The Rev. John Stott did not fill stadiums with the faithful like his longtime friend, Billy Graham, or give the invocation at a presidential inauguration, as megachurch pastor Rick Warren did for Barack Obama. Yet he was a giant of the evangelical world — perhaps the most influential evangelist most people have never heard of.
Unassuming but erudite, the Anglican pastor who died at 90 Wednesday in Surrey, England, after several months of deteriorating health, wrote 50 books, including the 1958 classic “Basic Christianity,” which sold more than 2.5 million copies. His book royalties seeded Langham Partnership International, a nonprofit organization he founded that trains ministers in 100 countries. He also was the principal framer of the Lausanne Covenant, a defining statement that launched the global evangelical movement.
When Time magazine named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2005, Graham, who like Warren revered Stott as a mentor, explained why the gentle Englishman deserved the honor.
“I can’t think of anyone who has been more effective in introducing so many people to a biblical world view,” Graham said. He credited Stott’s work as “a significant factor in the explosive growth of Christianity in parts of the Third World,” which Stott preferred to call the Majority World.
“He was a very broad-minded evangelical,” said Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, which hosted Stott several times. “He was the kind of person who wanted to bring different factions together and emphasize what we hold in common.”
Stott believed that evangelism was not the only mission of Christians, a stance that some evangelicals criticized. He urged Christians not only to spread the gospel but to act on the Bible’s teachings by addressing social injustice in the world. He wrote and preached on climate change, global debt and other pressing issues facing contemporary society. Through the Langham Partnership he trained preachers, built libraries and helped 300 pastors from poor countries earn doctorates in biblical studies. They returned to their countries and became evangelical leaders, such as the Nepalese graduate who started a seminary in Katmandu.
“Evangelism and social action went together in the ministry of Jesus,” Stott told the Orange County Register in 1998. “So they ought to go together in ours.”
Some liberal theologians found his opposition to abortion and homosexuality and his support of the death penalty inconsistent with his commitment to social justice, but Stott held to the Bible as his authority. To those critics, he sometimes cited G.K. Chesterton, who said “the purpose of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
Born in London on April 27, 1921, Stott was the son of an agnostic physician and a mother who was brought up Lutheran. He attended All Souls Church, an Anglican parish on Langham Place in inner-city London where as a child he relished dropping paper wads from the balcony onto ladies’ hats below. A couple of decades later, the Trinity College graduate became the assistant curate at All Souls. He was only 29 when King George VI, as head of the Church of England, named him rector in 1950. He held the post for 25 years.
His rousing sermons attracted many new members — so many that he reportedly began suggesting that newcomers consider other parishes. Rapt audiences flocked to hear him wherever he spoke over the next decades.
“He wasn’t Billy Graham,” Mouw said, “but he just exuded wisdom. He was able to take difficult topics and make them plain for people who are not all that tuned in to high-level intellectual discussion, yet he had the respect of scholars. He was one of those bridge figures.”
When Stott began preaching, evangelicals in the Church of England were, he recalled to Christianity Today in 2006, “a despised and rejected minority.” His lucid exposition of Scripture in books such as “Basic Christianity,” “The Cross of Christ” and “Issues Facing Christians Today” helped guide the resurgence of evangelicalism in Britain.
It became a global phenomenon at the International Congress on World Evangelization, convened by Graham in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. With 2,700 participants from 150 nations, half of which belonged to the developing world, it was an unprecedented gathering, “possibly the widest-ranging meeting of Christians ever held,” Time reported.
The Lausanne Covenant expressed Stott’s vision as a reforming evangelical committed to engaging with a world challenged by poverty and other ills. “If we truly love our neighbor,” he said at the opening address, “we shall without doubt tell him the good news of Jesus. But equally, if we truly love our neighbor, we shall not stop there.”
Stott, who was never married, was known as a passionate birder.
He also was famous for his simple lifestyle. For three months every year for 50 years, when he wasn’t living in his spare London flat, he retreated to a tiny cottage in Wales where he wrote his books by lantern light. It was not until several years ago that, over his objections, electricity was finally installed.