Ancient Wells: The Spiritual Heritage of Cambridge

Cambridge-Heroes-of-the-Faith-captionsIn our prayers for revival & reformation to be released from heaven into the streets and gutters of Cambridge, one image that has profoundly inspired us has been that of the ‘ancient wells’ being unblocked.

The image is from Genesis 26, after Abraham has died. Again there is a famine in the land, and Isaac is tempted to follow the example of his father and give up, at least temporarily, on God’s word that this promised land will be his inheritance and a place of blessing to all the nations. But then the Lord appears to him, repeating the promise and commanding Isaac to abide in the land. “And,” we’re told, “Isaac sowed in the land, in the year of famine, and reaped a hundredfold, because the Lord blessed him”. How did God make it possible for Isaac to reap a hundredfold harvest in the midst of famine? According to the text, it was not simply through some supernatural miracle, but through Isaac “redigging the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father”.

For us in contemporary Cambridge, the famine that we face is spiritual, as is the hundredfold harvest that we long for. And so the question is, what are the ‘spiritual wells’ that we need to unblock if we are to see spiritual water again begin to flow, and spiritual seeds begin to grow? The answer is the testimony of our forefathers in the faith, which is of course what ‘Abraham’ represents paradigmatically. As Hebrews 13:7 exhorts us, “Remember those who have gone before you, who spoke the word of God; considering their way of life, imitate their faith!”

And as we have begun to realize, Cambridge’s heritage is full of faithful witnesses who testify to the power and truth of God. Here are seven of those heroes, and the spiritual ‘well’ that they represent:

C Simeon
Charles Simeon: Prayer

Saved while a student at King’s College, Cambridge, Charles Simeon then became the vicar of Holy Trinity Church. His evangelical preaching was initially met with fervent opposition: his services were frequently interrupted, he was insulted in the streets, his parishioners would even lock up their (privately-owned) pews to prevent the possibility of other people hearing him preach.

But by steady, faithful discipline in prayer, Simeon overcame public prejudice and eventually gained a remarkable and lasting influence particularly among the university’s undergraduates. And it is said that when he died, half the city attended his funeral to pay their respects.

The story goes that to help him stay disciplined in spending the early morning in private prayer and quiet time with the Lord, he resolved that if he did not rise he would give a half-crown to the servant who cleaned his room. But one cold morning as he struggled to get out of bed, he found himself rationalising that the woman was poor and could doubtless use his charity–and thereafter he decided instead to throw a guinea into the river!

Apparently he only did this once, since “he could not afford to pave the river bed with gold” — but nevertheless, our vision for Cambridge is that students would again be converted to a Christianity committed to costly prayer, and that this would empower them to endure opposition and win people over with the gospel.

W Tyndale
William Tyndale: Bible

Tyndale did his undergraduate study at Oxford, but complained that although he was supposed to be receiving training for Christian ministry, the course included no systematic study of the Bible. In fact, at the time it was a crime punishable by death to be in possession of an English translation of any portion of Scripture! He then spent a few years in Cambridge, where a few years earlier Erasmus — who put together the first scholarly Greek New Testament — had been teaching.

His conviction that the Bible needed to be made available to everyone was incredibly controversial. He famously got into an argument with a certain Catholic clergyman (this was before the Church of England had broken away from the Roman Catholic church), who told Tyndale that, “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou!”

Tyndale’s life was not spared quite long enough to translate the entirety of the Bible into English — he was betrayed and arrested for his ‘heresy’, and then strangled and burned at the stake. But his dying prayer that God would “Open the King of England’s eyes!” was answered, and within two years an English Bible had been authorized that was mostly Tyndale’s own work.

Our vision for Cambridge is that God would again raise up people with a fervent zeal to do whatever it costs to make the Bible available and understood, in England and all the nations.

JC Maxwell
James Clerk Maxwell: Wisdom

Cambridge is famous throughout the world for its scientific research: this was where Isaac Newton wrote his ground-breaking Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, almost single-handedly establishing a new standard for ‘natural philosophy’ (what we now call ‘science’) in which experimental evidence would be explained by mathematical models. In more recent times, Cambridge has been the home of several scientists that have given some the impression that scientific study and religious conviction are incompatible: Charles Darwin, whose evolutionary theory seems to so many to be a considerable hurdle to biblical belief, was a Cambridge scientist; so was Francis Crick, discoverer of DNA, and an adamant atheist.

But of all these great scientists, it was a man called James Clerk Maxwell whose discoveries were said by Einstein to have “changed the world forever”. Maxwell formulated the theory of electromagnetism, unifying the understanding of electricy, magnetism and light. He was one of the founders of the University of Cambridge’s physics lab, the Cavendish Laboratory, and he was also a convinced Christian. To this day a visitor to Cambridge can see, inscribed over the door of the Cavendish Laboratory, the words of Psalm 111:2 which Cavendish chose as the science lab’s motto: “The works of the Lord are great; sought out of all them that have pleasure therein”.

Our vision is that God would again raise up Christians who would be able to demonstrate that there is no contradiction between trusting in God and studying the world He has made, and whose wisdom would impact not just academic study, but every sphere of ordinary life. And our conviction is that God is able to bring that wisdom not just through the educated elite, but through the simplest student of His word and His ways.

CS Lewis
C.S. Lewis: Creativity

C.S. Lewis is probably the best-known Christian author of the twentieth-century, having written both the children’s fantasy The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as numerous works of popular apologetics, such as Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and The Problem of Pain. But perhaps it is less well-known that all of this writing was really just a particularly fruitful hobby! — for his full-time employment was as an academic lecturer in the field of English Literature.

His academic career began at Oxford, where he studied as an undergraduate and later became a Christian through the witness of friends such as J.R.R. Tolkien. But he had to move to Cambridge to be given the senior position of ‘Professor’ — apparently his colleagues disliked his open and confident Christian faith.

Our vision is that God would again release Christ-centred creativity from Cambridge that would demonstrate the beauty and truth of Christianity. Like CS Lewis, we pray that this would happen both directly — in formulating persuasive arguments for gospel truth–, and more indirectly — in telling stories, singing songs, creating art that would captivate imaginations with the glory of God.

W Wilberforce
William Wilberforce: Justice

The name of William Wilberforce is now almost synonymous with the fight against institutionalized evil — his battle against slavery is one of the greatest stories of persistent moral of the last few centuries. But Wilberforce was not always on the side of justice and right. As a student he spent his time drinking and playing cards, and he initially bribed his way into politics.

But he then agreed to go on holiday with a Christian friend from University, and as they spent time reading the New Testament together, Wilberforce was convicted of his need to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. This prompted a crisis of calling–could he stay in the political world that he had so selfishly become involved with? Through the advice of his godly mentor John Newton, Wilberforce was persuaded that he could in fact use his influence for God’s glory, and spent the rest of his life pursuing what he described as his “two great ambitions: the abolition of slavery and the reformation of ‘manners’ [ie. society’s standards of living]”.

The battle against the slave trade took his whole life–Wilberforce died just days after hearing that the government had made concessions that guaranteed that the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery would at last be passed. But Wilberforce was also involved with numerous other societies focused on social reformation, involving everything from education to animal cruelty. The fuel that powered all this commitment to social justice, was the revelation that the justice of God is a free gift that can be ours through faith in Jesus–this was the subject of his best-selling book contrasting authentic biblical Christianity with the nominal religion of his time.

Our vision is for another generation to experience the revival of heart that comes from understanding the gospel, and for this to release a reformation of every sphere of society.

H Roseveare
Helen Roseveare: Mercy

Helen Roseveare was an atheist when she came to Cambridge to study medicine, but became a Christian through the witness of the University’s Christian Union. She then went to Central Africa, where she was involved in what we in YWAM today describe as ‘mercy ministry’–she set up several hospitals.

But the mercy that she ministered went far deeper than merely alleviating the physical suffering that she saw around her. This is demonstrated overwhelmingly by her response to what some would see as an unforgiveable sin–being brutally raped by a soldier during the Congolese civil war. She later returned to Congo and had the opportunity to meet the man — now in prison — who had humiliated her, and she took that opportunity to tell him face-to-face that he was forgiven.

Our vision is that God would release this sort of supernatural mercy again from Cambridge, that would indeed alleviate physical suffering, but also even more profoundly release spiritual mercy and forgiveness.

CT Studd
C.T. Studd: Mission

Perhaps the one hero of the faith from Cambridge’s past that has most inspired YWAM Cambridge’s vision for Cambridge is the converted student and cricketer C.T. Studd, who went as a missionary to China as one of the Cambridge Seven, then to India (where he pastored the church in South India where I was baptized!), and in later life — in spite of being rejected by the existing mission societies as medically unfit — to Africa.

As well as giving up his career as the most celebrated sportsman in England, he also gave up a massive fortune of £29,000 ( equivalent today to about £2.3 million), and left everything to obey God’s call on him to become a missionary.

CT Studd summed up his life vision in this little rhyming couplet:
Some wish to live within the sound of Church or chapel bell,
I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.

Our vision is that young people in Cambridge would again say Yes to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ–wherever God calls them to go, whatever God calls them to do, however much the cost might be!



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