On 27 July Rev. John Stott went to be with the Lord. The man responsible for pointing him to Christ as a public schoolboy was Rev. E. J. H. Nash. This article remembers this unusual, but devoted, servant of Jesus Christ.
It was half an hour into the service. A man slipped quietly into church. It was not the first time he had been late. The man peered around him. People noticed his long scrawny neck and thick woollen scarf. The preacher noticed him too, and braced himself for what was to come.
Sure enough, a few days later the letter arrived: ‘I went home rejoicing’, the man wrote, ‘but your sermon was too long, and you missed out on the main point of the gospel’.
Who was this man who, in spite of his eccentricities and modest scholarship, retained that preacher’s love and respect? He was Eric John Hewitson Nash (1898-1982), of whom many would later testify: ‘If it were not for him I might have made shipwreck of my life’.
High-ranking servicemen, politicians, bishops, clergymen, headmasters and a host of others spoke of him with reverence — even with awe. Dick Lucas and John Stott, among many others, acknowledged a great debt of gratitude to him.
The son of a clergyman, E. J. H. Nash came to faith in Christ at nineteen and immediately sought ways to serve his Master. He went up to Cambridge at 24 and, after graduation, did his theological training at Ridley Hall.
He served two curacies, but his pulpit skills were few, his voice never strong, and he disliked crowds. He spent a short period as chaplain at Wrekin College, Shropshire.
In 1932 he joined the staff of the Scripture Union (SU). It was there that he would be fully used to the glory of God. Nash already had experience in what was to become his life work — the pioneering and supervision of youth camps. He had worked among the poor; now he was to serve the rich and privileged.
His time at an independent (‘public’) school had shown him that the ‘religion’ taught there was often inimical to a living faith. Nash knew that (in his day) the future leadership of the country would be drawn from these schools, and it was his great desire that such people should come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus while they were young.
From 1930, Nash had been involved in Easter, summer and winter boys’ camps in south-east England. When he joined SU, these camps came under their auspices.
With the outbreak of World War II, a safer and more permanent site was found for the camps in the village of Iwerne Minster in Dorset. These camps would develop to cater for preparatory school boys, undergraduates and, in 1956, for girls through associated camps.
Amazing success accompanied the evangelistic work at Iwerne. Outsiders puzzled as to its cause. Those who knew attributed it, under God, to Nash — ‘one praying figure’ and one life wholly committed to Christ.
Everyone knew Nash as ‘Bash’. But this soubriquet did not describe the man who, in spite of his forthrightness, was always courteous. Though he possessed no outstanding prowess, God had furnished his servant with a rare combination of gifts suited to his work.
He was shrewd — he had recognised a great need and secured the confidence and support of public schools’ headmasters, by recruiting their Christian staff to assist in the camps. He enlisted men with greater intellectual and athletic gifts than his own, and was discerning in his selection.
Like General Montgomery, to whom he has been likened, he recognised the need to train his men. He was businesslike and industrious, but always relaxed. He possessed the strength of a man and gentleness of a woman. He could lead because he had first learned to be led.
This was the man who became a 20th century missionary to England’s 30 or so top independent schools.
Some criticised this specialisation as ‘elitist’. ‘Are not all men equal before God?’ ‘Of course’, would be Bash’s quiet and only rejoinder.
There was much snobbery in these schools between the wars, and Bash wisely adopted customs (even clothes to be worn) that were acceptable to their class. He wanted nothing novel to confront the boys. The all-important issues of man’s sinfulness in God’s sight and salvation in Christ would be unfamiliar enough.
At camp, a hundred intelligent and exuberant teenagers would crowd into the library at Iwerne to hear a quietly spoken, unemotional man expose their inmost thoughts with uncanny skill.
Bash’s evangelism rarely moved away from the basics of the Christian message. He had a special gift for making the gospel both understandable and attractive. Those who heard him speak on the cross of Christ could never forget it.
He would turn to Isaiah 53: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’. ‘Where are your sins?’ he would ask. ‘Has God placed them on Christ, or are they still on you?’
He prayed knowing that all depended on God; but he preached as if all depended on man. He adopted what he called an ‘ABC’ approach. It was necessary to admit the need of God’s forgiveness and seek it; to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; and to call upon Christ to come into the heart to cleanse and renew it.
So simple was his message, so familiar the themes on which he majored, so rapt was the attention he commanded, that onlookers would ask in amazement, ‘How does he do it?’
On tape, Bash’s messages lost much of their impact and vigour. The winsomeness of his Christian personality added an indefinable quality to his words.
But the cross of Christ was not just the starting point for Bash’s Christian life and ministry — it was the plumb-line by which he kept a true course heavenward. In his quaint way, referring to stations on the London Underground, he would sometimes say: ‘The only way to Mansion House is via King’s Cross’.
Bash was neither athletic nor adventurous, neither musical nor artistic. As someone commented: ‘he possessed no masculine panache’. While he made it his business to talk intelligently on political or social matters, his heart was elsewhere — in the gospel of Christ his Saviour.
Bash was blessed with a whimsical and well-developed sense of humour. He used it to defuse tension when the most serious issues of life were under review. The daily ‘tear-off’ joke was a delight to Bash and boys alike, but irreverence found no place in the strict purity of his life.
But it was because Bash first lived what he taught that young men sat so willingly at his feet. He was quick to discern where God was at work in a life. He drew alongside with an exceptional depth of understanding, and young people opened their hearts to him.
He expended time and energy in follow-up, and this spilt over into their adult lives. This was a major element in the success of his life work.
He would encourage, exhort and correct. He would urge the successful to use their influence aright. Even an archbishop, the story goes, received a note from him saying, ‘Dear Bill, you are a big boy now but don’t forget … and perhaps you could …’
Bash was a practical man. Conducting his camps during war and peace, he adjusted to the changes necessary and used them to advantage.
The camps at Iwerne undertook farming and forestry. Parents cooperated and sent their sons to help. Blackouts and raids did not deter him from the greater conflict of spiritual warfare. Someone recalls seeing him sitting in complete darkness in a railway station attempting to write one of his endless follow-up letters.
The camps went from strength to strength and choice workmen were won for God’s harvest field. Bash knew how to delegate. He placed full confidence in the colleagues he had chosen and trained, leaving them to work without interference and receive the rewards they deserved. He was happy to take a back seat.
He had the courage to be himself. When his behaviour seemed eccentric he was oblivious to it in his single-mindedness. A loud ‘amen’ during a too-lengthy prayer was his way of bringing it to a hasty conclusion.
In the middle of an important meeting to revise a hymnbook, he broke into tuneless song to highlight the worth of a particular hymn. Many were reduced to uncontrollable mirth, but never derided the man they so respected.
Not long before he died, Bash received a letter from Douglas Johnston, then general secretary of IVF. ‘Wherever I have travelled’, he wrote, ‘I have met men who came to Christ at Iwerne Minster’.
Twenty years ago, at All Souls, Langham Place, a great crowd gathered to pay tribute to the man whose life and ministry had been used by God to ‘turn many to righteousness’. Rev. John Eddison read from 2 Samuel 3:38: ‘A prince and a great man is fallen this day’.
This article first appeared in the September 2002 ET.