Monday, 6 April 2009

Bakht Singh 1903 - 2000, India's Billy Graham and more

The clamour of Asian life constantly echoes around the vast city of Hyderabad in southern India. But on Friday 22nd of September, 2000 the normal cries of the hawkers and explosion of exhaust from the rickshaws fell silent. Businesses closed and the traffic stood still as a crowd of over 300,000 mourners shuffled with a coffin to the cemetery. Who were they weeping for? He was not a rich man: he lived most of his life in a 10 by 8 foot room and never held a bank account. Nor was he a politician or an entertainment celebrity: he never read the newspaper, nor watched the TV. He was a Bible preacher; known to thousands as simply, ‘Brother’.

Hater of Christ
Bakht Singh’s family never dreamt he would become a Christian, let alone a famous preacher.
When he was born in 1903 he was dedicated to Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, and in his teens was often found in their temples rather than in the street playing. Even though his parents sent him to a Christian mission school in Gujranwala in the Punjab, he despised Christianity as an inferior religion and to prove his hatred tore up the Bible given to all graduating students. After school Bakht Singh married a girl chosen by his parents and had a son. His father was a wealthy factory owner and agreed for Bakht Singh to go abroad to England to study agricultural engineering. Here the young Bakht Singh became the dapper man of the world– he shaved his Sikh beard, drank and smoked, flashing a golden cigarette case when lighting up, and wore the finest suits to visit theatres and dance halls. Religion was of no interest to him. He wrote to a friend, ‘I have become an atheist.’ His love of travel took him to Canada for a summer holiday in 1928 and it was on the sea journey something mysterious happened. As an Indian Bakht Singh wanted to show his Western travelling companions that he could take part in all their activities. So when he saw there would be a Christian service in the first class dining room he went. He stood for the singing, sat and dozed during the sermon, but then it came to the prayer time and everyone knelt. He wanted to walk out, but it was too late. So he knelt: and something happened. Later he wrote – ‘The very moment I knelt down, I felt some divine power had engulfed me.’

Lover of Christ
But that was all. Another year went by till this encounter grew to full Christian faith. The next summer Bakht Singh went to Canada for a longer period to finish his studies. He stayed at the YMCA in Winnipeg and there made friends with a bank manager called Owel Hansen, a committed Christian. When Bakht Singh this, he asked him for a Bible and on December 14th 1929 his friend gave him a New Testament. Bakht Singh read it continuously for three days. On the third day the words of Jesus, ‘Truly, truly I say unto you’ pierced his heart. The still small voice of the Lord began talking and did not stop for over seventy years. Christ showed Bakht Singh his sins, so much so that he began to cry – and then His blood. Bakht Singh became a Christian at 11.30 a.m, on December 16th, 1929.

On Christmas Day that year Owel Hansen gave Bakht Singh a whole Bible. He became engrossed, finishing it in less than two months. In Canada he was grounded in the faith, was baptised – and called to full-time service. After his conversion Bakht Singh still planned to be an agricultural engineer, but in April 1932, there was a long struggle in prayer. He first told the Lord that he would give Him all his money, the reply was, ‘I don’t want your money, I want you.’ At 2.30 a.m. on the 4th April 1932 God offered Bakht Singh’s an invitation to full-time service on three conditions: he was not allowed to let any man know about his financial needs; he was not to join any society, but to serve all equally; and he was not to make any plans, but to be led every day. Bakht Singh agreed and so his ministry began. It would cost him dearly.

After seven years studying abroad there were tears of joy when Bakth Singh disembarked from the ship in Bombay and met his parents in April 1933. Those tears soon turned to grief. For when his father told him he could be a Christian privately, but not in public – Bakht Singh refused. His mother and father were stunned. In abject humility his father took off his turban and laid it at his son’s feet in the hope of making his son change his mind. Bakht Singh did not waver. And so there was an anguished farewell. He was now separated from his parents and his wife and son. [1]

Revival
Alone and penniless, Bakht Singh slept his first night in India in a public shelter. He immediately began witnessing for Christ, trusting God for his needs. From Bombay he went to Karachi, and here he truly began his ministry. He threw himself into evangelising the poor sweepers who responded with great enthusiasm. Those who came to faith he gathered for prayer and Bible study at 4.00 a.m. before they went to clean the city, and then he would go and preach in the open air, and more would come to Christ. Or he would go to the beach for whole days of prayer on his knees. His evangelistic success was recognised by the churches and soon he was holding preaching campaigns with hundreds attending in the Sind, the Punjab, and Baluchistan. In May 1935 he was in Quetta, and felt it was like Sodom and Gomorrah. He warned the hundreds who came to his meetings to repent and earnestly prayed that the Lord would ‘shake them till they kneel down.’ The shaking was truly awful. An earthquake swept thousands to their death – but very few Christians, and only two of those who had come to his meetings died.

In June 1937, with some hesitation Bakht Singh went to preach to a nominal Christian village called Martinpur in the Punjab. He was hesitant because the place was infamous for heavy drinking and immorality. As he entered the village a group of five older men were sitting under a tree smoking a hookah and they asked him why he was coming. Bakht Singh said he had come to pray. Their retort was, ‘Pray? You pray the whole night, nothing will happen here.’

For four days Bakht Singh hardly slept, so intense was his prayer and fasting, but for thirteen days there was no breakthrough: just ridicule and apathy. On the fourteenth night he told the people this was his last meeting and he was going away. He then asked them to stand for prayer. All stood. And then they started falling down, pulling at their hair and crying out over their sins, until 3.00 a.m. Revival had come. Bakht Singh did not leave, but stayed to teach. As well as Bible studies, there was a bonfire for people to burn charms, a ‘love feast’ where everyone came together for a meal, all night prayer meetings, and many processions of singing. From this revival, Bakht Singh took seventy young men and they walked 150 miles to the Christian convention in Sialkot – singing and witnessing as they went. When they arrived, Bakht Singh’s preaching and the miracle of Martinpur electrified the three thousand present.

Bakht Singh was now a household name throughout India[2], invitations poured in and for two years after Martinpur he was on the road leading revival campaigns. Thousands received salvation – and not a few received healings, though Bakht Singh played down this side of his ministry. In fact he eventually asked the Lord to stop healing through him as he did not want to attract people to Christ for the wrong reasons. He hated publicity and never allowed any advertising for his meetings, saying it was God’s job to bring people in answer to prayer.

There was a lot of prayer. At Mukti in Mahrarashtra he led nineteen all night prayer meetings with Christian workers crying out for revival and he was constantly at prayer himself. Many who shared a room with him, would wake up in the early hours to see him still in on his knees. He always prayed on his knees – whether in private or public. And if he found a Christian who did not kneel he knew at least 43 verses by heart to prove that true saints always knelt. His knowledge of the Bible was encyclopaedic; indeed it was the only book he ever read. He insisted that all Christians buy their own Bible, a New Testament was not enough, and he made everyone hold it up at the start of his meetings. If someone didn’t have one, he would say ‘Shame on you 174 times, because the Word of God is mentioned 174 times out of 176 verses in Psalm 119!’ Not surprisingly Bible shops sold out during his crusades. As a part of his outreach, he would hold processions of witness with Scriptures written on banners, and at the end he would host a ‘love feast’, as he had done at Martinpur, where all the believers were welcome without charge. Huge numbers came to these meals.

One of this greatest revival meetings were in Madras in 1940 which ended with 12,000 coming to the ‘love feast’. All were fed. Bakht Singh was seen off at the railway station by large crowds, so much so that he had to be carried by two men to get to his compartment. His final words to them were, ‘The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; and it shall never go out.’ He probably did not realise that this was in fact a prophecy for his own ministry in this city. Shortly after his campaign, a number of Madras ministers held a meeting and decided to ban Bakht Singh from their churches because he had spoken out against nominal Christianity. This of course upset the thousands who had found spiritual life through his meetings, so when Bakht Singh was next passing through Madras in the summer of 1941 on his way to a retreat they pleaded with him to start a church there. During his retreat Bakht Singh spent 21 days in prayer and fasting over this, keenly aware people needed proper discipling, but wary of taking on more responsibilities. He already had many unanswered invitations. Eventually he surrendered to the idea of starting churches, saying to God, ‘give me the assurance that you are leading me.’ The answer was Exodus 34:10, ‘Behold, I will do marvels.’

Starts Assemblies
Many marvels indeed happened. Bakht Singh and his close co-workers returned to Madras, but before their first Sunday service they, characteristically, spent the Saturday night in prayer on a hill overlooking the city. Then followed a Sunday that would become typical for thousands as Bakht Singh fellowships spread. They were not for the half-hearted. Early in the morning, before it got too hot, there were baptisms, sometimes up to fifty, followed by the laying on of hands, an important ceremony to show the new believers belonged to the body. Then at about nine o’clock there was an exhortation to worship, followed by a lengthy time of praise where all were encouraged to offer their own prayers. This was followed by another long message. Nobody knew the speaker till just before the meeting when Bakht Singh would pray with his associates and ask if someone had a message from the Lord. He refused to pre-plan the speaker as he believed this stopped the Holy Spirit choosing. The preaching always tended to be expository, especially if the speaker was Bakht Singh. The emphasis on the Bible was reinforced by the banners proclaiming Scriptures, or even painted on the walls of all Bakht Singh churches. After the sermon came the breaking of bread and then at about two or three o’clock, there was a ‘love feast’ where all the believers had a simple meal together, usually dhal, bread and water. Later in many fellowships there would then be a march of witness, inviting people to the evening evangelistic service which started about eight and finished at ten.

From this first church in Madras there are now over one thousand assemblies who look to Bakht Singh as their spiritual father. Most of them are in the south of India, but there are many elsewhere in the subcontinent, and a good number among the Indian/Pakistani Diaspora in the West. About 350 churches were born directly as a result of Bakht Singh’s continuing evangelistic ministry. He would hold a campaign in a city, and then his close associates, often an English missionary Fred Flack[3], would remain for several weeks teaching the new believers. Many other churches were born when people returned home after attending Bakht Singh’s annual ‘Holy Convocation’[4]. These were conferences, lasting about nineteen days, for all Christians associated with Bakht Singh’s churches. Usually several thousand came, sleeping in tents and booths, as in Old Testament times. Though costly, nobody was asked to pay a rupee and there was no fund-raising. The aim of the conference was for Christians to ‘feast’ on the Lord Jesus. And feast they did. The day started at about 5.00 a.m. and apart from meals-times people were either praying or listening to preaching. And in one booth there was a 24 hour prayer chain. It is not surprising that people returning from these ‘holy convocations’ wanted to maintain the spiritual life they had enjoyed and so started their own assemblies. A final way the Bakht Singh assemblies spread was through one of these new churches, then planting another. This especially happened in the state of Andhra Pradesh. From 1946 onwards Bakht Singh regularly travelled abroad where he was in great demand as a speaker. A number of assemblies were born in the places he visited – and, as always, thousands were inspired to walk more closely with God.

Unnerving Saint
Bakht Singh’s total commitment to Christ was infectious – and unnerving. As seen he spent hours in prayer. He only read the Bible which he knew probably better than any of his contemporaries. He dedicated all of mission leader George Verwer’s children. Obviously the ceremonies took some time, as Verwer later said, ‘He had more verses for children than I ever knew existed.’ And in this prayer and Bible reading he believed God spoke to him about the details of a day, and would provide every need. His close walk with God was also seen in his enmity with the world. He refused to read the newspaper, preferring to be given a weekly round up of the news by a friend, and both cinema and TV were taboo. One he heard that a church member in Hyderabad, where he later moved his headquarters, had smuggled a TV into his house. He called him into his room and found out that the man wanted it to watch the Olympic Games. Bakht Singh said, he and his family would end up being tempted to watch other things and soon they would know the names of the soap opera stars, but not the characters of the Bible. The man got rid of his TV. Bakth Singh could be embarrassing. Once he was invited for a meal where there were posters of scantily clad film stars on the wall. He said, either the pictures come down, or I will not eat here. On another occasion his hostess was wearing too much gaudy jewellery. He told the couple to sell it and use the money to buy Scriptures, which they did.

This emphasis on separation from the world inevitably had the down-side of making some of his assemblies exclusive and judgmental: nobody is ever good enough. Tragically this included the Pentecostal movement that swept into India after Bakht Singh had started his ministry. Another problem that inevitably arose from a ministry so rooted in one man
hearing God’s voice was that of leadership. Until his health failed, all major decisions remained with Bakht Singh: nothing could be done without ‘brother’s’ approval. This caused problems, as all saints have clay feet

However no ministry is perfect, and the emotion of the vast crowds that came to bid this saint farewell in Hyderabad in 2000 is overwhelming confirmation that Bakht Singh was truly a man of God who served his people faithfully to the end.

[1] Later Bakht Singh was reconciled with his family and he baptised his own father. However his wife never returned to him.
[2] Martinpur and Sialkot are now in Pakistan, but till 1947 there was only India.
[3] Fred Flack worked with Bakht Singh for forty years. Living in Sidmouth, England, he is still in good health at 102, and talks about India as the happiest of his long life.
[4] Bakht Singh started these in 1941, on the basis of Moses calling together all the people to Jerusalem in Leviticus 23 for a ‘holy convocation.’

All Rights Reserved
T.G.S. Hawksley

7 comments:

  1. Very useful. Thank You.
    John - Chennai - johnsamuel23271@gmail.com

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  2. great i would like to know more about "brother"

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  3. I loved to read this article several times, May our Lord bless you with all Spiritual blessings, God gave me privelage to have fellowship with both Bros. Flake and Bakth Singh.
    Samson, USA

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    Replies
    1. I am glad the article was a blessing for you. Tom Hawksley

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    2. Very touching and inspiring and challenging article which will inspire people who long to live for Christ!!

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  4. Amen for his testimony. Bro. Bakhth Singh is indeed more than a Billy Graham for India.

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  5. Very touching and inspiring and challenging article which will inspire people who long to live for Christ. Amen for his testimony. Bro. Bakhth Singh is indeed like a Billy Graham for India. Amen!

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