I love Church history. It’s the stories of ordinary believers doing extraordinary things. So I’ve decided to list some seven of my favourite Christians in history who have changed the world.
You’ll notice some obvious omissions. Where’s Martin Luther, Wesley, Newton, Luther King Jr? But I had a long hard think about those names and opted for some others that have made just as bigger global impact beyond their country of origin, acknowledging, of course, God’s full working in each of their lives and his timing. I’ve deliberately thrown in some perhaps unknown names to stir up the debate. But of course greatness is subjective, but God’s work in everybody’s lives, no matter how known or unknown is all that really counts in the end.
Here it is, the seven Christians who changed the world and how we can be inspired by their personal faith, commitment and basic human decency too.
William Tyndale (1494-1536) – Bible scholar
A Bible scholar who saw the beauty of God’s word close at hand, he just wanted to share it with everybody in their everyday language. It’s hard to imagine that at one time owning a translation of the Bible in English was a serious crime punishable by death. Doing so threatened the clerical control of the then Catholic Church who were determined to keep control of who interprets the Bible, especially from ‘seditious’ priests in Europe like Martin Luther who had already translated the Bible into German.
Tyndale, an early reformation influencer in the spirit of a new age acted on his conscience. Faced with opposition to any translation done in England, Tyndale travelled to Germany where he was able to write freely, completing the first New Testament translation in 1525. Copies were soon smuggled and circulated around England provoking outrage among royal and clerical circles. He continued a number of other English translations, all printed and distributed by whatever means possible, while evading capture by the religious authorities.
Tyndale was constantly aware that his life was in danger and finally in an act of betrayal by a companion, Tyndale was captured and put on trial, on a final charge of heresy and later executed. But Tyndale sensed which way history was going, for a few years after his death, Henry VIII, by now estranged from Rome, sanctioned the first ‘Authorised’ translation of the Bible into English. This Tyndale based translation was the foundation for later translations including the famous King James version.
What Tyndale started couldn’t be stopped. His conviction and scholarship, despite great opposition, laid the foundation for English Protestantism and the freeing of scriptures into the hands of people and their mother tongue. Without this Evangelicalism wouldn’t exist and the translated scriptures changed English culture like nothing else.
Life Lesson: We should never take for granted the power and impact freedom of access to the Bible has on the people that have it. It is so feared in some countries that it is often illegal to own a copy of the Bible and like in Tyndale’s day, death is still the punishment. We must do all we can to make sure everybody can discover it’s life-changing words. “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.
George Whitefield (1714-1770) – Minister and Preacher
‘Astonishing’ is one word to describe George Whitefield. In an age before mass communication, Whitefield did mass communication by sheer force of will, character and a voice that was the envy of the greatest stage actors of the 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 though 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) and 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. A voice God used to lead the ‘Great Awakening’ in the United States and birth the Methodist movement partnered with another great evangelist of his day, John Wesley. With its focus on spiritual rebirth, personal faith in Christ as saviour and love for the Word of God Whitefield was the first in history to do mass evangelism and it effects on society were massive. The Christian sensibility so often at the heart of US life owes much to his impact, as does the evangelical movement in the UK and parts of Europe. His impact on our culture in many ways is intangible but he gave Christian evangelists permission to speak in a plain, direct, popular style. His voice thunders down the ages to us still.
Life lesson: the world of the book of Acts and the early Christian missionaries is not ancient history. A lifelike Whitefield’s demonstrates how God can move in extraordinary ways in any fashion, time, place and person. Anyone of us like Whitefield are to use the gifts we’ve been given. “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” Acts 2:17.
William Wilberforce (1759-1833) – Politician and abolitionist
From a wealthy family, Wilberforce could’ve enjoyed his privilege but instead, he chose to use his influence to fight for a single cause, the abolition of the slave trade. After being elected to parliament he raised awareness of the grotesque injustice of slavery that was so deep-rooted and perpetuated in the trading network of goods. Slave owners were making themselves incredibly wealthy while ordinary people benefited from slavery through cheap and exotic 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 and to get a law change through parliament ending the slave trade. Yet he persevered despite setback after setback and personal illness, all the while spurred on by his deep Christian conviction.
Eventually, that change came in 1807 with the eradication of the slave trade followed 26 years later with the abolition of slavery itself. Days after the Slavery Abolition Act was assured to pass through parliament, Wilberforce died; a life solely dedicated pursuing the most important human rights cause of the age beginning the liberation of millions and their descendants.
Life lesson: 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.
Michael Faraday (1791-1867) – Scientist
Can you begin to imagine a world without electricity? No TV, internet, mobile phones? Not even light at night? The power of electricity is the great necessity of the modern world and we can thank a devout Christian and scientist, Michael Faraday for getting us there.
Showing an early passion for science, Faraday was self-taught but attended lectures by chemists of the time and was able to make some notable acquaintances. Still, Faraday with no formal education was considered an outsider and not a gentleman from the right class. However, his chance to become a scientist came when he was appointed an assistant to the renowned chemist, Humphry Davy allowing Faraday to travel and mingle with some of the best scientists in their field. This also gave him the opportunity to develop his own experiments.
Devoted to discovery through experimentation, Faraday’s findings were numerous in both chemistry and physics (which hadn’t acquired its own name and status in the sciences yet). Among his major discoveries was electromagnetic induction, a principle behind the electric transformer and generator. Put simply, without this we wouldn’t have power generation on an industrial scale and the modern world as we know it.
His deep faith was never in conflict with the science that he did. He pursued science for its own sake while 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.
Faraday was not only a scientist, as an elder of his local church, he would also support the neighbouring poor and 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.’
Life lesson: In our time when some incorrectly see faith and science in conflict, it’s helpful to look at a life like Faraday’s and see how his faith formed in him a personal character that perhaps was his greatest asset, especially in the laboratory as he conducted his experiments. His commitment to his work and devotion to God were more important to him than titles or prestige and this became a blessing to science and the world. Contemplation of creation through science can be as much an act of worship as any traditional calling and we can all serve God in whatever work we are committed to. “Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God’s wonders. Do you know how God controls the clouds and makes his lightning flash? Do you know how the clouds hang poised, those wonders of him who has perfect knowledge?” Job 37:14-16.
Frances Willard (1839-1898) – Temperance reformer and suffragist
We don’t associate women’s rights with evangelical 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 with the remaining family falling into debt as a result.
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 and concerned itself with many of the big social problems of the day including alcohol abuse, prostitution and public health issues. Most important of all 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 in the home should share equal leadership and that this equality is extended even wider into education, church and government.
By 1879, Willard had become president of the WCTU and started a world organisation by the same name (World Women’s Christian Temperance Union). In the US alone, she was heading a movement of over a hundred thousand women but ironically it was the overseas activity that had it’s 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 inspired by the cause became an active campaigner and by 1893 that country became the first in the world to allow universal suffrage, an equal vote for all adult men and women.
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.
Life lesson: It’s worth reminding ourselves that the inherent dignity of being a human and also a woman is sewn in the fabric of our society 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 their supporters. In today’s world when many perceive Christianity to be inherently patriarchal or socially repressive a reminder of the mothers as well as the fathers of our faith would serve us well. “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.
Christian Fü hrer (1943-2014) – Pastor
Christian Fü hrer’s name and story should be more widely known. At the height of the Cold War in 1982, behind the iron curtain in the then East Germany, he lead a tiny group of believers that began to meet and pray every Monday night in the historic town church of Nikolaikirche, Leipzig.
Despite tight control of religious expression because of the atheism of the communist regime and under constant threat of arrest and imprisonment, 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 against the regime and the regular peace prayer gathering had become the major focal point for protest. Supported by the Lutheran church this movement grew over the days with an insistence on completely peaceful protest and non-violence toward the authorities. Buoyed by the attention of the Western media and a police state surprised by the level of protest within, numbers on the streets surged to 320,000. No one dared respond with violence. With the resignation of GDR leader Erich Honecker, the regime began to implode from within and 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 but also a place for prayer and hope. The faithful witness of pastors like Christian Führer ensured God’s justice and peace broke into a time and place that was oppressive and unjust inspiring a protest movement that would cascade into a defining moment of the 20th Century, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War. He was awarded the Peace prize of Augsburg along with the former premier of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Life lesson: Never underestimate the power of dedicated, disciplined prayer. Who knows how difficult it must have felt for this little group of faithful persecuted Christians meeting to pray in the old town church, under constant watch by state spies and enduring harassment? But 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.
Billy Graham (1918 – ) – Evangelist
Billy Graham is a living testament to how the power of God can work in one man. Ask who Billy Graham is to people on the street in most parts of the world and you’ll get a similar answer, he’s the ‘Christian evangelist’. He’s so well known because he has personally preached to live audiences of over 215 million people in over 185 countries.
Graham is a 20th Century man through and through, his effective and at times the progressive use of modern media in all its guises has ensured that the message of the gospel reaches further to the hearts of men and women all over the world.
When you include his publishing and media ministry with radio programmes such as Hour of Decision and magazine Christianity Today, founded with Carl F.H Henry as editor, that reach increases to a total audience closer to 2.2 billion people. A staggering number which makes Graham the most effective evangelist in the history of Christianity.
Telling perhaps that his very early rallies or ‘crusades’ as they came to be known, were covered by the local press and from there, his public ministry gathered momentum, all supported by a growing media interest and the broad support of mainline denominations from wherever he was preaching.
Graham’s effectiveness was also largely due to how he communicated the gospel message; clear, accessible and touching on the concerns of everyday life and people. Over his career, his delivery style may have changed but his message hasn’t wavered, a clear call to a personal relationship with God through accepting Christ as personal saviour. A message that Whitefield, Wesley, Spurgeon, Moody and many other great evangelists would instantly recognise. Graham stands among them. Yet Graham’s ‘everyman evangelism’ even impacted many exceptional men and women of their time, including US presidents who knew Graham as a spiritual counsellor and confidante.
The impact of Graham’s ministry is near impossible to measure, other than to say, immense. But we shouldn’t count his impact by media coverage or the famous people he knew, but rather by the ordinary lives of millions of individuals who committed themselves to Christ and serving his church. I should know because I’ve met a few. These are the now many committed Christians at churches who heard ‘good news’ for their life through Graham’s ministry and responded. And that gave hope for millions of ordinary people and their families.
Although in retirement and with failing health, Graham still shares his reflections on the world and its need for Christ. His son Franklin now continues Billy Graham’s work.
Life lesson: A life like Billy Graham’s demonstrates the huge power communication has to reach people and his ministry successfully adapted to the changing media even into the digital age. Christians have an unprecedented scope and reach to share God’s good news for humanity and to demonstrate that positively, accessible and with all the good grace and integrity of a Billy Graham. “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.
Jeremy – Not Only Sundays
© Not Only Sundays, January 2017.