Thursday, July 26

Wilberforce and Clapham

No man in all of history fought as hard or as long to abolish slavery as William Wilberforce did throughout his life.  A member of the British Parliament, he introduced anti-slavery measures year after year for 40 years until he retired in 1825. 

On this day in 1833, as he lay dying, word was brought to him that the bill to outlaw slavery everywhere in the British empire had finally been passed. The dream for which he had struggled for decades was now within sight of fulfillment. 

Wilberforce had not always been such a vigorous opponent of slavery, of course. As a youth he was a witty, somewhat dissipated man about town who had misspent his time at Cambridge and squandered his considerable talents on silly amusements. He was a member of the high society elite and he reveled in it. 

A friend of William Pitt—who later became Prime Minister—and himself a member of Parliament, Wilberforce seemed assured of a bright political future. But then in 1784, after winning his election in Yorkshire, he accompanied his sister to the Riviera for her health. As an afterthought, Isaac Milner, a tutor at Queen's College Cambridge and acquaintance from college days was asked along. Milner had become a deeply pious evangelical Christian. He began to share his testimony with the vacationers—particularly urging Wilberforce to commit his life to Christ. 

Wilberforce had always thought himself a Christian. But it became evident to him that a total commitment to Christ was demanded by the nature of the Gospel itself. He struggled in anguish for several months. Part of that time he read Philip Doddridge's The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Here was a faith far deeper than anything he had known. Gradually he yielded. 

After he returned home he had to wonder if it was proper for him to hold a seat in government. He confided his dilemma in Pitt. The ever-ambitious Pitt, wanting Wilberforce as an ally, urged him to remain. Still unsettled in his conscience, Wilberforce spoke to John Newton.  Best remembered as the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, Newton had been converted while a blasphemous sailor and slaver. He counseled Wilberforce to remain in politics as the champion of good causes. 

Several of his new evangelical friends suggested that he take up the slavery issue.  Even Pitt requested it. After many doubts, Wilberforce decided it was what God wanted. He also felt he must tackle causes which would raise the standard of life and morals in England. 

The friends who gathered around him became known as the Clapham Fellowship (or derisively by their critics as the Clapham sect) because most lived in the village of Clapham just outside London. Rarely in history have so many owed so much to so few. These dozen or so Clapham men and women not only fought against slavery but also against every other sort of modern vice. Many were wealthy—and they employed their worldly goods on behalf of godly causes.  Everything from education for the poor masses, support of Bible societies, and private relief organizations to protection of day laborers, creation of Sunday Schools, and establishment of orphanages received their attention. 

But it was the abolition of slavery which remains their greatest achievement—Wilberforce died content just days after his triumph.

Tuesday, July 24

Of Parish Life

The smiling little cottage, where at eve
He meets his rosy children at the door,
Prattling their welcomes, and his honest wife,
With good brown cake and bacon slice, intent
To cheer his hunger after labor hard:
Such is the heart, the soul, the very essence,
Of parish life: the hearth, the home, domesticity.
Thomas Chalmers 

My Utmost for His Highest

Oswald Chambers, Scottish Bible teacher, missionary, and author was born on this day in 1874.  His best-selling book, My Utmost for His Highest, was published shortly after his death in 1917—he had been serving British troops in Egypt during the First World War.  The book, taken from his chapel services, still remains the most popular daily devotional guide in print anywhere.

The Cause of Right

"There is little extraordinary about the achievements of a genius, a prodigy, or a savant.  Inevitably, a great leader is someone who overcomes tremendous obstacles and still succeeds.  That is the essence of courage.  It is the ability to maintain, in the face of grave perils, a kind of incognizance of the consequences of doing right.  It is the ability to maintain great strength without any impulsive compulsion to use it—that strength is to be held in reserve until and unless it becomes necessary to use it for the cause of right." Tristan Gylberd

Friday, July 20

One Giant Leap

Apollo Eleven astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon as they stepped out of their lunar module on this day in 1969. Armstrong's first words still echo across all the years and all the miles: "One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." 

Wednesday, July 18

Nothing by Mere Authority

When the Royal Society was chartered by Charles II on this day in 1662, it was the first scientific society in history. Interestingly, devout Christians, with their interest in God's creation, were most responsible in bringing it into existence. In fact, its membership was overwhelmingly Puritan in makeup.

The Society originally grew out of the meetings of the so-called "invisibles" who gathered at the home of Katherine Boyles. Earlier she had supported the Parliamentarians and Puritans in the revolt against Charles I. Of deep intelligence, she welcomed the group into her house so that she might share the new scientific findings.

The other stalwarts of the Society were likewise quite conservative in their theological inclinations.  Theodore Haak, a professor at the largely Puritan Gresham College, initiated those early meetings of the "invisibles." Chief architect and secretary of the Royal Society after the Restoration was John Wilkins, whose religious inclinations later led him to become a bishop and to prepare arguments in defense of Scripture.  John Willis also helped inaugurate the Society. Considered one of the greatest physicians of his generation, he was so strong in his attachment to the Church of England that he was cold-shouldered at the royal court which inclined to Romanism. Among his many charities, he funded a clergyman to conduct worship services at hours when average working men could attend.

Likewise, Robert Boyle was also a devout believer.  He not only engaged in a series of apologetics projects, he endowed a lecture series to defend Christianity, assisted persecuted Welsh clergymen, and subsidized Scripture translation. An innovative chemist, he developed Boyle's Law of Gases and wrote a book which debunked the pseudo-sciences of alchemy. He is often called the Father of Modern Chemistry.  Perhaps the most accomplished man of his day, Christopher Wren was also a founder of the Society. Best known for rebuilding St. Paul's Cathedral, he was an anatomist who prepared the drawings for Willis' Cerebri Anatome, a geometer (Newton classed him among the best), a physicist Pioneering a number vital impact studies), a meteorologist, and a surveyor. He attempted some of the first blood transfusions and made microscopic studies of insects.

Since each of these founders were sincere Christians, it is not surprising that the motto adopted by the new organization was, "Nothing by mere authority."  The history of the Society affords further evidence that modern science, rather than being contrary to Christianity, is in fact its natural fruit.

Tuesday, July 17

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful

Mark Twain once defined a literary classic as “a book which people praise but don’t read.”  Fortunately, Joseph Malaby Dent, founder of J. M. Dent & Sons, never took that quip to heart.  Over the course of his career he probably did more than any other single individual to inculcate a popular appreciation for the classics—his Everyman’s Library editions, provided excellent translations in durable bindings at extraordinarily cheap prices.  Walk into almost any used bookshop in the English speaking world today and there is apt to be a whole section filled with the little volumes that throughout the first half of the twentieth century became synonymous with the literary life.

Born in the old English village of Darlington, he was the tenth child of George Dent, a housepainter.  As a youngster, he received elementary instruction at a local grammar school that emphasized little more than basic reading and writing skills.  But by the time he was thirteen, he had already entered the workforce as an apprentice to a printer.  Shortly thereafter, he turned to bookbinding.  A voracious reader, he became especially enamoured with the classics—the ragged old volumes he was most likely called upon to rebind. 

In 1867, he moved to London, where he set up his own bookbinding shop.  He quickly gained a reputation for fine craftsmanship; indeed, his customers frequently rued the fact that his fine leather bindings put to shame the unattractive Victorian typography of the sheets they bound.

Encouraged by his rather elite clientel, Dent founded his publishing business in 1888.  His first production, Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia, was edited by Augustine Birrell and illustrated by Herbert Railton, followed in 1889 by Goldsmith's Poems and Plays.  Works by Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Geoffrey Chaucer, Daniel Defoe, Maria Edgeworth, Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, Lord Tennyson, and W. B. Yeats followed between 1889 and 1894.  All of these early editions were expensively produced in limited quantities on handmade paper.  Nevertheless, they enjoyed remarkable following among the literary cognoscenti.

In 1893, the bookseller Frederick Evans suggested that Dent publish a series of pocket volumes of William Shakespeare’s plays.  Though there did not seem to be much demand for cheap editions of the classics—in fact, sales of the great books had suffered a serious and steady decline throughout the latter half of the Victorian Age—Dent decided to follow the inclinations of his own heart and mind.  He established the Temple Shakespeare series in 1894.  The series was an almost immediate success.  Then in 1904, with years of experience publishing classics at popular prices, Dent began to flesh out his ambitious vision for the Everyman’s Library.  It was to be a series of one thousand classics—practically the whole canon of Western Civilization’s great books—sold at an affordable price.  Production began in 1906 and more than a hundred and fifty titles were issued by the end of that first year. 

Thus it was Dent and his passion for the classics that ensured great literature would be available to the general public in durable editions and at affordable prices.

Years later, after the Everyman’s Library  of classics had become a resounding success, Dent said, “When I was about ten or eleven years old I formed the habit of reading which has never since been broken.  I developed peculiar literary affections and habits which inevitably generated an insatiable appetite for the classic masterworks then passing into popular disfavor.  My career was thus established not upon any market sensibility, but upon my own predilection to preserve the good, the true, and the beautiful.”

Saturday, July 14

The Birken’ead Drill

On this day in 1852, one of the worst naval disasters in modern history occurred in the shark infested waters of the South Atlantic.  The British troopship Birkenhead struck a rock shelf just off the coast of South Africa.  The decrepit wood-hulled vessel carried the famed regiment of the 78th Highlanders, Scottish warriors who had distinguished themselves in every imperial scrap from the Napoleonic Wars to the Crimean Conflict.  Also aboard were their wives and children, and of course, the ship’s crew.

It was almost immediately evident that the foundering ship was going to sink.  Unfortunately, there were very few lifeboats aboard.  Nevertheless, calm prevailed.  Orders were given to remove the women and children first by placing them into the few precious lifeboat seats. There was just enough room for them. Within twenty minutes later the boat sank.

Not one woman or child was lost; not one man was saved.  To make matters worse, the Highlanders and the crew of the Birkenhead had to endure grisly deaths—the sharks began circling even as the ship began to list.  Their wives and children were forced to watch helplessly from the safety of the lifeboats. 

Amazingly, in the last few moments before the boat dipped beneath the waves these brave and self-sacrificing men lined up in perfect military formation.  Their piper band played the national air as the ship went down. Like the men of the Titanic a half a century later, the Scottish stalwarts aboard the Birkenhead willingly exercised that age-old Christian virtue of Chivalry: that in times of crisis men must give their lives that women and children may live.

The Birkenhead incident inspired poet Rudyard Kipling, one of the 20th century’s most accomplished defenders of bold manhood, to pen his famous memorial verse, “So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill; Soldier and sailor too.” And thus, the phrase Birken’ead Drill came to be synonymous with courage, valor, and self-sacrificing chivalry.

Friday, July 13

Carver at Tuskegee

On this day in 1896 George Washington Carver, a recent graduate of Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, now Iowa State University, accepted an invitation from Booker T. Washington to head the agricultural department at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes, now Tuskegee University. During a tenure that lasted nearly 50 years, Carver elevated the scientific study of farming, improved the health and agricultural output of southern farmers, and developed hundreds of uses for their crops.

As word of Carver's work at Tuskegee spread across the world, he received many invitations to work or teach at better-equipped, higher-paying institutions but decided to remain at Tuskegee, where he could be of greatest service to his fellow African Americans in the South. Carver epitomized Booker T. Washington's philosophy of black solidarity and self-reliance. Born a slave, Carver worked hard among his own people, lived modestly, and avoided confronting racial issues directly preferring to undermine segregation, prejudice, and discrimination by means of the excellence of his work and the indispensability of his service.

When he arrived in Tuskegee, Carver faced a whole host of challenges. The facilities were abisimal.  Funds for the agricultural department, which consisted little more than a dilapidated barn, a cow, and a few chickens, were altogether non-existant.  Nevertheless, he simply rolled up his sleeves and went to work.  A resourceful individual, he assembled a small group of students to collect materials that could be used to construct laboratory equipment (pots, pans, tubes, wire, and anything else they thought might be useful), and made the tools and devices necessary to conduct agriculture-related experiments.

Carver also had to overcome concerns among the students; many of the students at Tuskegee associated agriculture with sharecropping and poverty. They were generally much more interested in learning the various industrial trades which would allow them to work in the factories and mills of urban America.  But Carver knew better: the soil was the surest path toward self-sustaining community.  Quietly and resolutely he dignified farming by infusing the discipline with science: botany, chemistry, and soil study. Over the course of just a few years, Carver's department, began attracting the best and brightest students.

Over the years, Carver only patented three of his 500 agriculture-based inventions, reasoning, "God gave them to me, how can I sell them to someone else?" He lived frugally, accepting only a small portion of his salary, and donated his life savings to a fund in his name that would encourage research in agricultural sciences. In 1916 Carver was appointed to The Royal Society of Arts in London, England, and in 1923 he was awarded the prestigious Spingarn Medal for his contributions to agriculture. His ingenuity and resourcefulness can be seen today in the hundreds of scientific and artistic items on display at the Carver Memorial Museum on the campus of Tuskegee University.

Monday, July 9

The Hellfire of Edwards

Jonathan Edwards traveled a few miles from his home into western Connecticut and read to a small congregation assembled there the most famous sermon ever delivered in the history of America on this day in 1741.  Entitled Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, its subject was the immanence of judgment and the horrors of perdition.  It was about what we today derisively call "hell-fire and damnation."  

Later described by literary and historical critics as a rhetorical masterpiece, the sermon was astonishingly gripping and terrifyingly vivid, it caused an immediate sensation in the town of Enfield where it was preached.  Even before the sermon was finished, people were moaning, groaning and crying out such things as "What shall I do to be saved?"  In fact, there was such a breathing of distress and weeping that Edwards had to quiet and calm the people several times so he could conclude.  The fervor of the Great Awakening that had thus far by-passed Enfield, now swept through the little town with a white-hot intensity.  

In short order, the sermon was printed and widely distributed throughout the Americas.  It not only won for Edwards great renown, but it provoked a further awakening among its distant readers.  Since then it has been reprinted hundreds of times—perhaps thousands.  To this day it is not only a standard text for the study of great preaching, it has passed into the realm of classic literature—and thus is the most anthologized sermon in the English language.

Thursday, July 5

My Country Tis of Thee

During his long and productive ministry, Samuel Francis Smith composed nearly two hundred hymns. But it is for one he wrote while still in seminary that he was best known. Musician Lowell Mason had asked him to translate some German verses for a song book he was preparing. Among the tunes he handed Smith was a German patriotic hymn, God Bless Our Native Land

When Smith read it, he immediately felt that the United states also needed a stirring national poem.  Writing on scraps of paper that February 1832, he finished within thirty minutes a poem he titled America—though it is best known today by the title My Country Tis of Thee. It was first sung several months later at an Independence Day celebration by a children’s choir in Boston.  The lyrics were then published in local newspapers on this day in 1832.  It gained immediate popularity. 

The tune was actually the official or semi-official melody of about twenty other national anthems--as early as the seventeenth century it had been found in Swiss music and had a long history of usage in Germany, Sweden, England, and Russia. Even Ludwig van Beethoven made it a part of his repertoire--nine years after Smith adopted it, the classical master composer wrote a series of piano variations on the melody.