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May 17, 2010

Of all the books I read I often feel that the biographies are most helpful to my Christian walk. I developed an early love of the genre from my mother who taught me the importance of reading about and understanding the lives of the great saints of the past, that we might be able to learn from their example. As a child I remember reading biographies of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Eric Liddell and many dedicated but relatively unknown missionaries. I have little doubt that the lives of such people did much to shape my growing faith and I am forever indebted to them.

I was thinking recently about the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, that “hall of fame” of great men and women of the faith. The author writes about many Old Testament figures—Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and others. He seeks to encourage the readers of the epistle to be confident in the certainty of what God has promised but not yet actually given. He encourages his readers to learn perseverance from the examples of these saints. Having done that, he begins chapter twelve with these words: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” He paints a picture of the Christian as a runner. He is in a stadium surrounded by multitudes of people cheering him on as he runs a race. These people who are cheering him have already run and successfully completed this same race. They shout encouragement to those who are still running and encourage them if and when they stumble.

August 26, 2009

A few years ago I wrote about Edwin Alden, a missionary and pastor who served in the United States in the nineteenth century. I have since updated the article and thought I’d share a little bit of what I found.

Edwin H. Alden, was born in Connecticut River Valley, on January 14, 1836, born into a line directly descended from the Pilgrims. He went to Dartmouth College and then to Bangor Seminary in Maine. After graduating, he married Anna Maria Whittemore, was ordained as a minister and enlisted in the service of the American Home Missionary Society, a ministry of the Congregational Church. A document on the website of Wheaton College provides a bit of detail about this organization:

A group of small missionary societies, the earliest of which was the Young Men’s Missionary Society of New York (formed in 1815) along with the New York Evangelical Missionary Society (formed in 1816) and other small agencies combined to make up the United Domestic Missionary Society in 1822. This group was supported by Reformed Churches and the Presbyterian Church. In May 1826, representatives from Congregational, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches met to form the American Missionary Society. During the convention, the United Domestic Missionary Society voted to merge with the American Home Missionary Society.

Its purpose was to assist congregations in the United States and its territories primarily until they could become financially self-supporting. Women’s groups within the society were recognized when a Women’s Department was formed in 1883. Operations of the Society were carried out through auxiliary societies, agents and agencies. In the 1890s the Society membership increased from 17 to 203. However, by 1893 the interdenominational character of the Society had been lost and it was renamed Congregational Home Missionary Society, which was still in existence in 1975.

Reverend Alden was pastor of a Congregational Church in Waseca, Minnesota, but as part of his missionary duties often traveled to other churches, many of which were congregations without pastors. In his travels he followed the railroad west, preaching at newly founded towns and villages such as New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, Barnston, Walnut Grove, Saratoga and Marshall where the railroad ended abruptly at the wide prairie. Where the train stopped, he would stop, attempting to gather a crowd to hear the preaching of the good news of the gospel. Wherever possible he would encourage the construction of a church building and he was often responsible personally for much of the construction. Despite the hardships of his profession, he once wrote, “So far the Lord has prospered us though it has made me many a weary walk and journey, besides many a day’s toil with hammer and saw when nothing would induce anyone to help me—it was so cold—besides many a weary night of anxiety.” Little wonder that he was much respected.

Reverend Alden has been immortalized in the Little House books, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, though unfortunately, more people remember him for his inaccurate role in the long-running television series loosely based on the books. Laura recalls the building of a church in their small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The church had been founded in 1874 and was meeting in the home of one of the members. Being founding members of the congregation and the first two people baptized into membership at the new congregation, Laura’s parents Charles and Caroline Ingalls were eager participants in the construction of this building. Laura records that her father donated three dollars for the purchase of a bell to complete the building. Three dollars was a sacrifice for so poor a family. Later records show, though, that her father had actually donated the handsome sum of twenty-six dollars and fifteen cents! Charles served as trustee and was active in the service of this church. The bell he helped purchase now hangs in the belfry of the English Lutheran Church in Walnut Grove.

The church at Walnut Grove was not the only building constructed under the leadership of Reverend Alden. What follows is his account of attempting to build a church in Marshall during the winter of 1873. It provides just a glimpse into the hardship faced by such frontier missionaries.

The lumber was ordered in October from Winona, 250 miles off. We waited anxiously for the lumber, day after day, but it did not come. Then we heard that it is on a side track sixty miles away, will be here in the next train. Volunteers with teams hurry in from the county to unload it and haul it to the site. It does not come, and the men returned disappointed. After a few days comes—only one car; the other two not heard from. We are anxious. The beautiful October weather is almost gone. Winter is at hand. The road has more than it can do to haul material for the seventy miles yet to be built. Engines and men are taxed to their utmost. Ninety tons of iron for each mile of track must come from Chicago; bridge timber from Winona, 275 miles; ties and piling from the Big Woods, 150 miles.

Night and day they drag their immense loads, carrying back 35,000 bushels of wheat daily. What if they cannot bring our lumber at all! We go eastward eighty miles and find one car. “Can you ship the car for our church tonight?” “Very doubtful. We are obliged to leave here several carloads that have been waiting for days.” After dark, in the rain, with a lantern, we see our car coupled to the westward train and return with a light heart. How it poured, all the night, the next day and the next night, a steady torrent! But our lumber arrived.

Shortly it was framed, raised and partly sheathed. A day or two after came the first great snow-storm of the season, to be followed by others unprecedented for severity and numbers in the history of the state. The house, though held with extra braces, could not stand the fearful gale. It was prostrated soon—buried by the drifting snow. What can be done? The road is blockaded, all the trains but one snowed in, the engines dead. One conductor walks twenty-five miles and telegraphs to the Superintendent. He hastens to the rescue with snowplows, car-loads of provisions and several hundred men with shovels. In time they dig their way to Marshall.

We go by the next train. The weather is beautiful and we move rapidly for seventeen miles. The snowplow comes to a drift; the men ply their shovels; the sky is suddenly overcast; the wind rises, mercury falls, and in thirty minutes all must take refuge in the cars. We are “snowed in.” The next morning, your missionary vies with the rest in the use of the shovel. We make seven miles a day. The train can go no further; no team can be found; we dare not try forty miles on foot over that desolate waste, so we return with the train—only to be snowed in again and find our way to New Ulm as we can—most of the way on foot. Nothing daunted, we take the next train several days later, reaching Marshall at night after a four days’ journey, visit the church site.

A few boards are seen on the foundation. The rest is covered by a deep snow hard enough to bear a loaded team. Can it be dug out and raised again? The carpenter says “Yes.” So says a young lawyer, promising to work his subscription all over again. So say others, and I say “Amen!” Soon the spot is thronged with willing volunteers, shovel in hand, and in two days or so we have the building about where it was before the gale, and passed it over to the contractor for completion. Of course the disaster made us great additional expense which we have not the means to meet.

Will not individuals and churches in the East help us?

I have never know a missionary to end a speech or letter without asking for support. Missionaries who do so today are part of a long and faithful heritage!

The Ingalls family was to run into Reverend Alden again. After only a few years in Walnut Grove, the family moved to De Smet, South Dakota. One wintry evening the family was thrilled to find Reverend Alden once more upon their doorstep. He was as surprised and delighted as they were to find himself in the company of friends. What a small world! The first church service in De Smet was soon held in the Ingalls’ home with twenty-five locals attending. Reverend Alden later wrote a letter of recommendation supporting the Reverend Brown, who was to become pastor of the first church officially planted in De Smet and who officiated the marriage of Laura to her husband, Almanzo Wilder. Alden continued to move west as the frontier pushed toward the coast.

After this time we do not know much about the life of Reverend Alden, save that he married again after the death of his first wife, that he worked among the Indians and settled in North Dakota. He went to the Lord on May 6, 1911, at the age of 75, in his native Vermont.

This is, as far as I can tell, almost all of the information that has been handed down to us about this man. And that’s a pity. He sounds like rather an interesting individual and one I would love to read more about. He was a faithful servant of the Lord and one who played a unique role in a unique time.

May 02, 2009

Last week I read a short biography of John and Betty Stam, missionary martyrs to China. Stay tuned for a review. In that book, written by Vance Christie, was a poem and the story that inspired it. I thought I’d share that today.


The poem, entitled “Afraid?” was written by Presbyterian missionary E.H. Hamilton following the recent martyrdom of one of his colleagues, J.W. Vinson, at the hands of rebel soldiers in northern China. A small Chinese girl who escaped from the bandits related the incident that provided the inspiration for Hamilton’s poem.

“Are you afraid?” the bandits asked Vinson as they menacingly waved a gun in front of him.

“No,” he replied with complete assurance. “If you shoot, I go straight to heaven.”

His decapitated body was found later.

Afraid? Of what?
To feel the spirit’s glad release?
To pass from pain to perfect peace,
The strife and strain of life to cease?
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
Afraid to see the Saviour’s face,
To hear His welcome, and to trace,
The glory gleam from wounds of grace,
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
A flash - a crash - a pierced heart;
Brief darkness - Light - O Heaven’s art!
A wound of His a counterpart!
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
To enter into Heaven’s rest,
And yet to serve the Master blessed?
From service good to service best?
Afraid? Of that?

Afraid? Of what?
To do by death what life could not -
Baptize with blood a stony plot,
Till souls shall blossom from the spot?
Afraid? Of that?

May 01, 2009

This morning I cracked the cover of a new biography—one I spied while browsing the book tables at The Gospel Coalition Conference. It is titled The Life of Rowland Hill: The Second Whitefield and is written by Tim Shenton, a school teacher in England who has several previous biographies to his credit. Dr. Joel Beeke wrote the Foreword and he says this: “Here is biography at its best. Shenton marvellously brings Rowland Hill to life in a balanced and objective way, neither minimizing his remarkable set of gifts nor hiding his destructive blemishes.”

It is only the rare and exceptional biography that can seem to bring its subject to life. If you have read Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards you may have felt, by the end, that you had actually met Edwards—that you actually knew him. The same is true of McCullough’s John Adams and, from what I’ve heard, of his Truman. Some authors have the ability to bring a person to life, to allow you to meet him, even from beyond the grave.

And this is the task of a biographer, isn’t it? His task is to take a person who is unavailable, usually because he is a historical figure who has long since died, and give you a taste of who that person was. A biography that relates no more than cold facts about a person is so much less satisfying than a biography that gives you the man himself.

I paused for a few moments this morning to thank God that we do not need a biography of Jesus. Rowland Hill died 176 years ago. All we can know about him now is what history has recorded of him. His biographer offers 48 pages of end notes, sources, and bibliography—the resources he has had to use to get to know his subject and to attempt to bring him to life in this book’s pages. Jesus died just about 2,000 years ago and a biographer could offer tens of thousands of pages of end notes, sources and bibliography of all that has written about Jesus. At the end of the gospel of John, the Apostle said “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Neither could the world contain all that has been written about Jesus since that day.

Yet we need no biography of Jesus. We have no need of a biographer who can make Jesus come alive. When Jesus ascended to his Father, he sent his Spirit to be his witness. He sent forth the Spirit in his name to testify about himself. Rowland Hill died but did not send anyone to bear witness to him. It is only through the skilled biographer that he can seem to come to life. But Jesus, he died and rose and even today is alive. He is the one man who died, but who has no need for any biographer to bring him back to life. He is, and remains, and will always be, alive!

June 28, 2008

Heaven Without HerI came very close to tossing this book away. With so many books coming my way these days, I need to move assess them quickly, determining which are worth a closer look and which are not. I cannot read them all. In this case, I saw the cover, I saw the title, I skimmed the back and thought “not likely.” But then I noticed that the author had included a little note inside. There she drew my attention to a couple of the endorsements that she felt would be meaningful to me—namely, Nancy Pearcey and Mark Buchanan, both authors whose works I am fond of. As I looked further I saw that it is also endorsed by Ray Comfort. Based on all of this I decided I would read it. And I’m glad I did.

Heaven Without Her is a memoir. It is the life story of Kitty Foth-Regner, who, until the year 2000, was living exactly the life she wanted for herself as an ardent feminist. She owned her own business, and a rather successful one at that, had a live-in boyfriend whom she loved, and owned a house with a beautiful garden. It was all she had ever wanted. But when she learned that her mother had a terminal illness and as she watched her mother succumb to death, her heart was stirred with questions of eternity. Was there something to her mother’s Christian faith, or was that faith really nothing more than wistful delusions?

Kitty set out to determine what was true. Her searching took her through most of the world’s major religions (and a few more). She saw quickly how each of them failed to offer good answers and true comfort. All but one, that is. As she explored Christianity through the guidance of sound pastors and theologians, she found a faith that offered answers to the toughest questions. She found a God who loved her as He had loved her mother before.

In this book, Foth-Regner documents hear search. In a fun and narrative style, she describes how the Bible answered all of her questions and how her heart was first convicted, then convinced, and finally renewed. The unthinkable happened—she became a Christian, and this despite so many years of feminism and agnosticism. Her old passions and desires fell away and were replaced with new ones; holy ones.

Heaven Without Her is a valuable read and I think an important one. i consider it an important apologetic work. Sure it presents truths that have been written in other books over and over again, but rarely have they been written in so readable a style. The innovation here is not so much the content as the style and its readily accessible format. This is an ideal book to give to a person who may have questions about the Christian faith. For that person who seems to be seeking or searching, this is a book that can provide answers and can show how God has worked in the life of another of His children. Despite my initial apprehension, having read the book I now highly recommend it.

(Interestingly, Amazon shows that people who bought this book have also bought Same Kind of Different As Me, another fantastic memoir. I recommend them both!)