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27 October 2017

Building a generous foundation

Building a generous foundation

The founders of the Alliance show us inspirational lives devoted to giving and generosity. Edward Bickersteth was one of them. Kim Walker, our research and information officer tells us more.

As this edition of idea is about giving and generosity, I thought it would be good to look at the servant-hearted, generous life lived by Edward Bickersteth.

Edward was one of the team of leaders who founded the Alliance 171 years ago. As a young man he worked as an articled clerk in Hatton Court, London. This kept him very busy but as he became more influenced by evangelical leaders his life was to change dramatically.

He wrote in his journal in 1807: "I wish to live in the way which will bring honour on religion and do most good to others." Getting involved with evangelical societies, Edward gave a monthly donation of one shilling to the local widow's society and took on evening visiting of the poor. This work concerned his mother, who thought people may pretend to be destitute to get handouts, and it was inappropriate to visit poor women; but Edward told her in a letter: "London is full of cases of silent distress and people do not feign actual and pining misery in places remote from public view."

In 1811 after being involved in the founding of the Spitalfields Benevolent Society in his free time, Edward was asked to set up a new society in the area. Although concerned the extra commitment would affect his performance at work, he persevered and found his voluntary work amongst the needy in Spitalfields very rewarding. In 1810 he wrote to his brother: "I can truly say my labours in the Spitalfields Society have been my meat and drink; they have refreshed, strengthened and gladdened my heart." 

When planning to get married Edward was keen to continue his generous lifestyle; in November 1811, he wrote to his fiancée Sarah: "I should always like to enter into the full meaning of the words 'use hospitality without grudging' and gladly welcome those who are dear to us to our home. The poor will next claim our attention; they are the representatives of Jesus, their wants them as to himself. I trust they will occupy our thoughts, our conversation and our exertions."

After their wedding Edward and Sarah set up home in Norwich, with Edward becoming a solicitor at a practice. Edward's generosity with his free time continued and he founded a local branch of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), and worked with a number of other evangelical organisations, travelling widely and speaking on their behalf. 

Challenging travels
Travelling in this pre-railway period was challenging. Horses and carts or stage coaches were the only options. The fastest coaches could only reach speeds of 12 miles an hour if the road surface and weather was good.

One journey to York took 19 hours. I wonder how long he had to travel to complete his tour of Northern England and Scotland in 1838? In his journal, he says simply: "Through the Lord's mercy I have been carried through a journey of 900 miles." On this tour, he often had three meetings a day and spoke to large crowds.

Edward eventually left the legal profession and became rector of Waddon, Hertfordshire where he co-founded the Alliance. From 1843, as the call to work for Christian unity increased amongst evangelicals, Edward was travelling extensively speaking on the theme of unity.

Not all evangelicals, particularly Anglican evangelicals, were enthusiastic about bringing "dissenters" and members of the established Church together, and Edward faced lots of opposition. In October 1845, he wrote about a three day meeting held in Liverpool – key in the founding of the Alliance: "This is likely to meet with violent opposition from all quarters and at present, I fear but little support even from faithful ministers who love the Lord. It is so new and untried."

He also wrote about how busy he was becoming: "The Alliance thus formed is rapidly increasing and spreading amidst much coldness and opposition from many, who, I hoped would have favoured it. It has bought a great increase of correspondence and labour upon me, and frequent journeys to London."

He took further journeys to Liverpool and Manchester in January 1846. Edward wrote on 24 January: "I have been to Liverpool and Manchester …. In the week before this we had six meetings. At present comparatively few of those who love the Lord, have united with it in my own church."

By August 1846, all of the work that Edward and his co-founders had done came to fruition at an international conference of almost 900 Christian leaders. The Evangelical Alliance was officially launched. Edward continued to serve the Alliance until his death in 1850, and some of his descendants continue to this day to take an interest in the work of the Alliance.

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