew,’ she says, ‘that it might be the last time. I read to him words that were penned centuries ago; but as I stood there in a tiny cubby-hole, and talked to him across a passageway and through a wire screen, it seemed impossible to believe that they were not written for the very conditions that we faced there in that Japanese prison-house. “I have finished all my writing,” Ishii told me, “and my work is done. I am just waiting now to lay down this body of sin and go to Him.” I looked at him and his eyes were glowing with joy.’ He had not long to wait.

‘This morning,’ wrote the Buddhist chaplain, in sending Miss Macdonald Ishii’s journal and effects, ‘this morning Tokichi Ishii was executed at Tokyo prison. He faced death rejoicing greatly in the grace of God and with steadiness and quietness of heart. His last request was that you be told of his going, and be thanked for your many kindnesses. He has left his books and his manuscripts to you, and you will receive them at the prison office. His last words, which are in the form of a poem, he asked me to send to you. They are as follows:

My name is defiled,
My body dies in prison,
But my soul, purified,
Today returns to the City of God!

‘Ishii seemed to see nothing but the glory of the heavenly world to which he was going. Among the officials who stood by and saw the clear colour of his face and the courage with which he bore himself, there was no one but involuntarily paid him respect and honour.’ The Gentleman in Prison, released from the cage of his early conditions, and released from the prison bars that hedged him in in later years, was gloriously free at last!

The Sacrifices of the New Covenant

As Old Testment Saints had their sacrifices under the Law, so New Testament Saints have their sacrifices under the Gospel. Almost every duty of Christianity in which a man consecrates himselfe to God, is called a sacrifice; righteousness is a sacrifice, “Offer the sacrifices of righteousnesse” (Psa. 4.5); prayer is a sacrifice, “Let my prayer be set before thee as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as an Evening sacrifice” (Psal. 141.2): Repentance is a sacrifice, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, Lord, thou wilt not dispise” (Ps. 51.17): Almesdeeds that is a sacrifice, “But to do good, and to communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13.16): Thanksgiving is a sacrifice, “I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the Name of the Lord” (Psal. 116.17).

Benjamin Needler, Expository Notes on Genesis (1655), at Gen. 4:3–4. (New edition forthcoming.)

The Sudden (Re-)Conversion of Thomas Cooper, Atheist Lecturer

Thomas Cooper (1805–1892) was a famed writer for the working-class Chartist movement in the early Victorian era. By degrees, he lost his faith and became a known atheist. He lectured on moral and social topics from an atheist perspective for many years, until—at the age of 40, while lecturing publicly at the Hall of Science in London—he suddenly recovered the faith-confession of his childhood and challenged all the skeptics in London.

In the second half of 1855, he writes of “a sense of guilt in having omitted to teach the right foundation of morals.” (The Life of Thomas Cooper, p. 352) But he did not announce the recovery of his faith until January 13th, 1856.

Read his astonishing story below:

“I commenced the year 1856 at the Hall of Science, with the aid of a large map of Europe, and signified that I should occupy the Sunday evenings by lecturing on the various countries, their productions, people, habits and customs. I delivered the first lecture on the 6th of January, “Russia and the Russians;” but on the 13th, when I should have descanted [blathered on], according to the printed programme, on “Sweden and the Swedes,” I could not utter one word. The people told me afterwards that I looked as pale as a ghost, and they wondered what was the matter with me. I could hardly tell myself; but, at length, the heart got vent by words, and I told them I could not lecture on Sweden, but must relieve conscience—for I could suppress conviction no longer. I told them my great feeling of error was that while I had perpetually been insisting on the observance of a moral life, in all my public teachings for some years, I had neglected to teach the right foundation of morals—the existence of the Divine Moral Governor, and the fact that we should have to give up our account to Him, and receive His sentence, in a future state.
“I used many more words in telling the people this and they sat, at first, in breathless silence, listening to me with all their eyes and ears. A few reckless spirits, by degrees, began to whisper to each other, and then to laugh and sneer; and one got up and declared I was insane. A storm followed some defending me, and insisting that I should be heard; and others insisting on speaking themselves, and denouncing me as a “ renegade,” a “turncoat,” an “apostate,” a “traitor,” and I know not what. But as I happened to have fought and won more battles than any or all of these tiny combatants put together, I stood till I won perfect silence and order once more; and then I told them, as some of them deemed me insane, we would try that issue. I then gave them one month for preparation, and challenged them to meet me in that hall on the 10th and 17th of February—with all the sceptics they could muster in the metropolis—to discuss, first, the Argument for the Being of God; secondly, the Argument for a Future State.”

Source: Thomas Cooper. The Life of Thomas Cooper, Written by Himself. 1872, pp. 353–354. I discovered this passage quoted among many other intriguing anecdotes in G. Holden Pike’s Dr. Parker and His Friends, 1904, pp. 269–270.

Beecher Questions Spurgeon

In 1863, Henry Ward Beecher—an American abolitionist preacher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin—visited England, and became acquainted with Joseph Parker, Charles Spurgeon, and other prominent evangelicals.

Beecher had been reading Spurgeon’s sermons in the American editions, and he realized that they were being heavily edited (in a word: bowdlerized). Where Spurgeon had made statements that could be used to defend the abolition of slavery, those passages were kept in the British publications, but omitted in the American editions!

Beecher questioned Spurgeon about this, and Spurgeon publicly repudiated slavery. This resulted in a considerable hit to Spurgeon’s income when he had just started his college; the publication of his works was effectively halted in the United States since the pro-slavery publishers could no longer pretend that Spurgeon was on their side.

Source: G. Holden Pike, Dr. Parker and His Friends, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1904, pp. 193–194.

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.
fountain pen

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

About Beliefs

This article about the resurrection of Christ was published in G. K. Chesterton’s 1936 book of essays, As I Was Saying. Since that book is now almost impossible to obtain—and the title has been co-opted for an unrelated compilation—I’ve reproduced the essay here in full.


Some time ago, when a stir was made by a rather striking book called Who Moved the Stone? which might almost be described, with all reverence, as a divine detective story and almost a theological thriller, a pugnacious little paper in Fleet Street made a remark which has always hovered in my memory as more mysterious than any mystery story in the world. The writer said that any man who believes in the Resurrection is bound to believe also in the story of Aladdin in the Arabian Nights. I have no idea what he meant. Nor, I imagine, had he. But this curious conjunction of ideas recurs to my mind in connexion with a rather interesting suggestion made by Mr. Christopher Dawson about what we may call the History of Science. On the face of it, the remark I have quoted from the pugnacious paper seems to have no quality whatever except pugnacity. There is no sort of logical connexion between believing in one marvellous event and believing in another, even if they were exactly alike and not utterly different. If I believe that Captain Peary reached the North Pole, I am not therefore bound to believe that Dr. Cook also reached the North Pole, even if they both arrived with sledges and dogs out of the same snows. It is a fallacy, therefore, even where the two things are close enough to be compared. But the comparison between the Gospel miracle and the Arabian fairy-tale is about the most unfortunate comparison in the world. For in the one case there is a plain and particular reason for thinking the thing true, or at least meant to be true. And in the other case there is a plain and particular reason for realizing that the tale is not only untrue, but is not even meant to be true.
The historical case for the Resurrection is that everybody else, except the Apostles, had every possible motive to declare what they had done with the body, if anything had been done with it. The Apostles might have hidden it in order to announce a sham miracle, but it is very difficult to imagine men being tortured and killed for the truth of a miracle which they knew to be a sham. In the case of the Apostles’ testimony, the general circumstances suggest that it is true. In the case of the Arabian tale, the general circumstances avow and proclaim that it is false. For we are told in the book itself that all the stories were told by a woman merely to amuse the king and distract his attention from the idea of cutting off her head. A romancer in this personal situation is not very likely to confine herself strictly to humdrum accuracy, and it would be impossible more plainly to warn the reader that all the tales are taradiddles. In the one case, then, we have witnesses who not only think the thing true, but do veritably think it is as true as death, or truer than death. They therefore prefer death to the denial of its truth. In the other case we have a story-teller who, in trying to avoid death, has every motive to tell lies. If St. John the Baptist had wished to avoid being beheaded, and had saved his life by inventing a long string of Messianic or Early Christian legends on the spur of the moment, in order to hold the attention of King Herod, I should not regard any “resurrection myth” he might tell as a strong historical argument for the Resurrection. But, as the Apostles were killed as St. John was killed, I think their evidence cannot be identified by sound scholarship as a portion of the Arabian Nights.
I merely pause for a moment upon this wild and preposterous parallel as a passing example of the queer way in which sceptics now refuse to follow an argument and only follow a sort of association or analogy. But the real reason for recalling this strange remark about the Arabian Nights is to be found in a much more genuine analogy between Western Science and Eastern Sorcery. Nobody but a lunatic would look either for his facts or his faith in the Arabian Nights. But, oddly enough, there really was a touch of the Arabian magicians in the Arabian mathematicians. There really was a faint flavour of the Oriental wizardry about the quite genuine Oriental wisdom; even when that wisdom was really doing work for which the world will always be grateful, in geometry or chemistry, in mathematics or medicine. Thus we find the paradox: that a man might, after all, look for some of the elements of science in the Arabian Nights, though he would hardly look there for anything very edifying or elevating in the way of the elements of religion. In short, the old dim, or even dark, connexion between Medicine and Magic has a sort of hidden meaning of great historical interest. It is developed by Mr. Dawson in an essay on the Eastern element in early mediaeval science, and occurs in a book of essays called Mediaeval Religion.
But this particular point is not concerned with religion, but is connected in a curious way with science. The point is this: that Magic (in the ancient sense) and Medicine (in the modern sense) are really in one way very like each other, because they are both very unlike the pure and abstract idea of Science as conceived by the Ancient Greeks. Science only means knowledge; and for those ancients it did only mean knowledge. They wanted nothing but the pleasure of knowing; they were particularly proud of knowing a great deal of utterly useless knowledge. Thus the favourite science of the Greeks was Astronomy, because it was as abstract as Algebra. And when the Philistine among them said: “What are the Pleiades to me?” the Philosopher really answered the Philistine by saying: “They are all the more to me because they are nothing to me.” We may say that the great Greek ideal was to have no use for useful things. The Slave was he who learned useful things; the Freeman was he who learned useless things. This still remains the ideal of many noble men of science, in the sense that they do desire truth as the great Greeks desired it; and their attitude is an eternal protest against the vulgarity of utilitarianism. But there was and is another side of science, also to be respected, which was from the first represented by things like Medicine. And if there were some association of Medicine with Magic, it was because Magic was always extremely practical.
The modern Magician, often a most respectable gentleman, may have altered his opinion that sticking pins in the wax image of a politician would be a practical act of social utility. But so the modern Medicine-Man may have altered his opinion that the blood of badgers mixed with wine and salt is always an immediate cure for rheumatism. But there is nothing in this change of opinion on the mere fact or details that differs from any other modern change in medical method, as in curing consumption first by shutting all the windows and then by opening all the windows. The point is that both types of Medicine-Man were employed by people who wanted something prompt and practical, such as killing politicians or curing rheumatism. And the note of this sort of science, which Mr. Dawson traces to the East, is that it always boasts of possessing Power, as distinct from the other sort set upon enjoying Truth. We have most of us met the kind of theosophical mystic who is always whispering that he can show us the Path to Power; that if we will only say “I am Wisdom; I am Power” seventy-seven times before the looking-glass we shall control the cosmos. There was some such note even in mediaeval medicine. Mediaeval science was really more practical than Pagan science, but sometimes it did really sound a little too practical to be quite wholesome. So some modern hygienic idealists are rather more concerned about health than is quite healthy. It is hard to dwell perpetually on this element of power without poisoning it with some element of pride. So, queerly enough, Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp really has some remote relation with the miracles of science, though hardly any with the miracles of religion.

The Glory of the Impossible

This article by I. Lilias Trotter (then of Tunis) was first published in pamphlet form (no date) and reprinted in the Missionary Review of the World in August 1913, the version given here. Samuel M. Zwemer also referenced this article in his 1911 book, Unoccupied Mission Fields of Asia and Africa.


“You do not test the resources of God till you try the impossible.”—F. B. Meyer

“God loves with a great love the man whose heart is bursting with a passion for the impossible.”—William Booth

“We have a God Who delights in impossibilities.”—Andrew Murray

Far up in the Alpine hollows, year by year, God works one of His marvels. The snow-patches lie there, frozen into ice at their edges from the strife of sunny days and frosty nights; and through that ice-crust come, unscathed, flowers in full bloom.
Back in the days of the bygone summer, the little soldanella plant spread its leaves wide and flat on the ground to drink in the sun-rays, and it kept them stored in the root through the winter. Then spring came, and stirred its pulses even below the snow-shroud. And as it sprouted, warmth was given out in such a strange measure that it thawed a little dome in the snow above its head. Higher and higher it grew, and always above it rose the bell of air, till the flower bud formed safely within it; and at last the icy covering of the air-bell gave way, and let the blossom through into the sunshine, the crystalline texture of its mauve petals sparkling like the snow itself, as if it bore the traces of the flight through which it had come.

And the fragile thing rings an echo in our hearts that none of the jewel-like flowers nestled in the warm turf on the slopes below, could waken. We love to see the impossible accomplished. And so does God.

Gazing north, south, east, and west over His world, with the signs of coming spring in one nation after another, two great tracts catch our eye, still frost-bound, as it were, in snow and ice. Hitherto, in the main, they have held out against the gleams of His sunshine, that have come to them, and it looks as if it must be long before we shall see grass and flowers appear. They are the Caste Religions of India, and yet more unbroken in its resistance, the power of Islam throughout the world.

And the watchers there have a fight sometimes, lest the numbness and chill that reign around should creep into their own souls with the hope deferred; and the longer they stay, the more keenly they realize the dead weight, impenetrable, immovable, that shuts down like a tombstone the weak little germs of life that lie buried beneath it.

It may be you have, half unconsciously, avoided looking the situation square in the face, lest faith should be weakened. But faith that has to ignore facts is not real faith.
Think over steadily the position of one of these imprisoned souls as he comes in contact with God’s message. Try to understand the intense prejudice and conservatism, the absolute satisfaction with a creed that fits so well the religious instincts, and leaves him so free to sin. Then, if a stir begins in the rigidity of his mind and the torpor of his conscience, and he wakes out of the paralysis of fatalism, it is only to stumble up against a fresh barrier. His very heartstrings are involved in the matter. Think what it means for him, with his Eastern imagination and his Eastern timidity, to face the havoc that confession of Christ would involve—the dislocation of every social detail, the wrecking of home and prospects, and the breaking of the hearts of those he loves. Everything that has made life to him must go, and possibly life itself, if he moves toward the light.

Behind all this and beyond it, both in this case of Mohammedanism and Caste, is the strange, magnetic hold of the system over every fiber of the nature. It is so strong that even tiny children are under its spell—creatures that with us would be still in the nursery, take a pride and delight in their stern Caste regulations, and their share in the Ramadan fast. And behind that again, and probably the true explanation of the fascination, lies the purpose of the devil, that these his two entrenched positions, shall not be wrested from him. He employs every art of hell to keep the truth from reaching the souls bound there; or, if it reaches, from touching them; or, if it touches, from waking them into life and liberty.

This is a distant sight of these great snowfields; but it can give no sense of the icy coldness and hardness that pervade them. For that you need contact.
Then the Adversary goes a step further. Not content with dealing directly with his captives, he rivets their chains by dealing with God’s people about them. He works on our unbelief and our faint-heartedness, and breathes a half-uttered word—”impossible.”
Ah, but he over-reaches himself when he gets to that word. He means it to sound like a knell, and instead of that it breaks into a ringing chime of hope: for

“Things that are impossible with men are possible with God.” [Luke 18:27]

Yes: face it out to the end: cast away every shadow of hope on the human side as a positive hindrance to the Divine; heap the difficulties together recklessly, and pile on as many more as you can find; you cannot get beyond that blest climax of impossibility. Let faith swing out on Him. He is the God of the impossible.

It is no new pathway, this. “The steps of . . . our father Abraham trod it long ago”; and the sentences at the beginning of this paper bear witness that the footprints of those who “do know their God,” mark it still.

Look in the Revised Version at the description of how Abraham went forth. He considered (there is such a beautiful quietness in the word) the whole extent of the hopelessness, and went straight forward as if it did not exist, “being fully persuaded that what He had promised He was able also to perform.” [Rom. 4:21]

But have we a promise to go on, for these people? Has God spoken anything upon which we can reckon for them?

Do we need more than the following? I think not.

O Lord, my strength . . . the Gentiles shall come unto Thee from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity and things wherein is no profit.
Shall a man make gods unto himself, and they are no gods?
Therefore, behold, I will this once cause them to know Mine hand and My might, and they shall know that I am the Lord. [Jer. 16:19-21]

From the ends of the earth—the farthest away and the hardest to win—they shall come with the cry of broken hopes that nothing can wring from them yet, sweeping away the idolized prophet and the idols of wood and stone among the “things wherein there is no profit.” And oh the triumph of the words, “I will this once cause them to know, I will cause them to know Mine hand and My might!”

And lifting the veil from the time to come, we have the vision, “I beheld, and lo a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.”

Have the Mohammedans and the Caste races a fair representation there yet? If not, those who shall stand before the throne are still to be found. They will be found by those to whom God gives “a passion for the impossible.”

And if these promises are not enough, there is an infinite horizon out beyond them in God Himself. If it were only a matter of asking Him to repeat the miracles of the past, faith would have plenty of room. But He is not bound to reproduce. He is the Creator: have we ever let our hearts and hopes go out to the glory of that Name? Look at the tiny measure of creative power given to man, in music, poetry, art—where there is a spark of it, how it refuses to be fettered by repeating itself! The history of His wonders in the past is a constant succession of new things, and He is not at the end of His resources yet. Years ago, at Keswick, Dr. Campbell Morgan gave us this rendering of John 15:7: “If yet abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ye shall demand that for which ye are inclined, and it shall be generated for you.” “Generated for you”—oh the depth of the “possible with God” that lies in these words!

Will you ask Him to do a new thing among these fast-bound races: to “generate” a glow of Holy Ghost fire that will melt its way up through all the icy barriers, and set a host free?
Hitherto the work done has been more like trying to break through these barriers from above, in the hopes of finding solitary life-germs imprisoned—how few they have been, and how stunted and weak for the most part, at any rate, among the Moslem races. God has yet to show what can be done if He stirs thus by His Spirit from within.

No matter if for the time it is a hidden process: the sunlight will be storing underground as you pray, and life will be set moving. Nothing is seen of the soldanella under its frozen crust, till the moment comes when the top of the air-bell gives way, and the flower is there. We believe that God is beginning already a mighty work below the surface in these seemingly hopeless fields, and that it may be with the same suddenness that it will be manifested; and the miracle of the snow-hollows will be wrought afresh by the crowding up of human souls who have won through in the hardest of fights.

Let us, then, give ourselves up to believe for this new thing on the earth. Let us dare to test God’s resources on it. Let us ask Him to kindle in us and keep aflame that passion for the impossible that shall make us delight in it with Him, till the day when we shall see it transformed into a fact.

Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh: is there anything too hard for Me?

The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson

This article is taken from the 1902 book that G. K. Chesterton wrote with the Scottish minister W. Robertson Nicoll. The book was one of a series of eight books called “The Bookman Biographies,” six of which Chesterton co-wrote in 1902 and 1903 in collaboration other men of letters. The “Bookman Biography” on Robert Louis Stevenson was his second or third book of non-fiction.

This article is re-posted here because it epitomizes Chesterton’s philosophy of life, and the book is difficult to obtain; it is also easy to confuse with Chesterton’s much longer solo-authored book on Robert Louis Stevenson, which was published 25 years later, in 1927.


All things and all men are underrated, much by others, especially by themselves; and men grow tired of men just as they do of green grass, so that they have to seek for green carnations. All great men possess in themselves the qualities which will certainly lay them open to censure and diminishment; but these inevitable deficiencies in the greatness of great men vary in the widest degree of variety. Stevenson is open to a particularly subtle, a particularly effective and a particularly unjust disparagement.

The advantage of great men like Blake or Browning or Walt Whitman is that they did not observe the niceties of technical literature. The far greater disadvantage of Stevenson is that he did. Because he had a conscience about small matters in art, he is conceived not to have had an imagination about big ones. It is assumed by some that he must have been a bad architect, and the only reason that they can assign is that he was a good workman.

The mistake which has given rise to this conception is one that has much to answer for in numerous departments of modern art, literature, religion, philosophy, and politics. The supreme and splendid characteristic of Stevenson, was his levity; and his levity was the flower of a hundred grave philosophies. The strong man is always light: the weak man is always heavy. A swift and casual agility is the mark of bodily strength: a humane levity is the mark of spiritual strength. A thoroughly strong man swinging a sledge-hammer can tap the top of an eggshell. A weaker man swinging a sledge-hammer will break the table on which it stands into pieces. Also, if he is a very weak man, he will be proud of having broken the table, and call himself a strong man dowered with the destructive power of an Imperial race.

This is, superficially speaking, the peculiar interest of Stevenson. He had what may be called a perfect mental athleticism, which enabled him to leap from crag to crag, and to trust himself anywhere and upon any question. His splendid quality as an essayist and controversialist was that he could always recover his weapon.

He was not like the average swashbuckler of the current parties, tugged at the tail of his own sword. This is what tends, for example, to make him stand out so well beside his unhappy friend Mr. Henley, whose true and unquestionable affection has lately taken so bitter and feminine a form. Mr. Henley, an admirable poet and critic, is, nevertheless, the man par excellence who breaks the table instead of tapping the egg. In his recent article on Stevenson he entirely misses this peculiar and supreme point about his subject.

He there indulged in a very emotional remonstrance against the reverence almost universally paid to the physical misfortunes of his celebrated friend. “If Stevenson was a stricken man,” he said, “are we not all stricken men?” And he proceeded to call up the images of the poor and sick, and of their stoicism under their misfortunes. If sentimentalism be definable as the permitting of an emotional movement to cloud a clear intellectual distinction, this most assuredly is sentimentalism, for it would be impossible more completely to misunderstand the real nature of the cult of the courage of Stevenson. The reason that Stevenson has been selected out of the whole of suffering humanity as the type of this more modern and occult martyrdom is a very simple one.

It is not that he merely contrived, like any other man of reasonable manliness, to support pain and limitation without whimpering or committing suicide or taking to drink. In that sense of course we are all stricken men and we are all stoics. The ground of Stevenson’s particular fascination in this matter was that he was the exponent, and the successful exponent, not merely of negative manliness, but of a positive and lyric gaiety.

This wounded soldier did not merely refrain from groans, he gave forth instead a war song, so juvenile and inspiriting that thousands of men without a scratch went back into the battle. This cripple did not merely bear his own burdens, but those of thousands of contemporary men. No one can feel anything but the most inexpressible kind of reverence for the patience of the asthmatic charwoman or the consumptive tailor’s assistant. Still the charwoman does not write “Aes Triplex,” nor the tailor “The Child’s Garden of Verses.”

Their stoicism is magnificent, but it is stoicism. But Stevenson did not face his troubles as a stoic, he faced them as an Epicurean. He practised with an austere triumph that terrible asceticism of frivolity which is so much more difficult than the asceticism of gloom. His resignation can only be called an active and uproarious resignation. It was not merely self-sufficing, it was infectious. His triumph was, not that he went through his misfortunes without becoming a cynic or a poltroon, but that he went through his misfortunes and emerged quite exceptionally cheerful and reasonable and courteous, quite exceptionally light-hearted and liberal-minded. His triumph was, in other words, that he went through his misfortunes and did not become like Mr. Henley.

There is one aspect of this matter in particular, which it is as well to put somewhat more clearly before ourselves. This triumph of Stevenson’s over his physical disadvantages is commonly spoken of with reference only to the elements of joy and faith, and what may be called the new and essential virtue of cosmic courage. But as a matter of fact the peculiarly interesting detachment of Stevenson from his own body, is exhibited in a quite equally striking way in its purely intellectual aspect.

Apart from any moral qualities, Stevenson was characterised by a certain airy wisdom, a certain light and cool rationality, which is very rare and very difficult indeed to those who are greatly thwarted or tormented in life. It is possible to find an invalid capable of the work of a strong man, but it is very rare to find an invalid capable of the idleness of a strong man.

It is possible to find an invalid who has the faith which removes mountains, but not easy to find an invalid who has the faith that puts up with pessimists. It may not be impossible or even unusual for a man to lie on his back on a sick bed in a dark room and be an optimist. But it is very unusual indeed for a man to lie on his back on a sick bed in a dark room and be a reasonable optimist: and that is what Stevenson, almost alone of modern optimists, succeeded in being.

The faith of Stevenson, like that of a great number of very sane men, was founded on what is called a paradox—the paradox that existence was splendid because it was, to all outward appearance, desperate. Paradox, so far from being a modern and fanciful matter, is inherent in all the great hypotheses of humanity. The Athanasian Creed, for example, the supreme testimony of Catholic Christianity, sparkles with paradox like a modern society comedy. Thus, in the same manner, scientific philosophy tells us that finite space is unthinkable and infinite space is unthinkable. Thus the most influential modern metaphysician, Hegel, declares without hesitation, when the last rag of theology is abandoned, and the last point of philosophy passed, that existence is the same as non-existence.

Thus the brilliant author of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in the electric glare of modernity, finds that life is much too important to be taken seriously. Thus Tertullian, in the first ages of faith, said “Credo quia impossibile.”

We must not, therefore, be immediately repelled by this paradoxical character of Stevenson’s optimism, or imagine for a moment that it was merely a part of that artistic foppery or “fuddling hedonism” with which he has been ridiculously credited. His optimism was one which, so far from dwelling upon those flowers and sunbeams which form the stock-in-trade of conventional optimism, took a peculiar pleasure in the contemplation of skulls, and cudgels, and gallows.

It is one thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert his mind from personal suffering by dreaming of the face of an angel, and quite another thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert it by dreaming of the face of an angel, and quite another thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert it by dreaming of the foul fat face of Long John Silver. And this faith of his had a very definite and a very original philosophical purport. Other men have justified existence because it was a harmony.

He justified it because it was a battle, because it was an inspiring and melodious discord. He appealed to a certain set of facts which lie far deeper than any logic—the great paradoxes of the soul. For the singular fact is that the spirit of man is in reality depressed by all the things which, logically speaking, should encourage it, and encouraged by all the things which, logically speaking, should depress it.

Nothing, for example, can be conceived more really dispiriting than that rationalistic explanation of pain which conceives it as a thing laid by Providence upon the worst people. Nothing, on the other hand, can be conceived as more exalting and reassuring than that great mystical doctrine which teaches that pain is a thing laid by Providence upon the best. We can accept the agony of heroes, while we revolt against the agony of culprits. We can all endure to regard pain when it is mysterious; our deepest nature protests against it the moment that it is rational.

This doctrine that the best man suffers most is, of course, the supreme doctrine of Christianity; millions have found not merely an elevating but a soothing story in the undeserved sufferings of Christ; had the sufferings been deserved we should all have been pessimists.

Stevenson’s great ethical and philosophical value lies in the fact that he realised this great paradox that life becomes more fascinating the darker it grows, that life is worth living only so far as it is difficult to live. The more steadfastly and gloomily men clung to their sinister visions of duty, the more, in his eyes, they swelled the chorus of the praise of things. He was an optimist because to him everything was heroic, and nothing more heroic than the pessimist.

To Stevenson, the optimist, belong the most frightful epigrams of pessimism. It was he who said that this planet on which we live was more drenched with blood, animal and vegetable, than a pirate ship. It was he who said that man was a disease of the agglutinated dust. And his supreme position and his supreme difference from all common optimists is merely this, that all common optimists say that life is glorious in spite of these things, but he said that all life was glorious because of them. He discovered that a battle is more comforting than a truce. He discovered the same great fact which was discovered by a man so fantastically different from him that the mere name of him may raise a legitimate laugh—General Booth.

He discovered, that is to say, that religious evolution might tend at last to the discovery, that the peace given in the churches was less attractive to the religious spirit than the war promised outside; that for one man who wanted to be comforted a hundred wanted to be stirred; that men, even ordinary men, wanted in the last resort, not life or death, but drums.

It may reasonably be said that of all outrageous comparisons one of the most curious must be this between the old evangelical despot and enthusiast and the elegant and almost hedonistic man of letters. But these far-fetched comparisons are infinitely the sanest, for they remind us of the sanest of all conceptions, the unity of things.

A splendid and pathetic prince of India, living in far-off aeons, came to many of the same conceptions as a rather dingy German professor in the nineteenth century; for there are many essential resemblances between Buddha and Schopenhauer. And if any one should urge that lapse of time might produce mere imitation, it is easy to point out that the same great theory of evolution was pronounced simultaneously by Darwin, who became so grim a rationalist that he ceased even to care for the arts, and by Wallace, who has become so fiery a spiritualist that he yearns after astrology and table-rapping.

Men of the most widely divergent types are connected by these invisible cords across the world, and Stevenson was essentially a Colonel in the Salvation Army. He believed, that is to say, in making religion a military affair. His militarism, of course, needs to be carefully understood. It was considered entirely from the point of view of the person righting.

It had none of that evil pleasure in contemplating the killed and wounded, in realising the agonies of the vanquished, which has been turned by some modern writers into an art, a literary sin, which, though only painted in black ink on white paper, is far worse than the mere sin of murder. Stevenson’s militarism was as free from all the mere poetry of conquest and dominion as the militarism of an actual common soldier. It was mainly, that is to say, a poetry of watches and parades and camp-fires. He knew he was in the hosts of the Lord: he did not trouble much about the enemy. Here is his resemblance to that Church Militant, which, secure only in its own rectitude, wages war upon the nameless thing which has tormented and bewildered us from the beginning of the world.

Of course, this Stevensonian view of war suggests in itself that other question, touching which so much has been written about him, the subject of childishness and the child. It is true, of course, that the splendidly infantile character of Stevenson’s mind saved him from any evil arising from his militarism. A child can hit his nurse hard with a wooden sword without being an aesthete of violence. He may enjoy a hard whack, but he need not enjoy the colour harmonies of black and blue as they are presented in a bruise. It is undoubtedly the truth, of course, that Stevenson’s interest in this fighting side of human nature was mainly childish, that is to say, mainly subjective.

He thought of the whole matter in the primary colours of poetic simplicity. He said with splendid gusto in one of his finest letters:

“Shall we never taste blood?” But he did not really want blood. He wanted crimson-lake.

But of course, in the case of so light and elusive a figure as Stevenson, even the terms which have been most definitely attached to him tend to become misleading and inadequate, and the terms “childlike” or “childish,” true as they are down to a very fundamental truth, are yet the origin of a certain confusion. One of the greatest errors in existing literary philosophy is that of confusing the child with the boy.

Many great moral teachers, beginning with Jesus Christ, have perceived the profound philosophical importance of the child. The child sees everything freshly and fully; as we advance in life it is true that we see things in some degree less and less, that we are afflicted, spiritually and morally, with the myopia of the student. But the problem of the boy is essentially different from that of the child.

The boy represents the earliest growth of the earthly, unmanageable qualities, poetic still, but not so simple or so universal. The child enjoys the plain picture of the world: the boy wants the secret, the end of the story. The child wishes to dance in the sun; but the boy wishes to sail after buried treasure. The child enjoys a flower, and the boy a mechanical engine. And the finest and most peculiar work of Stevenson is rather that he was the first writer to treat seriously and poetically the aesthetic instincts of the boy.

He celebrated the toy gun rather than the rattle. Around the child and his rattle there has gathered a splendid service of literature and art; Hans Andersen and Charles Kingsley and George Macdonald and Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway and a list of celebrities a mile long bring their splendid gifts to the christening. But the tragedy of the helpless infant (if it be a male infant—girls are quite a different matter) is simply this, that, having been fed on literature and art, as fine in its way as Shelley and Turner up to the age of seven, he feels within him new impulses and interests growing, a hunger for action and knowledge, for fighting and discovery, for the witchery of facts and the wild poetry of geography. And then he is suddenly dropped with a crash out of literature, and can read nothing but “Jack Valiant among the Indians.” For in the whole scene there is only one book which is at once literature, like Hans Andersen, and yet a book for boys and not for children, and its name is “Treasure Island.”

G.K. Chesterton.