“It is easy to find out whether our lives are focused and if so where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Dare to have it out with God, and ask Him to show you whether or not all is focused on Christ and His Glory. Turn your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him.” Lilias Trotter
Like many of us you may be familiar with the beautiful chorus ‘Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus’. You are less likely, however, to be familiar with the amazing woman whose words (quoted above) inspired the blind songwriter Helen H. Lemmel to write that well-loved song in 1918.
Lilias Trotter was born into a wealthy London family, one of nine children, on 14 July, 1853. At age twelve she suffered a devastating blow when her beloved father died. Her sorrow drove her to prayer and somewhere in those formative years Lilias placed her faith in Christ as her Saviour. The young Lilias also possessed an extraordinary talent for art which was becoming increasingly evident as she grew into adulthood.
In her early twenties Lilias was deeply influenced by the Higher Life Movement and attended meetings by the American evangelist Dwight L Moody. As a result she became actively involved in ministering to prostitutes living and working around London’s Victoria Station. Often she would venture out in the night hours alone, seeking out the women, spending many hours counselling and praying with them, and encouraging them into educational courses to enable them to enter other fields of employment. She was encouraged both in her ministry and her artwork by her mother, Isabella.
Such was Lilias’ artistic talent that she was noticed by the highly influential art critic and philanthropist, John Ruskin. So convinced was Ruskin that Lilias could be a great artist he took her on as his protégé, with the intention of directing her into a career as one of England’s pre-eminent artists. In a note to Lilias, Ruskin wrote: ‘I pause to think how –anyhow – I can convince you of the marvelous gift that is in you.’
After three years of tutelage, however, Ruskin became frustrated with Lilias’ mission work, which he saw as distracting her from developing her artistic talent. He asked her to devote her life entirely to her art, promising if she did so she would ‘be the greatest living painter in England and do things that would be immortal.’
Confronted with the realization that a momentous decision was upon her Lilias went to prayer. She was passionate about her mission work but equally passionate about her art. After several days she emerged with a decision that would determine the future course of her life, stating: ‘I see as clear as daylight now, I cannot give myself to painting in the way he [Ruskin] means and continue still to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.’ Her choice had been made.
Lilias continued her work with the London prostitutes. However at 31 years of age, always physically of slight build, she suffered an emotional and physical breakdown. The resultant surgery left her with a heart weakness that would severely impact her health for the rest of her life.
Though weak in body Lilias had the spirit of a warrior. Convicted that God was calling her to the North African mission field, in 1887, aged 34, she responded to a call for missionaries and soon after presented herself as a candidate at the North African Mission, who promptly rejected her due to her health problems.
Undeterred, and financially independent due to her father’s life-long provision for her, Lilias decided she must follow the path to which she felt called by God even if unsupported by a mission organization. Along with two other women of similar mindset she arrived in Algeria, North Africa, as an independent missionary in March 1888. Lilias recorded:
‘ I would not be anywhere else but in this hardest of fields with an invincible Christ. Three of us stood there, looking at our battle-field, none of us fit to pass a doctor for any society, not knowing a soul in the place, or a sentence of Arabic or a clue for beginning work on untouched ground; we only knew we had to come. Truly if God needed weakness, He had it!’
With Lilias as their leader the women moved into the French Quarter and set about studying Arabic. From the beginning they were opposed both by the French authorities and the Islamic society around them. The first few years were described by Lilias as ‘like knocking our heads against stone walls.’ The three women applied themselves to their language studies and tried various strategies in outreaching to the women and children of the local community. The highly secluded Algerian women were difficult to access, but gradually contact was made and the gospel shared.
At least two of their early converts died as a result of slow poisoning. The missionaries believed others were being drugged by their families. Still others were beaten or banished.
Lilias took to camel back, scouting the Sahara Desert, traversing areas never before visited by a European woman, reaching out to the cloistered Arab women as well as the Sufi mystics of the desert. She produced pamphlets and booklets, discarding traditional methods of evangelism and using her artwork to depict cultural scenes from Arab life to which the local people could more easily apply the gospel.
“How the angels must watch the first day when that light reaches a new spot on this earth that God loves . . . and, oh, the joy of being allowed to go with His message that first day. How can His people hold back from that joy while one corner remains unvisited by the Dayspring!” – Lilias Trotter, March 1885
Led by Lilias the women often travelled into the desert to hand out pamphlets, followed and harassed by local French authorities who threatened fines and imprisonment for any who accepted their literature. Throughout this time Lilias continued to suffer serious health problems and travelled several times to Britain and Europe for convalescence, always returning to her beloved North Africa as soon as sufficient strength was regained.
In 1907, with the warming of English-French relations, the French authorities became less hostile and five more missionaries were added to what had now become known as The Algiers Mission Band. She set up several mission bases along the coast of North Africa and deep into the Sahara. By 1920 there were thirty full time workers and fifteen preaching stations.
Throughout her life Lilias continued to paint and also became a prolific writer, filling journals about her life in Algiers and authoring several books, often illustrated with her paintings. One such book was “The Way Of The Sevenfold Secret”, in which she taught on the seven I Am statements of Christ in the gospel of John in a way that could reach Arabic Sufi mystics. Her other more well-known books include “Parables of the Cross” and “Parables of the Christ Life”.
Lilias was confined to bed for the last years of her life where she continued to manage the affairs of the Algerian Mission Band combined with prayer, sketching and writing. She was also in touch by letter with the missionary Amy Carmichael in India (who also spent many years confined in bed due to an accident).
As she lay dying in August 1928, after forty years of mission work in North Africa, she spoke to those around her of ‘a chariot and six horses’. ‘You are seeing beautiful things’ someone remarked. ‘Yes, many, many beautiful things’ she responded, her last words spoken on earth.
Lilias Trotter was an extraordinary woman, comparable to respected male missionaries such as David Livingstone, William Carey, and Hudson Taylor. Yet, her name remains relatively unknown and her exploits, sacrifice and service, unsung. She was a pioneer in adapting new, culturally sensitive ways to evangelize that were innovative and, in 19th century Christianity, daring. She was apostolic in her commitment to her calling and passionate in her pursuit of Christ in the face of devastating health problems, persecution and hardship. She is a worthy hero of the Christian faith.
May Lilias, and other women like her, continue to inspire new generations of Christ-followers, both female and male, to turn their soul’s vision fully to Jesus.
Footnote: In 2015 ‘Many Beautiful Things” a film about the life of Lilias Trotter was released and is available on DVD. You can watch the trailer here: https://manybeautifulthings.com/
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