The following is an excerpt from the book Attending to the National Soul: Evangelical Christians In Australian History, 1914-2014 by Stuart Piggin and Robert D Linder published in 2019. Available from Koorong and Amazon. Excerpts republished by permission
An evangelical soldier who lived to reflect deeply on the spiritual implications of his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese [in World War II] was Geoff Bingham.
He was born in country NSW in 1919, the son of a prominent dentist. He came to faith in an unconventional manner, as he became aware of what he called ‘a Presence’ that seemed to be always with him. He began to attend an Anglican church and in his late teens decided to enroll in theological college, much against his father’s wishes.
He left Sydney’s Moore College after only one year to enlist in the School AIF in 1940. With the outbreak of the war with Japan in December 1941, he and his fellow Diggers found themselves confronting an overwhelming force of Japanese invaders on the Malay Peninsula.
By then he was Sergeant Bingham and a section leader. He was subsequently awarded the Military Medal for acts of outstanding bravery before his unit withdrew to Singapore Island for what was presumably to be their last stand in its defense.
It was while defending the northern part of the island that Bingham was badly wounded. After lying in pain for a day and part of a night, he was evacuated to a hospital and treated. After the surrender of all British forces to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, he was taken into Singapore city where his wound was cleansed of maggots, dressed, and his fractured bones reset.
Within a few days he was a resident of the War Camp at Changi. It was this place and, later, the equally infamous Kranji POW Camp, that were to be his home for the next three and a half years.
It was not only a deplorable situation to be in physically, a hell-hole of starvation and disease; it also ravaged the psych: ‘the humiliation of defeat, the early degrading of fighting men, the loss of Singapore, … the deeper humiliation of the Thailand experience, and the anger at separation from loved ones’.
Bingham recorded his disappointment not only with several of the chaplains, but also with himself. Was it or was it not all right to scrounge, perhaps sometimes steal, food in order to stay alive? He wrote: ‘I discovered that I very much wanted to live, and I was quite hungry. If being in rackets didn’t matter, then why hold back from being in them?’ Indeed, where was God amidst all the misery and suffering that now surrounded him – ‘starved daily for two years without a break’, as he put it?
Where was God? Bingham discovered that he was present to the suffering through the sufferings of his own Son. It was a presence which brought salvation, healing and hope, and enabled hitherto defeated and demoralized men to transcend their selfishness in the service of others. In Changi in 1943 he wrote the poem ‘Angel Wings’ which was to become a hymn sung in churches over six decades later:
Angel wings, beating my face,
Forcing me into grace.
Dear eyes, loving my soul,
Drawing me to the goal.
Strong Word, piercing my brain,
Bringing me holy shame.
Pain’s cry, welling within,
Lifting me out of sin.
Red hands, clotted with blood,
Thrusting me up to God.
Typical of the evangelical, perhaps, Bingham’s spirituality was intensely personal, but it resonated with some who formed with him a community of hope. Bingham and a handful of other prisoners became exceptionally close as they shared almost everything, including their food and their thoughts and spiritual concerns.
It was a community which transfused faith and hope into the wider prison community. It was a major factor in their survival, and it left Bingham with a settled conviction that spiritual renewal and revival were possible in every situation. As the members this close-knit spiritual community prepared to part and go their separate ways at the end of the way, a torrent of emotion swept over them. According to Bingham, ‘The British men grieved over the fact that they would not see us again’.
Toby Critoph, his close mate and one of their spiritual inner circle, spoke for them all when he said to Bingham: ‘What worries me is that you will go home, marry some girl and all your love will go to her and your children. Then you won’t love us as you do now. That’s fair enough. But we have never known the experience of love that we have had here’.
Bingham explained that most men would not have used the word ‘love’ to describe their relationship but that a great affection based on their common experiences and their close spiritual connection certainly had grown up among them. Bingham always struggled to describe this Christian community within the prison community – it was not, he insisted, a ‘clique’ because in addition to being an opportunity to deepen the spiritual life, it existed to serve those in most need who were not its members.
It was best described, he concluded, as a ‘community of love’, which he subsequently realized was what every local church should be.
Geoffrey Bingham, poet and mystic, was [also an] exceptionally fruitful evangelist. In the hell-hole of suffering as a POW he had witnessed the depths to which the depravity of humanity could sink, but he came to believe that the love of God in the cross of Christ could outreach it.
When subsequently counselling any who shared with him their deepest hurt, he would impulsively gather them in his arms and assure them vehemently that God had already dealt with it on the cross and that it need not imprison their spirits any longer.
Following the war, he returned to Moore College, was Senior Student in 1952 and received first class honours in the Licentiate of Theology (ThL). He discussed the East Africa Revival with Marcus Loane and others, and reflected on the foundation premise of Keswick theology, that the believer is ‘crucified with Christ’ (Galatians 2.20).
He read the works of Andrew Murray who infused the Reformed faith with the pietism of the Evangelical Revival. He studied Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (1692) and discussed it with T.C. Hammond who declared that it was ‘spot on’, and Born Crucified (1945) written by L.E. Maxwell, an American fundamentalist.
He also studied the works of the church’s greatest theologian of revival, Jonathan Edwards. To synthesise such influences required a powerful intellect as well as a passionate heart, and Bingham seemed to be endowed with both as is evidenced not only by his preaching, but also by his literary and poetic output.
The Gospel, he taught, promised more than the forgiveness of sins. Through the cross, guilt is destroyed, and through the destruction of guilt, the power of sin is destroyed. Living in the freedom which results from the destruction of the penalty and power of sin is the holy life. From 1953 to 1956 each Sunday he packed out the Garrison Church, Miller’s Point, in Sydney.
The fires of revival fell: all-night prayer meetings just ‘went like a flash’. Remarkable scenes of revival accompanied his ministry in Pakistan where he served from 1957 to 1966 as a missionary with CMS. He analysed the success of his labours in terms of his preaching the Gospel of grace:
The ministry we had in Pakistan was that of preaching the Scriptures, and especially the great themes. That seemed to raise the spiritual ‘water-table’ – so to speak – until eventually there was a great outflowing of grace and the Spirit in the truth of Christ. That is how I see what happened with Edwards and his ministry, and no less the Wesleys, Whitefield and the somewhat later English Evangelicals … My thinking is not in term of revival, but in the power of the Gospel proclaimed in the power of the Spirit.
Bingham’s spirituality preceded that of the main influence of the Charismatic movement, and was a genuinely indigenous revitalization movement of a type rarely experienced in Australian history. Perhaps his greatest work in Australia was in local church missions where revival was often experienced. The addresses he gave at these missions were on bondage to sin and Satan, the powers of darkness and of flesh and the world, and the true freedom which Christ gives from such powers.
From August 1962, when he held a mission in the Parish of Thornleigh in Sydney, the tapes of his addresses with these themes were played over and over by those who heard him gladly, and his teaching on the holiness and love of the Father in the efficacy of the cross became their regular diet. Scores were converted and many went into the mission field or the ministry.
During the Thornleigh mission, a prayer meeting of about thirty people was held in a private home. Bingham read from Psalm 24, ‘Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.’ Then he suggested that those present should come to the Lord and ask him to reveal himself to them. They all knelt down in a circle, someone began to weep, and a great conviction came over all of them. Some tried to pray, but dissolved in sobs.
And then there came over one present an incredible sense of his own depravity in the sign of God. He was crushed and broke down and sobbed convulsively, and the others quietness came over the whole group, followed by a wonderful sense of God’s total forgiveness. Then they sang and sang until they were hoarse, on and on, until someone said, ‘It’s half past four in the morning’. Bingham was poet and lover as well as preacher and teacher, and his ministry was to the heart. Through it thousands of Australians were confronted with holiness of God and comforted with the experience that Jesus cared for their souls.
Although Geoffrey Bingham saw amazing scenes of revival in Pakistan in the late 1950s and returned to Sydney full of joy of the Lord, he was not heard gladly by those nervous of anything which could be interpreted as Charismatic or sinless perfectionist. Bingham, hurt, left the rather cool and unwelcoming bosom of Sydney, went to South Australia, first as principal of the Adelaide Bible Institute (later Bible College of South Australia), and then as Director of the New Creation Teaching Ministry (NCTM), where he wrote, published and taught an ever-expanding army of devoted disciples, who attended conferences and schools. NCTM’s doctrinal stance was: ‘biblical and Reformed, without prejudice to the movements of God’s Spirit which come at times of revival and renewal of the Church’.
At some of the missions taken by Bingham, the fire of revival fell. In August 1969 a mission entitled ‘Free Indeed’ was held at Wudinna on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. The large crowd at the opening meeting startled the organisers and they moved to a hall, but even there many hearers had to stand outside and listen through the open windows.
The atmosphere was one of the heightened expectancy, the listening was intent, and many attended who were not thought to be at all interested in Christian things. There was a sense of the presence of God brooding over the whole geographical area. A farmer who had not been going to the meetings, although his wife was, was out of his tractor ploughing, when great conviction came upon him and he got down in the dust and gave his life to the Lord.
The sense of wonderment came to characterise all the meetings. Crowds of people would just sit in aw for half an hour after the meetings were over without moving or saying a word. Many felt that it was like Pentecost, although without tongues.
Over 400 people came to the last meeting. They came from as far away as Ceduna and Cummins. Of the final night, Bingham said ‘like a great raid of beauty and silence and joy, it just descended on the whole congregation. It was quite remarkable. I’d have called it a very gentle but a very powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And I can remember the joy in the worship and the praise that night.’
Excerpts from the book Attending to the National Soul: Evangelical Christians In Australian History, 1914-2014 by Stuart Piggin and Robert D Linder published in 2019. Available from Koorong and Amazon. Excerpts republished by permission