Great Churchmen (No. 20)
(Vicar of St Catharine's, Wigan)
The Children's Friend
Published by Church Book Room Press
We shall never begin to understand Thomas Barnardo until we realize that his conversion was the vital experience in his life. This was the pivotal event which changed the whole direction of his living and which was to lead him to the place where God could clearly show him his life’s purpose. His religion is the clue to his life, the source of his inspiration, the secret of his profound love for souls, the key to his amazing creative activity, and the strength which enabled him to persevere when the cause he loved was in jeopardy.
He was led to Christ during the Great Revival which swept through parts of Ireland during the years 1859-62. Two of his brothers were converted and became concerned about their brother Tom, who at first was antagonistic and indifferent. In his Bible he gives the date of his conversion as May 26th, 1862. That evening he had listened to a solemn address by John Hambleton, the former tragedian; he was convicted of error, and before the end of the night his soul had found peace in Christ. One of his family tells of how he came in to the bedroom of two of his brothers “and said how greatly the meeting had affected him, and that he could not rest. Many tears did he shed at that moment, and in great sorrow and agony of heart, and the three brothers knelt together and cried to God ... and He graciously heard, and light and joy and peace there and then ... filled his heart.”(1) In a letter written to his sister later in that year he refers to his conversion: “It pleased the Almighty there and then to remove every doubt and difficulty. I felt that Jesus had indeed died for me, and I had to exclaim:
‘I do believe, I will believe,
That Jesus died for me:
That on His Cross He shed His blood,
From sin to set me free,’
and ’twas thus the Lord gave peace and comfort to my soul.”(2)
What a change this experience made in him! The scoffer was on the way to becoming the saint. Immediately he consecrated everything he had to the service of Christ. He volunteered to teach in a Dublin Ragged School and began to visit the sick and poor. It was here that he saw something of the life of those who lived in the squalid backstreets of a great city; and what he saw shocked him. “Had I a dog, I would not kennel it where I found these immortal souls, destined to share the glories of eternity.”(3)
During this period he became an “Open Brother,” and in the light of this experience it is very significant that in middle life he declared: “Brethrenism is an excellent street through which to pass, but a bad street in which to abide!” It is quite possible that he realized that Brethrenism possesses the virtue of enthusiasm, but is too narrow in its interpretation of religion, too prone to identify sincerity with the repetition of shibboleths; while its lack of emphasis on the visible Church and the ministry results in a weakening of the Body of Christ. Often it is too concerned with its own spiritual life, with the resulting danger of morbid introspection which can quite easily result in an unhealthy subjectivism, forgetful of the fact that the whole of life, with its complex and varied activities, must be transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Soon after his conversion Barnardo was concerned about the subject of “Believer’s” Baptism, and he was rebaptized by immersion on October 19th, 1862. Later in life he returned to the Anglican Communion, the Church of his childhood. In August, 1893, at the age of forty-eight, in a letter to Lord Radstock, he explained how he had been brought up in the Church of England and how he had left it, but that within the last fifteen or sixteen years he had been led to resume his communion within her pale.”(4) In July, 1893, the Bishop of St. Alban’s licensed him as a lay-reader, in which office he served for the last twelve years of his life. In a letter which he wrote after the re-opening of the new Edinburgh Castle, Barnardo explains his position: “Personally I feel myself more and more in sympathy with the Evangelical section of the Church of England, and if there were not some drawbacks would probably seek to enter her ministry, which I have been more than once invited to do.”(5)
Four years after his conversion, Barnardo heard Hudson Taylor of the China Inland Mission speaking to Dr. Grattan Guinness’s Young Men’s Class of which he was a member. Hudson Taylor’s presentation of China’s need stirred Barnardo, and he and three of his friends offered themselves for service in China. In April, 1866, he travelled to London to begin his training for missionary work; but Hudson Taylor advised him to undergo medical training, with the result that he enrolled as a medical student at the London Hospital.
1) Ibid., p. 12,
2) Ibid., p. 10,
3) J. Wesley Bready, Dr. Barnardo, p. 52,
4) Barnardo and Marchant, op. cit., p. 234.
5) Ibid., pp. 108-9.
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