Sunday, 26 May 2013

A Man Sent From God, His Name Was John


This picture – taken around 1937, shows an elderly clergyman. Born the seventh of ten children, in a poor Scottish family in Forfarshire, he heard the evangelists Moody and Sankey preaching in Glasgow. He dreamed of one day being a Baptist preacher, like Mr Spurgeon. And so John went to London, trained at Spurgeon’s College, and became a pastor when he was just 23

In his first year of ministry, in August 1878, a dreadful boating disaster on the Thames [the loss of the Princess Alice** pleasure steamer] claimed 650 lives. The Captain’s widow was one of John’s church members- she asked him to conduct the funeral. This young pastor stood before three hundred freshly dug graves, and prayed for the right words of comfort and hope. From that day on, his tiny chapel was inadequate to hold the crowds who came to hear him preach of God’s love. [**if you watched ‘Ripper Street’ you may remember part of the plot being that the policeman’s daughter was lost in the accident]

The chapel was demolished and a huge Baptist Tabernacle was built, which had seating for 2000. For sixty years John was pastor, through the end of the Victorian era, the First World War and into the 1930s. He was president of The Baptist Union in 1904. In 1907 he was conferred with the degree of Doctor of Divinity by a Texan university and in 1919 was awarded the MBE for his services to troops stationed at the barracks near his church during WW1.

He was loved and respected by all – wealthy businessmen and politicians[ including Lloyd George], senior churchmen of all denominations, and many Jewish Rabbis, as well as by the soldiers and the ordinary people in his community. They all considered him a friend. Along with his devoted wife, he worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of those who lived and worked around his church. Thousands came to the celebrations of his Diamond Jubilee in 1937, marking his record sixty years as minister in the same church – the programme of Special Events lasted over a fortnight.

When he died, just before the outbreak of WW2, the local council renamed one of the major streets in his honour. He had not just served his church – but all the local people, setting up programmes of social care, and showing God’s love to anyone and everyone who needed it. There are very few Baptist ministers who have streets named after them – but this man made it his life’s work to bring the Light of Life and Hope to the place where God had sent him. Despite the squalor and poverty he found there, he never sought to move on to a richer, easier pastorate [or to return to his family home in Scotland]

Why have I written all this Baptist history today? – simply because I have thought so much about this man this week. You see, the street they renamed for this gentle man of God is in Woolwich – it is John Wilson Street. That street which has been pictured on TV and in newspapers all round the world in the last few days. Just before his death, John Wilson said “I may be a Scotsman, but I love Woolwich with all my heart” – if John were alive now, his heart would be breaking to hear of the brutal murder of the young soldier Lee Rigby, and of the mindless backlash against Muslim groups.

135 years ago, following another tragedy in Woolwich, John prayed for the right words of comfort and hope – may God give those words now to all men and women of faith, as they seek to find peace.


  1. A lovely heart warming post - will we ever be the same after what has happened in Woolwich? I think not.

  2. Amen. Thanks for sharing this information...

    Lesley H in Livingston.

  3. A very moving post Angela. Thank you. The awful act against a young man is bad enough, but with the escalation in hate crimes that has been unleashed it becomes a tragedy for everyone.

  4. It's a tall order for us as Christians sometimes to say the things that may comfort rather than those that just bring more strife. It is encouraging to see someone devoting his life to doing that.

  5. Thanks for sharing this information

  6. Very well written. Thank you for sharing x

  7. Such a moving post. Thanks you.


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