Tag Archives: Missions in the Arab world

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

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

Overview:

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

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

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

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

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

Timeline of Groves’ Mission to Baghdad

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

The Theology of Anthony Norris Groves

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

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

Lessons from Groves’ Journals

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

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

“The colonizing spirit extinguishes that of the missionary.”

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

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

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

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

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

Criticisms

Overthinking Circumstances

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

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

Literal Interpretations and the Old Covenant

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Apostle to Islam

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: J. Christy Wilson (Sr.) (1891-1973) was an influential missionary in Persia. He published Apostle to Islam in 1952, the year after Samuel M. Zwemer died. (His son, J. Christy Wilson, Jr., (1921-1999), was a pioneer missionary in Afghanistan, and was also nothing to sneeze at.)

Samuel M. Zwemer (the subject of this biography) was a pioneer missionary among Arabs along the Persian Gulf. His later career was spent writing, teaching and mobilizing for missions among Muslims while he was based in Egypt for many years, and later at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Overview:

This is probably the most comprehensive biography involving Christian work in the Muslim world. It is engaging, multi-faceted, well-researched, and well-written.

Like Ion Kieth-Falconer and others, Zwemer’s life must be divided into several streams:

  • His academic career, which included a chair at Princeton Seminary in his later life.
  • His literary career, which spans 48 volumes—one writer quips that, like Luther, he “threw his inkpot at the devil”.
  • His pioneer work—Zwemer was one of the earlier student volunteers, and he held a position of influence in the movement—with Lansing and Cantine, he also founded the Arabian Mission, which was remarkable for its ambition and sacrifice.
  • His publishing work—Zwemer was the editor of The Moslem World Quarterly from 1911 to 1947.
  • His mobilization work, which, according to Ruth Tucker, was his most important contribution. Year after year, his annual schedule involved platforms and pulpits in three languages in America, India, South Africa, Indonesia, China, Persia, etc.

With so much travel and so many contributions, Wilson mainly focuses on his work; there is not much “table talk” or personal touch. This book is too big-picture for that. The biography itself reads as an account of the revival of interest in evangelical missions to Muslim-majority people groups, and for that reason it is indispensable.

Meat:

One of the high points for me was reading about Lucknow 1911 for the first time—a watershed moment in missions history, in which modern missions to Muslims became focused, intentional and organized.

Zwemer seems to have been steadfast, if a little grave; and orthodox, if a bit staunch. His life work is remarkable and unparalleled, and this is one of the best books it has been my high privilege to bring back into publication.

Bones:

Something that will disappoint some readers, as Ruth Tucker points out in From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, is that Zwemer had very few converts in his lifetime. He was an eagle in theology; a seer in writing; a “steam-engine” in mobilization, as his close colleague testified; but he himself did not win many people to Christ in the Arab world. For that reason, some reviewers take this book to be uninspiring; I felt—quite the opposite—that his mobilization work undoubtedly has resulted in innumerable converts through the next generation, and from this I took great encouragement as a missionary in an all-but-forgotten field.

Some personal takeaways from Zwemer’s life as a whole: I take a spur and a warning both from this biography. First, mobilization, writing, and conference work are critical elements of our global task. They must not be neglected. Second, the most important work in ministry will always be not publishing, but people—one at a time—and loving your neighbor is harder and more glorious than a mile-long trail of print. This is exactly why mobilization was Zwemer’s greatest contribution; because that is where he was relationally invested.

 

Free Ebook! (Ion Keith-Falconer of Arabia)

 

Today is the 132th anniversary of Ion Keith-Falconer’s death in Yemen. If you haven’t read his incredible story, you can get a free PDF copy at the link below!

This is the page-turning biography of Ion Keith-Falconer, a missionary who studied in Germany and Egypt before relocating his family to the colony of Aden, in present-day Yemen. Like C. T. Studd, Keith-Falconer was a famous athlete and a spokesman for what some have called “muscular Christianity.” He also had a promising career as a linguist and received a lecturing appointment at Cambridge. Keith-Falconer died tragically not long after arriving in his chosen mission field, but his consecrated life was an inspiration that led many more to the mission field.

This biography was written by James Robson, one of the missionaries that went to Yemen after Ion Keith-Falconer.

Click here to download a free copy of the biography of Ion Keith-Falconer!

Echoes of Eternity: How Death Affected Great Men

Thoughts after the death of Nabeel Qureshi

On September 16, Nabeel Qureshi tragically passed at the age 34, and went confidently into eternity. He had been diagnosed with aggressive Stage IV stomach cancer just a few short months ago, in the middle of a busy career of academic study, preaching, writing, and evangelism.

In many ways, his death is a challenge to Western believers. Lest we miss the lesson his death would teach us, I want to look at some historical precedent for how many believers have been challenged by the immediacy of death.

I could give a long list of faithful believers who re-examined their lives after the death of someone near them. J. J. Doke went to the mission field dreaming of carrying on the impact of his older brother who had died doing mission work in the Congo. On the other side of Africa, in 1846, Ludwig Krapf buried wife and child in the remote deserts along the Eritrea-Ethiopian border, and there he famously wrote that the church ever advances over the graves of its members.

For the church of the resurrected Christ, death has always been transmuted by the deathless optimism of the one who saw the travail of his soul and was satisfied. Let’s take a look at three ways that untimely death has caused many to hear the echo of eternity.

1. Eternity calls us to consider if we living for things that will last.

Adoniram Judson is one of the most famous missionaries in Protestant history. With a small cadre of friends, he spearheaded the founding of America’s first missionary society, and, in 1812, he was on the first ship to leave America to bring the gospel to the world’s unreached people.

But few know that in college, Judson was a hardened skeptic. The atmosphere at Providence College was in the grip of Enlightenment thinking. He had one friend in particularly—he is called E— in the story—who was an outspoken, revelling, scoffing skeptic, mocking the church and all that pertains to it.

In between college terms, Judson was travelling on horseback, touring the northern states. He stopped into an inn. We have one vacancy, the innkeeper told him, but the tenant in the room next door is horribly ill—he may not pass the night. No matter, Judson told him. Death was less than nothing to him, although he would feel sympathy for the dying.

As he lay in that inn, he heard the racking coughs and groans of a dying man. The walls seemed paper thin. Whoever he was, he must be dying comfortless, with no family member to attend him. Judson lay awake thinking of the nearness of death, struggling to use his young age as a shield against the spectre of eternity. After all, what would his skeptic friends back at college think? What would his friend E think?

The rest of the story is in F. W. Boreham’s words:

“He rises at dawn; seeks the innkeeper; and inquires about his neighbor.

“‘He’s dead!’ is the blunt reply.

“‘Dead!’ replies Judson. ‘And who was he?’

“‘Oh,’ explains the innkeeper languidly, ‘he was a student from Providence College; a very fine fellow; his name was E!’”

Judson was shaken to the core. Eternity stared him in the face, and it wasn’t long before he turned to Christ. He cut short his vacation, went home, and discussed the state of his soul with his parents. He was soon a member of their church.

2. Eternity calls us to remember that there are no little people and no little places.

Although his name is no longer well known, Ion Keith-Falconer was a serious intellectual with both evangelistic and medical experience, willing to use whatever means to reach his Muslim neighbors.

Keith-Falconer seemed to have everything going for him. He was from a noble family; he was a champion athlete; he was at the top of his class at Cambridge; he was newly married; and he was ordained under the Free Church of Scotland to an important and difficult mission field.

After studying Arabic at schools in Germany and Egypt, he went to Aden—in present-day Yemen, then a British colony—to see if it would be feasible to bring his family there. After receiving a very flexible appointment as an Arabic lecturer at Cambridge, he took his wife and a young child to live in the neighborhood of Sheikh Othman.

He only preached and practiced medicine for five months before he died of a fever, now believed to be malaria. News of his death reached Scotland the night before the opening of the Free Church’s annual General Assembly, the same meeting at which Keith-Falconer had been ordained just one year before. The moderator, Dr. Somerville, spoke about his death:

“What may be the beneficent result which God may educe from this calamity, we know not. This, however, we may venture to hope for—that the death of this noble young man may prove the means of awakening attention, greater than has ever been directed, to all Arabia’s provinces, and tend to give a lasting wound to that fatal system of Islam which so long blighted the souls of millions. What Christian Scotchman, with qualities in any way resembling those of him who has passed away, will stand forth to raise the banner of the Gospel in the place of the gallant warrior who has fallen?”

The custom in that day was not to withdraw when a missionary was lost; the usual response was to send two more to take his place! After his death, his mother and widow offered a stipend that would fund two more missionaries for Arabia. In the months that followed, a total of thirteen students of Edinburgh’s New College offered themselves for foreign mission work. Eleven of those were from the 1888 graduating class, which only included forty students. Needless to say, the appeal of Keith-Falconer’s death is attributed to be an important factor.

3. Eternity calls us to remember that even short lives can have an lasting echo if they are lived for Christ.

There is another story in Arabian missions of a young Lebanese preacher. Like Nabeel Qureshi, Kamil Abdulmasih ‘Itany turned to Christ out of a Muslim background, and it wasn’t long before he was doing everything he could to persuade other Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and Hindus, that Jesus was the only way.

Kamil learned the basics of the Bible from Henry H. Jessup for a few months in Beirut. Later, he joined Samuel M. Zwemer and James Cantine in the Arabian Mission of the Dutch Reformed Church. In the few years that he lived as a Christian, Kamil did preaching and Bible distribution tours in Syria, Yemen, Djibouti, and Iraq.

He showed in his letters that he knew both the Bible and the Quran well. He was persuasive and tactful in evangelism. While selling Bibles in the remote coasts of eastern Yemen, a group of men went around forbidding people to accept his books. Kamil found the troublemakers and quoted to them several scriptures in which the Quran praises both the Old and New Testaments which they were selling. He recorded the conversation in his journal, which Henry Jessup later translated:

“Then I said, ‘Does this Quran speak truth or falsehood?’

“They said, ‘Allah forbid that it should speak falsehood.’

“I said, ‘Are my words true?’

“They replied, ‘Yes; there is no doubt of it.’

‘Then,” said I, ‘Why did you forbid the boys buying the books?’

“They said, ‘We did not,’ and denied it absolutely.

“I then said, ‘You should buy the books if my words are true.’

“They said, ‘We certainly will after hearing the proofs you have given us.’”

Kamil’s life was cut short in a season of intense preaching and visiting in Basra, in present-day Iraq. His journals written in 1892 show that he had visitors of every variety, some hostile, and some very keen to find copies of the New Testament.

When he died, Zwemer found him surrounded by soldiers and religious authorities. They believed he was poisoned, but the authorities prohibited an autopsy. They protested that he was a Christian, but the authorities buried him as a Muslim. They had proof that he was a Christian, but the soldiers had seized his papers. There was no recourse.

Henry Jessup wrote that Kamil’s life was “a rebuke to our unbelief” in God’s power to change the Muslim heart. His tragic murder must have brought home to supporters of the Arabian Mission the reality of people who turn to faith in Islam’s heartland. Grace may be free, but that doesn’t mean faith doesn’t cost us.

After Kamil’s death, Zwemer eventually became the most widely known name connected with Christian missions to Muslims. He left behind a stream of literature long enough to fill a bookshelf. God only knows how the loss of this budding native preacher must have hardened Zwemer’s resolve in his early career.

Final thoughts

Death, then, doesn’t have to be a white flag; in Christian missions, it is a call for advance, not retreat. When a soldier on the front lines is lost, someone must rush forward to hold the line.

When I woke up to the news of Nabeel’s passing, I thought of how the disciples felt when Jesus ascended and left them. Leaderless, they thought—but they wouldn’t be left comfortless. There was a greater work that they would have to begin.

The task of missions is the task of the whole church. With Nabeel’s passing, we mourn the loss of a leader who had a monumental impact in his short time—but when we dry our eyes, we remember, we have a lot of work to do.


References:

F. W. Boreham, “Adoniram Judson’s Text.” A Temple of Topaz.

Henry H. Jessup, Kamil Abdulmasih: A Syrian Preacher of the Gospel.

Robert Sinker, Candle in the Dark: The Story of Ion Keith-Falconer.