Of all the notable men involved at the inception of the work that later became known as Echoes of Service, it is likely that the name Robert Eugene Sparks would be largely unknown. Yet his contribution to that work in its formative years was considerable, as was his knowledge of, and interest in, the work of missionaries abroad.
Robert Sparks was born on September 17th, 1844, the son of a Dublin doctor. As one of a family of four children, Sparks did not follow his father into medicine but instead took up law. Little is recorded of Sparks’ early years, his education, his conversion or early life in assembly fellowship, and this is perhaps typical of a man who carried on his work quietly and unobtrusively. Following his legal training as a solicitor, Sparks was employed at the Head Office of the Ulster Bank in Waring Street, Belfast from 1874-94. His role was officially described as a ‘law clerk’ but, as a solicitor, he provided the interface between the commercial and the legal needs of the customers of the bank, although quite what that involved is unclear. However, a bank with branches all over Ireland was likely to give Robert Sparks plenty to do.
On February 6th, 1877 he married Catherine Rose Elliott at Alma Road Chapel, Clifton, Bristol. The couple settled in Belfast and, later, the assembly at Holywood was commenced in their house and Sparks was one of the two treasurers. It is here that Sparks’ interest in missionary activity was first noted. The assembly was generous in its giving to missionary work and, to support intelligent giving to meet specific need, Sparks developed a wide knowledge of the mission field, even in days when communication was much more difficult than today. Initially, the gifts were channelled through the organization that published The Missionary Echo which, in 1891, became known as Echoes of Service. Apart from his generosity to support gospel work abroad, Sparks also took a keen interest in the gospel in his own land. In 1891, he built Apsley Street Hall, Belfast, and rented it to that assembly. After his death they were able to purchase it from his executors.
Sparks was no stranger to tragedy. After only eight years of married life his first wife died, leaving Robert with three children. Although the circumstances are not recorded, only one of those children survived, a son, John Elliott. He followed his grand-father into medicine, qualifying as a surgeon at the University of London. It may be that his father’s interest in the mission field influenced John and developed in him a desire to serve the Lord abroad. Thus, in June 1906 he set out for Angola. As Stunt et al record, ‘On the way from the coast to Okapango (Capango) there was a lot of illness in the party. He was indefatigable in tending others but then was stricken with the illness from which he died’.1 Although Sparks was naturally shocked at the loss of his only son, he believed John had followed the Lord’s guidance in the decision and accepted it as of the Lord.
In 1893, Sparks married Janie Bogue. Robert and Janie shared a keen interest in missionary work, Janie joining her husband in the work at Holywood. She began a missionary sewing class and cooperated enthusiastically in her husband’s and stepson’s missionary interests. With Sparks’ interest in, and commitment to, the support of labourers upon the mission field, it is not surprising that Henry Dyer2 approached him about joining the work of Echoes at Bath. Sparks gave himself to prayer, and on October 6th, 1894 the family moved to 6 Widcombe Crescent, Bath.
With his legal training and experience, Sparks’ first task at Echoes was to develop an appropriate framework for the holding of various properties overseas which had been vested in the Editors. He was involved with such organizations as the Continental Lands Company Ltd., and, later, Stewards Company Ltd., being a director of the former and managing director and secretary of the latter.
One matter that concerned both Bennet and Sparks was the issue of succession, particularly necessary in regard to the aging Dr. Maclean. Working carefully and prayerfully over a period of time, they were both instrumental in bringing to Echoes two men whose contribution to the work would be significant – W. R. Lewis and W. E. Vine.
Robert Sparks was not a gospel preacher or a well-known Bible teacher.3 To many readers he will be a complete unknown, but the legacy he has left is considerable, if evident more in organizational structures, trusts, and properties. The challenge of his life is simple. He brought his wealth, his professional expertise and his energy and devoted it to the Lord’s work for over twenty years, before, in the closing years of his life, preparing others and passing the work on to them. Are we prepared to demonstrate the same devotion and to develop others who show promise and gift.
W. T. Stunt, A. Pulleng, A. Pickering, G. P. Simmons, D. K. Boak, S. F. Warren, Turning the World Upside Down, Upperton Press, 1972, pg. 52.
Henry Dyer was one of the brethren involved in the early stages of the work at Echoes. At this time, the others were William Henry Bennet and John Lindsay MacLean. However, it would appear that this approach to Sparks, which took place at a Missionary Conference in Belfast, was Dyer’s personal exercise derived from his concern to find a helper for MacLean.
This should not detract from Beattie’s comment that Sparks’ ministry was ‘of a kind that was always practical and helpful’. David J Beattie, Brethren, the story of a great recovery, John Ritchie, 1944, pg. 156.