Sir Wilfred Grenfell

Topic:   Missionary Biography Type:   Article Prepared by:  A. Allison Lewis

The Religion of Sir Wilfred T. Grenfell, MD of Labrador

Dr. Grenfell was born Wilfred Thomason Grenfell on February 28, 1865 at Parkgate, Wales and died on October 9, 1940 at the age of seventy-five after spending about forty years in a very successful medical and social work among the natives and settlers on the coast of Labrador and northern Newfoundland.

In 1882 he moved to London and soon entered the London Hospital Medical School from which he graduated in 1888. His first trip to Newfoundland and Labrador was in 1892 with the National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. He returned in 1893 with two doctors and two nurses. In 1909 he married Anne Elizabeth Caldwell MacClanahan of Chicago. She predeceased him in 1938. They had three children.

In recognition of his medical, educational and social work on the Labrador coast and the northern tip of Newfoundland he was honored with a knighthood July 25, 1927.

The honors he received for his social service were certainly deserved. Dr. Grenfell made very great contributions in the areas of medicine, education and labor-management relations. The Cooperatives, 1[The idea of cooperatives is a good one, however, the socialist–communist ideas usually made a part of their philosophy is not good. Also the rules by which they operate should be exactly the same as for any other business] for which he was largely responsible, aided in breaking the traders monopolies which were often greedy, ruthless and merciless. The people of northern Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador owe him a great debt of gratitude.

In his day most of the support for his work came from his own fund-raising efforts. He was not a philanthropist as is sometimes suggested, but rather a super salesman–fund-raiser in Great Britain, Canada and the United States. Few indeed have been those who have been able to sell their dreams to men of means as did Dr. Grenfell.

We are concerned here with only one aspect of Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s life, that of his religious faith. The Grenfell of popular myth is that of one among the "Heroes of the Cross." A standard statement of the popular myth reads, "We are nearing the end of our story, a story of one man’s wonderful faith in God ...." And again "Sir Wilfred .... right valiantly he fought the good fight of faith for his Master and the people of Labrador and Northern Newfoundland.... Whatever the future has in store for those peoples they will never forget the man who went among them as their first Doctor, gave them first schools, cared for their orphans, encouraged the development of agriculture and handicraft, AND PREACHED TO THEM ‘THE OLD, OLD STORY OF JESUS AND HIS LOVE’" 2[Wilfred Grenfell, (Author not given). c. 1982 (1954), Bungay, Suffolk: Great Britain, Marshall Morgan & Scott. pp. 94-96].

The Grenfell of history, according to his own testimony, is that of a Modernistic universalist. His doctrine was no better than that of the infamous Harry Emerson Fosdick. If Dr. Grenfell had not written anything about his faith the myths about it might be forgivable. However, not only did he write extensively but he obviously knew what he was writing and believed it strongly. He was willingly ignorant 3[2 Peter 3:5] of the truth. He was very well educated, well read and personally heard some of the greatest preachers of his day. The problem was not head knowledge but an evil nature that would not ACCEPT the things of the Spirit of God 4[1 Corinthians 2:14]. Nor can it be maintained that he changed in his last years. For example in his revision of A Man’s Faith he wrote, "I reread what I had written a quarter century previously. I see little or nothing to change" 5[Grenfell, Wilfred T., MD A Man's Faith, Revised and Enlarged Edition, c. 1926, Boston: MA, The Pilgrim Press, p. v]. Even in the year of his death we see no sign of conversion from his Modernism. Kerr, his official biographer wrote,

"He traveled across America to receive a degree from the University of California and carried out a leisurely lecture tour of the western States. He visited Utah and liked the Mormons. ‘Creed does not matter,’ he said" 6[Kerr, J. Lennox. Wilfred Grenfell, His Life and Work. c. 1959, Toronto: ON, The Grenfell Association of Great Britain and Ireland. p. 258].

How did he describe his faith? The following extended quotations from his own writings and biographers give a contextual view of his religious faith.

"Some years ago Dr. Grenfell wrote a book under this same title. He has rewritten it in the light of his larger and riper faith, and of his twenty more years’ of experience in Christian service" 7[Grenfell, op. cit. (inside front flap of jacket) But see Foreword below where he says, "a quarter century previously. I see little or nothing to change"].

The following testimony of Dr. Grenfell about his work and religious faith needs no explanatory commentary.


"In surgical work we find nothing so helpful as ‘follow up’ inquires after our patients have passed from our treatment. After years have passed away, the real results are much more likely to be correctly recognized. It is like watching the coming up of seeds one has sown. Therefore, when the editors invited me to review this little book preparatory to sending out a new edition, it was with great interest that I reread what I had written a quarter century previously.

"I see little or nothing to change. The knowledge of this marvelous period has made faith far easier from an intellectual standpoint, and has enabled us to be more patient in waiting to see the truth, not as now ‘through a glass darkly,’ but face to face. It seems undeniable that somewhere within him, deny it or doubt it as he may, every man has faith in God–that in his best moments he realizes that he has it, and that in his best acts he shows it. ‘Christian’ is no longer a term of opprobrium;–to say any man is a ‘real Christian’ is undeniably the highest honor we can confer upon him. Every man has his doubts at times–in them there is often much of real faith. Personally, I believe every human being has faith in God, in spite of the reaction of his fallible brain material. Nay, I am more and more hopeful that it is true that all men have it" 8[Ibid. pp. v, vi. Signed by Dr. Grenfell].

"But all knowledge has to be won–like every other thing that is worthy of us sons of God" 9[Ibid. p. 9].

"The best definition of faith that I know is that it is reason grown courageous. Moreover, that is all that Christ ever asked us for, and the reason he asked us for that was because he wants to use us. He needs our help. It is almost impossible to believe it. But God Almighty wants our help, so Christ tells us" 10[Ibid. p. 11].

"The faith he speaks of is the vision of God that lifts us through high moral purpose into greater moral power and freedom" 11[Ibid. p. 13].

"As one looks back through the ages, all the great men are men of faith: the Newtons, Faradays, Darwins, Marconis, men with faith which they confirmed by experiment. Luther and Garibaldi, Washington and Lincoln, men of action as well as thought, were primarily men of faith. But infinitely above all, Jesus himself is the supreme example of a man of faith. Even on his cross he was absolutely confident, though as far as any human eye could see then, his faith, judged by results, was ‘unreasonable.’ The same is absolutely true of social life. The men who are really great and loved in social life are those who have faith in the meaning of life. Faith is the main factor in achieving the loftiest goal in any department of life. Careful statistics taken in the United States in 1926 show that over eighty per cent of her leaders are men with faith in God, and that man needs this power outside himself to help him manage his own life. Today such men as Woolworth, Colgate, Heinz, Kresge, Rockefeller, Welch, Wanamaker, Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft, Babson, Mayo, Graham Bell, Ford, Cushing, Osler, Vail, Coolidge and Morgan are men with faith in God" 12[Ibid. pp. 26, 27].

"Paul certainly lived a more useful life than any other man of his time in introducing righteousness, joy, and peace into a moribund world. His was a triumphant life. It is the kind of life I should like to look back upon when I pass the last bar, and have nothing else but my record to take with me" 13[Ibid. p. 29].

"I want to believe in Jesus Christ because I want to attain the ends I know such a faith insures. I consider faith, as Peter did, a most precious thing. It alone can make me master of myself and of the world" 14[Ibid. pp., 29, 30].

"In 1883 while I was working at the London Hospital I chanced to turn in to one of D. L. Moody’s great tent meetings in the slums of East London. I was amazed to see on the platform with him several men whose athletic prowess was world-famous. That was a credential to me that it was worth stopping to listen to what was going to be said. I still believe athletic success is an invaluable asset to a preacher. Christ, I am sure, wants football, baseball, and track-team men in an age when theological expositions, however deep and learned, when orthodoxy, conventionality, or even correct vestments and ritual, have so little attraction for the young men who will be leaders tomorrow" 15[Ibid. pp. 30, 31].

"I can only say that each field of life I go into seems more delightful than the last. From this I argue that the right way of faith must be an enjoyable use of it" 16[Ibid. p. 58].

"Knowledge has greatly increased with these passing years. The new modesty of science is the best contribution of the past twenty-five wonderful years. Now we may even understand how the spiritual is the real–how Christ’s resurrected body could pass through walls and doors–how nothing can be destroyed, and that, after all, matter is only a manifestation of energy. Intellectually, faith is much easier than it was when twenty-five years ago our scientists knew it all" 17[Ibid. p. 59].

"My first aid to retaining faith was a determination to keep it. I determined that if intellectual difficulties arose, I would wait till, like Henry Drummond’s unanswered letters, they answered themselves. And if they never did, well, I would wait till the mystery of life itself was solved. As a rule I found on that principle that in a week or two I forgot all about them. The fact was I had a lot of medical work to do.

"What did eternal punishment, eternal reward, eternal personal identity, the time the last day should arrive, predestination, Postmillennialism, the meaning of the horned beast, the authorship of the Pentateuch, the puzzle about Cain’s wife, infant baptism, the misdeeds of parsons and so-called Christians, matter to me?" 18[Ibid. pp. 61, 62].

"I cannot give any reasons why, beyond what I see Christ doing in the world today, but simply state the fact that now, forty-three years since I heard D. L. Moody and his men tell what faith in Christ can do, I believe my faith has grown into knowledge.... Shall I ever forget the only other time I ever saw him? It was fourteen years later in a Boston hotel. 'Mr. Moody,' I said, 'fourteen years ago I put my faith in Jesus Christ after hearing you preach.' 'Oh,' he replied, looking me up and down, 'and what have you been doing since?' On my replying, he said, 'Well, you don’t repent it, do you?' 'Certainly not.' 'Well, come to Tremont Temple this afternoon and tell them just that, and then you can go in the upper gallery and speak to your next-door neighbor. We were rather short of Christians up there yesterday. Good-bye.' He never asked me a single question about being a premillennialist, or even one from the Shorter Catechism. Can any one (sic) suppose God will ask us those conundrums?

"Some one may say, 'Your way to retain faith is just stultifying yourself. God gave you reason to know the truth.' Agreed, but we don’t all learn it out of Mill’s Logic, or the Greek Lexicon, or the new theology, or German criticism, or the Koran, or the Vedas, or the book of Mormon Doctrine, or "Science and Health." No, nor out of the New Testament either. Though I personally believe the New Testament to be the Word of God, still I am doubtful if Christ ever intended us to pin our faith on the New Testament or any other book solely, to say nothing of verbal inspiration. I think he would have written a book himself, and made sure of guaranteeing its authenticity for all time; or at least he would have seen that more than two out of the twelve apostles gave an account of his life in writing. Job was anxious to have his words written in a book with leaden and iron letters, and so they were eventually, though I do not know that I could not get along very well if they had not been. But we have no record that Jesus Christ’s words, though they advance such absolutely appalling statements that they have upset kingdoms, swept the civilized world, and transformed the nations who listened to them, were, so far as I know, ever written down at his personal request, or even at all till a very long while, many years, after his death. With him 'The WORD was made flesh and dwelt among us.' And the proof of its truth lies in the abundant life it everywhere carries with it.

"Jesus wrote in far more indelible letters. He wrote in language in which the knowledge of the succeeding ages, as it grew in extent and showed the science of the past to have been foolishness, has as yet found no flaw. He wrote in letters which the wayfaring man, though a fool, could understand; yes, can understand today, if only he will. He wrote in letters 'which those who run may read,' and that is a very necessary calligraphy to the twentieth century. For every one is so much on the run, he has less and less time to devote to bell, book, and candle. He wants sky signs, and what is more, I believe these are there for him on every hand if he will only take time to look at them. Mahatma Gandhi in India, the Sadhu Sundar Singh, the Christian General in China, the acknowledgment of the historic Jesus by some of the leading Jews in America, are all witnesses to the living Spirit of the Christ among us" 19[Ibid. pp. 62-66].

"Then, if you are 'losing faith in the Gadarene pig story,' you won’t miss that one miracle so much if you have to abandon it. For, if it is not irreverent to say so, you will have a dozen solid facts you could swear to in a court of law from your own personal experience, which will be ten times more helpful to yourself and to other men today than your final decision as to the fate of those unfortunate animals. If you have the evidence of 'that which you have seen and heard' to give, instead of being ruled out of court by the majority of men because they appraise your evidence as unconvincing and inadmissible as mere book knowledge, you will be the most valuable witness for the Christ, and the most dangerous foe to the devil of doubt.... If you are anxious to help others to retain faith, get out and do something for Christ’s sake" 20[Ibid. pp. 69, 70].

"It is true that much excellent, unselfish work is being done without any definite recognition of faith in God, or perhaps, of the deity of Jesus Christ as its base. Most helpful as have many such efforts been to me, Hull House in Chicago, or Dr. Edward Everett Hale's work in Boston are far from making me feel 'there is, therefore, no room for Jesus Christ today.' I err, if err I do, on the other side. A while ago on a journey I lodged with a revival preacher, and we fell to talking of a certain fisherman who had been plucky enough to add the work of a cooperative storekeeper to his daily work, that he might thereby help to fight the hateful truck system of trade, which was holding his fellows in slavery. The evangelist, a right good man to my knowledge, regretted the storekeeper was not a Christian.... I feel the spirit of Christ often dwells where no label is attached. Labels are untrustworthy things anyhow. It’s safer to judge by the fruits which the tree bears.

"Whatever factor it is that makes men do good or unselfish work, let us by all means welcome and praise it.... At Assuit in Egypt, the wealthy young son of the mayor, a Mohammedan of the strictest type, walking one fine day across the great granite dam over the Nile, saw a beggar baby girl fall off into the seething cataract thirty feet below. Taking off his fez and coat, he climbed to the parapet and leaped over to try to save the child. He laid down his life. He didn’t lose it. Afterwards, in his notebook, I saw in his handwriting, 'Jesus said, ‘A man must lay down his life for others.’'

"Faith in Christ is precious for other purposes than as a motive power to service" 21[Ibid. pp. 75-77]. "...God gave us faith as a potent factor in life to enable us to do things, and therefore that I should expect direct results from it" 22[Ibid. p. 32].

"The Church to me means all who, consciously or unconsciously, are forwarding God’s Kingdom on earth" 23[Grenfell, Wilfred T. What the Church Means to Me. c. 1911, Boston: MA, The Pilgrim Press. p. 7].

"Science has taught us that doubt, quite as much as faith, leads to the apprehension of truth. There are countless men, skilled in the exact sciences and in scholarship, possessed of wealth and rank, who find it impossible to define their position in words, yet whose humility and charity make us love them, whose deeds are just such as those which have come down the ages as Jesus’ own selection for the most convincing evidence of his Sonship of God. We all know today men of inferior attainments and lives who not only know themselves to be infallible, but haven’t the grace to leave even such men alone, and who have interpreted their call to the "ministry" as simply a mandate to set everyone else intellectually right" 24[Ibid. p. 9].

"As for the working man, to my mind if he doesn’t join a visible church today it is simply because he doesn’t see any good in it. The teachings of the Church’s Master still appeal to him, but the churches to him don’t stand for them.... To him she is insincere, and consequently his pew is empty. He doesn’t want an insurance agency only for the next world; he wants a kingdom of righteousness, joy, and peace, first in this world, where Christ intended it to be, as well as in the next" 25[Ibid. p. 10].

"That which attracts to a church today is not higher criticism, elaborate ritual, hair-splitting creeds, but fearless fighting for public health, for good government, for righteous labor conditions, for clean courts of justice" 26[Ibid. p. 13].

"Men will follow today ... Kingsley ... Maurice ... Lincoln ... Beecher ... Brooks ... Worcester ... Heney ... Hughes ... Folk or any man in whom they see plainly reflected the unselfish love of the Christ. Who cares, as a matter of fact, which way these men said their prayers? They may have been Catholic or Protestant, or in honest doubt, but we love them and will follow them. To us they stand for real love to man, and so real faith in God; for true pluck and willingness to take up their cross" 27[Ibid. pp. 13, 14].

"I sat in a small, mean little cabin on our coast some time ago while a trained nurse from New York washed a sick baby and taught the mother how to save the poor little mite’s life. It was that gentlewoman’s ministry for Jesus Christ. For the privilege she was paying her own expenses and receiving no salary. If ever I realized the Master standing by in my life it was then and there in the semi-darkness of that hut. That kind of ministry never fails to grip the laboring man. An hour later, as I spoke to a preacher about this angel of mercy, he said, 'Yes, but it is a pity she is a Roman Catholic.' Yes, it is hard, this faith in Jesus Christ" 28[Ibid. pp. 18, 19].

"Some will say that this Modernism has no sense of obligation, no sense of veneration, makes no allowance for the idiosyncrasies of others" 29[Ibid. p. 21].

"Thank God there is a new spirit entering the churches, a larger spirit! Only those can survive eventually who cultivate it. A spirit that wants to use every effort to raise humanity, and seeks a return for its outstretched hand, solely in the fact that it thereby grasps more of those of 'his brethren'" 30[Ibid. p. 24]. "Is it then a necessity, or an advisable thing, that before a man can become a worker with the Church he must pass an intellectual test? Is it imperative for him to find exactly what he does not believe? That makes it almost impossible for him to get back afterwards. The effect on the unfortunate heathen of warring messengers, all calling for different faith tests for membership in Christ’s Church, has always seemed to me little short of disastrous. The theory of Christianity wouldn’t convince the heathen of the Congo that religion is desirable, or make a Russian Jew wish to adopt Russian Christianity. The same applies to the Turkish views of Austrian Christianity, or the attitude of the Indian of South America towards Christian Spain. As for me, I am satisfied in my own work, and I think my Master was, with the faith that makes a man anxious and willing to come and help me, ever believing that he that is not against us is on our side" 31[Ibid. pp. 27, 28]. "In our Labrador work we form no church. Our fellow-workers pray and worship in every denomination as the bias of their mind and temperament leads them to find peace and comfort and strength best. Yet we are a definite body associated together for certain purposes. These we believe are translations into action of our interpretation of our debt to God and to our neighbor. In that sense are we not a true ecclesia?

"Will it horrify my readers if I confess I have accepted doctors for our hospitals, nurses for our districts, and workers of every type, and yet have never known which way they prefer to worship? Nor have I ever played the censor on their right to help us by defining what they ought to believe before I allowed them to set to work" 32[Ibid. p. 30].

"Our claim to be capable servants of our Master and reincarnations of his life is judged in our little world by the good work we do.... All the sects have only the same work for the same Master to accomplish; it is through being fellow-workers and not identical thinkers that love for all who love Christ must come" 33[Ibid. p. 31].

"How did Christ admit his members? By their profession of faith? I think not. By their readiness to work? Yes. Those were workers he chose, every one of them. Did he wait until they could say they believed, even that he was God’s Son, before he sent them out to work? Not at all. He said if you are willing to go out and work you will get faith by working and seeing others work" 34[Ibid. p. 32].

"The qualification for life eternal is to have done well. The final test is to be ethical, not theological. I expect to find more roads leading into the Golden City than many seem even to wish for. After the school day of life I look for an ecclesia, a mighty host, called out for more perfect service. My ideal church is characterized solely by the very simplest interpretation of the old, old story, and each member deserves the name of the "friend of all the world" 35[Ibid. pp. 35, 36].

"What schools there were were in the larger settlements, open only during the summer months. They were Church schools, and a wasteful system existed where in a settlement each church conducted classes of a few children each, the teachers chosen for their church loyalties rather than for their teaching qualifications. Grenfell disliked denominational schools, believing that they fostered rivalry and bigotry, and he planned to have Mission schools where all could attend. He began with volunteer teachers who came each summer, but his plans were more ambitious. He would build schools all along the coast and free the people from bigotry as well as poverty" 36[Kerr, Op. Cit. p. 164].

"Grenfell’s perfect Christian was the Good Samaritan, and he believed that if a person served others he or she was living Christianity. He welcomed even freethinkers" 37[Ibid. p. 210].

"He believed that people have no original sin, but are made in Christ’s image. Their flaws had been impressed on them by the conditions enforced by the selfish and ambitious" 38[Ibid. p. 225].

"When he was asked what was happening to the money he was collecting in England he answered, 'I am not carrying it in my pocket.' When one member of the Council objected to the Chief Rabbi being part of a Protestant body Grenfell retorted sharply, 'His doctrine is not any bar' 39[Ibid. p. 239].

"Most of the Young Americans and Britons who came to the coast during the summer months were sincere, and even if they were not professing Christians they burned with the ideal of service" 40[Ibid. p. 239].

"[In the year of his death] He traveled across America to receive a degree from the University of California and carried out a leisurely lecture tour of the Western States. He visited Utah and liked the Mormons. 'Creed does not matter,' he said. He was interviewed by 'two huge Mormons from a Utah newspaper, but when they learned I had played football for my varsity, they forgave all my sins'" 41[Ibid. p. 258].


It is our prayer that this very plain illustration will help the reader to be careful in what you read. May the Lord by His Holy Spirit give you a great measure of discernment as you obey the command of the Scripture: Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world [1 John 4:1].

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This Page Last Updated: 06/14/08 A. Allison Lewis