Last year the great heroes of the rugby world visited our nation; the strongest and the most skilled danced and muscled their way across the stadiums of the United Kingdom. Some players made names for themselves with performances that will earn them a place in the history books, others will quite simply be forgotten.
The Church also has its roll-call of heroes: great names of history, famed not for fame’s sake nor for personal glory but rather for humility and faithfulness in serving Christ. We see it in the list that Hebrews gives of Old Testament saints who trusted in God, prizing his glory and worth above all things. It is also in the innumerable names of church history — men and women whom God graciously used to extend his kingdom, often at great personal cost. From Athanasius to Zinzendorf and everyone in between, there are numerous people who we remember for having followed Jesus with faithfulness and sacrifice, names of whom the world was not worthy.
It is entirely right that we learn from them. After all, who can read a biography of James Chalmers or John Paton and not be deeply challenged and inspired by their humble commitment to Christ? Who could read a sermon by John Owen or Charles Spurgeon and not be motivated by their devotion to biblical truth? These names inspire us to live for the greater name of Jesus but we must not allow ourselves to forget that the church is a body –for each remembered name there are 10,000 forgotten ones. Like those rugby players their names have faded, they are remembered by Christ but forgotten by us. But these names too have their place.
God uses the weak
There is that seismic moment in Acts 11 when a group identified only as ‘men of Cyprus and Cyrene’ speak to the Greeks in Antioch. What follows is an unprecedented gospel work amongst the Gentiles as ‘a great number who believed turned to the Lord’. But who were these men? What was their background and history? Other than being Greek-speaking believers, scattered by persecution, we don’t know. Perhaps traders or craftsmen seeking to build a life in the metropolitan powerhouse of Antioch, whatever the case they were not church leaders or in possession of any title or office. They were simply followers of Christ, fleeing persecution though not silenced by it.
This is a glorious pattern repeated throughout the history of the church, the times of great awakening precipitate not just the raising up of great figures but also cause unspectacular Christians to be stirred up to an unashamed zeal for the gospel. Perhaps unspectacular seems too strong a word, yet I too often find myself fitting into that category. How is my zeal lukewarm, my prayer weak and my deeds insignificant? Yet the unnamed, faithful Christians of the past remind me that God did indeed choose ‘what is weak in the world to shame the strong’. They remind me that it is not great oratory skills, extraordinary giftedness or attractive charisma that will achieve great things for Christ, rather it is God’s grace at work through his faithful people.
The ‘small talent’ of the 18th century
There is a period of history that seems to epitomize this pattern, though it is repeated in many cultures and times. The ‘exhorters’ of the 18th century Welsh Calvinistic Methodist movement are well known to us; largely untitled, some uneducated, most rejected by the religious establishment and yet seeing many lives transformed through the power of the gospel. But as they preached Christ and were used by God to see many souls saved, in the background were many unnamed Christians. Perhaps they too felt unspectacular in comparison to the preaching ability of Daniel Rowlands or the evangelistic power of Howell Harris, nevertheless what God achieved through these gospel-faithful, Bible-saturated Christians was far from unspectacular.
That the 19th century minister William Williams devotes an entire chapter of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism to the ministry of such people is testimony to the way that God delights to use humble Christians to achieve his purposes. Williams provides us with snapshots of the stories of individual believers, many otherwise forgotten, some existing only as names in journals and letters; stories that cannot fail to inspire and encourage those of us who may consider ourselves to be insignificant.
The story of a preacher in that 18th century revival, Thomas Hughes, regarded as an exhorter of ‘small talent and slender knowledge’, manages with boldness and wile to win over the mob that has formed to stone him. The chief protagonist within the mob, at one point coercing the angry crowd, in an unexpected turn offers to be Hughes’ lectern and finally leaves a changed man. It turns out that in the hands of God Hughes is anything but a man of ‘small talent’; time and time again God uses those who are considered small, insignificant and without talent.
‘The apostle’ Lowri Williams
One ‘forgotten name’ of this period, exemplifying what may be achieved through humble faithfulness to Christ and the gospel, is that of Lowri Williams. Williams was a poor housewife, she and her husband had already been evicted from their home due to their Methodism, but neither her poverty, her humble background, her husband’s apathy nor her rejection by society would obscure from her vision the desperate need of Wales for the gospel.
Due to their eviction the Williams family moved from the Llŷn Peninsula to Merionethshire and, uprooted from Christian fellowship, Lowri set about holding services in her home, bringing preachers from far away and seeking to minister to her neighbours. Perhaps our society and even the church today would think little of her labours, after all how significant could a poor housewife be in the grand scope of God’s eternal purposes? Nevertheless, Williams’ efforts proved fruitful, a number of people came to faith both through the visiting preachers and through her gospel-saturated conversation; two people became eight, eight people became 1000 spread over 18 churches.
Through the efforts of one who would have been discounted and written off by many a whole region was changed. We have a tendency to look at these great accomplishments of the past, these Christians who achieved great things and say ‘yes, but I could never do that.’ The story of Lowri Williams, affectionately called ‘the apostle’, reminds us that no matter how poor, uneducated, untalented or despised a person may be they are in the service of a mighty God. The real reason behind the great achievements of these Christians of the past had less to do with ability, status, creativity or clever ideas and infinitely more to do with humility before God as the gospel was faithfully proclaimed.
That humility before God is, of course, perhaps shown most clearly in a person’s attitude to prayer; in knowing that our power is limited but the power of God through the gospel is not. It should come as no surprise that Lowri Williams spent much time underpinning the proclamation of the gospel with prayer, spending much time in the local woods crying out to God on behalf of her neighbours. To those thinking themselves insignificant, or wondering why their gifts are not as great as others around them, Lowri’s life reminds us of the truth of those words penned by Cowper: ‘Satan trembles when he sees the weakest Christian on his knees.’