The incalculable effects of faithfully sowing Gospel seeds among the young
Discovering how a 19th century hero of mine was converted to Christ is a welcome encouragement for my greatest heroine – my wife Linda! I’ll explain why in due course.
Lord Shaftesbury’s passion for Christ influenced an entire generation. It inspired him, for example, to successfully campaign for a change in oppressive laws in support of the weak and helpless along with founding missionary societies and significantly contributing to Israel’s restoration. And yet none of this might have happened had it not been for an ‘unsung saint’ few people would have heard of – one Maria Millis.
Maria was a devoted follower of Jesus who, as his nanny, shared Bible stories with the young Anthony Ashley Cooper (born 1801) who would eventually inherit his father’s title. She also taught him to pray.
The son of an earl, the boy was otherwise neglected and bullied both at home and at boarding school. Sadly, Maria died when he was just ten, but Ashley described her throughout his life as the best friend he ever had. And she would never know – in this life – the results of her faithful witness.
Though he struggled with depression, attributed to his unhappy childhood, he devoted himself to “the cause of the weak and those who had none to help them”. As an MP and later a peer, he tirelessly worked towards improving the conditions of factory workers and the mentally ill while also helping to develop universal education.
He played a leading role in a number of gospel programmes including the Church’s Ministry among the Jewish people (CMJ) and, when he died in 1885, nearly 200 missions, schools, hospitals and charities – all of which had been his personal concern – sent representatives to a packed memorial service at Westminster Abbey. And thousands from the slums of London lined the streets as his hearse passed by.
Perhaps his crowning achievement, in my view, was in encouraging fellow politicians as to the biblical warrant for the re-establishment of Israel – a cause backed by leading evangelicals of the day. One of the most significant developments in this regard was the appointment in 1841 of a Jew named Michael Solomon Alexander as Bishop of Jerusalem – the result of a joint CMJ/British Government proposal that Britain should work towards a future restoration of the Jewish people to their own land, put forward by Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston under the combined influence of his son-in-law Lord Shaftesbury and CMJ.1
The Bible says: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22.6) So what’s the link with my wife Linda?
Like Maria Millis, she feels called to share the gospel with young people. And over the past 25-plus years, she has had the immense privilege of sharing Bible stories with, not just one, but tens of thousands of primary school pupils aged four to eleven. It sometimes seems a thankless task with little obvious fruit from her labours. But the seeds of gospel truth have been liberally sown, waiting for fertile ground in which to take root.
There are rare moments of particularly encouraging feedback, such as the recent occasion when a young man at church, to whom I had introduced myself, told me that it was Linda’s visit to his school many years ago that started him off on his Christian journey.
Linda’s own walk with God can be traced back to when she received a Gideon New Testament at her school. She had no Christian background, but was eventually drawn to read the precious Scriptures, which led her to the faith she now shares with other youngsters on an almost daily basis.
She is always telling me not to put her on a pedestal. But my reason for sharing her story (and that of Maria Millis) is to encourage all those who are faithfully sowing the seeds of the gospel in their various endeavours, perhaps never knowing its full impact. And a second reason for doing so is because of the need to point out that, contrary to the generally accepted view, the door of opportunity for teaching Christianity in our UK schools is still wide open.
Many schools are eagerly waiting for Christians to come and help them, as the Macedonians wanted to hear from the Apostle Paul (Acts 16.9f).
And as Brian Maiden, author of the feature2 that inspired this article, put it: “You don’t have to do anything spectacular for Jesus. Just do what you can where you can. One day you may be surprised by the results.”
2Maria Millis: the definition of an unsung saint, Evangelicals Now, October 2019. I am greatly indebted to Brian for a significant part of this article.