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Our history

In 1913 Ralph and Edith Norton, an American couple, arrived in London. They had worked for ten years with the Chapman Alexander Mission and travelled around the world. During the First World War they remained in London and met Belgian soldiers in London who had been wounded in the Ypres campaign. They talked to them about the Gospel and brought many to faith in Christ. After the war, the Nortons crossed the Channel and founded the Belgian Evangelical Mission in Brussels. In co-operation with the soldiers who returned home after the war, big evangelistic campaigns were organized all over the country to distribute as much literature as possible.

But what motivated them, what were their fears, what inspired them? Let us turn our attention on their lives and discover how God was working at this time in history.

1914

October 1914 – a letter of Ralph Norton to his wife

London is darker than ever and every precaution is being taken against air attacks. I think there is no immediate danger, but if the Germans come, we are in the dear Lord’s hands, and living or dying we are His. 

Oh what pitiable and heartrending sights, the Belgian refugees, they are coming by the thousands. Antwerp fell today and that brings the Zeppelins nearer London. I saw six hundred Belgian refugees arrive one night this week, a sad, sad sight.

November/December 1914 – an excerpt from Ralph Norton’s diary

Nov. 23 –  Back to Woking at night but to different camp. Held meeting in Soldier’s Home.  Fine attendance and good attention, 23 decisions for Christ. Trains delayed because of transportation of troops.

Nov. 24 – In afternoon visited Belgian Refugee headquarters, left some clothing. At 5:40 we went fifty miles to Bedford, held meeting for Scottish Regiments, Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders. 54 decisions.

Nov. 25- At 5:15 went to Caterham where we held a meeting for Coldstream, Grenadier and Scots Guards. About 300 present, 91 clear cut decisions.

Nov. 29 – At night held meeting in Lord’s Cricket Grounds, 9 decisions, one a Belgian refugee.

Dec. 1- At night we went to Wendover to Royal Engineers. Good meeting. 76 decisions.

1915

Early 1915 – Belgian soldiers in muddy trenches

Edith and Ralph Norton look for a place where they can welcome soldiers, and they open a coffee-bar close to Charing Cross station in London. The servicemen crowd in. Ralph and Edith take them through the New Testament and guide them to repentance. They teach them to pray and to share the gospel.

As soon as the soldiers return to the front-line, they are replaced by another small group of Belgian soldiers on leave. Soon there are the first letters from the trenches in Belgium. They have many questions; they ask for prayer and for Bible portions. They describe their prayer meetings in the dirty muddy trenches. “If only you could join in one of our prayer meetings,” writes one of them. On March 25th 1915, the Nortons resign from the Chapman Alexander Mission, and begin raising funds to found their own organisation, which would become the Belgian Evangelical Mission.

March 1915 – A new enterprise

Arriving in America several meetings were held with the Mission Party but the impulse to return to the scene of war became ever more urgent, and at Atlanta, Ga., March 25th 1915 Ralph and Edith Norton tendered their resignation to Dr. Chapman and Mr. Alexander. They were free to return to Europe. There were practical considerations to be met and the next weeks were spent in seeking a permanent treasurer for their new enterprise, and in securing funds amongst friends and acquaintances. Before leaving America for Europe about 1200 dollar were raised for the purchase of New Testaments, Gospels and other expenses. Best of all, a treasurer had been divinely provided in the person of Dr. Charles G. Trumbull, Editor of the Sunday School Times. It would be in this very newspaper that Edith Norton would later share about their experience as missionaries.

July 1915 – The Belgian soldier

It was a summer evening of 1915, July 20 to be exact when Belgium first laid its claim upon us, in the person of a little Belgian soldier, Pierre De Wallens, whom we met in the Strand. Mr. Norton had offered him a gospel. When he was asked if he understood what it meant to receive Christ, “Oh yes,” he said, “I have Him here in my heart.” Pierre begged for a parcel of Gospels to take back to his comrades in the trenches and these we gladly provided him, as well as a package of sweets to take with him on his return journey. Pierre was to survive the war and be restored to his family in Belgium afterward. Me and Mr. Norton were his sponsors at his wedding to a bright English girl, upon one of his furloughs.

We had often seen these Belgian soldiers at the stations or in the street. But now as our attention became more forcibly directed toward them we were conscious of the language barrier. How to make these men know what was our meaning in offering them the strange little books?

Summer 1915 – English, French, Dutch

How to make these men know what was his meaning in offering them the strange little books? No knowledge of a modern language other than his own, left him helpless in face of this great opportunity. There was but one thing to do, and that was to master a few useful phrases that would give him access to these Belgian soldiers who were more and more pulling at his heartstrings. A year before, I had been led to take up the study of French. However at this juncture my knowledge of the tongue was yet rudimentary, and my husband refused to yield full confidence to my linguistic acquirements. He repaired, therefore, to Jacques, hotel porter at the hotel where they lodged, a Swiss, a Christian and a master of several languages. “Tell me”, said Mr. Norton, “how shall I say to these soldiers, ‘will you accept this Gospel please?” Painstakingly in his room Mr. Norton practiced this preliminary phrase, until he could repeat it with confidence. But he found out that all Belgian soldiers do not speak French, many speak Flemish. Therefore to his last day, before entering the hospital at the time of his last illness, he always carried French Gospels in one pocket and Flemish in the other.

October 1915 – ‘Mother’ Edith Norton

Mrs. Norton’s part soon came to assume a major significance. It was the mothering of these forlorn soldiers, a privilege at once joyous and natural to her heart.

These soldiers, many of them Flemish peasants lads, knew that this was no ordinary ‘Grande dame’ but someone with a heart of love, created they could not know why or how, unless that mysterious quality had something in common with the Book that was being put in their hands. So it came that it was very easy to direct the thought of these men to the Great Lover of their souls, the Lord Jesus Christ, and how eagerly they seized upon this knowledge. With utter simplicity they accepted the truths taught them and they would write back from the front to tell their faithful friends of their new found Savior that He stood by them in the trenches and that now they had no more fear of death and no longer were overcome by the ‘cafard’ (black depression) that formerly weighed them down.

The answers to these letters became a laborious process, even if it were a work of love. Some days Mrs. Norton would write fifty in her own hand, and her health began to give way under the burden. But how could one refrain when confronted by those touching epistlers?

December 1915 - So many letters...

Many letters we received daily from men of whom we have never heard, soldiers who have heard of the work through their comrades, and ask for Testaments or Bibles for themselves, some telling us that before the war they had read the Bible and desire to return to the old paths, and as one said, “make up for the time that I have lost.” Others there are who write for Gospels to distribute, and always they tell us of the inestimable blessing the Word has brought to them at the battle front. A wonderful interest has been created among the Belgian ‘gendarmes’, or Military Police, at Calais. A Gospel given to tone of them, by one of our soldiers en route for the front, led the gendarme to write to us for more for his comrades. He began a veritable crusade in Calais. Each day brings new demands for Testaments and ‘Evangiles’ from these gendarmes. Also at the Camp du Ruchard in France, where thousands of Belgian soldiers are convalescing, the work has taken hold, and almost every day brings us news from there.

At this time Mr. Norton and I began to envisage a visit to the Belgian front if this should be made possible, and began to pray to that end.

1916

Spring 1916 - Leaving for the Belgian front

March 2, 1916, the Nortons left England for their first visit to the Belgian front. Their obtaining this permission was itself a manifest working of God on their behalf, as because of the spy peril, civilians were carefully excluded from the war zone. They have often remarked that God raised up for them a true Cyrus, from amongst the high officials of the Belgian government, in the person of Emile Vandervelde, the internationally known socialist. Emile Vandervelde arranged their permit. Thus armed with military authorization Mr. and Mrs. Norton set out for their first visit to the front. From Folkstone a military Channel boat conveyed them to Boulogne, and thence they journeyed to Calais by train.

Spring 1916 - At the Belgian front, at long last!

The next day their train arrived at Dunkerque very near the front line, which was under intense surveillance. The Nortons were subjected to severe and protracted questioning with the result that they missed the only train and had to remain there overnight. The following day they were permitted to resume their journey to the Belgian headquarters behind the front line, the small seaside resort of De Panne where the King and Queen of the Belgians lived in their simple villa. Mr. and Mrs. Norton being somewhat unsophisticated in military matters and not adept in French, had assumed that their stay at the front would be of unlimited duration and had read their authorization papers only superficially. It eventually turned out they were only permitted to stay for two days. But in any case, they both gave themselves to prayer that through Divine intervention, their stay might be prolonged, even to the limit of two weeks, so that the hundreds of boys looking forward to seeing them might not be disappointed. How blessedly God answered this prayer, and the thrill of those days when miracles seemed to be a constant occurrence, sweeps over the soul today, as one bows in adoration and praise.

Spring 1916 - An audience with the Queen

Mr. And Mrs. Norton wrote a letter to a Captain T. He called to see them just before the expiration of their time limit. Learning that they desired a prolongation of their visit and also to have an audience with Queen Elisabeth, he graciously, even if a bit skeptically, set about obtaining this request. And God saw to it, this is reverently meant, that he succeeded. Just as the Nortons awaited the military car, with their luggage packed, an orderly arrived from the Royal villa to say that the Queen would receive them at six o’clock that evening. Issuing from the Hotel, on the grounds of this royal summons, they commandeered a motor car which soon deposited them at the door of the unassuming seaside villa which was Royal headquarters. They soon found themselves in the presence of the Queen, a charming figure, who with the simple graciousness of trained and instinctive nobility, quickly put them at their ease. After an exchange of courtesies out from Mr. Nortons pocket came a New Testament, and he remarked: “Your Majesty, this is the little book we give your soldiers.” Queen Elisabeth’s heart was touched, asked if she could keep this copy and said: “I’ll see what I can do to obtain the prolongation you desire, do not leave the hotel until you hear from me”. Returning to the hotel a messenger speedily arrived to say that G.Q.G. had accorded a ten days ‘prolongation de séjour’, their prayer was answered.

September 1916 - Starting a ministry in London

Back in London, the Nortons decided to go to America and meet their supporters to tell them about their adventures. The remainder of this summer was spent in addressing Bible conferences and in other church engagements, but at the end of two months it was apparent that Edith must return alone to England to foster the work on that side while Ralph remained in America to create further interest in the rapidly growing work. How long was to be the separation and what perils lay ahead during those critical months of absence one from the other, was mercifully veiled from their gaze. Mrs. Norton had meanwhile been office hunting. The quest was successful and God’s leading made evident in later months, when the first small office at the top of the building in Buckingham Street, Strand, becoming too small they were enabled to secure larger quarters on the floor immediately below and when this in turn was outgrown , the whole first floor became available and there, until the end of the war, the Nortons had installed their staff of eight secretaries and a large adjoining room was utilized as a foyer for the use of the soldiers in leave.

Fall 1916 - Mrs. Norton in London

It devolved at this time upon Mrs. Norton to secure furnishings for the new office and to see to the installation of electric light and gas. Also the growing work had demanded the engagement of a second secretary (later there would be 8 secretaries). In addition to caring for the mounting correspondence and dictating articles for America, there is noted in her journal daily excursions to the Zoo, the Tower or Mme. Tussauds Wax Works, with visiting Belgian soldiers. Each week she longingly awaited the return of her husband from America and November 29 she records her disappointment at word from him that he would not be returning before January. On the same date she mentions the fact that she, as proprietor of the office, was summoned to the Bow Street Police Court, under Defense of the Realm Act, because one of her secretaries had failed to lower the blinds at the proper hour, so severe were they in those days in face of the enemy air peril.

Winter 1916 - Merry Christmas!

That winter of 1916-17 was bitterly cold, with depressing fogs and biting winds. The new exacting responsibilities resting upon her shoulders taxed her slender strength to the utmost, and the absence of her beloved husband drove her very close to the Lord, Whom she in past months had come to know in a new and vital way. As the work grew, pastors from different London churches, proffered their aid and one Belgian Adjutant, O .Vansteenberghe, came often to help in translating the Flemish letters. Later he would be appointed one of the Associate Directors of the Mission. Christmas Day 1916, Mrs. Norton records 330 letters received from the front, and three days later 235 letters. This beginning of an increased tide of letters was caused by the sending to the front at Christmas time of 10000 Christmas boxes. These boxes contained food, such as jam and chocolate, and an envelope holding two Gospels, a French and a Flemish and a Christmas card.

February 1917

The Nortons received letters from many Belgian soldiers who had turned to them in their great  suffering. Edith Norton quotes one such letter in full: the soldier addresses her as his mother.

 

Dear mother

 

I was deeply touched to receive your honoured letter and your kind proposal to fulfil the office of mother to me. I was born into the catholic religion, but as I was cruelly deceived in it, I always, even from childhood, had a liking and admiration for your proud and noble faith, whose members were scattered and martyred. And now that my soul is in distress, now that my courage is failing from day to day because I have no friends or family, and never even get a card from a friend, which would cheer me up a little, I trust myself to you, dear mother. If you could only know how forsaken I feel at times, so that I must often weep; but that is weakness. However, what can you expect, – my unhappy childhood will weigh on me all my life, and if I had not faith in our Saviour, who knows what I might have become? For my part, I am going to try to win all the lost souls I can, for there is much to do here at the front, especially with men whose faith is very weak and who are led astray by bad companions. Perhaps I shall find comfort in so doing, and it will help to strengthen me. How good it is to have been given a second mother who has given me a new life, for it seems to me that I have just been born again, since there is someone now to take an interest in my joys and sufferings. Now I think I shall have the strength to endure suffering and sorrow without complaint, now that I have found someone who will give affection to a poor banished soldier, who will do all in his power to show himself worthy of his new parents.

 

Your faithful son before God,

Georges Van Der Cruyssen

 

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