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S. D. Phelps: Travel Writing to the Glory of God

Guest Post by Mark Nenadov

Introduction

The donkey cowered under a considerable load. I wouldn’t have blamed the donkey—a donkey “scarcely larger than a good-sized sheep” and living in Egypt in 1860 doesn’t get much practice at the art of carrying six feet and nearly two-hundred pounds of Connecticut Baptist.

To make things worse, the rider enjoyed Egyptian cuisine and “rather increased [his] sizeable proportions” on “flesh-pots, to say nothing of leeks and onions.” He took it with good humour, observing how silly he looked. He felt “as though it might be proper for him to carry the donkey part of the time.”

The rider mentioned above is essentially unknown today. He was a Connecticut Baptist pastor named Sylvanus Dryden Phelps (1816-1895), not to be confused current day Phelps family of ill repute. Phelps was a very busy man, the longest-serving pastor of First Baptist Church in New Haven, Connecticut—a congregation which became the largest evangelical church in Connecticut towards the end of his ministry. He served as president of the Connecticut Baptist State Convention. He had a wife and several children. He was also a very active poet and hymn-writer.

The Trip and a Book

When Phelps’ congregation gave him leave to travel Europe and the Middle East, they provided him with a “liberal purse.” Their only stipulation was that he made a monthly report of his journey—which he did with vigour!

Thus First Baptist of New Haven indirectly contributed to somewhat of a niche product: Baptist travel writing. The resulting book, Holy Land with glimpses of Europe and Egypt: A year’s tour is a severely under-acknowledged gem. It weighs in at over 400 pages, though Phelps humorously bragged about its brevity.

From his writing, it is obvious that Phelps was a careful observer. His notes are rich in religious, philosophical, geographical, historical, political, apologetic, cultural, architectural, and literary observations. Phelps could be considered to be an early theological tourist–visiting many English dissenter burial grounds and documenting his encounter with Charles Spurgeon. He also wrote a poem about John Bunyan upon visiting his grave.

Phelps did not stop at documenting his trip. In true ministerial form, he also spent much of his vacation preaching sermons. In addition to his travel writing, we have an archive of sermons from fascinating places, such as along the Nile and in Jerusalem.  He found many Christian companions, and at one point in Egypt he was in the company of ministers and deacons of Baptist, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed affiliation.

Sadness

When we think of travel writing, we shouldn’t think exclusively of good times laced with happy-go-lucky observations. Travelling through Europe and the Middle East was, and still is, hard work. Even Evelyn Waugh’s travel writings–which come many years after our subject’s era, show some of the same pressures and angst of travelling.

What is more, Phelps’ lost his mother and his youngest child–a four year old son–while gone from home. He doesn’t elaborate on these events extensively. However, being the loving husband and father that he appears to be, it is certain that Phelps had a difficult time being away from his family during such times of deep grief and loss.

Travel brings out the best and worst of us and a good travel writer needs must strike a delicate balance if he is to be read and appreciated. Phelps’ excelled in this area. He tells it like it is and is not afraid to complain quite forcefully and share some profound cynicism. However, it is equally laced with a light-hearted spirit that is full of faith thankfulness and emptied of pretension. That is a large part of what makes him all the more compelling to read.

Humour

Though Phelps is usually serious, understated humour squeezes through the edges at times. Perhaps at times there is a bit of G. K. Chesterton or Mark Twain in Phelps’ narratives. I’ve already mentioned the donkey incident. One of my favourites is an account of climbing up the pyramids, endowed with a low-key proto-Chestertonianism:

 “It is…dangerous to climb over the higher steps, for if one should lose his footing…he would likely roll to the bottom with every limb and bone broken…all [the other tourists] were assisted by the Arabs except myself. Two of these half-naked and impudent fellows seize their victim by the hand…and drag him or her up, begging, flattering and threatening for bucksheesh, though they have already been paid. I determined to go up without their help. I had scarcely begun the ascent when two of them darted before me and bade me stop. I undertook to go around them, and they still hedged my way. I then pushed them aside with my Alpine baton, and went on, but they kept close to my side. I repeatedly assured them that I should not allow them to help me, but they persisted in following me two-thirds of the way to the top…They said my head would swim, my feet would slip, and my strength would fail; and they used some words both in Arabic and broken English by no means complimentary; but all in vain.”

The Blessing of Travel

At one point, Phelps shared the following perspective on travelling

“Travel brings pleasures and benefits, and a kind of education, that can be acquired in no other way. Opportunities are constantly afforded for observing the grand and beautiful works, both of nature and art, as well as for studying the character and habits of different peoples. No day need pass without something of good or profit seen, learned, or experienced. Even the annoyances that one meets constantly the discomforts and perplexities of journeying where passports, custom-houses, and various hungry officials detain and tax you… make you grateful for the land of your birth, and lead you to prize more highly its people, its government, its religion, and all its good institutions.”

He took delight in “Sabbaths abroad,” the “true Rest Days to Christian travelers” and “full of pleasant memories.” When used appropriately as a means of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever, our travel can become a means of grace in some sense. It both enables us to continue our other works with vigour and, as a cessation from our other works, becomes a thing of goodness in and of itself.

Conclusion

There are many fascinating aspects of Phelps’ life and legacy. I hope to expose some more details about Phelps in the future and am currently writing a biographical paper on him. I hope my feeble efforts can inspire some to follow in his footsteps and write about their travels to the glory of God! Phelps’ has a lot to teach us–hopefully we will be inspired by to “take up the pen.” At the very least, his inquisitive spirit and observant eye ought to be contagious!

Though largely obscure, Phelps’ writing may very well be in your church’s hymnal. If your church uses the Trinity Hymnal, an OPC hymnal published by Great Commission Publications, take a look at hymn #538. If you have the Christian Life Hymnal, it is #487.

When Phelps died, an obituary in a Brown University publication said the following:

“While uncommonly successful in ministerial work, a painstaking, zealous and eloquent preacher…an able organizer of …establishing many new churches while incessantly strengthening his own, Dr. Phelps found time for extensive travel and reading, which resulted in choice culture and made him one of the most agreeable of men.”

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