Tommy Thompson Bio 2 South Africa and Beyond


South Africa and Beyond

Later in the year 1947, we sailed for Cape Town, South Africa, on board the HMS Carnavon Castle, which was still a troop ship. Now new ambitions filled our lives.

We went to the shipboard church service because that’s what a Christian should do on Sunday. The Captain was the speaker. I had seen him before this and, alas, he was anything but a Christian. So now I was determined to bear a true witness for the Lord among the other passengers. We had met two Scottish Free Church ministers, and I asked one to try and get us a room to have our own gospel meetings. We were given the top deck and took Philippians for our study. The meeting was crowded every night and an “open for all” gathering made the trip happy. How wonderful to practise separation without isolation. It was on board the ship that the Lord showed what He saved me out of and from. Witnessing in love to Christ and away from any other influence, our hearts were now set on Christ. I vowed always to stay near a local assembly of likeminded believers who gather in the Lord’s name alone.

Disembarking in Cape Town at the tip of the African continent, we made our way inland to the bustling, gold-mining metropolis of Johannesburg. There Alex and Eleanor Maxwell met us and kindly took us under their care. They fellowshipped with saints in a Boy Scout hail in the suburb of Rose Bank. We learned to serve the Lord there in Sunday School, Bible Readings and prayer meetings. After a meeting one Sunday, Mr Fellingham, a missionary, gave me a word of caution: “Young man, there are two things in Johannesburg: God or gold. If you go in for God, you will never worry about gold. If you go in for gold, you will be a casualty of no use to God.”

At the first prayer meeting I was very frightened, for they prayed clockwise. Soon it would be my turn, and I had never prayed in public before. I even thought of excusing myself and leaving. Dear Mr George Smith rose and read from Romans 8:16,17 and said a few words which eased my nerves and gave me some courage to take part. From then on we longed to be more active in our work and witness for the Lord. However some in the meeting questioned the role of women in the church, church membership and reception, and other controversial items. I cast these questions on the Lord. Taking care not to have the attitude of “they do this in Ireland”, I went to the Bible and had every question answered, revealing to me principles which I hold to this day.

It was during this time that the Lord blessed Sadie and me with our first two children. Brian was born in Johannesburg on September 16, 1948, and Billy on March 6, 1951.

I commenced Open Air meetings. These are meetings where several believers would gather on a sidewalk or other public open space and each in turn preach the gospel message to all who passed by. We saw people won for Christ in this way. I always wondered why some believers were reluctant to stand with us. One eider even sat in his car a distance away. Sometimes while preaching in the open air, shouts to shut up were hurled at us. One dear sister said, “Tommy we should not come here again, we are upsetting the people.”

We also started meeting for Bible studies in people’s homes, called “cottage meetings”. One night, some residents of a home nearby attended and this contact opened the door for preaching the gospel each Thursday evening in the Rand Epileptic Home. We saw several of these men saved within about six weeks. When I left, this work was carried on by Oscar Hinds who came and helped at the beginning. Neither Hinds nor I would be regarded as good gospel preachers at the time, but someone once said, “Fools on fire are better than scholars on ice.”

George Knowles, a missionary in Palestine, visited our assembly in Johannesburg. We were very impressed with his reports of the Lord’s work in that region, as he exalted what Christ had done in Palestine and upper Egypt. At home that night we prayed, “Lord if you can do that with George Knowles, could you do something with us?” Thus began our exercise of heart as to where the Lord would have us go.

Shortly after this my firm transferred me to the beautiful city of Cape Town. There I served the Lord with heart and soul mostly with my dear coloured brethren. Series of Gospel meetings brought many souls to Christ. Syd Schlozh, a fervent full-time servant of God who worked in the country assemblies took me along with him and I loved the work. God blessed as souls were saved and saints built up. I thought this was where the Lord wanted us to serve.

I was invited to speak at a conference, but felt inadequate and refused. “Let us make that decision, Tommy,” the conference organizers said. “Come and minister to the assembly and we will see.” Their decision was that I should speak. I studied Exodus 31 to speak on “God’s Servant” at the conference.

I had to meet Sadie at the train station and was late for the afternoon announcements, so I wasn’t there to hear them announce that each speaker was limited to a half-hour. My turn came and standing behind the pulpit trembling, I started to preach and felt the Lord giving me help. As an inexperienced speaker, I had not at that time developed a sense of time passing, so unaware of the half hour time limit I went on and on and getting help. Joe Kerr was chairman of the conference and I heard him say something on the platform behind me. I thought he was saying, “Amen!” Softly, I felt a tug at my coat. It was Mr. Kerr. “Tommy, sit down,” he whispered. “Your time is up.” After that conference, I was invited to four assemblies to finish my message!

We lived in a lovely town called Fish Hoek, south of the city of Cape Town. We had a flat overlooking the beach and we were happy thinking the Lord wanted us to labour here in the Cape Province. I kept busy in the ministry of the gospel even as I worked hard for the Mobil Oil Company, conducting lunch hour meetings in factories and holding cottage meetings in homes in the evenings, seeing precious souls saved.

I commuted each morning to Cape Town on the train with Frank Hamilton. He gave me Assembly magazines to read which he had received from his brother Sam, a full-time servant of God in America. There I read an article by an elderly servant appealing for help in “the neglected northwest Alaska”. I was quite transfixed. An impression came over me that the Lord was saying, “This is where I want you to go.” But I became very uncertain and I began to question the reality of this experience, for I knew nothing about that part of the world. I went to enquire at the United States consulate in Cape Town, but the man there knew no more than me. He showed me books about Alaska, which was at the time still just a territory of the United States. The only thing I did learn was that there was fish, furs and freezing cold! The lack of information made me apprehensive.

Together Sadie and I prayed. I decided to ask those whom I knew to be honest and good assembly elders to share this exercise: Hugh Vine (brother of W.E. Vine), Joe Kerr, George Dennis, Aif Smith, David Morris and a few others. I asked the Lord to show me that if this was not of Himself he would in some way hinder me from making a mistake. I went on serving the Lord as before, and more blessing came from Him as many souls were saved.

Some began to question our exercise of seeking God’s will about our going to Alaska, and this became very discouraging. I wrote to William Rae about these problems. He was the aged servant whose article started this exercise, now living and ministering in the state of Washington. His reply was, “If it is of God then the devil will use any means to stop you.”

Eventually the day came for several assemblies to gather to consider my commendation to the Lord for His work in Alaska. Without a word of dissent, six assemblies joined in commending us to the Lord.

I resigned from Mobil Oil. From that first step of faith, God made it clear that He would provide for us. Men who worked with me threw a farewell party and gave a gift of £100 to buy something to remind me of them. With this gift and my severance pay in my pocket, I left the office for the last time.

I sat down at the railway station and wondered how I would make it financially. I remember thinking, “this your last salar there will be no more and what will I do?” Arriving home, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander were there having come to encourage us in our going forth. They had brought a dressed chicken, six corn on the cob, four tomatoes, and a 10-shilling note. No one will ever erase the memory of the grace of these dear coloured saints who strengthened me against my fears of the future. Many have been the tests since then, but as Alfred Cuff, former missionary for over 50 years in China, said, “Tommy, faith will always be tested, but will never be disappointed.” He also gave me Nahum 1:7 “....He kroweth them who trust in Him”, not them who say they trust in Him. These words have often comforted us in times of testing.

Selling our few earthly possessions was easy. Booking passage on the ship to England in the cheapest berths used up all my severance pay and the gift from my fellow workmen. I had barely enough money to pay for wee Billy’s fare However while parting from my dear parents they gave us a gift that helped us reach Ireland by train and cross-channel boat. The Lord provided all the funds we needed. Sadie, Brian and Billy had another journey before them, to depart by ship first for Cobh in Ireland, then over the Atlantic to America, and ultimately Alaska.

One brother who took our few suitcases in his car to the ship in Capetown for the voyage to England was surely kin to Job’s comforters. “Tommy, the Lord can use your mistake, for this is not of God!” he said. On board the ship, many dear Christians had come to see us off, while others still warned me, “The brethren in Ulster and America will not be interested in hearing you blow your horn about your call!”