The Life of John Walter Stevens
John Walter Stevens, a member of the church at Bethel, Luton, and formerly deacon at Ebenezer, Clapham, and South Moreton, passed away on November 25th, 2016, aged 95 years. The following is taken from his own writings (written in 1993-94).
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I was born in Clapham, London, in July 1921, of godly, praying parents and was favoured with a most godly paternal grandfather, Samuel Francis Stevens, deacon at Ebenezer Chapel. My twin brother and myself were the only offspring of my parents, Samuel and Grace (nee Wood, of Tadworth, Surrey).
As a family, we regularly attended Ebenezer Chapel, living directly opposite the entrance to the schoolroom for the first six years of my life, and due to the mental affliction of my father due to shell shock suffered during military service in the First World War, my grandfather had a particular interest in the welfare of his youngest grandchildren, who were only two of fifteen grandchildren who attended a Strict Baptist chapel. The first event in my life that has remained in my memory was being taught to memorise Psalm 23 when Grandfather wanted us to stand at the front of the chapel on the Sunday school anniversary service and recite before the assembled congregation (I suppose we were between the ages of four and five) — The first time I opened my mouth in public.
Grandfather died when I was between eleven and twelve years old, having been responsible for Mr Jesse Delves being invited to the pastorate. To my shame, his earnest prayers put up on my behalf were not fully appreciated. On out last birthday before his death, he decorated our birthday cake with ‘God bless the lads’.
My godly mother, often deprived of her husband due to his affliction, was a dressmaker, and to ‘make ends meet’ worked with her needle often into the night watches when Father was in hospital for several months at a time. She prayed herself along.
From a very early age, I was fully persuaded that I was a sinner in the sight of a holy God (natural conviction). I clearly remember one Sunday afternoon in the Sabbath school, Mr Harvey Carr of Chippenham telling us of the little Highland maid being taught by the minister to pray ‘Show me myself,’ and on his second visit he taught her to pray ‘Show me Thyself.’ I believe that though so young, the Lord showed me at that time there was no hope except in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Lord’s dear servant Mr Jesse Delves came as pastor to Clapham when I was thirteen years old, but I confess to my shame that the services were burdensome to me, but mercifully I had not the inclination to leave the house of God to seek so-called pleasures in the outside world. (What mercy to be kept, in a state of unregeneracy!)
My early teenage years were taken up with a busy school life, which by the Lord’s mercy kept me from other temptations. I left school in the spring of 1938, and through the kindness of one of my uncles on Father’s side, was apprenticed to an engineering firm on the borders of Camberwell and Peckham, the owner of which I later learned was the grandson of Mr H. Hall, the one time pastor of Ebenezer, Clapham. Again, the wonderful hand of the Lord was seen in his wise providence in this step (which I humbly hoped was in answer to payer) which eventually kept me from being called for military service.
I well remember Sunday, September 3rd, 1939 (the day the Second World War was declared). It was my weekly practice to read a portion of Scripture to an old lady who was almost blind each Sunday morning before leaving for the morning service. She asked em to read Psalm 91. The reading of that Psalm left a solemn impression on me that as the war proceeded, with death and destruction on every hand, I saw fulfilled the seventh verse.
The filthy conversation of my fellow workmen and their complete indifference to the dangers of falling bombs, fires, etc., and the lack of any solemnity of possibly facing the Judge of the whole earth, used to make me tremble as we dived under our workbenches for cover.
I believe the Lord at this time of my life gave me some love to the ministry of His Word under the pastor whose Christ-exalting ministry became somewhat attractive to me, but the doctrine of election seemed to be a stumbling block, for I believed that God had a chosen people whom He loved from eternity past and would love through a never-ending eternity. Was my name ‘recorded in some humble place beneath the Lord the Lamb’?
As time went on in those war years, the services became less irksome. I remember one sermon taken from John’s Gospel, the last chapter: ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?’ etc. In some humble measure I felt I could say I did love the Lord, but could not ‘read my title clear’. So far as a deep law work that some pass through, I could not say that I knew much of that, but it was revealed to me that I was a guilty sinner before a holy, heart-searching God, and the only way I could be saved was through the merits of Jesus and an application of that sin-atoning blood, which was the theme of our dear pastor’s ministry.
It was on our twenty-first birthday that I first met the one who eventually became my wife — a most remarkable providence, and we knew the Lord was in it and brought it to fruition on January 27th, 1945, when our pastor married us.
The ministry at this time was very helpful in those days of seeking a personal interest in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and early one Sabbath morning one sought that the Lord might be pleased to lead his servant to mention the verse in Matthew 25:34: ‘Come, ye blessed if My Father, inherit the kingdom prepare for you from the foundation of the world.’ I felt to need real confirmation that I had an interest in that covenant ordered in all things and sure. I felt quiet in my mind as we walked to chapel, but still pressed my case. I had to wait for the evening service when towards the close my request was answered.
We had many providential trials in our early married life, but the exercise of walking in the ordinances of the Lord’s house increased, and although we had not spoken to each other about taking any positive step, it appeared that our exercises were being deepened.
Mary was away from home having suffered a miscarriage, and our letters crossed in the post, outlining our feelings regarding the keeping of the commandments, which are not grievous. On Mary’s return, each service we attended seemed to point that we were in the way, and were walking in disobedience. After a prayerful consideration, and following a powerful persuasion whilst witnessing the ordinance of the Lord’s supper, that subject to the Lord’s will, I should not be witnessing this sacred ordinance, but should be numbered among the partakers, we decided to visit the pastor either after the prayer meeting on Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon.
On the next Sunday morning for family worship I opened my Bible on Colossians chapter 1 which we read together. As I read down the chapter, my heart melted as I came to verses 19, 20, 21, and 22. I believe I knew what godly sorrow for sin really was. It seemed so impossible that such a sinner as I felt to be could ever be presented before the righteous Judge, holy, unblameable, and unreprovable in His sight. I could now sing with the hymn writer with heart and understanding the whole of hymn number 11.
We went before the church, were recieved unanimously, and were baptised on November 27th, 1947. It was a sacred season to both of us.
I was appointed a deacon in the year 1955 at Clapham, following the removal by death of Mr Thomas Tingley, and the removal of Mr J. C. Neville who had been called to take the pastorate at Richmond Chapel.
I had been appointed as a Professional Engineer in the Ministry of Aviation in the year 1956, but was advised by letter about 1962 that all engineers in my grade would be moved to ‘out stations’ away from London. It was prayer meeting night, and my heart and mind was on hymn 384, particularly on the lines,
My soul’s cast down within me, Lord,
And only Thou canst help afford.
(What heritage we have in our hymnbook!) This trial lasted nearly two years, during which in the later period I was given temporary promotion in my own department. In my mind I felt this was the way appointed to keep me in London. Maybe I settled on my lees! I had never anticipated having to leave my birthplace, natural or spiritual.
A little later, after trying unsuccessfully for posts within the London area, I was sent for an interview at an establishment in the Reading area. I was offered the post if I was willing to accept. The offer would be confirmed in writing, but I was asked to reply as soon as possible. My age at that time was 44 and unemployment was rising, so naturally it would not be easy to find another post. So very reluctantly I accepted the post.
The bounds of our habitation are fixed, and we are faced with finding a home within easy distance of my workplace and a suitable chapel, South Moreton, where we hoped to settle. A home was found, and we truly witnessed the good hand of our God going before us in the way in the path of providence and giving us a place where the gospel is preached not in the word only but in the power of the Spirit.
One evening, on our way to the service, we were involved in a bad road accident and all taken to hospital with an assortment of injuries and returned home by ambulance at 10.30pm. Whilst waiting for the ambulance, the lines of the hymn kept running through my mind:
Preserved in Jesus when
My feet made fast to hell.
But it was the first line, ‘Preserved in Jesus’ that was so precious.
We were all wearing seat belts, but it was a head-on collision, the front seat was torn from its mountings and the car was a write-off. I suffered a broken sternum and a split lip. A policeman called early the following morning, and reported that the owner of the vehicle that collided with us was in custody on a charge of murdering his wife and the attempted murder of his mother-in-law.
The second day after the sad event, I felt very poorly, so stayed in bed and was in a lot of pain. I picked up my Bible and opened it on the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. The blessed Spirit of God led me in a very minute sense to the sufferings of my dear Jesus, and though I had a lot of pain of body, I could breathe without too much pain. The dear Lord suffered as the hymn writer in hymn 159 puts it:
The pangs of His body were great,
But greater the pangs of His mind.
Jesus endured the hidings of His Father’s face in His sufferings but here was this sinner enjoying the felt presence of the Lord.
As time went on we both felt concerned regarding our membership at Clapham, as there seemed no prospect of returning, so I resigned my office as deacon and sought the Lord in prayer to make plain our path respecting the transferring of our membership to South Moreton.
The exercise relating to transferring our membership to South Moreton deepened and the ministry of the Lord’s servants met our cases. About this time, some friends were staying with us from the north, so we all went to Reading chapel one week evening to hear Mr Wood. His text was Psalm 23:5, first clause: ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.’ The emphasis was on the first clause. We had a humble persuasion that the Lord had prepared a table before us at South Moreton.
Some weeks after, we went to see our deacon, Mr C. J. Pockock, to express our desire to join with them in church, and felt comfortable in recounting the Lord’s dealings with us. On returning home, I was very tried and had very little sleep, Satan tempting me that I was not a right character to be numbered amongst God’s people.
The following evening, we both went to Reading to hear Mr Wood. He read for the lesson from Numbers 21, the account of the sin-bitten Israelites and the setting up of the brazen serpent. Mr Wiltshire gave out hymn 876 ‘When the chosen tribes debated’. The devil whispered in my ear, ‘Nothing for you tonight.’ The text was in verse ten: ‘And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in Oboth.’ Towards the end of the sermon the dear man said, ‘Oboth was a place of watering.’ Satan fled; I was released. South Moreton was and is a place of watering.
There were more helps by the way, and a few days before the church meeting, Mr J. C. Neville preached at South Moreton from Hebrews 10.23: ‘Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for He is faithful that promised.)’ We had at one period of our lives and with Mr Neville and his family and walked together in love and union. During the discourse he traced out the very path we were walking and I felt that he knew what was before us if spared. I had told Mr Delves of our exercises and asked him to keep it confidential until after the church meeting, but as both men were such close friends, I assumed that Mr Neville knew of our proposal to transfer our membership.
However, this was not the case, for on the way to Reading station after the service we told him of our proposal to be going before the church at South Moreton to apply for membership with them, and how confirming we had found the service.
The ministry from time to time has, I can humbly say, been the savour of life unto life, and not in word only but in the power of the Spirit.To save one from spiritual pride, there have been times of adversity and darkness. I well remember a particular Sabbath, whilst trying to seek the Lord’s blessing with the minister in the vestry prior to the service, sin was such a burden to me that I got in a measure where the Lord’s servant Job got and all I could utter was ‘Behold, I am vile,’ and I felt it. The minister after I concluded said, ‘You are not in a bad place.’ I could not understand him.
The next Sunday, a different minister took Isaiah 38.5: ‘ I have heard they prayer, I have seen thy tears,’ etc. How true the opening words of Hymn 755:
Forgiveness! ’tis a joyful sound
To malefactors doomed to die.
During my life here below, I thank God that I have enjoyed every very good health, but have been cut down by what man terms accidents three times, two of which were life threatening. I have referred to the first one earlier, which was the most solemn, but in all three I feel the Lord’s voice was heard in them. They have been times of reflection, a looking back, and solemn questioning times.
How stands the case, my soul, with thee?
For heaven are thy credentials clear?
Is Jesus’ blood thy only plea?
If He thy great forerunner there?
Having been ‘cradled’ and brought under the ministry of Mr Delves, who, as mentioned earlier, was so clear on the vital importance of a personal application of the precious blood of Jesus, I particularly felt in these times of affliction, how one needs a sure foundation.
In every thought and act impure,
The blood of Christ thy soul can cure.
One of my late pastor’s favourite hymns was 1156 and he had experienced the truths there expressed , so could from an honest heart say ‘Tried and proved.’ My desire then was in the last verse of hymn 194:
O may my blood-washed soul be found,
Among that favoured band!
The second ‘accident’ happened at my workplace when I was called back to attend to a breakdown in the very early hours of the morning. After dealing with the severe leakage of steam, I slipped from the ladder and broke the two bones in my lower right leg, but those needful words were applied: ‘Thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful.’ What a mercy to have ears to hear what the Spirit may say unto the churches! My poor soul was fed under reproof.
The third occasion was the result of a fall at Bethesda, Croydon, when I slipped and fell on the ice whilst preparing to go to a gospel Standard Committee meeting in London. I was taken to Mayday Hospital in Croydon and a broken femur was diagnosed. I had an operation the following day, after which I was extremely ill and had eight blood transfusions. What sacred thoughts filled my mind!
What would my blood avail, if spilt?
Thou hast in richer blood been paid.
On returning home, my GP attended every other day and the district nurse every day until I was admitted to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, where because of the infection, I was in a side room. It became a little Bethel to me. It was nearly lunchtime when I was settled in my bed. I shall not soon forget my first meal, for Jesus Himself drew near, and those words I learned in my childhood came so sweetly, ‘My cup runneth over,’
The infection did not clear up, and after a week I was told that I should have an operation the next day to have the steel plates removed from my leg, after which I would by put on traction. On the two Sabbaths that I was in hospital, I was given two sermons to read, one by Mr Herbert Dawson on, ‘A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand,’ and the other by Mr Frost on ‘I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God.’
The operation was successful, and after a further two weeks I was allowed home. I can assent to the truth of those lines:
Afflictions make us see,
What else would ‘scape our sight.
I was not able to enter the Lord’s house for three and a half months.
In some notes that I made in April 1994, I recorded the following: The services at South Moreton anniversary yesterday were a savour of life unto life to poor, unworthy me. Mr Ramsbottom preached from Hebrews 2.9, particularly on the first clause, ‘It is well with my soul,’ but I would not presume. The dear man preached Christ crucified and exalted as a risen Christ. Again it came to me that such a poor sinner as I feel to be, that I am among the poor to whom the gospel is preached. He mentioned Yeddie who, as Jesus drew near, by the eyes of faith saw Jesus in the closing hours of his life, and was able to say, ‘Yon lovely Man.’ On meditating a little on these truths, the following morning I again read Yeddie’s First and Last Communion. It did me good and I felt to be brought near to the dear Lord.
My mind went back to August 1990, when the Lord’s dear servant Mr G. D. Buss at Leatherhead preached from ‘Sir, we would see Jesus.’ Once more the Lord went with us, reviving our hope in His mercy.
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Here Mr Stevens’ own account ends.
It was after this account was written that Mr Timothy Pockock became pastor at South Moreton, which is why there is no mention of his pastorate.
In 2006, Mr and Mrs Stevens moved to Bethesda flatlets at Harpenden, and transferred their membership to Bethel, Luton, the same year. Mr Stevens valued the preaching at Bethel, and his gracious influence is missed. Most of the time he sat in the pew looking sideways at the pulpit, and everyone could notice how when his heart was touched, or when teh gospel was preached, a smile would come all over his face.
This article first appeared in the August 2017 edition of the Gospel Standard magazine and is used with permission.