On Easter Sunday evening in 1990 when I was a zealous seventeen year old, a few friends and I made the fifteen-minute drive to a more informal after-meeting for the youth in Dr. Paisley’s church in east Belfast, Northern Ireland. That was a big year for us young fundamentalists. In July the World Congress of Fundamentalists would meet in London, England, and I was planning to attend it with hundreds of fundamentalists who would converge from around the world to celebrate their orthodoxy.
At Dr. Paisley’s annual Easter Convention, however, a sampling of fundamentalists were gathered from the United Kingdom and the U.S. The event, after the Easter Sunday evening service, was a question-and-answer session, something like the Jewish practice of sitting at the feet of the rabbis “listening to them and asking them questions.”
One of the questions that evening had to do with fundamentalism, in particular the distinction between first- and second-generation fundamentalists. I remember in particular two things about that answer. The first thing was a little humorous and awkward—at least I thought so—for one man. Dr. Paisley implied that this man was a “second-generation” fundamentalist while he believed himself to be a “first-generation” fundamentalist. “First-generation” status was obviously a badge to be worn with pride.
The second thing I remember about that evening was the emphasis that Dr. Paisley put on the need for young people to know the history of fundamentalism and the sacrifice it had taken to be a first–generation fundamentalist. He emphasized the cost and the sacrifice that first-generation fundamentalists had to make. This application to us young people was a regular occurrence when Dr. Paisley was on the subject. Preaching in 1981 at the thirtieth anniversary of the first Free Presbyterian Church in Crossgar, Dr. Paisley said,
I would say to the young people here…, we are leaving you a great heritage. Be faithful to it! Remember the sacrifices that were made that you might have a church free from apostasy and popery, and free to serve the Lord Christ.
Dr. Paisley was correct when he said that they left a “great heritage.” That heritage is the gospel, the Reformed faith (in the Northern Ireland context at least). For that we salute them. But that heritage was not without its problems; it was in some respects a poisoned chalice. It is this that has occupied the public conversation of fundamentalists now for decades.
Ironically, the character traits needed to build and defend the walls of fundamentalism were the same as those that did so much harm within the walls. Dealing with the lives and legacy of some of these leaders is not easy. Some of the things that went on and the things that were said are shocking. Some can be chalked up to pulpit rhetoric, and others, while inexcusable, can be explained in their context. I want, in this article, to try to work our way through the maze. We may not get through to the end, but I hope we will get set in the right direction.
The legacy that many of these men left was not as endearing as they might have hoped and some of it has already been recorded in these articles. Arnold Dallimore, who held Dr. T. T. Shields in very high regard, concluded his biography of Shields with these striking words:
Had he overcome these faults and really lived for the glory of God, as he supposed he was doing, his name would have wrung[sic] with splendour among Christians today, instead of being so sadly forgotten as it is now.
One prominent characteristic of these men was the overwhelming sense of divine destiny they had, what appeared to be, and perhaps was, an inordinate pride. It was this belief—that they were called of God and they were fulfilling God’s purpose—which governed everything they did, that enabled them to plough through every difficulty, and to rise above every criticism.
They viewed themselves in this calling as “the Lord’s anointed” and sometimes used the language of the Old Testament in this regard (1 Chronicles 16:22). Anyone who spoke against them was speaking against the purpose of God and could therefore—and indeed should be—condemned for doing so. One colleague of Shields, for example, who disagreed with him in the late 1940s was labeled an “Absalom” and a “Judas,” caustic language to refer to another minster of the gospel who was also the “Lord’s anointed”!
In 2012 when Nancy Anderson finished her biography of Carl McIntyre she sent me a copy. One of the first things I looked for in the book was to see whether she had addressed the personality flaws that were so evident in McIntyre’s life. I was pleased to see that she did, not because of any malice towards McIntyre but simply in the interests of honest biography. Anderson identifies McIntyre’s need to control: “some called him ‘Dictator’ or ‘Pope.’” She quotes Joel Belz:
Nearly everyone who worked with McIntire eventually became disillusioned, and McIntire himself, who had separated from denominations throughout his life, in the end, separated from his friends.
Anderson continued, “Carl saw himself destined by God to lead this great movement.” The same sense of destiny was in Dr. T. T. Shields of Toronto and also in Dr. Paisley. Arnold Dallimore said of Shields that “he carried with him throughout his career a constant awareness of his greatness.”
One area in Shield’s life that manifested his “inordinate pride” was his ambition to gain the pulpit of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London in which the great C. H. Spurgeon once ministered. He had preached there every summer from 1915 and, it would seem, had an arrangement with A. C. Dixon that Dixon would speak to the deacons on Shields’ behalf when he resigned. When Dixon resigned in 1919 and Shields was not considered for the position he felt rejected. Dallimore makes the point that Shields never got over the Tabernacle’s lack of interest in him. Over the years Shields made frequent mention of the times that he had filled the pulpit for A. C. Dixon, but in the September 15, 1947, edition of the Gospel Witness he stated that the pulpit was actually offered and he turned it down. “Twelve years later,” Dallimore said, “he repeated the imagination” in the July 15, 1953, edition of the same paper.
Dr. Paisley was very much the same. He saw himself very often as a “repetition of great figures” as one political commentator put it, whether in religion or in politics. In the church he saw himself as a Moses leading the people out of captivity and believed that upon his death, the Lord would raise up a Joshua to lead us into the Promised Land. So he told John Hume, a former political leader and opponent who chided him with the hope that the church would close when Dr. Paisley died.
In politics it was similar. In 1981 Dr. Paisley led a political crusade right across the country. The route he took was the same route that Sir Edward Carson took in 1911, ending with a great political rally in Belfast’s Ulster Hall. Paisley called it “The Carson Trail.” Indeed, he was hoisted up to the level of the Carson statue on the grounds of the Stormont Estate (the parliament of Northern Ireland) and got his picture taken in the same posture as Ulster’s great hero.
We should remember that these men were great men, but they were only men with feet of clay. Many on the outside look at them with only distain and condemnation. Their view is ill-informed and wrong. Many on the inside have the same view, unfortunately, and they also are ill-informed, imbalanced, and ungracious. Others recognize that although these leaders had their faults—sometimes deep, glaring, and ugly—yet they were men whose lives were anchored in an unshakable faith and an intense love for God and His gospel. Perhaps a greater share of the blame should go to those who blindly followed, encouraged, or stood back and tolerated the excesses. Very often the image of a public figure can be propped up and magnified by those around him.
It should be said, however, in the interests of honesty that much of what I have dealt with as far as the characteristics of fundamentalism—the tendency towards legalism, for example — were not present with Dr. Paisley on a personal level. Dr. Paisley’s fundamentalism was theological; he stuck to the theological issues and did not display that same mentality, although aspects of his life and ministry gave the opposite impression.
What was obvious to anyone who knew Dr. Paisley is that he was a man who knew God. One minister, retired from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), made the insightful statement that “Mr. Paisley’s relationship with God was on such a level that I cannot think that he was acting in disobedience to what God wanted him to do [re. entering politics].”
There is no doubt that Dr. Paisley had an amazing liberty in the gospel and he allowed others that same liberty. He enjoyed his Saviour and lived in the grace of the gospel. Many other fundamentalists and indeed some of Dr. Paisley’s followers did not share the same liberty and therefore they could not afford it to others. The age-old trap is that the follower, trying to emulate the leader, often goes beyond his leader. It is quite possible, that if it had not been for the political activities of Dr. Paisley many of the aspects of his life that attracted so much criticism would not have surfaced. That is a study for another day and other person.
The lives of these men, their personalities and influence, are phenomena that writers and historians have tried to unravel for a long time. The fact is that these men were extremely complex personalities. Arnold Dallimore, in defense of Dr. T. T. Shields, wrote, “T. T. Shields was two personalities. Many persons who saw him in one could not possibly believe that he possessed also the other.” The same sentiments have been expressed of McIntire and Paisley.
One phenomenon associated with these men, which is perhaps linked to their sense of divine destiny, was that they made such a deep impression in the gospel that many people who felt hurt by them could not bring themselves to speak ill of them. Many had such deep emotional ties that it became impossible for them to think objectively. They could see the faults but could not see their way clear to deal with them correctly or they graciously drew a cloak of secrecy over them.
I speak from personal experience. My father was deeply hurt by Dr. Paisley in his early ministry, yet growing up in my father’s home, I never heard it mentioned. I never heard about one particular incident that happened between my dad and Dr. Paisley until I came to North America and heard it from some of my more senior colleagues who had been there.
I recently discovered a similar thing in the life of Dr. D. A. Carson, the New Testament scholar from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Carson’s biography of his father speaks of his father’s being hurt by T. T. Shields. Similarly, Carson grew up in a home where his father and mother never spoke ill of Dr. Shields. Carson heard about the incident in history class when he went to Bible college.
Such was the effect that these men had on people, especially those who were close to them, that although those people saw many faults, yet they overlooked them and any hurt they might have suffered because of them.
The last seven years of Shields’ life in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was a period of particular divisiveness in his ministry. One prominent fundamentalist leader, who obviously had difficulties with Shields, wrote to encourage him with these gracious words:
So many focus their attention on the things they do not agree with, and lose sight of the underlying love and loyalty to the Person of Christ…. That which has drawn my heart to you has by far outweighed anything concerning which I have not seen eye to eye. Your exaltation of the Lord Jesus has charmed my soul, and I praise God for you and your great ministry.
In another article I will illustrate the fundamentalist mentality of separation from the life of Dr. John Gill (1697–1771). Gill, unfortunately, was vigorously opposed to the ministry of George Whitefield and was accused of being a bigot in how he dealt with certain controversial subjects. His biographer John Rippon explains these rough edges in the personality of Gill rather quaintly:
The doctor has been accused of bigotry, by some, who were unacquainted with his real temper and character…. If in any parts of his controversial writings, the doctor has been warmed into some little neglects of ceremony towards his assailants, it is to be ascribed, not to bigotry…. but to that complexional sensibility, inseparable, perhaps, from human nature in its present state; and from which, it is certain, the apostles themselves were not exempt.
Fundamentalist leaders were certainly guilty of “little neglects of ceremony” and some not so little. We must remember that they were merely men and we should not elevate them, as some too often did, above their station. Some of the complexities of these men will never be understood. But I hope for those who are willing to hear graciously and humbly, the picture is a little clearer. In the interest of honesty we must recognize their faults; in the interest of history, and indeed of the future, we must understand their faults; and, in the interest of charity, we must “suffer long and be kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4)