Lilias Trotter, A Brief Biography & Reflection

The name Lilias Trotter is not what commonly comes to mind when thinking of famous Christian missionaries, but is one that should not quickly be forgotten. Isabella “Lilias” Trotter was born in 1853 to a well-to-do family, with a highly educated Scottish and English heritage. Her father and mother raised her in the ways of the Lord, encouraging her in her faith throughout her childhood. Her parents also gave her much encouragement in growing her mind and artistic abilities through reading, study, and practice. 

One of Lilias’ first great trials came at the age of twelve, when her father died. His death caused her faith to truly blossom as she found her trust and comfort in the Lord. Her grief seemed to draw her near to God and light a fire and deep love within her heart. This was a time of a spiritual growth spurt for Lilias, and her dedication to the Lord grew throughout her teenage years. 

During her twenties Lilias was mentored by Dwight L. Moody in London, helping with many of his ministry efforts. Influenced by the “Third Great Awakening” happening in Europe during the mid-late 1800s, she felt drawn to ministry that pushed past cultural boundaries. Lilias Trotter lived and served during the ‘Great Century’ of Christians missions”. 

Spurred on in her ministry by a deep love for her Savior and for those at the fringes of society, She crossed many societal borders for the sake of the Gospel. Lilias spent much time ministering to prostitutes, factory workers, and homeless women, all who faced very difficult, impoverished lives in the 1800s London. Lilias would walk the streets alone at a time when that was unheard of for a woman of status, often at the risk of danger to herself.   

Lilias was involved with the beginning stages of the Young Women’s Christian Association, which sought to provide a safe space for women of all backgrounds and status. At the YWCA she led many studies, classes, discussions, and work groups. She cared for numerous women, seeking them out to provide them with aid, eventually creating a hostel for them to live, work, and recover in, known as the The Welbeck Street Institute.

A very important part of Lilias’ life was her love for art and deep appreciation and way of seeing beauty in the humblest of places. Often filling her journals with brief paintings and sketches, Lilias had a gift for illustrating her own life and the world around her. 

While on a holiday in Italy, her mother heard that John Ruskin, perhaps one of the most well-known and influential voices and artists of their day, was staying at the same hotel. She sent him a letter and some of young Lilias’ artwork, asking that he give his opinion of it. He was astounded by Lilias’ work, previously holding a view that women could create little better than poor art, and invited her to visit him to tutor her. Lilias spent time under his tutelage, and the two maintained a friendship until the time of Ruskin’s death, exchanging many letters over more than twenty years. 

With his authoritative and influential standing in the Victorian age, John Ruskin could have given Lilias all of the exposure needed to become a famous and unforgotten artist. Sensing that she had not totally dedicated her life to artistic pursuit, Ruskin asked that Lilias throw herself into life as an artist, and that he would make all provision for her success. But Lilias, after much agonized prayer and discernment, felt the conviction that the Lord was calling her to refuse the life of a well-known, influential artist, and instead follow His leading to missions in North Africa. 

Lilias set her sights on Algeria, an Arabic-speaking, Islamic country in North Africa, and began to take steps to move there. She was turned down by several different mission agencies on account of her having a weak heart. They said that she was not healthy enough to send overseas, let alone to such a harsh climate as that found in Algeria. 

Not to be held back from doing the Lord’s work, Lilias and two friends, Blanche and Lucy, left on their own for Algeria in 1888. They lived in the slums in the city of Algiers, not knowing a word of Arabic, in a culture that could not be anymore drastically different from that which they had come. Though a long, extremely difficult undertaking, Lilias and her companions learned Arabic mostly by immersion. Since Algeria was occupied by the French at that time, the women also had some language help from a French-speaking Arabic young man.  The women threw themselves into the process, not giving up, but since Arabic is an immensely difficult language, they felt as though they “were knocking our heads against stone walls.” Yet, through all of the hardship, they did not give up for the sake of Christ. 

Their ministry began with meetings for local street children, which opened doors for them to be able to minister to the women of the city, who were unloved, unvalued, and dehumanized. An Algerian woman once told Lilias “We have never been loved like this by anyone before.”. Lilias’ life was characterized by love, as was her mission in Algeria. 

Continuing to cross cultural boundaries, Lilias was drawn to the desert beyond Algeiers, and was able to build up a relationship with the desert group of men known as the  elite “Sufi Mystics”.  She, a foreign woman of the Christian faith, was several times invited to hear their stories and to share the Gospel with them, something completely unheard of at that time. Her relationship with the Sufis was nurtured over the rest of her time in Algeria. 

During Lilias’ ministry in Algeria, much of the Scripture and Christian literature was translated into Arabic, Lilias often adding her own art to booklets and flyers to help with comprehension. She used her art as a tool for aiding in the spread of the Gospel. 

Lilias would spend the next forty years of her life living in Algeria, dying, and being buried there, among the people that she loved so deeply. Despite the harsh climate, humble living conditions, challenging cultural barriers, and continuing health problems, Lilias was enduringly faithful to following God in obedience to His call in her life. Her love for the Lord, and as a result the people of North Africa, her life of humble servanthood proved a very fruitful one. Through her life and ministry in Algeria, she informally founded the Algiers Mission Band, opening a door for many more missionaries that continues to this day. Her work in North Africa was foundational and formative for mission work in Islamic countries. 

Lilias’ did not put herself as above anyone else, and sought to serve the most lowly people around her. She knew that to serve Christ meant to be marked with deep humility, finding contentment in all circumstances, being “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9.22-23) Lilias sought to be unknown for the sake of Christ, giving up her opportunity to become a world-renowned artist, that His truth might go forth. Regardless of status, beliefs, or cultural boundaries, Lilias loved those around her, desiring that they might know the true God. 

One of the most noted aspects of Lilias’ life was her dedication to prayer, study of Scripture, and time spent alone with the Lord. From a young age, she was known to spend hours in prayer or in her room reading the Bible. This continued till the end of her life, she making sure that she had time alone with the Lord each day, being faithfully devoted to Him. Such enduring devotion to daily time with the Lord bore its fruit in her heart and her service to others, eternal fruit being reaped even in our current day. 

I first discovered Lilias Trotter in 2018, through her art. One of her paintings came through my Pinterest feed, and as I began to read more about the life and woman behind the art, I was filled with a thankfulness, admiration, and love for Lilias. Her sketches and paintings stirred my heart with their beauty and passion, and the more I studied Lilias, the more I was challenged and taught by her art, writings, and life. Though far separated by time, location, and culture, I began to know Lilias as an older sister in the faith, her testimony and writing teaching me more than a hundred years later. 

Three things defined Lilias’ life: humility, love, and a pursuit of God, regardless of suffering. These have been an example and an encouragement to me in my spiritual life. Lilias chose obscurity in order to serve the Lord, and the Lord spiritually blessed many through her sacrifice and faithfulness. 

There were times that Lilias expressed grief over not being able to pursue her art to an extent that would’ve reached her full artistic potential, perhaps because she felt a lack in being able to recreate the beauty seen all around her. No matter the reason, she felt a sense of sorrow over the sort of sacrificing her art. Lilias chose to largely set aside one of her greatest earthly loves, her art, for her greatest love, the Good Shepherd of her soul. Lilias knew that to obey the Lord to her fullest potential, she would have to give up her art in great amounts in order to devote herself to the service of others. Many times in my own life, when facing choices that will influence my ability to be faithful to serving the Lord, I look to Lilias’ example of sacrifice and love. All lesser loves must bow to the Greatest Love. If Jesus Christ is our greatest love, all other loves will fall in line in service to Him. 

More information about Lilias can be found at the Lilias Trotter Legacy or the blog of her biographer, Miriam Rockness. There is also a film about the life of Lilias Trotter, Many Beautiful Things.

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