Kingdom Women: Lilias Trotter-Artist, Pioneer Missionary to North Africa by Susan Allendorf
This is part of an ongoing series on Kingdom Women—women God has used and is using in His great Kingdom endeavor. We will meet these women in God’s Word, in the early church, in the dark ages, in the past great missionary efforts and among today’s true followers of Jesus. Lilias Trotter was key to taking Jesus to North Africa.
I love to read biographies, especially those of Christian women. My mind and heart are expanded by their stories. I’m inspired and challenged by their passion and faithfulness.
When I began to think about writing for the Kingdom Women series, most of the names I encountered were ones I recognized. There was one, though—Lilias Trotter—that was new to me. Searching her name on Google, I found a book about her titled, A Passion For The Impossible, by Miriam Huffman Rockness, and ordered it.
Reading this book was sheer delight. In its pages, I encountered a woman who was a talented watercolor artist, but who gave up the possibility of a career in art to be a pioneer missionary. A contemporary and friend of Amy Carmichael, Lilias Trotter was a single woman who spent 40 years taking the Gospel throughout Algeria in North Africa.
Isabella Lilias Trotter was born into a wealthy family in London in 1853. As a young woman, she came to Christ under the ministry of Hannah Pearsall Smith, and began attending meetings held by D. L. Moody. She was influenced by the Keswick holiness conferences of that day, and her heart’s desire was to live a victorious, Spirit-filled Christian life.
At the age of 21 Lilias felt called to ministry, and first served through the YWCA. Seeing how girls with bleak prospects were drawn into prostitution, she began ministering to them on the streets and in a shelter she opened. These young women thronged to the shelter, and Lilias helped many of them begin a new life. It became obvious that she was a unique, creative and courageous young woman.
While traveling with her mother in Venice in 1876, Lilias met the famous artist John Ruskin. He admired her work and tried to persuade her to pursue art as a career. Lilias, however, saw her calling along a different path, saying,
“I see clear as daylight now, that I cannot dedicate myself to painting in the way that Ruskin means and continue to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.”
During this time, she kept hearing the words, “North Africa” when she prayed. In 1887 the speaker at a missionary meeting asked if there was anyone in the room whom God was calling to North Africa. Lilias rose and said, “He is calling me.”
Lilias was rejected by two mission societies for health reasons. However, in 1888 she and two single friends, Blanche Haworth and Katie Stuart, sailed for Algiers as independent missionaries. She wrote a letter home upon their arrival:
“Three of us stood there, looking at our battlefield, none of us fit to pass a doctor for any (mission) society, not knowing a soul in the place, or a sentence of Arabic, or a clue for beginning work on untouched ground; we only knew we had to come. Truly if God needed weakness, He had it!”
Many difficulties lay before them, but as they trusted God, He showed them what to do. He provided a place for them to live. Learning a few vocabulary words, they began Sunday school classes for market boys. Through these children, they began to gain access to homes where they could reach the women. They were then able to nurture friendships with women and girls, and began to teach the Bible in small groups.
These early years were arduous, and there were many disappointments and setbacks, such as government prohibitions to their evangelistic work and false accusations printed about them in local newspapers.
One of the most heartbreaking was the treatment of Muslim converts by their own families. They were often beaten or banished. Many were secretly poisoned by family members.
Even one of the young women who came to Christ and began working closely with Lilias in the ministry was a victim of such treatment. She began to show signs of poisoning, such as mental dullness and confusion, and eventually left and went back to the Muslim faith of her family.
Yet, Lilias continued on, fixing her eyes on Jesus. She wrote,
“Yet if Jesus is there what have we possible to complain of?...And yet let us evermore write over all our miseries…these transforming words, ‘With Jesus.’ And then the very breath of Heaven will breathe upon our whole being and we shall be glad.”
After years of perseverance, they began to experience greater freedom and came to be known as the Algiers Mission Band (AMB). By 1918, 30 years after their arrival in Algiers, they were seeing significant growth. They now had 30 full-time workers, and 15 ministry outposts had been established in the interior. Significantly, people of different nationalities from across the country were coming to Christ.
Lilias was known for being strategic. They did what they could where they could, using whatever means available to gain access and spread the gospel. These means were diverse, ranging from literacy and education to storytelling and artwork, medical work to literature distribution, translation work to establishing places of refuge.
In the final three years of her life, Lilias’ health declined to the point where she was confined to her bed at the AMB respite house, Dar Naama. But that didn’t mean the end of her ministry. Quite the contrary, her bedroom became the heart of the mission.
Lilias continued to handle a huge amount of writing and correspondence. Through these years, she cast vision and gathered prayer support from around the world, and as a result, people continued to hear God’s call to North Africa.
In 1928 Lilias died at Dar Naama, having spent 40 years ministering in Algeria. She will be remembered not only for her vision, courage and perseverance, but also for the beauty of her artwork, which is seen throughout her writings. I will remember her as a trailblazer who inspired me with her wholehearted love for God and single-minded devotion to His calling on her life.
Susan Allendorf has been on staff with cru for 30 years. She has served previously in the Campus Ministry, International School of Theology, Nairobi International School of Theology, Orlando Institute and CrossRoads. For the last 13 years, Susan has served on the Women's Resources team in the Global Leadership Office. She is currently a writer/editor with the Women's Resources Communications Team. Susan is a widow and mother of a grown daughter, Amy. She loves to read, spend time with her daughter, and take day trips around Central Florida.
I. Lilias Trotter: “Lalla Lili” (The Arabs’ name for her) founder of the Algiers Mission Band by Blanche Anne Frances Piggott, 1930“The Legacy of Isabella Lilias Trotter” by Lisa M. Sinclair, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2002
Referenced in ArticleA Blossom in the Desert, Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, edited by Miriam Huffman Rockness, published by Discovery House, 2007
A Passion For The Impossible: The Life Of Lilias Trotter” by Miriam Huffman Rockness, Harold Shaw Publishers, 1999