Lesslie Newbigin: biography

  1. A brief biography (811 words)

Lesslie Newbigin died on 30th January 1998. The following is taken from an obituary by his close friend and colleague Dan Beeby:

James Edward Lesslie Newbigin, missionary and minister of the church: born Newcastle upon Tyne 8th December 1909; ordained 1936; Bishop in Madura and Ramnad, Church of South India 1947-59; Bishop in Madras 1965-74; CBE 1974; Lecturer in Theology, Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham 1974-79; minister, United Reformed Church, Winson Green 1980-88; married 1936 Helen Henderson (one son, three daughters); died London 30th January 1998.

Some years ago a prominent Roman Catholic theologian, who first knew Lesslie Newbigin at Vatican II, referred to this prominent Presbyterian as his father in God and spoke warmly of his missionary work, missionary thinking and varied publications. In response to protestant surprise he said 'Who else is there?'.

Born in Northumbria to an English Presbyterian family, James Edward Lesslie Newbigin studied in a southern Quaker school, Leighton Park, before going to Cambridge. Studying economics under J.M. Keynes in preparation for work in his father's shipping business, he slowly left behind youthful doubt and then suddenly decided to prepare for ministerial ordination.

Partly to pay for the required theological training he worked for some time with the missionary minded Student Christian Movement where he met Helen Henderson whom he later married and with whom he lived happily ever after. In 1933 he returned to Cambridge for theology where he pursued his own line of thinking rather than prescribed courses. In 1936, he and Helen sailed for India as Church of Scotland missionaries, most of the journey being spent on finishing his first book, Christian Freedom in the Modern World (1937).

Appointed to the Madras area, he quickly demonstrated his phenomenal gift of excellence in whatever he attempted. He was linguist, administrator, eccesiastic, theologian, missiologist, preacher, pastor, epistemologist, author, limerick writer, rock climber and doughty fighter, but all his talents were used in the service of his missionary evangelistic vocation. He was a village evangelist who did it the hard way. So hard that a bus accident and then more than ten operations brought him back to England for a time.

Returning to India he was one of the architects of the Church of South India and became one of its first bishops when he was appointed in 1947 to Madura and Ramnad. This 'presbyterian' bishop produced a new understanding of episcopacy and many influential books such as South India Diary (1951), The Reunion of the Church (1948), The Household of God (1953) and Sin and Salvation (1956) - translated from the original Tamil.

In 1959, he was persuaded to become General Secretary of the International Missionary Council and saw its integration into the World Council of Churches, of which he became an associate general secretary. With some relief he left Geneva on his appointment in 1965 as Bishop of Madras where he remained until retirement in 1974.

Like William Temple, Newbigin wrote a wonderful commentary on the Gospel of John, The Light Has Come (1982), and was deeply involved in social and political issues. The chapter in his autobiography Unfinished Agenda (1985) on the Madras years is headed 'Madras: Mission in Metropolis'; later, dissatisfied with the theology of the Anglican Faith in the City, he wrote the theological chapter in Faith in the City of Birmingham (1988). His last 20 years were devoted to proclaiming the gospel as 'public truth', in the public domain because it is not just religiously true but true all the way down.

In 1974, with two suitcases and a rucksack, he and Helen boarded countless local buses until they reached England. There they settled in Birmingham where Newbigin taught missionary theology in the Selly Oak Colleges for five years, became minister of a church opposite Winson green prison, moderator of the United Reformed Church, preached at Balmoral, worked with Holy Trinity, Brompton, and began to write what might be his most influential books, The Other Side of 1984 (1983), Foolishness to the Greeks (1986) and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989).

He cried ceaselessly for a missionary encounter with our brilliant but pagan western culture. Indians could hear the gospel and had hope; England seemed deaf to the gospel and short on hope. Europeans were fruitful missionaries everywhere else but Europe. Post-Enlightenment culture was so hostile to the Gospel that unless it was redeemed, the Church was in hazard.

Lesslie Newbigin's final gift was something new: a new mission to a hopeless culture. Motivated by its lack of hope he faced it full of hope in the Christian good news. The movement he started, embodied in The Gospel and Our Culture, now has international ramifications and in England has been incorporated into the Bible Society. His brilliance, pastoral care and missionary zeal were all present in the two 'sermons' he preached in intensive care a few hours before he died.

H. Dan Beeby


2. Other biographical material

A primary source of biographical information is Lesslie Newbigin's autobiography, Unfinished Agenda - an Updated Autobiography, St Andrew Press, 1993.

Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbigin: a Theological Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), 474pp, 48, is a major 'theological biography' of Lesslie Newbigin. Dr Wainwright, himself a distinguished ecumenist and theologian, writes from 35 years of personal and literary acquaintance with his subject. He concludes that Lesslie Newbigin is a figure of patristic proportions for our own time.

A second major biography, being written by Eleanor Jackson, is Walking in The Light: a Biography of Lesslie Newbigin. This is due publication by Paternoster Press.

For other biographical material see the DeepSight Trust, New Zealand at http://www.deepsight.org.

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