Born: Blantyre, Scotland Role: Missionary to Africa; Explorer; Scientist Emphases: Reform of Africa through the spread of the gospel and benevolent British trade and colonisation Protested against: Oppression of Africans through slavery
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” – the question posed by American reporter Henry Morton Stanley upon discovering a long-lost British missionary deep within the African continent – has become a well-known phrase throughout the western world. It encapsulates some of the public fascination, in Britain and America, with the fate of the famous explorer David Livingstone in the mid 19th century.
David Livingstone was a unique figure in the history of Christian missions and of the British Empire. He traveled to Africa with his family as a missionary while still a young man in 1840-41. He made an enormous impact upon the continent and its religious future – but is only connected to one convert directly.
Over time he would turn his efforts to other endeavours, such as inland exploration and scientific expeditions, which he saw as complementary to the advancement of God’s Kingdom in Africa. From 1858 until his death in 1873, he was not a missionary as such, yet he regarded his pursuits as pivotal for opening Africa up to further Christian influence and combating the pernicious exploitation and human trafficking of Africans by Arabic and European merchants.
The early years of his time in Africa were dedicated to mission work on the frontiers – moving progressively inland and away from European settlements. During these years, Livingstone baptised an African chief named Sechele, who despite his questionable personal conversion, went on to have an enormous impact on the religious outlook of his fellow tribesmen. When missionaries came to the area many years after Livingstone had been there, they found the locals practicing a form of Christian worship initiated by the Christianised chief.
Livingstone’s ‘discovery’ of Lake Ngami (a fascinating body of water which is prone to disappearing completely and then reappearing for decades at a time) in 1849 appears to have been a significant event that paved the way for Livingstone to turn to more and more expeditionary activities. His quests to chart and locate water courses and sources served as the central element in his strategy to see Africa gospelised and the inhumane enslavement of Africans gradually eradicated.
His aim of Christian control over the Zambezi River would enable non-slave free enterprise in the inland regions of Africa to severely diminish the profitability of the trade routes used by slave owners and traders. Furthermore Livingstone sought the personal acclamation that would come if he could locate the source of the Nile, which he intended to use as social capital to mobilise the British Empire against the slavers. Thus he became a sort of heroic explorer, not as an end in itself, but with the constant goal of seeing the soul and societies of Africa reformed through the gospel of Jesus and the benevolent actions of the empire.
Livingstone’s lifestyle was very hard on the health and well-being of his family and some have suggested that his minimalising of the harsh realities of life in Africa contributed to an unpreparedness that resulted in the deaths of other missionaries. Like so many frontier missionaries from this period, his determination is admirable (He famously said “I am prepared to go anywhere, so long as it is forward”), but his methodology and practice are questionable. Without a certain amount of stubbornness, tenacity and perseverance there is certainly no way he could have functioned in 19th century Africa to the extent that he managed.
Livingstone remains one of the greatest British explorers of the Victorian era and was voted one of the 100 Greatest Britons (in history) in a 2002 BBC survey. He has a wide range of places and institutions named or founded in his honour around the world.
But Livingstone is better remembered by his fellow Protestant Christians as someone who attempted to look at the big picture and strive for the African continent to be transformed by Christianity and its derivative blessings. He was by no means a typical missionary, nor an ordinary explorer, but a man who endured great hardship and suffering while seeking the spiritual, physical and social welfare of the African peoples – whose humanity and dignity he recognised and defended.
T.J. Thompson, “LIVINGSTONE, David” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals
Born: Malden, Massachusetts, USA Role: Missionary to Burma; Bible Translator; Author Emphases: non-coercive, indigenised propagation of the gospel; optimistic postmillennial outlook on mission; credobaptism; self-denial
Adoniram Judson’s early twenties saw several incredible changes take place in his life. He experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity at age 20, leaving behind the deism of his late-teenage years for the truth of the gospel. Over the next few years he became active in his family’s church, applied to serve as a missionary in Asia, married his first wife Ann, had a theological shift from Congregationalism to a Baptist position and began his ministry in Burma just before his 25th birthday.
The Judsons were the first Baptist missionaries to set out from America – indeed they were some of the very first American overseas missionaries. Adoniram was also the most significant figure in the early history of Christianity in Burma. Over a number of years he strove to learn Burmese well enough to communicate the gospel effectively and from 1819 he began a preaching and teaching ministry, with a Burmese zayat or meeting place in Rangoon (now Yangon) as his base.
Judson saw his first converts relatively early and during his years in Burma the Christian population went from non-existent to around 8000 believers. He worked hard to ensure that the Scriptures were available in the local languages and that Burmese Christians were trained as gospel workers to effectively reach their own people in subsequent generations.
He suffered greatly as an innocent man caught up in the First Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26), being subjected to imprisonment and torture under the misapprehension of the Burmese that he was a foreign spy.
Piper describes his mistreatment in his biography of Judson:
His feet were fettered and at night a long horizontal bamboo pole was lowered and passed between the fettered legs and hoisted up till only the shoulder and heads of the prisoners rested on the ground.
He lost his first wife to illness a few months after his release and his young daughter also succumbed to illness six months later. This led to a period of great personal isolation, grief and spiritual depression. Though this looked like it could have easily been the end for the overwhelmed missionary, God had other plans. Judson experienced a resurgence in the early 1830s and gradually saw more fruit from the gospel work.
Judson would not marry again for another seven years, but he wed a fellow missionary, Sarah Boardman in 1834. They would be married for just over a decade before she too succumbed to illness. The loss of his two wives and seven of his thirteen children are a testimony to the extreme hardship of missionary life in 19th century Burma.
He met and married his third wife, Emily, while in the United States following the voyage upon which Sarah had died. They returned to Burma in 1846, where Judson would have just four more years of ministry before his own death at 61.
Adoniram Judson’s impact on Christianity among the Burmese and Karen people has endured for the many years since his death. Piper again:
[T]oday there are close to about 3,700 congregations of Baptists in Myanmar who trace their origin to this man’s labors of love.
His ongoing significance is also felt in the development of American Christianity – with the Baptist churches who joined together to support the Judsons effectively constituting the first national Baptist denomination in North America. “The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions” was pivotal in mobilising American Baptists for global missions and the largest denomination in the US today, the Southern Baptist Convention, is an offshoot of this original convention.
Judson is another wonderful example of a man whose life was radically transformed by the gospel and who took great pains to ensure that the Word of God was made available to those who lacked access to it – that they might receive life in Christ through its testimony. His life will no doubt continue to inspire many to follow his footsteps in taking the good news of Jesus to the unreached parts of the world.
You can read John Piper’s account of Judson’s life here.
Other sources consulted
K.P. Mobley, “JUDSON, Adoniram” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.
Recently I posted my thoughts on why a postal plebiscite may be the best way to resolve the same-sex “marriage” issue politically. Now it seems we’re having one (barring the government’s proposal being struck down by the High Court of Australia). But I’m worried that there will be a number of Australians who understand marriage to be an exclusive, lifelong, legal, social, sexual and domestic union between one man and one woman – but fail to express their convictions by voting NO in the upcoming plebiscite.
One of my points in favour of holding a postal plebiscite in the current political climate was: “A postal plebiscite will see the side that can best mobilise people to vote for their convictions win.” And so I feel a burden and responsibility to encourage people who believe in marriage (as presently defined) to participate in this process, in order to achieve what is now the best chance we have at preserving the proper definition of marriage in this country.
A while back, I would have taken it as a given that almost all of my Christian friends would vote NO in a public vote like the one we’re anticipating will be held over the next few months. But I’ve realised recently that the mood amongst Christians in Australia has shifted a bit, not only in terms of how we think through relating to those who identify themselves according to their sexuality (LGBTI&c), but how we respond to their totemic issues (including “marriage equality”).
I’m concerned that some of my Christian friends will decline to participate in the plebiscite out of fear they will have to give an answer to their gay, lesbian and pro-SSM friends, colleagues and family members – and that confessing that they voted NO will be an alienating element in those relationships.
I’m concerned that some of my Christian friends will take their cues on this issue from online pieces by Christian leaders advocating non-participation in the plebiscite – as the balanced approach after taking all things into consideration – such as this recent post by one of Queensland’s most prominent Christian bloggers.
I’m concerned that some of my Christian friends will decline to vote because they can’t be bothered participating in the potential resolution of such a vexed and drawn-out social issue. And I’m even concerned that some will vote YES because they don’t want to be guilty of any kind of discrimination or oppression against sexual minorities and see the plebiscite as a matter relating to fundamental human rights.
I’m not out to coerce or intimidate anyone into voting or voting a certain way – but I do think it’s really important that as many people as possible vote NO, so I am out to persuade you to a particular course of action. To that end, I want to do my best to tackle some of objections and alternatives to voting NO, while encouraging anyone who’ll listen to vote NO for the best possible reasons, without unnecessary fear or guilt about doing so.
REASONS TO VOTE NO
For this initial post, I hope to briefly outline reasons I believe Christians in Australia should actively reject any proposed changes to the Marriage Act, by using the postal plebiscite to express their objections to the redefinition of marriage. My aim will be to write further on some of these points, as time permits, in the coming days and weeks. I’d also like to address genuine concerns people might have about the plebiscite and the consequences of voting NO, in the hope of removing barriers to them taking what I strongly believe is the best course of action in this situation.
1. The Christian voice can be legitimately expressed on social and moral issues in a pluralistic democracy
There is nothing inherently wrong with Christians (or indeed others) participating in a pluralistic democracy by expressing their deep convictions about the goodness of marriage. In fact such involvement can be very good! This includes voting to reject proposals for legal changes to the Marriage Act when we are unconvinced of their capacity to promote the common good in our society.
2. The language of the Marriage Act represents a true understanding of marriage.
The definition of marriage that currently exists in the Marriage Act appropriately describes what marriage is in reality and should not be altered to make marriage mean something other than what it is. Redefining marriage is endorsing a lie about the fundamental distinctions between heterosexual marriages and committed, long-term same-sex relationships.
3. Only the present definition of marriage has close to unanimous, voluntary recognition in the Australian population.
The establishment of an exclusive, legally-contracted, social, sexual and domestic union between a (consenting and biologically unrelated) single adult male and a single adult female is socially and philosophically recognised by almost all Australians as a marriage.
The same cannot be said of relationships that do not meet the above criteria, which creates problems as to why recognition of a widely unaccepted definition should ever be legally enforceable. Voting NO is about rejecting forced recognition of same-sex relationships as marriages, by people who sincerely believe they’re not marriages.
4. To vote NO is to reject bad legislation that could forseeably lead to encroachments upon fundamental civil liberties and human rights.
It is entirely feasible that forced recognition of same-sex relationships as marriages will lead to the Marriage Act and anti-Discrimination laws being weaponised against people who sincerely hold a different belief about marriage. It has been noted that there are completely insufficient protections for religious freedom and freedom of conscience to protect Australian citizens under current legal arrangements, should the definition of marriage change and politicians appear negligent in addressing these issues.
5. Invented rights should not be allowed to trump fundamental ones.
The right to freedom of religion and the right to freedom of speech are genuine, fundamental human rights and it is dangerous for any government to impinge upon them. The right to legally compel your fellow citizen to recognise your relationship as a marriage against their conscience or will is an invented right which is dangerous to the free exercise of the aforementioned genuine, fundamental rights.
To Vote NO is to assert that contrived rights relating to sexuality are not equally or more important than internationally recognised rights to freely practice religion and express personal convictions. It’s important that everyone’s most basic rights are protected before invented ones are enshrined.
6. Christians fundamentally disagree with SSM-proponents about the capacity for homosexual activity and relationships to bring good and happiness to those who pursue these things.
From a Christian perspective, homosexual activity itself contributes nothing positive to anyone in Australian society – including for those who embrace it as a core part of their identity and lifestyle.
This is not the same as saying that people who identify as homosexual contribute nothing positive to society or to the lives of their friends and relatives, or even the children they may have in their care – that would be grotesquely untrue. But proponents of SSM and Christians fundamentally disagree over whether homosexual activity is itself positive and fulfilling or negative and destructive – and this leads to diametrically opposed ideas of its relationship to human flourishing (see Romans 1:24-27).
Christians should take an absolute stance against the promotion of homosexuality. From a biblical perspective acting out on same-sex attraction is not a matter of pride or something to be celebrated.
But I’d suggest it is also important to resist pushes to further normalise it as a positive lifestyle or conflate gay relationships with the concept of heterosexual marriage.
Voting NO in a plebiscite is saying no to the further normalisation of something we sincerely believe brings no good, in and of itself, to any affected parties.
7. There are genuine concerns about the impact that enshrining SSM in law will have upon future generations of Australians
The more entrenched in law the supposed goodness of same-sex relationships and their equivalence to heterosexual ones (especially marriage) becomes, the more pressure there will be on institutions (especially government ones) to promote a certain understanding of sexuality.
We don’t believe its beneficial to children for them to be indoctrinated from a young age by systematic untruths about human sexuality (as they are being through government education systems already in some parts of the country).
And irrespective of whether the laws of some states already allow for homosexual couples to adopt children or undergo surrogacy processes – we have grave concerns about the impact upon children if our society continues to move in a direction that says we no longer recognise the importance of a child being brought up by a mother and father wherever possible (and most preferably their own biological parents).
8. Loving our neighbours means seeking what we honestly believe to be good – for everyone involved.
Following points 6 & 7 directly above, I believe that voting NO in the plebiscite is a means of loving our neighbour through political engagement. Some may be motivated to vote against same-sex marriage by hatred for gay and lesbian people. I’m advocating the opposite.
Voting NO says, “I sincerely don’t believe that affirming your relationship as the equivalent of a heterosexual marriage is something I can do if I’m truly seeking your good as a person. I don’t want to come across as arrogant or paternalistic, but I believe God has shown us what is best for human sexuality and relationships and that anything other than sexual fidelity between a man and woman in an exclusive, lifelong relationship is not conducive to happiness. And I believe the law should reflect the special role of committed, heterosexual marriages as the overall, best environment to produce and raise the next generation of Australian children.”
You’re free to disagree and keep pushing for recognition if you wish, but I express my NO out of sincerity and love.”
8.In conclusion, voting NO in the plebiscite is an important means for Christians to express their sincere beliefs about the goodness of divinely-ordained marriage and sexuality for the benefit of Australian society.
Australia isn’t a Christian nation. And so, if we were promoting a certain ideal of marriage under the reasoning that it was the way Christians should behave in a Christian society – our approach would be flawed. But Australia is a society in which the culture, traditional values, social institutions and legal system have all been significantly impacted by Christian ideas and in which Christians continue to have a legitimate role in the democratic process.
Voting NO in this plebiscite is not about attempting to initiate a Christian Raj over an unwilling, non-Christian populace. It isn’t about requiring non-Christians to obey Christian moral teaching. It isn’t about coercing political opponents to bow down before us against their will, nor is it about denying human rights to a small sector of the population and promoting ongoing discrimination against them.
Voting NO is part of promoting goodness in Australian society: seeking what we believe is best for the nation as a whole – even when it proves unpopular. It is entirely consistent with the biblical concept of seeking the welfare of the city (Jer 29:7) and with the political ideal of a commonwealth – where law and governance reflects the common, public good to the greatest extent possible.
And many Christians have come to the conclusion that it’s in the greatest interest of society as a whole for marriage to remain defined as it currently stands in Australia.
So I urge, and will continue to urge my friends to vote NO – for goodness’ sake.
I have written a postscript dealing with the 10 points listed by Nathan Campbell as his justification for abstaining from the postal plebiscite, but decided to post it separately to this piece. You can find it at this link.
Born: Paulerspery, Northamptonshire, England Role: “Father of Modern Missions,” Bible translator, educator, social reformer, founder of Baptist Missionary Society, author Emphases: The urgency of mission to unreached people of the world; translation of the Bible into local languages; role of God’s Spirit in missions Protested against: Anti-missionary Hypercalvinism; barbaric Indian customs;
While other Protestant groups – such as the Moravians – deserve credit for their earlier involvement in pioneering world missions, William Carey’s life and ministry in many ways represent a turning point in the history of missions in English Christianity and Baptist churches in particular (pun intended).
Following his marriage just shy of his 20th birthday, the third decade of Carey’s life was full of eventful developments. In his early twenties he became a Baptist, receiving believer’s baptism in 1783. A couple of years later he was pastoring a Baptist church and at around 30 he was ordained as a minister of this movement of churches.
Somewhere during this time he also became interested in the plight of unevangelised peoples around the world. He steadily became more and more convinced of the urgent need for European Christians and well-established churches to bring the gospel to regions that lacked the saving news of Jesus. He was moved to compose his famous pamphlet An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, published in 1792, to urge his fellow Christians to take the appropriate actions in response to the gospel needs around the world.
The lore around Carey suggests he faced strong opposition from Baptists of a more ‘high’ or ‘hyper’ Calvinist bent when making these initial appeals in favour of world mission. A well-respected Particular Baptist minister is reported to have told Carey a few years earlier at a minister’s meeting:
“”Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.”
Despite this attitude, Carey pressed on with his convictions and eventually won over many prominent Baptists for the cause of world missions, including the man who is accused of making the above remark. The “Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Heathen” was founded by Carey and others a few months after the publication of his Enquiry. It later became the Baptist Missionary Society and continues to work around the world to this day.
Around a year later, Carey himself went to India with a view to sharing the gospel to the unevangelised peoples of that region. He needed to find ways to be financially self-supporting, while mastering the local languages and beginning to evangelise and translate the Bible. He lived and ministered in a colonial settlement named Serampore, which was under the control of the Danish government. More than three decades of ministry in Serampore (without ever returning to England) saw far less converts than Carey had hoped for (around 700 Indians, but about the same number again of mixed race or European converts), but he had managed to translate the Bible into six Indian languages (and made partial translations into nearly thirty more local languages).
Carey’s time in India made a number of positive contributions to Indian society – encouraging a blossoming of Bengali literature; establishing educational institutions and using his influence with the British East India Company to push for the outlawing of child sacrifices and sati (the Hindu practice of burning widows alive with their husband’s corpse on a funeral pyre).
He experienced a great deal of personal suffering during this period too. He lost two wives and several children in India and at one point lost a considerable amount of his literary work due to a fire accident. He also had to struggle with the slowness of the evangelistic work and conflict he experienced with the missionary society back in England.
Carey died in Serampore in 1834, aged 72. His contribution to world missions and to Christianity in India was enormous and his motto “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God” has been an inspiration to many to follow his example of faith. His heart to reach the unreached with the gospel of Jesus was a natural outworking of the principles of the Reformation.
The Methodists and revivalists we have looked at over the last month emphasised the need for widespread evangelism – Carey and the other 19th century missionaries we’ll look at in coming weeks understood the need to go beyond evangelising their immediate neighbours and countrymen.
Somehave questioned the impact of Carey’s ministry choices on his family life (see for instance), a subject that often arises when considering the lives of missionaries from this period. There is no profitability in attempting to remove the warts from the portraits of our Christian heroes and the men and women heading into such uncharted territory were bound to make mistakes (including some serious ones). But as we grapple with the enormous challenge of world evangelisation and international church planting that lies before the 21st century church, a life such as Carey provides us with a great opportunity to both learn from his example and evaluate his approach in light of Scripture and the lessons learned from subsequent missions history.
While we must carefully consider a range of factors when it comes to the impact of our ministry decisions, at the end of the day, we need more daring evangelicals who are willing to “expect great things from God and attempt great things from God” like William Carey, rather than less.
You can read his “Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens” here.
“William Carey” wikipedia
B. Stanley, “CAREY, William” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.
Warnings about hardened hearts are some of the most serious in the Bible.
Psalm 95 (recalling the incidents recorded in Exodus 17 & Numbers 20) warns: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.”
Hebrews 3:15 repeats the same refrain: “As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
In the Old Testament, Isaiah laments: “O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?” (63:17a), while in the New Testament Jesus questions whether the disciples’ lack of understanding is due to hardened hearts (Mark 8:17).
According to Hebrews 3-4, hardening our hearts against God is a constant (even daily) threat we must be vigilant against. The deceitfulness of sin poses a deadly danger to our relationship with God and we must continually repent, put our sin to death and keep listening to God’s voice to head off this hardening. At the same time we must recognise our own inability to keep our hearts from hardening and be moved to dependent prayer that God would do by His Spirit what we are unable to do for ourselves.
But while I hope the above paragraphs will serve as a vital reminder about not hardening our hearts – I’m about to tell you why you hardening your heart might be one of the best things you can do today.
Writing about the troubling spiritual conditions of his times, the English Puritan Thomas Watson encouraged his readers to harden their hearts. Not against God, but against everything His enemies threw at Christians as His children.
If we would keep up the sprightly vigour of grace in evil times, let us harden our hearts against the taunts and reproaches of the wicked. David was the song of the drunkards (Psalm 69:12). A Christian is never the worse for reproach. The stars are not the less glorious, though they have ugly names given them, the Bear, the Dragon, etc. Reproaches are but assulae crucis – “splinters of the cross.”
How will he endure the stake who cannot bear a scoff? Reproaches for Christ, are ensigns of honour, and badges of adoption (1 Peter 4:14), the high honours of accusations (says Chrysostom). Let Christians bind these reproaches, as a crown about their head. Better have men reproach you for being good, than have God damn you for being wicked! Be not laughed out of your religion. If a lame man laughs at you for walking upright—will you therefore limp?
-Thomas Watson, The Great Gain of Godliness, 11.
Hardening your heart against God’s voice today will be a step on the path towards your destruction. But hardening your heart against the voice of God’s enemies when they spew their hateful invective, tear your down with slander, belittle your faith, portray you as delusional, or malign you for identifying with Christ in any other way is actually a means of preserving yourself as you walk the pathway to salvation.
Hardening our hearts against God results in ignoring or making light of what He says to us in His Word. That’s exactly what Watson encourages us to do with the words of those who would destroy our faith or incite hatred towards us.
The fear of man can easily lead to us caring more about what the world is saying about us or about the issues that affect us, than we do about what God says. But the fear of God should have the opposite effect. It causes us to remember that God’s words carry enormous weight, while those of His enemies are light, feathery and eternally inconsequential.
Christian, harden your heart today against the words of the wicked – for this will help you not to harden your heart against your God.
Born: Durham, England Role: Champion of human rights and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire; Classical grammarian (and contender for Christ’s divinity against heretics in that capacity) Emphases: The Divinity of Christ; the human dignity of slaves Protested against: Slavery; Socinianism; Catholic influence in Church and State
Most of this profile is adapted from a biographical sermon on Sharp’s life, in relation to Titus 2:11-14. As a result, it is longer and more detailed than some of the recent installments.
When it comes to selecting a representative from the notable Christian figures involved in the British Abolition movement, there are a handful that possess a kind of “X Factor” that makes them noteworthy in the timeless sense. William Wilberforce is the most famous and pushed the relevant legislation through the British Parliament after years of setbacks and defeats. Hannah More wrote poems addressing this contentious social issue in “one of the earliest propaganda campaigns for social reform in English history”. John Newton, a slave-trader-turned-gospel-minister was a powerful spiritual companion to the leading abolitionist campaigners and author of America’s favourite hymn Amazing Grace. And Olaudah Equiano came from the opposite end of slavery to Newton – having once been owned as the property of men, but becoming the leading black voice against slavery in the UK in the years following his emancipation.
TL – BR: William Wilberforce, Hannah More, John Newton, Olaudah Equiano
Any of these figures are worthy of a dedicated profile and yet this series can only hone in on one Protestant opponent of nefarious 18th century human trafficking.
Granville Sharp was considered the elder statesman of the abolition movement – the “father” or “grandfather” of the cause that Wilberforce and others would take up with such zeal. His “X Factor” was that he so thoroughly loved God and his neighbour that he would work tirelessly to uphold the glory of His King and the rights, well-being and dignity of his fellow man. This is displayed in his defense of the biblical teaching on Christ’s deity and his advocacy for slaves and others whose suffering moved him to action.
A self-taught scholar and champion for Christ’s honour
As the grandson of an Archbishop of York in the Church of England, one would expect Granville Sharp to have had a privileged upbringing. But he was a younger son in a large family and lacked the educational opportunities his two elder brothers received. Yet he was raised in a devout Christian home and was privileged to know God’s truth from a young age.
But Granville’s privilege of knowing God and the teachings of Jesus would drive him to improve his knowledge in areas where he’d lacked education. And in turn, he seemed apt at utilising whatever new knowledge he gained to help him live more effectively as a Christian.
This was demonstrated early on in his career, while working as an apprentice for a linen draper. One of his work colleagues was a Socinian – a member of a group that denied fundamental Christian teachings on Jesus and the Trinity. This young man would debate Granville on those issues and others, and told him that his positions came from his lack of ability to comprehend the original Greek of the New Testament. In response to this, Granville began diligent private study of NT Greek over many years and paid careful attention to how to read the passages dealing with Jesus being fully divine. He also studied Hebrew after some discussions with a Jewish colleague, who likewise suggested that Granville misunderstood the Old Testament prophecies relating to Christ due to language.
Despite never receiving formal tuition in either language he became basically an expert in both and discovered a grammatical rule that’s still taught to students of New Testament Greek today. The “Granville Sharp Rule” as it has come to be known, addresses the grammatical issues in several key passages of the New Testament which Trinitarian Christians cite as evidence for the deity of Christ, while unitarian sects offer alternative interpretations of the grammar that produces wildly different theology.
Without going into technical detail that would be lost on readers with no acquaintance with NT Greek, Sharp’s contribution is key in passages such as Titus 2:13, which refers to “our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (the dispute being over whether this refers to one Person, i.e. Jesus Christ, who is [both] our Great God and Saviour OR two persons, i.e. 1) Our Great God & 2) [our] Saviour Jesus Christ) and 2 Peter 1:1, which refers to “the righteousness of our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” Sharp proved convincingly that in such passages, the two titles in Greek refer to the same person: Jesus.
His important work has not silenced cultish opponents of Christ’s divinity, but Sharp’s rule gives greater confidence to orthodox Christian students of the New Testament in interpreting these crucial passages; provides a possible avenue of correction for those who have been led astray by false teaching employing these texts and increases the condemnation of those who reject the biblical teaching when confronted with their errors. Sharp provides a model for serious biblical scholarship motivated by a love for Christ and the truth concerning Him.
A tireless champion for the oppressed
When he was thirty – and already accomplished in his language capabilities – certain circumstances caused Granville’s life to take an unanticipated turn.
His brother William was a doctor, who allocated time each morning to provide medical treatment to the poorer members of their community. One day a black African slave who had been brutally pistol-whipped and cast out by his master turned up at William’s house for treatment. Granville met this man, whose name was Jonathan Strong, and learned of his situation. The Sharp brothers provided care for Strong and got him into hospital where he spent around four months recovering. Afterwards, they assisted him in finding employment in the services of a local pharmacist and his family.
Two years later, Granville received a letter from a man interned at a local prison. It turned out to be the same slave he and his brother had helped out earlier. He had been kidnapped in a plot hatched by his former master and was being sold on to someone else for £30 (maybe around $6000 Australian dollars today). Granville managed to get Strong released from prison by the Lord Mayor of London and set free – but his master, a lawyer named David Lisle sued Granville and his brother James, for depriving him of his lawful property. The slave – he maintained – had always belonged to him.
The odds were against the Sharps. Their legal counsel told them that the legal opinion of the day, including that of the Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, was that slaves do not become free upon coming to England and that therefore they lacked the grounds for a solid defence against the charges. With no realistic prospect of victory or even being able to secure professional legal representation – the Sharps were not in an optimistic situation.
But Granville, in a step of great boldness and faith in God, did not look for an easy way out of the situation, but instead, in his own words he was compelled “to make a hopeless attempt at self-defence” – despite never having opened a book on the subject of law in his entire life. But something amazing happened.
Over the course of two years, with the prospect of legal defeat and financial loss constantly hanging over his head, Granville Sharp made a dedicated, in depth study of English law – especially in matters that related to the entitlement of liberty belonging to subjects of the British Crown.
And after hours of diligent study, the man who discovered a principle in Greek grammar to use in defense of the truth about his Saviour, also discovered a principle in English law that he could use to defend the right to liberty of a black man made in the image of the God Granville loved and served.
Granville published a tract titled “On the injustice of tolerating slavery in England,” which he circulated to various eminent legal professionals, including those involved in his case. In it, he presented a compelling case against the way the legal status of slaves had been regarded by the courts in recent times and argued strongly that slaves were human beings on English soil and thus were entitled to all the liberty and legal rights of any other subject of the King. He also went to great lengths to demonstrate that slavery contradicted English law & that the supposed rights of masters over their slaves would never stand up in court.
His adversary’s lawyers were too intimidated to proceed with the case and the slave-owner was fined by the courts for wasting their time. Against all odds, Granville had triumphed and Jonathan Strong remained a free man.
Granville’s “good works” related to abolishing slavery included using his time, energy and money to assist black slaves in having their cases heard in court. While he succeeded in securing the liberty of several men through legal action, he had also began seeking opportunities to fundamentally challenge the entire status quo regarding slavery in Britain. He did this by writing, sending private letters to key members of society he felt could do something about the evils being suffered by slaves. But he also published tracts which he hoped would continue to influence members of the legal profession as his earlier work had, while also affecting attitudes towards slavery in the wider society.
His tracts presented strong cases for slaves’ welfare, not only based on English justice, but also on biblical grounds. Granville was convinced that God had judged slave-holding societies in the past and would do so with Britain and her colonies if there was no repentance. While many sought to justify slavery on biblical grounds and many non-believers continue to attack the Bible’s supposed endorsement of slavery today – Granville forcefully and consistently used the Old and New Testaments to condemn the existence of slavery in a professedly Christian society. All would have to answer to God for failing to love their neighbour as themselves and for subjecting Africans to a harsh form of slavery that went well beyond the kind of servitude that was temporarily permitted in Israelite society.
But he also contributed directly to many great developments in the fight against slavery. In 1772, he was the driving force behind a legal victory in the landmark Somerset Case. The result of the case was the release of James Somerset a slave originally from America who had been rescued by court injunction in the midst of being sent from England to Jamaica by his master for resale. The court found that there were no grounds in English law for the man to be regarded as enslaved to his master now he was under British legal jurisdiction. This didn’t mean immediate freedom for all slaves in Britain, but in principle it deprived slave-masters of a strong case for ownership of their slaves if ever brought to court.
In 1783, he learned of a horrific massacre that occurred at sea when the crew of a slave-trading vessel threw around 140 slaves overboard so they could claim them under insurance as jettisoned cargo. Granville failed in his attempts to have the ship captain prosecuted for mass murder, but he used the horrid nature of this event to awaken the British public about the horrors of the slave trade.
In 1787 he co-founded and became the inaugural chairman of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This group worked hard to change public opinion about slavery, but also made a concerted effort to see legislative change in parliament. That change came in 1807, when Granville was 71 years old. British Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, which prohibited all slave trading within the British Empire and was enforced by the Royal Navy.
While Granville Sharp died twenty years before the total abolition of slavery itself was achieved through the efforts of William Wilberforce and others in 1833 – he had provided both the groundwork and the inspiration for many of the men and women who fought and won that battle in their day. Through the various causes and societies he was involved in promoting or even initiating – he had shown himself zealous for good works in every way. A man who loved God’s truth and was determined to see it understood properly and applied to the benefit of his fellow men.
During his 78 years he had glorified God and sought the good of others, through his studies, through his writing, through his advocacy, through his philanthropy and through involvement not only in the cause of oppressed Africans, but in organisations like the British and Foreign Bible Society and at least two mission societies. In the final year of his life, he also helped found the Protestant Union in Britain, which sought to preserve British political and religious freedoms in the face of a possible Catholic resurgence in the nation (which he understood to preclude freedom to non-Catholics).
Granville Sharp’s life challenges us to think about what really matters in life and helps us consider how to live in light of the glorious truths of the gospel.
Some Christians think a lot about theology – but are putting very little time, energy and money into things that help the spiritual and physical welfare of their neighbours. Others care about social issues and try to do lots of stuff, but lack a deep appreciation of who God is and lack the ability to explain the gospel and important biblical truths for themselves and for the benefit of others. Others profess Christ but don’t do very much of either.
Granville Sharp shows us that what matters most in life is to know who Jesus is and what He’s done for us. He shows us that devotion to better understanding the Bible and how to share its truth with others is not simply the territory of Bible college students. He shows us that the goal of all our studies should be to glorify God by acquiring knowledge that can be utilised in seeking the good of others. He shows us what being “zealous for good works” in response to the gospel might look like.
Rather than being daunted by Granville Sharp’s obvious brilliance, we can draw inspiration from his determination. Ours is an age where precious, central biblical truths need defending and Christians need to be strengthened in the confidence that they are holding fast to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude v. 3). It’s also a time when human trafficking remains an enormous problem and Protestants ought to be protesting about the wicked treatment of our fellow human beings.
Sharp has shown us the way: love for Christ, love for our neighbours and hard work and determination to serve the interests of those we love.
Born: Gloucester, England Role: Itinerant Preacher; significant (Calvinistic) Methodist figure; chaplain Emphases: Divine Sovereignty; need for spiritual regeneration; open-air preaching; working across boundaries Protested against: Anglican unfaithfulness to the gospel; Roman Catholicism
George Whitefield was closely associated with the subjects of our last two profiles (John Wesley and the Countess of Huntingdon), but he himself is a giant in the history of preaching, evangelism and religious revival; a key figure in Methodism and in American and English religious history.
American historian Thomas Kidd summarises Whitefield’s significance:
1. “Whitefield was the most influential Anglo-American evangelical leader of the eighteenth century.”
2. “He also indelibly marked the character of evangelical Christianity.”
3. He “was the first internationally famous itinerant preacher and the first modern transatlantic celebrity of any kind.”
4. “Perhaps he was the greatest evangelical preacher that the world has ever seen.” 
Whitefield was one of the earliest Methodists – joining the Wesleys’ ‘Holy Club’ at Oxford around 1729/30. After having a conversion-experience as a result of reading the 17th century Presbyterian Henry Scougal‘s work The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Whitefield promptly dedicated himself to gospel preaching. He was ordained as a deacon within the Anglican church, but continued to be actively involved with the earliest Methodists.
In early 1739, he preached to a very large open-air crowd in Kingswood, near Bristol in England. Whitefield gave the following account of his outdoor-evangelistic debut:
‘At four I hastened to Kingswood. At a moderate computation there were about ten thousand people … All was hush when I began: the sun shone bright, and God enabled me to preach for an hour with great power, and so loudly that all, I was told, could hear me…About nine I came home, rejoicing at the great things God had done for my soul 
Later that year, he invited John Wesley to begin open-air preaching and continue the work he had begun in the area, as he prepared to head for Georgia in North America (where Wesley himself had gone a few years earlier, only to return to England after a terrible ‘false start’ to his ministry).
It is estimated that Whitefield preached to crowds of up to 50 000 people at a time during this first year he spent touring the American colonies. He started an orphanage in Georgia, which he tirelessly raised funds for while going about his evangelistic preaching ministry on both sides of the Atlantic. A friend began advertising Whitefield’s upcoming preaching dates in local newspapers to publicise the events and attract as many people as possible – which contributed enormously to his popularity and reach.
His theological differences with Wesley – one of the most famous Calvinist-Arminian conflicts in church history – led to a natural alliance with the similarly minded Countess of Huntingdon within the growing Methodist movement. The two became the lead figures among the Calvinistic Methodists and had a somewhat strained relationship with the Wesleys and other Arminian Methodists over the years. The Countess made Whitefield her chaplain and funded many of his evangelistic tours in England and America.
Like Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield’s preaching in North America was one of the major means through which God worked to bring about the spiritual revival known as the (First) Great Awakening. Whereas in our day it is not uncommon to meet Christians in their autumn years who were converted after attending a Billy Graham crusade, an enormous multitude had profound spiritual experiences under Whitefield’s earnest, dramatic and powerful preaching. And, also not unlike Graham, there was division among Christians and churches across the country as to whether Whitefield’s ministry and the revivals that seemed to be occurring were a positive thing or not.
It is of course difficult to gauge how many people who had a spiritual experience during the revival went on to bear the ongoing fruit that evidenced a true conversion. But there can be no denying that God used Whitefield’s preaching to draw many souls to Himself and bring them to salvation through the gospel of Christ. Reportedly 80% of America’s population at the time heard him preach at one time or another. And biographies of his life testify to his tireless work – day in day out, all year round – for the advance of God’s Kingdom through the preaching of the gospel.
Whitefield died in his mid-fifties and the Countess of Huntingdon took care of his orphanage in Georgia after his death, along with the estates he bequeathed to her. He had laboured in the gospel for 33 years and touched countless lives. Mass evangelism has continued as a medium long after his death – made easier by the construction of stadiums and arenas, along with the advent of new technology. And yet there has never been another figure quite like Whitefield in the years since.
He remains an inspiration to evangelists, Calvinists, Wesleyans and many other Christians the world over.
You can read more about Whitefield’s life and ministry here.