Alfred Place Baptist Church

Memories of Westminster Seminary ’61-’64

I became a Christian in 1954 in my home church, Tabernacle Baptist in little Hengoed in the Rhymney Valley. The building, like many other churches, has now been knocked down. It was an ordinary conversion; I had the assurance under the preaching, that my sins had been dealt with by the Lord Christ. In 1958 I graduated from the super boys grammar school I attended and the month before starting university at Cardiff I heard Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones for the first time being encouraged by camp officers to do so. It was an important occasion and the next years were spent in realising why it was important. I soon read his Studies in the Sermon on the Mount and I wanted to live a righteous as the Lord describes, and also preach as helpfully as those sermons showed how. Before starting university I read J.I.Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God and that sorted me out concerning the trustworthiness of Scripture. Such events steered me in the direction of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship while the doctrine of biblical infallibility delivered me from swallowing the Graf Wellhausen documentary hypothesis taught at the Biblical Studies department at the university. The Banner of Truth had begun its publishing programme and I subscribed to the magazine and also read widely. Edward J. Young was the first teacher at Westminster I heard of, through his Introduction to the Old Testament, but on its heels came Principles of Conduct by John Murray; two men of that scholarship and piety in one institution. Mmmm! Soon I read Redemption Accomplished and Applied and that was a very formative book. The books plus the preaching of Dr. Lloyd-Jones and the men he influenced in Wales, some of whom became role models to me, made me one of the most favoured of students. I cannot think that there was another person in the whole world who regularly heard Lloyd-Jones and then went on to study at the feet of John Murray. I should have been far more successful in my life as a preacher and evangelist.

A lecturer in the University Biblical Studies department set us the task of reading an article in the Expository Times in the University Library and there I found an advertisement for Westminster Theological Seminary. An address! A readiness to take British students! I wrote and within a week Paul Woolley had replied, and replied again and again to my youthful queries. I once wrote asking did students at Westminster wear academic gowns as we did in Cardiff! Courteous, witty, brief letters came back and in the summer of 1961 I boarded a cargo boat in Liverpool Docks and set sail on a voyage of 11 days for Norfolk Virginia.

The Seminary was smaller than I expected. The lecturers wore belts, not suspenders as my father and teachers and professors had all worn (and me too). Only colliers wore belts in the 1950s. The professors were working men; they were farmers’ and crofters’ sons. My fashion sense was affected; belts and button-down collars were added to my wardrobe. Glenside in the autumn had booths at the side of the road with giant pumpkins for sale for an innocent Halloween. There was a sense of freedom about America. Things were possible. Eating out was fun. The Casa Conti did a meal for 99 cents. There were pizzas for the first time, and submarine sandwiches, and clam chowder in Howard Johnson’s, and Amy Joy’s donuts, as well as the ubiquitous hot dogs. Culinary delights!

The student body was fascinating. Palmer Robertson was senior student with that unreconstructed southern accent. What beauty. I was later to become his best man. At the welcome meeting he told us of playing ping pong in the basement with Dr. Van Til in his blue suede shoes. Ohhhh! John Frame and I were a pair of bachelors who stayed in the Seminary for three years. Bob den Dulk lived off campus with his delightful family. I was lonely but had little time to indulge in homesickness with the lecture schedule. They were a great community of teachers.

John Murray was the man most full of God whom I have ever known. If I could have had my way all the lectures in every discipline would have been like his. I drove to see him in Badbea a week before he died in 1975 and prayed my child-like prayer before leaving. “Good-bye sir,” he said to me. He had preached twice here in Aberystwyth. Dr John Skilton was like him, a Christ-like figure. What a privilege to have him teaching Greek using Machen’s Grammar, Skilton’s brown eyes twinkling as he taught us. Dr. Van Til was a colossus. How can you lecture a class some of whom knew nothing whatsoever about philosophy and apologetics while others had debated presuppositionalism under Evan Runner for four years at Calvin College? It was not until I read the new biography of Muether’s that I learned how vulnerable he was. Dr. Lloyd-Jones said to me that of all the men at Westminster he admired the most Van Til. I told Van Til. Edward J. Young was gentle and patient, not too inspiring but safe. Meredith Kline was the most accomplished lecturer; I loved his classes. A fellow student went south to hear John Bright lecture. “How was he?” “Great,” he said, “Like a film star . . . like Kline.” If you had personal problems you turned to Ed Clowney, the wise and godly President. How kind he was in analyzing students’ sermons. He encouraged me totally to become a preacher. That settled it. Paul Woolley’s lectures, especially on the early church, were excellent, but he did not have much love for the Puritans. 20th century history was another forte of his. Ned Stonehouse died in my second year after a month of lectures. Ed Palmer was too fascinated by the Reformed world and life view but a grand personality with Peter and the boys. Robert Knudsen was kindly and devout but saddled with some demanding subjects to teach. Norman Shepherd began his lectures in my second year. He was a fine clear lecturer of New Testament Biblical Theology and of Canon. He ate with us students often. Then there was the delightful Arthur Kushke with his Welsh ancestry. He loved experiential Calvinism and the whole momentum of Princeton and Westminster Seminaries as an unbroken tradition, with the evangelists, missionaries and pastors they had sent out into the world. What a librarian.

At the graduation supper as the staff and students sat around inter-mingled, the staff got up one by one and gave us some exhortations. John Murray told us to specialise in something and work on it, reading as much as we could because one day there might be an issue in the church and our work might help. So I read in the sphere of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and now, 44 years later, I have just completed writing twenty sermons/lectures which I have given in Aberystwyth and in the Welsh Evangelical School of Theology.

If a seminary has one inspirational lecturer then it is home and dry. Westminster had a bunch. Then, a week after graduation, home I sailed on the United States and for the next few years looked back longingly at America. I was hard to live with, and my preaching was hard to understand. Did I say ‘dispositional complex’ and ‘epistemologically self-conscious’ and ‘literary genre’ and ‘Creator-creature distinction’ and ‘ontologically speaking’ from the pulpit? Maybe. How long does it take to get a seminary, especially that seminary out of one’s vocabulary?

I was called to my present church, Alfred Place Baptist (Independent), in 1965 and I never had a serious call anywhere else. On the first Sunday I preached on Genesis 1:1 in the morning, and Matthew 1:1 in the night. It was a political statement. Then I went through those books until I wearied the people and me when I moved on to other books. The idea became formulated in my mind that every Christian during his or her lifetime should hear every part of the Bible preached on, and that has been my goal for the congregation here. I have painted myself into a homil
etical corner leaving Numbers, Deuteronomy and Proverbs still to be tackled. I shall fit them in somehow, as God permits. I preached 120 sermons on Mark, 80 on Ephesians and am now 60 sermons into Luke, having preached on the first seven chapters. The full text of these sermons is put on the church website to be read by many each week all over the world. As a young preacher I would love to have had such a resource, and now I make this donation to the next generation.

Our church is in fellowship with 55 basically reformed church in Wales, the Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales. They were founded basically by the Doctor’s boys (Dr. Lloyd-Jones) and maintain his word-centred worship, God-centredness and experiential convictions

God gave Iola and myself three daughters who soon professed faith through regenerating grace and thus become covenant children of God (well, I am a Baptist and need to say that to some of you who are still confused about this issue). Two are married to deacons and one is married to a preacher. All are in membership in 1689 London Confession of Faith churches. I have eight grandsons, some of whom are talking of becoming preachers, and there is grand-daughter Lydia who is not. I have written a number of books, the most important being the life of Ernest Reisinger who actually worked for a year promoting Westminster Seminary. There is a chapter in the book about that year, but the Seminary does not know it exists.

Men have gone into the ministry and mission field from our church, two via Westminster Seminary, Keith Underhill of Kenya and Austin Walker who had a long ministry in Crawley near Gatwick airport. The congregation here is about 100 on Sunday mornings. The town is 15,000 people and sits on the edge of the Irish Sea. The university has 8,000 students and they make things hum through their two semesters. If God spares me I will end my days in this community with all my friends. I am so thankful to God for what I learned in Philadelphia 44 years ago. At that time it was I believe the best theological school in the world.

GEOFF THOMAS