Pursuing His Purpose

This is the third talk in the ‘Hot Pursuit’ series, delivered at Lee Abbey in August.

Pursuing His Purpose – Lee Abbey 2023

This is the story of one of my heroes: Robert Jermaine Thomas (1839-1866) from Kingsley Armstrong’s book:

After Robert Thomas found the Lord, he began preaching at age 15. He went to train at New College, London; met Caroline Godfrey, got engaged, married, ordained and sailed to China the same year. In 1863 Robert said goodbye to his homeland. He was twenty-four when he travelled with his new wife on a ship from Gravesend to Shanghai, a four-month voyage. 

On the journey, Caroline got pregnant, but within five months of their arrival in Shanghai, she died from a miscarriage. They had not known of her pregnancy and he had gone off to another city to seek better accommodation for them. He wanted the best for his new bride and tried to make things good for her so what a blow to him to get such heart-shattering news.

In one letter home, he writes: “My heart is well-nigh broken. I must seek somewhere a complete change. All that could be done for a sufferer was done for my dear wife… I trust to give myself more completely than ever to the noble work on which I have just entered, but at present I feel weighed down by deep grief.”

Can you imagine how his parents must have felt? They were devastated back home in Wales when they got the letter from Robert telling them that their daughter-in-law was dead and also their first grandchild. What grief! Can you imagine what everyone would have said: A young family – what a waste! She died before they even accomplished anything in China.

But was that the whole story?

In Robert’s grief he had two very close friends and comforters, Joseph Edkins of the London Missionary Society and Alexander Williamson of the Scottish National Bible Society. Williamson introduced Thomas to two Catholic Koreans who were eager to read Bibles but did not yet possess any, and Thomas was touched by God to try and help them. He committed himself to getting hold of Bibles for the Korean people even though he was warned of how dangerous that would be.

He talked with the Scottish Bible Society to take Chinese-print Bibles to Korea. Eventually, Robert took two missionary journeys along the west coast of Korea. This was such a dangerous mission as ten thousand Korean Catholics had already been killed and it was well known that the Korean authorities would not welcome any Christian visitors.

He then made contact with an American ship called the General Sherman. It was shrouded in mystery, as the mission was so difficult. It is not known whether it was a merchant vessel or what the purpose of the expedition was. However, Thomas’ purpose was clear; get the Bibles to the Koreans. Some have suggested that he agreed to be the Captain’s interpreter to fulfil his mission.

As they approached the land of Korea, they received many official warnings to turn back. However, they continued despite the opposition. On 3rd September 1866, the authorities in Korea commanded that the General Sherman be attacked and destroyed. They sailed several burning boats toward the Sherman and set it on fire. The crew jumped overboard and waiting for them on the shore were their executioners; not one survived.

Robert Jemaine Thomas stood on the burning deck and opening his cases flung his Bibles to the soldiers and villagers waiting on the shore shouting “Jesus!”  Finally, Robert himself caught on fire and jumped overboard. 

As he swam to shore he begged the awaiting soldier to take a Bible from him. The soldier killed him. He was 27 years old.

When news eventually got home to Wales, his family was once again devastated. It was bad news when his wife died. Now, the second time, tragedy again. This time he had not even completed his mission. They had known of his desire to share the Word of God but he had kept this mission secret. What did he think he was doing! What a tragic waste of a life that could have been so useful to God.

I wonder what story they would have told to Jesus on meeting him in heaven. Would they have told him of the tragic waste of their family’s life, of their son who nearly made it as a missionary but failed?

But was that the whole story?

What about when Robert faces Jesus in Eternity. I can imagine him falling at the feet of Jesus, crying, “I am so sorry; I have failed!” His story would have been as the ‘almost made it’ missionary.

But that is not the end of the story.

Let us go back to the shores of North Korea.  Some of those watching did not destroy the Bibles as print was so precious and took them home, some even using the pages as wallpaper.  Some then started reading the pages. And here on the walls of their houses they began to read about a Saviour who died for them and would forgive them for everything they had done wrong. Even though Thomas was gone, the story was continuing.

About 50 years later a huge revival broke out in Pyongyang, Korea. In 1904 ten thousand became Christians; in 1906, thirty thousand became Christians; in 1907, fifty thousand more. 

And then beautifully in 1907 as the Holy Spirit moved in Pyongyang at a revival meeting, an old man, Choon Kwon Park, came forward repenting that it was he, who in his youth as a soldier, had beheaded missionary Robert Jermaine Thomas. He had also read the book given to him by the man he had killed and through it found the Saviour.

That 1907 Revival was part of something amazing that the Lord was doing in the world at the beginning of the 20th Century. It started in Wales in 1904, went into India through Welsh missionaries in 1905, then on to Asuza Street in the USA in 1906. From Korea, the revival went into parts of China.

Going back to Thomas crying at the feet of Jesus begging forgiveness for his failed story; I can imagine Jesus stepping back and asking him to see the true story. To look and see the millions of Korean Christians who had come to faith through his sacrifice. I can imagine Robert’s parents having a similar experience when Jesus would also show them the fruit of their sacrifice.

That was not the end of the story; Jesus had not finished writing yet.

Robert Jermaine Thomas was never that well known in the UK, but there is still a chapel in his home town Llanover, South Wales:  Many Koreans have visited to give thanks to God for sending him to Korea.  His life was extinguished at the age of twenty-seven, but even today, his memory still lives in the hearts of the Korean people. 

Robert Jermaine Thomas did not write the whole story himself but he certainly was obedient and faithful in allowing God to write over his life.  Remember today, that God is writing your story and, though you may never have the privilege of reading the last chapter, one day you will see the end of it.

Some more notes/quotes/illustrations from the talk:

1648 Shorter Westminster Catechism, over 100 questions, first one was

Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Gil Bailie: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

“Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world; yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; yours are the hands with which God is to bless people now.” 

I love Bob Sieple’s line too: “If we know something is wrong, we are accountable for that knowledge. We are accountable for what we know. If we can do something about it, we are also responsible. Accountable knowledge allows for pity. Mercy demands responsible action.” 

Graham Cyster shared a painful story about a personal experience decades ago when he was struggling against apartheid as a young South African Christian. One night, he was smuggled into an underground Communist cell of young people fighting apartheid. “Tell us about the gospel of Jesus Christ,” they asked, half hoping for an alternative to the violent communist strategy they were embracing.

Graham gave a clear, powerful presentation of the gospel, showing how personal faith in Christ wonderfully transforms persons and creates one new body of believers where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, rich nor poor, black nor white. The youth were fascinated. One seventeen-year-old exclaimed, “That is wonderful! Show me where I can see that happening.” Graham’s face fell as he sadly responded that he could not think of anywhere South African Christians were truly living out the message of the gospel. “Then the whole thing is a piece of sh—,” the youth angrily retorted. Within a month he left the country to join the armed struggle against apartheid—and eventually gave his life for his beliefs.

The young man was right. If Christians do not live what they preach, the whole thing is a farce. “Western Christianity has largely failed since the middle of the twentieth century,” Barna concludes, “because Jesus’ modern-day disciples do not act like Jesus.” This scandalous behaviour mocks Christ, undermines evangelism, and destroys Christian credibility.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself. . . . Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Muhammad Ali was a great boxer, but perhaps he was an even greater exponent of pride. Once on a plane, an air stewardess said to him, “Sir, please fasten your seatbelt.” He replied: “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” Quick as a flash, she shot back, “Superman don’t need no airplane, now fasten your seatbelt!”

‘I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.’ Søren Kierkegaard

“The Christian Gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering and snivelling. I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less.” Timothy Keller

2 Comments1955 views


  • Wow, I found the whole message very moving and made me feel as if I had a lot more to give to the Lord.
    I am 74 years old and disabled. What could I do for the Lord? Lots he says. I am an evangelist at heart but as I have got older and my husband has retired I feel as if I needed to serve my husband, so the my work for the Lord has not been so obvious. But I can do both! I can pray, I can give, I can talk, (I am good at that) I have gone when the Lord has told me too, I would love to go again, but now it is possible. I can’t carry anything, I can’t walk far, but I can pray and support someone who does want to go. I do have a very small pension from the government.
    Hallelujah, thank you Simon for telling us about these amazing guys. Rejoice in the Lord, again I say rejoice.

  • Thankyou for the stories of times when what was humanly speaking a failure was used by God and reminding us it’s not worldly success we should presume but faithful living.
    Blessings, Gerald

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published.