[Editor’s note: This is the second installment of Professor Hanko’s interesting account of a tour by him and Rev. D. Engelsma in behalf of our synodical Contact Committee to the United Kingdom. The previous installment dealt with their visit to Ulster. The scene now changes to England.]
From Ireland we went to England, particularly to visit a small and independent congregation in Barnsley in South Yorkshire. Before traveling to Barnsley, however, we made a hurried trip to Edinburgh in Scotland to visit briefly with Rev. Sinclair Horne, who is Secretary of the Scottish Reformation Society. He is also pastor of a small Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland. While we could not stay long, it became clear that the Scottish Reformation Society is attempting to maintain the Reformed faith in Scotland, but that it is a difficult battle because of the apostasy, worldliness, and spiritual indifference of the people. This is true in Scotland and England as a whole. One could not help but be reminded of the words of Latimer, an English Reformer of the 16th Century, which he spoke while he and his colleague Ridley were being burned at the stake for their faith: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Apart from a few isolated groups, the candle in England has gone out!
The congregation in Barnsley, with its pastor, Rev. Philip Rawson, has a history quite different from the congregation in Larne, Ireland. Most of the members and the pastor were originally part of a denomination called The Wesleyan Reform Church, a denomination which has its roots in the Wesleyan Revivals which swept England. This congregation separated from the denomination of which it was a part for especially two reasons: 1) the denomination had become very liberal; 2) the denomination practiced “christening” instead of baptism. To christen is to sprinkle water on a baby, but not as a sign of the covenant; rather it means incorporation into the visible church and is closely associated with baptismal regeneration. Christening is performed for any baby whose parents request it, whether or not such parents attend church regularly, walk a Christian life, and manifest themselves as people of God. Revolting against this ungodly practice, the congregation of Barnsley withdrew from the denomination, but also, as a reaction to christening, abandoned the whole practice of infant baptism.
But the pastor became acquainted with Calvinistic writings in his studies and particularly became acquainted with our own Protestant Reformed publications. Through the reading and study of them he became persuaded that the Reformed faith is Biblical, and he began to teach these truths to his people. Through correspondence with some of our ministers, he also developed close personal ties with some of our Protestant Reformed people. The result is that his congregation has come a long way towards the Reformed faith since the days they left the Wesleyan Reform Church.
In Barnsley too our time was occupied with many meetings. We preached in Pastor Rawson’s congregation on the Saturday night we arrived, on the evening of the Lord’s Day, and on the following Tuesday evening, just before our departure on Wednesday. The whole of Monday was taken up by a ministers’ conference in which we delivered two speeches: one on “The Christian and the Law”—a burning issue among Reformed Baptists, many of whom were present at the conference, and the other on “Evangelism and the Reformed Faith.” Once again there was opportunity to present our own distinctive position with respect to the doctrines of grace as they related to the question of common grace and the well-meant offer. The ladies of Barnsley congregation, which congregation is called the Measbro Dyke Evangelical Church, prepared a delicious lunch, which gave further opportunity for discussion and fellowship. The meeting was extremely profitable because it gave us another opportunity to clear away misunderstandings concerning our churches.
On Monday evening we met with the Board of Deacons (the ruling body of the congregation) to discuss what could be done in the way of closer church relationships. It was an especially enjoyable evening, partly because it gave us opportunity to get to know some of the men of the congregation more intimately, partly because it revealed to us how far the congregation had come in the work of reform in the church, and partly because it gave us opportunity to discuss with them questions of the truth with which they are not as yet completely familiar. The possibilities of closer relationships with this congregation in the future are very real.
We were moved once again by the hospitality and friendship of God’s people in Barnsley, by how much we were at home in their fellowship, by the eager reception to our preaching, and by the serious determination of the congregation to be Biblical and Reformed in their confession and walk. It was with heavy hearts that we said farewell to them after the worship service on Tuesday evening.
There was one more rather important and interesting meeting in which we participated. Our readers must understand that there were others in England with whom we would have liked to visit, but could not for lack of time. But we did manage to go to Bristol, a city about 120 miles straight west of London. Here a small group of three couples and two young adults were gathered for a meeting which we held on Thursday evening of our last week in the British Isles. These three couples, wanting very much to be a part of a Reformed congregation, can find no church in Bristol with which to affiliate, which consistently maintains the Reformed faith. One of the men of this group publishes (I think privately and at his own expense) a paper entitled, The Presbyterian, in which a defense is made of the Presbyterian faith and church polity. (Some of our readers might be interested in obtaining this worthwhile paper.) At any rate, we spent a long and good meeting with these people of God discussing again our own Protestant Reformed distinctives and answering many questions concerning our stand on common grace, the restraint of sin, the internal and gracious operation of the Spirit in the hearts of all men, and the well-meant offer of the gospel. There was also opportunity to talk about our covenant views, something which was particularly appealing to these people and something which they discussed avidly. What the Lord has in store for these people we cannot now know.
That brings us almost to the end of the story. There are a few notes of interest which our readers might enjoy hearing about.
One thing about England which struck us very forcibly was that many things are very old, far older than in our relatively young country. There are churches, e.g., which date, at least in part, back to Norman times—the middle of the 11th Century. There are walls still intact in the city of York which were built by the Romans when the Roman Empire was still intact and extended its rule to part of the British Isles. This gives to many in England a sense of history which we lack in this country.
Many of these old buildings and sites are closely connected with the Reformation in England of the 16th and 17th Centuries. It was for us a great thrill to stand where the first Presbyterian Church was built in Ireland in 1610; to explore the castle in Carrickfergus which is called, “Prince Billy’s Castle” after King William of Orange from the Netherlands, who briefly ruled in England and Ireland; to explore St. Magdalen’s Chapel where John Knox met with other elders and drew up the Scot’s Confession of Faith in 1620; to stand on the spot where many martyrs were hanged for their faith; to walk in the Jerusalem room of Westminster Abbey where the Westminster Confessions were composed.
It is also interesting that many of the more conservative denominations and congregations include as part of their ministry a Christian Bookshop, in which they sell books of value for the Reformed faith. Many of the Puritan writers can be purchased in these Bookshops and our own RFPA publications are also sold. We visited four separate such Book shops in our stay. It struck us as an effective and important way to distribute Reformed literature.
While our chief reason for going to England was to visit with and work in the congregations of Larne, Ireland and Barnsley, England, an exceptionally important benefit of the trip was that the Lord opened many doors for us to bring the truth of Scripture to others. We had abundant opportunity to clear up, in the minds of many, misunderstandings concerning our churches and to present the truth of Gods covenant which is our own unique heritage. These we were thankful for; the Lord gave us opportunities which we had not anticipated to do these things, and it is our earnest prayer that God will make them fruitful.
It became evident in our contacts that our heritage of the everlasting covenant of grace is a very precious truth, a truth which is that which makes us uniquely Reformed, but also a truth which many are attracted to and which they eagerly receive. We must be thankful for this heritage and maintain and develop it.
In these “last days” God has given us the privilege of bringing His truth to others, of coming into contact with other believers throughout the world who have a like precious faith with us, and of enjoying fellowship with them. We live too near the end of time for large numbers to come to the faith; but there are small groups here and there who love the Lord and His truth. They look to us for fellowship and help in their own struggles to maintain the truth.
All this puts upon us heavy responsibilities. One surely is that we appreciate with humble thanksgiving to God what He has so graciously given to us. Another is that we hold fast to this truth with all our hearts in our confession and life. Another is that we help in every way that we can those who look to us in their need.
May God bless our churches and may God bless His saints in the British Isles who struggle so valiantly for the faith and who are the real hope of the Reformed truth in their land.