January 24



Birth of Oral Roberts

Oral Roberts (1918-2009) was one of America’s most successful televangelists. Born into a poor Oklahoma family, he claimed that at the age of 17 he was miraculously healed of tuberculosis and stuttering by God while on his way to a revival meeting. God, he said, spoke to him, saying “Son, I am going to heal you, and you are to take My healing power to your generation. You are to build Me a university based on My authority and on the Holy Spirit.”

Roberts dropped out of university before graduating and began a career as an itinerant faith healer, holding services in a large tent. By the late 1940s he had his own radio show and in 1954 he began a television ministry. He had by this time adopted a form of what would become known as the “prosperity gospel”, the belief that God wished all Christians to thrive physically and financially as well as spiritually. Part of the secret to this prosperity was “seed-faith” giving to the church, believing that this money would come back multiplied by God. He founded the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, Oral Roberts University, and the City of Faith and Medical Research Center, which opened in 1981, offering both prayer and medical healing for physical ailments. At its peak his various organizations employed thousands and had annual revenue of over $100,000,000. So attractive and successful was he that the United Methodist Church, a mainline denomination which felt itself in need of spiritual regeneration, recruited him to serve as one of their ministers.

Yet in the 1980s when a number of scandals rocked the world of televangelism and shaky finances plagued his cherished medical center, Oral Roberts resorted to extreme fundraising techniques. In January 1987, he announced on television that Lord had told him that unless $8,000,000 was soon raised God would “take him home.” (With the help of an extended deadline, this sum was raised.)

His biography on the oralroberts.com website claims that Roberts wrote 130 books, conducted 300 healing crusades, laying hands on over two million people and performed many miracles. After his death in 2009 his work was carried on by his son Richard.

January 23: A better day for the red-coats


On January 22, 1879 the British army had been dealt a stinging defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana, losing over 1,000 troops to a Zulu army of 20,000. In the aftermath of the massacre, as Zulu detachments pursued those fleeing the battle, 4 regiments of warriors encountered a British outpost at a medical mission at Rorke’s Drift.

The detachment there consisted of engineers detailed to repair a bridge over the Buffalo River, a cavalry unit, Natal militia and regular infantry there to guard the supplies. Some time after noon, two British refugees from the disaster at Isandlwana brought the news to Rorke’s Drift and the officers in charge had to decide whether to retreat — a dicey proposition moving in daylight through enemy territory, burdened by hospital patients — or to fortify the camp and resist the Zulu force they had been told was coming their way. They decided to stay and fight, a decision which caused the native horse and infantry to desert, leaving about 150 men to face 3-4,000 Zulus.

These Zulu regiments had not fought at Isandlwana, only served as a reserve force, and they may have been looking for a little action, because their commander disobeyed orders. Instead of sweeping past the post to block reinforcements, they attacked the outpost. There they discovered that the British had created high walls out of grain sacks. In 12 hours of hand-to-hand combat the hospital was set on fire and the patients there murdered in their beds, hundreds of Zulus were killed by British rifle fire, and the red-coats suffered 17 dead. On January 23, the Zulus withdrew.

To celebrate the bravery of the men at Rorke’s Drift, and to distract public attention from the defeat at Isandlwana, 12 Victoria Crosses were awarded. Cinematic treatments of the battle and its prelude are Zulu and Zulu Dawn, both well worth watching.

January 22: A bad day for the red-coats


In January 1879 the British Empire went to war against the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa. The alleged cause was the brutish treatment of two women who fled the territory but in fact the British could not tolerate any obstacle to their expansion in the area (as the white Boer republics would soon find out.) Three columns of regular troops, some native auxiliaries and local militia invaded Zululand hoping to bring the Zulu army to a pitched battle where the superior firepower of a modern Western army would crush the spear and shield warriors.

On January 20, the main body of the British force under Lord Chelmsford camped under the mountain known as Isandlwana. Though in enemy territory, he did not take any serious defensive precautions such as creating a wagon fort laager, and, just as foolishly, split his forces, leaving behind some 1,300 men and two artillery pieces to defend the camp. Unbeknownst to them, 20,000 Zulus, superbly disciplined and brave, have marched against the camp; on January 22, they launched an attack into the teeth of rifle fire. The Zulus suffered 1,000 casualties in their charge but succeeded in wiping out the position, taking no prisoners and seriously denting Chelmsford’s invasion plans. The defeat, and several other lesser ones inflicted by Zulu regiments, enraged the British who were in no mood to listen to Zulu King Cetshwayo’s talk of a negotiated settlement. A second invasion defeated the Zulu Kingdom by July.

January 21


The First Act of Uniformity sets the course for the Anglican Church.

When Henry VIII withdrew the Church of England from the authority of the pope, its theology and ceremonial remained visibly Catholic. His successor, the boy-king Edward VI, wished the Church to become authentically part of the new reform movement. He would import Protestant preachers and university lecturers from the Continent, evict Catholic bishops from their sees and replace them with reformers, end clerical celibacy and finish the destruction of the monastic system.

On January 21, 1549 Parliament passed “An Acte for the unyformytie of Service and Admynistracion of the Sacramentes throughout the Realme”. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had overseen the preparation of a Book of Common Prayer and the new Act commanded that all “ministers in any cathedral or parish church or other place within this realm of England, Wales, Calais, and the marches of the same, or other the king’s dominions, shall, from and after the feast of Pentecost next coming, be bound to say and use the Matins, Evensong, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, commonly called the Mass, and administration of each of the sacraments, and all their common and open prayer, in such order and form as is mentioned in the said book, and none other or otherwise.”

Many Protestants complained that this new order of things was not reformed enough: its use of words concerning the Eucharist might be interpreted in a Catholic way. Many Catholics, however, were furious at the abolition of the Latin Mass and parts of the country rose up in rebellion at the new liturgy. In the west of England, Cornishmen called for a return to Henrician Catholicism with the battle cry “Kill all the gentlemen and we will have the Six Articles up again, and ceremonies as they were in King Henry’s time.” The rising was put down by the government’s army of foreign mercenaries.

In 1552 a new prayer book, clearly more Protestant, replaced the 1549 version.

January 20


Beginning of the Decian persecution.

Christians had been frequently the subject of hostile acts by the Roman state: the persecutions by Nero, Domitian and Pliny the Younger kept Christianity an underground movement. However, these decrees tended to be local and sporadic, not empire-wide. It was not until the accession of Decius in 249 that the notion of a national test for religious loyalty was conceived. The mid-third century was a time of crisis for the Roman Empire and Decius believed that a wholesale assertion of loyalty to the old gods would serve to unify and revitalize the state. In 250 he mandated that all citizens (with the exception of Jews) be required to sacrifice to the pagan pantheon and receive and official certification recording this. Though it appears that Decius was not aiming specifically at the Christian community the effect on it was profound. Its leadership either fled, apostatized or faced martyrdom. On this day Pope Fabian was executed.


Death of a Bible translator.

Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) was an English Roman Catholic priest who became influenced by the religious Reform movement in the 1520s. He spent many years in exile on the Continent involved in the production of an English translation of the Bible, a project for which William Tyndale had been arrested and executed for in 1536. Parts of his work appeared in the clandestine “Matthew Bible” of 1537 but his triumph was the production of the 1540 “Great Bible” authorized by the English government which commanded each parish purchase “one book of the bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that ye have care of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it.”

During the Protestant reign of Edward VI Coverdale was named Bishop of Exeter but when Mary I came to the throne in 1553 he was expelled and fled to the Continent for refuge. On the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 he returned to England but was denied a bishopric, most likely because of his Puritan leanings.

January 19


1726 Birth of James Watt 

James Watt (1736-1819) was a native of the  small seaport of Greenock, on the Firth of Clyde. His grandfather was a teacher of mathematics. His father was a builder and contractor—also a merchant,—a man of superior sagacity, if not ability, prudent and benevolent. The mother of Watt was noted as a woman of fine aspect, and excellent judgment and conduct. When boatswains of ships came to the father’s shop for stores, he was in the habit of throwing in an extra quantity of sail-needles and twine, with the remark, ‘See, take that too; I once lost a ship for want of such articles on board.’ The young mechanician received a good elementary education at the schools of his native town. It was by the overpowering bent of his own mind that he entered life as a mathematical-instrumentmaker.

JAMES WATT Steam EngineWhen he attempted to set up in that business at Glasgow, he met with an obstruction from the corporation of Hammermen, who looked upon him as an intruder upon their privileged ground. The world might have lost Watt and his inventions through this unworthy cause, if he had not had friends among the professors of the University,—Muirhead, a relation of his mother, and Anderson, the brother of one of his dearest school-friends,—by whose influence he was furnished with a workshop within the walls of the college, and invested with the title of its instrument-maker. Anderson, a man of an advanced and liberal mind, was Professor of Natural Philosophy, and had, amongst his class apparatus, a model of Newcomen’s steam-engine. He required to have it repaired, and put it into Watt’s hands for the purpose. Through this trivial accident it was that the young mechanician was led to ‘make that improvement of the steam-engine which gave a new power to civilized man, and has revolutionised the world. The model of Newcomen has very fortunately been preserved, and is now in the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow College.

Watt’s career as a mechanician, in connection with Mr. Boulton, at the Soho Works, near Birmingham, was a brilliant one, and ended in raising him and his family to fortune. Yet it cannot be heard without pain, that a sixth or seventh part of his time was diverted from his proper pursuits, and devoted to mere ligitation, rendered unavoidable by the incessant invasions of his patents.

He was often consulted about supposed inventions and discoveries, and his invariable rule was to recommend that a model should be formed and tried. This he considered as the only true test of the value of any novelty in mechanics.

January 18

Death of a Peasant Countess

On January 18, 1797, Sarah Countess of Exeter passed away at the age of 23.

Mr. Henry Cecil, while his uncle held the family title of Earl of Exeter, married a lady of respectable birth, from whom, after fifteen years of wedded life, he sought a divorce — the woman had fallen in love with the vicar and eloped with him. Deeply in debt, he put on a disguise, and came to live as a poor and humble man, at Bolas Common, an obscure village in Shropshire. No one came to inquire after him; be had vanished from the gaze and the knowledge of all his relatives.

He was known to none, and having no ostensible means of living, there were many surmises as to who and what he was. The general belief at one moment was, that he gained his bread as a highwayman. He lodged with a cottage labourer named Hoggins, whose daughter Sarah, a plain but honest girl, next drew the attention of the noble refugee. He succeeded, notwithstanding the equivocal nature of his circumstances, in gaining her heart and hand. It has been set forth that Mr. Cecil, disgusted with the character of his fashionable wife, resolved to seek some peasant mistress who should love him for his own sake alone; but the probability is that the young noble was simply eccentric, or that a craving for sympathy in his solitary life had disposed him to take up with the first respectable woman who should come in his way. Under the name of Mr. John Jones, he purchased a piece of land near Hodnet, and built a house upon it, in which he lived for some years with his peasant bride, who never all that time knew who he really was. His marriage was bigamous but after his divorce they renewed their vows.

Two years after the marriage (December 27th, 1793), Mr. Cecil succeeded to the peerage and estates on death of his uncle; and it became necessary that he should quit his obscurity at Hodnet and move to lavish Burleigh House, near Stamford. The “Cottage Countess” as she was called, did not prove quite up to the part she had been unwittingly drawn into. After having borne her husband three children (amongst whom was the peer who succeeded), she sickened and died, near having quite accustomed herself to the life of an aristocrat. 

Tennyson’s poem “The Lord of Burleigh” tells the tale rather more romantically.

January 17

stanthonySt Antony’s Day

As one of the very first hermit monks, the example of St Antony (251-356) was enormously important in the history Christian  monasticism. Butler’s Book of Saints has this to say:

ST. ANTONY was born in the year 251, in Upper Egypt. Hearing at Mass the words, “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor,” he gave away all his vast possessions. He then begged an aged hermit to teach him the spiritual life. He also visited various solitaries, copying in himself the principal virtue of each. To serve God more perfectly, Antony entered the desert and immured himself in a ruin, building up the door so that none could enter. Here the devils assaulted him most furiously, appearing as various monsters, and even wounding him severely; but his courage never failed, and he overcame them all by confidence in God and by the sign of the cross. One night, whilst Antony was in his solitude, many devils scourged him so terribly that he lay as if dead. A friend found him thus, and believing him dead carried him home. But when Antony came to himself he persuaded his friend to carry him, in spite of his wounds, back to his solitude. Here, prostrate from weakness, he defied the devils, saying, “I fear you not; you cannot separate me from the love of Christ.” After more vain assaults the devils fled, and Christ appeared to Antony in glory. His only food was bread and water, which he never tasted before sunset, and sometimes only once in two, three, or four days. He wore sackcloth and sheepskin, and he often knelt in prayer from sunset to sunrise. Many souls flocked to him for advice, and after twenty years of solitude he consented to guide them in holiness—thus founding the first monastery. His numerous miracles attracted such multitudes that he fled again into solitude, where he lived by manual labor. He expired peacefully at a very advanced age. St. Athanasius, his biographer, says that the mere knowledge of how St. Antony lived is a good guide to virtue.

January 16

Historians may justly claim that today’s date witnessed a number of significant events.

In 1493 on this date Christopher Columbus returned to Europe from his accidental discovery of the New World.
In 1604 the Hampton Court conference called for a new English translation of the Bible which resulted in the publication 7 years later of the magisterial Authorized (or King James) Version.
In 1919 Prohibition was ratified in the United States.
In 1969 Jan Palach set himself on fire in patriotic protest against the Soviet invasion of his native Czechoslovakia.

But for lovers of the absurd, January 16 will be forever sacred to the memory of heavyweight boxing champ and dental fashion-plate Leon Spinks who in 1981 was mugged and robbed of his gold teeth

January 15


1929 Birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The son of a prominent Atlanta, Georgia pastor, King (1929-68)  attended segregated public schools and went on to study theology, receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 1955. As a pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he took a leadership role in the famous bus boycott provoked by the actions of Rosa Parks. During the struggle, King was arrested and his home was bombed but victory was eventually won; blacks and whites would henceforth ride the buses as equals.

In 1957 King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization pressing for increased civil rights through an application of religious principles, especially nonviolent protest. He grew in fame and moral stature as he led marches in Selma, Alabama where young black people encountered the firehoses and police dogs; in Birmingham he was arrested, which inspired his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In the March on Washington, he delivered his  “l Have a Dream” speech to a quarter-million people. In 1964, at the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., became the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

With the passage of the landmark civil rights bills of the mid-1960s, King turned his attention to protesting American involvement in the Vietnamese civil war and economic inequality. These stands lost King a good deal of white support while more radical black leaders, rejecting non-violence, seemed to be gaining in popularity amongst African American youth. In April 1968 he appeared in Memphis Tennessee to lend his support to a strike by garbage workers. His speech on April 3 was eerily prophetic:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

The next day, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, he was assassinated.