28 July, 2023
Pastor’s Viewpoint - june 27, 2023
Uniting Church, Gilgandra
Faith under fire
Seven Japanese ships were sunk, and the Japanese military police seized con- trol of Changi prison and internee, John Leonard Wilson (1897-1970) then bishop of Singapore, became one of 57 suspected of espionage. After being brutally tortured for three days, he was returned to his cell in a semi-conscious state. In the absence of medical supplies, cell-mate Walter Stevenson’s care saved his life.
After seven and a half months of cell- life he was returned to Changi Prison on May 26, 1944, and an internee noted “He had lost a lot of weight, about four stone, but was fit enough to walk the half mile to the hospital”.
Another journaled on June 6, 1944, “The bishop is wonderfully well, very much thinner, bearded, with ghastly scars on his feet - perpetual witnesses to ago- nising days of horror - but nothing of himself has been lost or changed, unless it be some of his impatience. Certainly, none of his love or wisdom”.
Local war hero, Elizabeth Choy added “(He) was whipped with wet ropes and tortured so badly that he became unconscious, and his body became swollen. For days he could not eat, and the bruises made his whole body look blue and black, yet he did not curse his torturers”.
In a post-war broadcast sermon in 1946 he said “In the middle of that torture they asked me if I still believed in God. When by God’s help I said, ‘I do,’ they asked me why God did not save me, and by the help of His Holy Spirit I said, ‘God does save me. He does not save me by freeing me from pain or punishment, but He saves me by giving me the spirit to bear it.’ And when they asked me why I did not curse them I told them that it was because I was a follower of Jesus Christ, who taught us that we were all brethren.”
The ultimate testament to his faith and to God’s purpose occurred after Singapore was liberated by the British and some of his torturers came to him to be baptised. In a letter to Brigadier Sir John Smyth, VC in April 1967 he wrote “In 1947 I took various services of baptism and confirmation in the (Singapore) cathedral for those who had been pre- pared and I got permission for those who were serving sentences to be marched up from the prison. Among those that I baptised and confirmed was one of the men of the military police who had been responsible, four years earlier, for taking part in my own torturing. I have seldom seen so great a change in a man. He looked gentle and peaceful, even though he was going back to serve a 10-year sentence and later he received communion at my hands in the prison.”
Wilson regarded these events as among the most significant moments of his Christian life and a lasting proof of the reality of the Christian faith. He refused to dwell on the torture and horror he’d received and referred to those expe- riences in his speeches as opportunities to confess his Christian faith and to declare God’s faithfulness to him saying “It is not my purpose to relate the tortures they inflicted upon us, but rather to tell you of some of the spiritual experiences of that ordeal. I knew this was to be a challenge to my courage, my faith, and my love.”
He said his powerful words uttered to his tormenters came from a very deep and profound place of intimacy and con- nection with God “I had known Him in a deeper way than I could have imagined, but God is to be found in the Resurrection, as well as in the Cross, and it is the Resurrection that has the final word.”
Post-war in his homeland, he was appointed dean of Manchester from 1949-1953 and later as bishop of Birmingham from 1953 until his retire- ment in 1969.
There his memorial stone is at the foot of the chancel steps. It reads: “John Leonard Wilson -1897-1970- Fourth Bishop of Birmingham, Sometime Bishop of Singapore, Confessor for The Faith.”
And one visitor’s chaplain Stephen Record, is keen to point out his memori- al and recount the story when he meets Japanese visitors. He wrote, “I have seen elderly Japanese men openly weeping when they hear the story”.
Prayer: Father, we thank you that you are always with us. We pray for your Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts as we ponder this story of faith, forgiveness, courage, and love. Help us to trust in you in our times of testing and to pray the words Jesus taught us in The Lords’ Prayer, “Thy will be done” and - like the bishop of Birmingham - find peace. In Jesus’ name we ask these things, Amen.