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The Christian History DEVOTIONAL365 Readings and Prayers to Deepen and Inspire Your Faith
By J. STEPHEN LANG
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 J. Stephen Lang
All right reserved.
January 1 · Battle for Life
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21
404: Blood flowed, men died, crowds cheered—such was the "entertainment" enjoyed by the ancient Romans, which is familiar to us thanks to movies such as Gladiator and Spartacus. In the gladiatorial contests, combatants greeted the emperors by shouting, "We who are about to die salute you!" The loser in each contest was usually stabbed through the throat, while the crowds roared. The bloody sand was raked over, and a new contest would begin. Such bloodbaths were not just for the dregs of society but for everyone, including the emperors.
Constantine, the first Christian emperor, ended the gladiator spectacles in 313—but apparently the ban was not enforced for long, for the games were revived later. The emperors, even though they were Christians, feared to take away something that gave the masses such pleasure.
The early Christians lamented the evil of Roman public amusements. One Christian author called the games "cannibal banquets for the soul." Other Christians claimed that the public shedding of blood for sport encouraged crime and a general disdain for human life. Even though many gladiators were convicted criminals under a death sentence, sensitive souls grieved that citizens enjoyed watching the butchery. Churches refused baptism to a gladiator unless he changed professions. Pastors taught their flocks that Christ's people had no business attending such spectacles, and some congregations refused holy communion to Christians who did.
One Christian tried a more drastic approach. In the year 400, Telemachus leapt into the arena to stop a gladiatorial contest. The mob (composed mostly of citizens who were nominally Christian) stoned him to death. The emperor eventually ordered the contests stopped permanently. The last gladiator contests were held January 1, 404. They did not end solely because of Telemachus's martyrdom. They ended because enough Christians, and people influenced by Christians, saw the games as the vulgar, inhumane outrages that they were. Faith in the Prince of Peace had triumphed over the spirit of cruelty.
Prayer: Lord of life, make us beacons of light in a dark world. Amen.
January 2 · That Heart-Thumping Hymn
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. 2 Corinthians 10:4
1924: How did a man with fifteen children ever find time to write hymns—or write anything, for that matter? An ordinary man could not, but Sabine Baring-Gould was no ordinary man, for his mind ranged over so many things—Christianity, folk songs, ghosts and werewolves, and archaeology.
Born in 1834, he studied at Cambridge and was ordained in the Church of England. In forty-eight years of marriage, his wife, Grace, bore him fifteen children. While pastoring a church, he found time to collect and publish English folk songs. Appropriately for a pastor, he was fascinated by Christian history, and he wrote a sixteen-volume Lives of the Saints. He also wrote books on ghosts, werewolves, and superstitions. He was an amateur archaeologist, often digging in prehistoric ruins.
Sabine Baring-Gould is mostly remembered as the author of one of the church's greatest hymns—which he wrote in about fifteen minutes. This was "Onward, Christian Soldiers," written for a church parade of children held on Pentecost in 1864. His title for the hymn was "Hymn for Procession with Cross and Banners." For the music he lifted a melody line from a symphony by Joseph Haydn. The hymn might have been forgotten had not the composer Arthur Sullivan in 1871 written the rousing tune that is so familiar. (Sullivan would later become famous for the music in the comical Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.) Not surprisingly, it was often used by the street bands of the Salvation Army.
The song has nothing to do with actual combat—the war is a spiritual one, between God's "Christian soldiers" united in faith against the forces of darkness. Sadly, this superb hymn has been criticized and even dropped from some hymnals for its "militarism," even though its mentions of war, battle, and army are obviously spiritual.
Sabine Baring-Gould died on January 2, 1924, the author of dozens of books—and remembered for a stirring hymn he dashed off in fifteen minutes.
Prayer: Father, thank you for hymns that stir the soul and deepen faith. Amen.
January 3 · Missionary Maid
Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. Isaiah 41:10
1970: In a movie titled The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the strikingly beautiful actress Ingrid Bergman portrayed an English missionary named Gladys Aylward. The real Gladys was not beautiful on the outside, but everyone who met her knew her to be beautiful within.
Born in London in 1902, Gladys worked as a maid but aspired to be a missionary. The China Inland Mission turned her down, saying she did not have enough education. Not one to be thwarted, Gladys saved enough money to pay for her own passage to China in 1930, which required a ponderous train trip across Russia, a voyage to Japan, then to China, then a trek by mule to a mission station north of Beijing, where she and an older missionary woman turned their home into an inn, a stopping point for trade caravans passing through. The "entertainment" the women provided was telling stories about Jesus, and in time they made many converts. Gladys gradually perfected her use of Chinese and began dressing as a native.
Gladys took in an orphan, then another, until in time there were a hundred. Japan invaded China in 1938, and Gladys and the band of orphans had to flee, journeying on foot for twelve days, sleeping some nights in the open. When they reached the Yellow River, there was no way to cross, all boat traffic having stopped due to the war, but Gladys and the children began to pray and sing hymns. A Chinese officer heard them and arranged for safe passage. Having found a safe home for the orphans, she started a church and later worked in a home for lepers.
Gritty though she was, Gladys's health was broken by the war years, and in 1947 she returned to England for medical treatment. For the rest of her life she preached and lectured on her China adventures. She died on January 3, 1970, respected as a woman of deep faith and boundless courage.
Prayer: Lord, as we face obstacles and adversities, remind us of your unfailing love. Amen.
January 4 · Praying in the Power Pit
Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations. Psalm 46:10
1947: What would you say if you had two minutes to address a room full of the most powerful politicians in America? That question must have occurred many times to Peter Marshall, one of the most-quoted preachers of his day.
Born in 1902 in Scotland, Peter arrived in America when he was twenty-four. He made friends at a church who financed his education at a seminary in Atlanta, was ordained, and served a small church. He moved back to Atlanta to pastor another church and met his future wife, Catherine Wood (who, as Catherine Marshall, became a noted Christian author). In 1937 he was called to be the pastor of the "power church," New York Avenue Presbyterian in Washington, with its pews full of political VIPs. Marshall's sermons drew crowds and were often reprinted in Reader's Digest and The New Yorker.
The U.S. Senate asked Marshall to serve as its chaplain, a position he assumed on January 4, 1947. The chaplaincy was mostly ceremonial, consisting of the chaplain opening each day's session with a prayer. Marshall saw this mere formality as a means of speaking truth to the powerful. In one of his first prayers in the Senate chamber, he prayed, "We are at cross-purposes with each other. Take us by the hand and help us see things from Thy viewpoint." Marshall's prayers were collected and published as Mr. Jones, Meet the Master.
Peter, with his Scots accent, oozed charm and warmth. He had a contagious zest for life, which helped to draw young people to his church. He packed a great deal of living and life-changing influence into a few years. Peter had a heart attack, then a second, and he died January 26, 1949, at the age of forty-six. His widow published his story as A Man Called Peter.
Prayer: Father, let our faith in you be a life-affirming thing that draws others to you. Amen.
January 5 · Freed to Think—and Serve
He made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom. Jeremiah 51:15
1943: A noted scientist who died on this date saw no conflict at all between science and faith. On the contrary, he was certain that "without God to draw aside the curtain, I would be helpless." His name was George Washington Carver, and few people ever started life with more handicaps. Born about 1864 in Missouri, he was the son of illiterate slaves, though all slaves were legally freed while he was still a toddler. A white couple whose last name was Carver were his owners, then guardians, and he referred to Mrs. Carver as "Aunt Susan." The Carvers saw a lively intellect in the child, as did all who met him. He attended Simpson College in Iowa (one of the few colleges of the time that would admit blacks), but due to his knack for growing plants, he transferred to Iowa's agricultural college.
In 1896 Booker T. Washington invited him to teach agriculture at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He taught there till his death, while conducting research into the uses of soil-enriching crops like peanuts and sweet potatoes and urging farmers of all races to diversify their crops instead of relying on cotton, notorious for exhausting the soil. In the last years of his life, Carver was an international celebrity, meeting with three U.S. presidents and writing a syndicated column, "Professor Carver's Advice." Carver's fame increased when Southern farmers began growing peanuts after their cotton was devastated by the boll weevil.
Carver was certain that it was God who gave him success. He had become a Christian at age ten and read the Bible constantly. While teaching agriculture at Tuskegee, he also modeled character development, and for years he taught a Sunday Bible class. He firmly believed that nature was one means by which God spoke to man, and though he enjoyed and encouraged reading, he believed his discoveries arose from communing with God.
Prayer: Lord, bless all those who study your creation and use their knowledge to benefit others. Amen.
January 6 · Reading Creation
How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all. Psalm 104:24
1884: Are religion and science opposed to each other? Gregor Mendel, who died on this date, did not think so. He is known as the father of genetics, but when he died, very few people knew of his scientific work, though many knew him as the head of a monastery in the Austrian Empire. It wasn't until many years after his death that the world saw the significance of his work.
Born in 1822, Mendel grew up on a farm and learned to cultivate plants and tend bees, two skills that would prove useful years later. He joined a monastery in 1843, and the abbot there shared Mendel's interest in science and gave him leave to study at the University of Vienna. In the monastery's garden Mendel cultivated thousands of pea plants and maintained bee hives and through experimentation in making hybrids, formulated Mendel's Laws of Inheritance. Scientists had always assumed that inherited characteristics blend, but Mendel discovered that heredity is affected by the interplay of dominant and recessive genes. He wrote up his findings in a paper presented to several scientific societies, but at the time no one really understood the importance of Mendel's Laws.
Mendel became abbot of his monastery in 1868, and his administrative duties gave him little time for scientific pursuits. When he died in 1884, he was beloved by all who knew him and admired him as a Christian but were barely aware of his being a scientist. It would have amazed this gentle man that in the following century scientists and Christians would see each other as enemies.
Sometimes fame comes after death. There is a Mendel University in the Czech Republic, and the monastery where he lived and died has a Mendel Museum that includes his garden. These places honor a man who was a sincere Christian in his own time and an honored scientist afterward.
Prayer: Creator God, we give you thanks for your beautiful and intricate world, and for minds that understand it. Amen.
January 7 · Knocked Down, Never Out
I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me. Psalm 120:1
1676: The great Reformation leader Martin Luther insisted that people needed the Bible and hymns in their own language. So Luther not only translated the Bible into German but also wrote several hymns, and he insisted that hymns be an important part of Protestant worship. He started the rich tradition of hymn singing and composing in Lutheran churches.
A follower in that tradition was Paul Gerhardt, born in 1607. He studied at the University of Wittenberg, the very spot where Luther had launched the Reformation years earlier. Gerhardt became a pastor in Berlin, where he and composer Johann Cruger collaborated in writing hymns. Gerhardt's preaching and songs attracted many people, and in a time when denominational differences mattered, Gerhardt, a Lutheran, reached out to other Protestants. Sadly, he lost his post due to a conflict with the local ruler, Elector Friedrich Wilhelm. He could not even hold services in his home. In the meantime, his wife died, as did four of their five children. Having lived through the turbulent Thirty Years' War, in which a third of Europe's population died, Gerhardt had seen his share of suffering.
Sustained in all this sadness by his faith in God, Gerhardt wrote some great hymns, 123 in all. They were written in German, of course, but many of them have been translated into English. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, rendered one of Gerhardt's hymns into the English "Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me," a song Wesley had heard onboard ship as he sailed to America. Wesley also translated Gerhardt's "Give to the Winds Thy Fears," and both these hymns are found in most English-language hymnals.
Paul Gerhardt died on January 7, 1676, having witnessed much sadness in his life but also having experienced the sustaining love of the Lord.
Prayer: Almighty God, you give us hope through our many trials. Teach us patience, and give us strength to endure whatever this world does to us. Amen.
January 8 · Earthly Power
"My kingdom is from another place." John 18:36
1198: How much earthly power should a spiritual leader possess? In the Middle Ages most of the popes would have said, "As much as possible." For centuries the popes were not only the heads of the Roman Catholic Church but also ruled over a large part of central Italy (a region known as the Papal States). Possessing the power to excommunicate anyone, a pope held great power over even the mightiest of kings. Not surprisingly, the office of pope attracted many ambitious, unscrupulous men. And yet, the most powerful pope of all was a reasonably moral man, though definitely an ambitious one.
That man was Innocent III, whose reign began on January 8, 1198. Many high officials in the church were corrupt, but Innocent (true to his name) had led a scandal-free life. Taking office at the age of thirty-seven, he had no qualms about using his power to bring some of Europe's wayward rulers into line. One example: Innocent appointed a man to the office of archbishop of Canterbury, head of the church in England. King John of England had his own candidate for the post, and when John resisted, Innocent excommunicated John and put England under an interdict, meaning that, technically, the whole country was "outside the church." John, fearing a rebellion, gave in and accepted Innocent's appointee.
In one of his writings, Innocent stated that the power of the pope and the power of a king were like the sun and the moon, meaning that the sun (the pope) was a greater light since the moon (a king) only reflected the light of the sun.
Despite the great impression Innocent made on his contemporaries and on historians, he has never been officially made a saint, nor was he ever referred to as "Innocent the Great." Perhaps the church has never been quite comfortable with the awesome amount of worldly power Innocent wielded, given that Jesus said his kingdom was "not of this world."
Prayer: Lord, keep us from the lust for worldly power and let us rely on you. Amen.
Excerpted from The Christian History DEVOTIONAL by J. STEPHEN LANG Copyright © 2012 by J. Stephen Lang. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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