Thursday, February 22, 2007

God Made All Men Equal

Imagine for a moment what the economic impact would be if the Canadian and American governments became serious about dealing with pollution and climate change and banned the manufacture of new cars and trucks immediately. We would simply not make them any more. You could continue to own the one you have, but no new parts would be made either, so once they ran out, that was it. What would happen to our economy if this were to happen?

Well, that’s about the size of the impact of the slave trade in Britain and her colonies in the Americas a little over 200 years ago. There were very few sectors of the British economy that did not directly or indirectly rely on the use of slave labour. It was for this reason the British Parliament had resisted all previous efforts to curtail the trade. Then along came a man named Wilberforce.

William Wilberforce was born in the city of Hull, England in 1759, into a wealthy merchant family. Influenced in spiritual matters by his Methodist aunt he eventually attended St. John’s College, Cambridge where, as he put it, “As much pains were taken to make me idle as were ever taken to make me studious.

Not wanting to get involved in the family business he sought out a seat in Parliament, and in 1780, succeeded in being elected as the Member of Parliament for the county of Yorkshire. At first his political career looked a lot like his academic one. He later admitted, "The first years in Parliament I did nothing—nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object."

At Easter of 1786 however, he had a spiritual awakening and, determined that his life should not be without purpose, he decided to champion the cause of those who lived at the opposite end of the economy to himself – the slaves. He had been greatly influenced by the work of one, Thomas Clarkson, who had written a pamphlet entitled “The Impolicy of the African Slave Trade” which had been widely distributed.

Wilberforce tabled his first bill seeking the abolition of the slave trade in April of 1791. It was defeated 163 votes to 88, but William, undaunted, continued tabling a new bill in ever single session of Parliament. He came close to succeeding for the first time in March of 1796, when all indications were that the bill would succeed by at least a dozen votes. His opponents however, took advantage of the premier of a new opera on the night of the vote, sending free tickets to Wilberforce’s softest supporters. They used the tickets and the bill was defeated 74 to 70.

Feeling betrayed and devastated by this defeat, Wilberforce wrote to his friend and mentor, John Newton, the ex-slave captain turned minister, who penned the words the famous hymn, Amazing Grace. Newton wrote back, “Though you have not, as yet, fully succeeded in your persevering endeavours to abolish the slave trade, since you took it in hand the condition of the slaves in our islands has undoubtedly been already improved... you have not laboured in vain.

It is true that you live in the midst of difficulties and snares, and you need a double guard of watchfulness and prayer. But since you know both your need of help, and where to look for it, I may say to you as Darius to Daniel, 'Thy God whom thou servest continually is able to preserve and deliver you.' Daniel, likewise, was a public man, and in critical circumstances; but he trusted in the Lord; was faithful in his department, and therefore though he had enemies, they could not prevail against him.

Indeed,” Newton continued, “the great point for our comfort in life is to have a well-grounded persuasion that we are where, all things considered, we ought to be. Then it is no great matter whether we are in public or in private life, in a city or a village, in a palace or a cottage. The promise, 'My grace is sufficient for thee,' is necessary to support us in the smoothest scenes, and is equally able to support us in the most difficult.

William continued the fight despite the opposition and ill-health that dogged him every step of the way. Using what was described as “his natural charm and eloquence” he used every tactic at his disposal to make the rest of parliament understand that slavery was “unacceptable in a civilized and moral society.”

Finally, a bill calling for the abolition of the slave trade was introduced to the House of Lords (the inspiration for the Canadian senate) by Lord Grenville, a supporter of Wilberforce’s. His impassioned speech called the Upper House to account for it’s reprehensible conduct in allowing such an abominable industry to continue. To everyone’s surprise, the bill was passed by a vote of 41 to 20.

This sent the bill to the House of Commons for a vote, where member after member called for the bill to be passed, praising Wilberforce for his 20 year campaign to end the slave trade. Finally, at 4:00 a.m. the vote was taken. The bill was passed by an overwhelming vote of 283 to 16. One month later it was given royal assent and became law throughout the British Empire.

While the bill only banned the trading of slaves by British companies or on British ships and not the owning of slaves itself, it marked the beginning of the end for the slave trade between Africa and the American continent. Canada banned slavery completely three years later in 1810; but it would not be until 1833, just three days before his death, that an ailing Wilberforce would receive word that all of Britain’s slaves had finally won their freedom. The slave trade in America came to an end in 1863.

William Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey on August 3rd, 1833. The funeral was attended by many members from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as many members of the public. The pall bearers included such noted men as the Lord Chancellor and the Duke of Gloucester. In 1840 a memorial (pictured) was erected in the north choir aisle of the abbey.

The legacy of William Wilberforce is not just the end of slavery in the British Empire, it is also the notion that one man, with his heart in the right place and God on his side, can make a difference in how the world works. He demonstrated that it is possible, however unlikely, for the Kingdom of Heaven to be lived out in the real world if we have the will and determination to see it happen.

That fateful vote in the House of Commons, began on the evening of February 23rd, 1807 — 200 years ago this week.

Other events that took place this week - Feb. 18 to Feb. 24

February 18, 1678 - "Pilgrim's Progress" is published for the first time, in England. The author, John Bunyan, spent a total of twelve years imprisoned for preaching without a license contrary to the rules of the Established Church. It was during this times, between 1660 and 1672, that Bunyan conceived the ideas that he would eventually turn into this masterpiece of Christian literature.

February 19, 843 - Empress Theodora, at the request of a Council in Constantinople, reinstates icons once and for all in the Eastern churches, effectively ending the medieval iconoclastic controversy. A similar Council had allowed the use of icons back in 787, but opponents of these images still controlled much of both the government and the church leadership. The controversy did not end there, however, and is cited as one of the reasons for the Great Schism between Catholics and the Orthodox in 1054.

February 20, 1895 - Frederick Douglass, the first African-American to hold high political office, serving as an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, dies in Washington, D.C. After escaping to freedom in 1838, he became the most prominent black abolitionist touring the country to rouse support for the movement. In his speeches he often criticized the "Christianity of this land," for tolerating slavery, considering himself a devotee of "the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ".

February 21, 1945 - Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic runner whose story is told in the film Chariots of Fire, dies of a brain tumor. In 1925, he joined the staff of the Anglo-Chinese Christian College in his birthplace - Tientsin, China. Captured by the Japanese in 1942, he died just before he was scheduled to be released.

February 22, 1906: Itinerant evangelist William J. Seymour arrives in Los Angeles to lead a Holiness mission (an interdenominational group planted to evangelize an area). The group grew larger as word spread of its revival meetings and the fact that “speaking in tongues” was a regular occurrence. Eventually, they moved to a rundown building located at 312 Azusa Street. Later on, the famed "Azusa Street Revival" broke out under Seymour's leadership. It was one of the pioneering events in the history of 20th century Pentecostalism.

February 24, 1582: Pope Gregory XIII issues a bull (a type of holy edict) requiring all Catholic countries to follow October 4 with October 15 and replace the Julian calendar with the Gregorian (named for the pontiff and which we still use today). By this time, the Julian calendar had drifted from the equinoxes by a full ten days, and so a new calendar had been devised. In some communities where education was not readily available there were protests of the action as some believed the church was robbing them of 10 days of their lives.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Spreading the Word

There is a real temptation during the week of February 14th to write about St. Valentine and how he performed secret marriages among the troops. It is a temptation I have no problem resisting. Instead I’d like to tell you about the creation of an alphabet.

Usually, things like alphabets and written languages evolve over time. Early peoples in a region start by using glyphs to record important events and the like, then over time these are simplified even further to create symbols that represent sounds and a phonetic alphabet is born. (This is an over-simplified explanation, but you get the idea.)

On occasion however, things happen very differently. Around the year 860, Rastislav, one of the Moravian princes, asked the Byzantine emperor to send someone to teach his people about Jesus Christ. Patriarch Photius assigned two brothers,
Cyril and Methodius, to the task.

It was a good choice. Cyril (his adopted monk name, original was Constantine) was born in Thessalonica around 826 to an officer in the Legion of Thessalonica and his Slavic wife. When his father died he moved to Constantinople, where he entered the Imperial University at the age of fourteen. Cyril was ordained priest and eventually became a professor at the university. After a mission to the Arabs, he joined his brother, Methodius, who had retired to a monastery on Mount Olympus, in Bythnia. By the time the Moravian quest was made Cyril was fluent in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Slavic.

In Moravia, Cyril faced a challenge when it came to teaching the Slavs to read the scriptures; there was no written version of the Slavic language at the time. As a solution Cyril invented the
Glagolithic alphabet, enabling him and his brother to translate both Biblical and liturgical texts into the vernacular. Their writings taught salvation through faith in Christ to the people in a voice they could understand. Christianity spread quickly among the Slavic peoples as a consequence.

It should be noted that the edicts requiring the Bible to be read in Latin only came from Rome. As Patriarch in Constantinople Photius did not agree with a great deal that Rome had to say. He granted Cyril permission to create the local translation.

Eventually, the Magyar invasions of the early 10th century and German opposition will reverse the evangelical progress the brothers made, but not their writings or the alphabet. Disciples transplanted Christianity to Bulgaria and carried the translations (and the alphabet) south. When Vladimir of Russia converted to Christianity a century later, he adopted the Orthodox faith. The brothers' translations and writings made their way to his court where they influenced the Russian church for many centuries. Cyril’s Glagolithic alphabet was improved upon by his disciples and became the Cyrillic script (named after their mentor), which is the alphabet used for several East and South Slavic languages—Belarusian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Russian, Rusyn, Serbian, and Ukrainian—and many other languages of the former Soviet Union, Asia and Eastern Europe. The original Glagolithic alphabet is known as
Church Slavonic and is still used in many Orthodox Church documents. An example, a page from the the Kiev psalter, is pictured at right.

German bishops of the Roman Catholic church had criticized the brothers and argued that the slavs should use Roman style worship. Cyril and Methodius travelled West to defend their practices. Pope Hadrian II accepted their work with enthusiasm but this did not please the Germans. In the end the Germans got their way.

Cyril’s approach to spreading the gospel message continues to this day. Many of the world’s many languages did not have a written script until the likes of the Wycliffe Bible Translators came along and created one so the people could read the scriptures in their own vernacular. To date Wycliffe alone has translated the Bible into 611 languages and estimates that there are still 2644 languages to go, representing more than 380 million that still cannot read the Bible in their own tongue.

Cyril created a textual language for millions of people when he set out to share the gospel with the people of Moravia. His example inspired many others who in turn have made the scriptures available to the entire world. Quite a legacy for one man and his brother.

Cyril died in Rome and was buried in the Basilica of St. Clement. It was February 14, 869 — 1138 years ago this week.

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Other events that took place this week - Feb. 11 - 17

February 11, 1858: - Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old shepherd girl from Lourdes, France, experiences her first vision of the Virgin Mary. By July she had 18 similar visions.
Despite initial skepticism from the Roman Catholic Church, these claims were eventually declared worthy of belief after a canonical investigation. As a result the town became a major site for pilgrimages which attracts millions of Catholics each year. Saint Bernadette was canonized in 1933.

February 12, 1915: - Blind poetess and hymn writer Fanny Crosby dies at age 95. Throughout her long career she wrote more than 8,000 gospel songs and hymns, including "To God be the Glory", Tell Me the Story of Jesus", and "I am Thine Lord". Many of her hymns remain popular throughout the Christian world.


February 13, 1633: - Called to trial by the Inquisition, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei arrives in Rome ready to explain his belief that the earth revolves around the sun. He was compelled to recant the view, and was placed under house arrest until his death in 1642.

February 15, 1905: - Christian author Lew Wallace dies at the age of 77. Wallace is most famous for Ben Hur (1880) which was conceived on a train ride while arguing about Christ's divinity with famous agnostic Robert Ingersoll. It sold more than 300,000 copies in a decade, making him one of the best-selling religious authors of the 1800s.

February 16, 1497: - German scholar and reformer Philipp Melanchthon is born in Bretten, Baden. He and Luther were at various times both allies and enemies. Melanchthon defended Luther against Johann van Eck and Emperor Charles V; however, Luther thrashed him for his views on the Sacrament. Interestingly, on his death bed, Luther said his one regret was his battle with Melanchthon. His argument for justification by faith alone, known as the Augsburg Confession, is now the basic statement of Lutheran doctrine.

February 17, 1858: - Waldensians, ancient "Protestants" from the Italian Alps who survived through persecution for 800 years, are finally guaranteed civil and religious rights. They began with the teaching of a wealthy merchant named Pater Waldo in the late 1100s; thus they are considered "the oldest evangelical Church".

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan

In the late 16th century, General Toyotomi Hideyoshi, better known as Taikosama, rose from humble origins to become the absolute ruler of a united Japan. As is often the case, the more he accomplished, the more he wanted. But it turns out he had his limits. When he attacked Korea to in an effort to gain a foothold on the mainland, China entered the war, and Hideyoshi's troops were beaten. This defeat, in addition to an earthquake that ruined his lovely new palace, left Hideyoshi in something of a financial bind.

Enter the Franciscans. -- You see, the Portuguese had a lock on Japan's trade with China; their large wooden ships were contracted to carry cargo between the islands and the mainland. When Franciscan friars came from the Philippines, Hideyoshi hoped that the Spanish in the Philippines would be able to offer the Por
tuguese some competition. If he allowed the Franciscans to stay, even though Christianity was illegal, they would facilitate Spanish trade. With competition, prices would fall.

One day, the San Felice, a Spanish galleon leaving Manila with a cargo valued at more than a million and a half silver pesos, was driven off course by a typhoon. It was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan and a local samurai took possession of the cargo. The Franciscans, thinking Hideyoshi was favourable to them, appealed to the general on behalf of the owners. However, Hideyoshi wanted the treasure for himself, but had no desire to hassle with the Spaniards. Since he was not only a general, but a consummate politici
an, he did what many politicians do in such situations – he smiled, made promises, and waited.

This is where things get a little blurry, as they often do in international politics. While Hideyoshi procrastinated, the Portuguese, who resented the Spanish incursion into their lucrative trade monopoly, accused the pilot of the San Felice of having boasted of Spain's many conquests and also accused the local Christians of supporting them. In the ensuing arguments, Hideyoshi’s attitude towards the Franciscans changed. Although, to be fair, it was already strained as they had been gaining a great number of conversions among the Japanese. This angered the general because the Jesuits had promised to keep a low profile on the spiritual front.

Whatever his reason, Hideyoshi ordered the execution of all Christians, including the Jesuits. After he thought it over, however, his love of wealth influenced him again and deciding the Jesuits were too useful for trade to be killed, he spared most of them.

However, an example had to be made, and thirty days of torments began for twenty-five Christians: seven Franciscans - mostly from Spanish and Mexican origins, and eighteen locals. They spent the thirty days marching to the place of their execution, Nishizaka Hill in Nagasaki, where Terazawa Hazaburo, brother of the governor, was to perform the executions. During the march they were beaten, whip
ped, and had their left ears cut off, all in an attempt to get them to renounce their faith and tell their converts it was all a lie. They refused to do so.

You may have noticed that the previous paragraph only mentions twenty-five men and the title of this article calls for one more. His name was Matthias. He was actually a Japanese convert who took a biblical name (it was the custom among Jesuit converts). Other than this we know n
othing about him. He was among a crowd of people following the procession as it made its way to Nishizaka Hill. The soldiers who were escorting the condemned grew tired of the crowds calling for the release of their prisoners. They chose to make an example of one of the them and arrested and condemned Matthias on the spot. Besides, there was supposed to be a man named Matthias among the condemned but the soldiers had been unable to find him – this one would do.

When they arrived at the hill, twenty-six crosses were waiting for them. Once they were all securely tied, the crosses were lifted into place simultaneously. Some sang hymns, others prayed, none wept or cried out, not even 12-year-o
ld Louis Ibaraki, the youngest of the group, who witnesses testified called out encouragement to his older brethren throughout the ordeal.

From his cross, Paul Miki, a Japanese convert, preached: "I have
committed no crime, and the only reason why I am put to death is that I have been teaching the doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I am very happy to die for such a cause, and see my death as a great blessing from the Lord. At this critical time, when, you can rest assured that I will not try to deceive you, I want to stress and make it unmistakably clear that man can find no way to salvation other than the Christian way."

The execution of these men started a 40 year persecution of Christians in Japan that would see tens of thousands martyred for their beliefs. It should be noted the twenty-six did not die from the crucifixions. Moved by some small compassion and impressed with the courage of the Christians, Terazawa ordered the soldiers to kill them quickly by spears to the throat. A memorial to the martyrs (pictured) has been erected in Nagasaki.

It was February 5, 1597 — 410 years ago this week.

Other events that took place this week - Feb. 3 to Feb. 10

February 4, 1906: Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is born in Breslau, Germany. Author of The Cost of Discipleship (1948) and Letters from Prison (1953), he was one of the leaders of Germany's Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazis. Believing that Hitler was like a madman "driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders," he had joined a plot to kill him, but the plot was discovered and Bonhoeffer was arrested and eventually hanged--just days before Allied troops liberated the concentration camp where he was held.

February 6, 891: Photius, patriarch of Constantinople from 858-867, dies after a series of excommunications and restorations. His 867 encyclical, which denounced the presence of Latin missionaries in Bulgaria as an intrusion and objected to the clause in the creed that read "the Holy Ghost ... who proceeds from the Father and the Son", was significant in the East-West conflict that eventually led to the Great Schism.

February 7, 1938: After years of being closely watched by Nazi secret police, Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller is put on trial. He was subsequently confined in a concentration camp, but he survived and went on to hold a leadership role in the World Council of Churches from 1948-1968.

February 8, 1587: Mary, Queen of Scots, is beheaded. Attempting to restore Catholicism to England, she began persecuting Protestants. But, largely thanks to the work of John Knox, her attempts failed.

February 9, 249: (traditional date): According to Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, on this date, Roman officials "seized that marvellous aged virgin Apolloinia, broke out all her teeth with blows on her jaws, and piling up a bonfire before the city, threatened to burn her alive if she refused to recite with them their blasphemous sayings. But she asked for a brief delay and without flinching leapt into the fire and was consumed."

February 10, 1751: John Wesley suffers a fall on the ice-covered London Bridge and is carried to the home of Mary Vazeille, a sailor's widow who lived nearby. Within a week, the two were married—with disastrous results. The unhappy couple spent so little time together that, in 1771, Wesley recorded this in his journal: "I came to London and was informed that my wife died on Monday. This evening she was buried, though I was not informed of it."

Friday, February 2, 2007

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Some people seek out fame, others have it thrust upon them. Then there’s Erasmus.

In most great movements in history, there are those largely overlooked because others made more noise (or had better press secretaries). The Reformation is no exception. Most of us will immediately think of Martin Luther, but if you were to ask those in the Catholic Church at the time they would tell you that Luther merely "hatched the egg that Erasmus laid."

Erasmus was likely born in Rotterdam somewhere around the year 1466
. (We’re not quite sure.) In 1492 he was ordained to the priesthood and soon after he went on to study at the University of Paris, in the Coll├Ęge de Montaigu. While there he quickly developed a reputation as an accomplished scholar with a very personable style. His wit and demeanor were so well admired that even kings would wait patiently while he took time to formulate the answer to a question.

In 1511, he published In Praise of Folly, a satirical look at the traditions and popular superstitions of the Catholic Church. It was well received, even by Pope Leo X, which at first pleased Erasmus greatly and added to his ever increasing fame. But the day would come when he would regret ever having written it.

A few years later, he published a Greek New Testament. For centuries, Jerome's Latin translation, the Vulgate, was the Bible of the Church. However, Jerome's translation had deficiencies. Erasmus reconstructed the original New Testament as best he could from Greek texts. What’s more, he included more than a thousand notes that pointed out common errors in interpreting the Bible, criticizing among other things, Rome's refusal to let priests marry (especially since many cardinals and even popes lived openly with mistresses), prayers to the saints, indulgences, relic-worship, and the all-encompassing power of the pope. In an effort to sooth ruffled feathers, he dedicated the edition to Pope Leo X himself, and assured the pontiff that..."We do not intend to tear up the old and commonly accepted edition [the Vulgate], but amend it where it is corrupt, and make it clear where it is obscure."

The problem was, someone else was also impressed with Erasmus’ work – namely Martin Luther, and many other Reformers. In their attacks on the Roman Church they began to quote Erasmus liberally. His Greek New Testament was the one Luther used in creating his German Translation. And, in truth, Erasmus and Luther started out as good friends; but when Erasmus refused to join the Lutheran Party, the German reformer went on the attack, even going so far as to question Erasmus’ faith.

As a result, Erasmus was hated by both camps. The Reformers complained that he retained too much of the Catholic ways, while the Pope and the cardinals accused him of trying to destroy the church. All of this was greatly troubling to Erasmus. He believed that one should live in the peace of Christ, that conflict should be avoided and a person should be on good terms with everyone, even those with whom he disagreed. Unfortunately, as is often the case, his opponents on both sides regarded this as fence-sitting and tried to force him to take sides. He refused.

When the church formally blamed him for starting “the tragedy” (the Roman Catholic euphemism for the reformation), he fled to Basel from the Catholic town of Louvain to escape being burned at the stake. When Basel officially “reformed” in 1529, he gave up his residence there and settled in the imperial town of Freiburg im Breisgau.

Considering that Erasmus was so much in the centre of the Reformation controversy -- literally -- it’s interesting that he is largely ignored when the subject is studied and debated. Which, ironically, is probably just the way he would want it.

Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, which played a key role in the story of the Reformation, was published on February 1, 1516 – 491 years ago this week.


Other events that took place this week - Jan. 28 - Feb. 3

January 28, 1906: In Toronto, Ontario, sixteen year old Oswald Smith accepts salvation through Christ at the final meeting of a campaign held by evangelist R. A. Torrey at Massey Hall. “There was no excitement, no unusual feeling, but I knew that something had happened and that ever after all life would be different”, Oswald said calling it the greatest event of his life. In 1921 he founded his first church, the Alliance Tabernacle, and he later became pastor of the People's Church of Toronto, one of the largest Protestant congregations in the world .

January 29, 993: St. Ulrich, who lived c.890-973, and was Bishop of Augsburg from 923, becomes the first individual in Roman Catholic history formally elevated to sainthood. He was canonized at a Lateran Synod by Pope John XV.

January 30, 1912: American Evangelical theologian, philosopher, and Presbyterian pastor, Francis Schaeffer, is born in Philadelphia. Most famous for his writings and his establishment of the L'Abri community in Switzerland, he was opposed to theological modernism, promoted an orthodox Protestant faith, and blamed the rise of relativism for the decline of Western culture.

January 31, 1686: King Louis XIV of France, having already revoked the Protestant-tolerating Edict of Nantes, orders all Waldensian churches burned. The Waldensians, members of a pre-Reformation tradition that stressed love of Christ and his word and a life of poverty, were soon devastated: 2,000 killed, 2,000 "converted" to Catholicism, and 8,000 imprisoned.

January 2, 1245: Giovanni da Plano Carpini, a sixty-year old Franciscan friar, is sent by Pope Innocent IV to carry a message to Genghis Khan. The message warns the great Mongol leader not to invade Europe or risk facing divine wrath. Khan’s reply required the Pope to appear before him in the royal court with the following warning, "If you disregard the command of God and disobey Our instructions, We shall look upon you as Our enemy. Whoever recognizes and submits to the Son of God and Lord of the World, the Great Khan, will be saved, whoever refuses submission will be wiped out." Though Europe lived in fear of invasion for decades, it never came.