Book Review: When evangelicals care

Statement of interest – as well as being a keen reader, I’m a trustee of Pilgrims’ Friend Society, which naturally will shape my view of this book. I also recieved a copy for free, but as I work in the Publishing industry, I was asked to be critical!

When Evangelicals Care

Who  were among the first people in the UK to offer a pension? Which religious group has been caring for the elderly for hundreds of years? How would your church or community engage with the reality of our ageing population, and the common generational distances our culture promotes?

When evangelicals care: the story of Pilgrim’s Friend Society by Brian H. Edwards is a short, readable and gripping history of the Pilgrims Friend Society. Starting in Victorian London in 1807, and tracking the evolving form of a commitment to the poor throughout the intervening two hundred and ten years, When evangelicals care is a well-crafted narrative that is a brilliant example of popular history. A note on the title – and a challenge to many friends – the history and work of PFS is one of people whose evangelical Christian faith motivated them to care practically, at both an individual and political level. As Edwards writes in his first chapter, ‘The worst of times’,

We may be critical of the Victorians – for their arrogance, mistakes and failures – but unlike our contemporary and contemptuous society, the many evangelical organisations that were formed to help the destitute were free to do their work in the open context of caring for the eternal welfare of those in need. The connection between the Christian gospel and the motivation of their work was recognised by all, and few complained. Evangelicals were at the forefront of charitable work – and still are – because they saw every human being not as a highly developed anthropoid, but as an individual person created in the image of God

Regular readers will understand my hearty agreement with that – and hopefully note thoughtfully the inseparability of gospel motivation and practical service. From the outset, PFS has been committed to historic Christian orthodoxy, the primacy of the Gospel, the supremacy of Christ, and the vital role of mercy ministry in the ongoing fight for justice.

Throughout When evangelicals care, the author integrates stories, anecdotes and a number of illustrations; whether of old documents, homes, meetings, or contextual details that give a sense of the scope and challenge PFS was engaging with. This was a challenge that the breadth of evangelicalism can, did, and should continue to rise to meet. With a focus on prayer and not just being a distributor of alms to the elderly (or, later, not ‘just’ being a ‘home’ for aged pilgrims) PFS was inclusive of orthodox Christians on both sides of key debates like soteriology, and also ahead of its time regarding the deployment and ministry of women. Chapter 3 deals with ‘The Ladies’ Auxiliary’, noting from their foundation in 1821 (just 14 years into the history of PFS) that their contribution to the ministry of PFS was vital and much appreciated.

The final chapter of When evangelicals care, ‘Facing the Future’, is a clarion call to the church of today to renew our efforts around mission and ministry to and with the ageing population. Packed with statistics and reflection on the history of PFS’s expertise in caring for and listening to older people, this chapter is one that I would strongly recommend to those still unsure about the value of ministry with and to older people. As a publication of the Society back in 1907 noted;

It would do our young pilgrims good, as part of a sound Christian education, if they would now and then go and see old pilgrims, and hear them bear their testimony for Jesus“.

I have been most profoundly blessed by ‘old pilgrims’ – my grandmother’s staunch prayer for me at university, a great uncle’s kind gift of a parallel bible, and the wisdom and kindness of dozens of others who our society says are past it but the Gospel shines through so beautifully. In lieu of introducing every aged pilgrim to everyone, I think that this little book is a helpful and provocative read for anyone who is part of the family of God. I would encourage you to read When evangelicals care, for a beautiful example of faithful mission, as a story of testimony and inspiration, and as a roadmap for the possibilities of Gospel mission and ministry in the world today.

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