© Peter Riddelsdell
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Haggerton Hall and the warmth of its log fires are still an hour’s walk away as we stand here on Black Cap, the highest point of the down. From the south, rain is approaching; a dark, winter storm, sweeping towards us from across the valley.
We should be running for shelter, but instead, William Johnson is standing on a pile of hay-bales by the side of the path. He is leaning into the freezing wind, both arms held high, and rebuking the storm-clouds with his shrill, west-country vowels. He puts me in mind of an Old Testament prophet, his fiery red hair and crimson scarf streaming behind him and the loose ends of his coat flap wildly about his knees. His voice has risen almost to a scream, “Protect us, O Lord. Save us, Jesus. Save us from the coming tempest!”
He seems to believe not only that God can help, but that he will be inclined to. From our vantage point, we have clear sight of the heavy mantle of black cloud advancing towards us from the distant slopes, consuming the blue sky we have enjoyed all morning. It has already blocked out the sun and hangs low over the ridge of the last line of downs, its claws of rain scouring the dusky meadows.
Johnson throws back his head and cries out again. “Reward our faith, Lord. Drive away these devilish rain clouds!”
I turn towards the ladies and am surprised to see they are watching him with plain admiration. I feel a sudden panic, like that of a child who has leapt into deep water and found himself beyond reach of the bank.
I first came into the company of Miss McIvor and Miss Dunn yesterday when I stepped off the train at Lewes station and found them supervising a porter as he unloaded their trunks from the carriage. At first I took the pair to be mother and daughter, but when, the shorter and slimmer of the two took the lead in imploring the man – in a strong Scotch accent – to take more care, I realised my error. It was an absurd mistake as she was not dressed like a child at all. She wore a fine, black woollen coat over a dark blue dress and I noted the slender frame, the long neck and the wisps of jet black hair that escaped from under her velvet bonnet. As I passed close by them I guessed she was probably about my age, or perhaps into her twenties, while her considerably larger companion, dressed in a plain brown coat and wide brimmed hat, looked closer to thirty.
Outside the front of the station I was minding my own business as we waited for our respective carriages, when the older of the two approached me, rather hesitantly, and tentatively addressed me by my name. Now, seeing her face from close quarters – the friendly blue eyes and the plump, round cheeks – I realised I had met her some weeks before, on the day of my interview. Once recognition was confirmed, we shook hands warmly and she reminded me of her name before introducing me to Miss McIvor. When I had first passed them on the platform, I had assumed they were long-established friends, but it now transpired they had only known each for an hour or so.
“The Lord led us both to the same carriage at Victoria,” said Miss McIvor, with a smile and a glint in her dark brown eyes. “Praise His Name – He brought us together before we’d even left London, did He not, Miss Dunn?”
The other concurred, just as we were hailed by a coachman, who declared he was to take us on the last leg of our journey to Haggerton Hall. It was late by the time we arrived and were greeted by our leader, Dr and Mrs Peel, and the ball of energy that is William Johnson. We absorbed the initial shock of Johnson’s appearance – the freckled face and button nose, and the flaming hair set off by an outlandish yellow suit. Over tea, we weathered a deluge of unsolicited stories about his evangelistic endeavours in Bristol before claiming fatigue and retiring to bed.
It was at breakfast that Dr Peel suggested the four of us take advantage of the sunshine to walk on the Downs. The rest of the party would not arrive until the afternoon and he and Mrs Peel had correspondence to deal with. The housekeeper provided us with a chicken pie for our lunch and directed us through the gardens at the rear of the house to where a path would take us up through the woods.
We struck out in a contented group, chatting happily together and pleased to be out in the fresh air on such a beautiful day. The scent of leaves and moss hung in the air and sounds of birdsong filled our ears as we followed the path steeply up between the trees.
Johnson wasted little time in turning the conversation onto himself and, in particular, his success as an evangelist. He is from Bristol, as his accent testifies, and during the revival of the past year, he has been preaching weekly sermons in the open air. “Crowds of men and women from every trade came to hear me and witness the Lord’s miracles – even miners on their way home from the pit. Hundreds repented and turned to Jesus.”
I was intrigued. “How did you convert so many?”
“The Lord has blessed me with the gift of healing,” he said, with obvious pride. “I pray for the sick and He makes them well. Those who experience or see such wonders turn to God without hesitation and the next week they bring their friends.”
I was obliged to swallow my astonishment at Johnson’s claim, for at this moment we emerged from the trees at the end of our climb, and he exclaimed in wonder at the view laid out in front of us. It was indeed a spectacular sight, particularly for one like me who is used to the flatness of Essex. We could see for miles across the Downs that rose and fell like waves on a swelling ocean, caught in time. Far below, to our left, a flat river plain spread all the way to the coast, and beyond it lay another stretch of hills, with the edge of a sheer cliff just visible on the seaward side. Directly ahead of us, to the south, the undulating horizon was crisp against the blue sky and far away to our right, the sea at Brighton glittered. In the opposite direction, over the steep slope we had just climbed, the Sussex weald was far below, with its broad mosaic of woods, fields and scattered farms stretching all the way to the hills on the distant horizon.
We set off westwards in the warming winter sunshine along a timeworn chalk bridle-path. I was keen to return to the subject of Johnson’s evangelism. “What kinds of maladies were people healed of at your meetings?” I asked him as we walked.
“Oh, all sorts of things. There were cripples made whole, bent backs straightened, headaches eased. The Lord will cure anything, large or small.”
Though he spoke with nonchalance, as if of everyday, normal things, I found his claims astonishing.
“How could you be so sure they had really been healed?”
He looked at me in surprise. “Why on earth would they lie?” he said. “If they tell me they've been healed, it must be so.”
“You don't think people might claim a healing just because they want it to be true so badly? Or just for the attention it gets them?”
“Absolutely not,” he insisted. “I trust these people and, more importantly, I trust The Lord.”
He turned to the ladies, who had been walking alongside, listening intently. “I trust that neither of you suffers from the same unbelief as Mr Kellaway here?”
“Actually,” said Miss Dunn. “I don't think it's unreasonable to want to verify such claims. After all, Jesus did warn of false prophets claiming miracles and we should be alert to the danger.”
Johnson laughed. “So you think I might be a false prophet do you?”
“That's not what she meant.” Miss McIvor interjected. Why don't you tell us about an actual miracle you've seen, Mr Johson. Perhaps that will help Mr Kellaway believe.”
“Of course,” Johnson said. “I can tell you about an occasion in St Nicholas Market just last week. I'd preached from the book of James on the healing power of the Spirit and invited any who were sick to come forward. A shrunken old woman with a lumpen back stepped towards me, leering and waving her stick. I could tell she had any number of maladies to be healed, and probably demons to be cast out as well.
“‘All right, young man,’ she said.” Here, Johnston mimicked her in a rasping, high-pitched voice. “‘If God cares so much about me, why does He make me suffer with this pain in my back?’
“I thanked the Lord, for I knew immediately he had brought this woman to me for a reason. ‘Sickness and pain do not come from the Lord,’ I assured her. ‘You feel them because you lack faith and have left the door of your heart open to the devil.’
“I sought the Lord’s guidance and He directed me to examine her feet. With the crowd’s help, I persuaded the woman to sit with her legs stretched out in front of her. Kneeling by her side I saw immediately that the two limbs were of different lengths by as much as two inches. ‘There is your problem,’ I said. ‘The Lord has guided me straight to it. Do you want Him to heal you?’
“A sudden fear came into her eyes as she realised she was in the presence of the Lord.” Johnson paused and looked at me with a knowing smile. “I said to her. ‘Are you ready to receive the healing of the Holy Spirit?’ After a few moments, she nodded.
“Quite a crowd had gathered and I had to wave them back to allow her more space. Then I laid my hands on her legs, calling fervently on the Lord. ‘O Jesus, look with favour on thy wretched and sinful daughter. Thou, who suffered pain to redeem us from sin.’
He chopped the air with his hand to better enunciate each acclamation. “By the stripes on thy back, come to heal thy daughter now. Grow her shorter leg, Lord, so it may equal the other.’”
Johnson caught my gaze and let the words of his prayer hang in the air for a moment. Then, with a smile and nod, he went on. “The withered limb twitched... One of the onlookers cried out, ‘It’s moving! The leg is growing.’ Others in the crown joined in with shouts of astonishment. They gave praise to the Lord, for the leg had indeed grown. It had taken just a moment, but there it was; the two legs were restored to the equality God intended.”
The story sounded most unlikely and a particularly easy delusion to believe in for those who desire it. Johnson looked at me closely.
“You are still sceptical, brother, but it is the absolute truth. There were many witnesses. She got to her feet, took some cautious steps with her stick and then looked back at me with open mouth. She gasped in amazement. The she suddenly threw the stick on the ground and cried out with joy, ‘I'm healed. The pain in my back has gone.’ If proof is what you need, Mr Kellaway, hear this – she actually danced in celebration and she called out for Jesus to fill her heart there and then.”
The ladies were drinking in every word. “Praise the Lord,” said Miss McIvor, wide-eyed and smiling. “What a wonderful story. And what an amazing gift.”
“It is a gift for all Christians,” said Johnson. “‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.’ Everyone quotes that part, but they should not stop there. ‘These signs shall follow them that believe; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.’ It’s what the Lord wants us to do.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve never heard that verse taken quite so literally before.”
“Every verse should be taken literally. The Lord is coming again soon and the closer we get to that day, the more miracles we will see. The Spirit is calling his children home through signs and wonders, just as He said he would.”
When I told Father I was joining a group of non-conformists, he warned me my theology would be challenged. I thought he meant matters like the role of the priesthood or infant baptism, which I was ready to argue, but I was not prepared for this talk of miracles. Nor for the contrast between Johnson’s literal interpretation of Scripture and the liberalism of the Oxford tutors I had just left behind. It was as though I had climbed from a freezing lake to jump into a boiling hot tub. Johnson seemed so sure of himself, striding confidently along as he continued to expostulate to the ladies about miracles and the power of the Holy Spirit.
A column of smoke hung over a woodland far down on the Weald below. Charcoal burners, perhaps. The clarity of the air made every detail of the hills on the northern horizon pin sharp – it really was extraordinary weather to be blessed with in January. The gentle sunshine dispelled the winter chill in the air and the only clouds were high and thin, scuffs of chalk against the blue sky.
We had been walking for over two hours and, with the sun at its height, hunger told us the time to stop for lunch had arrived. I took the pack off my back and we laid our blanket on the grass beside the grizzled trunk of a long-fallen tree. It was a perfect place to sit, sheltered from the chill breeze and warmed by the sun, it almost felt like a summer picnic. Miss Dunn divided up the pie and we sat in a row on the edge of the blanket, eating contentedly as we gazed out across the Weald, finding conversation in the various goings-on far below us; a farmer’s cart being towed along a narrow lane by a pair of horses, cows clustered in the corner of a field, a hawk circling just below the level of our privileged vantage point.
After a while, having finished my pie and thrown away my apple core, I lay back on the blanket and closed my eyes for a while. I would have dozed off, but the story of Johnson’s miracle was still disrupting my thoughts. Wondering if I was the only one troubled by it and sensing movement, I opened my eyes to see Miss Dunn had come to sit with her back to the fallen tree. As she gathered the skirts of her dress into her lap, I asked, “Do they pray for healing in your church?”
She shook her head. “Not in the way Mr Johnson describes. Of course, we do pray for the sick – though we don’t expect an instant response.”
“Does He heal them?”
“Sometimes, yes. Not always, though.”
I was strangely pleased to hear that. “What kind of church is it?”
She took a moment to answer. “Now, I’m with the Methodists.”
“So, you have not always been a Methodist then?”
“No. I was brought up in Plymouth, in a group called the Brethren. I left there a few years ago, though, when I moved to London to become a teacher.”
“Could you not have been a teacher in Plymouth?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I could, but…”
She tailed off into a silence that lingered until Miss McIvor, who had turned to listen, interjected by turning my original question back onto me. “What about the Church of England, Mr Kellaway?” she said. “Surely, you Anglicans must pray for the sick.”
“Why, yes, of course we do,” I answered. “But not normally in their presence.”
At this, Johnson, who still had his back to me, burst into laughter. “That’s superb!” He turned towards me with a look of disdain. “When do you pray for them, then, if you don’t pray in their presence?”
The mockery in his voice put me on the defensive. “I mean we don’t do it like you. The sick are remembered in church, or when we pray as a family or when we’re alone.”
“I’ll tell you why you don’t pray in their presence,” he said. “It’s because you Anglicans don’t have the faith to believe God will really heal – you’re too fearful that nothing will happen. So, of course, people don’t get healed in Anglican churches and you and your priests continue to believe that God doesn’t do miracles. But if you prayed in faith, you’d find that He does.”
I was stunned for a moment, incensed at his effrontery. “We have as much faith as anyone. We are the official church, after all.”
Johnson smiled and shook his head. “Only as recognised by man – not by God.”
I was about to argue back when Miss McIvor stepped in. “Come now, gentlemen. All churches do things differently and have their own strengths. That’s why we’re all here together, surely. We Presbyterians also pray for the sick in church.” She turned to my adversary. “I’ll tell you one thing though, Mr Johnson. The elders in my church would send you straight home if you arrived in a gaudy suit like that.”
Johnson threw his head back and laughed with delight. “The Lord himself picked out this material for me. ‘William,’ He said, ‘Yellow is the colour for you.’ Honestly, He did. And He promised that if I wore it every day He would bring sinners to hear my witness. And so it turned out. You wouldn’t believe how many souls have been saved simply as a result of me wearing this...”
I had no desire to hear the fellow go on about his absurd suit. “Well everyone,” I interrupted loudly, as I raised myself back onto my feet and started to shake the crumbs from my trousers. “I think it’s time we made a move.” All three looked up in surprise, but seeing my determination and perhaps remembering the distance still to cover, they gathered themselves up and soon we had started on the return legspruu.
The sky had changed in the hour since we had sat down to lunch. While we had been focussing our attention on the view to the north, a range of mountainous clouds had risen above the southern horizon, lofty peaks towering and glistening in the sky. Admiring them now as we walked, we marvelled at their sheer bulk and the contrast between the dazzling brightness at their edges and the heavy darkness of their hearts.
With this silent mass as a backdrop, I turned the conversation to uncovering Miss McIvor’s history. She had previously mentioned being a nurse at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, tending to the impoverished sick, a job I was sure must have been wholly unpleasant.
“How did your parents feel about you working there?” I asked.
“Och,” she said, with a shrug. “It was a relief to them that I stayed in Scotland – I really wanted to nurse soldiers in the Crimea. They got me a place at the Royal to distract me from that. I loved it. Helping the less fortunate and sharing the love of Jesus... that’s all I ever want to do.”
As we walked on, the clouds took over more of the sky and our appreciation of their beauty diminished. Soon they shut out the sun entirely and charcoal smudges of rain appeared on the horizon, blurring the tops of the Downs. It was obvious that rain would soon be upon us and with the battering of the cold wind in our ears I had to shout to be heard.
“There’s a shepherd’s hut beyond the next rise – I saw it this morning. If we hurry, we could be there in five minutes.”
Miss McIvor was about to reply when, suddenly, Johnson stepped out ahead of her and cut across our path towards the hay-bales. “No need for that,” he called over his shoulder. “Trust in the Lord!” With two bounds he climbed onto the bales and set his face towards the oncoming clouds.
So, here I am now, watching him in horrified fascination. To keep his hat from blowing away, he has placed it under his foot, oblivious to the harm this will do its shape. Around us, open pastures slope away on either side of the path and there is scant shelter beyond occasional clumps of shivering gorse and a stand of ash, naked branches hissing at each violent gust. Scattered sheep, backs to the wind, nibble on the cold grass. We are still an hour from our lodgings and, with this delaysquall, it is inevitable we will soon be soaked.
Keeping his arms aloft, he drops to his knees in the straw and calls out again, “Mighty Jehovah, hear our prayers!” A sudden, caustic squawk from behind attracts my attention. A lone crow on a hummock of grass a few yards away, regards us scornfully, a glint in its black eye. It hops forward into the wind, wings outstretched to balance itself. It caws again, as if talking directly to me, and the sound is echoed from above. I look up to see a host of its companions above us, circling like black rags in the squall.
Johnson's prayers are becoming ever more fervent. The ladies have tucked in close behind him while I watch from a few paces back. Miss McIvor, has raised her arms up like Johnson, although Miss Dunn has taken up a more conventional posture for prayer with her head bowed and her hands coupled beneath her chin. I feel a fondness for Miss Dunn. She does not have the grace of Miss McIvor, and is no beauty at all, but there is something genuinely good and sincere about her. She will not get carried away by emotion, yet neither will she allow cynicism to overwhelm her sense of truth.
I am the only one not praying. I cannot. Surely, I think, it is a moment to act on our own behalf by using the legs God has given us.
Johnson is relentless. “In the name of Jesus Christ, Lord of all the Heavens, I command you, clouds of Lucifer, to change your course. We, who have been chosen by Christ, claim our protection.”
I can just imagine the scornful laughter of the students I left behind in Oxford if they were to see this. Fortunately, they will never know. No one need know. I look around to check we are alone. We have passed a few travellers and shepherds during the day, but now, other than the sheep, the Downs are empty for miles in every direction.
The first speck of rain hits my face. The prayers have, not surprisingly, failed. Now, perhaps, we can do what is sensible and run for cover. Far to the East, on the distant hills, there is a single remaining patch of sunshine, but otherwise the whole landscape is covered with heavy, black cloud.
Miss McIvor lowers her arms and smiles back at me, her face glowing with excitement. Confronted by my stony gaze, the light in her eyes dims a little, and she turns away. I like Miss McIvor, but I fear she is rather credulous and easily led. Undaunted by my lack of enthusiasm, she lifts her hands again and entreats the skies in much the same manner as Johnson. “Hear us, Lord Jesus,” she calls out. “Drive away the storm. Protect your children from the tempest.”
Johnson’s liturgy of exhortation is inexhaustible; his words come in a seemingly endless flow. The ladies are Alongside him, Miss McIvor continues to call out, while Miss Dunn stands more serenely, her head bowed and her hands gathered beneath her chin in prayerful posture. I am the frowning bystander.
Feeling restless, I look around me. The sheep, which were all facing us a moment ago, have turned and are now presenting us with their tails. This is strange synchronicity, I think to myself. Then it dawns on me that the animals are responding to a change in the wind. A few moments ago, it was coming from the direction of Brighton, but now it is on our backs, from the east. Looking up, it does indeed appear that the movement of the clouds is altered as well. They are now drifting westwards, rather than towards us. I turn towards the distant patch of sunshine I had seen. There can be no doubt it has expanded. I focus my gaze and watch it carefully. My heart sinks as I realise that, yes, the line that marks the change from shadow to light is moving steadily towards us.
The others have not yet noticed and I say nothing. This is absurd. Surely, God will not answer such a ridiculous prayer. He must not. If it is this easy to get a response out of Him, it makes a mockery of church worship. Please, I hear myself saying, do not let Johnson be right.
The pool of sunlight is creeping across the floor of the river valley, growing ever larger. Suddenly Miss McIvor sees it, too. “Hallelujah!” she cries. “He’s done it! Oh, thank you, Lord. Thank you, Jesus.”
I look back at Johnson, who has lowered his arms and turned towards us, still up on his ragged, wind-torn stage. His pale, freckled face is lit up with a beatific smile through which he is continuing to pray, more calmly now. “Thank you, Lord, thank you,” he says, again and again.
He looks down at the ladies, who are laughing and embracing. There seems no doubt in their minds as to what has happened. Johnson drops down beside me. He grasps my hand, and pumps it energetically, putting his face right up to mine. “Do you see, Kellaway?” he says, peering into my eyes from inches away. “The Lord brings miracles to those who believe. It is just a matter of faith.”
I step back and, with some effort, I smile and nod before turning away. The crows are still circling, while high above them the dark clouds are thinning. In the east, the tide of sunshine has crossed the valley and the area of blue sky is growing. I cannot deny that something extraordinary has taken place and while I am not ready to countenance a miracle, I have no better explanation – it seems churlish to stand apart from the celebrations. I turn back to Johnson and offer my hand. “Congratulations,” I say.
“Oh, I am not responsible,” he replies, with an earnest shake of the head. “You must understand what has happened here, Kellaway. It was a miracle of the Lord’s doing. You should be on your knees, repenting and giving Him the praise he is due.”
Home for me as a child was a large, red-brick Essex rectory with a garden at the front. The rose beds were segmented by narrow paths and were as good as a maze for small children. One of my earliest memories is of lying on the flagstones with Eliza, in the warmth of the summer sunshine, giggling with her as Mother pretended not to know where we were hiding. Around the back of the house we had a big lawn to play on with a tangled patch of rhododendrons in one corner, a jungle where I hunted for lions.
On rainy days, we would play long games of hide-and-seek inside the house until we tired, when Eliza would go to find Mother and I would slip into Father’s study. If I stayed quiet, he would allow me to choose a book from one of the sagging shelves and when he was not too busy he would read to me, always about Africa. I would sit, curled up in the corner of his old leather settee, listening, enraptured, to stories from the journals of the explorers, marvelling at the natural wonders they found and celebrating the prowess of men like Cornwallis Harris whose tally of elephants numbered in the thousands. I vividly remember my inconsolable weeping on hearing of the lonely death of Mungo Parks at the hands of the savage natives. My real passion, though, was not for these figures from the past but for today’s heroes, men like Livingstone and Hawkes who were in Africa now, exploring and hunting and claiming the country for the Queen. One day, I vowed, I would go there too, but for now, the garden would have to do. There, with a bent stick for a gun, I tracked game and parlayed with chiefs. Visitors to the rectory became used to seeing me at play, and one birthday, to my absolute delight, an elderly parishioner presented me with a proper toy gun he had carved from a piece of elm.
As I grew older, the games ended and the gun was put away, but the dreams persisted and, although I did not speak of it for fear of upsetting Mother, I never forgot the promise I had made myself to become an explorer. That is until one memorable Sunday morning, not long after my sixteenth birthday. I was seated at table in the breakfast room, across from Eliza, spreading butter on my toast and enjoying the sensation of the sun warming my back through the open window and the song of a blackbird in the cherry tree outside.
Mother had just poured the tea when our tranquillity was suddenly shattered as the door burst open and slammed into the back of Eliza’s chair. It was Father, and he swept in, still wearing his cassock from the early morning communion. “What a wonderful morning!”
“Oh, for goodness sake, Arnold,” protested Mother. “You’re like a mad bull. Why don’t you slow down and take care? You’ve made Eliza spill her tea all over the table cloth.”
“Sorry, Eliza,” said Father, but nothing was going to dent his enthusiasm. In his hand was the Sunday Times, which he held up for us to see the front page. “Look. Livingstone is alive!”
“Really?” I said, throwing down my knife and pushing back my chair so that it scraped across the floorboards as I got to my feet. “Let me see.”
“No, no. Sit down. I’ll read it to you.”
Nothing had been heard from Dr Livingstone for over a year, but now, Father read, the great man had arrived on the west coast of Africa, having travelled the entire breadth of the continent. He had navigated rivers and slashed through thick forest to complete his greatest journey yet and become the first man to cross Africa.
With Father standing there in his black robes and dog-collar, celebrating the latest achievement of the great missionary explorer, my dream suddenly spilled out.
“I want to be a missionary,” I blurted. “I want to go to Africa and be like Livingstone.”
Mother looked at me in surprise. “A missionary?” she said. “People are called by God to be missionaries, Andrew. They don’t just decide.”
Father lowered the newspaper to his side. “Hold on, Dear. Maybe he has been called.”
She shook her head. “How would he know at his age? And Africa’s a dangerous place, Arnold. If he goes there, he might never come back.”
“Nonsense,” said Father. “If he’s being called to missionary service, the Lord will look after him – and who are we to stand in the way?”
That was the start of many long discussions and arguments but in the end, my wishes prevailed – Mother came to accept that I had a calling, and a few years later I entered the celestial environs of Balliol College for the first time, ready to begin my theological training.
It was a rude awakening. Father had assured me that biblical scholarship would bring me joy and fulfilment, but a lot had changed since his day. “I can’t wait to study Luther,” I said to Richard Mullin, as we walked across the garden quad on my first tour of the college, the afternoon sunshine warming the sandstone walls with its golden light. He was the cocksure second-year student I had been assigned to share a room with, tall and thin with a wave of black hair across his brow and a wiry shock of unkempt beard. I was eager to impress him and Luther was one of the few theologians I had heard of, for although I was committed to joining the clergy, I had done little to prepare for my studies.
He laughed. “Don’t waste your time on Luther, Kellaway – he’s part of history. You need bring yourself up to date. Read some Schleiermacher – he’s brilliant. Incredible, even. He changed my life, and that’s not an exaggeration.”
I soon realised that my brash room-mate was almost entirely devoid of faith and these German theologians he talked of were his primary source of inspiration. There were no prayers or bible studies to start his day, and his greatest pleasure was from undermining Biblical truth. “You surely don’t believe in the miracles?” He said to me one afternoon. “You cannot really believe Christ fed 5,000 people with a handful of fish and a couple of loaves? It’s an allegory. He fed their minds with His wisdom, not their stomachs with food.”
I had suffered a certain amount of teasing at school for my missionary ambitions, but no one had attacked the basis of my faith like this before. “Why do you even want to be a priest if you don’t believe in the Bible?” I replied.
“You don’t have to take the Bible at face value to have faith, Kellaway. That’s the whole point. This is 1859. Leave the old ways behind.” He gave me a hearty slap between the shoulder-blades. “Catch up, man!”
It was very hard to comprehend, but worse was to come as the term got under way and I found there were even tutors who thought this way. All sorts of ideas were circulating, including one appalling suggestion that man was not created by God at all, but by some undetermined ‘force of nature’. Mullin was particularly exercised by this theory, and one evening, about two weeks after I arrived in Oxford, he invited me to a lecture by a professor Darwin.
“I’d rather not,” I said. “I believe the Bible – I don’t need an alternative version of history.”
“Open your mind, Kellaway. Entertain some different ideas for a moment. It’ll be good for you.”
“How can there be anything good about challenging Scripture?”
He smiled and shook his head. “You know it makes sense, but you’re afraid. I was too, at first, but don’t worry. This is the way things are going – people are starting to take a more mature view of religion, and the whole role of priests is going to change. But fear not – you’ll still have a job.”
“I’m not worried about that. I just want you to leave me in peace to follow the faith I’m comfortable with.”
He scoffed, but eventually gave up and went away without me.
Left on my own, I found the silence of the room oppressive and soon decided to go out for a walk by the river to smoke my recently acquired pipe. I found the tow path deserted and wandered in the direction of town, alone in the darkness with my thoughts. I knew that Mullin was partly right. His ideas did appeal to me – the truth is, I had never found it particularly easy to believe in God even as a child. It always made sense that we must have been created, but who made God, and how and from what? And why did He make Himself so damned elusive? My father could never answer these questions, and once I had decided to be a missionary, I put them to the back of my mind. Troubling with such distractions would do nothing to help me get to Africa. All I needed was to learn the faith, get ordained and become a priest. That is what I had come to Oxford for, but so far it was failing to provide.
I passed under the vaulted stone arches of a bridge. From overhead came the sounds of the street, chattering voices and the rattle of a carriage on the cobblestones, but down below there was a quiet ambience, almost like that of a chapel. I stopped and gazed at the dark sheen of the slowly drifting river as it glided past the pillars and I felt a sudden urge to pray. Closing my eyes, I murmured, “Lord Almighty, I am your humble servant. If You have called me to Africa, give me the strength to endure the trials of this place so I may do Your will.” I stood, swaying slightly, on the edge of the path as I strained to hear His reply. I waited a long while, and then heard footsteps on the towpath. A group of students, huddled in their coats, was walking towards me, deep in conversation. Not wanting to become an object of their curiosity, I turned away from them and set off back towards the college. Alone in my room again, I felt a strange sense of reassurance. I put myself to bed and went off to sleep, confident that soon all would be well.
A few days later, as I looked in on the keeper’s lodge on my way to breakfast, a letter, addressed in unfamiliar handwriting, was waiting for me. Inside was a single sheet, a simple letter from a Dr Thomas Peel, inviting me to meet him at the East London Mission in Whitechapel at two o’clock on 4 November – the next day. I had never heard of the man before and there was little detail about who he was or what he wanted, but he gave an assurance that if I wished to serve God, and felt called to Africa, I would be interested in what he had to say. I had been recommended to him by a church member he said, but gave no further clues. Despite this vagueness, the mentions of Africa and ‘mission’ on the same page left me in no doubt that this was a response to my prayer of the other night.