Lion & Phoenix has been celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation with a series of Protestant Profiles, spanning the five centuries.
If you missed any of the profiles in our series and would like to catch up on reading about the lives of any of these significant figures from our theological and spiritual heritage, you can find a list of those we’ve published below.
Born: Kelvedon, Essex, England Role: influential Baptist preacher, pastor, author, tract-writer Emphases: justification by grace through faith, sola Scriptura, penal substitutionary atonement, Calvinism, believer’s baptism Protested against: Roman Catholicism; baptismal regeneration; theological liberalism/the downgrading of evangelical doctrine by fellow Baptists (and others)
Charles Spurgeon grew up in a thoroughly Christian environment, where classics like Pilgrim’s Progress and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs were part of his childhood diet. But he had a conversion experience at the age of fifteen when he heard a Methodist preaching from Isaiah 42.
Less than 2 years later he was already pastoring a church, aged 17. Thus the man who would come to be widely known as “The Prince of Preachers” began his ministry as the “boy preacher.”
Spurgeon became pastor of the New Park Street Chapel (a prominent London Baptist church) in 1854, before he had turned 20. It was this pastorate that propelled him into great renown as a preacher in England. Seven years after taking on this role, the London Metropolitan Tabernacle was built to accommodate the huge crowds who wished to hear Spurgeon’s weekly preaching. During Spurgeon’s ministry, the Tabernacle had the largest regular attendance of any congregation in the UK during the 19th century and became the largest Baptist church in the world.
Spurgeon impacted thousands upon thousands of lives through his powerful preaching and his other ministries, including the founding of orphanages,urban missions, a pastor’s training college and his numerous publications. He was able to present the gospel with great clarity and conviction and saw countless people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through his sermons. He was by no means a fanciful or theoretical preacher – but had a heart for the ordinary man and woman. This is well displayed in his printed sermons, but particularly in his John Ploughman’s Talk, where he assumes the persona of a rustic, farming man and dispenses Christian wisdom to the people of the land.
Spurgeon’s notability lies chiefly in his gift for faithful preaching and he famously preached to the biggest indoor crowd on record in 1861 (more than 23 000 people) and to Britons from all sections of society (possibly even an incognito Queen Victoria on one occasion!). More than 3500 of his sermons have remained in print – a record which exceeds any other figure in Christian history. While there is no way of accurately determining how many people Spurgeon preached to during his ministry, it has been estimated at as many as ten million.
But Spurgeon’s significance as a Protestant figure is connected to his epitomisation of one branch of Protestantism (the Reformed Baptist movement) and his defense of the truths recovered at the Reformation against Catholicism and the emerging theological liberalism of his day.
Spurgeon was staunchly opposed to the doctrines of Catholicism which necessitated the Reformation, at a time when many of his contemporaries in the Anglican church were downplaying the differences between the different strands of Christianity and some were even embracing Rome as converts. In a tract from 1865, Spurgeon blasts the situation in the Anglican church as he saw it:
There seems to be an unlimited license for papistical persons to do as they please in the Anglican Establishment. How long are these abominations to be borne with, and how far are they yet to be carried? Protestant Dissenters, how can you so often truckle to a Church which is assuming the rags of the old harlot more and more openly every day? Alliance with true believers is one thing, but union with a Popish sect is quite another. Be not ye partakers with them. Protestantism owed much to you in past ages, will you not now raise your voice and show the ignorant and the priest-ridden the tendencies of all these mummeries, and the detestable errors of the Romish Church and of its Anglican sister.
In the same tract he urged evangelicals within the Church of England to recognise the seriousness of their predicament and leave the church (an issue which remains live more than 150 years later).
When Spurgeon’s own denomination, the Baptist Union began to compromise its own commitment to sound doctrine – through flirtation with textual criticism, theological liberalism and the Darwinistic theory of evolution – he showed that he was not only prepared to dispense this advice to others, but to follow through on it himself. In 1887, he withdrew himself and the Tabernacle from the British Baptist Union and remained separated from it for the remainder of his life and ministry. His supporters within the Union pushed for English Baptists to adopt an Evangelical statement of faith, but this did not eventuate – effectively demonstrating that Spurgeon’s concerns about the theological health of the denomination were valid.
Spurgeon died at his place of frequent vacation and recuperation in Mentone, France in 1892, aged 57. His life was widely celebrated in England in the wake of his passing into glory. Spurgeon was arguably the greatest ever figure in the Baptist movement (even more so if we look at the history of Reformed or Particular Baptists in the UK) and possibly the greatest English-speaking preacher in the history of the church.
While some will balk at what they perceive to be dogmatism and divisiveness in his approach to Catholicism and theological liberalism, to dismiss his example of biblical faithfulness on such a basis would be foolish and even perilous. Given that our own times are filled with all too many convictionless, theological cowards and dithering denominations, Spurgeon’s uncompromising stance for clear, evangelical truth challenges us to ask a key question in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Do we own these truths as our own (and even suffer for them) – or let unfaithful Christians and false teachers muddy the waters?
“Charles Spurgeon” wikipedia
J. Armstrong, “SPURGEON, Charles” Dictionary of Evangelical Biography
Born: Barnsley, Yorkshire, England Role: pioneer inland missionary; founder of China Inland Mission (later OMF International); author & speaker Emphases: the faithfulness and sovereign provision of God; reaching unreached and neglected people groups with the gospel; contextual mission and close identification with indigenous people through their customs and culture Protested against: culturally inflexible approaches to Christian ministry
That we know James Hudson Taylor today as one of history’s most notable missionaries is a remarkable fact in itself when we consider the very rough start to his ministry. Taylor arrived in China as a 21 year old and would remain there until illness forced his return to England in 1860, aged 28. This period was invaluable for his personal formation as a missionary and he was able to share the gospel with many Chinese during this stint. He also met and married his wife Maria during this time – which naturally had a great impact upon the rest of his life and ministry.
But Taylor had a series of difficulties with his original sending agency, the Chinese Evangelistic Society and this led to him resigning midway through his first term of service and operating more independently for the remainder of the period until his return to England. Difficulties with one’s sending agency, operating independently and returning home due to illness are all factors with the potential to render a missionary ineffective or see them permanently leave the field. But this was not to be the case with Taylor.
While back in England he became increasingly determined to found a new kind of missions organisation that would operate on the principles of trusting in God’s provision (rather than borrowing money and going into debt); focus on reaching the neglected inland population of China with the gospel and approach mission in a different way to many of the existing European sending agencies.
In 1866, Hudson and his family, along with sixteen other missionaries, travelled to China aboard the Lammermuir. This was the beginning of the China Inland Mission’s operations within the country. The early days were not rosy. There was conflict amongst the CIM team, dangers and difficulties connected to travelling where Europeans were not previously present and the constant threat of disease – which claimed the lives of 3 of the Taylor’s children between 1867 and 1870, with Maria herself succumbing to cholera in 1870. But the mission did continue to grow and Chinese were being steadily reached with the gospel.
Hudson returned to England in 1871 and remarried before returning the following year. His second wife Jennie would live and work with him until her death, which occurred less than twelve months before Hudson’s own. They did however spend extended periods of time apart on occasions when Hudson travelled to China from England without her.
A decade after the Taylors and CIM missionaries arrived on the Lammermuir, the organisation had grown to have 52 missionaries. John Piper relates how incredible the growth was in the subsequent three decades until Taylor’s death in 1905.
At the time of Hudson Taylor’s death, the China Inland Mission was an international body with 825 missionaries living in all eighteen provinces of China with more than 300 mission stations, more than 500 local Chinese helpers, and 25,000 Christian converts.
This is a demonstration of how Taylor’s vision to see the inland regions of China reached with gospel was used by God to mobilise many believers into action. In turn, God used the labours of these hundreds of faithful men and women to bring rural and regional Chinese to Himself through the gospel of Jesus.
Hudson Taylor’s approach to missions was always bold and often controversial. Many other missionaries and their agencies disagreed with his policies of operating by faith without guaranteed salaries for workers; sending single women into the interior to evangelise and adopting Chinese dress and customs to the greatest extent possible (as summed up in his famous saying “Let us in everything not sinful become like the Chinese, that by all means we may save some”). His headstrong personality could be perceived as either tenacity essential for the role he was carrying out, or overpowering stubbornness – depending on who was giving the assessment. He was without a doubt the strong leader the CIM needed to be effective and grow in the early stages of its existence, but his insistence on some of his personal perspectives was jarring to some of his co-workers who found it difficult to operate under his leadership.
But it can be stated with certainty that whatever his flaws, God used Taylor – directly and indirectly – to bring the gospel to countless Chinese who otherwise may have never had a chance to hear it. One of the mottoes of the Protestant Reformation is Post tenebras lux – “after darkness – light.” Our commitment to the treasures of the gospel recovered from the darkness of perverted medieval Catholicism by Luther, Calvin and others is only as good as our desire to see that same light come to places that have lain in the darkness of paganism for centuries on end.
Taylor is one of history’s greatest models of someone who was not content for that light to remain on show in the comfortable Christian existence of the English parish church, nor even in the European trading settlements along the Chinese coastline. He saw a vast region full of millions of souls lying in undisturbed darkness and he never stopped pushing himself and others to take the light of the gospel deeper and deeper into the unreached country. 150 years on from Taylor and 500 since the Reformation, those with evangelical convictions cannot afford to hide them under a basket when there remains millions around the world that need the gospel clearly presented to them – that they too may have salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Below is a great video overview of OMF International’s history – detailing Hudson Taylor’s founding of the CIM through to the organisation’s activities in the present day.
“James Hudson Taylor” Wikipedia
John Piper, “The Ministry of Hudson Taylor as Life in Christ”
Is it really OK to vote YES in the government’s same-sex marriage postal survey? Do the motivations some Christians have for ticking YES stack up? And are they good enough to justify a YES when the proposed legal changes could have some drastic consequences for marriage, families and our freedoms of speech, conscience and religion in Australia?
Previously, I looked at one reason Aussies who identify as Christians might be inclined to support the proposed changes to the Marriage Act. My aim in this post is to tackle another…
Christians should promote a vision of society where people are free to pursue whatever they understand to be necessary to living “the good life,” without being constrained, compelled or coerced by Christian beliefs about virtue and morality.
While our previous motivation/justification was concerned with the issues of how we understand law and human rights, this one is more about the intersection between theology, philosophy and politics (with our approach to changing or maintaining laws, like the Marriage Act, being determined by these considerations).
Understanding this motivation for voting YES
Christians who adopt the above stance are positively saying that God’s people should seek a society where every citizen has maximal freedom to pursue what they believe to be essential for happiness and human flourishing (the usual proviso being that this pursuit does not cause significant harm to others or infringe their rights to do the same). Freedom to define and practice marriage in accordance with one’s personal convictions falls within this framework.
Negatively, Christians who hold this position are saying that it is not our role to engage in politics in such a way that restricts our fellow citizens from pursuing their understanding of “the good life,” if our desire to restrict is based on Christian notions of morality, rather than concerns over harm being caused to others.
Some concrete examples of this position
Creek Road Presbyterian Church in Brisbane is intentionally refraining from telling Christians how (or even whether) to vote, but they have suggested the following reasoning a Christian might use to vote YES:
A believer in the Gospel of Jesus might vote yes in the survey because we enjoy the freedom to practice our faith, and uphold our own Christian definition of marriage within the broader community, and we believe it is right to extend that freedom to others. This might keep preserving our freedom, and it does treat others as we would have them treat us.
Lee Herridge, an Australian political libertarian and self-identifying “conservative, evangelical, Protestant” has written in the Spectator Australia that Christians cannot be consistent if we refuse to tolerate same-sex marriage, while tolerating the legality of others things we think are harmful to society. If we are willing to extend freedom of speech and religion to heresy and non-Christian religions – when these things are harmful to people’s souls – why not accept that our gay and lesbian neighbours are free to have their understanding of marriage legally recognised?
It is important to recognise that both examples I’ve cited equate the freedom of same-sex marriage advocates to change the definition of marriage with religious freedom.
In the first example, the freedom of our gay neighbours (and their “straight allies”) to legally redefine marriage to match their convictions about the goodness of committed, long-term male-male and female-female relationships is the same kind of freedom Christians currently have to define and practice marriage according to the Bible.
In the second example, extending the freedom to gay and lesbian couples to practice “marriage” on their terms is the same kind of freedom as allowing our Muslim and Hindu neighbours to practice “worship” on their terms.
In sum, to adopt this kind of motivation for voting YES, it would seem that it is necessary to understand the freedom to marry according to your convictions as being analogous to the freedom to worship according to your convictions. Christians shouldn’t legally interfere with the former, because we don’t legally interfere with the latter. And because we wouldn’t want someone who disagreed with our understanding of marriage/sexuality or worship to prevent us from practicing our convictions freely, we shouldn’t restrict those who we disagree with.
Responding to this motivation
There are a few reasons that I believe this motivation/justification doesn’t really make it OK for Christians to vote YES in the survey.
1. The equation of the right to define marriage according to one’s personal convictions with the right to freely practice one’s religion is dubious.
Religious freedom allows Australians of all faiths to worship God according to their understanding, freely practice the tenets of their religion (to the extent that it does not harm others, cause public disorder or infringe upon others’ right to religious freedom) and teach/propagate the doctrines they hold to be true. This is a precious freedom in and of itself and those who enjoy it should be wary of anything that might muddy the waters concerning the nature of this fundamental liberty. This would include treating the rights being claimed in the SSM debate as analogous or equivalent to freedom of religion.
Even if we grant that unbiblical sexual practices and understandings of marriage are by-products of idolatry (i.e. they proceed out of absolutising/worshipping something other than God/Jesus), saying YES to the legal recognition of marriage is less like an acknowledgement of the freedom to be idolatrous and more like an acknowledgement of an idol as true.
Christians have the freedom to practice their religion, but not the entitlement to compel others to treat our religion as though it is true. You can’t stop me from proclaiming “Jesus is Lord,” but I can’t force you to acknowledge that he is. A Catholic can call their priest “Father,” but a Protestant isn’t legally obliged to do so.
Nor can we force others to redefine their religious institutions to accommodate our convictions or demands. A Pentecostal church that ordains women as ministers can’t force a Presbyterian church to recognise Pastor Sue as a pastor or elder. And an atheist can’t demand a Muslim recognise a pork sandwich as halal.
Marriage under Australian law is not about freedom to do whatever you believe with the person you love and leave others to do what they want. It comes with the expectation that all Australians will recognise anyone married under the Marriage Act as validly married. Religious freedom does not (and indeed cannot) compel the citizen who says “Jesus is Lord” to also confess “Muhammed is the Prophet” (or vice versa). But people who believe marriage is a divinely-instituted union between one man and one woman will be expected to acknowledge SSM with declarations that gay and lesbian couples are validly married.
2. Endorsing a change to the legal status of marriage that is incompatible with one’s own biblical beliefs is not necessary for the promotion of maximal freedom of religion/worship.
Some Christian groups (notably Baptists & other Independent/Free church movements) have had a theological commitment to freedom of religion and separation of church and state from the early days of their movement. Western societies adopted this kind of approach as part of a recognition that while most people in their society had a religion – there were significant disagreements over a range of issues. The religious toleration we now take for granted only gained universal acceptance in the West after ugly conflicts and oppression arising from religious intolerance.
While many Christians who believe in the principle of religious freedom are averse to the idea of coercing non-Christians to live like Christians, through legislative measures – it does not follow that one must promote alterations to the law where it reflects what one sincerely believes to be the best for society.
Many, perhaps most, Christians who have been deeply committed to religious freedom in the period since the seventeenth century have not adopted a neutral or indifferent stance to public shifts away from values or institutions that are biblically attested to as good. Seeking to preserve God’s good and gracious gifts to our society is not the same as seeking to impose our morality on an unwilling populace.
As brighter Christian minds than mine have pointed out, all laws are coercive to some degree (the legal consequences for illegal activity compel obedience) and all certainly proceed from and promote a real moral framework (i.e. every law reflects a belief about what is good/bad or right/wrong and commends this understanding to the public). It is not a stretch to see the proposed changes to the Marriage Act as the state declaring that it is wrong to withhold recognition from some gay relationships as “marriages,” because such unions are a recognised public good with full equivalency to that of heterosexual marriages. And it is not unreasonable to anticipate wide-ranging legal penalties for those who disagree with the “goodness” or “rightness” of these “marriages.”
It seems paradoxical for Christians to vote YES in the name of principled non-coercion, when doing so will hand the government and sexual revolutionaries a means to coerce dissenting Christians and non-Christians alike to accept an unbiblical view of marriage and sexuality.
Which brings us to the next point.
3. It is unloving and irresponsible to grant a legal freedom to one group in society that will be feasibly claimed as an inherent right and used to interfere with the genuine rights of others.
Our previous post established that SSM is not a human right, nor is denying it to people an act of legal discrimination. The key verb in the postal survey is “allow.” In this case “allow” means granting a freedom and legal entitlement to citizens that do not have an inalienable right to what is being granted. Australian law may grant such a freedom/entitlement, but there is no violation of rights if this does not occur.
International evidence strongly suggests that if SSM is granted as a legal entitlement in Australia, it will be used by some members of the political faction lobbying for marriage redefinition to infringe upon actual, fundamental rights belonging to citizens who conscientiously object to the “truth” of SSM. A Christian who votes YES for the sake of extending freedom to their gay neighbours must recognise that they are gambling the rights to freedom of speech and religion of a wide range of other neighbours by taking such action.
Evangelical Christians may be willing to suffer persecution for their fidelity to biblical beliefs about marriage if faced with legal coercion to go against our consciences. But is it really loving our neighbours if we are inviting legal ramifications or violation of conscience upon Australians from outside our religion? Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, members of smaller religious minorities and even people with traditional cultural beliefs about marriage that aren’t terribly religious – will all face potential problems if the law compels them to recognise gay partnerships as marriage, against their beliefs.
4. This approach removes any grounds for Christians to seek to preserve any other aspects of the present, legal definition of marriage in the future.
If Christians should not oppose marriage being redefined to change the gender requirement of one man and one woman – we have no basis to oppose the abolition of any of the other requirements that determine what a marriage is. By the above reasoning, as long as we can continue to practice marriage according to our own convictions, we should not express opposition to marriage being redefined to include an indefinite number of people or an incestuous union between consenting adults.
If we are to positively “vote in” the freedom of same-sex couples to “marry,” we in effect admit that it is something we should have been advocating for all along. Therefore, Christians should be at the forefront of encouraging those Muslims whose vision of the “good life” includes polygamous marriage to push for their rights in society – even though we don’t agree with their understanding of marriage.
Further, we all know people whose life seems to revolve around a pet or an inanimate possession. Are we so detached from the general, societal definition of marriage that we should hypothetically support the right of Australians who idolise their cat or absolutise their sports car to redefine marriage according to what they regard as the most meaningful “relationship” in their lives?
There are of course real differences between the above examples and same-sex relationships and it may be unlikely that these hypothetical marriage redefinitions ever receive the same kind of public push as SSM. I’m merely seeking to point out that Christians who adopt the above position don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to opposing any such redefinitions.
At the time of publication it is unclear to the author as to whether online communications shared on personal blogs fall under the legal purview of the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Act 2017. Should that prove to be the case, the author acknowledges that this piece attempts to persuade Australians entitled to vote in the survey to do so in a certain manner and that this has been done in good faith without any intention to vilify, intimidate or threaten to cause harm. Should the Act require it, this communication is authorised by Y. Johnston, Brisbane.
“It’s OK to vote NO” I’m told by some of my friends’ Facebook profile pics. But as the same-sex marriage (SSM) postal survey gets mailed out this week, we also need to ask: is it really OK to vote YES?
When I ask, this question – I’m primarily concerned with Christians who may be entertaining the possibility of responding in this way. I’m not asking whether Christians have the right as democratic citizens to express a YES to the question being put to Australia. We do.
I’m asking whether it’s OK to vote YES if we’re seeking to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus, witnesses to His gospel and loving neighbours?
I’m asking whether the reasons a Christian may think justify saying YES to SSM make it OK to invite the Australian government to alter a fundamental, divinely-sanctioned human institution so that it includes an expression of sexuality abhorred by God?
In short I’m asking whether God will be OK with Christians saying YES to SSM?
I’ve identified 3 main motivations that might lead Australians who identify as Christians to support a change to the law to allow SSM.
A sincere belief that the current Marriage Act enshrines discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians and denies them one of their human rights.
A sincere belief that Christians should promote a vision of society where people are free to pursue whatever they understand to be necessary to living “the good life,” without being constrained, compelled or coerced by Christian beliefs about virtue and morality.
A sincere belief that SSM is an inevitability and that voting YES now would enable better legislated protections and exemptions for conscientious objectors to SSM (including Christians), because the current government is more sympathetic and responsible in this regard than the opposition would be.
I will attempt to deal with each of these possible justifications for a Christian to vote YES. Because a detailed response is necessary, I’ve tackled the first one below and will follow up with a response to the others in the near future.
The current Marriage Act enshrines discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians and denies them one of their human rights.
This has the potential to be a powerful justification. Denying people their human rights is a serious matter that fair-minded people are naturally inclined to avoid. But the fact is, the Marriage Act doesn’t discriminate unfairly against homosexual couples. And calls for “marriage equality” are more demands for social recognition than they are claims of a genuine human right.
The Marriage Act defines marriage as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” This 2004 amendment to the 1961 Marriage Act simply clarified what marriage had meant in Australian law and society since the time of federation (and for a much longer time in the British legal tradition from which the legal and social frameworks of modern Australia are derived).
This does prevent gay and lesbian unions from being interpreted by Australian law as “marriages,” but it equally precludes bigamy, polygamy, forced marriages and marital unions where one or more parties are incapable of legally giving consent. It’s all there in that definition. No unfair discrimination exists, because all Australians have the same right and freedom to marry under the law. Any adult can marry a consenting, non-married adult of the opposite sex who isn’t a close biological relative.
The fact that some citizens of homosexual orientation choose to seek fulfilment in committed relationships with members of the same sex and can’t legally call that relationship a marriage is not unfair discrimination. It’s simply the case that they’ve chosen to pursue a relationship that has never fit the definition of marriage in this country.
Denying people their human rights?
But that brings us to the human rights claim. We often hear that being able to marry the person you love is a basic human right that needs to be enshrined in Australian law.
But is that really the case?
As I’ve argued elsewhere, what is really being claimed – even demanded – by SSM advocates, is that all Australians be compelled to legally and socially recognise committed homosexual relationships as marriages: even if they don’t personally believe them to be so.
“Marriage equality” may feel like a right to those who are passionately fighting for a change to the law. But it just isn’t a right the way that our rights to life, political and religious liberty and basic essential provisions are true, universal human rights.
Everyone has the right to marry. But no one has an innate right to redefine what marriage means and compel their fellow citizens to accept the new definition.
So if a Christian is inclined to tick YES in the postal survey, because they believe they need to support gay and lesbian couples in their struggle for freedom of discrimination and enjoyment of human rights – that’s unfortunate. Because our laws do not unfairly discriminate, nor deny anyone their human rights.
POSTSCRIPT: When “Christians” adopt this position because they affirm homosexuality as good in and of itself…
There’s actually a more serious issue that could be at play for some who identify as Christians and want to say YES for the above reason – which I’ll attempt to deal with briefly in closing.
It may be that someone who adopts the anti-discrimination/human rights rationale does so because their underlying view of homosexual relationships is that they’re good for those who are involved in them and that homosexuality is a neutral or positive – rather than negative – expression of human sexuality.
This is a serious problem, because if someone calls themselves a Christian but affirms homosexual relationships as good, they are giving support to a change in the law due to a completely unbiblical understanding of human sexuality and marriage.
Australian Marriage law corresponds with the biblical vision of marriage as affirmed by the creation account of Genesis, Jesus Himself, the apostles and the climactic vision of the Book of Revelation. To want the law in Australia changed because you believe the Bible gets it wrong on marriage and sexuality is an untenable position for a Christian to hold.
While I believe that other reasons a Christian might have for voting YES are mistaken and misguided, actual in-principle affirmation of homosexuality as good and acceptable is of more serious concern than all other motivations. Because when someone adopts such a position it is no longer a case of a difference in opinion over political and personal engagement with this issue and those affected by it.
Affirmation of homosexuality is nothing other than a step on the path of apostasy. If you hear someone who’s supposed to be a Christian leader doing this, beware of them. They don’t speak with God’s authority behind them. If you know a Christian who’s thinking this way – it’s much more important that you seek to win them back to the biblical truth than it is to convince someone to vote NO in a survey…
Born: Putnam County, New York Role: hymn-writer; evangelist; mercy missions activist Emphases: closeness to Christ; mercy of Christ; blood of Christ; heaven/beatific vision Protested against: slavery; intemperance;
Most of this profile is adapted from a biographical sermon on Crosby’s life, as it related to Psalm 71. As a result, it is longer and more detailed than most of the other installments in this series.
Frances Jane Crosby or “Fanny” as she was known, was born in 1820, in New York State, America. At six weeks old, she was permanently and completely blinded by a botched medical procedure to treat an infection in her eyes. Before her first birthday, she also lost her father who succumbed to an illness.
Her mother and grandmother, raised her well – going to great lengths to vividly describe the visual world, so that Fanny could picture in her mind what she could not see with her eyes. She was well instructed in poetry and the Bible. In fact she’s said to have memorised the first five books of the Bible, all four Gospels, Proverbs, Song of Songs and most of the Psalms.
Importantly, she didn’t let her blindness make her bitter or dejected, or hold her back in life. At age eight, she wrote her first poem, expressing her attitude towards blindness and life itself:
Oh, what a happy child I am,
Although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
CONTENTED I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t
So weep or sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot, nor I won’t.
This content attitude didn’t mean Fanny lacked aspirations in life. Her eager prayers for an education were answered when she was enrolled in the New York Institute for the Blind, where she earned a reputation as the resident-poetess and worked hard to become a teacher there after her studies. She often read poetry to important people, including Presidents, when they visited the Institute and in 1844 she became the first poet to address the U.S. Congress and arguably the first woman to speak to Congress.
These things make Fanny a remarkable and noteworthy woman – but not really a hero. We get an early glimpse of her heroic potential when cholera swept through New York and several of her students at the Blind Institute were affected. Fanny worked diligently to prepare medicines and risked her life nursing sick pupils and volunteering at the local hospital. She herself had a brush with death, when she began to display early symptoms of the disease.
In God’s kindness she survived, but this event dramatically changed her life. Fanny was challenged by the question – if she had died from cholera – would she have been ready to come before God? She’d had a belief in God her whole life – but she was troubled by the thought that she might not have truly lived for Him and she was unsure of her spiritual state. She needed peace – a Blessed Assurance as her famous hymn would later describe it.
One night as she prayed at a local church service during the hymn “Alas and did my Saviour Bleed?” the line “Here Lord I give myself away” resonated deeply with her spiritually and she had something of an epiphany. In her words: “I realized that I had been trying to hold the world in one hand and the Lord in the other.”
She experienced the conversion or spiritual awakening that she needed, to know she had peace with God. The trajectory of her life was altered, as she sought to live to the glory & praise of her God & Saviour.
Fanny was easily the most prolific hymnist in Christian history. Her life was so devoted to praising God and encouraging others to do so that she wrote anywhere between 6000 and 12000 hymns during her lifetime.
A theme in many of her hymns was Fanny’s yearning for heaven and coming to see Jesus. The connection between her heavenly hope and earthly blindness is beautifully expressed in her comment to a man who remarked it was a pity God had not granted her physical sight.
“Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour”
God also used Fanny’s praises to Him, to transform the lives of others. Her friend Ira Sankey recalls how a young man testified that he became a Christian upon hearing her hymn “Pass me not O Gentle Saviour,” as it resounded from a nearby chapel. He was deeply troubled by the thought of Jesus passing him by and cried out “O Lord, do not pass me by!” The young man confessed that Jesus indeed did not pass him by that day and he was saved.
Another powerful story is that during the Finnish Civil War, seven soldiers had been captured and were sentenced to execution. One of them not long before the execution began singing “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.” He had learned it only three weeks earlier from the Salvation Army. Pondering his imminent death had led him to come to the Saviour he had been told of from a young age, but up to then rejected. His co-condemned comrades were all executed after singing the hymn together. One of their captors was so touched by the comfort and peace these men had in facing death that he himself was personally challenged to come to Jesus for salvation.
Fanny Crosby is not a heroic Christian example simply because she lived an inspirational life of great achievements and wrote more hymns than anyone before or since. She’s exemplary because she used her talents, her profile, her connections, her life to reach people for Jesus. And she was active in these endeavours well into her nineties.
Even in her old age, Fanny yearned to tell others of God’s saving power and righteous help and to proclaim His greatness to the next generation. She worked with one of the greatest evangelists of her time, D.L. Moody and his music team to produce songs that could complement the preaching of the gospel. This legacy continued well past the Moody era, with her hymns later accompanying many Billy Graham crusades and other evangelistic meetings.
But it didn’t stop there. Fanny spoke evangelistically at countless meetings and personally encouraged many people to come to Christ for salvation. She became heavily involved with America’s first urban rescue missions – set up in New York and elsewhere to provide aid and the hope of Jesus to the homeless, destitute and impoverished people of the inner-city. She was known as “Aunty Fanny” to many of these men, women and children to whom she gave so much of her time, money and love, while also sharing with them the greatest thing she had – access to a loving Father through the good news of Jesus Christ.
Fanny had moved to a rough part of the city when she was sixty and was still speaking and seeking the lost when she reached her nineties. It’s been reported that her goal was to reach one million people for Christ. Her dedication to this work is well reflected in what I regard as one of her greatest songs “Rescue the Perishing, care for the dying. Snatch them in pity from sin & the grave. Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen. Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save. Rescue the perishing care for the dying, Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.”
When Fanny Crosby died at almost 95, she had praised God many days and touched lives in many ways. She praised Him with music and song from a redeemed soul and she spoke and sang to innumerable people of the righteous help God had given her and would give to any who came to Him in faith. God’s work of salvation was the subject of her praise and God’s work of salvation was what she longed to see in the lives of others.
If you use the music streaming service Spotify, you can listen to some of Fanny J. Crosby’s best known hymns, including Blessed Assurance, To God be the Glory, Pass Me Not O Gentle Saviour and Rescue the Perishing here.