Onwards and outwards
An extract from the new book Travel with John Blanchard (edited by Brian Edwards)
published by Day One; £10; ISBN 978-1-84625-161-0.
Together with a theological revolution in his personal life, the next seven years were to see the beginnings of John’s widespread ministry in Northern Ireland as well as openings in the first European country to receive the gospel. His first book was also to be published.
Although his forward diary consisted mainly of engagements in the West Country, John’s first engagement as an MWE (Movement for World Evangelisation) staff member was a mission at Sutton Valence School, in Kent, founded in 1576 by William Lambe. Morning prayer in the local parish church, school assembly, voluntary chapel, class work and informal meetings gave John significant input to the entire student body.
Yet John’s main focus remained in the south-west, and he was soon involved in planning ‘Crusade 66’, a major evangelistic event covering the whole of North Devon. As this was a huge step for local Christians, John drove from Weston-super-Mare to Barnstaple for monthly committee meetings, often returning home in the early hours. One meeting was so long and tiring that when the chairman asked an elderly gentleman to close by saying the grace, the man mumbled, ‘For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful’!
The crusade ran from 20 March to 10 April and the seventy-strong team took hundreds of meetings over an area of 250 square miles of rural country, reaching some 20,000 people with the gospel. On one Sunday, team members had fifty-one engagements.
During the final week, evening rallies were held in Queen’s Hall, Barnstaple, and attracted the largest consistent crowds the manager had seen in thirteen years. In a delightful touch during the final meeting, a team member presented John with a bar of Five Boys chocolate, marking the birth of his fifth son, Michael Peter, earlier in the day!
‘Crusade 66’ marked a turning point in the lives of many people – and a revolution in the thinking of its leader. Although there were many indications of God’s blessing on his rapidly expanding ministry, John sensed that his grasp of biblical theology was very superficial. During ‘Crusade 65’ in Jersey he had told a team member: ‘I am an evangelist. I feel I have nothing to say to Christians’.
Although assured this was not the case, he had a deepening sense that something was missing. Firmly convinced of the authority, inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, John’s theology was, however, basically Arminian – believing that election to salvation is ultimately dependent on a person’s response, that the atonement was universal in its extent, and that everyone has complete free will to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation.
During the 1962 NYLC house party at Westcliff School, one of the guests had given John a copy of Redemption accomplished and applied, in which John Murray considers the nature and extent of the atonement effected in the death of Jesus Christ and expounds the Bible’s teaching about God’s sovereignty in man’s salvation.
After reading a few pages John tossed it aside. Four years later at ‘Crusade 66’, his hosts at Pitt Farm, Barnstaple, were Hubert and Frances Watts. In the course of three weeks there he often heard their son Malcolm discussing Christian matters with Paul Hill, another team member then completing his studies at Moorlands Bible College.
John sometimes joined in, but realised that whereas they seemed to have a coherent doctrinal framework, he had none. Before the end of the two weeks his Arminian ideas were crumbling and he was beginning to grasp the biblical basis and implications of ‘Reformed’ theology.
Like a second conversion
Initially, John found it difficult to fit his growing convictions into the closing ‘free will’ appeals of his evangelistic sermons. The problem was solved some time later when he heard Paul Hill conclude an evangelistic service by pointing out from Acts 17:30 and 1 John 3:23 that God commanded every-one to turn from sin and to trust in Christ.
In John’s own words, embracing Reformed theology was ‘like a second conversion’ and gave his understanding of Scripture, his evangelism and his Bible teaching a new clarity and cohesion. The ‘appeal’ took on a very different character.
Later that year, John joined Frank Farley in leading a two-week house party to Norway, and Pam Last, one of seventy guests, soon spotted the change. She commented years later: ‘My sister Rita and I first met John Blanchard at an NYLC house party in the Lake District in the early nineteen sixties and enjoyed his engaging ministry (and sense of humour).
Some time later Rita and I were introduced to the Reformed faith and came to appreciate the doctrines of grace. When we booked places on a Norway house party with MWE in 1966 we wondered how this would square with John’s ministry. We were encouraged to see him reading Spurgeon: the early years on the ship and we were soon to discover that his ministry had developed a new, richer dimension.
‘We will always treasure the two weeks that followed, studies that were later to be reflected in Truth for Life, his devotional commentary on the Epistle of James’.
The reference to John’s sense of humour draws attention to an aspect of his life that had contributed to his popularity as a preacher. His quick wit is well known to those who hear him, but his colleague Derek Cleave illustrates this perfectly.
In November 1977, Derek, Peter Anderson and John were conducting a mission at Trinity Road Chapel, Tooting, London, at a time when unexpected power cuts were common. One evening the team sat down to discuss the next day’s programme over a light meal when the lights suddenly failed and they were plunged into total darkness.
Without a pause John’s voice penetrated the gloom: ‘Don’t touch your chocolate biscuit Derek, I’ve just taken a bite of mine and I’ve gone blind’. Back in 1962 when John and Joyce left Guernsey, a parting commendation referred to his ‘audacious humour [which] would carry us away with gusts of hilarity, so soon to be followed with the hush of deep solemnity and challenge’.
The summer of 1966 gave additional opportunities for structured Bible teaching at MWE house parties in Bredene, Belgium and in Les Avants sur Montreux, Switzerland, where three successive two-week house parties, each with nearly 150 guests, were held in Chatelard School.
MWE was to hold regular house parties there and local residents who looked in on these included the English playwright and composer Sir Noel Coward and the Australian coloratura soprano Dame Joan Sutherland.
It was on one of these house parties that someone asked John how he reconciled his belief in election and evangelism. His reply was immediate: ‘Election is a doctrine I am called to believe, and evangelism is a command I am called to obey – so I believe the first and obey the second’. It had ceased to be an issue.
1966 also marked the beginning of John’s writing ministry. It was fairly common practice at the time for people professing conversion to be given a copy of the New Testament or only the Gospel of John, but John felt that something more was needed.
Why not suggest they read the shortest of the Gospels and give them daily notes to help understand it? For months, he used his daily devotions to work his way through the Gospel of Mark, eventually dividing it into forty-five sections, each with a page of notes explaining and applying the text.
Based on a phrase dating back to the first English Prayer Book in 1549 – in which one particular prayer asked for God’s help to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ the words of Scripture – he called the notes Read Mark Learn.
The young author ‘road tested’ them first on duplicated sheets, and when they immediately proved to be of help, MWE published a first edition of 7,500 copies. Later editions were taken over by another publisher and eventually by Evangelical Press. Forty years on, its twenty-sixth printing meant that some 220,000 English copies were in print, as well as translations into French, German, Greek, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Malayalam and Serbo-Croatian – and a Braille version produced by Torch Trust for the Blind.
The Bulgarian translation was made by the dissident novelist and playwright Georgi Markov, who was later assassinated as he walked across Waterloo Bridge, London, on 7 September 1978, in a plot believed to have involved the Soviet KGB and the Bulgarian Secret Police.