John Stott was born an April 27th 1921, the only son of a leading Harley Street physician, Sir Arnold Stott, and his wife Emily. Sir Arnold was an agnostic and very much part of the secularist scientific world, while Lady Stott was a Lutheran. Young John's first words (so it is said) were "coronary thrombosis", an indication of the kind of atmosphere in which he was raised. He was brought up in the Anglican parish of All Souls, Langham Place, London, which is near Harley Street. As a small boy he developed a deeply felt awareness of the underprivileged and of social justice.
John was taught the Christian faith by his mother. He and his sisters had gone to church, read their Bibles and said their prayers, but, as he wrote later, this was "more out of affectionate loyalty to her and out of routine, than as a personally meaningful discipline."
John went to Rugby school, which has been called "the school at which 'muscular Christianity' had begun - an unthinking, nominal and very English kind of belief more to do with 'being a good chap' than having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Saviour." There was a Christian Union there (meeting with some disapproval from the authorities) to which an evangelist, Rev. Eric Nash, came. At a meeting in February 1939, Nash was speaking on Pilate's question, "What then shall I do with Jesus, who is called the Christ?" Stott was riveted. "That I needed to do anything with Jesus was an entirely novel idea to me, for I had imagined that somehow he had done whatever needed to be done, and that my part was only to acquiesce." Nash did not press for decisions, but had the sensitivity and wisdom "to let me go, so that I could 'open the door' to Christ by myself, which I did that very night by my bedside in the dormitory, while the other boys were in bed and asleep." From that point he became very active in evangelism, carefully leading several of his fellow pupils to faith in Christ.
He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1939, initially to study modern languages and in this he did very well. He then transferred to reading theology. He was determined to "bridge the gap between Evangelicals and the intellectual world, while at the same time retaining his Christian commitment and evangelistic zeal." Nash's influence continued to be seen in "single-minded commitment to Christ, passionate concern for sharing the Gospel, disciplined devotion to the Word, simple and direct preaching..." But, unlike Nash, Stott exhibited a much more vigorously thoughtful faith which enabled him to have intellectual integrity as well as be a fully committed Evangelical Christian.
Sir Arnold had hoped that his son would join the Diplomatic Service, but instead he was ordained into the Church of England - to the parish of All Souls, Langham Place where he has remained ever since.
Stott had been giving Bible readings since the age of 19, and was naturally led to give preaching the highest priority. The expository sermons given at All Souls were a new phenomenon in Anglican circles where preaching had declined since the end of the nineteenth century. Stott was then curate, but the rector being in ill health he carried more than usual responsibility. When the rector had a third coronary, the congregation took the unprecedented step of petitioning the King for the curate to be given the post of rector - so he became rector of All Souls at the unusually early age of 29.
Emphasis within his church was on Biblically-based expository preaching, and on evangelism, especially at the new monthly guest services, with a regular flow of conversions. Follow-up by members of the laity became increasingly vital, especially after the lay Training School was set up in 1961. Above all, the church had confidence in God. As Stott wrote, "Ultimately evangelism is not technique. It is the Lord of the Church who reserves to Himself His sovereign right to add to His Church. We need to humble ourselves before God and seek His face. Then, if we are expectant in faith He will add to His Church, not from mission to mission or even month to month but daily, such as are being saved."
Stott exhibited not only a strong emphasis on preaching and evangelism, but a genuine social concern for the poor and underprivileged. As Stott has painted out on many occasions, social action can both lead to evangelism and stem from it. James shows that good works are "an indispensable evidence of salvation", and 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 demonstrate that those who have abundance should help those who do not. Those who have been evangelised - and born again - will thus naturally have a compassion for the poor and wish to do something about their plight.
In addition, social action can be a bridge to evangelism, opening otherwise closed doors. Evangelism is, of course, the "logical priority" - people cannot have Christian compassion for the underprivileged unless they become Christians in the first place. Furthermore, "evangelism relates to people's eternal destiny ... Christians are doing what no one else can do." So Christians can act in two ways - in the unique work of spreading the Gospel and in the shared task of social action, carried out an a different base from the non-Christian one.