Tag Archives: Catholic authors

Wesleyans in the Wilderness: Assurance vs. “The Dark Night of the Soul”

The Beginnings of Wesleyan Assurance

“Can you be sure of your salvation?” Most evangelicals would answer with a resounding “yes,” but would have difficulty answering the follow-up question—“how?” We may agree on how salvation happens—Romans 10:9-10—but it is more difficult to agree on how assurance happens.

Calvinists tend to see justification as an objective fact, grounded in God’s timeless decrees, independent of our emotions, and for some, even independent of our continued guilt. Christians are taught to distrust their experiences. There is a virtue to this system in that it engenders self-forgetfulness. But it offers precious little compassion in moments of doubt or depression. Depression is only a misapprehension of divine decrees. “Who are you, O man?” Doubt is a rejection of the form of determinism called “the doctrines of grace”. We lack assurance only by lacking understanding.

Into such a theological winter came John Wesley with his “strangely warmed” heart, teaching personal, inward assurance of faith as a distinctive doctrine. Salvation was both fact and experience for Wesley from that moment at Aldersgate Chapel:

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sin, even mine.
(Journal of John Wesley, dated May 24, 1738.)

Over against Calvin’s credal, decree-bound assurance, Wesley placed an experience of assurance. He grounded it doctrinally in Romans 8:16, among other verses. Like James Ussher, Wesley translated the verse this way:

The same Spirit beareth witness with our spirits, that we are the children of God.

This verse and the doctrine of experiential assurance was absolutely pivotal in early Methodist theology. In The Lives of Early Methodist Preachers, a compilation of 41 biographies of Wesley’s pioneer preachers, assurance plays a key role in salvation narratives. At least eight of them—Hanson, Hopper, Payne, Rodda, Valton, Walsh and Whatcoat—specifically refer to Romans 8:16 in their conversion narratives. But not all experienced assurance as a lifelong reality.

The Eroding Value of “Assurance”

The irony comes from the volatile mixture of Wesleyan holiness and Wesleyan assurance, both of which play a major role today not just in Methodist congregations—which include some 70 million members—but among the world’s 500 million Pentecostals and Charismatics, whose theology is essentially Wesleyan in character.

Wesley taught that total victory over sin is not only possible, but normal for Christians. This is easy to defend from Scripture, with bald statements like “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34); “anyone born of God refuses to practice sin, because God’s seed abides in him” (1 John 3:9; compare though, 1 John 1:8-10). But it is hard to defend from Christian experience.

The strong expectation of assurance and the strong expectation of continuance in Methodism lead us to a strong expectation of continuing assurance. Wesley’s preachers frequently recorded that this combination was stumbling block to them, leading them to rationalize their own salvation. Read the words of Thomas Payne, after his conversion:

. . . But I had a Calvinian library, which I often read. And hence I imbibed that miserable notion, that it was absolutely necessary every believer should come down from the mount [i.e., by sinning, or doubting]. Hence I was persuaded that I must lose my first love; that I must doubt of my justification, which those wretched casuists lay down as one great mark of sincerity. For want of knowing better, I listened to these, till I lost the witness of the Spirit.

“Losing the witness of the Spirit,” of course, is tantamount to losing salvation in Wesleyan language, which rejects perseverance of the saints. Some contemporary writers make a helpful distinction by teaching that we may lose the witness or filling of the Holy Spirit without losing the Holy Spirit.

Another early Methodist preacher, John Valton, has a similar narrative of gaining assurance at the moment of conversion, but losing assurance afterward.

I have been much tempted to doubt of the pardoning love of God which I received in London. Because it was not incontestably clear, I feared it was not really the case; and that my comforts were only the drawings of the Father.

Bruce Hindmarsh comments on John Valton:

A few weeks later he was able to believe again. Significantly, Valton thought he might have been in the “wilderness state described in Mr. Wesley’s sermon”, and acknowledged that not everyone passed through the wilderness to the promised land.  . . .

Valton believed that he had fallen into the desert experience or “dark night of the soul”, and according to Wesley, he might lose his salvation! He referred to a sermon in which John Wesley explained the historic Christian teaching of the “wilderness state” in some detail. The theological tension between the “wilderness state” and Wesleyan assurance is obvious.

The sermon referred to by Valton was one in which Wesley explained the reasons for the loss of love, joy, and peace that so many experienced after conversion. He identified the possible causes of this “wilderness state” as outright sin, simple ignorance, or overwhelming temptation, but stressed that God does not withdraw from us; it is always we who withdraw from him. For Wesley, one might well need to be “renewed by repentance” and “again washed by faith”. Indeed, one could be converted again and again.
(Hindmarsh, Evangelical Conversion Narrative, p. 247; he cites Wesley, Works (BE), ii. 217; see also Works vol. 6, Sermon 46, as published in 1872, here.)

Certainly, to a Calvinist, Wesley’s view of salvation can lead to needless introspection, and a shaky, human-dependent salvation. Anyone in a state of depression may be stumbled by the thought that they might have inadvertently lost their first faith.

One can see how practical pitfalls come up both from affirming and denying the perseverance of the saints—namely, too much assurance on one side, and not enough on the other.

“The Valley” in Arminian Preaching

George MacDonald, an untraditional Arminian, wrote scornfully of assurance in his “unspoken sermon” on “The Hardness of the Way”:

None can know how difficult it is to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who have tried—tried hard, and have not ceased to try. I care not to be told that one may pass at once into all possible sweetness of assurance; it is not assurance I desire, but the thing itself; not the certainty of eternal life, but eternal life. I care not what other preachers may say, while I know that in St. Paul the spirit and the flesh were in frequent strife.

MacDonald made room for doubt and difficulty in his own relational theology. Perhaps, in his view, Christian assurance is distinct from a full-proof certainty.

Oswald Chambers, an admiring reader of George MacDonald, wrote that we usually lose our high feelings by failing to act on what God has revealed to us.

Never allow a feeling which was stirred in you in the high hour to evaporate. Don’t put your mental feet on the mantelpiece and say, “What a marvellous state of mind to be in!” Act immediately, do something, if only because you would rather not do it. If in a prayer meeting God has shown you something to do, don’t say, “I’ll do it”—do it! Take yourself by the scruff of the neck and shake off your incarnate laziness. Laziness is always seen in cravings for the high hour; we talk about working up to a time on the mount. We have to learn to live in the grey day according to what we saw on the mount.
(My Utmost, April 16th entry)

In any case, Chambers concludes, we must live in low moments by what God revealed to us in better times. This was the topic of a famous sermon of his entitled “Can You Come Down?” The sermon deals with Jesus and the disciples’ transition from the Mount of Transfiguration to the valley where he deals with unclean spirits (Mark 9; Matthew 17). The theme was echoed in another famous sermon, Mountains and Valleys in the Ministry of Jesus by G. Campbell Morgan.

In a sermon about “processes”, Joseph Parker preached not only that we must sustain our obedience in the valleys, but that remembering the mountain will help us to do so.

We should lay up some memory of the Divine triumphs which have gladdened our lives, and fall back upon it for inspiration and courage in the dark and cloudy day. Go into your yesterdays to find God!

This was a perennial theme with Parker—we cannot always keep yesterday’s assurance, but we can resurrect it by memory. I believe D. L. Moody had a saying, that if God did no other miracle for him, he could live out his days content upon the memory of all that God had already done in his life. Memories help us make meaning out of our low moments.

“The Dark Night of the Soul”

The Dark Night of the Soul is the title of a poem and treatise by a 16th-century Catholic mystic, John of the Cross. The title of the book has been borrowed by many as another favorite term for what Wesley called the “wilderness state”, a state of depression or lack of spiritual awareness in the life of the Christian.

John of the Cross relies somewhat on The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous classic from two centuries earlier. ‘Unknowing’ meant ignorance, or unawareness, so the “cloud of unknowing” is a poetic term for whatever blocks the divine vision from view.

The Middle English of The Cloud of Unknowing is difficult, but it is an important work for those trying to understand the theological tradition of righteous unawareness of God. Below is an important passage (ch. 3).

Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list [desire]. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection. And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after Him that thou lovest.

For the anonymous author, this cloud of unknowing between us and God affects not only our feeling, but our reason. This leads us to think that God’s holy ones may be not only depressed, but even doubtful.

One can see why this tradition is not very popular among Protestants. The wilderneds state is frequently maintained as a pattern founded on human experience and tradition, not reason or revelation.

There are hints of the “dark night” in Scripture, though, aside from the impressions we receive from the narrative of Jesus descending the Mount of Transfiguration. Winkie Pratney, an Arminian writer, has written a book called The Thomas Factor which draws on a theological tradition of sanctified doubt. Pratney sees, in the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19, a kind of dark night of the soul. In spite of his powerful and victorious confrontations with evil, Elijah speaks of suicide. He says he alone has remained faithful. But God leads him to rest. An angel ministers to him and feeds him, not once, but twice. God reminds him that he has “seven thousand in Israel . . . that have not bowed to Baal.”


There is a loss of assurance that may happen in the life of a Christian, but it is not permanent. As Romans says, the Holy Spirit testifies to us that we are God’s children; but from what we know of history and biography, it is neither a constant, continual, lifelong witness, nor is it an emotional or intellectual witness. Spirit speaks to spirit.

The dark night of the soul entails some confusion of both feeling and facts. It led Elijah and Jonah to feel suicidal; it has led others, like Frederick Buechner, to question our most deeply held traditions about death and immortality. But confusion of facts and confusion of feelings should not always lead to a confusion of faith. We do not have to know that the sky is blue, or feel that the earth is round; there are many facts in our lives that are always true, though removed from our awareness or transcending our small understanding. We know they are true by a steady iteration of experiential confirmations, and an interruption does not change what we already know to be true. We may lack certainty and yet maintain assurance.

In affirming these things, we should free believers to rest not on their own awareness or assurance of God’s atoning work in their lives—but on the fact itself.

Review: The Club of Queer Trades

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.”

Genre: Detective fiction, humor, short stories.


The Club of Queer Trades is a collection of six related mystery stories published in 1905.  All six stories involve “the Club of Queer Trades” in one way or another:

“What on earth is ‘C.Q.T.’?” asked Rupert Grant, looking over the Major’s shoulder.

“Don’t you know?” returned Northover. “Haven’t you ever heard of the Club of Queer Trades? The Club of Queer Trades is a society consisting exclusively of people who have invented some new and curious way of making money.” (p. 22)

Each story involves a mystery or “case,” but not necessarily related to any violence or crime. Couched in eccentric and explosive literary style, these short stories are sure to make you both ponder and laugh—sometimes at the same time—as you imagine the strange scenarios the author conjures up.


As other reviewers have pointed out, these stories could be called anti-mysteries, since Chesterton toys with the genre so much. There are no murder suspects or smoking guns. Most of the plots revolve around two brothers, Rupert and Basil Grant. While Basil searches out “facts” à la Sherlock Holmes, his brother takes the long way round in solving mysteries, and may come out the better by the end of the book.

His brother Basil said of him: “His reasoning is particularly cold and clear, and invariably leads him wrong. But his poetry comes in abruptly and leads him right.” (p.91)

For much of the book, we are not sure if Rupert is a foil for Basil, or if Basil is a foil for Rupert. The solutions turn out to be anything but typical. The joy of the book is to try and solve the cases yourself.

These predate the advent of “Father Brown” by a few years, and in many ways they must be the predecessor of the “Father Brown” stories, scoffing as they do at “deduction” and choosing instead a more imaginative view of life. The biggest difference is that the “Father Brown” stories are much more serious, and they read more in the way that one expects detective stories to read.


Although any Chesterton book is aphoristic on almost every page—whether through the narrator or his chosen surrogate—this book doesn’t have much of enduring wisdom in its pages. The book must have been a product of the author’s sheer joy for life, and while his fertile mind kept me laughing and thinking (reflected in my high rating), I couldn’t help but think that all the best fiction, like his Man Who Was Thursday, leaves you with some powerful and unforgettable impression that you will carry with you. This book, while it was a fantastic “light” read, does not have that. The “Father Brown” stories are in general longer, and more thought-out.


Being good is an adventure far more violent and daring than sailing round the world. (p. 24)

“Oh, the mere facts,” he cried out in a kind of despair. “The mere facts! Do you really admit—are you still so sunk in superstitions, so clinging to dim and prehistoric altars, that you believe in facts? Do you not trust an immediate impression?” (p. 26)

“Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction,” said Basil placidly. “For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it.” (p. 56)

“I know of nothing that is safe,” said Basil composedly, “except, possibly—death.” (p. 96)

Review: The Queen of Seven Swords

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.”


Despite its humble length (50 pages), this book was an admittedly difficult read for theological reasons, focusing as it does on adoration to Mary. (Other reviews mentioned this, but most lack enough detail to deter a serious, though Protestant, Chestertonian, such as myself.) The poetry itself was beautiful; much of it has the same lilting meter found in Myers’ famous Saint Paul. In its prosody, it follows the same sort of patterns seen in Chesterton’s general collections like The Wild Knight and Other Poems. But unlike the others, it lacks variety of subject matter.

Most readers will either love or hate this book, depending solely on whether they allow for prayer to Mary. For my part, I have always found prayer to the departed saints (including Mary) to have no biblical backing whatsoever; the practice stems from culture and custom, not from wholesome spirituality. The New Testament authors ring with one accord the glorious news that we have become “a kingdom of priests,” fully entitled to “boldly approach the throne” on our own behalf but not on our merits, needing no other surety than the blood of the Lamb.

The eponymous cycle of poems turns on a metaphor of Mary having seven swords in her (see Luke 2:35), which are the swords of seven saints (which he admits are purely fanciful, not reflecting a historical reality).

Favorites were “St. George of England,” and “A Little Litany.” Other than these, there is almost nothing in the book that doesn’t relate directly to the honor of Mary. There are romantic, medieval-sounding themes and Robin Hood and King Arthur receive prominent mention, but mainly as adorers of Mary, whom the author calls by various honorifics, such as “Our Lady,” “Our Mother,” “the Queen of Angels” and “the Mother of the Maker”—an unbiblical falsehood that has been the constant stumbling block of millions of Muslims, who are told in the Quran that we believe God and Mary literally begot Jesus together.

Of the hymns to Mary, “The Black Virgin” was probably the most interesting for theological reasons, dealing with cultural expression of religion.

Overall, I don’t recommend this book at all to Protestant readers. Let not its rarity make it seem a jewel to you; not all rarities are precious.

Review: The Innocence of Father Brown

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.”

Series: The “Father Brown” series of short stories was collected into five books:

  1. The Innocence of Father Brown (1911)
  2. The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914)
  3. The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926)
  4. The Secret of Father Brown (1927)
  5. The Scandal of Father Brown (1935)

One additional story, “The Mask of Midas” (1936), was not included. (The author died in 1936.)


Father Brown epitomizes one key of Chestertonian thought: the triumph of common sense over intellect. While Sherlock Holmes—especially in modern interpretations—glorifies uncommon intellect, Father Brown glorifies the common man. Here is how he is introduced in “The Blue Cross”:

The little priest had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown paper parcels, which he was quite incapable of collecting.

He is no Sherlock Holmes. In many places in the stories, he summarizes his method of solving crimes, and it is inductive rather than deductive. He solves crimes mainly by his intuitive, priestly knowledge of people, not a knowledge of facts.

“‘How do you know all this?’ he cried. ‘Are you a devil?’
“‘I am a man,’ answered Father Brown gravely; ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.'” (p. 140)

The above quote summarizes the message of Father Brown. The “Father Brown” corpus carries an intrinsically personal vision of life on earth, and in that way it acts as a weighty supplement to Chesterton’s other writings.


My favorite stories from this collection were “The Blue Cross,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Honour of Israel Gow,” “The Hammer of God,” and “The Three Tools of Death.”

In 1910, “The Blue Cross” became the first “Father Brown” story to be published, and in many ways it exemplifies his humble character, and has less violence than many of the others. “The Hammer of God” is also classic Chesterton as well as a thrilling mystery.

Chesterton masterfully utilizes the Scottish castle setting in “The Honour of Israel Gow,” to set the tone of a horror story. In general, I really enjoyed his use of setting. The modern BBC series ties Father Brown down to the Cotswolds (SW England), but this book alone has numerous and varied settings.


Although I know it is par for the field, I did not like that nearly all of the stories involved a murder. I felt that Chesterton displayed his unique cleverness whenever there was no violence in the story at all, as in “The Blue Cross,” or Father Brown’s whimsical prelude, The Club of Queer Trades. I wanted more variety.


“Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.” (p. 65)

“I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous.” (p. 111)

“‘How do you know all this?’ he cried. ‘Are you a devil?’
“‘I am a man,’ answered Father Brown gravely; ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.'” (p. 140)

“There is this about such evil, that it opens door after door in hell, and always into smaller and smaller chambers. This is the real case against crime, that a man does not become wilder and wilder, but only meaner and meaner.” (p. 167)

“Even the most murderous blunders don’t poison life like sins.” (p. 183)

Read (free): Internet Archive (pdf), LibriVox (audio), Project Gutenberg (epub/mobi/html)

Review: The Man Who Was Thursday (No Spoilers)

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.”

Genre: Surrealism, crime, suspense.


The Man Who Was Thursday is probably Chesterton’s most intriguing work of fiction. It reads exactly like a modern action movie, skipping from place to place, and you are not quite sure, until the end, who is on which side of the conflict.

The story centers around the work of the “philosophical police,” especially one man named Syme. Syme, along with others, has been given the assignment of rooting out anarchism in England, and he begins by getting acquainted with Gregory, a friend of a friend, who appears to dabble in anti-establishment talk around parlors and dinner tables. Syme believes that Gregory may be involved in some deeper plot with an underground anarchist organization; Syme has no idea, though, how deep the rabbit hole will go.

As the plot thickens, it carries with it all the intrigue of The Matrix or an M. Night Shyamalan film, as readers are trying to figure out what is real and what is fantasy. Chesterton despises tidily framed opinions and political correctness, and this book makes some brow-furrowing philosophical statements both through the characters’ voices and through the paradoxes engendered throughout the plot.


My favorite part of this book was not any of the aphorisms peppered throughout—which are inevitable in any Chesterton book. My favorite part was the irony that grows larger and larger throughout the book, until it becomes so ludicrous that you see why the book’s subtitle is A Nightmare. The story couldn’t be real just as he describes the story; it is real all around us and is renewed every day.

Chesterton proves to cross genres just as adeptly as Lewis or MacDonald. Nothing is lost in reading his non-fiction, poetry, or novels.


My biggest bone with this book is the presentation—as usually printed, it looks like a piece of crime fiction, and it could easily be confused as one of the “Father Brown” stories. This story is very different from those, and, as I mentioned, the subtitle—which is left out on many editions—should suggest as much.

Although on the whole the book is full of suspense, parts of the plot do seem predictable, but the narrative is told in such a clever way that it did not bother me in the least, or detract from the constant wonder of reading the novel.


“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front . . . “

I can forgive God His anger, though it destroyed nations; but I cannot forgive Him His peace.”

Read: LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (epub & rtf), The Internet Archive (pdf)

An old review reads:


It is very difficult to classify THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. It is possible to say that it is a gripping adventure story of murderous criminals and brilliant policemen; but it was to be expected that the author of the Father Brown stories should tell a detective story like no-one else. On this level, therefore, THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY succeeds superbly; if nothing else, it is a magnificent tour-de-force of suspense-writing.

However, the reader will soon discover that it is much more than that. Carried along on the boisterous rush of the narrative by Chesterton’s wonderful high-spirited style, he will soon see that he is being carried into much deeper waters than he had planned on; and the totally unforeseeable denouement will prove for the modern reader, as it has for thousands of others since 1908 when the book was first published, an inevitable and moving experience, as the investigators finally discover who Sunday is.

Review: The Ballad of the White Horse

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.”


The Ballad of the White Horse (1911) is an epic poem—here referring to content rather than length—named for one of many ancient English petroglyphs (the “Westbury white horse”); the stone symbol is attributed to the early English King Alfred, whom the poem idealizes. (In the introduction, Chesterton adroitly states that this is not a work of researched historical fiction.) White Horse offers a romantic vision of Christian virtue through the eyes of the English past. While Chesterton’s other poems (Poems, The Wild Knight) are scattered in theme and method, this is his only long poem.

Some quick facts on this little book:

  • It is considered one of the last true “epics” of the English language.
  • Like many Classical poets, Chesterton uses the glories of past victory as a kind of metaphor or prophecy of today’s enemies—which, in his view, in the Britain of 1911, were intellectual and not military.
  • Some think, not without reason, that this poem was among the chief inspirations for The Lord of the Rings, in its imagery, conventions of epic, and recall of obsolete vocabulary.


White Horse incorporates a lot of philosophy into its story. The chief value is in Chesterton’s glory in the underdog, in the cross, in the servant:

“And well may God with the serving-folk
Cast in His dreadful lot;
Is not He too a servant,
And is not He forgot?”
(Book IV, loc. 449)

” . . . Verily
Man shall not taste of victory
Till he throws his sword away.”
(Book V, loc. 626)


Whatever it may seem to be, this is not a poem for children. Chesterton’s poetry tends towards archaic language that can be a little confusing; and in today’s political climate, the message of this book and could be twisted into brazen nationalism—though I think that would be an abuse of the author’s intent, which so often involves the cross.


“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.”
(p. 11, loc. 158)

“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord.
(p. 43, loc. 389)

“And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.

“The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.”
(p. 11, loc. 151)

Read: You can read this book for free on Project Gutenberg, or in the Kindle Store, or listen to the audiobook for free on LibriVox.

Psst—nearly all of Chesterton’s works are available for free online. Click here to see more of what’s out there.




Review: Faber’s Hymns

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Frederick William Faber (1814-1863), a prolific Catholic writer and poet. Swept by the tide of the Anglo-Catholic movement, he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1845; nevertheless, his hymns in particular are treasured by Protestant and Catholic alike.

A. W. Tozer did a great deal towards popularizing Faber’s verse to a modern audience, in his books The Knowledge of the Holy and The Christian Book of Mystical Verse (which includes a few of the best hymns from Faber, but omits many of the hymns in the collection discussed in this review).

Overview: As far as hymns go, Faber made his own track, and he has been amply praised for it. Whereas many hymns of the period had a didactic flavor, Faber’s motive and goal is entirely devotional. He does not go on incorporating new elements in a single song; more along the lines of modern worship songs, he is laser focused on one aspect of God’s character.

Note on Editions: Many collections of Faber’s hymns have been published, but this edition (first published in 1894, long after his death) has been particularly popular. For the Pioneer Library reprint, a selection was made of the best 55 hymns, excluding several that should have been classed as poems, and others that were directed towards a Catholic audience. (The original edition had 72 hymns in total.)

Meat: The strength of the collection, as mentioned, is in simple, devotional verses on God’s character. “Come to Jesus” is the most popular of these and has been included in many hymnals; but many, many others are unforgettable: “The Unity of God,” “Majesty Divine,” “The Eternal Father,” “Jesus, My God and My All,” “From Pain to Pain,” and “The Creation of the Angels” are all hymns that are so intense as to be unsuitable for congregational worship. They demand a quiet, lonely space for prayer and the awestruck gratitude of single-hearted worship.

Faber also deals with dry seasons in many great poems, like “Distractions in Prayer,” “Dryness in Prayer,” and others

Faber also deals with grief and the afterlife in many of the hymns near the end of the collection, but in my opinion they were not the strongest of the bunch.

Bones: As I mentioned, the original edition is created for a Catholic (or, perhaps Anglo-Catholic) audience. The idea of a hymn addressed to Mary is inherently offensive to me; some of the ways of talking about the afterlife also seemed odd. For that reason, I recommend our new edition, which was painstakingly re-created.

Read Online:

A few of my favorite hymns, which are available online, are:

“Jesus, My God and My All” (a favorite of Leonard Ravenhill)

“Creation of the Angels”

“Come to Jesus”

“Harsh Judgments”

Buy: You can buy the new edition in paperback for $9.99, or on Kindle for $2.99. This book also has Kindle Matchbook which means that if you buy my paperback from Amazon, the Kindle version will be free.



Review: Girolamo Savonarola (Crawford)

Rating: ★★★½

Author: William Henry Crawford (1855-1944) spent much of his career as President of Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. He is also the author of The Church and the Slum.

Girolamo Savonarola was a reformer within Catholicism who boldly opposed the excesses of the Italian clergy. He was greatly beloved by Martin Luther; readers of inspirational books will also remember his prophetic experiences as recounted in James Gilchrist Lawson’s Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians.


Savonarola was born in 1452 and suffered martyrdom in 1498. Like Wyclif and Hus, he sought reform within the Catholic church, but too few sided with him to see the reforms accomplished, and he was eventually excommunicated and executed. He was never held guilty of heresy, and it appears that many Catholics revered him after his death. He was a contemporary of many very prominent Renaissance men: Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Crawford offers a decent biography of a legendary and enigmatic figure of the early Reformation. (After reading Lawson, I had some difficulty finding a biography of Savonarola, and Lawson does not tell us his sources.) This biography is relatively short, optimistic, and somewhat florid in language.


Some high points of Savonarola’s life include:

  • His calling. Giroalamo had to defy his family to become a monk. At the time, he wrote a poem called “The Ruin of the World.”
  • His call for moral reform. Soon after receiving his monastic robe, he saw the corruption of Rome and wrote another poem called “The Ruin of the Church.”
  • His prophetic visions. Savonarola’s supposed prophecies seem spurious at times, but in the main they hold water, especially as concerns the entry of Charles VIII of France to invade Italy. Here Savonarola functioned as a legitimate prophet in the biblical sense, which was not mere prediction but leading men to repentance.
  • His bonfire of vanities. Florentines gave up their worldly treasures to be burned, as in the Book of Acts.
  • His writings. I was not aware of Savonarola himself being an author, but then, nearly all of the people we know as reformers were very active writers. Crawford gives numerous moving quotations from Savonarola’s writings, many of which I have given below. Savonarola began publishing his sermons around the time he took the Duomo pulpit in 1489, and by the end of his life nine years later, he had thirty volumes of published work, including tracts, poems, songs, and sermons. Crawford sums up the great influence of his writings in the following passage, worth quoting at length:

His published sermons were read in France, in Germany, and in England. Even the sultan had some of them translated that he might read them.

He wrote Miserere and Exposition of the Thirtieth Psalm. The Miserere was widely published after his death, and in a remarkably short space of time ran through thirteen separate editions. Both were republished by Martin Luther at Strassburg. In the preface Luther declared that Savonarola was a precursor of the Protestant doctrine, and one of the martyrs of the Reformation. “This man,” said he, “was put to death solely for having desired that some one should come to purify the slough of Rome.”

Michael Angelo . . . was wont to read the sermons of the great Prior of San Marco, and talk of the life and character of the statesman-preacher.

Protestants have pointed out, influenced in part, no doubt, by the strong words of Martin Luther, that Savonarola deserves a place among the great reformers in the Protestant movement which had its beginning in the fifteenth century. They hold that when we speak of John Wyclif and his heroic work in England and of John Huss and what he did and suffered in Bohemia, we ought also to speak, and very clearly and emphatically, too, of Girolamo Savonarola as the man who more than any other, and more than all others combined, gave a moral and a spiritual tone and character to the Renaissance.


Considering how difficult it is to find Savonarola’s published works in English, I was somewhat disappointed that the author didn’t do more to outline the sources of his many quotations.

The same problem was true in Lawson’s Deeper Experiences. On opening Crawford’s book, I was expecting to read the story of “spiritual baptism” that is retold in Lawson’s Deeper Experiences; and while there are similar stories in this biography, about several prophetic occurrences in Savonarola’s life, the story is not told in the same way. I greatly enjoyed this biography as a great introduction to an important reformer and martyr, but I do hope to find another, more detailed biography of Savonarola in the future. (I would love it if someone would recommend one in the comments!)

Quotes from Savonarola’s Writings:

“I preach the regeneration of the Church, taking the Scriptures as my sole guide.”

“I have no friend save Christ and the righteous.”

“It is quite a mistake to say that we have entered upon a new mode of life. A return to the principles and example of our saintly predecessors is not the adoption of a new mode of life . . . but . . . to live in a cell handsome enough for a prince; to hold possessions contrary to the profession of one’s Order; to wear rich cloth . . . to pray little; these things are indeed innovations and are a stumbling-block to souls.”

“Forsake pomp and vanities,” he cried out in his pulpit. “Sell all superfluous things, and bestow the money on the poor.”

“The vengeance of the eternal God is hot! From peasant to pope, he will strike sin and break corruption in pieces.”

“In the primitive church the chalices were of wood, the prelates of gold; in these days the Church hath chalices of gold and prelates of wood.”

“In these days there is no grace, no gift of the Holy Spirit that may not be bought and sold.”

“You forsake me, deride me,” said he, “yet shall I gain a few disciples, who will give all up for Christ’s sake; they will dress like the poor … they will be truthful; they will climb the mount of faith; they will have revelations from heaven and more learning, not however, the learning of Scotus or the poets, but that of their own conscience and of Holy Writ.”

“Charity does not consist in written papers, the true books of Christ are the apostles and the saints; the true reading of them, is to imitate their lives.”

“If any one asks why the will is free, we reply unto them, Because it is will.”

“Take the example of the mother with the child. Who hath taught this young woman, who hath had no children before, to nurse her babe? Love. See what fatigue she endureth by day and by night to rear it, and how the heaviest fatigue seemeth light to her. What is the cause of this? It is love. See what ways she hath, what loving caresses and sweet words for this little babe of hers! What hath taught her these things? Love. Take the example of Christ, who, moved by the deepest charity, came to us as a little child, in all things like unto the sons of men, and submitted to hunger and thirst, to heat and cold and discomfort. What hath urged Him to do this? Love.”

“Florence! Jesus Christ, who is King of the universe, hath willed to become thy King. Wilt thou have Him for thy King?”

“Who is he that putteth bounds to the mercy of God, and thinketh to bear the waters of the ocean in his hands?” (Exposition of the Thirtieth Psalm)

“I have embarked on a stormy flood, assailed on all sides by contrary winds. I would fain reach the port, yet I can find no dock; would fain repose, yet find no resting-place … Come, O Lord, since thou dost have me steer through these deep waters, let thy will be done.”

“Now, if Jesus Christ has done all these things without miracles, it is the greatest of all miracles; and if He has accomplished them by miracles this religion is Divine.” (The Triumph of the Cross)

“The time draws near to open the casket, and if we but turn the key there will come forth such a stench from the Roman sink that it will spread through all Christendom, and every one will perceive it.”

“When the torture was over and he was led back to his cell, he immediately knelt down and prayed in the words of Christ, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.””

“I separate thee from the Church militant —and—and—from the Church triumphant.” “From the Church militant,” quickly replied Savonarola; “thou canst do that, but thou hast no power to separate me from the Church triumphant.”

Savonarola’s Relationship to Lorenzo:

“Lorenzo sent rich gifts to the convent. The only allusion to the large benefactions was in a sermon, when the preacher said, “A faithful dog does not give up barking in his master’s defense because a bone is thrown to him.” To the delight of the monks large pieces of gold were found in the boxes of the monastery. Savonarola, knowing well enough where they came from, ordered them sent to the Good Men of St. Martin, a society whose business it was to care for the poor.”

“Lorenzo the Magnificent lay dying. … To the amazement of all he commanded them to send for Savonarola, and said, “I know no honest friar save this one.”

“When Pope Innocent VIII came to the papal throne Lorenzo made friends with him, and through this friendship obtained a cardinal’s hat for his son Giovanni, then only fourteen years of age. This boy-cardinal afterwards became Pope Leo X, whose bull Martin Luther burned at Wittenberg.”

“Florence,” writes Guicciardini, “could not have had a better or more delightful tyrant.”

The Times in Which He Lived:

“We deem this friar to be a good and pious man, thoroughly versed in the Christian faith. He has labored many years for the welfare of the people, and no fault has ever been detected either in his life or his doctrine.”

“On the night of June 14, the pope’s eldest son, the Duke of Candia, was killed by a dagger thrust, and his body thrown into the Tiber. The murderer was the duke’s own brother, Cesare Borgia, Cardinal of Valencia.”

“The plague was now on in Florence. Savonarola was shut up in his convent ministering to the sick, writing letters to friends, publishing small tractates, and finishing his monumental work on The Triumph of the Cross.”

Two Poems:

“Perhaps the most significant event during the seven years spent in this monastery, was the discovery that the corruption which he had seen blighting the world was also blasting the Church. The foul atmosphere of the court and the rabble had touched also the priests and monks. It was in Ferrara that he wrote his poem on “The Ruin of the World.” In Bologna he wrote a new poem. Its title was, “The Ruin of the Church.” In his poetic vision the Church was represented as a chaste and venerable virgin. Burning to speak with her, he asks, “Where is the light of early days? Where are the ancient saints? Where is the learning, love, and purity of olden times?” Taking him by the hand the virgin leads him to a poor cave where she dwells. She shows him her beautiful body “disfigured with the wine red finger marks of evil.” “Who hath done this?” he asks. The Church replies, “A false, proud, harlot; Rome hath done it.” Then it was that the fiery indignation of the future prophet broke forth in strongest passion, “O God, lady, that I might break those spreading wings!”

His Preaching Material:

“He boldly announced that the Church would be scourged; that it would be regenerated; and that all this would come to pass speedily. This announcement was not made as a vision; it was a conclusion supported by rational argument and on the authority of the Bible. ”

“His theme in this series of sermons was the Book of Revelation. … He reproved sin, denounced the corruptions of the time, and pointed out the impending threatenings of God’s wrath.”

“The most powerful impressions made by his preaching were not through his impassioned denunciations of vice and evil-doing, but in his touching and beautiful descriptions of the mercy of God and his love, and in his tender and earnest pleadings with the people to bring their lives into harmony with the divine life of Jesus Christ.”

“He re-read the prophets; the noble and impassioned addresses of Isaiah, and the frightful woes and lamentations of Jeremiah.”

“The iniquity of my sanctuary crieth to me from the earth.”

Reform and Revival:

“His one aim now was to carry out a program of reform…. The practice of manual labor was introduced, the study of painting and sculpture, and the art of writing and illuminating manuscripts were encouraged. …Most earnestly he inculcated on all the study of the Holy Scripture… One reason for teaching the Syriac and the Chaldee was that he might later fulfill his holy purpose of preaching the Gospel to the Turk.”

“He dreamed of a regeneration which would revive the whole Church and bring Constantinople again within the Christian fold. Even in this age, so dark morally and spiritually, Savonarola had the spirit of the true missionary of the first century and the twentieth.”

“The transformations in the social life of Florence, from 1495 to 1497, read like the story of miracles… Theaters and taverns were empty; cards and dice disappeared; the churches were crowded; … the Prior of San Marco was everywhere hailed”

Savonarola wanted to see the entire Catholic church rise up to depose Alexander and choose a righteous pope:

“His plan involved the co-operation of the sovereigns of France, Spain, Germany, England, and Hungary in calling a council of the whole Church.”

On Obedience and Authority

“We are not compelled to obey all commands; … when in evident contradiction with the law of charity laid down in the Gospel, it is our duty to resist them, even as St. Paul resisted St. Peter.”

“It will be observed that the one sin of which Savonarola was guilty was disobedience. He was not pronounced a heretic, but only described as “suspected of heresy.”

“The righteous prince or the good priest,” said he, “is merely an instrument in the Lord’s hands for the government of the people. But when the higher Agency is withdrawn from prince or priest he is no longer an instrument, but a broken tool.”

Relationship to Charles VIII of France

Savonarola “announced his text, “Behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth.” A strange alarm seemed to sweep over the audience. Pico della Mirandola declared afterwards that he felt a cold shiver run over him, and that his hair stood on end. ”

“The flood had come with the French king—so Savonarola believed.”

“France, under Charles VIII, began “the mighty movement that was to bring life to Europe by Italy’s death.” (Villari) This invasion Gibbon describes as “An event which changed the face of Europe.”

“Many carried concealed weapons and more than one steel corslet was hidden under the closely drawn robes of outraged Florentines crowded together in the dimly-lighted Duomo. … There was no allusion to politics. Nothing was said about old party or new party.”

From his sermon after the announcement of the invasion:

“I have long been as a father; I have labored all the days of my life to teach you the truths of straight and of Godly living, yet I have received nothing but tribulation … Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

There came “a message from France announcing the death of Charles VIII. He had died on the 7th of April, the very day of the ordeal of fire.”

Relationship to the Pope:

“I preach,” said he, “the doctrine of the holy apostles, … and am ready, if I should be in error, not only to correct myself, but to avow it publicly, and make amends before the whole people. And now again I repeat that which I have always said, that is, that I submit myself and my writings to the correction of the Holy Roman Church.”

“To him Alexander was “an infidel and a heretic,” who had purchased St. Peter’s chair for money. He was, therefore, not a true pope.”

“The position of Savonarola at this point was thoroughly Protestant.”

“The pope now rose to strike down the reformer of the North, who had dared speak out so boldly against the Church.”


“The name Piagnoni, meaning “the weepers,” was given in derision. The Piagnoni were strongly opposed to the Medici, believed in popular government, were in full sympathy with the movement for moral reform, and were the stout defenders of the rights of the people.”

“He said to the boys, “Sing as much as you will, but sing hymns and not immoral songs. I will write songs for you.”

The Medicis were temporarily deposed during Savonarola’s lifetime and ascendency in Florence’s most prominent pulpit. Wikipedia states simply that he became “de facto” rule of Florence. Crawford writes that “the Piagnoni were, for the time, the absolute masters of Florence.” but that Savonarola “held himself utterly aloof from narrow and party spirit.”

Bonfire of the vanities:

“Gambling devices of all sorts were there, musical instruments which had been used in the revelries of former carnivals, lascivious books both in Latin and Italian, indecent pictures and pieces of sculpture, women’s dresses with immodest figures on them, and gay and fantastic carnival trappings of all sorts. The apex of the pyramid was crowned with a personification of old King Carnival.”

“The white-robed children arranged in front of the old Palace and the Loggia dei Lanzi! Singing their lauds and hymns in honor of King Jesus, they cried out their childish invectives against the carnival, and shouted with fine enthusiasm, “Viva Gesu Christo, nostra Re!” At a given signal torches lighted the pyramid at the four corners, and the .mighty pile blazed and flamed in mad fury! The children shouted louder than ever! The trumpeters of the Signory sounded their trumpets; the bells from the Palace tower pealed forth notes of triumph, and all the people in the Piazza shouted with the children, shouted as they had never shouted before, “Long live Jesus Christ, King of Florence.” So ended the carnival of 1497.”

On Peacekeeping:

“Do not stain your hands in blood; do not disobey the precepts of the Gospel, nor your superior’s commands.”

“Prayer,” he said to the friars, “is the only weapon to be employed by a minister of the Gospel.”

On Prophecy:

“Perhaps a word ought to be said just here with reference to Savonarola’s claim to prophetic gifts. It will be remembered that from the beginning of his public ministry he saw visions, in which it seemed to him that God actually spoke to him and gave him a message for the people. The word which he proclaimed was not his word but God’s word. This he said over and over again. More than once, too, he foretold events which actually came to pass. There were two notable instances, however, in which he failed. First, in the case of Charles VIII, whom he described as the scourge of God, who would punish the princes of Italy and be the means of regenerating the Church. This Charles did not do.”

“The second notable failure was in the prophecy that he would “turn the key,” and that the princes of the nations would rise up to depose Alexander, and adopt means for the reformation of the Church.”

“in some instances Savonarola failed to distinguish between human discernment of the inevitable results of a course of action and direct, immediate revelation.”

“The prophet is a discerner rather than a foreteller.”

This review was written in November 2015.

Review: A Short History of England (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.”


This book is difficult to summarize except to say that it is not at all what you expect based on its title; but it is 100% what you expect based on its author. Where others would see cause and effect, Chesterton sees principles and personalities. He is not aptly suited to introduce the layman to English history; but he is aptly suited to make comments to someone who knows English history well.

I would commend this book to readers who enjoy Chesterton’s works of criticism, such as Heretics.


In my opinion, there is not much remarkable about this book except that Chesterton wrote it, (which makes it almost impossible to give it less than three stars, because of the wit and interest that pervades everything his pen touches). Much of this book was inscrutable for an American such as myself, who is not already versed in English history before beginning the book.

At the time Chesterton wrote this, it had become popular to try to focus more on daily life through history rather than just reciting and dates and battles as so many others had done. Chesterton, however, seems to do neither—rather, he tries to trace changes in English thought.


As someone very poorly versed in European history as a whole, I had thought how pleasant it would be to be introduced to it through the pen of Chesterton; but I believe now that Chesterton did not write this to introduce anyone. Rather, he wrote it to respond to what others British authors had said in their own histories of England. After all, books of English history were quite in vogue in the Victorian period.

Chesterton was a journalist, not a historian; and the book, if not for John Richard Green, could have been titled therefore, A Short Commentary on a Short History of England. It simply does not read as a history book.

Despite all my caviling and criticisms, as I implied above, it is a remarkable thing that Chesterton wrote it. He is still his snarky, pithy, paradoxical self, as my quick collection of quotes will prove.


“It is an excellent habit to read history backwards.” (ch. 7, loc. 708)

“All government is an ugly necessity.” (ch. 8, loc. 856)

“The scientific age comes first and the mythological age after it.” (ch. 3, loc. 198)

“All men bear the image of the King of Kings.” (ch. 15, loc. 2031)

“It is sometimes valuable to have enough imagination to unlearn as well as to learn.” (ch. 5, loc. 425)

“The visionaries are the only practical men.” (ch. 4, loc. 367)

“Slavery was for the Church not a difficulty of doctrine, but a strain on the imagination.” (ch. 2, loc. 136.)

“The very work ‘monk’ is a revolution, for it means solitude and came to mean community—one might call it sociability.” (ch. 4, loc. 377)

“I would maintain that thanks are [is?] the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” (ch. 6, loc. 582)

Chesterton is critical of John Calvin’s ideas, which he summarizes: “that men must be created to be lost and saved.” (ch. 13, loc. 1671)

His conclusion is reminiscent of his poem, The Ballad of the White Horse:

“At least, if there be anything valid in my own vision of these things, we have returned to an origin and we are back in the war with the barbarians.” (ch. 18, loc. 2414)

Read: This book is free on Kindle and free as an audiobook on LibriVox (which I recommend).

For more free books by G. K. Chesterton, follow this link to get links to just about all of them and in any format imaginable.

Review: Orthodoxy

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: 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.”


Orthodoxy (1908) is Chesterton’s vision of the world, and it is a vision that does not shy away from paradox. Chesterton unapologetically challenges the zeitgeist as he sees it—he sees an age being overrun by philosophical materialism and biblical criticism. Almost every chapter turns a stereotype on its head: “The Maniac” (ch. 2) challenges the idolatry of logic; “The Flag of the World” (ch. 5) fuses optimism and pessimism and finds the Christian doctrine of the Fall to be the perfect synthesis; “The Romance of Orthodoxy” (ch. 8) challenges the cliche that holiness is necessarily boring.

As an economic liberal and a theological conservative, Chesterton constantly spins around the idea that conservative theology is somehow connected to niggardliness, lifeless moralism, or unsociableness.

Meat: Perhaps the best thing about this book is that few theologically interesting books are such a pleasure to read. Chesterton is always entertaining, but this book is remarkably readable. I went through it in only a few days, and immediately decided that I must re-read it as soon as I can.

I could not possibly summarize here what was profound in this book, but I could note two things:

First, his statement, that “you must love someone for them to be lovable,” has had a tremendous impact on the way we do evangelism in my organization. It frees us from looking for a certain type of people to minister to; it pairs with Schaeffer’s universal statement, “There are no little people. There are no little places.”

Second, the chapter on “The Paradoxes of Christianity” has only grown in relevance as we now live in an information economy, where every passing generation is technology-native. Academics positively fidget at the concept of paradox; it is like trying to swallow a bundle of firewood sideways. Because so many worship information on weekdays but Jesus on Sundays, we struggle intensely at the Bible’s statements about lions and lambs. If Chesterton is right, finding not a balance, but violent synthesis between such paradoxes, may be an important key for building our faith in an age that is, if anything, even more subservient at the altar of reason.

Orthodoxy is, in a way, a culmination of Chesterton’s non-literary essays (The Defendant, All Things Considered, Triumphant Trifles, Alarms and Discursions, etc.), which likewise often involve humor, modern metaphors, parables, paradoxes, and the artful breaking of dichotomies and stereotypes. All of these books are good, but Orthodoxy is by far the best.

Bones: The one struggle of this book is the references. Chesterton played the part of journalist and critic as well as lay theologian, so he often references current trends which are dated, or peculiarly British. I would like to see an edition of this book that uses endnotes to make the reading a little smoother.

Quotes: “I did try to found a little heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

“The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.”

“Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Read: You can read this book for free over at Amazon, Online-Literature, Internet Archive, or Project Gutenberg—better yet, listen to it for free at LibriVox.

Related: The Lion and the Lamb by Gerald Kennedy.