The great Austrian theologian called Karl Barth advised the clergy to preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. So please allow me to be topical. What would Thomas Cook have thought about the collapse of the company which bears his name? Perhaps like you, my first package holiday was with Thomas Cook. The beautiful air hostess made an impression on myself and group of pals. ‘Is there anything at all I can get you boys?’ she enquired with an enigmatic smile, a whispering voice and a wink. She was no fool; she could see that we were strapped in. We were in good hands. What we didn’t know was the Christian history of the company we were holidaying with.
Thomas Cook organised and led the world's first genuinely commercial tourist excursion in August 1845. Now, 174 years later, the company he founded – one of the largest such businesses in existence – has collapsed under enormous debt, controversy and wrecked careers.
I am grateful to the Revd Dr Peter Shepherd of the Baptist Historical Society who records that the ideals that motivated Cook were not commercial ones. They were learned from the Gospel and the Temperance Movement. His commitment to Christ came first at Sunday School and by the age of 19 he was an evangelist walking from village to village in the Midlands to preach.
Cook was passionate about the dangers of alcoholic drink, campaigning for total abstinence. As Secretary of the South Midland Temperance Association he was a well-known speaker. As his business as a travel agent prospered, he built an imposing Temperance Hall in Leicester and used his growing wealth to support the poor, often the victims of alcohol misuse.
Impressed by the rapidly expanding railway network around 1840, he had the idea of combining travel by rail with the cause of temperance. The first excursion he organised was a summer excursion by train from Leicester to a park in Loughborough for a temperance gala. His extraordinary gifts of organisation came to the fore as he arranged with the Midland Counties Railway Company to transport 500 passengers and organised the event, complete with sports, a picnic and speeches for 3,000 people. On the date of this gala, 5th July 1841, the modern travel industry is said to have been born.
In all the excursions Cook went on to organise, he wanted to bring people closer to God. From the mid-1840s, Cook advertised and negotiated cheaper fares from the railway and steamer companies for the large groups he put together. He delighted in introducing them to the beauty of God's world in ways they could never have dreamed of doing otherwise.
Thousands took advantage of his expertise. Altogether 150,000 were helped to visit the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. Four years later he took parties to Germany and Switzerland. Despite criticism from the upper classes who found the prospect of large groups of tourists distasteful, riff-raff as Basil Fawlty might have called them, he continued undaunted, adding North America and the Holy Land to his itinerary, then his first round-the-world tour.
When he died in 1892, Cook had established a global reputation and changed the lives of millions of people. Thousands lined the route of his funeral procession.
Wherever he went, Cook was keen to meet and encourage Christian missionaries. His faith was never far from the surface, nor was his desire that the experiences gained by his customers would help break down barriers between people. His motivation was social and spiritual, rather than commercial, often frustrating his son John, with some of his un-ecumenical decisions, for example favouring his fellow Baptists with lower fares.
Cook's ability to build a large and successful business is unquestionable. His spiritual, moral and social ambitions directly contributed to his success. The collapse of his company now and the struggles of other businesses in our changing economic environment highlight the importance of the relationship between moral and economic goals. We hear that the directors of Thomas Cook the company have benefited somewhat while the business was disintegrating. Although some say the business would have collapsed sooner without their actions. What is clear though, is that stronger moral and social ideals, of the kind Cook would recognise, would probably have led to a different outcome.
Meanwhile, what does the Thomas Cook episode teach us? With Thomas Cook the man in mind, I invite you today to do a kind of ‘personal harvest festival’ where we do a stock-take, holding up a mirror to ourselves and our lives. A corporate collapse like Thomas Cook the company’s is shocking. But organisations are people and they show a frailty which all of us share as humans. No doubt there have been times when we all thought we were so invincible that there was nothing we couldn’t do. Our lives were full of promise and we’d reap harvests galore. But the truth is our own personal and private harvests might be nothing of the sort. What might these personal harvests look like? Well there are some of us here who hit a time when we realised, perhaps with a bang, just how fragile, even broken we are. A career that hinted at greatness is now over. A marriage full of hope, is now, well, not quite that. We remember the moments when we realise these things. And our personal private harvests might seem, well, fairly meagre.
Jesus stands next to us in our quiet times of harvest. And Jesus wants us to know that it’s the times when we know our mediocrity, our falling short or our outright weakness that we can turn to him to become strong. The times when we’re face to face with endings that beginnings can come. The times when your world seems darkest that new growth can start. I want to assure you that your personal harvest has a place for it allocated by God; that He is proud of all you’ve done and all you’ve overcome; that the good you’ve done outweighs wherever you’ve fallen short, even if when you look out you see your fields with patchy or empty, even ruined crops. And I assure you that to Him, you are unique and beautiful.
Date: 6th October 2019
Preacher: Fr. Nick Bromfield