Historical Reformer: Lilias Trotter

By Thaddeus Tague
Apr 3, 2019

In 1883, one of the most revered art critiques of the late Victorian era, John Ruskin, stood before a class of eager students inside a spacious auditorium. Silence reigned. He walked stiffly to a well-worn portfolio that lay on the lectern and opened the cover. He smiled as he glanced down at the first painting.

Then Ruskin addressed the class: “For a long time I used to say, in all my elementary books, that except in a graceful and minor way, women could not draw or paint.  I’m beginning to bow myself to the much more delightful conviction that no one else can.”

He passed around a series of watercolor paintings by an artist whom he had personally mentored. He called her “England’s greatest living painter.”

As the paintings made their rounds, Ruskin admonished the students. “You will in examining them, beyond all telling, feel that they are exactly what we should like to be able to do, and in the plainest and frankest manner shew us how to do it—more modestly speaking, how, if heaven help us, it can be done.”

“He called her ‘England’s greatest living painter.'”

Art That Would be Immortal

The artist of whom Ruskin had spoken was Lilias Trotter, a young woman living and working in London.

Isabella Lilias Trotter first met Ruskin when she was 23, vacationing with her family in Venice. She was soft-spoken yet passionate with a smooth complexion and a sharp mind for learning. Historical accounts tell of how she could rapidly sketch her surroundings with minute detail. She could also, with no prior practice, apply complex painting tactics and methods only by hearing how to perform them. Until she met Ruskin, she was entirely self-taught.

In his lectures to students, Ruskin said, “She seemed to learn everything the instant she was shown it, and ever so much more than she was taught.”

In addition to her art, God had also laid a passion for service and kingdom-building on Trotter’s heart. Along with close friends, she worked with the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) to open the first women’s cafe in bustling London. As they were usually not allowed unaccompanied into various establishments, English women resorted to eating their bag lunches outside on the curb. The cafe Trotter helped start was the first of its kind. It created an environment of welcome and conversation, which she used to disciple women and share the Gospel. During this period, Trotter also worked with the Welbeck Street Institute to reach out to young girls who had been trafficked and sexually exploited. There she supported the Institute’s work to protect, heal, and empower women, and worked with them to complete their education.  

Trotter’s zeal for Christ manifested in each relationship she formed. She believed that people would see God’s love once they saw how much she (and others) cared about them and their wellbeing. To her, love, evangelism, compassion, and friendship were all components of the more powerful command to “love thy neighbor.”

In 1879, four years earlier, Ruskin had told her that if she dedicated herself to painting, she “could do things that would be immortal.”

Trotter was caught between two ambitions: one, to become a world-renowned painter, and the other, to serve God through ministry. Knowing she was at an impasse, Trotter sought wisdom from God’s word and his still, small voice. She felt the draw to ministry as a physical longing. Even the word “missions” caused an ache in her heart that was insatiable. To her, the leading of God’s Spirit was clear. Although she would continue to paint, she would no longer dedicate herself to it as her primary vocation. Instead, painting became the way she expressed the beauty she saw around her.

Years later, Trotter would look back on this decision as possibly the hardest she ever made. In pursuing missions work, she gave up a future as England’s greatest painter. But however strong the call to artistic endeavors was, the call to ministry was stronger.

“Trotter was caught between two ambitions: one, to become a world-renowned painter, and the other, to serve God through ministry.”

Into the Wilderness of North Africa

Missions work was, by Trotter’s own admittance, direct engagement with her own weakness. The hesitancy she felt was not a lack of zeal, experience, or competency. It was a deeper fight against her self worth, and her own clear confrontation with what she believed were her limitations. In her mind, serving God with her weakness was the best way to amplify his presence and image in her life.

She wrote in her journal:

I am seeing more and more that we begin to learn what it is to walk by faith when we learn to spread out all that is against us:  all our physical weakness, loss of mental power, spiritual inability—all that is against us inwardly and outwardly—as sails to the wind and expect them to be vehicles for the power of Christ to rest upon us.”

Trotter described her newfound purpose as a “grand independence of soul.” She threw herself into her work with fresh passion. She worked tirelessly for the YWCA, teaching, serving, and volunteering without pay. She wrote Ruskin periodically, and they maintained a stable friendship until he died in 1900.

After a minor surgery in 1884, Trotter’s heart had been damaged and she was intermittently bedridden for years afterward. She would continue to struggle with a frail immune system until her death. Despite her poor bill of health, Trotter applied to be sent out with several prominent missions agencies. She was rejected by all of them. After this initial roadblock, she reassessed her options and decided to use her own funds to make a missions trip in a previously unreached region. Ignoring what doctors told her, and at risk of her own well-being and future, she left for Algeria.

Trotter traveled with two friends, no set income, and no support base. She recorded the feeling of arriving in Algeria in vivid detail.

“Three of us stood there, looking at our battle-field, none of us fit to pass a doctor for any society, not knowing a soul in the place, or a sentence of Arabic or a clue for beginning work on the untouched ground; we only knew we had to come. Truly if God needed weakness, He had it!”

The work at first was grueling. Trotter described trying to make inroads in the community as “knocking our heads against a stone wall.” But she was indefatigable in her determination to make the good news of Jesus known to those that surrounded her. She began by making friends with the local children. From there she met and started to serve the women of the town.

Her efforts were met with intermittent success, and she was disheartened when the women were ostracized by their community for their interest in the Gospel. Not only was the local normative religious culture against her, but the French government viewed Trotter as an English spy, whose evangelism was counter to French interests. French police would threaten and interrogate any women who took literature from Trotter.

Through engagement with the community, Trotter determined that Islamic religious culture prized literature as a medium. She viewed it as an explosive force in evangelistic work. She was invited to a debate with a group of Muslim mystics named the Brotherhood of Sufi, and eventually wrote a devotional guide for the Brotherhood based on the seven “I am” statements found in the book of John.

Trotter’s approach to missions was flexible, shifting to fit the needs and contexts of the communities she loved. One scholar summed it up this way:

“Her mission methodology reflected flexibility and an embodiment of 1 Corinthians 9:22: “’I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.’ For [Trotter’s] Algiers Mission Band  ‘all means’ included literacy and education, knitting and spinning wool, storytelling and artwork, medical work and traveling, colporteurs and literature distribution, translations of the New Testament, and the establishment of places of refuge.”

Today Trotter is credited with tactics that missiologists considered almost 100 years ahead of her time. She discarded evangelistic meetings and rallies as a “European idea” and instead set up a local cafe—pulling from her experience in London—offering daily Bible readings and music. She taught young girls embroidery and learned about the lives of the women to whom she ministered.

For the next two decades, Trotter worked in Algeria, returning occasionally to England for medical care (she was intermittently bedridden during these years). After 20 years in North Africa, Trotter was running 15 local Algerian ministry stations with thirty full-time missionaries, male and female. During those intervening years, as she wrote in her journal, it was God who did the heavy lifting. God had used Trotter’s illness and voluntary isolation from institutional missionary help to build a grassroots witness to the kingdom of God on earth.

Near the end of her life, after forty years of ministry in Algeria, Trotter managed her ministry operations from bed. As she hosted a Bible study on the Song of Solomon, dozens of people crowded around her mattress and sat on the floor as together they talked about the beauty of God—something her painting had trained her to see all those decades before. Bed-bound and dying, she yet again pioneered by exploring aspects of God’s nature of which conventional ministry steered clear.  

Trotter likened her ministry to the Autumn crocus, which blooms in the parched desert. She saw her life reflected in the flower, “breaking out of the hard dry ground and laughing at the barrenness of everything around in its faith that the rains are coming.”

Sources and further reading:

A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter

“The Legacy of Isabella Lilias Trotter”

“Lilias Trotter”

“Unveiling Lilias Trotter”