Lilias Trotter Biography Sketch
The Frail Pioneer
The tall young woman of twenty-three, with light brown hair and a sensitive mouth, roamed the wooded hills that sloped gently down to Coniston Lake, her mind in a turmoil of conflict. Although she had previously visited “Brentwood,” the home of John Ruskin, and thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of the surroundings as well as the intellectual and artistic temperament of her host, this time it was different.
John Ruskin had pleaded with Lilias Trotter to reconsider her decision to relinquish the promising pursuit of art, for she had been contemplating the giving of her entire self to another Master in the pursuit of souls. “I pause to think how I can convince you of the marvelous gift that is in you,” he had written on a former occasion. Now he was urging her to continue to improve her artistic ability, for he was convinced she would make her mark among foremost artists.
Appreciation of her talent by so famous a man would have been too sore a temptation had not the “love of One that is stronger” reached out and touched her heart. The die was cast. Turning her back upon a future so bright with promise, she summed up her decision thus: “I see as clear as daylight now I cannot give myself to painting in the way he (John Ruskin) means and continue still ‘to seek . . . first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.’”
Everything in the life of Lilias Trotter had favored her career as an artist. Nature had richly endowed her. The circumstances into which she was born, in 1853, provided financial security while she studied. Her father, of Scottish parentage, was “a charming character of love, generosity, and gentleness, combined with high qualities of intellect and acquirements.” He always had encouraged his nine children in their pursuit of scientific and artistic studies. He had procured French and German governesses for them, and frequent visits to the Continent had given them that poise which only widely traveled persons acquire.
Her mother was Isabella Strange, whose father had been Chief Justice of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although she was the second wife of Alexander Trotter, she proved a good and able mother to his six children by his former wife. Three more children by the second marriage were added to their spacious home. Lilias was the first of these three.
The girl, sensitive to a degree, keenly felt the blow that fell upon the family, when her beloved father was taken from them when she was only twelve. But her grief created in her a response to the love of her Savior. When others thought her away playing with her dolls, she was spending the time in prayer.
When Lilias was twenty-one years of age, she and her mother attended a convention at “Broadlands,” convened by Lord Mount-Temple, a Christian statesman. The speakers that year were Andrew Jukes, Theodore Monod, and the American Quakeress, Mrs. Pearsall Smith, author of The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life. The messages given were on the theme of consecration and God’s gift of His Holy Spirit. Her eyes “were opened to see the loveliness of the Son of God and His right to control her redeemed life.”
The next year, another event helped to shape the character of this impressionable young woman. D. L. Moody came to London and she and one of her sisters attended these services and sang in the choir. Lilias was profoundly impressed with the evangelistic fervor exhibited night after night which resulted in the salvation of souls.
The Y.W.C.A. was achieving success among working girls, and Lilias and a friend rented a music hall, turning it into a hostel for these young women. Prayer-meetings were frequently called during the conducting of special services, and sometimes all nights of prayer were engaged in that the forces of evil might be defeated in many lives. As a result, contacts were made with girls whose “business” was sin and with some of whom Lilias prayed into the early hours of the morning.
In 1876, Mrs. Trotter and her daughter traveled to Venice. A letter of Ruskin’s tells how he discovered the latent talent in this budding artist:
When I was at Venice in 1876—it is about the only thing that makes me now content in having gone there—two English ladies, mother and daughter, were staying at the same hotel, the “Europa.” One day the mother sent me a pretty little note asking if I would look at the young lady’s drawings.
On my somewhat sulky permission, a few were sent, in which I saw there was extremely right-minded and careful work, almost totally without knowledge. I sent back a request that the young lady might be allowed to come out sketching with me. She seemed to learn everything the instant she was shown it, and ever so much more than she was taught.I
Ruskin displayed her drawings and from that time became her friend and champion. Not understanding the love that had drawn this young woman to spend her life in work for women of the street he wrote:
Am I not bad enough?
Am I not good enough?
Am I not whatever it is enough, to be looked after a little
when I am ill, as well as those blessed Magdalenes?2
But her work among the girls she loved continued to absorb Lilias’ time and strength for the next ten years. And the reason for such devotion and sacrifice is expressed in one of her favorite hymns:
A homeless Stranger amongst us came
To this land of death and mourning,
He walked in a path of sorrow and shame,
Through insult and hate and scorning.
A Man of sorrows, of toil and tears,
An outcast Man and a lonely;
But He looked on me and through endless years
Him must I love, Him only.
Then from this sad and sorrowful land,
From this land of tears, He departed;
But the light of His eyes, and the touch of His hand,
Had left me brokenhearted.3
During this same period, she made the acquaintance of two women whose influence was to change the direction of her labors for more than forty years. Lilias wrote later:
I quite expected to spend my life in the Y.W.C.A. and was not interested in missionary work, but I was thrown a good deal with Adeline Braithwaite and Lelie Duff, and I felt that both of them had taken to heart the outer darkness in a way I had not. I do not remember that they said anything to me personally about it, but one felt it right through them. They were all aglow. I saw that they had a fellowship with Jesus that I knew nothing about. So I began to pray, “Lord, give me the fellowship with Thee over the heathen that Thou hast given to these two!”
It was not many weeks before it began to come—a strange, yearning love over those who were “in the land of the shadow of death”—a feeling that Jesus could speak to me about them, and that I could speak to Him—that a great barrier between Him and me had been broken right down and swept away.
I had no thought of leaving England then, no thought even at first of trying to stir others at home. But, straight as a line, God made my way out into the darkness before eighteen months were over. And through eternity I shall thank Him for the silent flame in the hearts of those two friends, and what it did for me. Neither of them has ever had her path opened into foreign work, but the light of the Day that is coming will show what He has let them do in kindling other souls.”4
Whenever Lilias prayed, the words, “North Africa,” sounded in her soul as though a voice were calling her. In May, 1887, a missionary meeting was held by Mr. Glenny who spoke on the needs of that field. When the appeal was made at the end of the service, Lilias arose and said, “God is calling me.” In less than a year, she had reached Africa, accompanied by two other young women. Her favorite song once more became her own testimony:
And I clave to Him as He turned His face
From the land that was mine no longer;
The land I had loved in the ancient days,
Ere I knew the love that was stronger.
And I would abide where He abode,
And follow His steps for ever;
His people my people, His God my God,
In the land beyond the river.
In a letter home, she wrote:
I would not be anywhere else but in this hardest of fields with an invincible Christ. None of us would have been passed by a doctor for any missionary society. We did not know a soul in the place, or a sentence of Arabic, nor had we a clue as to how to begin work on such untouched ground. We only knew we had to come. If God needed weakness, He had it! We were on a fool’s errand, so it seemed, and we are on it still, and glory in it. For the Moslem world that has challenged Christ for over twelve centuries has not had His last word yet.5
The intrepid young missionaries rented a big, fortress-like house in Algiers. Rumor had it that it was three hundred years old. Their front door was known for a long time as “the door of a thousand dents,” as unruly boys and opposing adults battered at its rugged thickness. Those were most difficult years for these pioneers for they faced hostility, suspicion by authorities, and the inborn hatred of Islam for Christ.
After seven years on the Moslem field, Lilias returned to England with badly frayed nerves and heart worn by strain and stress. The extreme heat, too, had been most debilitating. How she appreciated the quietness and aloneness of the homeland, where she could regain the apparently lost powers of body, soul, and spirit!
As the quiet entered into her very soul, God began to make further revelations to her of what it meant to be “buried” with Christ! She writes:
Not only “dead” but “buried,” put to silence in the grave; the “I can’t,” and the “I can,” put to silence side by side in the stillness of “a grave beside Him” with God’s seal on the stone and His watch set that nothing but the risen life of Jesus may come forth.
“Give me a death in which there shall be no life, and a life in which there shall be no death.” That was the prayer of an Arab saint, Abed-al-Kadar. I came upon it the other day. Is it not wonderful! 6
It was now that she saw the loathsomeness of all that is of the flesh and not of the Spirit. The lesson had been taught by the messengers of disappointments, seeming failure, and frustrations. Two of the most promising women converts died as a result of slow poisoning. Another had fallen under the spell of a sorceress. Five out of six backslidings, the missionaries concluded, could be traced to the drugging of the converts. Lilias and her friends would have welcomed the triumphant entry into Heaven of any newly converted, rather than to have seen their minds and bodies despoiled under drug reaction. They were driven to the throne of grace for, without divine aid, helpless women in a hostile Moslem land could not possibly counter such satanic forces.
She might well have been thinking of this period of opposition, when she wrote:
I am full of hope that when God delays in fulfilling our little thoughts, it is to leave Himself room to work out His great ones. And, more and more as time goes on, I feel that the longer He waits the more we can expect, for the deeper and wider will be the undermining, and the greater will be the band of those who will come forth free from their prison walls. When one gets hold of that vision, one can throw back in the devil’s face his taunts over the seemingly wasted years that lie behind us.
One day, a most unusual opportunity arose to introduce the work of the Algier’s Mission Band to six hundred American delegates from the World’s Sunday School Convention who were en route to Rome. Scheduled to land for a short time in Algiers, they asked for one hour with Miss Trotter that they might become acquainted with the Christian effort among the Moslems.
With no hospitals, no schools, little organization, and few apparent results to show for the twenty years’ labor, dismay filled her heart at the request. How could she hope to make these keen and successful business men understand? The missionaries brought the problem to God, believing that “difficulty is the very atmosphere of miracle.” They decided to show, not what had been done, but what had not been done, trusting Him to use the very weakness and seeming failure to interest the group. And God did just that, for the American delegates became fast friends of the Mission in Algeria for years to come. During the twenty years, in reality, much had been accomplished. Centers had been opened in strategic places; travel by train and camel had taken the missionaries to remote and almost inaccessible parts where they could broadcast the message of redeeming love.
But times of illness came to Lilias. These hours, however, were not spent in an idle fashion but rather devoted to writing. She penned Parables of the Cross, in which she also utilized her artistic ability by drawing lovely illustrations from nature for its pages. She aided friends in a revision of the Bible in classical Arabic. As a result of this effort, the Gospels of Luke and John were widely distributed in the area.
Feeling the need for Moslem mystics, she wrote The Way of the Sevenfold Secret on the seven “I Am’s.” She was sure if Christian literature could but find its way into the homes of the Arabic world, it would be read without the opposition encountered in public effort. Probably Lilias did more in her preparation of reading material for the people than in her personal contacts, for her knowledge of the country, familiarity with the language, and experience with the opposition—all this made the literature much more effective in its presentation of the Gospel.
The last three years of Lilias’ life were marked by extremely limited strength. Her heart, so worn from the soldiering, probably would not have functioned at all save for the warrior spirit within. From her bed, propped up by pillows, she directed the work of the Band, praying for each worker by name during the night watches when sleep refused to come.
To the very end, the worker was being molded by the Master into greater conformity to His image. While the citadel of her heart had long since been captured, there were areas of the natural life, such as her sympathetic disposition which needed to be brought into subjection to the Master. In her own words:
It has opened out to one a whole new era that has to be subdued unto Himself—the region of natural temperament that lies at the back of the self-life in man, which needs to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Transformed does not mean annihilated, but transfigured by a new indwelling. He can take that very susceptibleness that has been a snare and make it a means of contact with Himself, a sensitiveness to the Holy Ghost. It is worth all the humbling and heart-searching and the breaking up of depths after depths, if it means getting nearer the place where the living water will be set free.7
In another quotation from her pen, she portrays the growing sway of the Spirit’s dominion in her:
In a stream which is ankle deep, one can walk where one will. When it is knee-deep, the “pull” has begun. When it is to the loins, “the drawing” has become almost irresistible. And the next thing is that it cannot “be passed over”; they are “waters to swim in.” “Borne on unto perfection” is the literal meaning in Hebrews 6:1. “There the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams” (Isa. 33:21).8
This saint who had chosen to share the life of her risen Lord rather than to enjoy the honors a fickle world could heap upon her, had partaken deeply of that divine Partner’s secrets. In a booklet, A Ripened Life, she shares with us the deep insights she had obtained through close communion:
“In that day there shall be upon the bridles of the horses. Holiness Unto the Lord.” The horse seems to stand throughout the Old Testament for natural power. In each of us there is one strongest point; it may be brain power, or some faculty, as music for instance, or the power of planning, the power of influence, the power of loving. And, whatever it may be, that strong point is sure to be a point of temptation, just as their horses were a temptation to Israel.
Trace the history. In spite of God’s warning (Deut. 17:16) they “multiplied” them (1 Kings 4:26; 10:28) and “trusted in them” (Isa. 31:1), and by this multiplying, power was put into the hands of their enemies (1 Kings 10:29) which was afterwards turned round upon themselves for their own ruin.
Can we not, some of us, read our own story between the lines? Have we not given play to these faculties, “multiplied” them so to speak, for the sake of the exultant sense of growing power, not for God? Have we not trusted in our horses? In the well-worked-out “subject” for instance, rather than in the Spirit’s might? Have we not been brought into soul-captivity by means of self indulgence in these faculties, God-created though they are? And therefore most of us, as we go on, find that God’s hand comes down on the strongest parts of us, as it came upon the horses of Israel (Zech. 12:4; Hos. 1:7). By outward providence or by inward dealing, He brings it to the place of death, and to the place where we lose our hold on it and our trust in it and say with Ephraim, “We will not ride upon horses” (Hos. 14:3). And in that place of death, God may leave it for months and years till the old glow of life has really died out of it, and the old magical charm has vanished, and it has become no effort to do without it because life’s current has gone into the current of God’s will.
Then comes the day as in Israel’s case before us, when He can give us back our horses with “Holiness to the Lord” written on them, bridled with Christ-restraint. Where are our horses? Are we riding them in their old natural force, or are they lying stiffened and useless in the place of death, or have they been given back to us with their holy bridles?
Weeks of suffering began in May, 1928, but Lilias’ mind retained its clearness, and she never lost sight of the “Master of the Impossible.” As the end drew near, looking out of her window, she exclaimed, “A chariot and six horses!”
“You are seeing beautiful things,” said a friend.
“Yes, many, many beautiful things,” was the joyful and last response to those around her. Had the chariot borne her to Heaven, as it had the prophet Elijah? We do not know. But we can be assured that the trumpets of the angels sounded for the arrival of the Christian warrior who had dared, at the call of “the invincible Christ,” to leave earthly comfort, ease, fame, and friends, for an unknown land.
And where He died would I also die:
For dearer a grave beside Him,
Than a kingly place among living men,
The place which they denied Him.
QUOTATIONS BY LILIAS TROTTER
Oh, for an enthusiasm for Christ that will not endure to be popular where He is unpopular; that will be fired rather than quenched when His claims are unrecognized and His Word is slighted; that will thrill us with joy if He allows us to share in the faintest degree in His dishonor and loneliness; that will set every pulse throbbing with exultation as we “go forth . . . unto him.”
Emptiness, yieldedness, brokenness—these are the conditions of the Spirit’s outflow. Such was the path taken by the Prince of Life to set free the flood-tide of Pentecost.
Oh, the pains that God has to take to bring us to this “abandon”—equally ready for silence or for saying, for stillness or for doing unhesitatingly the next thing He calls for, unfettered by surroundings or consequences. How much reserve and self-consciousness have to give way with some of us before the absolute control passes into His hands and the responsibility with it.