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 Issues | Church History | W. H. Griffith Thomas


Great Churchmen (No. 25)

W. H. Griffith Thomas (1861-1924)

by M. Guthrie Clark

Minister, Scholar, Teacher

Published by Church Book Room Press


Wycliffe College, Toronto

Dr Griffith Thomas began his work on the Staff of Wycliffe College, Toronto, in the autumn of 1910, and continued to occupy this position for nine years. It was a period of faithful service but, as we shall see, it was not without its special difficulties. It cannot have been easy to pass from the Principalship at Oxford to a subordinate position at Toronto, but it is noteworthy that for the first few years all seemed to go well. Canon T. R. O’Meara was Principal, and one of the tutors on the Staff was the Rev. H. W. K. Mowll, the present Archbishop of Sydney; another Wycliffe name known to many in England, chiefly by his books, is Canon Dyson Hague.

Griffith Thomas had been invited to be Professor of Systematic Theology, but upon arrival in Toronto he found this chair given to a Wycliffe College graduate. Griffith Thomas was asked instead to teach Old Testament Literature and Exegesis, which he continued to do during the nine years he was in Toronto. It was not until much later in the period that he was asked, in place of this, to undertake the teaching of Systematic Theology. He was also given a good deal of elementary work to do, and his advanced New Testament and Prayer Book notebooks remained unopened. To all such arrangements, however, Griffith Thomas submitted with Christian grace, and never lost sight of the validity of his call to Canada. This conviction was vindicated, as we shall see later, for the years in Toronto made him known to the Christian public throughout the length and breath of the American Continent, paving the way for what was to be, in some respects, the most fruitful period of his life.

For a time he was Editor of the Canadian Churchman and there he did invaluable work. Nor must sight be lost of his splendid work as a controversialist during this period. His exposure of the teaching and methods of the Church of Rome was as thorough-going as could be, but the controversy was always carried on with a gracious courtesy which becomes a Protestant. It is no exaggeration to say (and it is confirmed by letters I have read), that he was a tower of strength to Protestants throughout the whole of Canada during his stay in Toronto.

He also conducted preaching Missions in cities from coast to coast in both Canada and the United States; and during the summers when he did not cross the ocean he was a familiar figure at many American Bible conferences. But to return to Wycliffe College—that his work was greatly appreciated by the students is clearly shown by the outcry when, in 1919, it became known that he was leaving. Every week he and his wife had held an “At Home” on the lines of Simeon’s Talking Parties, where the men could come for fellowship and discussion. These times of personal contact proved helpful in every way; he was ever a believer in the “personal touch,” and subsequent
letters from all over the world show that this side of his work was appreciated as much as any other. These contacts were maintained afterwards and men in their parishes and the Mission Field used to write to their old Professor for counsel and guidance. Here is one who has drifted but has not lost a sense of Christ’s friendship. Griffith Thomas writes urging him to go back to the centre of gravity in the New Testament—Redemption in Christ.

As regards his lectures, there was still the clear and definite ring whether it was Old Testament, Church History, or Doctrine. “Never once did he raise a doubt or an equivocation,” writes one who was greatly helped. All the latest material was incorporated into his work and carefully examined but there was never any uncertainty as to where he stood in his loyalty to Holy Scripture. Arguments on both sides were weighed and the verdict was usually, “the old is better.”

Towards the end of his nine years at Wycliffe College, Toronto, opportunities for wider ministry increasingly presented themselves; so much so, that when, in a manner not of his choosing, the Divine signal came for him to leave the College, he knew instinctively whither the pillar of cloud was leading. To this last lap (when the shaft was never in the quiver, if we may mix the metaphor), we now turn our attention.


Increasing Opportunities

The last phase of Griffith Thomas’ life was a “continent-wide ministry,” as he used to say, and naturally involved much travelling. Late in 1919 he had moved his family across the border and as their home base had chosen Philadelphia, where there was already a group of warm Christian friends to welcome them. And now commenced five happy years. Griffith Thomas was free to engage in a wide ministry of teaching and preaching. During this period, 1919-1924, he went to China, and he paid his last visit to England in 1922. It will not be out of place, at the beginning of this chapter, to notice briefly the extensive “journeyings oft” which Griffith Thomas undertook during his ministry.

He had been one of the speakers at the Northfield Conference in 1903. In 1908 we find him visiting Sweden at the invitation of Prince Oscar Bernadotte to address the Södertelge Conference. In 1910, as we have seen, he left England for Canada, revisiting the Homeland three times, in 1912, 1914, and 1922. He always went forth “for His name’s sake,” and there are scores of testimonies that, wherever he went, he confirmed belief in the Bible and refreshed Christians by his deeply spiritual ministry.

One scarcely knows where to begin in this ever-widening sphere: Conference work, Bible lectures, theological courses—all were taken in his stride. And besides this, writing for the press, for magazines, and for publication. His ripe scholarship and his deep spirituality found expression through consecrated lips and a pen that was surrendered to God. Numerous churches benefited from his ministry, a few days here, a fortnight there. He was closely identified with the Keswick movement in England and America, and few who heard his Bible Readings on Hebrews in 1922 in the tent by the Cumberland lake will forget their power.

Among the schools where he lectured were the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, the National Bible Institute of New York, the Bible Institute of Pennsylvania, and Toronto Bible College.

Special notice must be given to his lectures on the L. P. Stone Foundation in connexion with Princeton Theological Seminary. The invitation came from B. B. Warfield, and the outline of studies on the Holy Spirit which Griffith Thomas had drawn up as possible Bampton lectures at Oxford was submitted. There were six lectures, two on the Biblical Revelation, one on the Historical Development, two on the Theological Construction, and one on the Spiritual Application. These lectures formed the substance of his fine book, on The Holy Spirit of God.

Griffith Thomas threw himself wholeheartedly into the movement connected with “Victorious life”, a chain of local Keswicks in various parts of America. Happy the man who possesses the Reports of those Conferences. He will find there some of Griffith Thomas’ maturest work.

The visit to China and Japan was memorable in many ways, a full account appearing in the Sunday School Times. The formation of the Bible Union of China coincided with his lectures at Kuling. His ministry brought cheer and inspiration to many missionaries, but he made some distressing discoveries regarding the inroads of modernism which he was bound to disclose, and which brought considerable grief and alarm to many in the Homelands.

His work on an international scale impressed men like Lloyd George and A. J. Balfour, and his name was considered for high positions in the Church at home, but nothing came of it. Dr. Graham Scroggie tells how as one of a deputation he waited on Lloyd George when he was Prime Minister with a view to urging his nomination as Bishop of Chester, on three grounds—that he was a Welshman, a Scholar, and an Evangelical.

Together with Lewis Sperry Chafer and A. B. Winchester, Griffith Thomas was a co-founder of Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas and he was to have been a visiting professor had not the Lord taken him. A recent bulletin from the Seminary announces the Griffith Thomas Memorial Lecture, inaugurated in 1926. It was through the munificence of Mr. William Nairn of Dundee that Griffith Thomas’ library of 4,500 volumes and 1,000 pamphlets, was purchased for the institution. What a marvellous legacy those handpicked books will ever prove to be!

All through these years his pen was busy. Regular weekly and monthly contributions were made to such periodicals as the Sunday School Times, the Evangelical Christian, Bibliotheca Sacra, and the Toronto Globe, Canada’s foremost daily. For many years he wrote the Sunday School lesson for The Times based on the International Uniform Syllabus. Right up to the time of his Home-call he was working on a course, chapter by chapter, “Through the Word,” for The Christian in England.

Travelling, writing, studying, caring for the souls of men with a great heart of love—this is how his days were spent. And there was something else spent—and that was his strength. It was while on a lecture tour in 1924, that he was taken ill in Duluth, Minnesota, and removed to hospital. Heart trouble was suspected and his wife summoned to his side, but during the next few days he made remarkable progress, and a week later he was well enough to journey home for a long rest. All his engagements were cancelled and hopes were high for a complete recovery. But a day or two later he was hurried to a Philadelphia hospital for an immediate operation, which proved impossible. An infection called an embolism had closed an artery and cut off the blood supply. An hour or two afterwards he fell asleep in Jesus. The chapter on earth ended and the next one in Heaven began, and it began like this, as for another Mr. Valiant-for-the-Truth: “All the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”



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