Grace Triumphant - Chapter 6 - Preparing for the Mission Field

Preparing for the Mission Field

“The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O LORD, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands.” (Psa. 138:8)

In the early months of 1921, Mr. Tom Baird visited Victoria.  He had formerly been a missionary in Malaya (1893-1906) and was a forceful speaker, much addicted to alliteration.  One of his sayings (quoted from memory):

“Oh!  Will my will to will God’s will, then willing will be well.
The willing will that wills God’s will, within God’s will will dwell.”

Through him I learned about the Missionary Training School in Brooklyn, New York, under the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Hill.   (The daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Baird was married to Rowland Hill, a brother of Richard.)  The Richard Hills had been missionaries in Persia and Turkestan from 1908-1918, and had started the school to help prospective missionaries.

It was very naïve for me to pray that the elders at Oaklands Chapel would be unanimous in their willingness to commend me for missionary work, and primarily to spend some time at the Missionary Training School.  Now that I am wiser in the ways of elders I would not have the faith to pray such a prayer.  But very graciously they did commend me, and if there were any dissenters I was not informed.  The counsel of Duncan McKerracher was a great help and blessing in those days. In August I finally received a reply from Mr. Hill welcoming me to the School.  After receiving his letter I read Psalm 138 with great blessing, assured that the Lord would fulfill His purpose in me.  Still I had no guidance on the field of service though my thoughts turned toward Africa or possibly to Portugal, realizing that Mr. Swan needed help there.

On my way from Victoria to New York, I stopped for a day in Port Hope, Ontario, to visit my Aunt Millie and two cousins.  She was my Mother’s youngest sister and had married a retired army man.  He was a professing Christian who regularly attended a Baptist church.  The members there were probably not aware of how shabbily he treated his family.  Shortly before my visit he had been working on the railroad and had been in an accident.  It was really a relief for my aunt to be spared his meanness.

Approaching New York on the train from Montreal, I was getting shaved.  In the mirror of the washroom, I saw a passenger open his case and lying on the top was a Bible.  Supposing he was a Christian I was wondering how I could strike up a conversation.  He was evidently a traveling salesman acquainted with another passenger in the washroom.  The latter remarked, “What’s that—a Bible?  I didn’t know you believed in that stuff!”  The man replied, “I don’t, but it helps getting through customs!”

Landing in Grand Central in New York and trying to find the way to Brooklyn is quite an experience for a stranger.  As I grabbed my suitcase, a fellow offered his help which I declined for I suspected ulterior motives.  I found a subway train marked “Brooklyn” but got off too soon, still in downtown Manhattan.  Up on the surface in the square at City Hall, I asked a man how to get to Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn.  He replied, “See that tall building?  That’s the Woolworth Towers, the tallest building in the world (at that time).”  I wasn’t interested in a tourist spiel; I wanted to get to Brooklyn.  He continued, “Go over there and below that building you will find a subway for Flatbush, Brooklyn. Seventh Avenue runs off Flatbush.”

So before noon I located the school but the only people there were a family of missionaries home on furlough, Mr. and Mrs. Asa Moore.  She was a sister of Richard Hill.  They shared their lunch with me and told me that everyone was at the conference at Sea Cliff, Long Island.  So by mid-afternoon I had found my way to the conference at Sea Cliff.  A meeting was in progress, a question and answer meeting with C.F. Hogg and Harold St. John on the panel.  One questioner wanted to know why believers from various assemblies could fellowship together there but when they went home, there was no fellowship between some of their assemblies.  Mr. Hogg raised his hands and replied, “The inconsistencies of brethren!”  Another question was that old perennial about baptism for the dead.  Both Mr. Hogg and Mr. St. John said they had seen many interpretations, none of which satisfied them. They didn’t know the meaning.  After the meeting I approached a group around a brother who seemed to think he had the answer!

After the evening service I located a cot on the upper floor of the chapel, the regular meeting place of the assembly in Sea Cliff.  The young men billeted there were rather noisy and boisterous.  No one seemed to be in charge.  I was tired after a long exciting day full of new scenes.  After eleven o’clock I thought it was a poor testimony for the assembly among the neighbors.  So I went to the head of the stairs and over the din demanded they quiet down.  Next morning I noticed furtive glances in my direction.  None of them, of course, could identify the stranger—and I didn’t enlighten them.

Since I was handy at carpentry and had some of my tools with me, after the conference I was asked to help with repairs at the Sea Cliff Yacht Club.  This building, facing on the shores of Long Island Sound, had been purchased by the conference committee.  After work on Saturday afternoon I went down to the pier for a swim with George Fraser who was preparing to go to Venezuela.  He dove in with his glasses on and lost them.  Repeated dives failed to locate them, and he was sorely handicapped.  Next morning early, after praying about this need, he went down to the shore as the tide was out.  There he found his glasses intact without a scratch in spite of the tossing of the water on the pebbly beach.

There was also work to be done on the school building in Brooklyn as we were settling in.  The fellows were on the top floor and I roomed with Leonard Bewick from Kansas City.  Horace Davey from Ottawa and Tom Mornan from Buffalo were in another room.  Also on that top floor was the only married couple in our class, William and Margaret McKellin from Paterson, New Jersey.  On the floor below were the girls, Carrie Saunders from Peterborough, who in later years married Horace, Margaret (Peg) Fleming, later married to Mr. Kramer of Guatemala, Margaret (Meg) Dryden of Seattle, later married to James Buckley, and Irene Stedman, Len’s fiancée, and Anna Carson from Buffalo, who roomed together.

Soon after classes started in September there was a Saturday conference at the Richmond Hill assembly on Long Island.   Several students planned to go but one by one dropped out so that only Anna Carson and I went.  In the meeting, Scott Aspinall, an elder from Brooklyn, was sitting a couple of rows ahead of us.  His head was nodding but not in agreement with the longwinded preacher!  Gently I nudged Anna’s elbow to call her attention to his vain effort to stay awake.  There was no platonic interest in that nudge.  Actually then I thought she had a boyfriend in Buffalo.  Back at the school, I happened to mention the incident to the fellows, and it was their subsequent teasing that did arouse my interest.  Later they told a joke about a black man who was buying a cigar, but wasn’t sure what brand to buy.  He was also uncertain which girl to marry.  The salesman suggested “Havana,” to which the customer replied eagerly, “That’s what I’ll do—I’ll have Anna.”  However, I wasn’t seeking that kind of guidance!  But before telling how the Lord guided, let me digress to tell about Anna Carson’s background.

Early in the 1890’s a young carpenter, Samuel Carson left Ballymena in Ulster, N. Ireland, for Buffalo, New York.  He was disappointed to find only one assembly there since he was aquatinted with Belfast where there were many.   In Buffalo he met an Irish lass, Rose Logan, who came from a village about twenty miles from Ballymena.  They were married and had two children in the U.S. before returning to Belfast.  In fact they crossed the ocean more than once.  Of their nine children, the two eldest and the two youngest were born in Buffalo, the rest in Belfast.  The middle one of the nine was Anna who had two bothers and two sisters, both older and younger than herself.

When Anna was four or five, they left Belfast to return to Buffalo and Mother Carson refused to make the trip again.

Anna was a bit of a tomboy who would eagerly leave her dolls at the chance to play baseball with the boys.  A visiting friend asked her how long it took her to walk to school.  She didn’t know, as she never walked to school.  “I can make it in three minutes when I jump the back fence and go through the vacant lots.”

Brought up in a Christian home and attending Sunday school regularly, Anna knew the way of salvation.  Her Sunday school teacher was Jeannie Mowat and one Sunday she asked the girls if they were saved.  Anna replied, “Yes—I think so.”  Later on, Gavin Mowat, Jean’s husband, was the speaker at the Sunday evening service.  On the way home he asked Anna, “Anna, are you saved?”  This time she was able to answer with confidence, “Yes, I know I am now.”  She had believed before but had lacked the assurance of salvation.

So Anna spent her school days, elementary and high school, in Buffalo.  Her interest in missions was stimulated by her friendship with Gavin and Jeannie Mowat.  Jean’s brother George Gibson marred Sarah, Anna’s eldest sister.  The Mowats went to Central Africa (1911-1927) and then to South Africa (1928-1950).  No one could attend Assembly Hall in Buffalo for long and not be made aware of missions.  Edward Fairbairn, a leading brother, was a dynamic missionary enthusiast even though he was a businessman in Buffalo.

When Anna expressed her desire to be a missionary, Mother Carson could not bring herself to be willing to part with her daughter.  She was a very dear Christian but found it hard to face such a sacrifice.  Meanwhile, Anna was teaching a Sunday school class of little boys, among whom were Lyndon and Laurence Hess and William Oglesby, who all went into the Lord’s service in later years.  Anna refused to go against her Mother’s wishes, confident that if the Lord wanted her to be a missionary, He would incline her Mother to give her consent.  The delay of a year or two was a testing time, part of God’s preparation.   Finally in 1921 Mother gave her consent and Anna went to Brooklyn.  She has often commented since that if she had had her own way and gone earlier, we probably would not have met.

As interest in Anna deepened into love, I realized the need to be very sure of the Lord’s will in this matter of a life partner.  When I first arrived at the school someone gave me a leaflet on “The Will of God.”  What impressed me in this leaflet was the truth that God had a plan and purpose for the life of every believer.  I determined to study what the New Testament taught about the will of God.  With the help of a concordance I looked up every reference.  Not an easy task because often “will” is used as an auxiliary verb.  One of the great lessons I learned was concerning our Lord Jesus Christ.  In the four Gospels, only about three times did He mention His own will and each time it was for the blessing of others.

So I began to pray earnestly that the Lord would show me His will regarding Anna Carson.  Naturally the more I prayed and thought about her, the more intense became my desire for her.  But there was no green light from the Lord, no assurance that this was His will for me.  Weeks passed by—times of spiritual struggle.  Once I decided to try something that I knew was not right.  I would let my Bible fall open and see what verse came up.  Naturally the Bible fell open near the middle, at the book of Job.  Before my eyes were these words, “I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?” (Job 31:1).  That was not what I wanted!  It was even more discouraging as I read on, “If mine heart have been deceived by a woman” (v.9).  However, as I prayed about this, I was convicted of the error of handling God’s Word in such a way.  The guidance I then received was not about a life partner but on how to apply the Scriptures to my present circumstances.

Several weeks went by in this heart-searching, seeking to know the Lord’s will.  Then in our class one morning as we studied the life of Christ, there was a sentence at the bottom of the outline. “They forsook all and followed him” (Luke 5:11).  It challenged me!  Four fishermen had just made the biggest catch of fish in their career—what a price they would fetch in the market!  But they forsook all, fish, friends, fortune, and family to follow Him.  Then I realized I had not forsaken all, even in my earnest desire to know His will.  Deep down in my heart was the unexpressed wish, “Lord, I want your will but please let it be what I want.”  I was not fully yielded; I had not forsaken all.  As the class closed with prayer, I prayed my own prayer, “Lord, if You want me to go to the mission field alone, I am willing to do Your will.”

It was not an easy lesson to learn.  There has to be complete surrender to His will without any mental reservations. “If any man will do His will, he shall know…” (John 7:17).  We must be willing to do God’s will before we know what His will is.  (To know God’s will we must be prepared to do the very opposite to what we desire.)  Then I learned how wonderfully gracious is our God!  It seemed almost immediately after I reached that point of full surrender (and really meant it) that the Lord granted me my desire.  The assurance came to me that it was the Lord’s will for me to ask Anna to share my life.

For appearance’s sake in the neighborhood, students of the opposite sex were not allowed to go out in pairs.  We were not circumventing that law when we met later.  So on December 3, 1921, Anna and I went out and rendezvoused.  Then I told her for the first time that I loved her and found it was reciprocal.  Sixty years later we are still telling each other of our love!  We went through Prospect Park (it would probably be unsafe now) where I told her how the Lord had been leading and that I wanted her to have first place in my life after the Lord.  Miss Annie Hill had asked Anna to get some argyrel for her but in our excitement we asked for arsenic!  The look on the face of the drugstore clerk made us realize our mistake.  Miss Hill never learned how our romance had endangered her!

Our class did a lot of things together, and there was a good spirit of fellowship.  We often went together to conferences, to farewells for other missionaries, and to our weekly medical lectures by Dr. Baldwin.  Most afternoons were spent helping in a hospital outpatient department.  The mornings were devoted to Bible lectures.  John Hill was a favorite instructor with most.  Formerly a businessman he had a methodical mind and his outlines were a help in our studies.  He was interested in the students and arranged trips to such places as museums or the 42nd Street Library where we were shown some rare Biblical manuscripts.  Richard Hill was different than his brother in that he was more of a devotional speaker.  Everyone had a great respect for George Aldrich because his rich spiritual teaching was backed by a godly life.  His reading of part of I Corinthians 15 was unforgettable—this was at the funeral of Mr. Faulkner, father of Mrs. Richard Hill.  Brother Aldrich had formerly been an Anglican clergyman and his diction was beautiful.

A Wall Street businessman, Charles Bellinger, came in one evening each week to teach Galatians.  He asked questions which forced us to think for ourselves.  Even if our answers were correct he would sometimes oppose them to see if we would hold our ground.  Some of the students were awed if not terrified!  But he was a real friend of the students and keenly interested in missions.  We also benefited by the visits of other preachers and missionaries.  We shall not soon forget the visit of Charles Kramer from Guatemala.  He spoke little English but would lustily sing in Spanish, until one day the police informed us the neighbors were complaining.

School life was not without its lighter sides.  There were some who seriously doubted our fitness as prospective missionaries.  But I pity the missionary without a sense of humor.  Harriet the cook was a sister from the Black assembly in New York.  Her room was immediately below our bathroom on the top floor.  Coming in one evening, Anna and I discovered water dripping in her room.  Harriet was away for the weekend.  I ran upstairs and saw the bathtub was overflowing so I turned off the water.  In Tom’s room a discussion was in progress as usual, on election or predestination.  Casually I inquired who intended to take a bath.  Tom raised his hands in horror—he had completely forgotten he had left the water running.  Not long after that we repainted the rooms upstairs.  Len Bewick did the bathroom.  Since it was hard to get behind the tub he moved one end slightly and broke the waste connection.  Again Harriet’s room got an unwanted shower.

In some ways the conditions at the school were not ideal.  We were made to realize that we were “only students” and learned to accomplish the lowly task.  However, there were benefits in the teaching we received and also in the many contacts with people and assemblies, particularly in the New Jersey area.

Another advantage was getting to know many of the Lord’s people in the assemblies in that area, especially over in New Jersey.  It was our privilege to get to know some of the leading men of God, and we still treasure the memories of those men, most of whom are now at home with the Lord.

Usually we fellows would pair off to visit some assembly on Lord’s Day, very often by invitation.  It was our mutual arrangement that one fellow would pay both fares going and the other would pay coming home.  One Sunday Len Bewick and I set out for New Jersey.  As I was short of cash I let him pay the way going there.  What money I did have went into the offering.  Quite often someone would slip some money into our hands on such occasions.  But that day I had received nothing and I doubted that Len had enough to pay our homeward fare.  Secretly I was praying about this—not even Len knew about my predicament.  One of the brethren drove us to the train station, but how would we buy tickets without money?  Then as we got out of the car I felt a bill left in my hand as I parted with the brother—more than enough to pay our fares.  We learned many lessons of faith and of what it meant to trust God in those days.