Review of Ernest Kevan by Paul Brown

A tribute to the first Principal of London Bible College is reviewed in this article.

Ernest Kevan – leader in 20th Century British Evangelicalism by Paul Brown

A Fulcrum Review by Gordon Kuhrt

(Banner of Truth, 2012, 294pp, no price marked)

There is a considerable and growing literature on the Evangelical renaissance in England in the latter half of the 20th Century. I have already written for Fulcrum on Evangelical scholarship of the period, and on Colin Buchanan’s autobiographical account of the General Synod. Younger readers may never have heard of Ernest Kevan. Indeed you will not find his name in the index of David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (1989). He was the first Principal of the London Bible College (LBC). The formation of the College is noted by Bebbington as part of the renewal of Evangelical biblical and theological scholarship. This interdenominational Evangelical theological college quickly grew to over 300 full-time students, and, more recently, has been re-named the London School of Theology (LST). It was a remarkable post-war development, and splendidly chronicled by Ian Randall in Educating Evangelicalism – the origins, development and impact of London Bible College (Paternoster, 2000). The strategic role of the seminary suggests the significance of its first Principal who guided it through 20 years of extraordinary growth.

Kevan’s early life suggested little evidence for what he was to become. He was born into a devout Strict and Particular Baptist family in 1903. With no College or higher education, he became pastor of two Strict Baptist Churches – Walthamstow (’24-’34) and New Cross (’34-’44), and then briefly of Trinity Road Baptist Chapel, Wandsworth Common (’44-’46). He was then appointed the first Principal of the infant LBC from ’46 until his early death in ’65.

Brown, a student at LBC ’57-’60, has produced a valuable and solid biography. The quality of production is excellent. I was particularly glad to study the book because 1) my mother and parents-in-law were members of the New Cross Church in Kevan’s pastorate; 2) I was a member of the Church under his immediate successor; 3) I was at LBC ’60-’63 when he was Principal; and 4) many years later I was a University inspector of the College.

Kevan’s modest middle-class home and church life in south London is well sketched. There is a helpful explanation of the three main strands of Strict Baptist ecclesiology (p 16). He was clearly a gifted and innovative pastor and preacher, much loved and respected. In his early 40s, he was invited to take the helm of a remarkably imaginative and adventurous project. He guided LBC to academic distinction, spiritual quality and incredible expansion. From his period, over a thousand alumni of many nationalities became missionaries, pastors, teachers and leaders in theological education around the world.

I agree Brown’s analysis that he was basically conservative with regard to Scripture and Calvinist theology. But he was innovative in pastoral practice. Though clearly Strict Baptist until 1944, he was generous and outward-looking in ecclesiology. His Strict Baptist stream was the most open, he was critical of laxity and bickering in the denomination, he cooperated with other local churches, he commended contemporary methods of communication, and he was much involved in social issues of the community. Startlingly, he invited the Bishop of Barking to a Walthamstow church anniversary, and obtained the London University BD and MTh while at New Cross. He took to wearing a clerical collar (very controversial in his context), and passed the Baptist Union accreditation exams. Much of this courageous independence of thought and action prepared him to be appointable and successful as Principal of an interdenominational theological seminary. It is a remarkable story.

While entirely approving Brown’s appreciation of Kevan as pastor, preacher, scholar and Principal, I would wish for more exploration of his strategic roles. In his pastorates he was entrepreneurial – a new Hymn Book, the SB Fellowship of Youth and its houseparties, writing a regular column for the local paper, and simple Correspondence Courses. His insistence on academic rigour, robust defence of London University degrees and his encouragement and example to staff to pursue research at doctoral level were controversial and defining.

Despite a few inaccuracies of detail, and some speculative comment, this is a fine and reliable work. There are 4 areas where I would have appreciated more –

1 How did Kevan study for his BD (’35) and MTh (’42)?

2 Brown suggests that Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones was regarded as “the obvious candidate” (p 116) to be Principal of the infant College. I wonder whether it was obvious to everyone. Dr ML-J had no degree in theology, and was ambivalent about their value. The trajectory of his ministry was towards a separatism which was very different from Kevan’s generosity. Growing tensions between the two are hinted at in the book. It is noteworthy that the preacher at Kevan’s Memorial Service was the Anglican John Stott. Intriguing – in view of what publicly happened the following year between ML-J and Stott.

3 How did his famous filing system work?

4 Brown says “overall the 20th C was a time of decline for Evangelical Christianity in Great Britain” (p 251) but later speaks of “something of a resurgence” in the post-war period (p 252). I feel this underplays the remarkable renewal of Evangelicalism in scholarship, spirituality, church growth, the Church of England and the Baptist Union etc since the middle of the 20th C. In that resurgence, LBC/LST and its first Principal Ernest Kevan played a very significant role.

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The Venerable Dr Gordon Kuhrt was formerly Archdeacon of Lewisham and then Director of Ministry for the Archbishops’ Council 1996-2006. He has recently retired to Haddenham, Bucks

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