Over the approximately thirty-five years I have been a Christian I have amassed a personal library of around four thousand volumes, most of which have been carefully selected works on particular topics. I have several older books from the early 19th Century such as an 1838 edition of Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in It’s Fourfold State, and a volume called The Beauties’ of Ebenezer Erskine from the same year. I have one or two noteworthy volumes like the the copy of one of Erich Sauer’s books which he personally sent to his translator, G. H. Lang.
One of the more interesting books I have is the autobiography of a major Bible teacher of the first part of the 20th Century named Arno C. Gaebelein. The book is titled A Half Century: The Autobiography of a Servant. The book is beautifully bound and signed by the author, August 10th 1944. Gaebelein died a year later. I found several items of interest in the book that I thought I would like to share.
I should first say something about the subject. A. C. Gaebelein was one of the most important teachers of what he called Dispensational truth in the halcyon days of America’s Prophetic Movement. He was well acquainted with the likes of James H. Brookes, C. I. Scofield and many other premillenarians of the day. He authored a number of books, the best of which (in my opinion) are Harmony of the Prophetic Word, The Annotated Bible, The Conflict of the Ages, and The Angels of God. He also wrote a fine exposition of the Olivet Discourse. Gaebelein published his book in 1930 when Jehovah’s Witnesses were called “Russellites,” when Pentecostals were commonly denounced as heretical enthusiasts, and when Presbyterian pastors enthusiastically endorsed premillennialism.
But, you may ask, if it was published in 1930 how come it is signed and dated in 1944? I think the reason is clear. This specially bound volume is Gaebelein’s own copy of his Autobiography which was gifted to his friend – one Krist or Kaist Gudnarson “in appreciation of his friendship, loyalty and kindness,” and was sent from Mt. Vernon, N.Y. “with much prayer for His blessing till He comes, Psalms 50:15 and 91-.”
Here are some Reflections on his Autobiography:
1. The first impression one gains from the book is that Gaebelein was diligent. He was very driven (as we say today) and made the most of his opportunities to teach himself the biblical languages, as well as Syriac and, because he at first worked as an evangelist to Jewish immigrants in New York, Yiddish. He also knew German, having been raised in Germany.
Not only did he learn several languages on his own, he was constantly reading his Bible, writing books and pamphlets, editing his magazine “Our Hope,” and preaching. He was very industrious. He writes in one place about the importance of reading the Bible as a means of communing with God and refreshing the soul. Without this, he believed it was not possible to maintain a right relationship with the Lord.
I was impressed by this conviction that attentive Bible reading and a living and open relationship with God were inextricably linked. The Bible is the source of our sermons and our theology. But it must also be the voice of the personal God to us. It must be God speaking to us. “Ministry,” he writes, “can only be kept by a real growth in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and such growth demands a diligent and prayerful study of the Bible.” (169).
In another place he mentions a small prayer-book which he carried around with him and made it his habit to consult and pray for people whenever he had a free moment. Gaebelein placed a lot of emphasis on prayer: “True ministry must be born in prayer and communion with the Lord. A ministry without prayer is barren.” (237).
2. The author was also valiant for truth. On one occasion he recounts being invited to dine at the home of one of New England’s social elite, a relative of Henry Ward Beecher. During dinner the lady turned to Gaebelein saying: “Do you not that it is encouraging to find that our fair New England is turning more and more away from that awful teaching that a human being can get to heaven by the blood of another man?” As the author takes up the story; “She waited a moment, and, as I did not answer, she continued, ‘As if the blood of an innocent victim could do any good to anybody. It is our character, our life which tells. This is the true Gospel.’” (107).
After reminding the lady that she was a relative of Lyman Beecher, as well as being related to Thomas Hooker, who both believed the very Gospel she was derogating. He said to her: “unless you are washed in the blood of the Lamb you will never see heaven. You are very old, soon you must pass on, and I can assure you your character cannot save you.” (108).
It takes a lot to be so “impolite” at the home of so prominent a person. This scenario was faced on a number of occasions with the same faithful result.
3. Gaebelein had a strong sense of the providence of God, and would not enter upon a venture – however alluring – if he didn’t have peace of mind about it. There were times when he had tempting offers to turn aside from his itinerant work and accept a well paid pastorate. I was impressed with his unwillingness to go into anything to which he was not convinced his Lord had not sent him. This trust extended to his never setting fees for speaking engagements. He believed the money would be provided.
This sometimes meant him spending nights in less than stellar accommodations such as a hay loft, although it is worthy of note that he was unashamed to request comfortable food and lodgings if they were available. (I have sometimes had to endure disagreeable conditions when on the road – although not for some time – they are hardly conducive to “giving ones best”).
4. Gaebelein was constantly proclaiming Jesus Christ. He was very evangelistic and would always include a message on the Gospel, even when his Christian hearers would rather hear a message on prophecy. He knew that Christians need to hear the Gospel too (despite what some “mature” brethren think). And he knew there would likely be unbelievers in his audience.
This stress upon the proclamation of the Cross is also seen in the preaching of C. I. Scofield, whose volume of sermons In Many Pulpits shows him to have been no ear-tickler.
5. He had faults. He admits them toward the end of his book (230-231). But throughout the reader is informed of the great blessing Gaebelein’s ministry brought to people. This is a little grating as he might have worded these testimonials more self-effacingly. But his faults only remind me of my own woeful shortcomings. I was challenged by his dedication and commitment to hard graft, and was encouraged by being reminded that if one is engaged to any extent in teaching prophetic truth from a “literal” interpretation of Scripture, he is going to draw fire from many quarters. The main thing is to serve the Lord with what you are given in the field He has placed you.
6. Finally, as if this needs to be stated, we should not neglect the reading of these older autobiographies and biographies! This not only provides us with a sense of the historical continuity of our work, but it reminds us of the fact that hard work, faithfulness in the face of difficulty, and prayerful Christ-centeredness should be the hallmark of our ministries.
Perhaps I will write more about the importance of reading good biographies and autobiographies in another post. Anyway, I hope this one was encouraging.