One evening in 1956, Terry’s sister came home and had a chat with him. “I’ve become a Christian”, she announced.
Terry wasn’t interested. “Aren’t we all Christians?” He responded casually.
She went on to explain the Gospel to him and by the end of the evening, Terry was on his knees asking Jesus to save him.
We now live in a world where people in our nation do not think that ‘everyone is a Christian’. In fact it is pretty unusual for anyone to admit to being Christian. We have so lost awareness of our Christian roots that the average person in Britain is ignorant of how vital a part Christianity has played in shaping our culture. So it is not only fascinating to discover how that came to be but also very important in informing and perhaps changing our mindsets toward our Christian past, especially in days when there is a certain amount of tweaking going on regarding our history.
Last Tuesday we had the joy and privilege of joining a party of friends who were being taken on a tour in the City of London, led by my son Ben, when we visited a few of the many sites significant in our history. The Square Mile of the City is not a large space but it is crammed with such places, eloquent of the huge influence Christianity has in England.
We started at St Paul’s Cathedral, it’s iconic dome no longer dominant because of the many gigantic buildings now surrounding it, but nevertheless standing serene and prominent where a cathedral has stood for fifteen hundred years. The original was built in AD604, and the present one is the fifth to be built on the same site. In the churchyard is a statue of John Wesley, the famous Gospel preacher of the 17th century, who rode tirelessly up and down the nation preaching the Gospel . Thousands listened and their lives were transformed by the glorious truth. The statue is life-sized and depicts a man astonishingly small by modern standards: 5ft 3ins! Yet what he lacked in physical stature, he more than made up for in massive influence. In fact one might say he was a giant, as by his preaching, (as well as that of George Whitefield, his contemporary,) it is highly likely that Britain averted a revolution, which simultaneously was sweeping across France.
Nearby, outside what is now the Museum of London, a copper monument shaped like a flame is located upon which is inscribed Wesley’s testimony. As he listened to a reading from Luther’s commentary on Galatians, a change took place in his heart :” My heart was strangely warmed and I felt I did believe that Christ died for my sins, even mine…” One can visit the church nearby where that took place.
Also in St Paul’s churchyard is the site of Paul’s cross, which was a gathering place and news spot of its day. It was where announcement were made, gossip was exchanged, ideas discussed and proclamations declared. Sadly it was also the site of a huge bonfire of Bibles in the English language ordered by the Bishop of London under Henry VIII. William Tyndale had worked relentlessly on its translation from Latin and Greek for years. He had been hounded from England and had had to work in the Netherlands to finish it. Printing it was a laborious business, but thousands of copies were made and smuggled in to England. The came the denunciation from the King and clergy and the public burning.
Not long after, Tyndale himself was arrested on the continent and also burned to death, chained to a stake. His last words were not for himself, but a prayer that “the king of England’s eyes may be opened”. Only two years later, that prayer was answered and Bibles were to be placed in every church by royal decree!
Smithfield market is 5 mins walk away and tablets on the wall commemorate the burning to death of other courageous men of God whose only crime was to preach the Gospel of Jesus.
It is moving to visit the church of St Mary Woolnoth right by the Bank of England. A small and ancient building, it is where John Newton was vicar for twenty eight years in the 18th century. He himself had been a dissolute and depraved man, a slave trader. At one point in his life he was abandoned on an African coast and was himself enslaved until he eventually escaped and found passage on a ship back to England. A terrible storm arose which nearly took the lives of all aboard. Newton cried out to God in his terror; they all survived. Newton began to read the Bible and discovered the mercy, forgiveness and grace of God and went on to be a minister of the Gospel and wrote the famous hymn, Amazing Grace.
One day a young man came hoping to speak to the vicar. He was admitted and asked Newton for his advice. This young man was a brilliant orator and a member of Parliament, but had recently become converted to Christ. Should he go into the Church?
John Newton shook his head. “Mr Wilberforce, God has other plans for you!” And so William Wilberforce continued in Parliament for another 47 years, giving virtually his whole life to bring about the abolition of slavery. It is moving to sit in that church now and hear that story and to sing that same hymn.
As we emerged into the sunlight we were led down other streets and heard stories of Lord Shaftesbury, a man who was instrumental in getting legislation through to abolish atrocities such as sending little boys up chimneys to sweep them who often suffocated in the process; who pushed bills through Parliament to make education freely available to poor children as well as rich; who brought attention to the scandal of Bedlam where the insane and mentally ill were neglected and abused, and who was tireless in getting many other acts and bills through parliament for the benefit of poor and needy. Why? He was motivated by his love for Christ and obedience to his commands. Elizabeth Fry was another who reformed the filthy hole that was Newgate prison.
These and many others down the centuries have brought education, medicine, and respectful care to the under privileged and neglected, which have passed into our legal framework and cultural expectations, and upon which our social systems have been built. We forget at our peril the humane treatment and legislation which has underpinned our society based on Biblical principles, and has become the accepted norm. It is imperative that we remind ourselves that the motivation for these things was “the love of Christ which compels us”, and the respect and reverence for the human being made in the image of God.
When love disappears and when human beings are considered to be no more than foetal matter, or a collection of evolved cells, motivation becomes muddled; power, ambition and personal choice take over. This is where we are now and it is a dangerous place. Christian history is vital. We need to know where we have come from, who laid down their lives to bring us God’s word and how are we going to carry the torch into the future. Have we the guts and courage of our forebears?
God strengthened and sustained them ; he is still faithful.