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The printed word

October 2016 | by William Mackenzie

A woman went to her local Christian bookshop and purchased a copy of a book called Ten girls who changed the world. She bought this book for her nine-year-old daughter.

When the girl finished the book, she said, ‘I think God is calling me to be a missionary, but I don’t need to wait until I’m grown up to do that. I will tell my friends about Jesus’. She now meets with a group from her school each week to pray.

God speaks to us in creation and providence, but mostly by words, be they on stone, vellum, parchment, scrolls, papyrus or the screen.


On 24 May 1738, John Wesley wrote about how he went rather unwillingly to a church meeting in Aldersgate. Someone was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans: ‘About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death’.

His contemporary George Whitefield, said: ‘When I was sixteen years of age, I began to fast twice a week for 36 hours together, prayed many times a day … yet I knew no more that I was to be born again in God … than if I was never born at all …. my old friend, Mr Charles Wesley … put a book into my hands, called, The life of God in the soul of man, whereby God showed me, that I must be born again or be damned … O what a ray of divine life did then break in upon my poor soul’.

There are so many stories about God using literature. Hudson Taylor was converted through reading a book. Jonathan Edwards was greatly influenced by a short document from Scotland and went on to write many influential books.


Richard Sibbes, a Puritan, wrote The bruised reed. It was picked up by a tin peddler who gave it to a boy called Richard. This lad read the book, was saved and became the well known pastor, Richard Baxter of Kidderminster. Eventually, he wrote A call to the unconverted, which inspired a man called Philip Doddridge, who in turn wrote The rise and progress of religion in the soul.

This book was also instrumental in transforming the life of the Scot, Thomas Chalmers, who in the nineteenth century touched the world by his preaching. What an amazing chain!This fell into the hands of William Wilberforce, changed his life, and he became the great campaigner for the abolition of slavery. His book, A practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians, lit up the soul of Legh Richmond, whose subsequent book, The dairyman’s daughter, became the chief influence in the life of Queen Victoria.

I want you to imagine that you are living in England in 1760. John Wesley has been your acquaintance for ten years. He visits your congregation and afterwards sends you this following letter: ‘What has exceedingly hurt you in time past and I fear to this day is want of reading.

‘I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little, and, perhaps by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It’s lively but not deep. There is little variety. There is no compass of thought.

‘Reading only can supply you this, along with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it any more than a thorough Christian’.


We need to make sure that those in ministry have access to books and time to read them. Who knows the potential of giving a book? When did you last give one to your neighbour, grandson, colleague? Many of us have difficulty in speaking to others about our faith, but it’s not so difficult to hand them a book that you have enjoyed.

Clark is a bus driver. He got a copy of Heaven — how I got here, by Colin Smith, a Scot now ministering in Arlington Heights. Clark shared this book with two colleagues with whom he has had a Saturday evening meal for many years. One of them died three days later. The other has worn out her book and wants to give it to some of her friends.

At a Presbyterian Church of America general assembly, a dejected young pastor came to our booth. He bought The work of the pastor, by William Still. He read it that night and next day said, ‘I’m better now. I know what my job is’.

The part that encouraged him was this: ‘It is to feed sheep on such truth that men are called to churches and congregations, whatever they may think they are called to do. If you think that you are called to keep a largely worldly organisation, miscalled a church, going, with infinitesimal doses of innocuous sub-Christian drugs or stimulants, then the only help I can give you is to advise you to give up the hope of the ministry and go and be a street scavenger…

‘The pastor is called to feed the sheep, even if the sheep do not want to be fed. He is certainly not to become an entertainer of goats. Let goats entertain goats, and let them do it out in goatland. You will certainly not turn goats into sheep by pandering to their goatishness’.


It would be wonderful to see the church engaging in a new way with the printed page. Ralph Winter, now deceased, from the US Centre of World Missions, said, ‘Two things are central to the entire history of missions, the Bible and the printed page. Meetings come and go, personalities come and go, but the printed page continues to speak. It never goes on holiday, never leaves the mission field, and is never sick, and, even if dormant many years later, it can still blossom’.

William Mackenzie is a founder of Christian Focus Publications in Scotland, and chairman of Evangelicals Now. He is husband to Carine — they have three daughters and eight grandchildren.

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