Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Bruce Hindmarsh

Basic Christianity—with an Oxbridge Accent

If you had to choose two individuals to sum up the recovery and growth of evangelicalism in the English-speaking world in the last half of the twentieth century, you might well pick Billy Graham and John Stott. Graham's crusade in Los Angeles in 1949 and Stott's appointment as Rector of All Souls Church in London the following year nicely symbolize the beginning of the recovery, while their work together in organizing and directing the International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne in 1974 reflects the global influence and coming of age of the movement.

A growing number of memoirs and biographies of key leaders from this period are appearing now that the pioneers have reached a ripe old age. Alongside several studies of Billy Graham's life and his autobiography, Just as I Am, we now have the first volume of Timothy Dudley-Smith's authorized biography, John Stott: The Making of a Leader, covering "the early years" up to 1960. These memoirs and biographies raise keenly the question of evangelical identity and self-definition.

Frankly, I find the contrasts between Stott and Graham as fascinating as the similarities. Consider their upbringing. While Billy Graham was growing up in a white frame house on a poor dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina, John Stott was being raised as the son of Sir Arnold Stott (a physician to the Royal Family) in a six-floor London townhouse with a nanny, parlor maid, housemaid, cook, between-maid, and occasional chauffeur. Graham credited his father with having taught him the merits of free enterprise; Stott's father interested him in natural history and the cello.

In the early 1930s, when Graham was doing chores on the farm during the depression, Stott was attending an exclusive Anglican prep school in Gloucestershire. While Graham was struggling to stay awake at school and failing tenth-grade French, Stott was excelling in French and Latin, playing a part in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and writing amateur essays in ornithology. While Graham was chafing under the rules at Bob Jones College and Florida Bible Institute, Stott was playing cricket on the fields of Rugby, one of the most prestigious English "public" schools. As Graham began at Wheaton College, Stott "went up" to Cambridge University. In 1945, when Graham began on staff with Youth for Christ, Stott was ordained in the Church of England.

After this, their stories begin to converge and their ministries to overlap. They became good friends in the mid-1950s with Graham's Harringay crusade in London in 1954 and Stott's university missions in America in 1956. But by no means was John Stott merely Billy Graham with an English accent. Nor was English evangelicalism simply a vector of the American experience.

In broad outline, there was a similar decay in the fortunes of evangelicalism in both countries in the first half of the century. Joel Carpenter writes about the fundamentalist era in American evangelicalism as a period of withdrawal from the religious mainstream. The diaspora out of public life began with the Scopes trial in 1925 and ended with the emergence of Billy Graham in 1950.

As for the other side of the Atlantic, in Evangelicalism in Britain, 1935-1995, Oliver Barclay describes a time of similar weakness for British evangelicals. He quotes Hensley Henson's famous quip in 1928 about evangelicals as "an army of illiterates generalled by octogenarians." Barclay describes British evangelicals in the prewar years as "pietistic." They were often defensive, legalistic, and anti-intellectual. And they hugely neglected theological education. They were not, however, "fundamentalists" in the American sense, insofar as that term connotes the militant defense of Christian civilization. They were more influenced by the Keswick spirituality of personal devotions, victorious Christian living, and foreign missions, than by anti-Bolshevik, anti-Darwinian, and anti-Modernism rhetoric. Anglican evangelicals may have been outspoken against Anglo-Catholics in the Prayer Book controversy of the late 1920s, but the rhetoric of debate did not approach the pugnaciousness and irascibility of such notorious American fundamentalists as Fighting Bob Ketcham or Frank Norris, the Texas Tornado.

In time there was a similar recovery of evangelical strength in numbers and influence on both sides of the Atlantic. Just as in America evangelicals united in a host of new organizational initiatives in youth work, mission, education, and evangelism, so also in Britain there were similar ventures. Douglas Johnson and Martyn Lloyd-Jones helped to strengthen the fledgling Inter-Varsity Fellowship (now UCCF). In 1939 IVF established a Biblical Research Committee that led to the founding of Tyndale House in Cambridge in 1944 as a major resource to support postgraduate research in theology. The IVF publishing program (later IVP) launched authors such as J. I. Packer, Michael Griffiths, Michael Green, and John Wenham, and produced the massive New Bible Dictionary and New Bible Commentary. The expository preaching of John Stott at All Souls and Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel began to build up large congregations.

Barclay fills in the story of this recovery from his own recollections, and he seeks to cover developments in the whole of Britain among all denominations. Barclay is a scientist and former General Secretary of the UCCF, and Inter-Varsity Fellowship figures largely in his account. He makes clear that the situation for evangelicals in Scotland and Wales was not always the same as in England.

With the first volume of Dudley-Smith's biography of Stott, we look out at these same developments from London and the Church of England. But Stott was indeed at the center of the evangelical recovery. In 1952 Stott began his wider ministry as a university missioner, leading evangelistic missions first at Cambridge, then at London, Oxford, and Durham. In 1956-57 he led missions at nine universities in North America, including McGill, Harvard, and Yale. By the end of the 1950s, he had also traveled to Australia and South Africa to lead university missions. Stott's evangelistic lectures at these universities were the basis for his Basic Christianity, published in 1958 (more than two million copies sold; reprinted more than a hundred times and translated into over 50 languages).

In 1952 Stott also began to teach other ministers his program for parish evangelism. He had instituted a pattern at All Souls that proved remarkably effective. He established a lay training school and generated an army of "commissioned workers" for evangelism. These lay people would then be employed as counselors at monthly guest services (with a "continuation service" afterward for those who responded to the invitation). Converts were then followed up in other meetings ("At Homes" and "Nursery Classes"). Stott prepared a slide show, with a taped narrative, "Mobilizing the Church for Evangelism," to disseminate this strategy for parochial evangelism more widely. As he traveled to do university missions, he also met with clergy and theological students to train them in evangelistic strategy.

What is striking in all of this is what Dudley-Smith calls Stott's "teutonic thoroughness" and what seemed to some "an obsessively careful management of his time and diary." Stott has always been a gracious, personable man, but there was an almost military quality of personal discipline and organizational leadership in these leaders who grew up during the war years. Dudley-Smith's biography makes plain that Stott was not only gifted in evangelism, expository preaching, and theological writing: he has also been a genius at strategy and organization. With his secretary Frances Whitehead, he ran a small conglomerate of evangelical institutions and spinoffs out of the Rectory at No. 12, Weymouth Street. Like Billy Graham at the helm of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Stott could as well have run a successful multinational corporation.

Stott also played a significant role in the recovery of evangelicalism in the United States through his university missions and his writing. But American evangelicals likewise had a large role to play in Britain's recovery. Spectacularly, Billy Graham's London crusade in 1954 put conservative evangelicals back into the limelight. Some 120,000 gathered at Wembley stadium for the last meeting—the largest religious gathering ever seen in the British Isles until then. Stott and All Souls were deeply involved during the three months of the crusade, taking busloads of people every night. I have several friends in Oxford who recall Billy Graham's enormous impact during those years in London and during his mission at Cambridge. The curate at the church we used to attend in Oxford is in ministry because his whole family was converted through a "relay service" at a town on the south coast of England. (These were the broadcasts carried by wire from Harringay to distant locations on landline relays set up during World War II.)

But as the personal stories of Billy Graham and John Stott have already illustrated, there were important transatlantic differences as well. First, as David Bebbington has argued, evangelicals in Britain simply have not achieved the same level of influence in public life as their American counterparts have in their nation. Stott might be one of the Queen's chaplains, for example, but he has never received the sort of media coverage in Britain that Graham and other evangelical leaders do regularly in the United States. The main reason for this difference in public salience is that the evangelical constituency is simply much larger in total numbers, and as a percentage of the population, in America than in Britain.1

There are also, however, some important qualitative differences. If the key cultural category for understanding Billy Graham's prominence and influence is "celebrity," then the key category for understanding John Stott's prominence and influence is "class." While Graham's story is the prototypical American tale of rising from obscurity to fame after being "discovered," the source of Stott's influence was quite different. He was bred to it. Consequently, he came to ministry with all the confidence of an English public school boy. (Remember that "public school" in Britain means elite private school, not the state-funded system.)

In a Monty Python sketch public school boys learn their verb conjugations by pointing to one another and shouting with increasing gusto, "I RULE, YOU RULE, HE RULES," etc. A young man from the home of a Harley Street physician, trained at Rugby and Cambridge, fairly expected to exercise public influence. At Stott's institution as Rector of All Souls, E. H. J. Nash quipped to Stott's father that his son had done well, that they knew it would be either the Foreign Office or the Church for young John.

Nash himself was central to Stott's Christian formation. Known as "Bash" to his friends, he exerted significant influence for a number of years as a Scripture Union staff member with a particular ministry to public school boys—especially through the "Bash camps." Bash was instrumental to Stott's conversion as a 16-year-old at Rugby in 1938, and he wrote to Stott once a week for five years. Stott was active in the Bash camps and became Bash's right-hand man through university up to his ordination in 1945.

Bash nurtured a public school evangelicalism that was confident, aggressively evangelistic, and focused on simple Christian teachings and practices. As a strategy for raising up evangelical leaders, it was effective. The influential evangelical leaders Michael Green, John Wenham, and David Watson are but a few of those who, with Stott, owe a deep spiritual debt to Bash. A good number of Bash's disciples, like Stott, also imitated his dedication to a celibate ministry as an Anglican clergyman, and held such a calling in high regard—something almost unthinkable among American evangelicals.

The Bash camps have been criticized for their elitism, but existing class distinctions meant that this would be one of the paths to influence in Britain. David Bebbington goes as far as to say, "Deference remained almost as powerful a force in Britain as was egalitarianism in America."2

A second related contrast: If Billy Graham, a successful Fuller brush salesman in his youth, rose to influence in part through entrepreneurial wit, John Stott did so by the traditional path of education. In 1963 only 1.7 percent of the eligible age group went to university in Britain. Even in the late 1980s only 14 percent were in post-secondary education as compared with roughly 50 percent in America.3

To be university educated, as John Stott was, was to be a part of the influential elite. Furthermore, Stott had excelled at Cambridge. Like the evangelist Michael Green (who earned a first in classics at Oxford and in theology at Cambridge, and took a blue in fencing along the way), Stott took top honors in Modern Languages and Theology.

In England this educational pedigree (prep school, Rugby, Cambridge) is also immediately advertised by a recognizable accent—a sign of superior social class to all English ears. The golden triangle (Oxford, Cambridge, London) remains a source of inordinate influence within Britain in all circles, even more than the Ivy League in American society. John Stott could be taken seriously by the bishop of London, the professionals in his parish, and university students he ad dressed in part because he was well educated.

Many Bash campers went on to make a significant contribution as Christian thinkers and writers, even though, ironically, Bash's values were those of the pre-war pietism identified by Barclay—values that did not en courage intellectual endeavor. Oliver Barclay was active in the IVF from 1938 and a contemporary of Stott's at Cambridge. He recollects,

Bash was always frightened of the dangers of going "intellectual." He stressed the "simple gospel" and was wary of the IVF and its interest in apologetics and deeper doctrine. As a result, many of his campers had to break free.

If American anti-intellectualism has often been populist, English evangelical anti-intellectualism has as often been elite and upper class. A sense of superiority sometimes allowed for a too easy dismissal of liberal theology. Barclay recalls that some evangelicals got through their course at Cambridge by ignoring what was being taught, "some times claiming to have spent lectures reading the daily paper."4

Barclay did much to help Stott to "break free" and face the intellectual challenges of the modern world courageously and honestly. In his later ministry this would lead Stott to do more than any other evangelical leader to unite social concern and evangelism under the rubric of mission. Derek Kidner, president of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU) in 1942-43, set an example for Stott and others by taking the intellect seriously, getting a first and going on to become a serious author. Cambridge became an important center for the recovery of the evangelical mind in the postwar years, particularly in the area of biblical studies.

It should also be noted that while American evangelicals have often been separatist, English evangelicals have more usually been partisan. It is a subtle but important distinction, particularly for Anglican evangelicalism. Dudley-Smith's book is only the first volume of Stott's biography and stops short of the important meeting convened by the transdenominational Evangelical Alliance in 1966 and chaired by Stott. This was the occasion when Martyn Lloyd-Jones called for evangelicals to "come out" of mixed denominations (such as the Church of England) to express their solidarity with other evangelicals. Stott rose from the chair and op posed Lloyd-Jones publicly.

Roger Steer, whose book Guarding the Holy Fire traces the kind of evangelicalism represented by Stott through the history of the Anglican communion, describes this episode in 1966 as "one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the movement." David Bebbington remarks, "It was simply not done to suggest in public that Christians should leave their existing denominations for the sake of gospel purity."5 There was controversy over Lloyd-Jones's appeal, but Stott's non-separatist vision would win the day, especially among Anglican evangelicals.

It is interesting to speculate how different things would be if Lloyd-Jones's call to "come out" had been heeded. Perhaps he would have been the J. Gresham Machen of Britain, leading Reformed evangelicals into an "Orthodox Anglican Church," as Machen led American Presbyterians earlier into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Indeed, the overwhelming hegemony of the Church of England does more than probably anything else to distinguish English evangelicalism from its American counterpart. The traditional European idea that religion is tied to the land and people in a Landeskirchen or Volkskirchen, a national or ethnic church—this ideal still lingers in a land dotted with church towers and spires. More than once I heard the line in common rooms in Oxford, "Bruce, I am an agnostic, but I want you to know that I'm an Anglican agnostic." The cultural capital of the Established Church is enormous, and it is difficult to separate this entirely from the issues of social class and deference mentioned earlier. One evangelical clergyman told me outright that he was Anglican simply be cause it was the best boat to fish from.

Most evangelicals in the Church of England are less opportunistic than this. Most have been influenced in some way by the inheritance of creed and liturgy within the church, in a way that is not true of typical American evangelicals. Moreover, the fact that the dominant tradition of evangelicalism in England is found within a comprehensive, mixed church on a small island has meant that evangelicalism has not been able to form as ostensibly impervious a subculture as in America. Anglican evangelicals such as Stott and J. I. Packer have been of necessity in continuous dialogue with liberal and catholic Christians. Stott has been an outstanding example of winsomeness and civility in debate with those with whom he disagrees fundamentally. His location within the Anglican Church has encouraged this sort of principled pluralism, dialogue, and cooperation.

In more recent years, however, the evangelical movement has seemed to be fragmenting even as it has been growing. Did Stott himself open the door to evangelical diversity by moving beyond the "simple gospel" of Bash to address publicly "issues facing Christians today" (the title of one of his books)? I asked a clergy man friend in England where he would locate Stott within British evangelicalism. He laughed, and remarked that it would more usually be the other way around—that contemporary developments in English evangelicalism would be located with reference to Stott. Alister McGrath identifies John Stott's ministry as the single most important factor in the growth of Anglican evangelicalism in this century. This influence has ex tended significantly to the non-Western world too. (The next volume of Dudley-Smith's biography will certainly deal much with this.)

The most significant stream of evangelicalism to diverge from Stott in the second half of the twentieth century has been the charismatic movement. In the early 1960s, Michael Harper, who was one of Stott's curates, was "baptized in the Spirit" along with two other All Souls curates. Since then the renewal movement within the church has grown with alacrity.

Another kind of divergence can I think be found in the academy. While Stott, Packer, and McGrath can be taken to represent one lively tradition of learned evangelical churchmanship within England—hence their grouping in Roger Steer's book—an increasing number of "evangelical" intellectuals (I now have to use the scare quotes for "evangelical") have engaged the new hermeneutics more directly, pressing beyond the close but traditional textual scholarship and Protestant confessionalism of Stott.

The congress of Anglican evangelicals at Nottingham in 1977 illustrates both of these forms of divergence. David Watson, one of the leading Anglican charismatics, made the offhand remark at the congress that the Reformation was one of the greatest tragedies that ever happened to the church. Some felt this represented a certain recklessness in handling doctrine on the part of charismatics.

At the same gathering, Anthony Thistleton introduced the importance and complexity of modern hermeneutics. This was unnerving for some evangelicals, since it seemed to allow less confidence to declare forthrightly what the Bible said, especially about the vexing issues of women's ministry and sexual ethics. Since 1977 the fragmentation of evangelicals in Britain, and especially within the Church of England, has only increased over these issues.

Stott is very aware of this fragmentation, and his most recent book, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity, and Faithfulness, is a heartfelt appeal for evangelical solidarity. He laments,

People now refer to the multiple "tribes" of evangelicalism and like to place a qualifying adjective in front of "evangelical." There are many to choose from: conservative, liberal, radical, progressive, open, Reformed, charismatic, postmodern and so on. But is this really necessary?

Stott is aware of his age and says, "I would like to leave behind me as a kind of spiritual legacy this little statement of evangelical faith, this personal appeal to the rising generation." His exposition of the evangelical faith is presented in a broadly Trinitarian outline, but it is a simple credal structure, not the sophisticated Trinitarian theology of Alan Torrance.

Stott stresses the main themes of evangelicalism for his generation: revelation, atonement, sanctification by the Spirit, and mission. The book is marked through out by his characteristic lucidity, close reasoning, and above all by his candor.

If John Stott was bred to think of himself as superior, he has achieved a remarkable grace of Christian humility. On the one occasion when I met Stott (we were both houseguests at the home of one of his former study assistants), his humility was what most impressed me. I am sure that this is what has made him such an effective ambassador for evangelical faith in the Third World.

Evangelical Truth is actually quite an important book for "the rising generation." It contributes to the larger debate about essentialism, a term of art in philosophy that goes back at least to Aristotle, but which has resurfaced in various discussions in literary and postcolonial theory. Do things have essences? Is there an essential idea of what it means to be English or American or—and here is an even tougher nut to crack—Canadian? (If you haven't guessed yet, like the beer ad says, "I am Canadian.")

Given the differences between Billy Graham and John Stott, between American and English evangelicalism, can we still identify an essential religious core? Or is it even important to try? The danger of which contemporary postmodern theorists are keenly aware is that essentialism can be used as an act of power to exclude undesirable elements from our own self-definition. Consequently, many have run from essentialism altogether.

The most widely accepted essentialist definition of evangelicalism comes from the historian I have already been quoting, David Bebbington. He argues inductively from history that evangelicalism is de fined as a movement of orthodox Protestants who stress conversion, the Bible, the cross, and activism. This Bebbington quadrilateral is meant to be heuristic and descriptive, and it has proven its worth among historians working in a variety of national contexts. It is a big umbrella, but if it is essentialist, might it exclude some who would embrace the term "evangelical" or include some who would repudiate it? Does the "is" conceal a subtle "ought"?

I don't propose to solve the problem here of whether there is an essential evangelicalism. But we do need to remember that while our religious identity is formed historically, it must be grounded in explicit theological sources. (Not that evangelicals agree about theology!) Stott's book is salutary, since it reminds us that if the word evangelical is worth anything whatsoever, it is not because it signals a partisan identity, but because it points to the gospel it self, the evangel. Amid the balkanization of evangelicalism in America and Britain today over issues of gender, sexuality, and politics, that is a word worth heeding.

Bruce Hindmarsh is the author of John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Eerdmans).


1. David Bebbington, "Evangelicalism in Its Settings: The British and American Movements since 1940," in Evangelicalism, ed. Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Rawlyk (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 376-81.

2. Bebbington, p. 374.

3. Bebbington, p. 374.

4. Barclay, p. 57.

5. Bebbington, p. 370.

Note: For your convenience, John Stott: The Making of a Leader by Timothy Dudley-Smith, Evangelical Truth by John Stott, and Guarding the Holy Fire by Roger Steer are all available in the ChristianityToday.com Bookstore.

Most ReadMost Shared