The Educated Evangelicalism of John Stott

by Alister Chapman, Assistant Professor of History Adapted from his Phi Kappa Phi Address at Westmont in October 2008

John Stott

John Stott graduated from Trinity College at Cambridge University.

Finishing a book about John Stott brings closure to an eight-year period of my life in which I wrote my dissertation on Stott and made the adjustment from a large, British, specialized, predominantly secular university to a small, American, Christian liberal arts college. I find myself trying to identify the threads that tie these different experiences and places together, and I think John Stott and his experience as an educated, English evangelical has something to say to us as evangelical teachers and learners at a place like Westmont.

Thirty years ago, Stott was an evangelical leader at the height of his powers. He was the most prominent leader of the evangelical movement in England and remarkably influential in evangelical circles in the United States and in many parts of the developing world. His books were selling millions of copies in several dozen languages. American evangelicals loved him. He worked closely with Billy Graham, was the keynote speaker at InterVarsity’s Urbana missions conference on four occasions, inspired thousands of sermons through his commentaries, and spoke at Westmont. As recently as 2005, he was listed alongside Rick Warren and others in Time magazine’s list of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America despite the fact that he lives in England.

He served as a minister at London’s All Souls Church, Langham Place, designed by famed architect John Nash (above).

He served as a minister at London’s All Souls Church, Langham Place, designed by famed architect John Nash.

Why was Stott so popular in the United States? What did he offer American evangelicalism, which wasn’t short of preachers or authors? In a word: education. Stott was not only an evangelical, he was a highly educated one. A graduate of Cambridge whose closely reasoned sermons were almost entirely devoid of illustration or application, he attracted educated American evangelicals who came from churches that appealed to their hearts and wills but often left their minds unstretched. American evangelicalism has long been known for its populism, its ability to reach all types of men, women, girls and boys with a message that is carefully tuned to their hopes, fears and dreams. It does so even if or perhaps because that message is lacking in intellectual rigor.

The populist strain is still very strong in American Christianity, as it was when Stott came to preach here in the second half of the 20th century. His primary appeal, therefore, was to university-educated evangelicals who wanted something more intellectually robust than the fare on offer at their evangelical churches, people who wanted a faith that could stand tall in the modern, educated world. Stott became a hero for evangelicals who wanted to love God with all their minds. For a certain generation of American evangelicals, raised on books by John Stott, Jim Packer and other learned English evangelicals, there has been a temptation to idealize the sophisticated world of English evangelicalism.

But from an English perspective, the picture of Stott is more troubling. While Stott may have delivered sermons in the United States to great acclaim, things were not always so rosy back home. His appeal in England was always limited in ways that highlighted the stark difference between the populist world of American evangelicalism, where “the common people” heard the gospel gladly, and English evangelicalism, where this has rarely been the case for more than 200 years. Stott was popular in the United States because he was not populist. But his attempts to reach England with the gospel may have foundered for the same reason.

Stott’s limited appeal in England raises questions that I believe are important for us here at Westmont. Specifically, is it possible to be highly educated and still be able to reach out to people from all walks of life? Stott clearly found this very difficult, as we shall see. But when we talk about what we want for our graduates, we speak of twin desires that they be educated and able to serve a needy world. How well do we do that? How might we do it better?

John Stott was born in London in 1921 to a classic bourgeois family: comfortable, cultured, content and caring. At the age of eight he went away to boarding school to become part of the English establishment with all that that meant for his future financial and social security. Going to a place like Rugby, the historic boarding school Stott attended, was the best ticket to these elites. Stott was a star at his school, excelling academically and musically, and in his final year, he became head of the school, a position of extraordinary responsibility. He seemed to be well on his way to power and prestige in the English establishment but for one thing: he had experienced an evangelical conversion during his time at Rugby and decided to enter the ordained ministry of the Church of England. Stott went on to Cambridge and to theological training, determined to use his social capital to shape the country for Christ. He had been prepared to lead and planned to do so. He wanted to be godly, but he was also ambitious. His greatest hope was to see England turn to Christ.

Stott was ordained in 1945 and became an assistant minister at All Souls Langham Place, a prominent Anglican church in central London. He took over the leadership of the church just four years later. Under the parochial system of the Church of England, each church is responsible for the population that falls within its parish boundaries, and Stott’s dream was to see his parishioners come into a warm relationship with Christ. The 10,000 souls in his congregation were a remarkably diverse group. The Western part of the parish boasted some of London’s most expensive real estate, while its eastern end, known as Fitzrovia, was firmly working class. It was a perfect place to test strategies for the conversion of every level of English society.

Stott designed and implemented a plan for evangelizing his parish: training members of the congregation to visit homes around the church, sharing the good news and inviting them to All Souls, and providing special services for the unconvinced and unconverted.

By almost any measure, Stott’s ministry at All Souls was remarkably successful. The church grew significantly, and around 200 people each year made new commitments to Christ. But by the end of the 1950s, there was a mounting sense of frustration in Stott’s comments in the parish magazine. The reality was that most of those who had been converted at the church had come by train from other parts of London and not on foot from their homes in the parish. In a 1967 book on evangelism, Stott outlined what he had done at All Souls, but said that the results had been meager. Those who visited houses in the parish did not see scores of conversions; rather, they saw “the size of the gulf in contemporary England which separates the masses from the Church.”

There were many reasons why the working-class residents of the parish’s East End were not interested in the work of All Souls. The people of Fitzrovia were a very diverse group socially, ethnically, and religiously, but few would have felt at home in a pew at All Souls. There were strong Jewish and Catholic communities, often ethnic, that worshiped elsewhere. But even for many of those whose family had been in England for generations, All Souls would have been a very foreign place. This was in large part due to the growing estrangement of the English working classes from the Church of England since the end of the 18th century. For many, Christianity, and especially the Church of England, was associated with the propertied classes, with the powers-that-be, with the establishment, and people from the lower classes were frequently alienated by the accent and lifestyle of the clergy.

Stott saw that there was a yawning cultural gap between his congregation and people who lived in Fitzrovia and in time he admitted that they would not be crowding into All Souls any time soon. But he was not going to give up that easily. His response was to plant a mission hall, a center for services, youth clubs, and other forms of community work in the parish’s east end.

The gap that existed between the culture of Stott and his assistant ministers and those of the English working classes was both immense and serviced by very few bridges. When Billy Graham conducted missions in England the common people may have heard him gladly, but such cross-cultural communication was harder for the likes of Stott. Much of the time the higher classes acted with very little recognition that the workers had much of a culture at all, and it was far from obvious to Stott in 1950 that his poorer neighbors might find cassocks and the Book of Common Prayer a bit of a turn-off. When it did become obvious, the result was separate services for separate classes and the acknowledgement that All Souls was primarily a church for the educated, who listened to Stott’s learned preaching, classical music and the Queen’s English with gladness.

The new mission hall for the everyday folk opened in November 1958, funded largely by the members of All Souls. It soon became a popular recreation spot for local young people. But there was no large scale turning to Christ. Evangelistic work was hard, with people being converted and then fading away. Their lack of response undermined one of Stott’s fundamental assumptions about ministry and about society: that where society’s leaders went, the rest would eventually follow. Stott’s church was obviously not populist, and now the spiritual trickle-down vision lay in tatters. His education and his social class had made it very hard for him to reach his parish for Christ. From the mid-1960s, Stott began to disengage from his work at All Souls, retiring from the active leadership of the church in 1970. His dream had been the conversion of England, but he could no longer see how to pursue it as a parish priest. For if the flourishing and well trained congregation of All Souls could not make a major impact on its parish, how could it hope to be a model for other churches?

But there was another plank to Stott’s vision for the spread of the gospel in England, and that was his university ministry. In the 1950s, Stott became a leading figure in the British Inter-Varsity movement, an organization that rallied conservative evangelicals at universities across the country. Stott made his name as a preacher at Inter-Varsity missions, which were typically week-long events designed to present the claims of Christ to the student body. In 1952, Stott led his first mission at Cambridge University, and it was very successful. The meetings attracted favorable attention in the local press. Hundreds attended the services in Great St. Mary’s Church each evening — people were turned away on the final night — and as many as three hundred committed their lives to Christ. There were similar scenes at Cambridge in 1958, and Stott also led two missions at Oxford during this period. In addition, he established a global reputation by leading missions in places as diverse as Newcastle and Nairobi, Melbourne and Manila, Harvard and Helsinki, Singapore and Sierra Leone.

Stott devoted a great deal of time to university evangelism, and he did so because he believed it had great strategic importance for the spread of the gospel in society, whether in Britain or elsewhere. He believed that a country’s universities produced its leaders and that countries followed their leaders. For Christianity to spread, it was therefore vital that those leaders followed Christ.

Stott was unquestionably successful in his university evangelism, which can and should be explained in part with reference to a cultural climate that was conducive to conservative evangelicalism in postwar Britain. But others were preaching at universities during these years with much less obvious fruit. Stott was so successful in large part because he spoke the language of these institutions and won a hearing and respect because of his intellectual apologetic for the gospel. Stott’s addresses were careful, lucid, biblically reasoned explanations of the evangelical gospel, virtually unadorned by any kind of illustration. The published version of his sermons, “Basic Christianity,” quoted professors and other authorities, anticipated counterarguments, and provided suggestions for further reading. In the introduction, Stott said that many people had “a sneaking suspicion” that Christianity was not “intellectually respectable,” and set himself the task of demonstrating that it was. He was an heir of an evangelical tradition that had been forged during the Enlightenment, in which reason and religion were to walk hand in hand. For Stott, the path to students’ wills was primarily through a rational appeal to their minds.

After the encouragements of the 1950s, the 1960s brought leaner times. While doing a mission at Oxford University in 1964, Stott noted the growth of anti-Christian influence in the university and concluded that “the tide of post-war [Oxford and Cambridge] ‘religiousness’ has turned”. Times had clearly changed: the more liberal and iconoclastic 1960s were proving much more unfriendly than the 1950s, which had been a remarkably conservative time at Britain’s universities.

The big problem for Stott was that the declining response to his university missions meant that they could no longer bear the weight of his hopes for revival in England. If the response at the universities had held up, perhaps he could have continued to dream of the conversion of England even though his parish ministry was failing to reach the working classes. All that would have been needed was time until lots of fresh, bright, young, educated evangelicals took their place in society and started to shape it from above. On that view, the lower classes would ultimately have followed. But the country’s future leaders were turning to Christ in smaller and smaller numbers. It was looking less and less likely that England would be transformed with the gospel through preaching to its elites.

John StottSo by the end of the 1960s, Stott’s hope of seeing an evangelical revival in England was fading fast. He retired from his ministry at All Souls and did less and less evangelistic work at Britain’s universities. He continued to play a significant role in English evangelicalism, getting involved, for example, in the politics of the Church of England. But increasingly he saw his calling outside of England, taking his reasoned preaching and teaching to evangelicals around the world. Wherever he went, people were drawn to his clear, intelligent expositions of Scripture. Part of the reason for his decision to spend more of his time overseas was his recognition of the growing importance of churches in the global South, something that he realized before it became a truism. In 2005 he was included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world for his work in the global church. From an English perspective, there is something slightly sad about the fact that our most prominent evangelical leader of the past 100 years received most obvious recognition for his work outside England despite the fact that he worked so hard to impact English society for Christ.

When I arrived here at Westmont I found myself in the midst of a very different evangelical world. Some of it was familiar — Stott would have been very much at home in this haven for educated evangelicals, and in many ways so was I. But it was obvious that the churches from which many of our students came represented a very different stream of evangelicalism from that found at All Souls Langham Place. These churches were, in a word, populist, and as such part of a long tradition in American evangelicalism that has rarely applauded academic endeavor. The conflict between America’s intellectual elites, Christian as well as non, and many of the country’s pastors and churches goes back a long way. The conflict is replicated at Westmont, albeit very civilly, as highly educated professors and rather populist students sometimes stare at each in mutual incomprehension.

But as an English evangelical coming to the United States I was both impressed and profoundly grateful as I gazed on the ranks of students in my world history classes. When I look at evangelicalism in England, I see plenty of education, but not so much social impact. The reasons for this are certainly complex, but part of the explanation is the absence of a populist streak. Back in the 19th century, as American Methodists were planting churches all along the American frontier, English Methodists decided that it was more important to win the respect of England’s establishment and therefore discouraged the adoption of American revivalist techniques in England. John Stott is, in a sense, a lineal descendent of these 19th century Methodists, and yet both they and he discovered that winning the ears of the upper classes did not guarantee a hearing among everyone else.

I thoroughly enjoy working at Westmont. One of my few sadnesses is that it is not in England. But then, Westmont couldn’t exist in England. There are no institutions like it. That is in large measure because there are many fewer evangelicals. There are almost no equivalents of the megachurches and Young Life movements that produce so many of our students. As someone who believes the gospel and believes that it is for all, my first response to American evangelicalism was and is gratitude for the prayer and sweat, sermons and tears that American evangelicals have expended over the years to take the gospel to their compatriots in words they can understand and that lead to saving faith in Christ.

John Stott with Billy Graham. Photo courtesy of John Stott Ministries.

John Stott with Billy Graham. Photo courtesy of John Stott Ministries.

A young John Stott. Photo courtesy of John Stott Ministries.

A young John Stott. Photo courtesy of John Stott Ministries.

But can we be an educational institution that is also deeply evangelical? Can we be excited about both the educational task and our evangelical roots? Stott should be a real help for us, for he was thoroughly evangelical, thoroughly educated, and unapologetic about both of these things. While it is easy to identify a populist stream in American evangelicalism, a quick glance at this country’s evangelical colleges, its seminaries and many of its churches shows that there is a great deal of serious thinking going on in American evangelicalism. It may look hard to some to be evangelical and intelligent, but there are so many exemplars these days that to see a fundamental conflict here is unpersuasive.

But populism lives on, and we still have the question of how we should relate to this part of our heritage with its current of anti-intellectualism. The obvious response is one of frustration, and it is entirely right when we see people’s lives and minds being injured by shoddy and supposedly biblical thinking. But the populist, American evangelicalism that is part of our tradition may present us with an opportunity. If I am even partly right, evangelical populism may provide a way in which we can make a contribution to academia and to society that few other institutions could make. Populist evangelicalism might be for us a source of intellectual creativity, a source of inspiration, not frustration.

One of the most obvious rifts in American society is between the well educated and the less educated. As the last election made abundantly clear, the mistrust between the educated elites and middle America, especially religious middle America, frequently turns to derision and worse. It is here that I think we might have a chance to make a distinctive contribution to American higher education and society. For we more than most other colleges are forced to live on the fault lines between these two Americas. We are educated, and highly so, but we are also evangelicals. Telling a professional colleague at a conference that Westmont is not only a liberal arts college, not only a Christian liberal arts college, but a Christian liberal arts college in the evangelical Protestant tradition may cause her to choke on a peanut; telling some evangelicals at some churches that you are a professor is unlikely to lead to a lunch invitation. But can we bring these two worlds together? Is there a way that an evangelical college can not only speak to both the intellectual elites and the less educated — a difficult task in itself — but also get those two groups talking to each other? Is there a way of combining unapologetic intellectual endeavor with an ability to talk with people with no higher education?

Alister Chapman

Alister Chapman has been teaching history at Westmont since 2004.

Stott obviously found this very difficult, and it is very difficult. But perhaps as an evangelical college we have the opportunity to forge a creative synthesis between the life of the mind and everyday life, between the ivory tower and Main Street, between loving God with all our mind and preaching the gospel to all creation. Perhaps the very populism of evangelicalism offers us the chance to make a truly useful contribution to a society that often plays up divides between the educated elites and the common man or woman. Perhaps populism can be a creative resource for us rather than simply a source of irritation.

What this would look like, I don’t know. What I am sure of is that something like this wouldn’t be easy and that it would require a great deal of the cross-cultural nous that we hope to teach our students. It is here that I look at John Stott and wonder about Westmont. He received a wonderful education, but it was one that ultimately cut him off from the majority of the English population. Perhaps there is a better way by which we can be both educated and able to communicate with and love everyone whom God puts in our path. For me, that is the ultimate goal here: that we would produce graduates who are capable not only of loving God with all their minds but also of loving their neighbors, in word and deed, whatever their culture, ethnicity, and, yes, educational accomplishments.

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One Response to The Educated Evangelicalism of John Stott

  1. Priyan Dias says:

    This is an interesting issue worthy of study – the nexus between education and reaching the masses. Are these incompatible or must a balance be struck? And is the balance a tension between extremes or a middle ground?

    There are also interesting parallels – most of Jesus’ disciples were drawn from the masses I guess, but God sort of took care to “recruit” an intellectaul in the form of Paul – and it was he who ended up writing most of the new testament. Paul’s ministry appears to have been pretty grass roots (as Stott tried to do in the All Souls parish), but how “successful” was he? Paul too, like Jesus, concentrated on building leaders, but were his leaders (Timothy, Titus et al) a little more (Greek) educated than Jesus’ ones?

    The other parallel is in Marxist movements of course – the attempted nexus between the intellectuals (who need to propagate dialectical materialism) and the workers (i.e. the masses, who need to stage the revolutions).

    The other things is that ideas often have a way of permeating popular culture but not in propositional form. So maybe it is not the actual message itself we should be concentrating on but the concept behind the message – Jesus’ use of stories is a good case in point. Francis Schaeffer used to say that revelation had to do with propositional truths, but if we take the gospel stories as they are, can we really derive propositions from them? We have them in plenty in the Pauline epistles, though, and I wonder if any propositional truth we see in the gospels is only seen through the lens of Pauline epistles?

    Just a few random thoughts….and they have probably been aired before…

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