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Memories of Donald Soper

Category Articles
Date March 10, 2003

There must be many Christians, including myself, who have been challenged to preach the Gospel in the open air as a result of observing the energies of someone who had such an inferior gospel to preach.

by W.F. Thompson

The late Rev. Dr Donald Soper was a national figure in England during the 20th century. He is remembered for his socialist message and his open air speaking. In the current British Church Newspaper (21&28 February 2003) W.F. Thompson of London records his memories of Soper:

In 1964, seven years before I became a Christian, I had heard Soper say at Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park, that his brand of Christianity was the Sermon on the Mount. This stuck in my mind, not having heard of the Sermon on the Mount before. In the next seven years I heard him on many occasions, and his brand of Christianity appealed to my unregenerate mind.

However, from September 1970, I came under the anointed preaching of J. Glyn Owen at Westminster Chapel, and in April ’71 after hearing the testimony of Rev. Paul Basset, I became a Christian. At this point, for the first time, I began to see through the flaws of Donald Soper’s preaching. Implied in his message was the teaching that as long as we were saddled with an evil capitalist system, instead of the Socialist system, which he advocated, God was bound to make allowance for our failings as we were having to make the best of a very bad job.

This, of course, was hardly a point at which the Gospel could be profitably preached, calling men to repentance and faith in the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This was brought home to me vividly at the time of the Annual Methodist Conference which was held in Preston in 1976. In the traditional conference open air service, he had expounded his views on socialism, and then invited questions from the crowd. A young lady said to him "All this talk about socialism is all very well, but what must I do to go to Heaven?"

He parried the question by saying that there were some people who were more interested in getting to know about the furniture of heaven than getting to know their next door neighbour.

She repeated the question; he then said "You’re rather young to be worried about that sort of thing, aren’t you?" When she repeated her question a third time, he said: "Oh, I’d better have a word with you at the end of the meeting".

To their credit, I saw some Methodists speaking to the young lady after the meeting. I trust they were pointing her to the Cross of Christ, and the need to be born again.

It was at this point that I realised that Donald Soper could answer just about every question under the sun, except the only one that matters. It was a vivid illustration of Matthew 11:25.

Donald Soper could not accept that Christ was without sin; nor could he accept the Virgin birth or the fact that the Scriptures were infallibly inspired. He was therefore incapable of preaching the Gospel, and in many ways a forerunner of Dr. David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham.

However, since his death I have begun to feel some sympathy towards him.

In his biography Portrait of Soper, William Purcell related the story of how his father, a lay reader in the Methodist Church, and a prominent man in the City, one morning at breakfast addressed the young Donald at the age of 13 and said "Donald, I’ve always wanted to be a Methodist Minister, but I now realise that this will never happen. I want you therefore to fulfil my ambition for me.

Such was his regard for his father, that from then on there was never the slightest doubt in the young Donald’s mind that that is what he would become. This was hardly a call from God, and should be a warning to all parents not to put pressure on their children in the matter of choice of career.

The last time I spoke to him, when he was well into his nineties, was when I handed a Trinitarian Bible Society calendar to the gentleman wheeling away his wheelchair, after he had spoken at Tower Hill. When the wheelchair was stopped, and the calendar handed to him, Donald Soper took it out of the envelope and read out aloud the text for January from Hosea 10:12 "It is time to seek the Lord". He thanked me and resumed his journey. Who can tell what the impact of this text was upon his eternal soul?

It is worthwhile to point out some good things that have come out of the ministry of Donald Soper.

Firstly, the plaque that was erected by his admirers at Tower Hill to commemorate his 90th birthday, has served to authenticate Tower Hill as an established Speaking Spot. During the current refurbishment, it is being kept in safekeeping till the New Speaker’s Corner has been rebuilt.

Secondly, although John Wesley would not have been pleased with the content of Donald Soper’s preaching, he could hardly have failed to be impressed with his zeal for open air work (his Tower Hill ministry lasted from 1927 to 1998). There must be many Christians, including myself, who have been challenged to preach the Gospel in the open air as a result of observing the energies of someone who had such an inferior gospel to preach.

W.F. Thompson, London.

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