By John Ellis
The congregation of the United Reformed Church at Ewell in Surrey has reached its 150th birthday. I was particularly pleased to be part of the celebration as my great, great uncle, the Rev James Ellis, was their first minister. As an old man he wrote them a letter of congratulation on their Golden Jubilee in 1915, recording his happy memories of the church and sending them a guinea!
Anyone studying the anniversary exhibition soon realises that the story of the congregation goes back much further than the formation of Ewell Congregational Church in 1865. Sixty years before that, a servant girl in Ewell believed God was calling her to be the means of erecting a chapel in the village. Without either a congregation or any money, this was a challenge. Many kindly people tried to persuade Mary Wallis to drop her idea but she was made of sterner stuff. Answers to prayer, careful saving of her meagre earnings and much hard work meant that a succession of more or less suitable premises, starting with a disused slaughterhouse, were acquired for worship. Mary held together a little band of worshippers until a chapel could be built in the High Street and in her old age she could be one of the nine founder members of a properly constituted Congregational Church.
Mary Wallis’ perseverance over decades, even when the response seemed minimal, put me in mind of the pioneer missionaries whose work came alive for me when I was in southern Africa. David Livingstone may have been the most famous missionary of the Victorian era but he only ever converted one African to Christianity. Amongst many of the tribes with whom he worked, a standing joke for years was to mimic Livingstone preaching and singing hymns.
Livingstone’s missionary father-in-law, Robert Moffat, was the leader of the mission at Kuruman for forty five years (1825-70). Early in his time there he built a church to accommodate 800 at a time when there were only eight converts in the area. These pioneers were sure they were building for the long term and God had a plan. The widespread, vibrant Christianity which is so much part of the fabric of southern Africa today was not something they ever lived to see.
The season of Ascensiontide offers no guarantee of quick results or even visible results at all. We do not know God’s times and seasons. The Ascension does promise us that God is sovereign and that is a basis for faithfulness.