The greatest news that ever broke upon the world, the news that was to change the whole life of humanity and shake down thrones and revolutionize kingdoms, the news which still today girdles the earth with everlasting hope and sends a new thrill through every Christian soul on Easter morning, was given first to one humble, obscure woman out of whom seven devils had gone, who had nothing to distinguish her but her forgiven heart, and no claim at all but her love.
So wrote the Scottish preacher and scholar James Stewart about Mary Magdalene, the first human witness of our Lord’s resurrection and one who serves as a reminder of the important role lay persons have played throughout the ages.
There are many unsung heroes throughout history. Few have heard of Blandina of Lyons, a young slave girl martyred in 177 AD in a fierce persecution of Christians in Gaul (modern-day France). It was feared that under torture she would recant the faith. But an eyewitness recorded that she did not recant the faith but encouraged others in the midst of persecution. She watched all their conflicts, then herself endured scourging, the beasts, the iron chair over a fire, being put in a net and tossed by a bull. And so she hastened after them, rejoicing and exulting in her departure, as one not thrown to the beasts, but called to a wedding feast.
Monica is not nearly so famous as her son Augustine of Hippo, but her more than thirty years of witness and prayers for him in the fourth century culminated in the conversion of the one who, in the words of B.B. Warfield of Princeton, “gave us the Reformation.” Both Luther and Calvin were greatly influenced by Augustine’s doctrines of grace.
Some lay Christians, on the other hand, have been very famous through various political and literary positions. John Calvin, for instance, corresponded with young King Edward VI, who was instrumental in bringing Reformation doctrine into England. Calvin dedicated his commentary on Isaiah to Edward.
The following century William Bradford and Elder William Brewster sailed in 1620 on the Mayflower to Plymouth Bay for religious freedom. Bradford was governor of the colony for thirty years and was America’s first historian. His book Of Plymouth Plantation was the first history to refer to the settlers as “pilgrims.”
Elder Brewster not only played a major role in civil affairs, but since Plymouth had no settled minister until 1629, he took on all pastoral duties including preaching, for the early Pilgrims practiced “lay prophesying” (a layman who would preach). Bradford said he did more in these areas in one year than many do “in all their lives.” As a layman, however, he would not administer the sacraments.
Late nineteenth century England saw the rise of the Clapham Sect (named for a London residential area), a group of wealthy, Anglican evangelicals mostly, but not exclusively, lay folk, who wanted to evangelize the upper classes as well as shape public policy according to Christian norms. Its most famous member was William Wilberforce, who wrote a popular book titled Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity, a best-seller for forty years. He was such a dominant member of Parliament that his seat went unopposed for twenty-three years. He gave most of his energies to the abolition of the slave trade, which occurred in 1807, and to the complete abolition of slavery throughout the British empire, which was achieved the year he died in 1833. He was a leader in the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804) and the Church Missionary Society (1799). As has been said of him, few have achieved more for the benefit of mankind.
The year before Wilberforce’s death, William Gladstone entered Parliament, and his first speech was mainly an attack on slavery. He went on to become prime minister four times. Early in his life he had considered entering the ministry. The title of one of his books was The Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture.
Born the same year as Gladstone (1809) was someone who would end slavery on the other side of the Atlantic, Abraham Lincoln. After unpromising early years, he was driven by the anguish of his burdens to increased amounts of time in Bible study and prayer, with many scholars calling him “our most religious president.” He has been named “the theologian of American destiny.”
The seventeenth century English Puritan movement had a marvelous pamphleteer in John Milton, who, like Gladstone, had considered going into the ministry before resolving to be a poet. His Paradise Lost is regarded as the greatest epic poem in the English language. He was, however, a better poet than a theologian.
Another giant of English letters, C.S. Lewis, who wrote A Preface to Paradise Lost, acknowledged that Milton’s version of the Fall was substantially that of Augustine and of the church as a whole. Also a layman, Lewis became recognized as one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century. It has been claimed that his wartime radio broadcast talks in Britain on Christianity made his voice recognition second only to that of Churchill.
Blaise Pascal was another fine lay apologist for the faith, possessing one of the greatest intellects ever to grace the French scene. A mathematical prodigy, he invented a calculating machine at age nineteen. After his conversion in 1654, he set about preparing an Apology for the Christian Religion. But it was never completed, for he died at thirty-nine. The notes he left were published later as the Pensées (“Thoughts”). The Pensées have remained popular not only for their apologetic and literary value but as a devotional classic, another of which was likewise a posthumous collection printed under the title of The Practice of the Presence of God. This is composed of conversations and letters of Nicolas Herman, Pascal’s French Catholic contemporary, who in 1666 became a lay brother of the barefooted Carmelites in Paris and was thereafter known as Brother Lawrence. Both of these classics are popular among Protestants as well as among Catholics. Brother Lawrence stressed the need for doing every thing, including his kitchen work, which he disliked, for the love of God so that the presence of God was sensed at all times whether at work or at prayer—a great goal for us all, whether we are numbered as laity or clergy. The tremendous contributions of lay folk through the centuries suggest they largely shared the central conviction of Brother Lawrence.