Who are the Christians of the past you really admire? I have my list. Here are the seven Christians who I believe changed the world, for the better.
These are the stories of ordinary believers doing extraordinary things for God.
This is a list of personal favourites. Yes, there are some obvious omissions, (no Martin Luther, no Wesley)? And I’ve only chosen names since the Reformation, given my own personal faith tradition.
But I hope this list of great men and women of God inspires and teaches us. For it contains for us important lessons for today as we seek to follow Christ in our own time.
Here it is, the seven Christians who changed the world, who lived lives of great faith, commitment and human decency too.
1. William Tyndale (1494-1536)
English Bible scholar
William Tyndale was a Bible scholar who saw the beauty of God’s word up close.
And he just wanted to share it with everybody in their own language.
It’s hard to imagine a time when owning an English translation of the Bible was a serious crime punishable by death.
But it was.
Because it threatened the power of those in control of the Church.
‘Seditious’ priests like Martin Luther had already translated the Bible into German.
And like Luther, Tyndale, an early reformation influencer, acted on his conscience.
Faced with opposition to any translation in England, Tyndale travelled to Germany where he was able to write freely.
And it was there he completed the first New Testament translation in 1525.
Copies were smuggled and circulated around England provoking outrage among royal and clerical circles.
But he resolutely continued with other English translations, all printed and distributed by whatever means possible.
Tyndale always had to play a game of cat and mouse to evade capture. He was constantly aware his life was in danger.
And finally in an act of betrayal by a companion, Tyndale was captured and put on trial. The final charge was heresy and he was later executed.
But Tyndale sensed his place in history.
A few years after his death, Henry VIII, (now estranged from Rome) allowed the first ‘Authorised’ translation of the Bible into English.
This Tyndale based translation became the foundation for later translations, including the famous King James version.
What Tyndale started couldn’t be stopped. His conviction and scholarship, against the odds, laid the foundation for English Protestantism.
The freeing of scriptures into the hands of people and their mother tongue had begun.
And without this evangelicalism wouldn’t exist. Tyndale’s scholarly devotion, his love of scripture and his nation meant English culture would never be the same.
Tyndale’s life inspiration.
Tyndale’s life and service remind us of the power of God’s Word and our call to share it, no matter the cost.
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12.
2. George Whitefield (1714-1770)
Minister and Preacher
‘Astonishing’ is one word to describe George Whitefield.
In an age before mass communication, Whitefield communicated by sheer force of character and a voice that was the envy of the greatest stage actors of his time.
Whitefield’s thunderous preaching could be heard even up to a mile away.
Every audience was silenced and in awe of what was surely the greatest orator of the age.
God used his natural abilities to the full, but unlike an actor, Whitefield lived his words every day. Preaching was his God-given calling.
Churches didn’t know what to do with him. He was rarely allowed to speak at a regular Sunday service; he was just too, well, astonishing.
It didn’t matter in the end. He relished the opposition and besides a church would’ve been too constricting. So he took his preaching to the people, outdoors.
Over the course of his mostly open-air ministry, he preached 70,000 sermons in half a dozen different countries (visiting America nine times in the age before steam).
Whitefield had a direct personal impact on over 10 million individuals who came to see him preach.
Hardened men were left weeping at his words, ordinary women found hope in his message and children’s lives changed by his simple accessible style.
Astonishing especially given his appearance; a short, stocky, cross-eyed Englishman but with the ‘voice of an angel’.
With a focus on spiritual rebirth, personal faith in Christ as saviour and love for the Word of God, Whitefield was the first to do mass evangelism.
Its effects on society were massive.
The Christian sensibility often at the heart of US life owes much to his impact, as does the evangelical movement in the UK and parts of Europe.
Whitefield’s impact on our culture is intangible. He gave Christian evangelists permission to speak in a direct, popular style. His voice thunders down the ages to us still.
Whitefield’s life inspiration.
The book of Acts and the early Christian missionaries are not ancient histories. Whitefield’s life demonstrates how God can move in extraordinary ways in any time, place and person. Like Whitefield, any one of us is to use the gifts we’ve been given.
3. William Wilberforce (1759-1833)
Politician and abolitionist
Born into a wealthy family, William Wilberforce could’ve enjoyed his privilege but instead chose to use his influence to fight for a single cause, the abolition of the slave trade.
Once elected to parliament he campaigned against the grotesque injustice of slavery. This was so deep-rooted and perpetuated in the trading network of goods.
Slave owners were making themselves incredibly wealthy while ordinary people enjoyed cheap goods arriving from the Americas. It was a whole system that brought benefits to many vested interests but at such a terrible human cost.
As many as 12.5 million slaves were forcibly transported to the Americas.
Wilberforce faced an insurmountable challenge to take on these powerful interests. He tried to get a law change through parliament ending the slave trade. And despite constant setbacks and personal illness he persevered. All the while spurred on by his deep Christian conviction.
Eventually, that change came in 1807 with the eradication of the slave trade. This was followed with the abolition of slavery some twenty-six years later.
Days after the Slavery Abolition Act was assured to pass through parliament, Wilberforce died.
His was a life solely dedicated to pursuing the most important human rights cause of the age. The result was the liberation of millions and their descendants.
Wilberforce’s life inspiration.
We shouldn’t forget the impact of Wilberforce’s conversion on his whole social and moral outlook and his determination to act out those convictions.
Inspired like the great prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, he protested against the moral travesty of his age until he saw justice done. We would do well to heed his example. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5:24.
4. Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
Can you begin to imagine a world without electricity? No electricity means no modern world. We can thank a devout Christian and scientist, Michael Faraday for getting us here (while we read our phones and PCs).
Showing an early passion for science Faraday was self-taught through attending lectures by other scientists of the time. There he was able to make some notable acquaintances.
Faraday having no formal education was always considered an outsider and not a gentleman from the right class.
But his chance to become a scientist came when he was appointed an assistant to the renowned chemist, Humphry Davy.
This opportunity allowed Faraday to travel and mingle with some of the best scientists in their field. This also gave him the chance to develop his own experiments.
Devoted to discovery through experimentation, Faraday’s findings were numerous in both chemistry and physics.
Among his major discoveries was electromagnetic induction, a principle behind the electric transformer and generator. Without this, we wouldn’t have power generation on an industrial scale and the benefits we enjoy because of it.
Faith and science not in conflict.
But his deep faith was never in conflict with the science he did. He pursued science for its own sake, seeing nature as having a deeper order created by God.
For Faraday, the book of God’s world and the book of God’s word were inspired by the same author as his science.
What’s more, Faraday was not only a scientist but also as an elder of his local church where he would support the neighbouring poor and visit the sick.
He also acquired a reputation for being a gifted communicator. His public lectures were hugely popular and contributed to the public understanding of the new scientific discoveries of the age.
Despite his achievements and fame, Faraday remained deeply humble twice rejecting a knighthood. Einstein said of Faraday’s scientific legacy that ‘he had made the greatest change in our conception of reality.’
Faraday’s life inspiration.
In our time when some wrongly see faith and science in conflict, it’s helpful to look at a life like Faraday’s. He demonstrates how faith can inspire dedication to understand God’s world in the laboratory as well as to serve others with humility.
5. Frances Willard (1839-1898)
Temperance reformer and suffragist
We don’t associate women’s rights with Christianity. That’s a great shame because what historians call ‘first wave feminism’ wouldn’t have existed had it not been for activist, evangelical women.
Among them is the great American suffragist and temperance reformer, Frances Willard. Raised in a Methodist family, Willard enjoyed a good education.
However, her life was affected by the loss of her Father, younger sister and her brother’s alcoholism. The sad result was the remaining family falling into debt.
As a young woman, Willard decided to get active in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). It was the first mass movement for women concerning itself the big social problems of the day.
These included alcohol abuse, prostitution and public health issues. Most important, they campaigned for women to have the vote.
Willard encouraged women to join the movement claiming, ‘politics is the place for a woman’. Her conviction was motivated by scripture believing that men and women should share equal leadership.
And also that this equality extends to education, church and government.
A global impact
By 1879, in the US alone, Willard was heading a movement of over a hundred thousand women. But ironically it was the overseas activity that had its first big success.
‘Missionaries’ to promote the temperance cause was sent around the world including, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. One woman in New Zealand called Kate Sheppard was particularly inspired by the cause.
Sheppard became an active campaigner and by 1893 the country was first in the world to allow universal suffrage.
Sadly Willard didn’t live to see women get the vote in her own country, dying in 1898. But her work inspired the massive democratic changes in the 20th Century toward universal suffrage around the world.
Willard’s life inspiration.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the inherent dignity of being men and women of equal status is thanks to Christian activists, writers and lay people.
First wave feminism owes much to the inspiration and teaching of this committed circle of Christian women activists and supporters. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28.
6. Christian Führer (1943-2014)
Christian Führer‘s name and life should be more widely known.
At the height of the Cold War in East Germany, Christian Führer led a tiny group of believers. In 1982, they began to meet and pray every Monday night in the historic town church of Nikolaikirche, Leipzig.
Despite strict control of religious expression by the communist regime the faithful in these Monday evening ‘peace prayers’ kept gathering.
The numbers, to begin with, were so small that the authorities chose only to have those attending under constant police surveillance.
However, a significant change occurred when in October 1989 numbers that were normally a few hundred had now swelled to 70,000 dissenters.
The peace prayer gathering had become the major focal point for protest against the regime.
Supported by the Lutheran church, this movement grew with an insistence on peaceful protest and non-violence.
The wall came tumbling down.
Buoyed by the attention of the Western media and a police state surprised by the level of protest, numbers surged to 320,000. No one dared respond with violence.
And with the resignation of GDR leader Erich Honecker, the regime began to implode from within. Pressure from the protests made the collapse of the Berlin wall all but inevitable.
The Church in East Germany had used its role to be a safe haven for protesters and opposition groups.
It had also become a place for prayer and hope. The faithful witness of pastors like Christian Führer ensured God’s peace was present when there was little hope for change.
Their prayerful act and witness inspired a protest movement that would become a defining moment of the 20th Century. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the ending the Cold War.
Christian Führer was awarded the Peace prize of Augsburg along with the former premier of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Christian Führer’s life inspiration.
Never underestimate the power of dedicated, disciplined prayer. The public act and moral purpose of their prayer were what eventually inspired a town to follow their example and topple a regime in a miraculous, bloodless fashion.
If we followed their example too, what walls would we see tumbling down? “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20.
7. Billy Graham (1918-2018)
Billy Graham’s life is a testament to how the power of God can work in one man. Billy Graham’s name was known all over the world.
This is because he has personally preached to live audiences of over 215 million people in over 185 countries.
Graham was a 20th Century man through and through. His effective and progressive use of modern media ensured the gospel reached further to men and women all over the world.
When including Graham’s publishing and media ministry that reach increases to an audience closer to 2.2 billion people.
A staggering number. This makes Graham the most effective evangelist in the history of Christianity.
A man of God for our age.
Graham’s effectiveness was also down to how he communicated the gospel message. His clear and accessible style touched the concerns of everyday life and people.
His delivery may have changed over time but his message didn’t waver. This was a clear call to a personal relationship with God through accepting Christ as personal saviour.
A message that Whitefield, Wesley, Spurgeon, Moody and other great evangelists would instantly recognise. Graham stands among them.
The impact of Graham’s ministry is near impossible to measure.
But we shouldn’t count his impact by media coverage, the famous people he knew, or the number of presidents he counselled.
But instead by the lives of millions of individuals committing themselves to Christ and serving his church.
I should know because I’ve met a few.
These are the many committed Christians who heard ‘good news’ for their life through Graham’s ministry and responded. We shouldn’t underestimate the positive effect that has had on the families and communities around them.
Billy Graham passed over into heaven, aged 99.
Billy Graham’s life inspiration.
A life like Billy Graham’s demonstrates the huge power communication has to reach people. Graham’s ministry successfully adapted to the changing media even into the digital age.
Christians have never had such unprecedented scope to reach so many with God’s good news for all of humanity.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28: 19-20.
I hope you found this little history inspiring and illuminating.
The question now is how will we change the world around us?
Jeremy – Not Only Sundays.
© Not Only Sundays, Updated April 2018.