For my historical theology class last semester I had to make a personal timeline of important events from the time of the reformation to the present that directly influenced my spiritual history. (To see it click the link above.) Let me recount the story told by that timeline. I ask you to forgive the melodramatic effects created by any narrative that begins with “In 1517 Martin Luther nailed 95 these to a church door in Wittenberg” and ends with “In 2016 Grant Gates started classes at The Master’s Seminary.”
In 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses against indulgences to the door of the church in Wittenberg, asking for debate on the church’s practice of selling indulgences in exchange for the promise of shortened time in purgatory. That escalated quickly, and he was formally excommunicated by the pope in 1521. As his ideas on justification by faith and the authority of Scripture started to spread, an English bishop named Thomas Cranmer heard of them and started believing in them. In 1532, Henry VIII, a king whom no one had voted for, appointed Cranmer to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. With Cranmer’s assistance, Henry separated the church of England from the authority of the papacy, instead placing it under his own authority so that he could divorce his wife. However, with Cranmer’s help, Henry’s son Edward effected much more sweeping protestant reformation of the English church.
Sadly, Edward died very young, and his Catholic sister Mary became queen in his place. Since no one had expected the Spanish inquisition, England was unprepared for the brutality of her persecution of protestants, weakening her political support over time. At her death England welcomed her sister Elizabeth to the throne, who managed to effect a compromise position on religious matters, thereby establishing the episcopal system of governance on the Anglican church. Since all ways are the Queen’s ways, dissent was not particularly tolerated. Those protestants dissatisfied with the compromise, usually because they pressed for presbyterianism and further reforms of polity and worship style, became known as the Puritans.
After Elizabeth I’s death and during the reign of the first two Stuart monarchs, the puritans continued their political efforts toward further church reforms, but were generally resisted and discouraged by the nobility and monarchy. In 1633, when Charles I appointed Arminian bishop William Laud to be Archbishop of Canterbury, persecution of puritan ministers escalated as they were driven out of pulpits or exiled to distant, rural parishes. The king’s insistence on the Divine Right of Kings alienated him from the largely puritan House of Commons, building tensions that led to the English Civil War.
After years of fighting, Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army emerged victorious, after which he established himself as “Lord Protector” and ushered in a Puritan/Separatist government. Despite the constant negative press covfefe he is given today, Cromwell established a far more religiously tolerant society than England had known for centuries, separating the church from the state and allowing numerous formerly persecuted denominations freedom of worship. However, after his death, England restored the monarchy and the episcopal mode of church governance, ejecting some 2000 or more puritan preachers from the ministry in the process. The state of the church after these events was often pretty bad, with widespread nominalism and hypocrisy in both clergy and laity.
Out of a dead Anglican church (with the exception of their parents), the Wesley brothers founded methodism after interactions with the Moravians pointed them to the true Gospel. While initially remaining within the umbrella of the Anglican church, Methodism later split off to form its own denomination, into which Hudson Taylor was later born. Partly through Methodism, and partly through another offshoot of Anglicanism called the Plymouth Brethren (not to be confused with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock), he was converted and caught a great interest in missions. He became a famous missionary in China, and founded the China Inland Mission.
The CIM sent Audrey Wetherell Johnson from the U.K. to China in 1936, just shortly before World War II. After surviving Japanese interment and recuperating in the U.S., she returned in 1947, serving another three years. In 1950, the communist scum (but I repeat myself) drove Christian missionaries out of China, including almost the entirety of the CIM. Miss Johnson came to San Bernardino, started a Bible study with a small group of friends when asked, and later expanded it. This Bible study became Bible Study Fellowship, and in 1958 Miss Johnson’s move to San Francisco brought it to the Bay Area.
During the 1976–1977 school year, Lesley Axe of Concord, CA (a suburb in the East Bay) was invited to attend a BSF nearby. Through that ministry she, her husband Rick, and her four children Ken, Doug, Ron, and Andrea came to know the Lord. Andrea later attended college at UC Berkeley, where she met Sean Gates, who came to know the Lord after reading the Bible Andrea gave him. They married in 1991. Grant was born several years later, coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through their ministry at home and in homeschooling, through lessons at BSF, and through the various children’s ministries at Grace Community Church. After graduating from UCLA, he started classes at The Master’s Seminary in 2016.
I draw a couple observations from this narrative:
1. God’s Providence is Surprising.
A lot of historical events I glossed over above were vital to ensuring the survival of the true gospel in the particular churches that ultimately led to those I’ve been in. For example, had the small, weak British navy not nearly miraculously defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, the U.K. would probably have become Roman Catholic, and Anglicanism would not have made it to the era of Puritan ascendancy that laid much of the devotional groundwork for later developments in the English speaking churches, including Methodism and the Modern Missions Movement. Without the political success of the Puritans in the English Civil War, it is likely their writings would have been less widespread and influential.
I was quite surprised to realize that the foreign missions movement had been so influential to my personal history. Since my immediately family was introduced to the Gospel through BSF, in a way we are heirs of the missions movement started by William Carey, continued by Hudson Taylor and the CIM, that trained Miss Johnson and was used by God to grow her into the woman who would found BSF. Furthermore, if the commie scum (but again, by saying both I repeat myself) not taken over China and driven Christian missionaries out, BSF might never have been started. As such is the case, you could say I owe a sort of debt to the people of China, which one day I may begin to help repay. All this to say, God’s providence can work in unexpected ways, with His deliverance coming through a woman or even a left handed person.
2. Church History is Personal.
We usually think of the major sort of church events I just described as distant or impersonal. While we usually think of people who trace their heritage to larger than life figures like Luther or Cromwell or William Carey or Hudson Taylor as snobs competing for the position of upper class twit of the year, it turns out many if not all believers can trace their spiritual heritage to such figures. That is, your spiritual heritage, whatever it is, is tied to major events in church history in a personal and undeniable manner. The disdain many Christians seem to show for church history is disheartening not only in the culture of ignorance it promulgates but also for the myopic and inaccurate view of the religious self it encourages. Since church history is personal, it is important for Christians to know and understand, a point I’ve made previously here and in a few sections here.
What this also means is that a Christian’s current religious practice is influenced by the institutions and heritage he is connected to. For example, BSF puts a heavy emphasis on Bible study and has a lot of respect for foreign missions (due to its founding by Miss Johnson). It’s not surprising then that my mom gave my dad a Bible when he was asking questions about the Christian faith. As my dad was saved through reading Romans, it is not surprising then that my personal religious practice is very Bible reading and study focused, that I have a lot of faith in teaching only the text as a means of grace, and that I have a lot of interest in foreign missions.
3. We all have a stewardship to keep.
Since Christians can trace their heritage to these major figures and events in church history, they are entrusted with the same doctrine, the same faith, the same piety, and the same mission that our great heroes of the past were entrusted with. As those in the past endeavored to faithfully steward what God had given them in their ministry, so too are we called to be faithful in stewarding our heritage and using it for God’s glory, whether that be through going overseas to do missions, supporting missionaries, evangelizing those already in our lives, or practically displaying the gospel through our families and professions.