Abigail Townsend Luffe (1858-1939) was the youngest of John and Caroline Townsend’s eight children. The Townsends lived in Bristol, England, from 1861 to 1865, where John became a close associate with George Muller, especially helping in evangelism to children. The curious girl who played in the garden of the orphanage at Ashley Down would herself be a fruitbearer in God’s vineyard. Abbie’s introductory lesson on prayer was given while sitting on George Muller’s lap.
“I wish Dod would answer my prayers like he does yours, George Muller.”
“He will,” was the sympathetic reply. And picking the three-year-old up, he repeated the promise, “‘What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.’ Now, Abbie, what is it you want to ask God for?”
George clasped their four hands together and said, “Now, you repeat what I say, ‘Please, God, send Abbie some wool.'”
“Please, Dod, send Abbie some wool.” Satisfied, she hopped down and resumed her play. After a few minutes, she returned and said, “I want to pray again.”
George said, “Not now, dear, I am busy.”
“But I forgot to tell Dod the color I want.”
“That’s right, be definite, my child. Now tell God what you want.”
And so Abigail prayed, “Please, Dod, send it wa-re-ga-ted.”
At home later that day, the three-year-old asked, “Mother, what is de-fi-nite?”
The next day a box came in the mail from her Sunday School teacher, who was away on a visit. The box was full of odds and ends that she thought her pupil might like, including a number of little balls of variegated wool yarn!
Abigail so wanted “to be like George Muller” that Caroline Townsend had to teach her to end her prayers by saying, “for Jesus’ sake” instead of “like you do George Muller’s.”
On the same day that she confessed Christ, her mother prayed with her and handed her a little Bible and a few gospel papers, saying, “Now, my little girl must be a missionary. Go to the old blind lady in the almshouse. Tell her that the Lord Jesus has saved you, and ask if you may read to her from your Bible. She will put her arms around you, love and kiss you, and tell you how happy she is. Then go across to the dear girl who is so sick, and sing, ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ and tell her He loves her, too.”
That day was Abigail’s seventh birthday. She had begun her lifework of caring for the desolate and evangelizing the lost.
At that time, Caroline asked Abigail to write to her brother who was serving in the military in the Philippines, to tell about her conversion. Reviewing the letter, Caroline said, “It is a very nice letter, dear, but you haven’t written one text of Scripture, and Christians should always put something of that kind in their letters.”
“But mother, I can’t think of any–only ‘For God so loved the world,’ and he knows that one.”
“If you cannot think of any other, write that. Take your Bible and copy it exactly as it is.”
Abbie did, and added, “I believe this and am saved. Are you, Sam?”
Three months later, Caroline received a letter from her son. “You will be rejoiced to know that I am saved. The searching question of my baby sister was too much for me.”
Before Caroline died in 1868, she prayed with Abbie, “May everyone of my children be brought to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and confess Him publicly. May every one of their children and grandchildren do likewise as soon as they come to years of understanding…also may it please Thee, Father, to call some for proclaiming the gospel in other lands.” Fifty years later, Abigail noted that to her knowledge all Caroline’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren had then come to know Christ. Three great-grandchildren were missionaries in Africa (Mrs. Lillian Gammon, Raymond Dibble and Kate Townsend). “As your faith is, so be it unto you.”
In the years that followed her mother’s homegoing, Abigail came into contact with Frances Ridley Havergal, Billy Bray, Alexander Marshall, R. C. Chapman, Marshal Broomhall, and for a year she lived with Mrs. Hudson Taylor. Abigail always downplayed the privileges she enjoyed. And that is understandable. How quickly we begin to compare ourselves among ourselves. Of course we can imagine how others might excuse their own life of lukewarmness by saying, “Well, I never learned to pray sitting on George Muller’s lap, or had a few hours to spend in private with the author of “Take My Life And Let It Be” to discuss the total consecration of my life, and then to pour out our hearts to the Father in prayer together. My parents never sat under the teaching ministry of men like J. N. Darby, as yours did, and I never saw such miracles of God’s provision as you did in your family. I have never had a chance to get into death row and lead a convicted murderer to Christ just hours before he stepped onto the gallows, like you have…” and on and on.
If any accused Abigail of being born with a spiritual silver spoon in her mouth, she knew the truth. God was the secret of her power, not pedigree. Thousands of others have had access to God’s men and women of faith, but they have not benefited. Like Gehazi with Elisha, Joab with David, or Demas with Paul, they were in close proximity to real spirituality, but remained carnal. The Proverb says, “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise.” To “walk with” means to keep pace with them as you move in the same direction. Many hobnob with the wise, or name-drop about the wise, but they do not walk with them. There is a difference. To whom much is given, much shall be required. What have you been given? Are you taking full advantage of those privileges?
For decades, Abigail was a true yokefellow with her widowed father, for whom she also cared into his ninetieth year. After John Townsend went Home, Abigail married the evangelist John Luffe in 1898. But while making preparations for a visit to America, her husband became fatally ill, and Abigail Townsend Luffe became a widow at age 42. Proceeding alone, she arrived in Buffalo, New York, in November of 1901. Doors of service opened and she extended her visit from a few months to more than 38 years.
Abigail’s aggressive evangelistic approach was proof that she was never schooled in contemporary evangelical methods. And her dress was so austere that she was sometimes mistaken for a nun. In fact, the name, Sister Abigail, by which she is best known, was given to her by a “Mother Superior” that she dealt with (and eventually led to Christ).
One day, she handed a tract to a streetcar conductor. Its title asked, “Can You Tell Me Where Hell Is?” The tract went on to give the answer, “Yes, it is at the end of a Christless life.”
The hesitant young conductor paused in the aisle. “You always give me one of these religious papers; I suppose you think me a very wicked fellow, but I am as good as they make them.”
“Ah! but this Bible tells me, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked’ (Jer. 17:9). That means your heart and mine. It doesn’t sound very good, does it?”
“O well, there is plenty of time for me to think about these things; I am still young.”
“Yes, but if you go to the graveyard, you will find all sizes of graves there–your size.”
Smiling down on the woman with the black Bible, he chuckled pityingly, as if to comfort the fearful widow. “There’s plenty of time for me; this is my afternoon off, and I plan to have the time of my life.”
As she stepped off the car that morning, she leaned toward that conductor and spoke a final warning, “Remember the time is short, and you need not go to a Christless grave. Jesus died for you.”
The car moved on and Abigail went to make her afternoon house calls. That evening, at the sister’s weekly prayer meeting the young conductor was prayed for, as they prayed every week for those who received gospel papers.
The next day, Abigail was on the same car when a different conductor stepped up to her. “Are you the lady who gave a paper to the conductor on this car yesterday?”
“Well, that conductor is dead!”
“Are you sure!? How did it happen?”
“I was in the car when you spoke to him, and I took his place when he left. He jumped from this car to another car, fell under the wheels and was killed!”
Abigail went through the rest of the day in a state of shock. That vigorous, alert, young fellow, gone! But where? Was it to a Christless grave?
Returning from her errands on a different street car, another conductor approached her, “Are you the lady who gave a tract to a conductor on the car yesterday?”
Sickened by the news, she braced herself, “Yes; but I know all about it, and feel I cannot bear to hear it again.”
“Yes, but you do not know all. I went to the hospital with him, and was there when he died.”
“Oh? He was not killed instantly, then?”
“No, he lived till 7:45 this morning, and gave me a description of you, saying, ‘You will know her, because she always carries a Bible, and is often on the cars. Tell her I am not going to a Christless grave. I have accepted the Saviour she told me of.’
Now, Madam, if you want to do a good turn, go and comfort his mother.”
Abigail published this story in tract form and through it personally led several to Christ, including a prostitute, a priest, and the nun previously mentioned. All three characters, we would agree, were hard cases. She was a skilled soul winner who knew her business.
Besides evangelism, her great burden was caring for lonely saints. This girl who held Mr. Muller’s hand as he strolled through the orphanage grounds gave her life to serving the poor, the lame, and the blind. From the beginning of her Christian life, she visited and cared for the infirm, and the case of Mrs. Hallauer shows how she was guided especially into this work in Buffalo. She had just rented a spacious apartment at 257 Plymouth Avenue. What she would do with all the rooms, she did not know. Having been asked to visit a Christian invalid, she went to the home, and since she knew Mrs. Hallauer could not answer the door, she walked right in. Inside the entrance, Abigail heard a voice, and thought the lady must have a visitor. Stopping to listen, she heard these words, “Father, send me a friend of Thine own choosing–one who will stay a friend always. Lord, send her today.”
“Believing God had sent me that morning, I stepped up to the bed saying, ‘Yes, dear: God has answered your prayer and sent me to be your friend.'”
Opening her eyes, the startled woman looked up at Abigail and said, “I believe He has.”
Abigail faithfully went to the Hallauer home two or three times a week to bathe her, dress her, cook or clean for seven years. Then came the news that Mr. Hallauer had dropped dead with a heart attack at work. Suddenly the invalid was also a widow with no income and nowhere to go. Being forced to move out of her home, Abigail searched the city for some facility where they took in such cases. The only alternative was the “County House,” otherwise known as the Poor Farm, which Abigail felt no child of God should be abandoned to. As she was informing Mrs. Hallauer of this fate, “All at once I seemed to feel a hand and hear a voice saying, ‘Take this child of Mine to your own home which I gave you, and show to her the kindness of God.'” That was the beginning of El Nathan Home for the Aged. Abigail had her startling experiences that punctuated her life, but her day to day labors revolved around the mundane and usually taxing care of aged saints who were bereft of family, and often bereft of funds.
She was often asked how her needs were met. “I would say that I never, by word or letter, say a word to any human being that could look like making a need known. God Himself does all that is needed. He lays it upon the hearts of His children to send. No one would ever think, to see our little home, what a large outlay there is, but God knows; that is enough. And I would refer you to any child of God who really trusts Him. Was He ever known to fail?” She knew she could not overdraw her account on the Almighty.
George Muller: Delight In God! by Roger Steer, Harold Shaw
Does God Answer Prayer? Sister Abigail Says Yes! Gospel Folio Press
Little Is Much When God Is In It, Mrs. Cyril Bird
The Adventures of Sister Abigail, Pickering & Inglis
Sister Abigail, by Clara S. Feidler, Gospel Folio Press