A Princeton student, Henry W. Frost by name, had turned into the room of a friend in one of the campus buildings. Blair Lee, the son of an Admiral who had served in the Civil War, was showing him an old revolver, the one which his father had carried in the Navy. Not knowing that it was loaded, he was handling it without concern, when suddenly it went off, its muzzle barely three feet from the head of his companion. The bullet whizzed past, almost grazing the young man’s ear, and buried itself in the wall behind. Nothing was said as the revolver was returned to its place, both men too moved for words. But to one of them came the conviction that his life had been saved for a purpose, by the watchful care of God” (Taylor, By Faith, ix. Unless otherwise indicated, all page numbers will be from this book.).
Thus opens By Faith, the biography of Henry Frost, whom his successor called a “tower of strength for the evangelical faith and missionary cause in the U.S. and Canada for over forty years” (vii-viii).
The authors, who knew Frost personally, chose the title By Faith because they saw in Frost’s life “a quest of faith to which that young man was led, a quest richly crowned with blessing to himself and others” (ix).
Born in Detroit in 1858, Henry Weston Frost was the younger son of Mahlon S. Frost and Frances Harriet Foster Frost. As a boy, he received Bible instruction in Sunday schools, but his parents made the deepest impression upon him.
The lives of my parents compelled me to believe that the Word of God is wholly true and also that there is a living Christ. My father’s gentleness, his long-suffering patience, his ennobling companionship, and my mother’s unfaltering, never-failing sweetness and love won my heart, not only for themselves but for God… . If I may judge from my own experience, parental life with a child counts more than preaching, and parental sympathy more than exhortation (3).
He also came under the godly influence of his uncle, the Rev. James Inglis, who was a man of prayer and a member of a small group of spiritually minded men, including D.L. Moody, who gathered in his New York office for prayer. One day, he happened to pass by Mr. Inglis’ room, where he heard Inglis pray for him and his brother by name. That memory never left him.
Later, his family moved to Princeton, where he studied first in a preparatory school and then at the university. He enjoyed learning Classical and modern languages, logic, psychology, and philosophy, and, most of all, English literature. His chief delight came, however, from watching college baseball games. At this time, he did not make his relationship with God a priority.
After three years at Princeton, he left college with a degree in engineering and joined his father and brother in their water-works business. He was given charge of the project in Attica, New York, where he boarded in the home of Dr. and Mrs. A. G. Ellinwood. He joined the Presbyterian church and began teaching on Sunday. In his business, he tried to operate by Christian principles.
Inwardly, however, he knew no peace. Lacking spiritual power in his life, he came to see that he was a Christian in name only. Finally, in deep distress, he asked God “for a new heart, for tenderness, warmth, love, assurance, without which I could not live” (20). Coming to the Lord in prayer, he was led to place his trust in the promises of Scripture. “And there I continued to stand, looking at the Bible, forgetting myself and my feelings, thinking only about the God of the book. Presently I laid my hand on the inspired volume and reverently, gratefully, and very quietly accepted its testimony as to what Christ had done for my soul” (20).
From that moment onward, Henry Frost not only believed in Christ for the salvation of his soul, but to trust the words of God as true in every respect, filled with both promises and principles by which to live. Gradually, he gave up some of his usual forms of recreation. In the light of 1 Corinthians 10:31, he decided to seek God’s glory in all aspects of his life.
Others noticed how his life had changed, including Abbie, Dr. Ellinwood’s eldest daughter, who had been observing him with growing admiration and interest. Meanwhile, Frost had started going with Dr. Ellinwood when he treated people involved in accidents. He took some medical courses, but found that his greatest joy came from sharing the gospel of Christ with people in pain.
After one person had died despite all-night attempts to save his life, Frost fainted from exhaustion. While he was unconscious, however, he received a vision in which “he seemed to be in a world of light and glory, passing up a great highway, with many other pilgrims, toward the Celestial City… . Hastening his footsteps, he had almost reached the portal – when the great gate swung to, before his face, and he found himself shut out. Then in his desolation, almost despair, the Voice which is as none other spoke clearly, tenderly to his heart: ‘Not Yet! I have work for you to do’” (25-26).
For a while, his passion for doing good found expression in political activity, but soon found that he lacked the wisdom to know how justice should be done. This drove him to study the Bible more systematically than before and started a lifelong habit of diligent poring over the Scriptures to see what they had to say on a multitude of important subjects. He wrote down his observations on cards and filed them by topics, so that he eventually had a whole library of topical Bible studies for preaching, teaching, and writing.
In 1883, Henry Frost and Abbie Ellinwood were married. Aside from being very attractive, Abbie brought much to their union, for she was well educated, trained and gifted in music, and filled with a passion for foreign missions. Her playing of hymns on the piano at countless meetings was apparently quite memorable. She proved to be a splendid companion, partner, and helper to her husband.
The young couple moved into her parents’ home, where Frost had boarded for some time, because her father needed her in his business. That is where they first heard the Bible teaching of Dr. W. J. Erdman, whose exposition of the Scriptures had deeply impressed Dr. Ellinwood at the first Niagara-on-the Lake Bible Conference that year. He invited Dr. Erdman to come to their home, where he gave Frost a continuous week of Bible teaching that profoundly impacted the young man for life. As he wrote later:
There were four men, by the grace of God, who made me: my father, who set before me the pattern of a perfect Christian; my uncle, James Inglis, whose godliness and erudition were an inspiration; Hudson Taylor, who led me into the sacred depths of the devotional life; and W.J. Erdman, who planted my feet in enduring stability upon the impregnable rock of revealed truth (31).
After a while, Frost sensed that God was leading him to get out of business and to devote himself entirely to evangelism. He received invitations to speak in a variety of churches. For a while, he pastored a church in the inner city of New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he and Abbie reached out to people at the lowest level of society and the deepest degrees of moral degradation. As they lived among these poor people, God gifted Frost and his wife to care for these desperate people in marvelous ways, and eventually a congregation sprang up.
In 1885, he attended the conference at Niagara-on-the-Lake, where he heard the powerful appeal of Jonathan Goforth to cross the Pacific and minister to the souls of millions of Chinese who had never heard the gospel. Back at home, he read a pamphlet about the Cambridge Seven, outstanding young aristocrats who had left everything in join the China Inland Mission. The faith of Hudson Taylor, who relied directly on God through prayer for support, greatly attracted him.
Because both sets of parents needed them, the Frosts reluctantly returned to Attica, New York in 1885. With the support of his father, he returned to itinerant preaching. He felt inwardly uneasy, however, so he studied the Scriptures to find guidance about whether he should become a missionary. The result was “two fixed beliefs: first, that the heathen are lost and can be saved only by faith in Christ; and second, that it is the duty of the church to do all that is possible to give them the saving gospel. [This study] brought to me the deep conviction that it was my unmistakable and unalterable duty to give myself to the task of proclaiming God’s good tidings to the ends of the earth” (56).
More than that, he later saw that worldwide evangelization was an essential means for “turning the kingdoms of the world into the kingdom of His Lord and Christ … A beautiful vision opened up before me of a blessed service leading to the infinite and eternal exaltation of Christ” (57). He saw that obedience to the missionary imperative was not just a duty but an immense privilege.
Attendance at several Niagara conferences not only deepened his knowledge of the Bible but also put him into the sphere of the burgeoning movement among students.
Believing that God wanted him to be a missionary, in 1887 he applied to the China Inland Mission in London. He was rejected, perhaps because of his age (29), poor health at the time, and his young family with two children. He still thought that God wanted to use the CIM as a means of sending North American missionaries to China, however, so he made a voyage to England, where he proposed that a North American branch of the CIM be established.
Meeting Hudson Taylor for the first time, he “had … what amounted to a revelation – first of a man and then of his God. Never before had I seen one so humbly tender or so divinely noble. From that moment my heart was fully his… . and also, in a new and deeper sense, his Lord’s” (65). Though at first favorable to the idea, Taylor was persuaded by his main colleague to reject Frost’s request, on the grounds that Americans and British could never work together!
He returned home, utterly downcast and confused. Why had God seemed to plant the idea in his mind and to lead him to England, only to see his efforts come to nothing? He did, however, persuade Taylor to come to America on his way back to China and to speak to the conference at Niagara-on-the-Lake and at D.L. Moody’s Northfield conference in the summer of 1888. Taylor did not talk about China. “He had only one theme, it appeared, that of the beauty and glory of Christ” (Broomhall 82). Nevertheless, Taylor’s words and personality made such a profound impact on the youthful audience that, after he had left for another engagement, offerings of money came in to support workers in China.
When he learned of this, Taylor realized that the Holy Spirit was at work, and immediately drew up plans with Frost to fan the flames of enthusiasm for the CIM further. Taylor addressed several other conferences over the next three months, making a profound impression upon his audiences:
As I saw him, he was never childish, but he was ever childlike. His humility before God and meekness before men had a transforming influence upon many of us, for character, as has been well said, is not taught but caught. As to his utterances they were truly great … clear analyses of human life and experience. Moreover, they were always fundamentally truth, the evangelical ring being in every coin of speech. And lastly, this preacher magnified Christ above all the sons of men (87-88).
Several dozen applications came in, and of these some were accepted. Remarkably, Frost and Taylor were able to assemble a number of leading Christians in Toronto to form a North American Home Council in September of 1888. Frost served first as Treasurer, then was appointed to be Home Director. When Taylor returned to China by way of Vancouver, British Columbia, he took with him a party of fourteen enthusiastic new missionaries from the New World.
When the news of this revolutionary development reached London, the Home Council there expressed strong opposition. Taylor had to make a special trip home to persuade them that the CIM should become an international mission and that Americans and British could work together. To overcome doubts, Frost and another North American Home Council member went to London. Their godliness, wisdom, humility, and zeal overcame all opposition, and the breakthrough was ratified.
Moving to Toronto
Since the greatest outpouring of support had initially occurred in Toronto, Taylor and Frost decided that the Frosts should move there, which they did. They were led by God to sell their very comfortable house and go forward in faith. God supplied them with a place to live and house new candidates, and an office located near several other Christian organizations. Quickly, the Home Council, and Toronto Christians generally, became a source of love, prayer, and financial support for the CIM in North America.
Living “By Faith”
Very early in their life together, the Frosts decided to “live by faith,” in the sense that they would depend directly upon God to provide for their material needs, without telling anyone else. Nor would they go into debt for any reason. Following the example of Jesus, they decided to live simply. “And we have never regretted what we did. The things we put away from us had more or less come to stand between us and Christ. We gave them up in order to prove to Himself and to ourselves that we loved Him supremely” (75).
Their resolve encountered frequent challenges. On many occasions, there was nothing to put on the table when they and their guests sat down for a meal but, just at the last minute, someone would show up with a cart full of bread. One time, in the dead of winter, they had no coal for the furnace, but a man delivering coal knocked on the door and said that he felt directed by God to give it to them.
During these times of testing, he wanted to have the same faith as Hudson Taylor did. Then he remembered that “faith did not occupy itself with itself, but with the promises of God and the God of the promises; and that one could receive answers to prayer only as one sheltered under the Name of names, the precious Name of Jesus” (142). They also learned to pray specifically, to fast and pray, and to praise God for his provision before their requests had been answered.
As he wrote later, when someone derided the CIM for “living from hand to mouth,” he replied, “We found before we were through that it was not our hand but God’s hand, and that is a distinction that makes all the difference – from God’s hand to our mouth” (202).
God demonstrated himself faithful to his promises to care for his people as they opened their home to missionary candidates and then needed funds to send new workers to the field. Over the course of several decades, up to 1937, more than $5 million was donated to the China Inland Mission for its work in China and at home – and all without any open solicitation of funds.
In 1901, Frost realized that most of the candidates, donors, and prayer partners of the CIM lived in the United States, so he decided he should move back there. After being offered the gift of a large house in Philadelphia, he left Toronto so fast that he failed to inform the Home Council members, who felt abandoned and betrayed by Frost.
The first three years back in America brought great trials to Frost and his wife, mostly because they had left a warm circle of friends and colleagues in Toronto and had plunged into a new place where they knew practically no one. Frost, who had been much in demand as a speaker and Bible teacher, found that few American Christians seemed to like the style or even content of his messages.
Gradually, however, a home council was established, more and more invitations to speak in churches and at conferences came to Frost, and a strong base of support was built up as a result of his assiduous labor, persistent prayer, and organizational skills.
Gifted Leader, Faithful Friend
Both in Toronto and then later in Philadelphia and the Middle Atlantic states, Frost proved to be a capable administrator, attentive to details, scrupulous in handling finances, and skilled at including others in the ministry and developing their own gifts. Among his peers, he engendered both admiration and affection. To the young missionary candidates living in their home, Henry Frost and Abbie were warm in hospitality, strict in their requirements of holiness and dedication, and exemplary as models of the life of faith.
From the beginning of their relationship, Frost’s respect and love towards Hudson Taylor were almost without limit. Taylor responded in kind. Frost, he said, was his “best friend.” They shared the same belief in the Bible’s promises of provision and power for missions and the binding authority of Christ’s command to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). The were kindred spirits who almost always saw eye to eye. Hudson Taylor trusted Frost as an able co-worker in the great task of reaching China’s millions and as a shepherd to the missionaries.
Visits to China
Henry Frost made four voyages to China, mostly to visit and encourage the North American missionaries whom he had sent out. “Wherever he went in China, Mr. Frost’s ministry proved to be just what was needed for the comfort and quickening of fellow-workers. He could not only listen; he understood. People opened their hearts to him and found far more than sympathy; for, somehow, they were aware of God – His word, His ways, Himself, in all their situations” (197).
Frost’s ability as a preacher and teacher of spiritual truths brought invitations to speak in churches and other meetings. After he became Home Director, he was invited to visit China and bring messages of encouragement to the North American missionaries on the field. While in China, he travelled to as many inland stations as he could, eventually developing a broad first-hand knowledge of the challenges and opportunities of the missionaries.
After the Boxer Rebellion, as hundreds of refugee missionaries crowded into the CIM headquarters in Shanghai, Henry Frost and Walter B. Sloan were asked to come help minister comfort. “These two men were singularly gifted as counsellors and public speakers, Sloan in expository preaching on ‘victorious Christian living,’ and Frost … in systematic teaching of Biblical theology… . [Acting General Director Dixon] Hoste wrote of feeling bereft when they had to return home” after several months. (Broomhall 452). In 1902, to prepare the mission for further advance, Frost and Sloan were found to “be the right men to lead them in conference after conference ‘for the deepening of spiritual life’ at convenient centres” (Broomhall 498).
At the same time, he was not immune to despondency and even depression. At home, the burdens of his many-faceted responsibilities wore on him heavily. Like his friend and mentor Hudson Taylor, he usually responded by working too hard. Then – again, like Taylor - he would break down and need to take a rest. One such collapse necessitated a long trip to China to recover, but when he arrived in Shanghai, he was still in such bad condition that it was some time before he could benefit others.
Starting with his first experience of life in China, Frost – like many missionaries before and since - keenly felt the darkness of “heathenism,” something for which he was not prepared. As he saw the temples and their often-grotesque idols, witnessed the processions of idols and heard the clanging gongs, and smelled the incense, he was viscerally impacted. Learning more from the missionaries about the destructive impact of folk religions on Chinese men and women, he descended into deep despondency.
As a result of his own bouts of depression, however, he was able to sympathize with others, both in China and at home. In his later years, when he could devolve more administrative responsibilities upon others, he undertook a new ministry, “the cure of souls” – what we now call pastoral counseling or spiritual direction. His experience and maturity equipped to encourage ministers of the gospel and other Christian leaders.
In 1892-93, strong objections to having an independent branch of the CIM again came from the London Council, with some members even hinting that they would resign over this issue. Then, in January, 1893, Frost and two of his Council members came to London to confer with Taylor. While there, they met with the London Council. “As Frost had expected, his companions impressed and delighted the Council, who confided frankly in the visitors. Even the old wounds about the North American council were reopened. Frost played a major role in finding a way out of the quagmire … his fresh mind saw light” (Broomhall 182).
After the decision was made for all home councils to be equal, and for final authority to rest with the General Director, the controversy was finally settled. “Henry Frost had been the catalyst of success” (Broomhall 184). To foster and nourish the relationship between the North American and London councils, Frost made five trips to London.
As Hudson Taylor aged, thoughts turned to a possible successor as General Director. Henry Frost seemed to be the best candidate, except that his health was frail and he had no extended experience of residence in China. When Taylor appointed Dixon Hoste, Frost gave his full approval.
Frost became a leader in what became known as the fundamentalist movement in the United States, along with men like Moody, A. T. Pierson, A.B. Simpson, and C.I. Scofield. Together, they helped to found several Bible colleges to train Christian workers, especially missionaries.
His numerous books and articles spread the knowledge of basic Christian doctrines and exposed the errors of “modernist” theology. Frost’s writing was energetic, clear, concise, and potent. Frost was a contributor to The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. In the historic 90-essay, 12-volume set (1910-15), he wrote the essays on “Consecration” (in vol. 10) and “What Missionary Motives Should Prevail?” (vol. 12).
These publications, along with the depth and breadth of his Bible teaching, brought recognition: Though he had never formally studied theology, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity (DD) degree, and was ordained as a Teaching Elder (minister) in the Presbyterian church.
Frost worked closely with Dixon Hoste, Hudson Taylor’s successor as general director of the CIM, to resist modernizing and liberalizing forces that gained ascendency in denominational missions in China towards the close of the nineteenth century and in the first years of the twentieth century.
As liberal theology became stronger in denominational missions, in 1917 Frost led the North American branch of the CIM to withdraw from the Associated Boards of Foreign Mission Societies and to establish the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association, of which he was co-founder. In response to the Laymen’s Inquiry report, Re-Thinking Missions, which challenged the entire basis of foreign missions, especially in China, Frost wrote: “Social reform is good, but it is not the Gospel. Education is good, but it is not the Gospel. Medical work is good, but it is not the Gospel. Indeed theses matters, good as they are, may destroy the Gospel” (Austin, “Blessed Adversity,” 55, citing Frost’s article in the China’s Millions, February, 1933).
When veteran CIM member Stanley Smith began speaking and writing about the so-called “larger hope” for those who had not believed in Christ, Frost and Hoste led the campaign to force Smith to resign from the mission, despite the objections of Hudson Taylor, who agreed with Frost but thought that Smith should not be held to new standards, since evangelical opinion had become more liberal in recent years.
Frost insisted on the necessity of affirming the eternal lostness of unbelievers for the spiritual health of the mission, however. This sharp disagreement led to a temporary break in their friendship, until Taylor himself made the decision that Stanley Smith must leave the mission, declaring also that “it is my judgment that the Holy scriptures do not hold out any hope for those who die impenitent” (Broomhall 498).
To help ensure the future adherence of the CIM to traditional evangelical theological beliefs, Frost drew up a doctrinal statement, which the CIM Overseas Council ratified, that all members and new applicants were required to sign. It is a tribute to Frost’s persuasive skills that he was able to persuade the council members, almost all of whom disagreed with him at the outset of the discussion.
In addition to essential evangelical affirmations, Frost, like many of his friends, including Hudson Taylor, believed in the pre-millennial (but not pre-tribulation) coming of Christ. They saw the imminent return of Christ as a great motive for evangelism.
Another issue that roiled the mission was the question of whether miraculous spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues and divine healing, should be expected to occur among Christians in our age. Though Frost had experienced miraculous healings, and believed in the need for the continual filling of the Holy Spirit, he and Hoste led the CIM to draw up a statement that forbade the speaking of tongues in public or the advocacy of Pentecostal beliefs by CIM members.
Henry Frost died in 1930 at the age of 73. Under his pioneering leadership, working with outstanding associates, the North American branch of the CIM had grown into the largest non-denominational mission on the continent, widely respected by church leaders and laypeople alike.
In his 1914 essay, “Uncommon Christians,” Henry W. Frost wrote,
An “uncommon” Christian (i.e., “above the common” Christian) is one who:
(1) makes God’s Word his only, his full, and his constant rule of faith and practice;
(2) lives out his life , having no confidence in the flesh, but having all confidence in the person and power of the Holy Spirit;
(3) makes the Lord Jesus Christ once and forever the absolute Lord of his life;
(4) has the vision of those who walk in heavenly places, and who thus sees things from the heavenly and larger standpoint; and
(5) gives his life irrevocably to God for the saving and sanctifying of the souls of men.
In this essay, Henry W Frost could have been describing himself.
G. Wright Doyle
Austin, Alvyn. “Blessed Adversity: Henry W. Frost and the China Inland Mission.” In Earth Vessels: American Evangelicals and Foreign Missions, 1880-1980. Edited by Joel A. Carpenter and Wilbert R. Shenk, 47-70. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990. (Note: Very helpful.)
—. China’s Millions: The China Inland Mission and the Late Qing Society, 1832-1905. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. (Note: Very unhelpful, because of its pervasive negative bias against Hudson Taylor, Henry Frost, and the CIM in general. Though containing much helpful information, it also promulgates serious errors about important matters.)
Broomhall, A.J. It Is Not Death to Die! Book Seven in Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century. Sevenoaks, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989. Now printed in Volume II of The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2005.
Frost, Henry W. About the Old Faith: Meditations upon Important Christian Truths. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1937.
—. Memoirs, an unpublished manuscript of more than 900 pages that forms the basis for biographies about Henry Frost. Stored at the OMF International archives in Toronto, Canada. Most quotations of his words come from this autobiography.
—. “The Uncommon Christian.” Philadelphia: China Inland Mission, 1914. Published by CIM in Philadelphia and Toronto, the entirety of the 1914 essay is available online (in PDF format) and at no cost thanks to the Cornell University Library’s Wason Pamphlet Collection (vol. 91, pamphlet 21).
Taylor, Dr. and Mrs. Howard. By Faith: Henry Frost and the Inland Mission. First published by the China Inland Mission in 1938. Republished by Overseas Missionary Fellowship. Robesonia, PA, 1988.