The Legacy of Lilias Trotter
A missionary you should know, Lilias Trotter pioneered a new ministry in North Africa.
By Marti Wade
What do you know about women in missions? Turns out women have outnumbered men in missions for the last 120 years, often pioneering new ministries and going places men could not go.
Among these pioneers, one of our favorites is Lilias Trotter. At age 35, she was rejected by mission agency leaders partly due to her poor health. But she didn’t give up. Pursuing a call to North Africa, she went on her own dime (initially) and served there for 40 years. She and a few friends made their home in the winding, narrow streets of casbah where they shared the gospel and saw many turn to Christ, often in the last weeks or days of their lives.
One biographer summed up what kept Lilias going: a passion for the impossible.
Lilias Blazed a Trail for Others
Lilias was trained as an artist and never stopped painting and sketching. Her fully illustrated newsletters were epic. They went far to mobilize others to pray for and support the work. She also made time to speak at conferences across Europe and mobilize new workers. On a 1911 summer visit to England, she launched an effort to recruit short-term missionaries. This brought a steady stream of young women to serve alongside her mission band in the years before World War I. Lilias loved these young women. She was always ready to listen to and learn from them, to welcome and encourage them.
When she died, Lilias left behind 30 missionaries who looked to her as their leader and continued reaching out to the people of North Africa years before a breakthrough came to the region. Later the little band was absorbed by a larger mission which then merged with Pioneers in 2010.
Today, Pioneers looks for innovative people like Lilias who know God is calling them to Himself, first, and then to His work in the world.
Inspiring a New Generation
Artist, evangelist, mystic. Missionary, mobilizer, leader—what is it people remember about Lilias?
“When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I watched a documentary about Lilias Trotter’s life,” says a Pioneers member so inspired she named her little girl after Lilias.
“She had so many giftings and was a budding artist who could have done great things in that world and made a name for herself. But she gave it all up because she considered Jesus more worthy. She lived such a life of faith—moving to a foreign country as a woman in the nineteenth century with no husband, no connections, no job. And she trusted Him to set her life up there and to work in her to minister and love the people she lived among; love them so much that she would live out the rest of her days there with them.
“My husband and I love looking at her old artwork and journals from her time in North Africa. Lilias had such depth to her in her walk with Jesus and that’s what we ultimately want for our daughter: to trust Jesus no matter where that takes her and to walk closely with Him all of her days.”
“Lilias Trotter is one of my heroes and someone who has become like a dear friend to me over the past few years,” says another Pioneer, Tori. Tori and her husband also named a daughter after the British missionary. Read more about how Lilias inspired Tori.
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Read on for a longer biographical sketch of Lilias Trotter
Born to Privilege, Called to Serve
Lilias Trotter (1853-1928) had a wealthy and privileged upbringing as part of an upper-class family in the golden age of Victorian England, schooled by governesses. In her twenties, she grew in faith through a movement of spiritual life conferences being held across England. She then volunteered at the newly formed YWCA to reach out to London’s working girls, including the prostitutes around Victoria Station.
But her other passion was art. When she and her family were vacationing in Venice, her mother discovered that the painter John Ruskin was staying in the same hotel. She asked him to look at some of Lilias’s watercolors. This began a lifelong friendship. He considered her artistic talent so great that he told her he could make her “immortal.” That is, if she would give herself wholly to her art.
Though tempted, she turned him down. It was a difficult decision but once made, it gave her a sense of liberty. She was surrendered to God and would not cling to anything else. She later described it as “the liberty of those who have nothing to lose because they have nothing to keep.”
A Humble Beginning
When she was 35 Lilias left her urban ministry in London and went to Algiers with two friends.
“None of us would have been passed by a doctor for any missionary society. We did not know a soul in the place, or a sentence of Arabic, nor had we a clue as to how to begin work on such untouched ground. We only knew we had to come. If God needed weakness, He had it! We were on a fool’s errand, so it seemed, and we are on it still, and glory in it.”
A Legacy that Bore Fruit
For the next 40 years, Lilias served in Algiers and traveled along the coasts of North Africa and South into the Sahara by camel. She went places never visited by a European woman. She also wrote devotional material that spoke to the hearts of North Africans. Her Algiers Mission Band built no schools or hospitals, the usual outworkings of a mission station—didn’t build anything, really, but relationships.
The mission leaders who thought she wasn’t healthy enough to go to Africa had a point. Lilias was sick a good bit of the time. But like her friend Amy Carmichael, a bedridden missionary in South Asia, she stayed. She put much of her energy into encouraging and praying for others who were doing what she could not. By the time Lilias died in 1928, they’d established 12 mission stations. Lilias left behind a team of 30 workers who continued reaching out to the people of North Africa. As an evangelist, one biographer says she “pioneered means, methods and materials that were 100 years before her time.”
- Watch the documentary about Lilias Trotter, Many Beautiful Things.
- Read A Passion for the Impossible by Miriam Rockness and other books by or about Lilias Trotter.
- Check out a longer biographical sketch (with pictures) on the Lilias Trotter Legacy website or The Legacy of Isabella Lilias Trotter (International Bulletin of Missionary Research).
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