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The Life of James Stewart
The Optimist


His quenchless Hope—Steadfast Faith—Missionary Promises—A needful Sphere—The Power of Contrast—Inspiration from Church History—Visible Fruits.

‘Thus with somewhat of the seer
Must the moral pioneer
From the future borrow;
Clothe the waste with dreams of grain,
And on midnight’s sky of rain
Paint the golden morrow.’
Whillier

The Bible, from first to last, is one unbroken, persistent call to hope.—Dean Church.

‘We are saved by hope.’—The Aposile Paul.

FOREIGN missionaries have the most discouraging spheres in the world, and are usually the most hopeful of men. Stewart was in this respect a good representative of his class, for his hopefulness was subjected to the severest tests, and yet he did not hang his harp on the willows. His was the secret of annexing the future to the present and the harvest to the seed-time, and he saw in ridiculously mean beginnings the prophecy of great things. His optimism is revealed in every book he wrote and in every one of his missionary addresses. In his Love-dale he writes: ‘The great future of the missionary enterprise may be left to take care of itself. It is safe in the hands of its Founder. Its progress means the gradual spread of Christianity. Its final success means that the future religion of mankind will be the religion of Jesus Christ, and the future civilisation of the world a Christian civilisation, whatever its form may be. . . . And that is just what we labour for—a day in the future when the Dark Continent shall be a continent of light and progress, of cities and civilisation and Christianity. There is no good reason to doubt the coming of such a day.’

He never lost his faith in Africa’s redemption. In his Moderator’s address he said, ‘All question as to the final success of the work may be set at rest.’

‘In the greatest books on missions there is not,’ he tells us, ‘the sound of a single depressing note.’ ‘Don’t let despair begin with you,’ said one of his colleagues, ‘let it begin with us.’ Great hopes make great men and missionaries.

What are the sources of this quenchless hope? It is rooted in an unwavering Christian faith. In ordinary circumstances only a whole-hearted faith can induce a thoughtful man to face the enormous difficulties of the field. He who hopes to overthrow heathen systems must be very sure that his feet are planted upon the eternal rock. An invincible belief in the recoverableness of the heathen is the foundation of all missions. The missionary’s faith is increased by his sacrificing worldly ambitions and devoting himself to a life of exile. Such a man has no prospect of making a fortune and enjoying years of rest at home. The work before him is fitted to shatter the hope that is sentimental, and the faith that has not been confirmed. The difficulties that confront him call out all his spiritual reserves. Consciousness of purity of motive brings him into the right mood and attitude for great inspirations. The missionary at his best has the spirit of Arbousset, one of the earliest French missionaries to the Basutos. When he landed at Cape Town and gazed at the Table Mount, the gigantic barrier of rock became to him a symbol of the heathenism he hoped to overthrow. ‘Who art thou, O great mountain?’ he asked. ‘Before Zerubbabel, thou shalt become a plain.’

The missionary broods more than others over the missionary promises, and these are the most astonishing and inspiring utterances in the whole world. Use and wont has blunted the edge of our wonder, and only by an effort can we dismiss our dull associations and grasp the unfailing optimism of the Bible. The greatest literary miracle in the world is the unity of the Bible, and its hope of the conversion of all nations. Its writers belonged to one of the smallest and most exclusive races in the world; its books were written at different times, by very different men, and amid various tendencies, and yet they all introduce us to a King who is to establish a world-wide and world-long kingdom. As Abraham was sitting under the great oak at Mamre, he was told that he would have a chosen son, that his son would be the father of a chosen nation, and that the nation would have a chosen seed in whom all the families of the earth should be blessed. The hope of the conversion of the whole world lives in the heart of the whole Bible. The strongest utterances of this invincible optimism came from the prophets when their land was in ruins and their religious institutions were caught in the rapids and hurrying on to destruction. The same spirit pervades the New Testament; for it was written by fervent missionaries—apostle is the Greek word for a missionary—and is everywhere full of the missionary spirit. Its great oft-recurring words are outgoing—teach, call, keep, heal, say, go, etc. The beloved disciple, even when a prisoner in Patmos, and in a day when heathenism was triumphant everywhere, wrote as if he already heard the tread of the coming millions of Gentile converts hurrying on to the mystic Zion, the seat of Him who is ‘the Desire of all nations.’ He saw his Divine Master in vision as a Roman warrior—a bowman—going forth conquering and to conquer and crowned with victory. The missionary lives in the spiritual ozone of such truths, and thus his hopes are fostered. Stewart, by pitching the tent of his meditation among the promises, breathed that spirit of victory which throbs at the heart of both the Testaments. With him the Christ that is to be is Christ the Conqueror. One of them had the power of a charm over him—’ Ethiopia shall haste to stretch out her hands unto God.’ He hoped to mould the poetry of the Christian life out of the hard, dull prose of paganism.

The foreign missionary has usually one notable advantage over the average pastor or Christian worker at home: he feels that he is where he is greatly needed. His work is not tame and commonplace, and he has all the inspiration that comes from a vast sphere and a very great and fresh enterprise. He is preaching the glad tidings to those who, but for him, would probably never hear it, and by his very presence he is doing something to lessen the surrounding darkness. The spirit of enterprise was very strong in Stewart, and, sanctified by grace, it made him a prince of missionaries.

There can be no doubt that he gained not a little additional inspiration from the hundreds of young people under his influence. The very flower of South Africa came to Lovedale, and they represented the most vigorous and prolific races in the world to-day. Very different were they from the decaying race for whom John Eliot compiled a grammar and translated the Bible. Not a member of that tribe now lives. The fact that the pupils at Lovedale belonged to various tribes, stimulated emulation among them, and purified and guided their racial jealousies. The Principal touched their lives at every point, and through them he influenced nearly all the tribes in the land. They offered him the very opportunity for which he had passionately yearned. In his hands was the making of those chosen youths who were to be the makers of the new South Africa. Lovedale thus had for him such a charm as a great university has for its leading professors. It was a power-house, a generating and distributing station whence new forces were to be conveyed over the land. He thought that the Gospel was more likely to spread in Africa from the south than from the north. One of his dreams was about a chain of Lovedales stretching to Khartoum and beyond. He asked Rhodes to give him a site in Rhodesia for one of them. He thought imperially.

Contrast wonderfully helps the missionary to preserve his apostolic optimism. He has the best opportunities in the world for the study of comparative religion, for everyday religions and the religion are at work before his eyes. The merely intellectual study of this great subject is fitted to make a profound impression. Max Muller says that ‘he who knows only one religion, knows none.’ This exaggeration suggests a great truth. He elsewhere says more truly, ‘No one who has not examined patiently and honestly the other religions of the world can know what Christianity really is, or can join with such truth and sincerity in the words of St. Paul: I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ!’ Only by setting Christ’s religion by the side of one of its rivals can we gain the fullest persuasion of the peerless excellences of the Christian faith. But the study of heathen religions in books is often very misleading. We should generously appreciate the elements of good in them, but we want to know how they work. Many recently believed that the Bhuddism of Tibet contained wonderful treasures of religious knowledge, and they hoped to find a new Messias there. Those who have recently lifted the veil tell us that Tibetan Bhuddism is rude idolatry and mere devil-worship. [A young Indian physician witnessed for the first time the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in Scotland. He wept throughout the service. When asked the reason, he said: ‘I tried to understand all that was said and done: I thought of the beauty of your religion, of its love to man, its pity for the sinful and the sorrowful. I then thought of my India, and of the many sad things in our religion. I thought of its cruelty to our widows. When I put the two religions alongside of each other I could do nothing but weep.’ ]

There can scarcely be a more miserable religion under heaven than the African, and the missionary who daily witnesses it is likely to appreciate the blessedness of the Christian faith more than the average Christian at home usually does. We have here one of the liberalising influences of the missionary’s enthusiasm. He is not tempted to mistake his own horizon for the earth’s.

Church history rightly studied breaks the spell of despondency. His Journal shows that Stewart, when exploring in the heart of Africa, had a peculiar fondness for the Acts of the Apostles as a record of missionary enterprise, and that he brooded over it with an eye to his own career, saying to himself the while—’I also am a missionary.’ The Foreign Missionary has every day an experience remarkably like that of the leaders in the New Testament churches. He is therefore in the best possible position for understanding, and receiving constant inspiration from, the photos of church-life in the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles. How wonderful the story when one brings to it a realising historical imagination. Paul and Silas crossed over to Europe as travelling artisans. But they went as Heralds of Jesus Christ, and in the spirit of conquerors. They hoped to rescue from heathendom cultured Rome and the untutored nations, and they have done it. What moral and spiritual miracles the pair accomplished To-day there is not a man, woman, or child on the face of the earth who worships the gods that then had sway over all Europe. It is true that Christ’s kingdom came not then with observation. As Stewart points out more than once, the Roman historians, famed as they were for their eagle-eyed acuteness, have, during the first three centuries, only some ten or twelve brief and scornful references to the Church of Christ. Yet ere long ‘the Empires fell one upon another to form a pedestal upon which to build the Church.’ Stewart’s writings show that he had made himself familiar with the triumphant march of the Church through the ages, and thus he had the hope, we should rather say the expectation, that the experience of the early Churches would be repeated in Africa. ‘When one has seen the Catacombs,’ a visitor to Rome says, ‘one understands the great explosion of Christianity under Constantine, the city had been conquered underground.’ Stewart believed that something like that was taking place around him. While surrounded by the night, he was confident of the dawn, and the dawn overtook him.

For the facts he had witnessed justified to a large extent his lifelong optimism. The previous chapters record some of these facts. He believed that a great missionary epoch had already begun, and that it would have immense issues. ‘Young missionaries may despair,’ said a veteran Indian missionary; ‘we who have witnessed such stupendous changes never can.’ Before the Native Affairs Commission Stewart made a similar statement about the improvements he had witnessed, especially in the native women, whose appearance had been entirely changed. The sight of the boys and girls at Lovedale was fitted to break the spell of despondency if it had ever mastered him.

In his Dawn he says:—‘A fair and just, and yet not optimistic, survey of the missionary situation of to-day would lead us to the belief that it is better, more encouraging, and more full of real results than at any time since the days of the Apostles. How poorly at the best have we discharged the great duties God has laid upon us in virtue of the gifts He has bestowed! Still, in God’s time, apparently a better day is coming, for clearly "o’er that weird continent morn is slowly breaking." We return again in a final word to the one power and influence sufficient for the regeneration of Africa. It has been the keynote through all these pages. That one force is the religion of Jesus Christ, taught not merely by the white man’s words, but what is far better, by his life, as showing the true spirit of that religion.’ Believing thus that the best is yet to be, the shadows of the morning were tinged in his eyes with the glory of the approaching dawn.

Shortly before his death Coillard wrote—March 4, 1904—’Read Dr. Stewart’s Dawn in the Dark Continent, Daybreak in Livingstonia, and Among the Wild Ngoni, by Dr. Elmslie. To state my impressions would be impossible. I am humbled and moved to wonder. What great things the Lord has done there.’

‘We are saved by hope,’ the Apostle says. The expectation of victory is often the guarantee of victory, for every great battle is lost or won in the soul. In our Navy the signal for a close engagement is the same as the signal for a victory. To hope is often to achieve. These are the reasons why Stewart hoped all things not impossible, and believed all things not unreasonable, and preserved his unclouded optimism amid many assaults upon it.


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