A Christian Faces Death

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
15th October 2011

Tagged: death

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The Maritime Museum in Pyrmont has an exhibition of Captain Robert Scott and his Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole. Next year marks the centenary of the sad and yet profoundly heroic deaths of Scott, Wilson, Oates, Evans and Bowers.  They succeeded in reaching the pole but were beaten by the Norwegians by a matter of days. On the return trek they all perished - the last three were only eleven miles from a food depot that could have saved them.

The death of these men took the British Empire by storm. In that strange way of British culture, the failure to win and the heroic nature of their deaths seemed to make their efforts even more magnificent. Throughout the century, their final days, the sacrificial death of Captain Oates and the quotable letters and diary have been taught to successive generations. It is still a moving story that captures the imagination. Later questions and debates about the wisdom and skill of Captain Scott, have not detracted from the inspiring narrative of character that these men demonstrated as they battled the elements on their heroic endeavour of discovery.

The Maritime Museum exhibition while recounting again the failure of the race to the pole, points to the successful side of the expedition: the scientific exploration.

The race to the pole captured the popular imagination, as the moon landing did in the 1960’s, but the important and principal work of the Terra Nova expedition was the scientific research, which was an unambiguous success story. The leader of that work was Scott’s friend and second in command, Dr Edward (‘Bill’) Wilson.

Dr Wilson was a classic Edwardian ‘Boy’s Own’ hero. He played football and rowed. He loved the outdoor life, travelled widely, and from childhood was always collecting natural specimens. He gained first class honours in natural science at Cambridge and went on to London to train as a doctor. He was a gifted and extraordinary artist whose paintings of nature were not only aesthetically beautiful but more importantly for his scientific work, extremely accurate in detail. His social conscience led him to working in a London mission amongst the poor, where he contracted tuberculosis in his twenties.  His knowledge and studies could have him listed as a polymath; his life-style and achievements could list him as a Renaissance man.

One other thing always mentioned about Dr Wilson, though with frustratingly few details, was his deep Christian commitment. It grew in his time at University and led to his work in the London slums, where he taught Sunday School. He joined in the St Barnabas Guild to further explore the inter-relationship between his faith and the practice of medicine. He contemplated being a missionary in Africa. He is also noticed for consistently living out his beliefs, especially in his generosity and asceticism. The degree of his asceticism sounds less than Biblical but without reading his own understanding of Christianity, it is hard to know why he was so self-disciplined.

It is completely in character with his Christian beliefs and completely contrary to the mythical war between science and religion, that Dr Wilson would lead one of the great scientific expeditions of his time.  As the website dedicated to him recounts, “Wilson came to care little for originality and greatly for Truth, whether scientific, moral, artistic, spiritual or physical. Every aspect of life became, for him, a part of an indivisible Divine Truth”. In this he sounds normally Christian.

However, unless you are a ‘history of science’ buff, the Scott expedition is a story of hardship, heroism, pathos and character.  And in this respect Edward Wilson stood out in a way that commends the cause of Christ. Towards the end he wrote to his parents “looking forward to the day when we shall all meet together in the hereafter. I have had a very happy life and I look forward to a very happy life hereafter when we shall all be together again. God knows I have no fear of meeting Him--for He will be merciful to all of us.” Scott left a letter for Wilson’s parents describing the end of their son’s life: he was “everlastingly cheerful and ready to sacrifice himself for others, never a word of blame to me for leading him into this mess… His eyes have a comfortable blue look of hope and his mind is peaceful with the satisfaction of his faith in regarding himself as part of the great scheme of the Almighty.” Scott said of him "Words must always fail me when I talk of Bill Wilson. I believe he really is the finest character I ever met." 

Yet more interesting and intriguing is the indirect evidence of the impact of Wilson on Scott, as can be seen in Scott’s final letter to his soon to be widow. In it he talks of their son in a way that almost describes Wilson. "I had looked forward to helping you to bring him up, but it is a satisfaction to know that he will be safe with you...You see I am anxious for you and the boy's future — make the boy interested in natural history if you can. It is better than games. They encourage it in some schools. I know you will keep him in the open air. Try to make him believe in a God, it is comforting.”  Scott was not known as a believer and his phrase about believing “in a God” does not speak as a Christian – but he noticed the comfort that such belief brings.

It is believed that Scott was the last of the three to die. His arm resting on “the finest character” he ever met – his Christian friend Edward Wilson. But Wilson may not have been the only witness of Christ to Scott, for intriguingly the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography talks of the choice of the final team to go to the pole, mentioning “the two muscular Christians, Bowers and Wilson”.