Wright Made Right
The Testimony of Mr. Robert Wright, a Converted Atheist
I embraced Christianity around 3.00 p.m. on Saturday 27th January 2007, after 38 years of being an atheist. When I say ‘atheist’ I do not mean an ‘agnostic’, but a fully signed-up anti-Christian, very much in the mould of Richard Dawkins.
I was 16 when I came to the conclusion that God did not exist, many reasons leading me to that view. How could he allow the suffering and starvation in Biafra (Nigeria – late 1960’s) I saw nightly on television? Recalling the Old Testament, how could he be nice one moment, then do really terrible things the next? Surely Darwin’s theory of natural selection completely disproved the Genesis record? But I wince now as I think of the arrogance of youth, as I recall feeling that if he did exist, then he should move over, as I could make a better job of it all.
Early in October 2002 I began researching my family history in London. I found out more about my grandfather’s business, discovering that my great-grandfather worked for the Corporation of London inspecting ships transporting coal. His father had been a soldier at the Battle of Waterloo serving in the Rifle Brigade under the overall command of General Picton. But it was when I traced his father that things turned sour. Quite frankly, I was shocked and appalled: I was also ashamed! I discovered that William Wright (1754-1823), my great, great, great-grandfather, was . . . a vicar! People who have regarded themselves as ‘Christian’ all their lives may not understand this, but I felt let down. I could understand other people being naive, gullible, and stupid enough to believe in God, but how could a member of my own family believe? – and what’s more, compound that embarrassment by becoming a clergyman? But it got worse! Further research showed that his father was also a clergyman, and that his son had married the daughter of a long line of clerics. The brother of one in that long line had actually been a 16th Century bishop who came to a particularly gruesome end. I was so disappointed with my ancestors.
As the shock subsided, I started to revisit the basis for my strong atheistic beliefs. In the past I had merely needed to remind myself of two or three reasons for not believing in God, before reassuring myself that I need go no further. But now I began to ask what else was stopping me from believing. It was as though I was parcelling up each of these reasons and putting them on a shelf in my mind to think about later. It was becoming a long and cluttered shelf.
My hunger for more information continued, and this is when ‘coincidences’ (so called) began to happen. One of these would raise the hairs on my neck and leave my wife and me quite speechless.
My wife, Sally, was just as interested in this genealogical research as me, and later that same October she found details of a book on the internet about the (above mentioned) bishop. (I had thought I was a direct descendent, but discovered later that all his children had died in a smallpox epidemic.) His name was John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester and Worcester, and in 1555 he had been the first bishop to be burnt at the stake in the reign of Mary.
My library grew to include avidly read books on the Reformation, including Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, books on Edward VI, Cranmer, and many others, but all this while I just couldn’t understand how someone could believe in religion so much they were prepared to die for it – with the full knowledge that a simple recantation would spare them. So I went deeper into the matter, and my wife bought me an expensive book on my ancestor, (The Life and Times of John Hooper by E. W. Hunt) ordering it early enough to make it my main Christmas present. But it didn’t arrive . . .
Christmas came and went, and we had forgotten all about the book. But on Saturday 8th February 2003 we returned home from a shopping trip to find a parcel on the doorstep. I opened it, pleasantly surprised to find that it was the ordered book. But ten seconds later I was frozen, transfixed as I remembered that Hooper had been executed on 9th February. (This may have been one day out, but then the parcel could not have been delivered on the 9th because it was Sunday.)
On our way home we paid a visit to Yatton Keynell Church in Somerset to pay our respects to Thomas Hooper, an early 19th Century ancestor and rector of that church. I was moved to find his grave, and it was there that I prayed for the first time in 38 years.
A couple of months later we went to Oundle in Northamptonshire in order to visit Cotterstock Church, where my ancestor, William Wright had been rector. We were disappointed not to find his name on the list of past rectors, but later found details in the County Records Office. We also discovered that the Church was open on just one Sunday a month, and that was tomorrow. Sally and I joined the small congregation. It was a Communion Service, a ritual which until then I had thought weird, but I felt a strong urge to join in. So I went forward with the others and copied them.
Two weeks later, Sally and I were eating dinner, and the table was laid with a rather pretty white tablecloth which we had used many times. It was, in fact, a curtaining remnant which my wife had bought some years earlier. For some reason I was lazily admiring it more closely than usual. Sally asked me if I was alright, for I must have been very still, just staring at it. I showed her the unsown edge of the cloth. It read ‘Picton screen printed with vat colours in the United Kingdom by Cotterstock Design’. The words ‘Picton’ and ‘Cotterstock’ were in larger lettering and in bold type, and had been folded back to face in my direction . . .
My job as a chartered accountant, auditor and risk manager demanded that I be analytical, take little on trust, and leave nothing significant to chance. These coincidences had left me deeply thoughtful, but I realised that this was how superstitions start. I thought much about these things over the next five years, but apart from sampling a few local churches, I didn’t do more. My long daily journey to work in Westminster and a busy, stressful job meant that the subject of Christianity must take a back seat. Until Saturday 27th January 2007, that is.
Sitting up in bed that morning with a cup of tea, I realised that one thing I missed was a good, helpful Bible. So, after lunch I went to a bookshop in my local Arndale Centre in Eastbourne. ‘Ottokar’s’ (which has since closed) had large comfy sofas which customers could settle into and dip into potential purchases.
Now there is one thing we should all know about atheists. They are embarrassed by the mere mention of Jesus. We must not be misled into thinking that atheism is just about ‘not believing in God’: it is in itself a religion. So I made sure that I didn’t ask anyone where the religious section was. When I eventually found it, I furtively looked for a Bible, and quickly picked one with a maroon spine (maroon is my favourite colour) and, looking round to make sure that no-one had seen me, I settled down on the sofa and, opening the book at the Old Testament, began to read. It happened within just a few minutes of reading. I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of peace, joy, relief, a sense of release, a feeling that everything would be alright, and that I was doing the right thing. It was as though I had come home. I was so excited – I couldn’t wait to get home and read more. But there was another hurdle: I had to show the sales-assistant that I wanted to buy the Bible. I waited for the queue of people at the checkout to disperse and then went up, placing the book face down on the counter. It was then that I realised that there was no bar code on it! The assistant, who was new to the job, called out to a colleague at the top of her voice – ‘HOW MUCH IS THE COLLINS’ BIBLE!?’ I handed over the money and almost ran out of the shop in case anyone should recognise me.
My wife together with my grown-up daughter, Anna, were more than surprised when they saw me reading my Bible that evening. I had always made clear my strongly held atheistic views. They were even more surprised when I started going to Church regularly. I didn’t know that my conversion would have such a profound effect upon my daughter. Anna began to study the Scriptures, came to the Lord, and was baptised at the age of 25.
I began to realise that it was the Holy Spirit who was with me when I went into that bookshop, and my path up to that point in time had heavily hinted that so-called ‘coincidences’ may really be ‘someone trying to tell you something’. Later that same year (in October 2007) I made public profession of faith in Christ at my confirmation. This was but the beginning. I was baffled by the Church’s ‘obsession’ with sin, and why my vicar went on and on about it week after week. I had much to leam about its inwardness, and that God’s Law addressed every aspect of my life.
I set out with a will to get rid of my imperfections. I thought I would start with my ‘impatience’! One night in prayer I promised the Lord that I would tackle that ‘minor’ problem. Next morning I had caught my commuter train, as usual, to Victoria Station in London, and was standing at the pedestrian crossing outside the station, waiting to cross the road to Victoria Street. It is possible to stand on this crossing at a point where both the traffic and pedestrian signals can be seen. I knew that within a few seconds of the traffic signals changing to amber, the little green man would appear on the other signal allowing the pedestrians to cross. As soon as the amber flashed there I was, as always, saying (in my mind) to the people in front of me ‘Come on! Come on!’ in my haste to get across the road to work. So within ten hours of my promise to God, I had broken it. Would you believe that the following night I made the same promise, and the same thing happened all over again? I had completely forgotten it and my impatience had returned. I was beginning to understand how difficult it is to deal with indwelling sin, and why we need reminding about it so often.
But how wonderful it is that God has so entered my life and given me faith in him. May he give me grace to declare that I will never doubt him &emdash never.
Taken with permission from The Gospel Advocate Issue No. 14, Spring 2011.
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