Tag Archives: Biography

Review: Robert Browning (GKC)

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Subject: Robert Browning (1812-1899) was an eminent English poet of the Victorian era, known for his ambitious and dramatic lyrics and monologues. He had an evangelical upbringing, and had a home-grown love for learning. His wife of many years, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was an equally revered poet (some say better!), though her career was much shorter due to a chronic illness.

Genre: Biography, criticism.

Overview:

Chesterton’s biography is quite accessible in its length and content, even for someone knowing little about Browning or his poetry. He also addresses his criticism to the novice. For that reason, I gave this book a high rating. Both Brownings were greatly admired by Chesterton, F. W. Boreham, and many other Christian writers and thinkers. Beware: If you sail into this biography, you will definitely find yourself longing to read more of both Brownings, and they were quite prolific poets.

Browning was regarded by critics as a pretentious intellectual, but Chesterton defends him on this point.

His work has the mystery which belongs to the complex; his life the much greater mystery which belongs to the simple. (p. 1)


Browning’s Family and Upbringing

Browning was not allowed to be educated at a Cambridge or Oxford because of his evangelicalism. (They were only open to Anglicans at the time.) He did not receive a first-rate education. But he did imbibe the atmosphere of his father’s expansive library, which held about 6,000 books—not too shabby for a middle-class family.

His father, Robert Browning, Sr., was something of a maverick. He had been sent to Jamaica to work. When a slave revolt happened, he was sent back to England. But, because he expressed sympathy with the slaves, Robert Browning, Sr. was disinherited by his father, and in cutting ties, he chose to leave Anglicanism as well, and became an evangelical. His father even sent him a bill for his entire education.

As Chesterton tells it, Robert Browning’s parents were clearly people of great conviction. His father’s literary taste was rather traditional; Robert was deeply moved by Keats and Shelley. Thus his own poetry falls somewhat towards the Romantics in its style, but more confessional and personal. Chesterton has a stirring passage in which he defends Browning’s so-called intellectualism, calling it not vanity but humility:

The more fixed and solid and sensible the idea appeared to him, the more dark and fantastic it would have appeared to the world. Most of us indeed, if we ever say anything valuable, say it when we are giving expression to that part of us which has become as familiar and invisible as the pattern on our wall paper. It is only when an idea has become a matter of course to the thinker that it becomes startling to the world. (p. 21)

The Great Hour: Browning’s Marriage

The story of Robert Browning’s elopement with Elizabeth Barrett is definitely the turning point of both of their lives and, in my view, almost as stunning an exploit as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The story itself nearly constitutes a screenplay. Here we have two published poets. The lady is six years the man’s senior. She is kept in a sick bed, with heavy curtains keeping out sunlight, and told that if she does not get to a better climate—the doctor says “Italy”—she will hardly last a year. Her selfish father is not only unwilling to take her to Italy, but unwilling to marry her to Robert, who is quite willing to take her to Italy. . . .

Elizabeth had not left the house in many months, and hardly left her dark bedroom. But she came down the stairs, and ordered a carriage to take her to a park. She breathed the fresh air and gazed at the trees for one hour of solitude. Then she returned, fortified, and said yes to Robert’s proposal of elopement.

In the summer of 1846 Elizabeth Barrett was still living under the great family convention which provided her with nothing but an elegant deathbed, forbidden to move, forbidden to see proper daylight, forbidden to receive a friend lest the shock should destroy her suddenly. A year or two later, in Italy, as Mrs. Browning, she was being dragged up hill in a wine hamper, toiling up to the crests of mountains at four o’clock in the morning, riding for five miles on a donkey to what she calls “an inaccessible volcanic ground not far from the stars.” (p. 39)

Robert Browning’s snatching of Elizabeth from her controlling father, whom they never saw again on this earth, was an act highly unusual not only for England, but for Browning himself. As Chesterton would have it, he was a routine-driven and punctual man, leaving the house at the same minute year after year. But there is no doubt that Elizabeth’s family environment was debilitating, perhaps more than any physical ailment, and that Robert’s course of action was utterly in the right.

The story reminds one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conscientious disobedience to the German Reich. Chesterton calls it “virtue not only without the reward, but even without the name of virtue.” (p. 59)

This great moral of Browning, which may be called roughly the doctrine of the great hour, enters, of course, into many poems besides The Ring and the Book, and is indeed the mainspring of a great part of his poetry taken as a whole. (p. 60)

Chesterton writes that such a “great hour,” in which we are called to bury all thought of established convention, and fly in the face of fear for the sake of righteousness, may come to a man only once in his lifetime, and if any man claims it has come twice, we should be immediately skeptical. But there are times when we prove our mettle, not through compliance, but through rebellion.

Browning’s Works

Chesterton hits on many of Browning’s works, especially in Chapters II, VI, VII, and VIII. Chesterton calls Browning

first, the greatest of love poets, and, secondly, the only optimistic philosopher except Whitman. (p. 27)

Chesterton describes Browning’s early poems as primarily confessional, and his later poems as mainly dramatic monologues, which often deal with finding the good in questionable persons. Browning lived to an old age, was productive throughout his lifetime, and wrote in a great variety of forms. Interestingly, even the worst of his characters relate themselves to a higher power, and feel some longing for divine approval and forgiveness. (p. 112)

Browning’s “magnus opus” (Chesterton’s words) occupied five or six years after the death of Elizabeth, and consists of nine perspectives on the same event. The scheme of the poem is based on a case that Browning read in a dingy old book of Italian legal proceedings. Browning imagined a crime

[The Ring and The Book] is the great epic of the enormous importance of small things. (p. 91)

Browning’s Philosophy of Life

In the last chapter, Chesterton summarizes Browning’s philosophy in only two points.

The first point is the hope in the imperfection of man. The analogy given is that an incomplete puzzle implies the existence of the missing piece; so our incomplete longing for eternity justifies confidence in human immortality.

Browning was right in saying that in a cosmos where incompleteness implies completeness, life implies immortality. (p. 99)

Thus a confident assertion of the Fall of Man becomes the very grounds for believing in God’s redemptive act.

Man’s sense of his own imperfection implies a design of perfection. (p. 100)

The second point, Chesterton calls the hope in the “imperfection” of God. Before you burn all your Chesterton and Browning books, I believe that “imperfection” is used only in a hypothetical sense here. The “imperfection” here referred to is the sense in which God is bound in honor to exceed the moral perfections of his creatures. George MacDonald, as well as modern relational theologians, have more ably expressed the same sentiment than Chesterton does here. Thus,

Man’s knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice implies God’s knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice. (p. 100)

Overall, the theology expressed in Browning’s life and poetry is compassionate, relational, and intensely personal.

Quotes:

There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a feminine admirer wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.” (p. 1)

Every one on the earth should believe that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given. (p. 112)

To the man who sees the marvellousness of all things, the surface of life is fully as strange and magical as its interior; clearness and plainness of life is fully as mysterious as its mysteries. (p. 61)

Charity was his basic philosophy; but it was, as it were, a fierce charity, a charity that went man-hunting. He was a kind of cosmic detective who walked into the foulest of thieves’ kitchens and accused men publicly of virtue. (p. 28)

A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. (p. 46)

This was what happened to Browning; like every one else, he had to discover first the universe, and then humanity, and at last himself. With him, as with all others, the great paradox and the great definition of life was this, that the ambition narrows as the mind expands. (p. 26)

I am not prepared to admit that there is or can be, properly speaking, in the world anything that is too sacred to be known. That spiritual beauty and spiritual truth are in their nature communicable, and that they should be communicated, is a principle which lies at the root of every conceivable religion. Christ was crucified upon a hill, and not in a cavern, and the word Gospel itself involves the same idea as the ordinary name of a daily paper. Whenever, therefore, a poet or any similar type of man can, or conceives that he can, make all men partakers in some splendid secret of his own heart, I can imagine nothing saner and nothing manlier than his course in doing so. (p. 35)

On relativism and seeing all sides:

He held that it is necessary to listen to all sides of a question in order to discover the truth of it. But he held that there was a truth to discover. . . . He held, in other words, the true Browning doctrine, that in a dispute every one was to a certain extent right; not the decadent doctrine that in so mad a place as the world, every one must be by the nature of things wrong. . . . [Here follows the “blind men and the elephant” analogy.] . . . Although the blind men found out very little about the elephant, the elephant was an elephant, and was there all the time. The blind men formed mistaken theories because an elephant is a thing with a very curious shape. And Browning firmly believed that the Universe was a thing with a very curious shape indeed. . . . To the impressionist artist of our time we are not blind men groping after an elephant and naming it a tree or a serpent. We are maniacs, isolated in separate cells, and dreaming of trees and serpents without reason and without result. (p. 98)

Review: Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: David McCasland is an American educator whose books include Blind Courage, co-authored with Bill Irwin, the first blind person to thru-hike the 2,162 mile Appalachian Trail; Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God; and Eric Liddell: Pure Gold. David writes for Our Daily Bread and also develops biographical television documentaries as a writer and co-producer for Day of Discovery.

Subject: Oswald Chambers was a teacher of the Bible in the United Kingdom, a chaplain to World War I soldiers in Egypt, and author of numerous devotional books, mostly compiled posthumously by his indefatigable wife, Biddy. Chambers’ intense and thought-provoking style has made his book My Utmost for His Highest (again, Biddy’s compilation) the best-selling devotional book of the 20th century.

Overview:

In the introduction, McCasland skillfully portrays the feeling of incompleteness that haunted “Biddy” Chambers after her husband died, seemingly needlessly, at the age of 43. She could not have known that through her work, her husband would be become the best-selling devotional author of the century.

Chambers’ life has much more of adventure to it than one might expect. Knowing something of Chambers’ inimitable writing, I half-suspected him to be a brooding Scotsman, dreary and intense. But McCasland ably portrays Chambers as tall, open-faced, and lithe, someone who loves children, games, and even pranks. In his younger days, he trained to be an artist. He also travelled widely in later years, doing preaching and teaching tours with ministry partners in the United States (mainly Cincinnati) and in Japan.

His early ministry (in his late twenties and early thirties) involves well-known Christians across a broad theological spectrum. He heard Alexander Whyte preach in Edinburgh; Reader Harris (Pentecostal League of Prayer) had a great influence on him in his early years; G. Campbell Morgan spoke at the first anniversary of his school; and he worked with Charles and Lettie Cowman in Japan. He took an interestingly moderate position when the “tongues” movement hit England, neither despising them nor imposing them as a necessity.

From 1911 to 1915, Chambers was the founding principal of the Bible Training College in London. They had 106 students during that time, and at the end of the period, 40 of them were serving as missionaries. Chambers was also extremely productive. During this short period, the sermons, lectures, and notes that he produced comprised a formidable body of work, including the bulk of the following books: Biblical Ethics, Biblical Psychology, Bringing Sons unto Glory, He Shall Glorify Me (lectures on the Holy Spirit), Not Knowing Whither (from the Old Testament Studies class), Our Portrait in Genesis (also from the OT class), The Psychology of Redemption, and So Send I You.

Chambers did not work from a writer’s cabin. He sowed in faithfulness for many years as a Bible teacher in Scotland and England. He taught Bible concepts faithfully but was very innovative in the way he presented them, using alliterative headings, terse explanations, and modern metaphors.

In 1915, the work of the school was suspended because of World War I, and Chambers went to Egypt to serve as a YMCA chaplain to soldiers. During this time he continued his labor of love, writing, preaching, and teaching evening classes to soldiers. The materials produced during this time became the books Baffled to Fight Better (on Job), The Shadow of an Agony (on redemption), and Shade of His Hand (on Ecclesiastes).

Chambers died of appendicitis in 1917, at the age of 43. What must have made it more difficult for his family was that he could have availed himself of better medical assistance, but he did not want to take a hospital bed from a wounded soldier.

Meat:

One of the key insights of this book is the unforgettable role that Biddy Chambers had in bringing her husband’s works to light. Oswald Chambers himself did, as far as we can tell, very little actual writing during his lifetime, and nearly all of his published works are arranged from various talks, lectures, and sermons, mostly from the years between 1911 and 1917. Christians owe a great debt to this woman who turned the bitter years of widowhood into a sweet ministry that has blessed the globe.

Bones:

This is one of the best biographies I have ever read, and should be ranked with God’s Smuggler and Bruchko though with not quite so much intrigue or scandal to attract sleepy readers. I find very little fault in it, though it is quite long. The story is a bit slow near the beginning when Chambers has not really embarked on his life’s work yet, but otherwise the book flows from episode to episode, and paints as personal a picture as could possibly be drawn more than 70 years after Chambers’ death.

McCasland is a masterful biographer, and my chief regret in reading this was to find out that he has published so few biographies: only this and two others.

Review: God’s Joyful Runner

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Russell Wilcox Ramsey is an American athlete, writer, and a national security educator. He was decorated with the Bronze Star and is a National Record Holder in swimming (men, 55-59 age group). In addition to many books on national security, he has written several books related to Christian athletes and the Olympics, including God’s Joyful Runner: The Story of Eric Liddell (1987), the novel A Lady, A Peacemaker (1988), and the Christian living book From Mount Olympus to Calvary (2014).

Subject: Eric Liddell (1902-1945) was an Olympic Gold Medalist (400m, 1924) and a missionary in Northern China, from 1925 until he was put into a Japanese internment camp, where he later died. He was famously (although somewhat sensationally) portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire, which won Best Picture for 1982.

Overview:

This story really starts where Chariots of Fire ends: with Liddell’s missionary call. Eric Liddell not only overcame obstacles at the 1924 Olympics; he served the people of China dauntlessly in the 1930s and on into World War II, giving up any shot at an Olympic return. He served for two decades in a rural and poor area of Hebei Province, in northern China, and stayed there even after the United Kingdom advised its citizens to leave in 1941. Somewhat over against the strong sacred-secular divide that may result from misinterpreting the 1982 film, Liddell did also compete in athletics during his missionary service, but he only did so in East Asia, and in ways that did not interfere with his other duties.

Eventually, after several close calls, Liddell was placed in an internment camp in 1943, on a school compound, and he spent the last two years of his life there. He died suddenly of a brain tumor in 1945, at the age of 43, but with much more to show for his life than any gold medal could offer: many lives changed for God. He took the same physical determination and sense of duty to the mission field, and bore it without complaint, cheerful yet self-effacing, devout but without pretense.

Meat:

I was impressed, as I read this book, that Liddell’s physical prowess served him well in the mission field. He was in rural China, without much access to modern transportation methods. Ramsey tells several anecdotes which show what an asset his physical endurance was in serving the poor on the mission field. I remember in particular that Liddell had to carry an injured man by wheelbarrow for many miles.

There were two athletic anecdotes in this book that literally made my jaw drop:

The first occurs in the film Chariots of Fire. During a race (I believe it was only 400m, but I am not able to verify), Liddell was knocked to the ground. Not only did he get back up and keep running, he won the race. (Movie clip here.)

The second is not mentioned in the film because it occurs after Liddell left for the mission field. Liddell did not give up running forever when he left Scotland—in fact, he competed in the Asian Games in Japan while he was living in China. However, he had a steamer to catch so that he could teach Sunday school the next day. Having placed at the games, he stood and saluted while they played through British national anthem, and then the French national anthem. Finally, he said his goodbyes and ran out of the stadium. Arriving at the pier, the ferry had just cast off. Not willing to be stuck in Japan two more days, Liddell reared back, got a running start, and jumped onto the ship as it was departing the pier.

Bones:

God’s Joyful Runner is a great introduction to Eric Liddell’s life and has much more than can be summarized in a brief article like this. But there are some aspects of Liddell’s life that it doesn’t tell us much about. It doesn’t say much, for instance, about Liddell’s writings. If readers want greater detail, though, I believe they could find that in David McCasland’s longer book, Eric Liddell: Pure Gold.

Review: Shadow of the Almighty

Rating:

Who: Elisabeth Elliot first became famous as the wife of Jim Elliot, missionary who was killed in Ecuador in 1956. After publishing the bestselling story of “Operation Auca” in 1957 (Through Gates of Splendor) and Jim’s story in 1958 (Shadow of the Almighty), she returned to the Huaorani with Rachel Saint to serve as a missionary until 1963, and became a respected devotional author in her own right.

Overview: Shadow of the Almighty is “the life and testimony of Jim Elliot,” one of five men who were killed in the Ecuadorian interior while trying to make contact with an unknown tribe, then known as the Aucas, now known by their endonym, Huaorani (also spelled Waodani).

Elisabeth Elliot had already shared the thrilling story of Operation Auca in her other bestselling book, Through Gates of Splendor, so this book acts as a prequel in some respects. Chronologically, this book ends where Through Gates of Splendor begins.

Meat: Shadow of the Almighty is essentially a journal of missionary consecration. That is the one secret of its impact. Numerous people first encountered the truth of the missionary call through Elliot’s books. The Elliots may come off to some people as traditional or perhaps stodgy, but no one can doubt this: their story has become a living link between the crucifixion and the Great Commission.

Almost the entire narrative happens in the United States, which emphasizes Elisabeth Elliot’s firm stance on missionary preparation. The story weaves together Jim’s early life, his consecration to ministry, his college days, and rather distanced courtship with Elisabeth. Only in the last few chapters is he on the mission field.

The Elliots’ strong roots in the Holiness movement give them a very countercultural stance, which must increase the notoriety of their books. Shadow of the Almighty‘s popularity has now continued unabated for more than half a century. At the time of this review, Elisabeth Elliot has three books in Amazon’s top 50 books on “Christian Missions & Missionary Work,” which is more than any other author.

Although this book, like many others, could stand to be salted with the grace of tolerating other viewpoints, the Elliots’ no-nonsense speaking style is tempered by plenty of humorous stories and interesting anecdotes both in America and in Ecuador.

Bones: Jim Elliot’s journals, which make up a large percentage of the book, are often a very private space in which he vents his disappointments and criticisms about himself and about the church. At some points, I felt that Elisabeth could have spared us so much detail, or at least so many criticisms of the modern church, which fall short of providing for her a better way.

One case in point is the story of their courtship and marriage, which was very protracted. Elisabeth has made much of their story not only in this book but in several others (Passion and Purity, Quest for Love). She shares Jim’s very negative opinions on marriage ceremonies as a cultural institution, an opinion likely stemming from their background in the Brethren, a nonconformist group with tame anti-establishment leanings. Jim was also flabbergasted when a colleague decided to marry ahead of joining the mission field—not sharing his joy or surprised merely, but actively disappointed. Elisabeth and Jim seemed to see Christian marriage first and foremost as a hindrance to missions, and have presented it that way to many young people.

Quotes:

“Missionaries are very human folks, just doing what they are asked. Simply a bunch of nobodies trying to exalt Somebody.” (p. 46)

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” (p. 108)

“The command is plain: you go into the whole world and announce the good news. It cannot be dispensationalized, typicalized, rationalized. It stands a clear command, possible of realization because of the Commander’s following promise. . . . Rest in this—it is His business to lead, command, impel, send, call, or whatever you want to call it. It is your business to obey, follow, move, respond, or what have you.” (p. 150)

“In my own experience, I have found that the most extravagant dreams of boyhood have not surpassed the great experience of being in the Will of God, and I believe that nothing could be better. . . . That is not to say that I do not want other things, and other ways of living, and other places to see, but in my right mind I know that my hopes and plans for myself could not be any better than He has arranged and fulfilled them.”

Review: Now and Then (Buechner)

Rating:

Full Title: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Who: Frederick Buechner, preacher and writer of novels and spiritual nonfiction.

Overview: Buechner divides this book into three places he has lived: New York, Exeter (New Hampshire, not England), and Vermont. He gives us a tour through several unspectacular events and places in his life, yet draws the truth out of them like an unlooked-for flavor in a meal prepared by a master chef. The book is along the line of a spiritual autobiography, not giving many details about his life and work, but piecing together the truths he learned along the way.

This book carries forward particularly an idea present in Buechner’s other books, about seeing God as the main character in your own autobiography. “Listen to your life,” he says more than once.

Meat: Buechner is consummately skilled as a writer. He speaks truth more unobtrusively than almost any other author I have read, and in that I would see him as a predecessor to Donald Miller. (Or, others would say Donald Miller is a successor of his.)

The main theme, repeated at the beginning and the end, is stated thus:

Here and there, even in our world, and now and then, even in ourselves, we catch glimpses of a New Creation, which, fleeting as those glimpses are apt to be, give us hope both for this life and for whatever life may await us later on.

He also shows a great appreciation for “the dark night of the soul”—an idea I’ve written about elsewhere—and shows that preachers and theologians (such as those he studied under) are not exempt from being mystics to a certain extent. Intellect does not guard us from doubt.

Bones: Where I was less impressed is his theology proper. I sense a deep sympathy in some paragraphs where he mentions times of doubt or depression, but at other times it simply felt like he was hedging with his language. Occasionally I felt that Buechner was betraying more skepticism than is becoming of a preacher, and perhaps that is why he is so popular in theologically mainstream-to-liberal circles.

As just another instance, when he cites examples from Buddhism, they are, for the most part interesting, but I can’t help but feel that it is a ploy to keep less religious readers engaged, especially when he backpedals and says that the Christian view is more encompassing.

Of course, Buechner himself mentions this dillemma of audience, which tries to straddle the line between those who are “in” and “out” of this club we call religion. He is neither the first nor the last to experience this dillemma, but all in all I feel that, whoever his reader is, Buechner truly has something to say, and says it powerfully—not so much like a trumpet, but more like rising string overture, a gentle reminder that your soundtrack is already playing, the camera is running. This is your life. What is God saying through it?

Quotes:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

“I try not to stack the deck unduly but always let doubt and darkness have their say along with faith and hope, not just because it is good apologetics – woe to him who tries to make it look simple and easy – but because to do it any other way would be to be less true to the elements of doubt and darkness that exist in myself no less than in others.”

The Life of Peter Jaco

The Lives of Early Methodist Preachers, no. 4. Edited by Thomas Jackson.

[These little biographies were personally commissioned by John Wesley in examining his associates for ordination. Forty-one of them responded by penning their own biographies; we will be posting a few of the shorter ones here for those interested.]

THE LIFE OF MR. PETER JACO,

WRITTEN BY HIMSELF.

LETTER TO THE REV. JOHN WESLEY.

Rev. and dear Sir,

I am sorry that I cannot comply with your desire so effectually as I could wish; having left the papers containing the particulars of God’s dealings with me some hundred miles off. At present I can only give you some circumstances as they occur to my memory.

I was born of serious parents, at Newlyn, near Penzance, in Cornwall, in the year 1729. When capable of learning, I was put to school, where I continued till I was near fourteen; but, being of a gay, lively disposition, and my master being given to drink to excess, (on which account I soon learned to despise both him and his instructions,) did not make that proficiency which I otherwise might have done. As I could not endure the school under such a teacher, my father took me home, and proposed several businesses to me; but I chose rather to be under his care, and to be employed with him in the pilchard-fishery: first, because I knew him to be a perfect master of his business; and, secondly, because I knew he was a truly serious man.

From my infancy, I had very serious impressions, and awful thoughts of God; which, with the care and precepts of my parents, prevented my running into many excesses incident to youth: though in other respects I was bad enough. I was exceeding proud, passionate, and ambitious; and so fond of pleasure, that at any time I would neglect my ordinary meals to pursue it. But amidst all my follies, I was still miserable; and often to such a degree, that I wished I was anything but a rational creature. After many a restless night, I was ready to say, with Job, “He scareth me with dreams, and terrifieth me with visions.” I frequently resolved to leave my sins: but, alas! my goodness soon vanished away. Thus I repented and sinned; and as I was totally ignorant where my strength lay, I was frequently at the point of giving up all striving against the torrent; and of gratifying every passion as far as my circumstances would permit.

About the year 1746 God sent His messenger into our parts, who proclaimed free and full redemption in the blood of Christ. But though this was the very thing my conscience told me I wanted, yet I would not give up all to come to Him. No: I would dispute for His servants, fight for them, (an instance of which you, dear sir, saw the first time you preached on the green between Penzance and Newlyn, when a few lads rescued you from a wicked mob,) but I would come no nearer. However, going one Sunday night to hear Stephen Nichols, a plain, honest tinner, the word took strange hold on me, and seemed like fire in my bones. I returned filled with astonishment, retired to my apartment, and, for the first time, began to take a serious review of my past life, and present situation with regard to eternity. My eyes were now truly opened. I saw myself a poor, naked, helpless sinner, without any plea, but “God be merciful to me.” My convictions became more and more alarming, till I was driven to the brink of despair. And though my religious acquaintance (for I immediately joined the society) did all they could to encourage me, I would often say, “I have no hope.” In this deplorable state I continued near four months, when one Sunday, (may I never forget it!) as I was attending to the exhortation before the sacrament, when the minister pronounced, “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself,” (a very wrong translation,) “not discerning the Lord’s body;” I immediately concluded, “Then I am lost for ever.” Yet, through the persuasion of my father, I stayed; and I resolved, if I did perish, I would perish in the means of grace. Accordingly, in the afternoon, I set out by myself for church, a mile distant from the town, for solitude was all my comfort. I had not walked far, before it was strongly suggested to my mind, “Jesus Christ died for the vilest sinner.” I immediately replied, “Then I am the wretch for whom He died!” In that moment it seemed to me as though a new creation had taken place. I felt no guilt, no distress of any kind. My soul was filled with light and love. I could no more doubt of my acceptance with God through Christ, than I could of my own existence. In this state I continued near two years, and am firmly persuaded might have still continued in it, but for my own unfaithfulness. I was now convinced it was my duty to do all I could for God; and, accordingly, reproved sin wherever I saw it, without regard to the character or station of the person; and, wherever I found a disposition to receive it, added a word of exhortation.

Some years after, my friends thought I might be more useful, if I was to exhort in the society: with much reluctance I made the attempt; but, though God blessed, in a very remarkable manner, my feeble efforts, I was with difficulty persuaded to continue it.

When you, sir, visited us in 1751, you persuaded me to enlarge my sphere, and appointed me to visit several societies. I accordingly complied, but still with unwillingness. In your next visit to Cornwall, you thought I was not so useful as I might be, and proposed my taking a Circuit. This I could by no means think of. I looked on myself as an occasional helper, having a good deal of time on my hands; and if a preacher was ill, or unable to keep his Circuit, I thought it my indispensable duty to fill his place. But, though I knew I was called to this, I could not see that I should go farther, on account of the smallness of both my gifts and grace.

In the year 1753 you proposed my going to Kingswood School: and accordingly, having settled the terms, I set out for Bristol in April, 1754; but, to my great disappointment, I found the school full, and a letter from you, desiring me to come immediately to London. This, together, with your brother’s telling me, that if I returned back to my business, he should not wonder if I turned back into the world, determined me to comply with your desire. At the Conference in London, the 4th of May, 1754, I was appointed for the Manchester Circuit, which then took in Cheshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, and part of Yorkshire. Here God so blessed my mean labours, that I was fully convinced He had called me to preach His Gospel. Meantime my hardships were great. I had many difficulties to struggle with. In some places the work was to begin; and in most places, being in its infancy, we had hardly the necessaries of life; so that after preaching three or four times a day, and riding thirty or forty miles, I have often been thankful for a little clean straw, with a canvas sheet, to lie on. Very frequently we had also violent oppositions. At Warrington I was struck so violently with a brick on the breast, that the blood gushed out through my mouth, nose, and ears. At Grampound I was pressed for a soldier; kept under a strong guard for several days, without meat or drink, but what I was obliged to procure at a large expense; and threatened to have my feet tied under the horse’s belly, while I was carried eight miles before the commissioners: and though I was honourably acquitted by them, yet it cost me a pretty large sum of money, as well as much trouble.

For many years I was exposed to various other difficulties and dangers. But, having obtained help from God, I continue to this day! And, all thanks to Him, I wish to live and die in His service. At present I find my mind as much devoted to Him as I ever did. I see and feel the necessity of a greater conformity to Christ. May I never be satisfied till I awake up after His likeness!

Thus, dear sir, I have given you a brief account of my life, as far as my memory would assist me. If it is useful to any soul, my purpose is full answered.

PETER JACO.

London, October 4th, 1778.


It is stated by Mr. Atmore, that Mr. Jaco was remarkably comely in his person, tall and handsome, and possessed an amiable natural temper. His understanding was strong and clear; and he had acquired much useful knowledge, which rendered him an agreeable companion. His talents for the Christian ministry were very considerable; and he was a scribe well instructed in the things of God. In consequence of bodily indisposition, he was compelled, for several years before his death, to desist from his itinerant labours. He died in peace at Margate, in Kent; and his remains were interred in the burying-ground connected with the City-Road chapel, London; where a stone, erected to his memory, bears the following inscription:—“In memory of Mr. Peter Jaco, who died July 6th, 1781, aged fifty-two years.

‘Fisher of men, ordain’d by Christ alone,
Immortal souls he for his Saviour won;
With loving faith, and calmly-potent zeal,
Perform’d and suffer’d the Redeemer’s will;
Steadfast in all the storms of life remain’d,
And in the good old ship the haven gain’d.’”

The following original letter of Mr. Jaco is worth preserving. It was addressed to Mrs. Hall, of London:—

“NEWLYN, NEAR PENZANCE, Sept. 11th, 1776.

“Having a few minutes of freedom from multitudes pressing on every side, to ask me how I do, and bid me welcome once more to the place of my nativity, I with pleasure embrace the opportunity of fulfilling my promise to my much-esteemed and valued friend. Perhaps it may not be unentertaining to give a brief account of my journey to this world’s end, which is upwards of three hundred miles from London.

“On Thursday, August 29th, at six o’clock in the morning, Mr. Folgham and your friend set out. We travelled hard all the day, being allowed fifteen minutes for breakfast, and twenty for dinner; but no tea, nor any supper. We arrived at Salisbury at seven o’clock; stayed half-an-hour for Mr. Folgham, who had some business to do; and then set out for Blandford, in Dorset, twenty-three miles from Salisbury, across the plain and open country, without any enclosures. The night was remarkably fine. The moon was full; and there was not a cloud in the sky to obstruct her light. Not a breath of wind was stirring, nor any living creature near, except large flocks of sheep, penned on each side of the road, whose innocent bleating, reverberating from the adjacent hills, rendered the scene awfully delightful. All the fine sentiments dispersed through the ‘Night Thoughts’ crowded upon my imagination; more especially those in the ‘Ninth Night,’ where the author has given us a picture at large, which I would recommend to your serious perusal. I was much affected with that instructive passage:—

‘Night is fair Virtue’s immemorial friend;

The conscious moon, through every distant age,

Has held a lamp to wisdom.’

“But, alas, like all transitory scenes, this pleasant night gave way to a gloomy rainy morning, when the bleak winds, coming down from the stupendous mountains, attended by impetuous floods, formed a contrast the most disagreeable.

“Nothing memorable happened till Saturday afternoon, when I had the pleasure of seeing our worthy friend Mr. Wesley, who received me with the warmest affection.

“At Plymouth-Dock I stayed till Tuesday morning, and then set out on horseback for this place; full ninety miles. Through the infinite mercy of God, I arrived safe on Monday evening, to the great joy of an affectionate father.

“My apartment here is, perhaps, the most agreeable that you ever saw. I have two neat chambers, built upon the extreme margin of the shore. A large bay opposite my windows is twenty-one miles long and twelve wide; so that at this moment I can see nearly twenty sail of ships, and upwards of a hundred large fishing-boats, passing and repassing. Nothing on earth can be more agreeable to me. Yet I must soon part with it. I have no home but heaven. God grant that I may not fall short of it!

“I hope this will find you resolved to be a Christian indeed; determined to take heaven by violence. Nothing short of this will do. Christ cannot approve of any sacrifice but that of the heart; and not even of this, without a surrender of the whole. O, give it Him. He is worthy of it. It is His undoubted right. He has paid dearly for the purchase. Let Him have it, in God’s name. This is perhaps the most critical period of your whole life. [* At this period Mrs. Hall had lately become the youthful and unencumbered widow of a negligent spendthrift. She was possessed of great personal beauty, and of sprightly conversational talent. In her second choice, she profited by the advice of her friend.] You have need of all your understanding and prudence. Above all, you have need of much prayer, that God may direct and keep you in every step you take.

“How long I shall stay here I know not. I have done nothing yet; and when I shall do anything I cannot tell. Perhaps I shall do nothing, after all my expense and trouble, except that of getting a few fair promises of amendment from my brothers, which may last while I am on the spot.

“Your affectionate and obliged friend,

“PETER JACO.”

 

New Compilation on Women in Missions!

“And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.”
Joel 2:28-30, NIV

March is Women’s History Month! And today we are pleased to announce that we haven’t missed our chance to brag on a few women in missions history. Our newest book is Sixteen Pioneer Women in Early Modern Missions. We love to bring to light biographies that have gone out of print, including stories of women in missions and indigenous peoples participating in missions. If you only believed the popular books on the topic, you would think that Protestant missions only involved white, English or American men until around 1960. We hope in time to restore some balance to the narrative of God’s glorious and global enterprise of building his church.

Thomas Timpson (author of The Angels of God) arranged this book in 1841 based mostly on previous memoirs, letters and journals of British women who had been missionaries. Of the sixteen women in the compilation, only eight of them reached the age of 35. In an era that preceded the steam engine, the telegraph, or modern medicine, these women “forsook all” to follow Christ to the ends of the earth. Timpson shows the height of their consecration and the depths of their humility through their personal letters and journal entries.

The narratives are challenging and profound. When Jesus taught in Capernaum, his disciples said, literally, “That’s a tough word.” (John 6:60, my translation) That is exactly how I felt reading these simple and frank narratives of triumph and tragedy on the mission field.

These memoirs focus on having a heart for missions. Each of these ladies is unknown today, but they had a chance to play a significant role in Protestant missions, and they took it. The time period extends from the late 1600s to 1840, and the scope of the book is global. Missionaries in this book reached out in the American colonies, Malta, Guyana, Jamaica, many parts of India, Sierra Leone, eastern Siberia, and many Pacific islands.

There is an introductory chapter—probably worth the price of the book—that surveys the conditions of gender inequality on a global scale, especially where Christianity had little or no influence. This chapter was arranged by Jemima Luke (née Thompson)—author of the hymn “I think when I read that sweet story of old”—when she was 28 years old. It conveys some sense of the influence of the gospel on gender relations in the past 200 years.

The entire book has been proofread, updated, and re-typeset into a new edition, released March 2018.

Now available in paperback: $11.99
Kindle edition: $5.99
(The Kindle download will be free with the paperback.)