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Remembering ‘These Forty Years

Category Articles
Date October 1, 2002


It is interesting to consider how the Lord was at work through individuals in several countries during the 1950s to bring about the recovery of the doctrines of grace and the setting up of a conference which was to have such a crucial influence on the worldwide spread of the Reformed Faith over almost half a century

by John J. Murray

As we took back over the turning points of the Reformed cause in the 20th century I believe that the year 1962 stands out. In July of that year a conference was held from 2nd to 5th in the city of Leicester. It was arranged by the Banner of Truth Trust and attended by just over 40 men. The significance of that conference should not be overlooked as we mark its 40th anniversary and look back over the years (Deut.8:2).


It is interesting to consider how the Lord was at work through individuals in several countries during the 1950s to bring about the recovery of the doctrines of grace and the setting up of a conference which was to have such a crucial influence on the worldwide spread of the Reformed Faith over almost half a century.

The story begins in England with the Rev Iain Murray and the issuing of a magazine called The Banner of Truth in Oxford in 1955. This led on to the formation in 1957 of a Trust which through its reprinting of Reformed classics was to play a major part in the re-discovery of the Reformed Faith in England and further afield. Mr Murray was by then the assistant to Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel, London where these doctrines had been preached with increasing power since 1939.

Meanwhile in the USA an exile Scot, Professor John Murray, was teaching the Reformed Faith in all its fullness at Westminster Theological Seminary. He was conscious of the need for a recovery of the doctrines of grace on both sides of the Atlantic. At that time he was scarcely known in the UK but invitations to speak at meetings in England coincided with the re-awakening of Calvinistic truth. The first announcement of the work which the Banner of Truth Trust planned to do, expressed indebtedness to three men – Dr Lloyd-Jones, Rev W J Grier and Professor John Murray. Through his identification with the Banner work Professor Murray developed a much closer connection with the situation in England and gave further momentum to the recovery of Reformed truth.

Among Professor Murray’s chief concerns was the restoration of true preaching. One who shared this view was the Rev J Marcellus Kik, a trustee of Westminster Seminary. This subject was discussed with Mr Kik when he was present in London in 1961. As a result he carried back to Professor Murray in Philadelphia a proposal that a conference should be held for ministers the following year in the UK, concentrating specifically on the need for a renewal of preaching.

Other men were consulted about this and among them was the Rev W J Grier in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Mr Grier had made a courageous stand against modernism in the Presbyterian Church in Ulster and subsequently founded the Irish Evangelical Church (now the Evangelical Presbyterian Church). He had set up the Evangelical Bookshop which even before the advent of the Banner was supplying to readers in the UK good Reformed books imported from the USA. His Church had strong links with the Free Church of Scotland, sharing in the training of students and missionary work.

The fourth strand in the development was the interest of the Rev Kenneth Macrae, minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, the largest Presbyterian congregation in the UK. He was conscious of the drift that was taking place in Scotland and even within his own denomination. He longed and prayed for a recovery of truth and godliness and believed that ‘the tide will turn’. The advent of The Banner of Truth magazine in 1955 was an encouragement to him and he personally ordered quantities of between 150 and 200 copies. It was with the prospect of helping this work that he accepted the invitation to speak at the 1962 Conference. Although then in his 79th year he made the long journey from the Isle of Lewis to undertake what were his first and last preaching engagements in England. As well as speaking at Leicester he took the Communion services in the Free Church of Scotland congregation in London and preached for Iain Murray at Grove Chapel.

It was in this way that the Lord in his goodness brought men from different countries and Reformed traditions together to apply themselves to the restoration of preaching. A location was found through the good offices of the Rev Sidney Lawrence at College Hall on the campus of Leicester University. Dr Lloyd-Jones was not present in 1962 but spoke at the conferences of 1964 and 1965. W J Grier opened the Conference with ‘Preaching and the Present Age’ and closed it with ‘The Preacher and Prayer’. Iain Murray dealt with ‘Preaching in England in the Past’. Professor Murray gave three addresses on ‘Preaching and i) Scripture 2) Sanctification 3) Judgment’. The Rev Kenneth Macrae gave two addresses, ‘Teaching Essential to Evangelical Preaching’ and ‘The Danger of Compromise in Preaching’. These addresses are available on tape. Among the 40 men who attended about 30 were ministers in pastoral charges. The majority were from England but there were 12 from Scotland and 3 from Northern Ireland. Wales was not represented. Most of the Scots were from the Free Church of Scotland and men, like Mr Macrae, who rejoiced to see this new movement – Rev Alasdair Johnston, Dumbarton, Rev James Morrison, North Uist, Rev Donald Mackay, Watten, Mr Donald Macinnes, Inverness (who later became a probationer in the Free Church but died shortly after) and four Edinburgh men who had recently embraced the doctrines of grace. There were two ministers belonging to the Church of Scotland. I was privileged to be Secretary of the Conference and duly relieved men of the princely sum of £3, which was the cost of attending. If your travel expenses amounted to more than a pound you could claim help!

Back in Stornoway after the Conference Mr Macrae addressing his people on ‘The Present Prospects of the Reformed Faith’, reported that he had seen in England "a little cloud like a man’s hand" (I Kgs.18:44). Reflecting on the Conference he wrote to a friend:

"The earnestness and spiritual unity of those young fellows who gathered at Leicester was for me a real tonic and encouraged me greatly. So far, the movement towards the Reformed Faith may be weak and largely unorganised, but that there is such a movement cannot be questioned, and in it, by God’s grace, there are tremendous possibilities. Worm Jacob may yet thresh the mountains. May the Lord grant it so!"


Forty years on there were bound to be changes. The Conference met again in Leicester on 15th April 2002 for the 38th time (conferences were not held in 1963 and 1966). Of the 370 men who came together this April only five of us could claim to have been present at the 1962 Conference. What a thrill it was to consider that in spite of all the disappointments and unfulfilled dreams there were so many men (and still the greater number of them young!) eager to devour Reformed teaching and literature. The presence of over 50 men from overseas testified to the worldwide effect of Banner publications and conferences. One of the highlights of the conference is to hear representatives of different countries tell of the work of God in their situations. Space does not permit a detailed account of the addresses given at this year’s conference but it is appropriate that reference be made to two speakers and their contributions.

The Rev lain Murray opened proceedings with an address on ‘1962-2002’ in which he traced the origins of the Conference; the changes that have taken place over the years and the personalities that graced the Conference. He sought to draw lessons: i) the fallibility of our hearts; 2) the need to put far less confidence in men’s gifts and abilities; 3) organisation is not essential to unity; 4) not enough emphasis given to evangelism 5) the danger of being discouraged as we look at things temporal rather than things eternal.

Perhaps it is on lesson three that opinions would tend to differ. It basically reflects the view of Dr Lloyd-Jones who favoured a minimal basis of doctrine for unity among evangelicals. Others would support the stance taken by Professor Murray who argued for union on the basis of the whole Confession of Faith. Otherwise, they say, how can one have a Church with a full-orbed witness to the truth, and with subscription to a creed, order and discipline? These issues will no doubt continue to be keenly debated.

While we miss the men of God who founded and sustained the Conference in the early years the Lord has raised up others to take their place. Not for the first time the ministry of Professor Edward Donnelly, Belfast gave ‘something special’ to the Conference. Speaking on ‘Paul the Pastoral Theologian’ he presented a masterly overview of Romans, I Corinthians and Colossians. In his third address on the Wednesday evening Dr Donnelly challenged men to preach Christ in His all-sufficiency and glory. At the close a profound silence fell on the meeting and the chairman felt constrained to ask for a time of prayer.

As we look back we find it difficult to know the Lord’s purpose in restoring the glorious Reformed doctrines to our land and to many other countries and yet not granting the revival we anticipated would follow. His ways are past finding out. Perhaps we had an indication at the Conference this year that He has humbled us and taught us and that He will do us good at the latter end (Deut.8:16).

Free Church Witness September 2002, Free Church Manse, Staffin Road, Portree, Isle of Skye, IV51 9HP.

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