What Motivated Wilson Carlile?

Jonny Price

2022 marks the 140th anniversary of the founding of Church Army.

140 years of evangelism, social action, of working on the margins to bring the love of God through faith shared in word and action. But where did it all begin? To answer that question, we need to travel back further than 140 years, to see what motivated our founder, and why he took the steps he did.

Wilson Carlile led an interesting and colourful life. Prior to becoming a Christian, he was a successful businessman, importing cloth from Europe as part of which he spent much time travelling on the continent. This was not the risk-free endeavour it might sound, as the Franco-Prussian war was raging during his travels, and more than once he witnessed battles and came under fire. The impression these occurrences left on him were significant, as he had ‘seen men march out, in all the glory of health…to be mangled and killed.’. This led him to search for some philosophy of assurance as to the meaning of life, something that made sense of the pain and destruction he witnessed. He read philosophers, such as Kant, Descartes, Nietzsche, but at this point, Christianity was of no interest to him.

All was going well for him, until in 1873 his business was almost wiped out by crashes on the stock markets, reducing his personal wealth by 95%. This left him in a dark, depressive state of mind; he had worked for many years to grow his business and it had been the almost sole focus of his energies. His aunt had written to him for years trying to persuade him of the value of Christianity, and of his need for Jesus, but until now he had roundly rejected her assertion. Now, when he had lost all he had worked for, he saw how his energy had been misplaced, and became convinced that he must give his life to Jesus, and work for the rest of his days for Him.

Wilson began to work almost immediately to bring others to faith, engaging in evangelism, youth work, service of others, and eventually came to the conclusion he was being called to ordained ministry. This early passion for evangelism returned during his curacy in Kensington (an area which included significant deprivation at the time), and with the blessing of his Vicar he started working to reach out to those with no interest in faith, religion, or spirituality.

Out of this work Church Army was founded in 1882, and soon engaged in many ambitious and significant pieces of evangelism. Worth further exploration in another place are the Westminster days, the Labour Homes in the days before the welfare state, and Church Army’s work during and after both World Wars. However it wasn’t long after its founding, 1883 in fact, that Carlile began to formally recruit, train, and send out evangelists to work in the Church of England. He recognised the need to capture the enthusiasm of those who had come to faith through the work of Church Army, but also the need in the wider Church for those passionate to share their faith to be suitably equipped to do so.

Wilson Carlile was an incredible servant of the Gospel. His belief that social work should be more evangelistic and evangelism be more social can be seen through our varied work across these islands. The foundations he laid of evangelism, service of those on the margins, and of bringing the love of God to those who don’t know it, are still the foundations of Church Army today, and can be seen in our mission statement:

We want everyone everywhere to encounter God’s love and be empowered to transform their communities through faith shared in words and action.

Thank you Wilson, and here’s to many more fruitful decades ahead for Church Army.

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