Single Women who Dared to Live Boldly: Lilias Trotter

Lilas Trotter as a young woman.

I first heard of Lilias Trotter through the writings of Elisabeth Elliot- she was quoted frequently and it sparked my interest. I read her biography and couldn’t believe the life she lived! Lilias Trotter was a remarkable woman who lived a bold, bright life for Christ and I think she deserves to be remembered more.

Lilias Trotter was born into a well-to-do family that valued education, the arts, and humanitarian work. From an early age, she learned to serve others. When she was a young woman she volunteered at the YWCA and would go out at night, seeking to offer help, better jobs, and safety to prostitutes, even for a night. In spite of their profession, Lilias genuinely loved and cared for these women, wanting only to assist them and save their souls. When the evangelist D.L. Moody came to England his impact on her life prompted her to become even more involved in evangelical efforts. Her passion and love for God and people characterized her life.

Lilias’ other great passion was art. She was a self-taught artist; however, she was acclaimed for her work. Lilias painted, drew, and wrote poetry. Later, when she was in North Africa, she brought the desert and its people to life through her paintings. John Ruskin, the famous 19th-century art critic, greatly admired her art and encouraged Lilias to make it her life’s focus. In spite of this encouragement and her life-long friendship with Ruskin, she felt that only devotion to God was acceptable and she chose mission work over art.

Lilias was a single woman of independent means. She could have easily stayed in England and enjoyed a life of art, peace, and leisure. However, she felt strongly that God was calling her to North Africa. She could not rest and live a life of comfort when there were people that had never heard the gospel. This became the one consuming focus of Lilias’s life.

God’s call forced her life into a whole new direction and redefined her. Lilias, like so many women of her generation, was never physically strong. Her weak heart and frail body caused mission boards to reject her. Lack of support didn’t stop her, though. Lilias simply took on all the burdens herself- financial and otherwise, and just…went. She wasn’t going to let anything stop her.  

This amazes me- Lilias and two other financially independent women (none of them able to pass a physical exam) moved to Algeria, a Muslim country where women were traditionally hidden away. They didn’t know anyone or speak a word of the language. Being high-born ladies, they didn’t even know how to do housework- they all grew up with servants! On arriving in Algeria Lilias wrote, “Three of us stood there, looking at our battle-field, none of us fit to pass a doctor for any 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!”

The work was very difficult- men were suspicious and the women and children were largely inaccessible. Arabic language learning was arduous. French/ English relations were very strained (there were many Frenchmen living in Algeria at the time), and the French were as hostile towards Lilias as the Muslims were. The few who did convert to Christianity were treated badly and even spied on. It took a long time for the Lilias and her friends to make contact with Muslim women. In spite of all the challenges, they remained faithful to the work God called them to do.

As her mission efforts in the city finally began to grow, Lilias became preoccupied with the desert people- nomadic groups that roamed freely and had never heard the gospel. Deeply burdened, this wealthy English woman began to venture into the desert on a camel, riding through extreme heat and dust storms to find the nomads. When she would meet men in the desert Lilias would give them cards with Bible verses carefully written in Arabic, believing in the power of God to use even that tiny contact.

One of Lilias’ paintings

Lilias served as a missionary in Algeria for forty years- the rest of her life. Her poor physical health forced her to take long furloughs, but she always came back. At the time of her death in 1928, Lilias had established thirteen mission stations and had over thirty workers, under the name Algiers Mission Band, united in her vision to bring “the light of the knowledge of God, in the face of Christ” to the people of Algeria. Her life was characterized by fervent prayer and a deeply-rooted trust in God that never wavered.

There is a biography of Lilias Trotter called A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, written by Miriam Rockness. I highly recommend you read it and get to know this remarkable woman better. Her life and faith are truly an inspiration.  

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