John Stott: Death of significant Christian leader
Time Magazine named him alongside Nelson Mandela and Bill Gates in its “most influential people” list of 2005.
He was once described by Billy Graham as the “most respected clergyman in the world today”.
His leadership of the evangelical movement helped move it from a rather narrow-minded fundamentalism after the Second World War to the fastest growing section of global Christianity.
John R. W. Stott CBE, the former Rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, and one of the most significant Christian leaders of the 20th century, died on July 27 aged 90.
Stott’s father, Sir Arnold Stott, a Harley Street cardiologist, hoped his son would enter the diplomatic service, and his irenic spirit and Cambridge double first in modern languages would have equipped him well for this.
But while at Rugby School aged 17, his future plans changed. A friend invited him to the Christian Union where he listened intently to the visiting speaker, E. J. H. Nash. Seeing his potential, Nash (more commonly known as “Bash”) drew him into leadership of boys’ public school camps. Bash’s discipleship training, alongside the vibrant life of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU), established John Stott in his faith.
In 1950, while only 29, he was appointed rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place in London’s West End. He had grown up through its Sunday school and served here as a curate. His gifts in expository preaching were to become widely celebrated, but he sensed the unchurched in his inner-city parish needed more. A new initiative was called for.
In 1958 he took the bold step of founding the All Souls Clubhouse, a venture in youth and community work twenty years ahead of its time.
As invitations to travel increased, he was in 1975 given the title Rector Emeritus, and released by the church to serve globally, and to write. John Stott then moved from the rectory into a small mews flat built for him above the rectory’s adjoining garage. He remained in this modest one-bedroomed home until a fall constrained him to leave it.
Stott has been described as “a renaissance man with a reformation theology”. He had remarkable intellectual reach, and always worked to bring his mind under the scrutiny of the Bible.
He loved scripture and for over 50 years he read the whole Bible through annually, using Robert Murray McCheyne’s reading plan. Martyn Lloyd-Jones had introduced him to it in the early 1950s and he valued the way it began with the “four great beginnings” of Genesis, Ezra, Matthew and Acts, and opened out scripture’s “grand themes”.
It became a pattern to rise at 5 am daily to read and pray, and to listen to the world service.
For students and pastors
John Stott’s remarkable ministry spanned the second half of the 20th century, while in his 80s he was making an impact on the 21st.
He was well known as a man of intelligence and humble integrity.
In his time at All Souls Church, and in the various causes with which he was involved, he contributed a renewed confidence, graciousness and intellectual strength in evangelicalism.
Stott summed up his priorities as “students and pastors”. He saw the critical nature of the university, and was an energetic Vice-President of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).
While Billy Graham, a long-time friend, was drawing tens of thousands to football stadia, Stott’s mission field was the university campus. Numbers were smaller, but the strategic influence for the gospel could not have been greater.
He conducted week-long evangelistic missions for IFES national movements in many of the world’s universities, drawing even the most cynical students into the pages of the New Testament to read for themselves of the historic Christ. His warm yet serious style, and sheer conviction of scripture’s authority brought students back night after night.
Alongside Graham, John Stott was a significant leader of the Lausanne Movement, which promotes worldwide Christian evangelism. He largely crafted its two major documents, The Lausanne Covenant (1974) and the Manila Manifesto (1989).
George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, commented, “John Stott’s contribution to developing a balanced evangelical faith and to a biblically rooted Anglican communion is probably without parallel in our generation.”
Classically evangelical, Stott emphasised the need for personal conversion, the authority of Scripture and the centrality of Jesus’ death for sinners. But he also emphasised the need for the distinctly Christian mind and stood against anti-intellectualism.
Though a life-long evangelist, he refused to limit Christian engagement with the world to evangelism alone. He was passionately committed to the moral and social dimensions of the biblical gospel, including justice for the poor and the care of creation.
Thoughtful allegiance to scripture
David Brooks, New York Times columnist, wrote, “To read Stott is to see someone practising ‘thoughtful allegiance to scripture’.”
He led the renaissance of biblical expository preaching — a method of preaching which follows the sequence of the text as it is given in a particular book of the Bible — throughout the evangelical world.
Through his work with students, Stott met many of the sharpest up-and-coming Christian thinkers worldwide while they were still at university, and he kept in contact with them as they graduated. He wanted to apply biblical truth to all areas of thought and progress, and would invite sharp thinkers at the new frontiers of science and technology to help him do so.
Stott pioneered several influential movements. Among them was the National Evangelical Anglican Congress (NEAC) which first met in Keele University in 1967 to bring a unified evangelical voice from the church. He also founded the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (1982) of which the sociologist and broadcaster Elaine Storkey later became Director, succeeded by Mark Greene.
His initiatives in drawing together groups of thinkers led to several other ventures; The Frontier Youth Trust and Tearfund are two examples.
Much of his substantial writing — over 50 books translated into 65 languages — was completed at “The Hookses”, a remote cottage on the Welsh coast which he purchased in 1954, in a state of dereliction. For most of his lifetime it had no mains electricity.
Over the years, it was developed by working parties to host study groups, and has been left in trust to The Langham Partnership (John Stott Ministries in the USA), which is perhaps his major legacy to the world Church.
The strategic threefold initiative, now under the direction of Christopher J. H. Wright, works to strengthen the Church in the Majority World by (i) training preachers, (ii) funding doctoral scholarships for the most able theological thinkers so they will be equipped to teach in their country’s seminaries, and (iii) providing basic libraries at low-cost for pastors.
John Stott’s books included the million-selling Basic Christianity (1958), Christ the Controversialist (1970) Issues facing Christians Today (1984) and the one he always considered his best: The Cross of Christ (1986) which he dedicated to his secretary, Frances Whitehead, who worked with him for more than 55 years.
Later books included The Birds our Teachers (1999) for which he took almost all the photographs himself. He had been encouraged by his father from childhood to “open his eyes and ears and shut his mouth” as he observed the natural world, and as a self-taught ornithologist saw some 2,500 of the world’s 9,000 bird species.
A companion volume, People my Teachers (2002) reflected his teachable spirit and his desire to learn from others.
The Cross of Christ has been described by Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen as a volume which “brings together the capacity to inspire a devotion of mind and heart to the Lord Jesus”.
John Stott’s own considerable royalties were all “recycled” into the production and distribution of theological books for the global south.
“His books have challenged and nourished millions of Christians into a balanced and thinking biblical faith,” said Wright. “His legacy through the global impact of the two organisations that he founded, Langham Partnership International and the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity, is incalculable.”
John Stott, who never married, is the subject of two major biographies, one published in two volumes by Timothy Dudley-Smith in 1999 and 2001, and the other, a more popular narrative, by Roger Steer, in 2009. Both are published by IVP.
“For the vast majority of people whose lives he influenced profoundly,” said Chris Wright, “he was simply ‘Uncle John’ — a much-loved friend, correspondent, and brother, to whose prayers we will never know how much we owe.
“Like Moses, he was one of the humblest men on the face of the earth, and yet at the same time he was one of the truly great leaders God has given to his people. He was, for all of us who knew him, a walking embodiment of the simple beauty of Jesus, whom he loved above all else.”
Stott served as Chaplain to the Queen from 1959 and then as Extra Chaplain. He was awarded four honorary doctorates in Britain and America including a Lambeth DD, and his life and work became the subject of several doctoral theses in his lifetime. He was made a Commander of the British Empire in the Queen’s 2006 New Year Honours list.
The life of this urbane and gracious visionary and strategist who loved the natural world and who determined to express the eternal truth of the Christian gospel to the well-educated, the less privileged and the dropouts alike, will doubtless attract much further attention as future history slowly unveils the extent of his quite extraordinary influence.