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Guest Column

June 2001 | by John Thornbury

Times Change!

I have been a used-bookshop mole for as long as I can remember. Usually I have got nothing but dusty hands for my trouble in digging through old volumes, but occasionally I find a real gem.

A few years ago I secured a book entitled Some Account of the Life of Spencer Houghton Cone, A Baptist Preacher (printed in 1856).I looked through it quickly and realized that it was worth taking home. Some time later, after more thorough examination, I realised I had a rare volume. It contained a simple but moving account of a powerful preacher who was pastor of the First Baptist Church of New York City from 1841 till his death in 1855.

Spirit-filled messages

What a life he lived! As an infant he was held in the arms of George Washington and blessed. For a while he wowed crowds in Baltimore and Washington as a character actor. He commanded a rifle regiment in the war of 1812 and was at Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key was off-shore writing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.

Cone was converted by reading the life of John Newton, the Anglican preacher who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’. When he first began to preach at a naval yard near Washington, his admirers of theatre days were so astounded at the change in his life that the churches were unable to hold the crowds.

For a while he served as a chaplain in the US Congress. But it was at his third church, First Baptist of New York City, that he reached the zenith of his ministry.

Although an uncompromising and unapologetic evangelical preacher, Cone’s evident honesty, faithfulness and Spirit-filled messages gave him packed houses and thousands were converted to Christ. A new building had to be erected, which also became the headquarters of the new and growing American Bible Society. Cone was known as the greatest patron of missions in the entire Baptist denomination in the USA.

Different today

A full length oil painting of this wonderful minister hangs in a hall of the First Baptist Church, so off I went to the Big Apple, New York, to see it and do some research on my subject. The modern church is located at 79th and Broadway in the heart of Manhattan. The present pastor, Rev. Robert Gage, gave me a guided tour.

Built just before the turn of the 20th century, it is a magnificent structure seating over 1000. In the ‘Gano Room’ there is a picture of the Baptist pioneer John Gano baptising George Washington.

But great throngs no longer pack the building. About 150 believers worship there. The church has no parking lot and none of the members have an automobile. All come by subway, taxi or bus. Pastor Gage caught a bus from his flat 12 blocks away to keep his appointment with me.

A news-stand featuring soft pornography sits on the sidewalk outside the front door. Looking around the neighbourhood I wondered how one would go about evangelism, since there were no residences but only business establishments.

A parking lot across the street charges $20.00 a day. Advertising in the great metropolis would be prohibitively expensive, at least in the newspapers. Yet people are being saved. The baptistry was being filled for the next morning, when three were to profess their faith.

Reaching the world

There is a great need for inner-city ministries such as this. But as I headed back to Central Pennsylvania, it struck me that we no longer have to move to a city to connect with multitudes of people. Through technology, even churches far removed from great population centres can, literally, reach the whole world.

Let me encourage pastors, especially young pastors, who may be beginning a ministry in some small town or village, to set their sights high. Here are some ways.

1. Start a cassette ministry. It does not cost much to purchase a recording system and duplicating machine. Not only can tapes be used for the housebound and others unable to attend but, if the messages are good, the word will spread and the church will be shipping them far and near.

2. Build a web page. The internet can give the church on the hillside a world-wide outreach. Recently we established a web page for our church, giving its history, services, officers, and listing the sermons, which can be ordered. Messages can be downloaded and heard.

3. Promote the gospel through literature. We have shelving for good books and pamphlets. I encourage our people to start building a library for personal study, emphasising basic Bible study tools and solid doctrine. A few years ago we placed 100 sets of Matthew Henry’s Commentary in the homes of our church people.

Spencer Cone moved to a great city to have a wide-ranging ministry. But every gospel preacher can reach thousands today if he is innovative. John Wesley’s statue, across from Bunhill Cemetery in the heart of London, bears the words: ‘The world is my parish’. Any pastor today can adopt this motto.

 

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