Anthony Norris Groves, Father of Faith Missions

Anthony Norris Groves was the first Protestant missionary to live in Baghdad. He arrived there in 1830. He suffered the loss of his wife in May 1831 and his daughter three months later. Thousands of residents died as well from plague, floods and famine, and civil war.

There are five reasons Anthony Norris Groves is so interesting.

First. Anthony Groves (1795-1853) is the father of “faith missions.” That is, Groves depended solely on charitable donations from people moved by the Holy Spirit to support him and his family. He lived by the rule “If you have faith in God, nothing is impossible.” He would not take a guaranteed salary but would ask God to answer their prayers. One great advantage this creates is the assurance on the part of the missionary that he or she is truly called by God. “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” George Müller, the well-known founder of an orphanage in Bristol, England, married Anthony Groves’ sister, Mary. Müller believed the same as Anthony Groves: a praying man should make his financial needs known to God alone. You can read about George and Mary Müller here.

Second. Groves inspired many to depend on God as he did. In 1828 he gave his dental practice to his nephew, accepting nothing in return. But the interesting thing for us is the number of notable men and women featured on the book cover who started or joined voluntary mission agencies:

The starting place of living by faith in the manner of George Müller and these other notable men and women is trusting God to provide. It is as though God is glorified when his people believe his promises. This much we have in common with God: we are lifted to a higher joy when someone places their confidence in us.

Third. Anthony Groves adapted his religious practices as he learned about Islamic religious practices. Robert Dann writes, “Some of the earliest mission societies had already been labouring for thirty years. But their activities were hampered by the fact that they worked on the plan of Western organization and transplanted the organized church systems of the West instead of planting churches of the apostolic type shown in the New Testament.” When Groves set off for Baghdad, he determined to leave behind him everything he had known of British Christianity.[1]

Fourth. Anthony Groves wrote a small book called Christian Devotedness. Its subtitle: “The Consideration of our Saviour’s Precept: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.” It became enormously popular all over England and had a remarkable effect on everyone who read it. Had Groves never left England, he would have changed many lives on account of this book. “Norris Groves was not a great writer, yet unlike a more talented writer, he had something to say that was both fresh and practical. So radical and so persuasive were the ideas presented in these 28 small pages that their publication would mark a turning point in the history of Christian mission.”[2] The booklet came into the hands of George Muller, “and what he read moved him deeply. In fact, it changed the course of his life. He experienced something, he said, ‘like a second conversion.’”[3]

Fifth. Anthony Groves lived at peace with Christian men who were too ready to turn against other believers over matters of communion and doctrine. In divisiveness, John Darby, one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren, was, unfortunately, unable to listen to counsel and therefore condemned people that had enjoyed sweet fellowship with him. Groves would seek out the friendship of Anglicans, Methodists, Brethren, Baptists, and Moravians, in a century when discord on account of different doctrines prevented Christians from taking communion with others of a different persuasion. Dann writes,

In 1827, Groves still considered himself an Anglican. But the Church Mission Society told him he could not celebrate the Lord’s Supper without the presence of an ordained minister. This, to his mind, was a formidable stumbling block. Where in Persia would he find a clergyman to officiate at Communion? Then suddenly, ‘the thought was brought to my mind that ordination is no requirement of scripture. To me it was the removal of a mountain.’ From then on, without authorization or support of any denomination, he would preach wherever the Lord led him, and take the Lord’s Supper with any who loved Christ.[4]

Groves’ generous spirit in this matter greatly affected other Christians and other missionaries.

Sixth. Anthony Groves and all those with him suffered greatly for the love of God. But there was never a sense of complaint in his journals. All was endured to prove that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Seasick on ocean voyages, walking beside pack animals over trackless wilderness even before arriving in Baghdad (December 1829), unable to help when cholera swept through that city and bodies were left for days on the streets. He wrote, “In this world’s history, great things are not accomplished but by great sacrifices.”[5] But who can know, beforehand, the immense hardships that he and his family would face: learning the Arabic language, discovering the ancient feuds that hardened the Baghdad population against one another, wanting to open a school where the light of logic and problem solving might begin. Or this:

The continuous battle against vermin, the unpleasant smells, the flies and mosquitoes, the physical weariness brought on by stomach troubles, the unremitting heat of summer, the constant street noise, the Call to Prayer waking the whole family every night, the fretfulness of children cramped within the confines of a small house shared by colleagues. A seasonal infestation of fleas tormented the whole family for about six weeks in early summer. By mid-August temperatures reached 118 F. in the shade and 158 in the sun.[6]

Cholera epidemic. The most horrible part of the book is the story of the cholera epidemic that killed so many people in Iraq in 1831. Bubonic plague descended on the city as well, like two horsemen of the apocalypse. It was the daily body count that seemed most awful. Five hundred corpses a day were being carried out for burial, on some days a thousand or more. During the first two weeks, from a total population of 75,000, seven thousand perished. To remain in the city was to risk death from the plague; to leave was to fall into the hands of Arabs who would strip them of all they had. If this were not enough, the water level of the Tigris was rising. Major Taylor of the British consul planned to take his family and servants by boat down the Tigris to the relative safety of Basra. He offered passage to Groves and his household. Groves declined writing in his journal, “Hitherto the Lord has kept us safe.” Travelling in a crowded boat would by no means be the best way to avoid contagion. He later heard that almost all the crew and passengers of Major Taylor’s boat perished, and a caravan to Damascus, after suffering “the most injurious misery from both the flood and the plague, turned back having failed to reach its destination.” On the 16th of April 1831 Groves wrote, “Our neighbor is dead. The population of Baghdad cannot exceed 80,000 and of this number more than half have fled, so the daily mortality of 2,000 people is going on among considerably less than 40,000 people. But the Lord tells so not to have our hearts troubled for our redemption draweth nigh.”[7] Orphaned children were wandering the streets, not knowing where to go. The river continued to rise. The plains surrounding Baghdad were completely under water. The barley harvest was totally destroyed. As the water rose, the rats were driven out of gutters and into houses. Mosquitoes filled the houses, biting day and night. News arrived that seven thousand houses had collapsed in the night, “burying the sick, the dying and the dead in one common grave.”[8] Mary Groves, Anthony Groves’ wife, died of plague May 14, 1831. The Groves family had been in Baghdad 18 months. On August 24 their baby died. As the flood waters receded, a hostile Persian army arrived in Suleimania, 160 miles away. It was hard to see how Anthony could start again in Baghdad. In May 1833 Groves left Baghdad, boarding a boat down the Tigris. He would return to England, remarry, and set out as a missionary once again, this time for India, where he would raise his family and live the rest of his life, supporting himself by raising fruit trees.

[1] Robert Bernard Dann, Father of Faith Missions–the Life and Times of Anthony Norris Groves (USA: Authentic Media, 2004). 13-14

[2] Ibid. 65

[3] Ibid. 86

[4] Ibid. 49

[5] Ibid. 124

[6] Ibid. 134

[7] Ibid. 161

[8] Ibid. 164