May 4th In Christian History – Father Damien, W. Robertson Nicoll, and Jessie Hetherington

Series: On This Day In Christian History

 Significant Events on This Day:

1256: With the bull Licet Ecclesiaa Catholicae, Pope Alexander IV founded the order of Hermits f St. Augustine, also known as Augustinians.

1453: Patrick Yohannis XI issued a bull on the West Indies, drawing a line of demarcation between the colonial possessions of Spain and Portugal.

1521: Martin Luther arrived at Wartburg (castle pictured on left) after having been kidnapped for his own protection by German ruler Frederick the Wise on his way home from the Diet (Congress) of Worms. During his months there, Luther translated the Bible into German (Luther’s study at Wartburg Castle where he did his translation pictured on right).

1535: King Henry VIII of England had several Carthusian monks hanged, drawn and quartered in London for refusing to submit to him as head of the church.

1923: Sir William Robertson Nicoll died. The sickly scholar was in bed for much of his life but read two books a day and wrote the Expositor’s Bible (mini-biography in article below).

“Father Damien: Minister to Sufferers of Leprosy on Molokai”

“I am ready to be buried alive with those poor wretches.” The man who said this was father Damien. The wretches he spoke of were the miserable sufferers of leprosy on Molokai Island. Leprosy was the curse of the Hawaiian archipelago, which was so blessed in other ways. People with the disease were isolated on the peninsula of Molokai. The disease causes nerves to die and leads to damage of the body’s extremities. Leprosy was so feared that the Hawaiian government made it illegal for anyone landing on the peninsula to return to the other islands. Damien knew that if he went, he would not be allowed to return. On this day, May 4, 1873, he made an irrevocable decision: He would confront the gates of hell (Father Damien pictured on left in 1873 shortly before he left for Molokai).

Conditions on the island were bestial. Demon-faced men raped beautiful young girls in whom leprosy had just been discovered in the stages of final decay. Victims of the dreadful disease threw weaker victims out of the huts to die. Not that the huts were wonderful: They were hideous with disease and despair. Most of the wretched men and women reeked of a decaying flesh.

Damien turned white as a sheet as he landed on the beach. Yet he prayed to be able to see Christ in the ghastly forms before him. Given one last chance to leave he refused. He had volunteered for hell, and he intended to civilize it.

The son of a Flemish farmer, Damien had entered the priesthood with great fervor. His very presence in Hawaii was the result of constant appeals to his supervisor to let him go. Once there, he proved himself a determined evangelist.

Nothing he had done before could compare with the efforts he now made. Although water was plentiful in the mountains,, there was little in the settlement, so Damien organized daily bucket brigades. Later he constructed a channel that diverted a stream of water to the very doorsteps of the unhealthy town. He developed farms. The apathetic lepers had neglected even this simple attempt to make themselves self-sufficient. He burned the worst houses and scoured out those that could be salvaged. Saw and axe in hand, he built new houses. He laid out a cemetery, stating that from that point on, anyone who died would be properly buried. He prepared a dump and cleaned up the village and its land. He shut down alcohol stills.

And he told his decaying audience about Christ. His cheerful conversation led dozens to turn to Christ. The same men who had been stealing from dying outcasts or dumping them into ditches to die asked for baptism (Island of Molokai pictured on right).

Jealous Hawaiian authorities and Protestant missionaries, who had done little for the outcasts, spread scandalous stories about Damien. But he labored on.

Twelve years after he arrived on the island, Damien discovered that his own feet were leprous. Four years later he was dead. His quiet heroism won worldwide renown. It brought new donations to help the leper colony and staff nurses and other helpers. By his gruesome living death, Damien assaulted the gates of hell.

Author’s of the Above Article: A. Kenneth Curtis and Daniel Graves edited This Day In Christian History. Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications Inc., 2005. The article above was adapted from the entry for May 4th.

A. Kenneth Curtis, Ph.D, is president of the Christian History Institute and the founding editor of Christian History magazine. He has written and produced several award winning historical films for Gateway Films/Vision Video’s Church history collection. He is also coauthor of 100 Most Important Dates in Christian History and From Christ to Constantine: The Trial and Testimony of the Early Church. He and his wife, Dorothy, reside in eastern Pennsylvania.

Daniel Graves is the Webmaster for the Christian History Institute and holds a master’s degree in library science from Western Michigan University. He is the author of Doctors Who Followed Christ and Scientists of Faith. Dan and wife, Pala reside in Jackson, Michigan.

“Weak Lungs: Sir William Robertson Nicoll”

Sickness proved a blessing for W. Robertson Nicoll, for it determined his career and ministry. He was born in 1851 with weak lungs. His mother, brother, and sister died from tuberculosis. He was raised by his father, Pastor Harry Nicoll, whose church numbered 100 souls—but whose library numbered 17,000 books.

Inheriting his dad’s love for literature, Robertson began a weekly column for the Aberdeen Journal. He started pastoring, but doctors told him his lungs were too weak for preaching. He contracted typhoid and pleurisy, resigned his church, and retreated to his books. Here Robertson found his calling.

He was already editing a magazine called The Expositor, and in 1886 he began The British Weekly. It became a leading Christian journal in Britain. He then started The Bookman, and two years later The Woman at Home appeared in magazine stalls. While editing his four periodicals, Robertson began publishing books (he read two books a day throughout his life). The Expositor’s Bible, a series of 50 volumes, was released between 1888 and 1905. Then The Expositor’s Greek New Testament appeared. Robertson persuaded Alexander Maclaren to issue his expositions; then he found and developed other writers. In all, Robertson edited hundreds of titles and wrote 40 books of his own. He became the most prolific and respected Christian journalist in the English-speaking world.

In 1909, while being knighted, he said, “I never contemplated a literary career. I had expected to go on as a minister, doing literary work in leisure times, but my fate was sealed for me.” His illness forced him to do much of his work propped in bed amid the clutter of newspapers, books, pipes, and cigarette ashes. His cats purred nearby, and he always kept a fire burning, claiming that fresh air was the devil’s invention. His library contained 25,000 volumes, including 5,000 biographies. “I have read every biography I could lay my hands on,” he said, “and not one has failed to teach me something.”

Sir W. Robertson Nicoll died on May 4, 1923. Among his last words were, “I believe everything I have written about immortality!”

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:10-11

About the Author: Robert J. Morgan, is the pastor of Donelson Fellowship in Nashville, Tennessee and the author of the best-selling Then Sings My Soul, From This Verse, Red Sea Rules, and On This Day – this article was adapted from the May 4th entry in this excellent book. He conducts Bible conferences, parenting and marriage retreats, and leadership seminars across the country.

 “Jessie Hetherington: Voyaging to Australia—But Ending Up in Paradise”

On May 4, 1837, Jessie Hetherington began a letter to her mother that she never finished.

Several months earlier Jessie and Irving Hetherington had been married and immediately left Scotland for Sydney, Australia. Before their wedding, Irving had a fruitful ministry in the poor suburbs of Edinburgh. While involved in this work, he felt the call of God when he heard a request for preachers in New South Wales, Australia, even though he knew it might mean the end of his engagement to Jessie. Jessie, however, gladly agreed to accompany him: “Where you wish to take me, there I will go.” Three months later into the voyage to Sydney, Jessie caught scarlet fever and died just days later. (All Saints Church in New South Wales pictured on left).

The following is an excerpt from the letter Irving finished for his wife:

I write now in Sydney, for, during our whole voyage, we met no opportunity in England; yet is my Jessie’s every look and every tone as distinctly engraved on my memory—as fully remembered, as they were two months ago. O yes! I never can forget. And in particular will you be anxious to know what was her experience in the prospect of eternity. It was of the serenity of heaven. Let me die the death f the righteous, and let my last end be like hers. O, it was the most perfect peace! On the surgeon appraising me on Tuesday of her extreme danger, I thought it right to communicate this to her. She was quite collected at the time; and was looking at me in the affectionate manner that was so usual to her, and which will, I think, never cease to haunt my dreams. I said to her that Mr. Thompson did not give us reason to expect her recovery. “It is the Lord’s will, and we must submit, Irving,” she quietly answered. “And have you no fear then, of death, Jessie? “No, dear.” “And how is it that you are not afraid to die?” “I have long taken Christ for my portion, and set my hopes on Him.” I could but weep. Afterwards I asked her what word of God gave her the most comfort. “Come unto me all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” she replied, with much eagerness; and, after I had made some remarks on this, she bade me repeat some of those Scriptures in which salvation by grace is offered to sinners. This I continued to do, when I thought she was in a state of consciousness; and prayed with her day and night. Her spirit ascended as I was commending her to the grace of God. As assured do I feel of her blessedness, yea, as confident that she is now with the God for whom she gave up so much, as I could be were an angel to bring to me tidings of her mingling with the choir above. To her, death was indeed unspeakable gain. But what a loss have I sustained!

Now alone, Irving Hetherington continued on to Australia and became the first evangelical minister in Singleton, New South Wales. It was a district fifty miles long by thirty miles wide. For several years he also was the superintendent of the area’s school. Combined with these responsibilities he made weekly treks in all weather to settler’s houses to serve both them and their convict servants, doing much of his studying and sermon preparations on horseback. After nine years he was called as the minister of Scott’s Church in Melbourne, where he preached until just before his death in 1875.


Have you ever lost a loved one? If it hasn’t happened yet, it will in the future. When our loved ones have given their allegiance to Jesus, we can know that they are in God’s presence. If you have loved ones who are not yet on the way to heaven, share with them that Jesus is the way.

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6

Author’s of the Article Above: Mike and Sharon Rusten are not only marriage and business partners; they also share a love for history. Mike studied at Princeton (B.A.), the University of Minnesota (M.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Th.M.), and New York University (Ph.D.). Sharon studied at Beaver College, Lake Forest College, and the University of Minnesota (B.A.), and together with Mike has attended the American Institute of Holy Land Studies (now Jerusalem University College). The Rustens have two grown children and live in Minnetonka, Minnesota. This article was adapted from the May 4th entry in their wonderful book The One Year Book of Christian History, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2003.