Remembering the Rev. Dr. John N. Gladstone

One hundred years ago today John N. Gladstone was born in the English village of Bury St. Edmunds where his father pastored the local Baptist Church.

His parents’ faith was so strict that John fondly recalled overhearing his mother pray for him the night before he left to serve his country in World War ll.  Her prayer, as he remembered it, was not that he would return safely, but rather that alcohol would never touch his lips.

John did return safely and studied for the Baptist ministry at Manchester.  Following his ordination and marriage to Joyce he served English Baptist churches in Redding, Plymouth and finally Bromley. During those years his two children, Peter and Judith were born.  Yet all of that was a long time ago and an ocean away.  But in February 1965, at a critical time in the history of our church the call went out to this young English preacher to come and serve as the Minister of Yorkminster Park.  And so he did staying until he retired in 1991 at the age of seventy.

The congregations of Park Road and Yorkminster Baptist Churches had merged after a fire at Park Road in 1961 and had together formed Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.  The church had been searching for a new minister for a few years when Lester Randall approached his old friend, the Rev. Leonard Griffith, a Canadian preacher who served at the historic City Temple in London, England, and asked who he considered to be the best Baptist preacher in England.  Without hesitation Leonard said, John Gladstone.  Members of the search committee including Percy Fell visited the Gladstone family on a trip to England and John was invited to preach for a month in 1964 during which time it became clear to the committee and congregation that John Gladstone was the person of God’s calling.

However, there was a growing cynicism in those days among some at seminaries and denominational offices about the usefulness of preaching.  There was a sense that clergy needed to stop being preachy and focus on being counsellors, social workers and executive leaders.  Dr. Gladstone once told me of a few leaders in the denomination who were openly critical of the church for calling him because of his seeming old fashioned approach to ministry.

Yet it wasn’t long till people in the church and well beyond were responding to his remarkable gifts as a preacher.  I remember well the first time I ever heard John preach as I am sure many still do.  He was literate and articulate warm and full of faith and the lilt in his voice had a way of persuading you that he had just the right word for the day – and he usually did.  People came from near and far to hear this gifted servant who wove his words, quotes and images together with an ease that made the message understandable, practical, positive and true.  He conveyed warmth and grace with a touch of humour and without ever losing his true focus on Jesus Christ.

Looking back one of the remarkable things about this man who was both in touch with the world around and so immersed in the scriptures that he was able to find just the right word, is that he did it all without Google and the internet.  Sermons today take considerable time to prepare, but in his day to preach at his level of expertise was a full-time job and to produce different sermons for the morning and evening services made it all the more so.  Speaking with his daughter Judith this week she remembered how on Saturday evenings he would close the door to the study at home not to be seen or heard from for hours as he put the final touches on his preparations for Sunday.  One could point to the sacrifices he made except it was always clear that he loved the preaching life.

The church grew significantly as Dr. Gladstone served almost twenty-seven years as our minister touching countless lives through his faithful preaching and vibrant faith.  The Meals on Wheels program was established in his early years and the House of Compassion came to life in his final years when his vision for the Lester Randall Preaching Fellowship also came to life.

His impact on our church and community was great, but it has been thirty years since he retired and sixteen since he lost his struggle with cancer and though those of us who had the privilege of knowing him will never forget him, to many of the people in our church today he is simply the name on the door of the church library.

I asked Judy how her dad might have responded to the challenges of our day and after a brief pause, she indicated that her dad was born for a different time.  I sensed she was glad for his sake, that he didn’t have to face the challenges of this age.  She said in the end he was tired of the times he was living in as he longed for his heavenly home.

I remember John once returning from having preached at a mid-week worship service in a senior’s home where one of our members, the late Bill Pond, lived.  Bill Pond, who could be a bit of an eccentric character, had sung a solo at the service.  When Bill was introduced by the nursing home chaplain the people were told he was singing for his minister, but Bill cut the chaplain off and said, “I’m not singing for him!” as he pointed at Dr. Gladstone, “I’m singing for Him!” he announced as he pointed up to heaven.  John delighted in telling that story because at the end of the day that was his philosophy too.  He ran the race well and did so to the glory of God.

As a bit of a postscript, I am sure that just as we look back with thanksgiving for those who went before us in our faith, John too would look back on the many who supported and prayerfully encouraged him along the way.  And knowing him as I did, I am certain he would also want me to reassure you that his mother’s prayer did not go unanswered.   Looking back through the years of our lives, so many prayers have been answered and at the end of the day it is always the faithfulness of God for which we give thanks.  It is God who raises people up and brings them into our lives for a time and a season, and it is God who is with us always.