September 2015 is the 60th anniversary of the first issue of The Banner of Truth magazine, in September 1955. As with all the Banner’s work, this has been very influential and much blessed of God in the cause of Christ’s kingdom.
Sixty years ago, in September 1955, a small pamphlet was published in Oxford under the title The Banner of Truth. The names of the two men responsible for this humble publication were printed on the back page: Sidney Norton and Ian (sic) Murray. They were connected with the small church of St John’s, Summertown, Oxford, of which Sidney Norton was the minister, and to which Iain Murray, then just 24, had come to be assistant to the older man in May 1955.
The vision for a magazine had come to them during that summer, but resources for such a project were so limited and uncertain that, following the publication of the first issue, there was no income to publish a second until February 1956. ‘The truth is’, Iain Murray has written, ‘there were no resources to pay salaries, let alone publish a magazine’. The two men, nevertheless, were constrained to make an attempt to do something. Although not a ‘popular’ preacher, Sidney Norton (1907–94) was a man of prayer and faith. At that time, a text which he had pinned prominently to his desk top read, ‘He hangeth the earth upon nothing’ (Job 26:7).
The burden they shared was not for a magazine as such, but for a recovery of the truth that salvation is a work of divine grace. Their hope was for the republication of an older Christian literature as the best means to that end, for little of that kind of literature was available in Britain in 1955.
Oxford as the publisher’s address served to catch attention. It was about the last place in Britain identified with the message the magazine contained. It was 300 years since Puritan beliefs had fed many in that city, and subsequent ministries of that persuasion — with the exception of some brave Church of England evangelicals — had been few and far between.
Although neither Norton nor Murray had any connection with the university, the history of the city had a strong influence upon them. There is scarcely any part of Oxford’s ancient centre not connected with memorable men and events.
The spot outside Balliol College, where Latimer and Ridley were burned to death on 16 October 1555; St Mary’s Church, where Cranmer finally repudiated the pope, and where John Wesley would later offend the clergy of his day; Christ Church, where students were imprisoned for circulating Tyndale’s New Testament and where John Owen later presided: these, and a score of other memories, were an inspiration.
It was in Oxford that Latimer said, ‘We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out’. What moved the ministers of St John’s in 1955 was that the message of these men was so largely forgotten and the history, and the literature it produced, was so very little known.
The purpose of The Banner of Truth magazine was not to speak in its own name — there was to be nothing of a personal nature in the magazine — it was to let others speak. Thus the principal voices in the first issue were those of William Gurnall, Martin Luther, Thomas Goodwin and John Calvin.
Looking back on that time, Iain Murray has put on record his indebtedness to Sidney Norton. Although the younger man was the main writer and editor from the magazine’s inception, it was the older man’s ‘faithfulness and praying that provided the foundation’.
‘I recall’, Murray continued, ‘that after I had written the first editorial, and given the new magazine a title, my senior friend went over it and changed the title from Gospel Banner to The Banner of Truth.
‘I respected his opinion, for the words of Psalm 60:3-4 were a compelling part of his motivation, and they duly appeared on the front cover of the first number: “Thou hast shewed thy people hard things: thou hast made us to drink of the wine of astonishment. Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth”.
‘The change of title was certainly settled by 19 July 1955, for I have a diary note for that date, “Went up to pray with Mr Norton early this morning concerning The Banner of Truth”.’ And the rest, as they say, is history.
By the time the third issue of the magazine appeared in October 1956, Iain Murray had moved to London to assist Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel.
‘The Doctor’ had been an encourager of the magazine from the start, although he had some misgivings about it. These were mainly to do with the manner and style of the magazine’s communication of its message.
Dr Lloyd-Jones preferred to teach the meaning of words rather than use labels such as ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’. He wanted Christians to be won to a change of view as they came to understand the Scriptures; a slower route, perhaps, but, at the end of the day, one he believed was more likely to produce permanent change and avoid needless divisions.
Reviewing the early issues of the magazine, Iain Murray confesses that Dr Lloyd-Jones’ policy ‘was not always well followed … Youth is ever possessed with more confidence than wisdom. We had much to learn.
‘James Denny once wrote, “Even Christian ministers, who ought to know the mind of Christ, almost universally, at least in the beginning of their work, when they preach about evil, lapse into a scolding tone. It is of no use whatever in the pulpit.” The same is true of writing.’
While the truth is needed in all places and at all times, it is not needed with the same emphasis in all times and places. Nevertheless, the hope of the first editors of the magazine in September 1955 was that their publication would prompt serious thought and lead Christians to search more deeply into their heritage of Christian literature.
It is with thankfulness that it can be said that there has been a great change in this regard. An abundance of good literature now exists — and yet this is not enough.
Revival and reformation are even more sorely needed today than they were 60 years ago, and the desire of all those associated with the Banner of Truth Trust is that The Banner of Truth magazine and all other Trust publications may serve further to that end.