Category Archives: Biographies

Chris Hoke

Chris Hoke  Wanted

Chris describes his work with Bob Ekblad in Skagit County, Washington State among migrant workers and, mostly, young men involved in lives of crime.

That bald description is about as empty as it could be of the reality he describes, of his personal search for God and his finding him among the desperate. Chris did not fit with convention, with theology and pastorship of a nice clean church, though he did study the theology – he just found his place among the ‘outsiders’, as indeed did Jesus merely by coming among us, but explicitly in who he associated with. Chris listened to the stories, went to court, stayed up through the night, laughed, sang and cried, all recounted in the gaping wound between the beautiful descriptive prose as he describes the Skagit valley, and the distress of the men, who come to trust him and pray with him. The cruelty of much of the prison system is too great. But Chris is their pastor.

This again is very reductive! There are perhaps two strands that wind their way through the book. One is the author’s searching, probing quest for God, so the personal element is ever present; the other is the array of men we meet, some with a chapter devoted to them, but two in particular who we return to time and again. One of the stories in particular brings the two elements together, so this is something I would like to outline, in part because it brings out an important theological theme (that runs through this website).

It concerns a young man who had killed his father, is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, and is visited by Chris in an institution. Chris speculates about what it is that causes some people to hear ‘voices’ that are not their own more clearly than do others, and posits a sort of inner antenna that is highly sensitive, and which can be broken, or pick up the wrong signals. There are hints, no more, through the book of the author’s own theological pursuits, but this is the one point where he is explicit, referring to Abraham Heschel’s book Prophets – where we find this idea of men who were unusually sensitive. The young man in question had not been going too well in terms of being a good boy, so his mother took him on a trip to Cambodia where he had an unusual and dramatic encounter with God, with love; it was not a flash in the pan thing but a real life changer; he began to talk to people wherever he went, he would know things and words would come unbidden, and they too would encounter the love of God; he would speak in churches . . . but it all changed . . .  at a youth camp.


         One night around the campfire, the night each week when the young preacher hopes students are most listening, when they are encouraged to “make a decision” to give their lives to Christ, Connor was listening very closely. And he made the opposite decision.

         “The preacher, he kept talking about ‘the cross, the cross, the cross!’ How Jesus suffered on the cross and that it was God punishing him, that it was a punishment we all deserved. I guess it freaked me out.”


Chris talks a little about this theology which ‘looks . . . bloodthirsty’, about a ‘god of wrath’, rather than Jesus, the God of love. Then he says

Connor, with his hypersensitivity to evil, was immediately more sensitive than most to such theology. . . Do I believe this? he asked himself. It caused him to lose trust in the more direct, mysterious channel he’d been dialled into that year that had filled him with a grace like pure music . . .  His Jesus Freak stage was over.

It was after three years that he began to hear voices again, but this time from another place, voices which he resisted, pondered and eventually yielded to, and killed his father.

Well, that is the sort of story the author tells, with his own reflections, and much of it concerns a dark world, the dark world, we might add, into which Jesus came. If the rejection of ‘penal substitution’ doctrine is too hard, it would be better not to read the book. However, the author’s connections typically do the same; Brad Jersak calls the penal substitution theory ‘heresy’. (In the form Jersak and Hoke present it, I think this is right; however, it is easy to go too far and miss what there is of truth.)

There is a counter-balance to the darkness, which is beauty, particularly in nature. Chris himself finds considerable peace working in a nursery and then discovers fly fishing, an art he shares with his friends from the streets; there are some lovely descriptive passages which then weave in with the spiritual landscape:

           [When the trumpeter swans arrive], in the weeks ahead, the large white birds’ honking and morphing Vs pass just overhead, heralds of winter’s advent. When the rest of us are sealing up our windows, they descend from the northern arctic to fill our emptied skies and our muddy fields with their otherworldly beauty. They fly so low you can sometimes hear the air in their feathers, hear them breathing in labor.

John Noble

John Noble – I found God in Soviet Russia

This might well be an older book but it is very much up-to-date since it is the account of a man of faith living among the godless. The appalling moral degeneracy of the Russian people after being denied knowledge of God is so very similar to what we see around us today; the answers are timeless, and this man’s testimony is a very strong one – and nicely written.

His family, which had lively Christian antecedents, had returned to Germany from the US for commercial purposes but was caught up in the final events of WW2 and unable to escape. They had been so focused on business that they were paying no attention to God at all. Noble describes himself as a careless young man. They were in Dresden and therefore part of the Russian zone and, as Americans, he and his father were arrested on false charges and thrown into prison. Here they were subject to a system designed to starve most of the prisoners to death, and it was as he was dying that Noble reached the end of himself. He had started crying out to God, but to no apparent avail – he was telling God what he wanted; finally he cried out in desperation “your will be done, whether death or life . . .” and as he did so his mind was flooded with peace, and over the next days, despite no improvement in rations, his body began to get stronger.

After months of essentially solitary confinement he and his father, who had also recovered faith, were moved on to Buchenwald, where Noble was able to share his new faith. His salvation was so clear that God was now his mainstay and purpose. The whole process of starvation and then recovered faith had in fact seen his father healed of numerous physical ailments; the father was now released and made his way back to the US, but John was shipped off to Russia, and to Vorkuta, great coal mines in the far north, commonly considered the worst destination.

At no point did Noble pray for release. Instead he figured that his presence in Vorkuta was God’s will, that he could help the faith of others there, but most of all that one day he would be able to reveal to the world what was happening.

He recounts the terrible conditions; the utter degeneracy so common among the Russian people, which he ascribes to their complete lack of knowledge of God; the cruelty with which prisoners were treated, the lack of regard for life; the great heroism of many of the believing men, notably nuns and priests – some of whom refused to work for the communists and were eventually left alone to pray; the thirst of many Russian ‘free’ workers for the word of God . . . and Noble’s eventual release before his 10 years was up. (The Soviet authorities denied all knowledge of his whereabouts, until a letter smuggled out and prayer by the father’s church led to US pressure that secured his freedom.)

While there is no point giving more than a taste of the book here, it will be understood that this is the sort of book one might feel all careless Westerners should read!


HA Baker

HA Baker

Harold Baker, born towards the end of of the 19th century, grandfather of Rolland Baker of Iris Global ‘renown’, wrote a number of inspiring books, including his autobiography Under His Wings and an account of the remarkable outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a group of impoverished, uneducated Chinese orphan boys, Visions from beyond the Veil. I should say that Under His wings  is one of the select few that I would say have had a big impact on my life – a Desert Island book really! The books are available to download from the Iris Int’l website.

As a prelude to discussing these two books, it is probably important to point out the family connection. Baker saw what to staid traditional eyes might seem remarkable things both in the US before he went to China and then in his adopted country, and it is in his reports of these things that, for me at least, the books have their particular strength. I have a friend who, for his own reasons, is suspicious about ‘Toronto’, the impact of meetings in the church there which spread around the world. However, anyone familiar with the ministry of Iris and founders Heidi and Rolland Baker will be aware of the important role in their lives of those meetings, and events in grandfather Baker’s book show a remarkable continuity, even to the point of HA having himself been touched by God in the same city of Toronto many decades previously. I found the two books discussed here thoroughly helpful about dramatic ‘manifestations’ of the Holy Spirit and among other things think they would be good books for those who are doubtful about such things to read. An outline of the contents follows.

Baker spent his childhood on a farm in Ohio, desperately poor and desperately hard working. He wasn’t a strong boy but work on the farm was unremitting; he makes a great deal of the virtue of perseverance, of keeping going to the very end, of overcoming every obstacle by persistence. He learned this behind a plough, day after day after day, and on the personal side this persistent persevering is the key to his life.

They went to church, but Baker was 19 before anyone told him that he needed personal contact with Christ. He prayed – in the barn; he was born again. He received what education he could and qualified to teach school, but it was very much a country boy who arrived at college a couple of years later. He left behind his widowed mother and younger siblings at great cost. College he describes as a wilderness, in great part because not so many of the people there had had the experience he had in the barn; but he worked hard, did everything required of him and much more, holding every leadership position, so evidently he was or God made him very able, but he learned little about the faith. He did however meet Josephine; perhaps, he says, that is why he went through what he otherwise regards as a waste of time. He mentions his ongoing struggle with ‘melancholy’, which would pull him back until he overcame – by persevering. Notably, he overcame a great deal of discouragement in his summer job as a travelling seller of books.

Although he had heard and accepted a challenge to be an overseas missionary he was first asked to go, after graduation, to a small, failing church in Buffalo, New York. He tells of what was really a miraculous, overcoming ministry which saw a tiny failing group in a very poor area grow into a thriving church. He fought off despair at being in a noisy city (and came to like it), as well as severe discouragement about the work and a ‘dictator’ within the church! They were there two years before the opportunity came to head to Tibet.

Before they could finally get to Tibet there were two years of languages study in east China; this again involved discouragement since the other missionaries were not what Baker would have wished. I like the fact that he found some refuge in the pursuit of ornithology; also during this time a son, James, was born. Eventually they made their way west; the accounts of travel are always of interest and the practical steps taken to build homes and grow food; there are nice passages about the basically miraculous growth of strawberries and a vine in unlikely places. There are also, through the book a number of times when there was sickness, for Josephine in particular, including the loss of 2 children. This might be a good place to say that the book is some 500 pages and that I found it hard to put down; the man’s trust in God is indeed infectious. Baker is always very sympathetic towards the people he lives among and basically had good success spiritually in Tibet before returning to the US after 8 years.

On returning to America, although Baker was able to do much good for his mother and siblings, he himself really hit rock bottom financially. However, he and Josephine went into business and he became really very successful, but the important thing about this time in the US was that he now received the Holy Spirit, initially by ‘faith’ he says, and some three months or so a wonderful experience with tongues. He had had perforce to leave his missionary society which was ‘drifting towards modernism’, but they made enough money and had grown to the point that they could head back to China and eventually to Yunnan and the Ka Do people, the centre of his life’s work.

First though, before the tribal work, there was a period among the Chinese in a regional centre. They settled in a prosperous but dangerous mining town. Baker became aware of boys who were being used and ruined in the mines and began to take them in, care for them and teach them. In this Adullam orphanage there was a tremendous ‘visitation’ of the Holy Spirit, recounted in detail in Visions from beyond the veil. The experiences of these entirely uneducated boys of being  taken to heaven was something that would be duplicated among the Ka Do, but were particularly intense among the boys. From Baker’s point of view an important thing was to take his hands off and let the Holy Spirit do what he wished. The town changed and the influx of needy boys ceased and the time came to move on, into the mountains. Baker says repeatedly that his ministry was a pioneering one. The accounts of the boys’ visions are remarkable.

Certainly the longest section of the book is spent describing the many years of service among the Ka Do and other tribes. There are many wonderful descriptions and stories; we gain the impression of a great struggle, at times disheartening, but always coming through into blessing. Particularly the young people among the Ka do were ready for total commitment to Christ – this was Baker’s main intent; there was great openness to the Holy Spirit, and prophecy while in trances was frequent; there was also great physical and educational benefit too, prior to the coming of  the Communists, the eventual cause of Baker having to leave. I won’t provide further details, but will quote from Baker about his personal struggles:

One of my greatest and most persistent difficulties in my work in KaDo Land was my despondency. My despondent disposition goes back almost to childhood, as I have said.

 During the eight years Josephine was in America I was always lonesome and plagued by the spirit of depression. I do not mean that this discouraging had the victory, for I sometimes lived on mountain peaks, as my writing shows. Neither does it mean that I could never pray until the clouds of darkness rolled away, leaving a sunny sky. Yet this fight with depression has been life long and the fight is still on. It brings a sense of being absolutely worthless.

 I suppose this is due in part to my natural disposition and probably due in no small measure to needless anxiety, but due mostly to devil power in our wrestling with the powers of the devil enthroned in the heavenly places. At the present time, I believe the Holy Spirit on some occasions has a part in causing us to see and feel that, as Paul says, there naturally dwells in us no good thing. We need to feel and know that we are naturally useless. We need humiliation.


As stated here, Josephine had returned to the US for health reasons, and they were separated for 8 years; Baker manages to make fairly light of this sacrifice though it was obviously keenly felt. Eventually he was forced out of China by the arrival of the Communists.

Baker was not just determined, but it would seem, through God’s power, quite indefatigable. There are two further fascinating episodes to come. The first was among the Navajo people of New Mexico with Baker again enjoying great blessing and then as a sort of gentle, benign swansong, he and Josephine , together with a beloved motor vehicle known as Willie, moved to Formosa (Taiwan), where James had settled. The book closes with more fruitful ministry in a physically less demanding setting.

The book is a wonderful example of the power of God in a man’s life. Quite extraordinarily so in fact. Actually, I am hugely understating things – this wonderful book is probably the best (auto)biographical work I know, in part perhaps because his struggle with ‘despondency’ so relates to me. This is absolutely a must read!




Hudson Taylor and CIM

Hudson Taylor and CIM

There are many respects in which Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission, might be considered the doyen of missionaries. His biography is written by Dr and Mrs Howard Taylor, but  Mrs Howard Taylor, his daughter-in-law, wrote alone the two other great biographies considered here, those of Pastor Hsi and James Fraser, Behind the Ranges , subtitled Fraser of Lisuland, SW China. The original Biography of James Hudson Taylor was in two volumes; it is to the abridged version, at a mere 500 pages, that reference is made here.


Behind the Ranges

Mrs Taylor’s style is to combine historical investigation, coloured by descriptive detail, with an account of her subjects’ spiritual growth; she really seeks to show how external growth stems from the internal, particularly as tied to prayer. In the case of James Fraser this is facilitated by access to his correspondence with his mother who was both his faithful prayer support and the organiser of a team of people praying for the tribal people in the far south-west of China, particularly the Lisu people. Mrs Taylor was also well acquainted personally with Fraser.

Fraser had trained as an engineer, was a rather brilliant musician and a devoted mountaineer in the Alps, when his faith in Christ was quickened into action by a booklet entitled “Do not Say”, challenging him to lay down his life, acknowledging the ownership of Jesus. He doesn’t seem to have looked back, though clearly at times he missed music; rather, he entered the China Inland Mission and was posted to Yunnan province where he proved unusually adept with the Chinese language and quickly found his way into ministry among the Chinese; he seems to have found evangelism something that came naturally. However he began to be aware of the tribal people and trips into the mountains, trekking, climbing, visiting, confirmed him in a love and desire for the Lisu people in particular, at first communicating in Chinese as he learned Lisu. (He became the first person to study and record the grammar of the language, he invented a script, and translated Mark’s gospel.) We see from the opening chapters that Fraser was a naturally very talented man; he was settled in and working effectively as a ‘missionary’ while still only in his twenties. The book then begins to come to grips with his prayer life.

He began to pray generally for the Lisu, but he writes home and tells how God challenged to him a different kind of prayer. (This book is actually worth reading just to examine Fraser’s own views on prayer.) He was led to pray specifically and definitely, rather than generally, what he calls the prayer of faith. He prayed definitely for ‘several hundred Lisu families’; he prayed, believed and refused to touch the matter anymore in his thought life. He discusses the prayer of faith in an interesting comparison with a Canadian emigrant, who leaves England to take up an offer of land to farm for wheat. 1. There is endless land. 2.The government encourages emigration 3.The individual farmer is to receive one specific block of land only 4.The farmer presents his claim for a block – and it is endorsed 5. He occupies the land and goes to work 6. He fights through to victory.

After settling the matter by faith, Fraser set to work, and experienced much discouragement. Another interesting passage is where he realizes the demonic source of all this. He speaks about “deliverance from the power of the evil one through definite resistance on the ground of The Cross.” “[The] cloud of depression dispersed.” Something that becomes evident through the course of the book is Fraser’s growing ability to overcome setbacks and failings, both personally and in the work, because the people have strong demonic ties – in fact, essentially, conversion means for them destroying their shrines for ancestral worship and trusting Jesus instead of demons. In Fraser’s case there is evident steady progression towards serenity with all tendency to depression left behind. By the end of the book he is an outstanding leader.

For a long time there is no major breakthrough among the Lisu. A key element when it does come is Fraser’s mobilization of prayer at home in England. He makes the point very strongly that the Lisu are spiritual babes and that there is a great responsibility on the part of the mature saints in England to carry the weight, the burden. He sees his place as bringing the supply of God’s grace through the prayers of the saints together with the demand – the needs of the Lisu unable to take up the spiritual warfare themselves. A great breakthrough does indeed come and thousands of Lisu convert. It is worth pointing out that it is indeed conversion, rather than being born again – they greatly lack teaching, which Fraser and his fellows endeavour to supply. Interestingly, it may be that Fraser missed a key element; Don Richardson suggests in his seminal book Eternity in their Hearts that there may have been an element of a people movement among the Lisu because of long held beliefs that one day a white man would come with a book and news of salvation. Be that as it may, there is no detracting from the very good things that Fraser says on prayer.


I used to think that prayer should have the first place and teaching the second. I now feel it would be truer to give prayer the first, second and third place, and teaching the fourth.

For these people out here are not only ignorant and superstitious. They have a heathen atmosphere all about them. One can actually feel it. We are not dealing with an enemy that fires at the head only – ie keeps the  mind only in ignorance – but with an enemy who uses GAS ATTACKS which wrap the people round with deadly effect, and yet are impalpable, elusive. What would you think of the folly of the soldier who fired a gun into the gas, to kill it or drive it back? Nor would it be of any more avail to teach or preach to the Lisu here, while they are held back by these invisible forces. Poisonous gas cannot be dispersed, I suppose, in any other way than by the wind springing up and dispersing it. MAN is powerless.

…[but] the breath of God can blow away all those miasmic vapours from the atmosphere of a village, in answer to your prayers. We are not dealing with flesh and blood. You deal with the fundamental issues of this Lisu work when you pray against ‘the principalities, the powers, the world rulers of this darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenlies’ (Eph 6.12).


Finally, it is worth recording that as with Mrs Taylor’s other books, she interestingly intersperses the more spiritual aspects of her biography with nice descriptions and warm looks at human life. Fraser married a much younger girl, and had a very happy marriage, before his early death at the age of 52. He saw a major turning of the Lisu people to Christ and the establishment of their own self-supporting, independent church. He himself had perforce as he grew older, because of physical limitations and other responsibilities, to go much less into the mountains ‘behind the ranges’ and was more a leader of the leaders who were helping the Lisu and other peoples.




Armando Valladares

Armando Valladares was imprisoned by the Castro regime for over 20 years, suffering, with a multitude of other political prisoners, the most cruel and vile depredations; Against all Hope (Contra Toda Esperanza) is his account of those years; the title is taken from Romans 4.18-19. Published in 1985, the book is inscribed to ‘..the memory of my companions tortured and murdered in the prisons of Fidel Castro and to the thousands who presently agonize in them.’

The book does not set out to be a ‘Christian book’; the objective is to recount and condemn the Cuban regime’s treatment of political prisoners and to expose the Communist regime for what it was, and still is; note – as of 2020 the prisoners are still there. Nevertheless, it is a powerful testimony of a profoundly Christian nature; just reading that inscription again, I found very moving, since it is a work that helps one identify strongly with suffering people and with Christ. At intervals through the book Valladares mentions the central place of God, of Christ, in the prisons and his experience; this is the aspect I want to point towards in this review. The book is not for the squeamish; actually a strong stomach is called for at many points. Perhaps I should not attempt humour at this point, but it reminds me of the Anglican wedding ceremony which says that marriage is ‘not to be undertaken lightly’; reading this book is not a light undertaking.

Firstly, we will take a quick run through what Valladares describes, the events. V. supported the overthrow, by Castro, of the Batista dictatorship. This was supposed to bring democracy, but it soon became evident that the intent was a new, Communist dictatorship; V. in fact is at pains to demonstrate throughout the book that Castro never had any other intent. V. declined to have propaganda placed on his desk in a government office, was subsequently arrested on no evidence and, aged 20 or so, sentenced to 20 years prison. The first period was spent in a prison in Havana where countless firing squad executions were witnessed. He was then moved to a large prison complex on an island south of Cuba with 1000’s of other political prisoners. Conditions were harsh but the prisoners were clever and managed by extremes of subterfuge to gain and maintain outside contact, something which continued across the ensuing years; Valladares met the beautiful daughter of a fellow inmate on a prison visit, a relationship was established and she later escaped Cuba and agitated on his and others’ behalf with various institutions. After some 20 years of imprisonment, Valladares was eventually released. The two were finally married, but many men were not so fortunate as to escape with their lives.

There is a great account of he and 3 others managing an amazing prison break. Subsequent to recapture he spent several months in solitary; this was followed by a new prison regime for some years consisting of forced labour. All this is told in vivid detail with frequent cameo biographies of his fellow prisoners, and sometimes their torturers, very succinctly and sharply done. (I have not read an English translation.) The Spanish is measured and factual; there are occasional incidents of humour, but frequent amazement at the cruelty with which they were treated.

The next stage and really second half of the book revolves around a push by Castro to show that there were no political prisoners in Cuba. The uniforms of the politicals were removed and the men were told to put on the uniforms of common prisoners. Although faced with severe reprisals if they refused, including long term nakedness, many, many, refused and this became the issue of conscience for the next many years. The numbers of recalcitrants was whittled away by offers of rehabilitation, but many stood firm and this led to multiple years of hunger strikes, solitary confinement… a litany of awful suffering. For Valladares, at the end of it all, having been reduced to a state of a paralysis, international pressure led to his release; the communists spent the last several months of his captivity trying to get him presentable for the world, and he finally left Cuba on his feet, but leaving behind his mother and sister; the suffering of the women is the untold tale.

Turning to the Christian aspect, one would say it is a constant but usually unstated fact that surfaces from time to time. Firstly, he explains that when he was arrested as really a boy of 20, he had faith, but it was largely unformed, a body of belief to which he adhered – this following, evidently, education in a catholic school. Faith and God, quickly became a reality to him in prison as he saw men being shot; many men would shout as they prepared to die Abajo el comunismo! Viva Cristo Rey! Down with communism! Long live Christ the King!

He says this:-

There were nights of 10 or 12 executions; it was then that God began to turn into a constant companion and the prospect of death into a doorway to real life, a step from darkness into eternal light.

With this basis, he speaks a little later like this:

Every night, in those moments which precede sleep, I thought of my family and commended myself to God, asking him to strengthen my faith and to enable me to maintain firm my resolve not to allow the jailers to crush me spiritually, that they would be unable to dirty my soul with seeds of anger or hatred. My constant concern was not to sink into discouragement and despair, which were doing so much harm to many of those there. In my conversations with God, in the solitude of those minutes, I was finding the foundations of a faith which across the years would be subject to titanic struggles, but from which it would emerge victorious. An attitude of confidence towards every difficult circumstance became in me an instrument for direct combat. More than 20 years later, high up officers of the Political Police would have to comment, with hate-filled envy, that I was always laughing. They took away from me space, light and air, but they could not take away my smile. I considered this as a triumph of love over hate.

There was a very strong connection between having principles and the probability that they meant death; this runs so strongly through the book that we might well be encouraged to think of such scriptures as ‘as many as are baptised into Christ are baptised into his death’; ‘filling up the sufferings of Christ’. As Valladares turned to God, in prayer, he would be given strength. He hardly mentions doubt, though he speaks of fear as a constant; what he does convey is the extremes of physical distress to which he was brought, and it is then, again and again, that God would strengthen him.

At a couple of points in the book there appears the figure of a protestant pastor, known to all as El Hermano de la Fe, the Brother of Faith. This man tirelessly encouraged others; his constant refrain was, “do not let hate gain a mastery over you; do not hate!” He was eventually murdered in a hail of bullets, repeating as he died

…the words of Christ on the cross, “Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they do!” Everyone, as his blood dried, fought within their consciences to manage something so difficult but so beautiful as to forgive the enemy. With God, nothing is impossible; nor is it so for those who love him and seek him. The more ferocious the hatred of the prison officers, the more my heart filled with the faith that gave me strength to support everything; not in a conformist or masochistic way, but full of joy, freedom and inner peace, because Christ accompanied me through those labyrinths of horror and death….


I particularly like the statement that his heart filled with faith. Valladares does not say so, but one imagines that he became something of a symbol of resistance himself, and while never mentioning his part, he must, despite the knot in his stomach of physcial fear, have been a source of encouragement perhaps nearly equal to El Hermano de la Fe. This book is therefore a model of faithfulness to Christ, faithfulness unto death, faithfulness to one’s principles, and faithfulness to overcome hatred – and one would also say, after a little reflection, to the faithfulness of God. It is also an appalling testimony to the evil that lies in the hearts of countless torturers overcome by the hatred bred and nurtured by cynical political systems; and hence, by contrast, to the reality of Bible faith.

Charles Colson

Colson’s main testimony is found in Born Again, but there is also a sequel, Life Sentence, which narrates the origins of the international Prison Fellowship ministry.

Colson became well-known and indeed notorious as Richard Nixon’s right-hand man in the period prior to the great Watergate scandal of the early 70’s. Time magazine described him as ‘tough, wily, nasty and tenaciously loyal to Richard Nixon’; he was supposed to have said that he would run over his grandmother if necessary to get Nixon elected. We might suppose from his high office that he was a very competent person, and this competency comes through in his excellent writing.

Colson’s background was that of a very proud American, son of Swedish immigrants. He followed his lawyer father into the legal profession, turning down, in pride, a scholarship to Harvard along the way and then joining the Marines. He had always been involved in politics, learned a lot of dirty tricks along the way, met Nixon and became influential with him, and of course it is here that the story becomes particularly interesting, because Colson details some of the workings of the White House and the personalities of those around the Nixon presidency, Kissinger and Haig among others. There is also a fascinating account of a diplomatic trip to Moscow.

His personal life was less successful, having been divorced and he leaves a lot of question marks over the raising of his children. He was evidently however a disciplined person with an ability to make and keep friends, but there was little to allay the feeling of emptiness that seemed to grip him shortly after the re-election of Nixon in 1972. He had grown tired of the atmosphere around Washington with its dirty dealing and unpleasantness, but he was unprepared for all that began to emerge about Watergate and Nixon’s evident duplicity; he consistently maintains not to have known anything about the events that brought the presidency down, despite his reputation as the ‘hatchet man’. As the scandal unfolded, Colson one evening visited a friend whose life had evidently greatly changed; the explanation was accepting Christ at a Billy Graham crusade; the friend then read from CS Lewis about the one great sin that none of us think we are guilty of – pride. The words ripped into Colson, leaving him defenceless and open to God. First he had an emotional experience then he set to to examine the intellectual underpinning to this experience reading Lewis’ Mere Christianity and emerged a convinced believer. Truly worth reading – this is a very vivid account!

Coming days saw him involved in fellowship with a group of similar men; this was crucial since life suddenly became a lot more difficult as he was now faced with accusations of complicity in Watergate while he also sought to integrate his new faith into his life as a high profile person. Eventually he was charged with a criminal offence which he had not committed, but his faith led him to plead guilty to something he had not been charged with, but of which he was genuinely guilty. The result was a prison term.

The second half of Born Again chronicles events in prison among a panoply of colourful characters and the often severe testing of his faith but tremendous growth, the critical event being the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. This is not an account which is easy to put down.
After release from prison Colson could not keep away from prison ministry. The need for reform that he had experienced first hand         (see also the testimony of Mary Forsythe) was more than pressing, it was urgent and with all his contacts and notoriety, Colson was able to establish a ministry which came to reach around the world. The personal side of this is related in Life Sentence; it is the establishment of good relationships, of friendship, which shines through so much of what Colson says.

In conclusion the two books, Born Again and Life Sentence, are very much to be recommended, though I cannot personally say the same for his other books. Their interest lies in part in the context of politics and statesmanship and in part in the vividly described personal experience. Classic testimony and a must read!

Neil W Gamble

Neil W Gamble These Signs shall Follow

This short, valuable book is subtitled ‘The Miraculous Memoirs of a Foot Dragging Disciple’, which aptly reflects the sometimes difficult but always great efforts of Neil, my friend, to follow Jesus; efforts which have taken him around the world and to see, he says, every miracle in the book of Acts and a lot more besides. The book is mainly autobiographical but with frequent pithy and challenging comments.

Neil comes from a farming/cowboy background in the north-western US; Jesus first became real to him in a crisis when he was 11; healed him of broken neck and probable paralysis when he was 17; but did not become Lord to him until he was 30, which is when he first started to read the Bible. Until that time he had close communication with God as a friend, yet he, Neil, was running his own life; he didn’t, for example, agree with God telling him not to sell drugs until God gave him an ultimatum, obey me or I stop speaking to you. At this point Neil became serious and here started misadventures in churches, which tried to tell him that he was wrong about everything and caused him to nearly lose faith. Eventually he realized that the churches were wrong (I like this kind of man) and that God was right.

Meanwhile he and Dana and family were moving around various jobs, all the time learning and getting educated in many areas. The book contains a lot of interesting stories, but they only scratch the surface of remarkable events; but the stories in the book are very illuminating, including, for example, prison ministry and a ‘revival’. Neil received a prophecy that one day he would get a telephone call that would see the start of international ministry; for 17 years he hung on every phone call, but nothing. He would consistently work an 8 hour day and then several hours in prayer, the Bible or ministry; 17 years of questioning and often anger, until he gave up; at which point the phone call came and with it the opportunity to go to India. The rest ‘is history’. There are many great ministry stories, but a constant theme is Neil’s faltering but correct steps of faith when God would come on the scene; what a great encouragement, though it should be noted that this did not happen in a vacuum but in a constant discipline and atmosphere of prayer. Neil told me how at one time he worked in a factory which meant constantly passing between rooms; he began to say, as a discipline, as he went through each door, “I go through this door in the Name of Jesus”; at first it was a discipline, but became a reality, an experience.The passion of the book is to make disciples and foster intimacy with God.

Neil has a website,, where the book is available, and, currently, a lovely property near Spokane to receive guests as a training/retreat centre.