Jun 7, 2024

John Angell James


It was the annual meeting of the London Missionary Society. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it was a big deal in those days. You needed to arrive two hours before the service if you wanted a seat. What attracted so many people to Surrey Chapel in London was not only enthusiasm for this missionary enterprise but the growing reputation of the preacher. John Angell James (1785-1859) was not yet 34, already a widower, his wife having died less than four months previously. He accepted the invitation in the hopes that it would help him rise above his sorrows. His text for that May 1819 evening was Jesus’ words, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12.32-33). His sermon lasted two hours! He delivered it without notes, strictly from memory. His brother sat behind him in the pulpit with manuscript in hand in case he faltered, but he was never needed. John paused at the end of the first hour to rest while the congregation sang a hymn, sort of like halftime at a football game. Some people from the congregation threw oranges in his direction for refreshment and to encourage him to keep going. His sermon is dense, artful, and passionate. He had little use for cold intellectualism in the pulpit. While there is much to commend, I’ll leave you with one excerpt:

“Are we guilty? Here is pardon.Are we rebels? Here is reconciliation.
Are we condemned? Here is justification.
Are we unholy? Here is sanctification.
Are we agitated? Here is peace for a wounded spirit.”
We close with his prayer:

O Holy Spirit, the Comforter,
come and dwell in our souls;
make our bodies thy temple.
Fill our minds with thy light,
and our hearts with thy love.
that over our whole character
Thy power may be seen
in the beauty of holiness.
May we live as something sacred to thee
as well as perfected by thee.
Come in all thy sevenfold energy,
and replenish us with thy illuminating,
comforting, sanctifying influence.
Baptize us with celestial fire,
and give us in thine abundant grace,
the earnest of glory everlasting.

Peter Seccombe, “John Angell James,” The Banner of Truth, 1982.

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.