The Rev. John Eddison (1916-2011)
Robert John Buchanan Eddison was born in the middle of World War 1, the son of the Rev. F. W. Eddison who ten years before had been domestic chaplain to Handley Moule, Bishop of Durham.
As a boy at Wellington College, Berkshire, John was a school prefect and a fast bowler in the Cricket XI. He also ran a Christian Union, which attracted some 70 boys to talks and Bible studies. He followed his father to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read history, and went on to train for ordination at Ridley Hall, Cambridge.
Meanwhile he had become a trusted helper to Rev. E. J. H. Nash in the early days of his camps and house-parties for public schoolboys, and here, after a single curacy at St John’s, Tunbridge Wells, he found his life’s work.
E. J. H. Nash (‘Bash’) was for almost all his ministry a staff member of the Scripture Union (SU) and, in 1942, John Eddison joined him. From then on, until his retirement in l980, his work was as travelling secretary for independent schools.
In time he became team leader for this work and a senior staff member. In 1940 Bash’s ‘camps’, by then house-parties, found what became almost their permanent home at Clayesmore School in Iwerne Minster, a village in Dorset.
Boys there — and at that time it was for boys only — found their school holidays’ war work in forestry and harvesting. But in camp prayers, morning by morning and evening by evening, they were introduced to the gospel of salvation and to the invitation to enter into a living relationship with Jesus Christ as friend and Saviour.
The story of this remarkable work (still actively in operation, under the name ‘Iwerne Holidays’, though now based in Norfolk rather than Iwerne Minster) can be read in some detail in my John Stott: the making of a leader (IVP, 1999), since before his ordination John Stott served under Bash as camp secretary.
I was myself privileged to be partnered with John Eddison, though much his junior, for several camps, during which he made a speciality of evangelism and pastoral care for 13-14 year olds. I have always remained grateful for the lessons I learned from him in dealing with that age group.
He had, both in his talks and in the leading of small Bible studies, the gift of making a Bible passage understandable, attractive and relevant to these youngsters.
He would often, for example, choose the opening verses of Joshua for the shared ‘quiet time’ on the last evening of camp, relating the Lord’s promise, ‘as I was … so I will be’, to the challenges which would be faced at school, and perhaps at home, by a 13-year-old who had found Christ for himself in the last few days and begun a life of discipleship.
John Eddison remained a key figure in Bash’s work, but in 1945 he started and began to lead junior camps for boys of prep school age, with immense success. They began at Bude, but soon moved to John Eddison’s own former prep school in Swanage.
More and more, therefore, John Eddison’s personal ministry lay in the many prep schools from which his junior campers were drawn. The attractiveness of his own personality, his obvious integrity and (not least) his skills of diplomacy soon won over any headmasters who might have reservations about such an evangelical organisation as the Scripture Union.
John Eddison became a much valued preacher at their Sunday chapel services. He could hold the attention of his young hearers. He offered solid Christian teaching, rooted in the Scriptures but relevant to schoolboy lives, and he was great fun to know!
One school would recommend him to another, and he soon became a well-known and much respected friend in the prep school world.
He was invited quite early on to act as chaplain at the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools’ (IAPS) annual conference; and, having done it once, was asked again year by year until his retirement.
With his wide range of experience, he was soon asked to join governing bodies, till he was at different times a governor of more than a dozen prep schools, as well as Stowe public school where he was chairman. In all this, he was an ambassador for Christ and, indeed, a model of what such an ambassador should be.
Often he was able to follow up those who had been won for Christ as younger boys, when they went on to further camps at Iwerne Minster, sometimes becoming leaders in their turn. His circle of friends was thus very large, including colleagues, teachers, children and their parents.
When John Eddison was down to speak or preach, at camp prayers or in a school chapel, his hearers could be sure of a message worth hearing, carefully prepared and perhaps refined by much use, leavened by apt illustration (of which he was an acknowledged master) and by carefully controlled but appealing humour.
In all this the Scriptures were his source and guide, and he sought to instil habits of daily Bible reading as a keystone of discipleship. His introduction to daily Bible reading, Newness of life (price fourpence), which began in the 1950s, has scarcely been out of print. He lived to see a handsome 2011 edition, still widely valued.
But, as one headmaster wrote on his retirement, ‘It is in the flesh that he is greatest, and those who have heard his camp talks and sermons at preparatory schools (he is a regular visitor at some 100 of these institutions!) long remember them.
‘“Did anything you heard in your chapel stick in your mind?” I would ask new arrivals at their public school. “Not really . . . oh, yes, there was a man called Eddystone or something who used to show us models and give us three reasons why…”
‘I recognised the technique! It is, of course, his knack of illustration — always apt but never so absorbing as to obscure — that compels attention.
‘Who can forget those engaging characters with which his talks abound — Will Power (who thinks he can get by unaided), Peter Out (who finds the going hard), and that fascinating Russian who is always advising delay in decision making, General Putitoff?’
Some of the material he used in his talks went into books, and of course vice-versa. Most of these were for the age group among which his ministry lay. The search party was an early attempt to convey the gospel through a story; but there soon followed a trilogy on Christian faith, Christian living and Christian standards.
By the 1980s, when Marshalls published his Towards confirmation, he was the author of about a dozen books, besides the Bible reading notes which he often contributed to the SU series. He also wrote verse and a number of published hymns, admirable in their sincerity and clear English.
In 1996, to the delight of his friends, he self-published a collected edition of 52 of his talks for children and youngsters, called Heart castle revisited. From these, it is still possible to capture something of his cogent and attractive appeal, through the imagination, to the mind and heart.
John Eddison never married, feeling a call to put his itinerant ministry before his personal life, but he was a supremely favourite uncle to nephews and nieces, and to his many godchildren.
He sought no recognition, but early in his ministry was appointed an honorary chaplain to Christopher Chavasse, Bishop of Rochester, so beginning a lifelong friendship with the family.
He must have been pleased, too, to be elected in 1963 an honorary life member of IAPS, one of the very few such who was not a prep school head. When he retired from the SU staff, much of his ministry to schools continued, even into his late eighties.
He entertained in his home in Crowborough (‘Durham Lodge’, the name remembering his father’s work for Handley Moule) and often helped at his local church, until a fall at home showed it was time for residential care.
He joined his friend John Stott in the College of St Barnabas where, marvellously cared for, his mind and his sense of humour as well as his prayer life continued unimpaired.
He died, rejoicing in faith, earlier this year at the age of 94. But in the countless young lives he touched for Christ, and in the junior camps he founded, his work lives on.