A young prisoner was hustled through the massive entrance gates of Wormwood Scrubbs and pushed into a cell. Fred Mitchell was left alone. What had the open-faced boy from Yorkshire done to deserve such punishment?
It was 1915 and the First World War was not going well for England. At the second Battle of Ypres that April, it is said that 5000 men died on the first day from the fearsome effects of chlorine gas, used against them for the first time.
Fred Mitchell, an earnest Christian youth, was a conscientious objector. Although he had joined a non-combatant corps, he soon felt that to be loading up guns in readiness for others to fire was little different from firing them himself.
One day he disobeyed orders and refused further compliance. Court-martialled, he was sentenced to spend the rest of the war in prison. Although with maturing years he would change his view on armed combat, Fred early learnt the cost of remaining true to his principles.
Are you saved?
Jackson Bridge where Fred was born in 1897 is a small village south of Huddersfield. From a Methodist family, Fred was a cocksure but intelligent lad, and at thirteen won a scholarship to a local grammar school.
But although he attended church regularly and sang in the choir, Fred and his close friend Walter were astonished when a local mill worker thrust a tract into their hands with the question: ‘Are you saved?’ Of course they were saved, Fred assured Walter. But Walter was troubled.
Day after day the two sixteen-year-olds met on the station as they travelled to work in Huddersfield, where Fred was now training as a pharmacist. Each time Walter would ask, ‘Are you really sure we are saved?’ Gradually Fred was not so sure. So they decided to visit the mill worker one night to find out how to be certain that they were saved.
A true soul winner, the mill worker took the boys from scripture to scripture until they were convinced of their desperate state as sinners. Only then did he point them to the Saviour, forsaken by God on the cross for their sins. As Fred later wrote, ‘It was as if a blind had been drawn up in my soul. The light streamed in. I was saved and knew it. Hallelujah!’
In the isolation of a prison cell, Fred had a unique chance to study his Bible. Like John Bunyan, he learnt more of his God during those prison days than ever before. After a year he was transferred to a work centre in Wakefield where he was free but required to perform many uncongenial tasks.
During this time he came across a book that ‘stirred my youthful soul to the depths’ and would profoundly affect the course of his life. A thousand miles of miracle in China1tells of the sufferings of Christian missionaries through the fearsome days of the Boxer riots in 1900.
Hunted like wild animals, they were tortured and killed. A new ambition grew in Fred’s heart – he would go to China to fill up the missionaries’ depleted ranks.
But in 1918 Fred’s father was struck down in the flu epidemic that killed more people than the war itself. Fred became responsible for his widowed mother, and the prospect of going to China faded, although the hope did not.
No idle dreams
At 22 Fred, now a qualified pharmacist, was appointed manager of a chemist shop in Bradford. Upright and efficient, he conducted the business with competence. But his heart was faraway in China – a land he feared he might never see.
‘When I am dead’, he once said, ‘you will find China written on my heart’. His marriage in 1922 to Nellie Hey, an earnest Christian girl, added further problems for at that time Nellie could not contemplate life in China.
Although he could not go, Fred Mitchell could still serve the country of his desires. So during the following years he established prayer meetings in Bradford and many surrounding areas to support the missionaries in China.
Nor was he given to idle dreams. What about the needs of Bradford itself? With the help of the pastor of the Sunbridge Road Mission he threw all his efforts into evangelising the needy. He also started annual meetings modelled on the Keswick Convention to encourage local Christians.
Fred backed up his undertakings with an ever-growing communion with God, as he endeavoured to become more godly. A great reader, the young chemist immersed himself not only in such classics as The life of Hudson Taylor2but in a wide range of Christian literature. The letters of Samuel Rutherford was among his favourites.3
In 1932 Fred, who now had three children to support, took the bold step of purchasing his own shop. Gloomy friends predicted that he would fail, but with diligence and high standards ‘Fred Mitchell – Chemist’ became the leading pharmacist in Bradford.
And Fred dispensed more than medicines. The busy chemist had time for any who came through his door with spiritual or social needs. He also maintained a regular preaching schedule.
He kept in constant touch with the China Inland Mission headquarters in London, becoming a member of their London Council. One day early in 1942 a letter with a London postmark arrived on the Mitchells’ doormat – one that would change Fred’s life. It was an invitation to become Home Director of the CIM – a staggering proposition.
Fred hesitated long. How could he fulfil such a responsibility? He had not even been to China. At last it was Nellie who became convinced that this was God’s will – even though it meant uprooting her family.
With humble dependence on his God, the stocky Yorkshire businessman set about his new responsibilities at Newington Green in north London. Then came the fulfilment of his heart’s desire – a visit to China in 1947.
So long had he ‘lived’ there in imagination that the sights seemed familiar – though fording rushing rivers and negotiating precipitous mountain ledges on horseback was almost more than the staid Yorkshireman could handle. But establishing warm friendships with many missionaries brought untold joy to Fred.
No sooner was he back before a further responsibility devolved on this unpretentious man – an invitation to become Chairman of the Keswick Convention. The support and friendship of Dr Lloyd-Jones was a great encouragement at this demanding time.
Though coming from a different theological perspective, Lloyd-Jones recognised in Mitchell a kindred spirit. They shared a love of books and were one in spiritual desires and endeavour.
Gradually ‘the Doctor’ was drawn into the work of the mission, and his advice was invaluable. For these were traumatic days as the Communist takeover of China in 1949 created a watershed in the mission’s life.
Mitchell was at the helm during the sad withdrawal from China in 1951 – and among those who oversaw the reassignment of missionaries to new fields in South East Asia. ‘Have Faith in God’ was the text carved above the entrance to the mission headquarters. How often must Fred Mitchell have glanced up at it when a blackbird built its nest over the word ‘faith’ in May 1951.
Less than two years later in April 1953 the 55-year-old Home Director visited Malaysia to see how the work was developing. A strange desire to urge his hearers to persevere to the end characterised Fred’s ministry there. Twice he preached on ‘I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course’. With the hectic schedule of meetings and consultations at an end, he prepared to fly home from Singapore.
His flight was booked on the Comet – the first commercial jet aircraft, in service just one year. It could carry only 36 passengers but flew at the then phenomenal speed of 475mph. Landing in Bangkok, Fred disembarked for a few moments and spoke to waiting missionaries: ‘We have pledged ourselves to go forward … we must expect severe testing’.
As the powerful aircraft roared out of Calcutta, the experienced pilot sent a reassuring message, ‘Climbing on track…’ Then nothing. All contact was lost.
The next day the grim news flashed around the world – the highly acclaimed Comet had been found smashed to pieces in a paddy field 22 miles from Calcutta. There were no survivors.
Stunned, Christians worldwide could scarcely take in the news. Following two further Comet crashes, a design fault was found that had led to fatigue cracking in the pressurised cabin.
But Dr Lloyd-Jones spoke to the heart of the grieving mission and its friends at a memorial service on 26 May. ‘There are no accidents in the case of God’s children … God cannot make mistakes. Why? Because he is the Lord – his ways are always perfect.’
1. A. E. Glover
2. by Dr and Mrs Howard Taylor
3. I possess Fred Mitchell’s own copy of this book, and his careful underlinings show his appreciation.