George Matheson Blind Preacher

George Matheson was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on March 27, 1842.

The story has been told of this Glasgow-born clergyman who was jilted by his fiancée, when she realised that he was going blind.  And how, saddened and alone, he penned the immortal hymn:

O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul on Thee …

True … he wrote the hymn.  But that was in 1882 – and he was “wholly blind by his 18th year”. Matheson himself tells us that his famous hymn was written on 6 June, 1882 – “the day of my sister’s marriage” – and it may well be that the events of that day evoked sad memories of a romance that came to naught 22 years earlier. He went blind while studying for the ministry, and his sister had been the one who had taken care of him all those years until her own marriage.

Despite his blindness, George Matheson became a pulpit giant, even being summoned to Balmoral Castle to preach before Queen Victoria. Matheson had learned to memorise well and so he would commit sermons and entire passages of scripture to memory. Consequently his listeners were often unaware of his blindness.

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For 13 years he ministered to crowds of over 2000 at St Bernard’s Church in Edinburgh.  He was “one of the outstanding Presbyterian ministers of his day,” says one biographer. It is suggested that, had he not been blind, he would likely have led the Presbyterian movement of his day.

However another writer points out that Matheson’s book, Aids to the Study of German Theology (1875) tended toward Neo-Heglianism! Matheson gave up scholarly writing when one of his books, The Growth of The Spirit of Christianity, was heavily criticised for inaccuracies. This convinced him that his blindness kept him from that are of his interest.

However, in his pastoral ministry he shone with great effect.

He also wrote the moving hymn:
Make me a captive, Lord,
and then I shall be free.
Help me to render up my sword
And I shall conqueror be.

Matheson maintained a determination to serve the Lord despite his limitations. In the face of all obstacles he kept his eyes toward God’s promises, as expressed in his most famous hymn: “I trace the rainbow in the rain, and feel the promise is not vain”.

George Matheson died in Edinburgh on 28 August, 1906.

Find hundreds of succinct Church History posts at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/topics/ministry/church-history

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

Frances Jane Crosby the Blind Hymnwriter

Frances Jane (Fanny) Crosby was born on March 24, 1820, in Southeast, Putnam County, New York State.  We know her as Fanny Crosby, or Frances Jane Van Alstyne.  At the age of six weeks a medical charlatan treated her for an eye infection with hot mustard poultices, and as a result she was blinded for life!

Fanny’s father died about a year later.

At the age of eight her bent for poetry began to reveal itself.  She wrote:

Oh what a happy soul am I!
Although I cannot see,
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be …

A godly grandmother introduced explained what things looked like to her and taught to love and memorise the Bible … and Fanny managed to memorise large portions. As a child “she could repeat from memory the Pentateuch, the book of Ruth, many of the Psalms, the books of Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and much of the New Testament!”

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Fanny often told her needs to God and saw him answer. One prayer was for the chance to go to school and learn. At about the age of 15 that prayer was answered and she attended a new school, The Institution for the Blind in New York City. Fanny spent 23 years there, first as a student and then as a teacher.

Despite her religious convictions and Bible knowledge it was not until 1850, at age 31, that she became assured of her soul’s salvation.

She had a dream one night in the Blind School where she worked, a dream that spoke of death and readiness to meet the Lord.  And there was the singing of a hymn by Isaac Watts, at an evangelistic mission she attended:

Alas and did my Saviour bleed
And did my Sovereign die …

She left that meeting assured of sins forgiven.

At the age of 20 she fell in love with another blind student, Alexander VanAlstyne, and some years later she learned of his affection for her. At the age of 37, on March 5, 1858, she married her man and they enjoyed 44 years of happy marriage together. Their only child died as a baby. Her church connection was with the old John Street Methodist Episcopal Church of New York.

Fanny wrote poems and was privileged to recite them to Congress when she was 23, then to entertain Presidents in the years that followed. Her first book of poems appeared when she was 24, titled The Blind Girl and Other Poems.

But her calling to write gospel songs came later in her life. At the age of 44 she was introduced to well-known composer William B Bradbury who suggested that she write the lyrics for a hymn for him. That experience produced “We are going, we are going, To a home beyond the skies” which became a Sunday School favourite and confirmed to her she had found her life calling.

Thousands of Gospel songs flowed from her pen – sometimes seven or eight in a day.

A Shelter in the Time of Storm, Blessed Assurance, Rescue the Perishing, To God be the Glory, Pass me not O gentle Saviour, He Hideth my Soul, and many, many more – about 8,000 altogether.

Many moving testimonies came to Fanny to confirm the awesome spiritual impact her hymns had. She often wrote hymns based on her experiences at New York street missions for working class men. She also preached in these venues. Stories of souls saved due to the use of her hymns around the world testify to the divine destiny of her hymn-writing gift. Each account testified to God’s answer for her prayer that she would be instrumental in saving a million men.

Many composers brought her tunes or asked her for new songs for special occasions. These hymns flowed often in just 30 minutes and then were sung for the next century or so. For years she was under engagement with Biglow and Main to furnish them regularly three songs a week.

Fanny was sensitive to the Lord’s promptings. One night, while preaching in a mission, she felt impressed that some young man had abandoned his mother’s faith and must repent that very night. A 19 year old came forward and found God’s grace. From that experience she wrote “Rescue the Perishing”. On another occasion in 1874 she needed $5 and knelt to ask God to provide. A man visited soon after, just to meet this famous lady, and gave her $5 as he left. This led to her hymn “All the Way My Saviour Leads Me”.

The crusades of Moody and Sankey did much to popularise Fanny’s hymns on both sides of the Atlantic. She also composed much for Mr Doane’s evangelistic work. Music for her hymns was also contributed by such notables as Phoebe Palmer Knapp, George Stebbins, S J.Vail and Ira D Sankey.

At age 90 she declared, “My love for the Holy Bible and its sacred truth is stronger and more precious to me at ninety than at nineteen”. Asked about her long years, she said her secret was that she guarded her taste, her temper and her tongue.

Fanny outlived her husband by 13 years, dying at Bridgeport, Connecticut on Friday morning, February 12, 1915, not long before her 95th birthday.  And then – to paraphrase her own hymn – “she saw Him, face to face!”

Find hundreds of succinct Church History posts at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/topics/ministry/church-history

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman Massacred Missionaries

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman were massacred on November 29, 1847.

This dedicated missionary couple both hailed from upstate New York. Marcus was born in 1802 in Rushville and Narcissa in 1808 in Prattsburgh. Narcissa, born into a devout Presbyterian family, committed herself to the mission field at the age of 16. Upon completion of her own education she taught primary school in Prattsburgh. Then in 1834 she moved with her family to Belmont, New York, still awaiting the opportunity to fulfil her missionary pledge

Marcus studied medicine under a local doctor and received his medical degree in 1832. After practicing medicine for four years in Canada he returned to New York and became an elder in a Presbyterian church. He then felt the call to reach the Indians of Oregon, prompting his trip in 1835 to seek out potential sites.

Narcissa could not get backing from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions since they did not support the notion of unmarried women being sent to the mission field. Marcus and Narcissa solved her problem by deciding to be wed in 1836.

The day after their wedding they left for Missouri in the company of another couple, Henry and Eliza Spaulding. Some years previously Narcissa had rejected Henry’s marriage proposal, nor did Henry have a ‘personality suited to teamwork’.

The group travelled with fur traders for most of the 2,000 miles of ‘gruelling hardship’ and took wagons farther West than any American expedition before them. Along the way, Narcissa and Eliza became the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains. Reaching the Walla Walla River on September 1, 1836, the Whitmans decided to found a mission to the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu in the Walla Walla Valley. Henry and Eliza travelled on to present-day Idaho where they founded a mission to the Nez Percé indian tribe at Lapwai.

Narcissa and Marcus built a “rough lean-to with a mud roof … and only blankets for doors …” There, three months later, a baby daughter was born.

The Whitmans threw themselves into their mission, with Marcus taking church services, practicing medicine and constructing numerous buildings. Narcissa taught in the mission school, while also running their household and assisting in the religious ceremonies. Initially optimism prevailed, as reflected in Narcissa’s letter home, “We never had greater encouragement about the Indians than at the present time.”

Optimism soon faded when the Whitman’s two-year-old daughter drowned in a nearby stream in 1839 and Narcissa’s eyesight gradually failed almost to the point of blindness. Their isolation dragged on year after year and the Cayuse continued to resist their preaching of the gospel.

From the perspective of the Cayuse, whose souls the Whitmans felt they were destined to “save,” the mission was at first a strange sight, and soon a threatening one. The Whitmans did not see the need to make the gospel culturally relevant to the Indians. While the Cayuse saw gifts as an essential part of social and political life the Whitmans thought of it as a form of extortion. While the Cayuse linked religion and domestic life, Narcissa rejected the idea of allowing the natives into their domestic life. Even a sympathetic biographer admits that “her attitude toward those among whom she lived came to verge on outright repugnance.”

As the mission station began to grow “it resembled an inn for immigrants” and prices at the Whitman store – justly or unjustly? – were spoken of as being exploitive. The Indians resented the missionaries’ ‘prosperity’. The mission board 2000 miles away heard rumours and censured them.

Due to the lack of fruit the American Missionary Board decided in 1842 to close the mission and transfer the Whitmans elsewhere. Marcus returned East, undaunted by the coming winter, determined to convince the board to reverse its decision. He was successful and on his return journey in 1843, helped lead the first “Great Migration” to the West, guiding a wagon train of one thousand pioneers up the Oregon Trail.

This influx, however, soon had the Whitmans spending more time assisting settlers than ministering to the Cayuse. They took in eleven orphaned children and their mission also served as a kind of boarding school for early Oregon settlers like Joe Meek, whose daughter lived there for a time.

The mission’s close connection with the influx of white settlers further strained relations with the Cayuse. Narcissa observed in a letter of July 1847 that “the poor Indians are amazed at the overwhelming numbers of Americans coming into the country… They seem not to know what to make of it.”

In late 1847 an epidemic of measles, brought by the white man, struck immigrant and indian alike. However the white children survived, while half of the Cayuse, including most of their children, died.

So it was that on November 29, 1847, several Cayuse, under the leadership of the chief Tiloukaikt, took revenge for what they saw as treachery on the part of doctor Whitman. Of the 72 people living on the mission they killed fourteen, including the Whitmans, and burnt the mission buildings to the ground.

Narcissa was 39 years of age; Marcus was 45.

This event sparked Indian wars which were long remembered. Weakened by disease and subjected to continued white raids, what remained of the Cayuse were assimilated into nearby tribes, especially the Nez Percé and Yakima. Thus the Whitmans’ missionary efforts ended in their own deaths and also the end of the Cayuse as an independent people.

A post referring to to these events and adding other detail has already been posted on September 4, 2008. The link is: http://chrisfieldblog.com/manhood/marcus-whitman-dies-to-reach-the-indians

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

John Milton Applies His Talents to His Faith

John Milton died on November 8, 1674. He is described as “the greatest poet of Christian themes England has produced”.

Born to a family of means in London on 9 December, 1608, his Christian convictions were most probably invoked through his mother, Sarah, who is described as a very religious person. His genius for poetry revealed itself at an early age. His paraphrase of Psalm 136 was written when he was 15 years of age …
Let us with a gladsome mind
praise the Lord for He is kind …

Originally it had 24 stanzas.

Milton considered himself destined for ministry, and was first taught languages by his father, then was schooled at St Paul’s School and Christ’s College Cambridge. After a year at Cambridge he was suspended for a fist fight with his tutor. Milton held his beliefs firmly. He was not particularly liked by the other students. At Cambridge he composed “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” on Christmas Day 1629.

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After graduation he spent time at home, engaged in literature, and then went to the Continent where he met many notables, including Galileo (then under house arrest by the church), the Pope’s nephew Cardinal Barberini and Calvinist theologian Giovanni Diodati.

Milton returned to London and was then caught up in the English Civil War. He became secretary to Oliver Cromwell writing political treatises to counter critical works originating on the Continent. He also wrote several prose works from a Puritan perspective including pamphlets against the episcopy.

At the age of 44 he became totally blind – but continued to write political treatises.

Then – in later life – he turned back to poetry.

His epic work, Paradise Lost, in which he “sought to justify the ways of God to man” was published in ten volumes in 1667. The copyright was sold for 5 pounds Sterling at a time when Milton’s finances had taken a turn for the worse.

Milton’s blindness made huge demands on his creativity. He would compose verses at night and commit them to memory, then dictate them to his daughters or other assistants in the morning.

Many of Milton’s religious views were at variance to Puritan theology, including his disbelief in the divine birth.

His domestic life was sad. His first wife, 17 year old Mary Powell, who married him when he was twice her age, left him after “a few weeks” then returned two years later (1645) and bore him three daughters.

After her death he re-married (1656), but his second wife died two years later.

At the age of 58 he married again to a much younger woman, despite the opposition of his daughters, and this third wife seemed to bring him peace in his last eight years.

His last manuscript, A Treatise of Christian Doctrine, in Latin, was not found until about 150 years after his death. It reveals Arian views – and a willingness to tolerate polygamy … (Chambers Biographical Dictionary).

Paradise Lost is controversial in its Christian message, subtly presenting Satan as the real hero of the poem. Romantic poet William Blake stated that Milton is “a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

Find hundreds of succinct Church History posts at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/topics/ministry/church-history

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.