It probably seems strange to publish an anthology of notes, quotes, and illustrations from the files of a preacher who professed not to “believe in illustrations.” But of course, while John Stott was never one of the great storytellers or showmen, he did become a preacher who took the need to interact with prevailing trends and cultural presumptions with the utmost seriousness. To that end, quotations and examples became essential, even if he used them sparingly and carefully.
Any anthology of John Stott’s notes would not be a mere collection of anecdotes and poignant stories (as has been compiled, say, from George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, or Donald Grey Barnhouse). That would never quite reflect the Stott style. Apart from anything else, it would probably end up as quite a slim tome. Instead, what you have before you is something more akin to a “commonplace book.”
Many thinkers, poets, artists, travelers, and opinion formers in previous generations used commonplace books. These books were handy places for jotting down thoughts, quotations, ideas, or even sketches or questions. A single page might contain profundity, trivia, and a shopping list. Such books had no order other than the chronology suggested by successive entries.
Of course, those who knew John Stott well would hardly expect to find trivia, let alone shopping lists. And instead of using notebooks, he jotted down a whole range of thoughts on 4×6-inch index cards, which he arranged under various topical headings or biblical references. He also used these cards for his notes when preaching. Some were typed up by his ever-faithful secretary Frances Whitehead, but most were handwritten. It is astonishing how early in his ministry he started doing this; some notes date to the 1940s, soon after he first became curate at All Souls. It is yet more evidence of a man of remarkable personal discipline and method. This practice continued to sustain his teaching ministry for around sixty years.
What we can learn from these notes
The rigors of Stott’s personal discipline are evident on every card. From the start, he dated and noted every venue where he used an illustration or talk outline, thus preventing awkward repetition. We can see that some of the study disciplines, which stood him in such good stead throughout his ministry, were in place right from the start in the 1940s. This practice lasted well into the first decade of the new millennium.
In the early days, Stott’s primary sources for illustrations and quotations tended to be key figures in evangelical history, such as the Reformers, Puritans, or preachers in the Great Awakening. J. C. Ryle, Charles Spurgeon, and Charles Simeon were clear favorites, often accompanied by Anglican divines like Bishops John Pearson of Chester (seventeenth century) and Handley Moule of Durham and Archbishop William Temple (both early twentieth century).
But within a decade or so of the beginning of his ministry, his horizons stretched significantly. We find extensive notes about Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Samuel Escobar (to name just three from overseas). It is clear from these notes that even though his theological moorings never wavered far (but went deeper), his cultural moorings certainly loosened. Another indication of this, in addition to many majority world sources and topics, is his engagement with theologians like Lesslie Newbigin.
This is evidence of a profoundly curious mind, always eager to plumb depths and hungry to learn new things. This was never driven by a fruitless yearning for novelty, but a compassionate mind in service to his Creator. It marked a constant desire to overcome the inevitable parochialism of Englishmen of his class and generation, living as they did in the twilight of Britain’s empire. As he himself said, “Life is a pilgrimage of learning, a voyage of discovery, in which our mistaken views are corrected, our distorted notions adjusted, our shallow opinions deepened and some of our vast ignorances diminished.”
The remarkable thing is that these notes provide further evidence of Stott’s generosity of spirit to those with whom he disagreed, sometimes radically. He was determined to do justice to opponents’ views, which sometimes caused him real intellectual turmoil when he wrestled with complex problems. Moreover, he would not let disputes in one area prevent him from being willing to learn from a person in another area. This can be seen in his frequent quotations from and allusions to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, even after their very public disagreement in 1966.
I hope that this anthology will provide a rich mine for preachers in the future. I also believe it will lay down a challenge for all who preach and teach to take seriously the need for rigor and method in our own cultural engagement.
This post is adapted from Mark Maynell’s introduction to Pages from a Preacher’s Notebook by John Stott (Lexham Press, 2020).