A Trail Blazer

A Trail Blazer

Edwin Fesche

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of Anthony Norris Groves’ missionary service, first In Iraq, then in India. W. B. Neatby described Groves as “one of the Church’s great saints,” and G. H. Lang wrote a biography of him, its subtitle being: A STUDY OF A MAN OF GOD.

It is fitting that we honor the memory of one of the Lord’s choice servants of a past era, even as we are indebted to Mr. Edwin Fesche for his interesting and informative article on this missionary trail blazer.

In the great historic saga of modern Christian missionary activity the illustrious name of William Carey heads the list. He has been rightly called “The father of modern missions.” Following his generation is another name that is deserving of marked esteem. We refer to Anthony Norris Groves who, because of his principles, was destined to be among the paradoxical, “As unknown, and yet well known” (2 Cor. 6:9). Over what we are sure would be his protests, we feel fully justified in calling him “The father of faith missions.”

Groves, from his earliest memories, felt that the ideal Christian was the one who was privileged to evangelize the heathen. At first Groves thought that in order to be a bona fide missionary, he must work within the framework of the church; particularly his church which happened to be the Church of England. Consequently, he was advised to take a theological degree followed by “holy orders” or ordination. At the time, he was living in Exeter, England, and was engaged in a lucrative dental practice while enjoying a charming wife and three interesting youngsters. Through a special arrangement he was able to engage a tutor and then make periodic visits to Dublin, Ireland, for his term examinations. It was during these visits to Dublin that he contacted Christians who, like himself, were having difficulties with the prevailing practices of Christendom. They were also studying the Scriptures privately and collectively and were prepared to act upon what light was given to them. It was their conclusion that all churches had made critical departures from the original pattern. This did not apply to real Christians who were to be found in various folds.

Finally, there came a break from all precedents and this group met around the Lord’s table as Christians, brothers among their brethren, each open to the direction of the Holy Spirit. Groves was aware of this irregularity with his church affiliations. By now he had advanced to see that the clergy as a distinct entity had no place in the Body of Christ. He enquired as to the possibility of going to the mission field in a lay capacity. He was informed that he would be unable to celebrate Communion unless an ordained priest was present. Groves was now about ready to make his final trip to Dublin and take “holy orders,” but before doing so his house was burgalized and his fare money stolen. By now the Scriptures, his personal experiences, and his present circumstances all added up that God was leading him in other directions. The main thrust of the Reformation was the question of personal salvation. The “Brethren Movement,” so called, was mainly concerned with the teaching of the Scriptures as they related to the church.

Journey To Baghdad

In 1829 Groves and his wife with their two boys, nine and ten, and Kitto the boys’ tutor (later to become a great expounder in his books of Bible customs), and others set out for Baghdad via St. Petersburg, Russia. In the long overland journey they used covered wagons. Here and there they met sympathetic Christians that helped them on their way, particularly the Mennonites. At Shusha they were received and succored by Swiss missionaries laboring in the area. One of them, Pfander, a linguist, accompanied them the rest of the way and remained in Baghdad for a while rendering valuable help. In all the journey took over six months, the sea part of the trip having been made in a small sailing vessel providentially placed at their disposal. Early upon his arrival in Baghdad, Groves characteristically wrote in his diary, “I feel I am happy in having no system to support in moving among either professing Christians or Mohammedans; to the one, a person so situated can truly say, I do not desire to bring you over to any church, but to the simple truth of God’s Word, and to the others, we wish you to read the New Testament that you may learn to judge of God’s truth, not by what you see in the churches around you, but by the Word of God itself.”

A Baptism Of Testing

By the second year of their stay there was much to encourage. The Armenians, who were professing Christians, were accessible, and some Jews showed interest, but the Mohammedans were hostile, though some contacts were made with them. A school was opened as a means of making contact and being of mutual benefit to teacher and scholar. In an enthusiastic account of this phase of Groves’ work, F. W. Newman mentions that the school greatly aided Groves to learn Arabic, attach young scholars to him, give him opportunity of “trying his wings” (as he calls it) against Christian errors, and exciting the attention of Moslems.

Groves also put his medical knowledge to good use treating diseases of the eye and removing cataracts. Then in March 1831 there was an outbreak of the plague. The enemy seemed to sweep in like a flood. The plague was responsible for 2,000 deaths daily. Adding to this desolation was the flooding of the Tigris River. With food and water shortages the city was further subjected to gangs of robbers. The little missionary enclave, although robbed, was left unharmed. Groves himself was holding on to the promise in Psalm 91, especially verse 10. His faith was severely jolted when his wife sickened and died of the plague, and soon after a baby daughter was taken. He himself was next to be laid low and despaired of his life, and especially at the prospect of his two young sons being left as orphans. But God willed things otherwise and he recovered. At the same time, a local war was being waged and the army that had been besieging the city finally entered, restored order, and showed unexpected moderation. As a result of this baptism of testing Groves wrote, “It requires great confidence in God’s love, and much experience of it, for the soul to remain in peace, stayed on Him, in a land of such changes, without even one of our own nation near us, without means of escape in any direction; surrounded with the most desolating plague and destructive flood, with scenes of misery forced upon the attention which harrow up feelings, and to which you can administer no relief. Even in this scene, however, the Lord has kept us of His infinite mercy in personal quiet and peace, trusting under the shadow of His almighty wing.”

A relief party left Dublin in September 1830 to join the Baghdad work. On account of illness and one death, plus the disturbed conditions in the wake of the 1828-29 war between Russia and Turkey, the expedition took 21 months via Malta and Aleppo to reach Baghdad. Then another death struck the relief party soon after their arrival in Baghdad.

In reading these annals we are led to appreciate the amenities of science such as the luxury of modern travel and the effectiveness of modern medicine — when our arm becomes a pincushion. The “good old days” had their setbacks, too.

While in Baghdad, Groves was visited by a British army engineer, Colonel Cotton, who was on his way back to India. The colonel had accomplished some fine engineering in flood control and irrigation in the Godaveri Delta resulting in much blessing to the local people. Cotton had read Groves’ pamphlet on “Christian Devotedness” and was convinced that the author was the man for India. As a result, Groves went with the colonel to India. He explained his purpose for doing so: “To become united more truly in heart with all the missionary band there, and to show that, notwithstanding all differences, we are one in Christ; sympathizing in their sorrows, and rejoicing in their prosperity.”

To accomplish this end Groves travelled extensively, even to visiting Ceylon. His ambition was to discourage all denominational attachments and gather all to the unity of the Church of God. In this, he was grossly misunderstood by many. He also keenly felt that the Europeans were conscious of a superiority over the natives. He wrote, “The farther I go, the more I am convinced that the missionary labour of India, as carried on by Europeans, is altogether above the natives; nor do I see how any abiding impression can possibly be made, till they mix with them in a way that is not now attempted. When I think of this subject of caste, in connection with the humiliation of the Son of God, I see in it something most unseemly, most peculiarly unlike Christ. It is truly hateful that one worm should refuse to eat or touch another worm, lest he become polluted. How strikingly the Lord’s revelation to Peter reproves it all, ‘What God hath cleansed that call thou not common.’”

Groves was hopeful that a true Christian unity could be planted outside of Christendom; he seemed to have no illusions that such was possible within Christendom. He wrote, “I do not yet despair of seeing in India a church arise that shall be a little sanctuary in the cloudy and dark day that is coming upon Christendom.” Groves taught and exemplified missionary “identification” — to live on a level with those he was attempting to reach for Christ. He saw the need of an indigenous church and was able to teach Indians to pioneer on “faith lines” — particularly one named Arooloppen. This brother, we understand, planted many assemblies in Southern India which remain to this day. Groves anticipated what seemed so unlikely in his day of the “British Raj” — namely, its demise. He saw the instilling of Scriptural principles as the only answer to that eventuality, when he wrote, “But, it must be obvious to all, if the native churches be not strengthened by leaning on the Lord instead of man, the political changes of an hour may sweep away the present form of things, so far as it depends on Europeans, and leave not a trace behind.”

Ahead Of His Times

Anthony Norris Groves was essentially a man well in advance of his generation. True, his procedures must have brought some severe criticisms and, no doubt, from many well meaning fellow missionaries. But if he could not get followers he would walk alone into some of the untrodden paths that he believed were Scriptural, if not in accord with the status quo. He not only spoke his convictions, which made such demands on pride and personal advantage, but he put them into action. Only present missionary history brings him up to date. The “white supremacy” that he deplored, and so odious to nationals, still lingered in the Orient in the late 1920’s when the writer was there. The lightning Japanese victories early in World War II and the rise of Communism, along with Ghandi’s social reforms, has at least brought the white man down to size in that vast area. The Viet Nam war has been a further humiliation. All of this has tended to bring to an end or seriously limit organized Christian missionaries that so much concerned Groves. The native churches that have been taught their pilgrim character and autonomy can adjust to changes and go underground, if need be, to survive.

In 1853, while visiting England, Anthony Norris Groves died in the home of his brother-in-law, George Muller of Bristol and orphanage fame. He was only 58!