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Lizzie Johnson The Suffering Saint

  By Bishop Frank W. Warne (1854 – 1932) 

    Bishop Warne was a Methodist missionary to Southeast Asia, and in particular India, in the early 1900s.  The following is an account of his visit with an exceptional young woman during one of his returns to the States.

    When I was attending General Conference in Chicago in 1904, nearly a score of people said to me, “Do not go back to India until you have seen Lizzie Johnson.”  I did not know Lizzie Johnson’s story, but was impressed that I should go to see her.  I learned that she lived in Casey, in the southern part of Illinois.  I took a night train, arrived in the morning, received directions from the stationmaster, and found a nice little house in a garden plot on a side street.  A sweet-faced mother came to the door.  I told her who I was and why I was there and said, “May I see Lizzie Johnson?”

    She replied, “Please, sit down in the parlor.”  The mother left me and after some time returned, saying, “Lizzie will see you.  Follow me.”

    I entered a neat little room and found it heavily curtained so that only the faintest light could get through.  There I saw the face of a woman, who was lying upon the bed, marked with such pain as I had never seen before nor since.  Lizzie shared her story with me.

    Lizzie first became interested in missions when she was about thirteen.  She had heard the missionary, William Taylor, tell that $50 would redeem an African slave girl and she determined to earn $50 and redeem one of the girls.  Shortly afterwards she was afflicted with an illness that softened the bones around the spinal cord.  The illness eventually rendered her an invalid by the age of twenty.  Lizzie was laid on the bed with instructions that her back should not be bent lest it should mean sudden death.  She lay there without having her head once lifted from the pillow more than three inches for the rest of her life – years of constant and intense suffering.

    Undaunted in her desire to raise funds for missions, Lizzie was led to make a quilt to sell.  She devised the plan of having her father make a work table which would rest on each side of her on the bed, arranged so that she could put her arms upon it and work.  With much pain and effort, she worked on the project until she had completed a very beautiful quilt.

    When I entered the room that morning and heard the story, it had been just about thirteen years from the time that Lizzie had finished the quilt.  During all those years there had not been one person come who had sufficiently entered into her heart-burden and purpose to either buy or sell it.  When I looked into that suffering face and thought of that quilt lying in that room unused for thirteen years, it broke my heart, and I fear that I wept like a child. 

    I asked if I might borrow the quilt.  I had my ticket in my pocket and was to start for India within three weeks, but everywhere I went, whether in the train or hotel, in private house or public audience, I told the story and shook out the quilt and said, “Now, to the extent of your sympathy with Lizzie Johnson, put something on this quilt.”  Before I sailed for India I mailed Lizzie her quilt and, instead of $50, she had $600 to give to missions.

    During those thirteen years when it seemed to Lizzie that her quilt project had failed, she did not give up or surrender, but devised another method of raising money by which she became widely known.  She had printed beautiful ribbon bookmarks with choice quotations of Scripture verses which friends sold thousands of all over the world.  Lying on her back and writing on a little desk resting on her bed, she attended to all the correspondence of what became a large business.  She once said:  “I have sent bookmarks to every State in the Union, as well as to Mexico, England, Scotland, Italy, Sweden, Austria, India, Malaysia, Madeira, Turkey, Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan.  I have worked very hard as I lie on my bed of pain, and am thankful to God for the opportunity of so doing.  The profits resulting from the sale of my bookmarks go to maintain native workers in foreign lands.  The work overtaxes my strength, yet I am eager to toil on and do all I can to enable these native pastors and Bible women to continue their soul-saving work.”  Before she died, Lizzie had raised $24,000 for mission work.

    I have continued to use Lizzie’s story as an inspiration to other people – letting those who have health and strength and opportunity compare what they are making out of their lives with what was accomplished by Lizzie Johnson, the suffering saint, who had in her life a great purpose.  I do this with the hope that many, especially young people, who hear or read this story will form a determined purpose to do something with their lives that is really worthwhile.

    “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6).

    – Adapted from articles by Bishop Frank Warne in The Evangelical Herald, April 24, 1919, and The Christian Advocate, January 14, 1915. 

Willing To Suffer

    In his book, From Pillow To Throne, Charles W. Jacobs records a defining moment from one of Lizzie Johnson’s journal entries during a time when she was continuing to struggle with the acceptance of her condition:  “Vivid in my mind is the memory of a night when weariness, nervousness, and headache prevented sleep.  …As I prayed, this question came, ‘Are you willing to consent to a life of suffering?’  The question was a trying one.  At that moment my desire to be released from suffering, to be strong and independent was fairly consuming.  Must I consent to such a lot?  …The struggle was hard indeed, but my heart yielded and I was able to say, ‘Yes, Lord, if it be Thy will.’  Rebellion fled from my heart, joy filled my soul, sweet sleep came.  When I woke in the morning, everything and everybody looked different to me.  My soul was light in the Lord, my heart had in it a new hope, my life a new purpose.”