|Isabelle Lilias Trotter:|
Missionary, artist, writer,
and mission leader
Lilias Trotter grew up in the golden age of Victorian England, educated at home by governesses but encouraged to develop her potential and use her gifts. These included an unusual appreciation of beauty and facility for drawing and painting. Her early life was punctuated by family trips to Europe where she reveled in the natural beauty she found at every turn and was seldom without a sketchbook. Lily kept illustrated journals through every phase of her life and left behind a wealth of published materials as well as letters and diaries capturing her thoughts and experiences.
But the real focus of her life wasn't art, it was God. Her faith was kindled through the Holiness movement which swept through England in the 1870's, led in part by Quaker and Methodist revivalists from America, including the popular Dwight L. Moody. Throughout her life Lilias would attend "Keswick Convention" events which grew out of their revival meetings whenever she could. And through these meetings, Lilias and her friends surrendered their lives to Christ and his service. Her writings make clear that relationship with God was of primary importance.
Lilias gave more and more of her time to serving the needy in the slums of London through the YWCA, then in its infancy. When she was 35, she felt a call to ministry in North Africa.
Life in Algeria
Lilias and two friends, all well-educated single women, traveled to Algeria to make a home for themselves there. They moved into the Arab section of the casbah, amid narrow winding streets, hoping to be used by God. Rejected by mission agencies, they were not discouraged, apparently, from going out on their own. As Lilias later wrote:
"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.”Algiers may seem far away and exotic to us, but for Lilias, it was not really that far from home; Britons who wished to visit North Africa need only take a train across France and board a ship for a relatively short journey from Marseilles to Algiers. She seems to have initially expected to live there six months of the year, keeping a commitment to come home and nurse an invalid sister the other six. The sister died unexpectedly. In the years to come, though, Lilias (whose own health was shaky) took frequent and sometimes extended breaks to rest in England, Switzerland, or other parts of Europe.
For 40 years Lilias lived and served in North Africa, sacrificing the comfortable life and promising art career she might have had in England with what she called “the liberty of those who have nothing to lose because they have nothing to keep.” She and her coworkers learned Arabic, taught the Bible, set up classes of all kinds of men, women, and children, traveled extensively, and pioneered all kinds of strategies for connecting with the lives and hearts of their Arab friends in culturally appropriate ways.
No mention is made, in anything I've read, about giving up marriage and family; perhaps she had no desire to pursue that path. I'm not sure. Maybe nobody thought that was a sacrifice. At her death she left behind only relationships, a wealth of devotional material that spoke to the hearts of the people, and a band of 30 missionaries, mostly women, who looked to her as their leader and continued reaching out to the people of North Africa years before breakthrough came to the region.
Learning about Lilias: Three Books
The "Algiers Mission Band" eventually became part of the North Africa Mission (renamed Arab World Ministries) which merged with Pioneers in 2010... not long after I came into Pioneers, also through a merger, so I guess that gives me a tie to Lilias Trotter.
I wonder what she would think if she peered into the new Pioneers building in Orlando and saw signs directing visitors to the Trotter Conference Center, named in her honor? It was in writing some material to describe her legacy (and perhaps explain why we were using her name) that I decided I needed to learn more about her.
Decided to start at the school library. CIU was founded by Robertson McQuilkin, a holiness movement leader in America and an avid supporter of world missions. Both streams are still a strong part of the CIU culture. Some students major in "Muslim Studies" and take classes from the "Zwemer Center," named after another pioneering missionary who was a friend and colleague of our friend Lilias. With that many connections, I should not have been surprised to find a collection of Lilias Trotter biographies in the school library. I checked out three and read them through, one after the other.
I started with Patricia St. John's 1990 biography. It follows the conventions of missionary biography, providing an easy to read, inspirational narrative strong on devotion but sometimes weak on details, explanation, or analysis. I was surprised to realize it was a 1990 book, as it felt as if it were written for an earlier time.
I then picked up a more modern work by Miriam Rockness (2003) which has some of the same flavor as St. John's book but is written for a contemporary audience. It is stronger academically. Rockness cites her sources more carefully and fills in some of the gaps with background or analysis. It's harder to read, though; I can see where someone who wasn't determined to finish it might not make it through. Long, unedited quotes are formatted somewhat awkwardly (double-spaced italics with original spelling and punctuation). In reviews, some readers were quite critical of Rockness, calling her a poor writer compared to Trotter. I don't think I'd agree. But the tone slips back and forth between devotional and scholarly, and one looking for one or the other might struggle with that.
Finally, I skimmed a 1929 book primarily made up of Trotter's letters and journal entries, edited and published shortly after her death by her friend and coworker Blanche Pigott. I suspect Lilias, who often reworked her journal entries for publication, would appreciate Blanche's efforts to clean up her work. But it does mean we're not getting quite the real deal; I can see why Rockness went back to the archives. This one reads as more a collection of pieces than a narrative. If you didn't know who Lilias Trotter was or why she's considered significant, you'd be at a disadvantage in navigating this book and might be turned off by the language and some of the emphases.
Looking for Legacy
All three works covered many different stages and aspects of Trotter's life. I was most interested in her ministry strategy and experience in North Africa, her leadership of the Algiers Mission Band, her connections with other mission leaders of the time like Samuel Zwemer and Amy Carmichael, and her legacy as a missiologist focused on reaching Arabs. She was an accomplished leader of people, both a visionary and a detail-oriented administrator. Missiologist Christy Wilson said Lily's evangelism approaches were "one hundred years ahead of her time." The book she wrote for Sufi mystics introducing them to Christ through the "I Am" statements in the Gospel of John sounds like a masterpiece, one rooted in a great deal of study and sympathy for the Sufi "talebs" she met during her travels in the south of the country.
Judging from the biographical sketches I've found, however, what most people know and emphasize about Lilias Trotter (if they know anything) is that she was an artist who put aside a potentially great career in the arts, for ministry, but who left behind a number of devotional booklets illustrated by her own drawing and paintings.
I don't think art is her real legacy.
Rockness explains that her interest in Lilias came through friends who gave her their collection of those booklets, one by one, and enlisted her in their quest to save them from disappearing. That may be why she puts the "artist" narrative front and center, though her chapter on legacy is much more balanced.
The documentary Many Beautiful Things focuses in on the art v. God narrative, though. I haven't seen it, but here's the IMDB description:
From Executive Producer Hisao Kurosawa, (Dreams, Ran), comes the untold story of one of the world's greatest women artists and why her name was nearly lost to history. Many Beautiful Things plunges viewers into the complex age of Victorian England to meet Lilias Trotter, a daring young woman who defied all norms by winning the favor of England's top art critic, John Ruskin. In an era when women were thought incapable of producing high art, Ruskin promised that her work could be "immortal." But with her legacy on the line, Lilias made a stunning decision that bids us to question the limits of sacrifice. As Lilias journeys to French Algeria in the late 1800's to pioneer work with women and children, viewers are left to wonder, "Could you abandon a dream to pursue your true calling?" Featuring the voices of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones).So, like Chariots of Fire, it seems to paints a picture of a Christian "sacrificing" remarkable skills by putting their faith first (appealing to evangelicals, though perhaps bewildering to others).
After soaking up enough Lilias Trotter, I'm having a hard time seeing where someone would question whether she "wasted" her gifts as an artist by becoming a missionary. Likely Ruskin was right that if she wanted to be a great artist, she would have to put art first. She turned away from that, saying she didn't think she could devote herself to art and still "seek first Christ and his kingdom." Some Christians find ways to pursue both simultaneously. They serve God through their gifts as artists, athletes, musicians, writers, or whatever. But to live a life surrendered to God, even if that means not following gifts that might demand more of you than you can give... well, that is better, isn't it?
Lilias would say her duty is not to her gifts, but to her God. Lilias Trotter had a wonderful life, and if she wasn't one of the world's greatest artists because she thought seeking to save souls was more important, it didn't stop her from seeing the world's beauty and from the joy of painting and drawing most every day, alongside writing, teaching, and investing in her coworkers and the Arab communities in which they served.
(Continued in More About Lilias Trotter.)