John Stott’s Legacy in Canada

Steven Van Dyck

Many Canadians are not aware of how strong, long-lasting and consequential were John Stott’s connections to Canada. John Stott (“JRWS” as he was often known, or sometimes, affectionately, “Uncle John”) visited Canada for the first time in 1956, to lead the University of Toronto mission which opened his 1956-57 series of university missions across Canada and the USA. John was always powerfully convinced of the importance of the university in cultivating the Christian mind, and as a vital centre for Christian witness. Donald MacLeod, former director of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship Canada and former Langham Partnership Canada board member, referred to “the momentous university mission of 1956 that thrust John Stott onto centre stage in the evangelical world, a position he would occupy for the next half-century.”

Few would quarrel with that assessment. John Stott’s visit to Toronto in November 1956 in many ways showed just how impactful and strategic his future world ministry would be. The first night, he attracted 500 people to the University’s venerable Convocation Hall; by the third night, attendance exceeded 900. During the week, John spoke at two Toronto clergy breakfasts, and early every morning he was at the CBC Radio studios to broadcast their morning devotions (in an era when CBC Radio still broadcast daily devotions).

The 1956-57 tour subsequently took John first to Western University in London, ON, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI, the University of Manitoba, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, McGill University, Carleton College (now University), and finally to Harvard, Yale and the University of Illinois at Urbana. Winnipeg took some acclimatization for a Londoner: he had to buy fur headgear, for “I was afraid that otherwise I’d return to England minus an ear or two!”

But John Stott’s first trip to Vancouver began a love of the city, which seemed only to grow over time. There too, he began his days at CBC Radio’s studio at 7:30 a.m., leading morning devotions. But his energies were poured into the University mission, attended daily by 600-800 students. He returned many times. Regent College was formed in Vancouver in 1968, as the first graduate school of theology in North America to make education of the laity its focus. From the beginning, John Stott was invited frequently to teach at Regent, and his summer courses helped put Regent’s Summer School program on the map. He loved Vancouver and Regent. An English visitor recalls: “In Vancouver John seemed altogether different from London. He was much more relaxed in his slacks and tartan jacket.” Regent’s first Principal, James Houston, realized that JRWS would not accept Regent’s invitation to join its faculty, so he urged him to consider a similar venture in London. Regent College thus became the model when John founded the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity in 1982.

Langham began in Canada as an organization in 1979, as the vision of Vancouver businessman, John Cochrane. It would be a Canadian wing of the Langham Trust (predecessor of the Langham Partnership) through which Canadians could support John Stott’s growing international work. John Cochrane had grown in his faith through the 1957 UBC mission. Over the years he had become a personal friend of John Stott and was excited by JRWS’s global vision. Besides John Cochrane (Chair), the founding directors were: Rod Douglas, the Rev. Harry Robinson (rector of St. John’s Shaughnessy Anglican Church), and Ruth Matheson (Secretary). This initial group all shared John’s vision for theological scholarship, quality Christian literature, and expository preaching as key to developing a mature and self-sustaining Church in the Majority World. This group and others who joined the Board met regularly to host information and fund-raising events for approximately twenty years at which point they felt it would be wise to move the Board to Central Canada.

John Stott became a Christian through a boys camp program similar to camps run in Canada by IVCF. In all his years of ministry, both as Rector of All Souls Langham Place in London and around the world, he focused on seeking and discipling youth and young adults for Christ. In the 1960s and 1970s, John was the beloved Bible Expositor at the Urbana Missions Conference (held between Christmas and New Year), always attended by thousands of Canadians. These conferences left a profound impact on tens of thousands of lives. Margaret Clarkson, the great Canadian hymn writer, wrote a new hymn for each conference. In 1976, she wrote Our God is Mighty. That year, the Bible studies were led by John Stott on the theme, Our God is a Missionary God. At one point, he had to ask the conference, “Please don’t clap any more; you’re wasting my time; I’ve only got two minutes more.” The speakers at Urbana ‘76 represented the increasing depth, power and internationalism of evangelicalism, which John Stott did so much to nurture and encourage. Like JRWS, they were people of exceptional intellect and profound commitment, who “walked humbly with their God.” They included Elisabeth Elliot, widow of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries martyred in Ecuador in 1956, who spoke on The Will of God. Festo Kivengere, whose Ugandan homeland was at that very time living through Idi Amin’s tyranny, spoke on The Triumph of God’s Glory. Helen Roseveare’s meditation on The Cost of Declaring His Glory grew out of her harrowing suffering during the Congo rebellion of the mid-1960s. John Perkins, a leading African-American civil rights leader and founder of Mississippi-based Voice of Calvary Ministries, spoke on Declaring His Glory in the Community. Billy Graham wrapped up the conference with a call to commitment to the 17,000 students in attendance, Responding to God’s Glory. These were spiritually exhilarating years for the international evangelical movement, and John Stott was in the forefront, his influence immense and worldwide.

Thena Ayres, an early Vancouver Board member, had come to faith in Christ through a friend who was converted at the 1957 UBC mission. At Urbana in 1967/68, Thena observed, “I was profoundly convicted by the way he made the Scripture come alive, but what left me speechless was what happened after he spoke. The 15,000 university students would rise to their feet, night after night, and thunder their applause. I expected he would smile and wave and take it all in. Instead, he would sit down immediately and I realized that he was praying for his words to be of help to those students, but also that he knew the praise was not appropriate for him. The only one worthy of praise was God himself. I later learned that this was not some sort of false modesty, but something that came out of the deepest core of his being.”

As mentioned above, John Stott was passionate about the role of the university for Christian witness; he placed a high priority on the need to cultivate a Christian mind. He took great pleasure in his work as Honorary President of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), a position he occupied for decades. IFES unites student Christian movements (including IVCF Canada) around the world. Through IFES, John mentored and ministered to young Christian leaders, who would go on to serve in a wide variety of Christian work around the world.

When he spoke at Toronto’s Ontario Theological Seminary (now Tyndale Seminary) in spring 1997, John Stott’s topic was “The Importance of a Strategic Theological Education for the Christian World Mission.” By this time, John’s vision for theological education for the Majority World Church had long since come to fruition in the Langham Partnership. In that address, he reported that fifty Langham Scholars had already completed doctorates, with twelve now academic deans, and most of the rest teaching in Majority World seminaries.

This commitment to students was also behind John   Stott’s strong commitment not just to IVCF’s Urbana conference, but to the work of IVCF Canada. In 1979, at the invitation of Donald MacLeod, then General Director of IVCF Canada, John addressed a four-day IVCF staff conference at Geneva Park, Orillia, ON, on the occasion of IVCF Canada’s fiftieth anniversary. This was a rare opportunity, and the first in over a decade, for the entire Canadian IVCF staff team to be together in one place. Cathie Nicoll, a co-founder of IVCF Canada, served high school and university students across our nation for 50 years, befriending them, bringing them to Christ, and discipling them. She was eventually honoured with the Order of Canada for her work with Canadian youth. Cathie was the IVCF British Columbia staff worker when John Stott came for his first UBC mission in 1957. In subsequent years, at Cathie’s invitation, John spoke at both BC and Alberta Pioneer Camps. From the 1950s to the 1990s, he had a significant influence on the IVCF Canada staff nation-wide.

In 1993, John Stott accepted an honorary doctorate from Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. The only other North American honorary doctorate he would ever accept was awarded by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. John wanted to signal his recognition of the powerful ministry of Wycliffe College, as an evangelical witness in the heart of a great world university. Today, the Principal of Wycliffe College is Bishop Stephen Andrews, who in the 1980s served as one of John’s study assistants. The Rev. Tom Robinson, the father of Langham Canada’s current board chair, Peter Robinson, also served as Curate under John at All Souls for several years beginning 1957. Tom was the first Warden of the All Souls Clubhouse, which ministered to about 400 children, youth, families and older people who lived in the neighbourhood around All Souls Church.

John Stott was always pleased to return to Canada, and had an extensive network of friends from across the denominational spectrum. One long-time friend was the Rev. Dr. John Gladstone, pastor of Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto. Dr. Gladstone chaired the Langham Partnership Canada board once it moved from Vancouver to Ontario. In 1996, JRWS was the invited guest at the Gladstone Festival of Preaching, speaking on “A Call to Faithfulness.” He returned again to Toronto in April 1998, to speak at Knox Presbyterian Church, Avenue Road Church (now Bayview Glen), Tyndale Seminary, and Yorkminster Park Baptist. A year later, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Gladstone’s ordination, JRWS wrote his friend: “I have greatly valued our friendship over the years – with Joyce of course as well. I have appreciated too your commitment to biblical exposition and your unique gift of illustration and anecdote. Thank you too for your chairmanship of Langham Trust’s Ontario chapter. So today I thank you, and I thank God for you. With love in the Lord, Yours ever, John.” John had a network of such friendships which extended literally around the world.

His cross-country farewell visit in 2003 was an opportunity to introduce Dr. Chris Wright, his successor as international leader of the Langham Partnership. The aim was for John to reconnect once more with his Canadian friends, but also to make Langham’s work better known among Canadian pastors. Together, they traveled across Canada from Vancouver to St John’s, NL, with Carluci Dos Santos, then a Langham Scholar from Brazil at Wycliffe College (today, Canadian director of Latin America Mission), and Elizabeth Denbeigh (a long-time and current Langham Partnership Canada board member), reconnecting with pastors and friends of Langham Partnership. Since JRWS was in his 80s, it was decided that Elizabeth’s husband, a medical doctor, should accompany John Stott at every stage of the trip, though in the end his services were never called on! John spoke at Regent College, and at two large Vancouver churches, First Baptist and St John’s Shaughnessy. Then on to Calgary (Centre Street Church) and Winnipeg (Grant Memorial Church), hosted by his friends John and Eileen Dean, and Brett Cane. 

John Stott’s next visits were in the Atlantic Provinces, beginning with Halifax, hosted by friends John and Karen Newton. John Newton was then rector of St Paul’s Anglican Church, which in 1987 had hosted JRWS as part of a local mission “Cross Encounter ’87,” at the invitation of John Newton’s then-assistant and John Stott’s former study assistant, Stephen Andrews. The trip also took JRWS to Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, NS, where in 2020, Chris Wright returned (virtually) to deliver the Hayward Lectures (now posted on John was invited to St John’s, NL, by the Memorial University IVCF chapter, hosted in part by Dr. Martin Mack. He spoke twice at St Mary’s Anglican Church, and thanks to island-wide promotion of his visit, close to 1,000 attended from many denominations. Time was of course set aside for birdwatching trips, first to the Witless Bay Islands, home to a huge puffin colony, then to Cape St Mary, where the party saw whales, and the Cape’s famous gannet birds. This made up for his visit the previous year (April 2002) to the Point Pelee, ON bird sanctuary. On that occasion, he was too early by a week to greet the migrating warblers, and confided to Chris Wright and Elizabeth Denbeigh that the outing was “an unmitigated disaster.” The 2003 tour ended in Montreal, hosted by Clyde Ervine, with speaking engagements to supporters at Christ Church Cathedral and the Presbyterian Church of St Andrew and St Paul.  

Anyone who did not know better might have suspected that John Stott’s many visits to Canada grew out of his love for Canada’s birdlife. This passion was evident as early as his first trip to Toronto in 1956. He made a day trip to Niagara Falls, but what really caught his attention was “a small expanse of more slowly moving water which I found to be alive with duck! … I was thrilled also to get an excellent view of a pair of Buffle Heads, a pair of American Golden-Eye, and one drake Pintail, not to mention a Common Loon, Redheads, Horned Grebe galore, Mallard, Gadwell, and Scaup. It was one of the most exciting birding expeditions I can remember.” John’s full passion is perhaps best captured by this diary entry after his visit to the University of Manitoba’s field station at Delta Marsh in 1986: “It is unbelievably peaceful and beautiful. With no pressures, and no timetable to keep except lunch and dinner, I have been able to watch and photograph birds to my heart’s content. One morning, wearing waist-high waterproof boots, I plunged into the marsh up to my middle, invading a colony of Yellowheaded Blackbirds.”

John’s subsequent visits to Canada almost always included birdwatching excursions. Returning to Toronto in 1971, he was taken in hand by Canon (later Bishop) Desmond Hunt, the Rector of the Church of the Messiah, to kit him out for his first of many bird-watching trips to the Canadian Arctic. His destination was Bathurst Inlet Lodge on the northern shore of the Northwest Territories, where John was named Honorary Chaplain. He was back in the Arctic in 1973, 1976 and 1979, on a quest to see the Snowy Owl. In summer 1991, near Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island, NWT, he caught a glimpse, but five years later, back at Cambridge Bay, he was finally rewarded with multiple sightings, while he crouched with his camera, sometimes for six hours at a stretch. Founding board member Rod Douglas has vivid memories of accompanying John Stott on three of his trips to the Arctic: “When John heard I was living in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories and my work took me to High Arctic Islands, he suggested I could help him in his quest to see the Snowy Owl sitting on her nest on the Arctic tundra. We made three trips and were finally rewarded on our last trip in 1996 to Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island where John saw this beautiful bird. In his book, The Birds Our Teachers, John includes a chapter on the Snowy Owl with photographs taken on that trip. As John says, “It was the culmination of a twenty-five year search for a truly sensational bird. I felt I could now say my Nunc Dimittis: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace … for my eyes have seen …’ (Luke 2:29,30)”

John Stott’s place of spiritual retreat was The Hookses, in Pembrokeshire, Wales, overlooking the Irish Sea. But it is possible to imagine that, had he ever sought out a second retreat, he might have chosen a spot overlooking the Pacific along the BC coast, or the Arctic Ocean in the Northwest Territories. However, he left his mark on Canada’s cities – in her universities and seminaries, in churches large and small, and in the lives of men and women who were directly or indirectly spiritually impacted by his clear, intelligent articulation of the Gospel.

But in the end, John Stott was always first and foremost a global Christian. He rejoiced that the Gospel was finding its new home in the Majority World. His ongoing legacy will therefore be the Langham Partnership. Every friend and supporter of Langham Partnership Canada shares in that legacy.

Steven Van Dyck

Executive Director
Langham Partnership Canada

*Photo credit (top): InterVarsity Christian Fellowship


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