E. Stanley Jones: Gandhi's friend, King's mentor

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Time Magazine called Dr. E. Stanley Jones the most important Christian missionary of the 20th century. Commissioned by the Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Board in 1907, Jones traveled the world, befriending Mahatma Gandhi and inspiring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to adopt non-violent methods in the Civil Rights movement. The Rev. John Harnish, a retired United Methodist pastor, details Jones' work and messages of hope in Harnish's new book, "30 Days with E. Stanley Jones: Global Preacher, Social Justice Prophet."

One hundred years later, discover Dr. Jones' messages of hope that continue to inspire 21st century people of faith. 

The Rev. John Harnish

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This episode posted on March 18, 2022.

Transcript 

Crystal Caviness, host: Dr. E. Stanley Jones was one of the most important faith leaders of the 20th century. Serving as a missionary on behalf of the Methodist Church, Dr. Jones befriended Mahatma Gandhi and inspired the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As Dr. Jones traveled the world, he modeled Jesus’ justice-seeking, compassionate love, while respecting religious diversity. Today’s guest, the Rev. John Harnish wrote “30 Days with E. Stanley Jones: Global Preacher, Social Justice Prophet,” an endeavor to inspire 21st century believers with Dr. Jones’ messages of hope.

 

Crystal: Hi. We’re so excited to have you with us today, Reverend John Harnish, who…you go by Jack. Jack, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

John Harnish:  Thank you. Thanks for the invitation. I’ve been looking at some of your previous podcasts. It’s a wonderful vehicle for sharing personal stories of faith journey. Thank you for the invitation.

Crystal: You’re welcome and thank you for saying that. And today we’re going to talk about your story that now includes the publication of a new book titled Thirty Days with E. Stanley Jones: Global Preacher, Social Justice Prophet. And, my goodness, what an amazing person to highlight in this way. But I’m very curious as to your journey that really led you to write this book. Can you tell us just a little bit about yourself, Jack?

John Harnish:  Sure, well…my twin brother and I grew up in a very Christian and so a Methodist home. And I’m not sure where my father first came into contact with E. Stanley Jones. But all I know is he had one or two of his books in his library. And he asked that a quotation from Jones that says, “I commend my Jesus to you,” be inscribed on his tombstone. And so we did that after he died. Now I wish I had more of an understanding of where he picked that up and where he first heard it. But that really goes way back in my growing up years. More important, I was a student at Asbury College when E. Stanley Jones came to preach for a last time before his death. And I remember an aging…. Well, he was 80 some years old. …aging gentleman with a very soft and reflective voice. I don’t remember a lot of what he said, but I actually still have notes that I took on his message that day. And that prompted me to get into reading some of his material, his biography, A Song of Ascents. His last book written after he had a crippling stroke called The Divine Yes. And his writings really became a part of my faith journey. I found him to be inspiring and frankly I found some pretty good preaching material in E. Stanley Jones that followed me through my ministry. So that’s how I first became familiar with his work. And a little bit of what it has meant in my life. As a student at Asbury College I heard about him more than once. And then, as I say, he came to preach during my senior year.

Crystal: For our listeners who may not be familiar with Dr. Jones or the details of his ministry, in 1907 he became a missionary to India under the Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which really launched that ministry that became just really known worldwide. In 1938 “Time Magazine” called Dr. Jones the world’s greatest Christian missionary. Man, that’s, you know, just to see the impact that he was having on the world. And as you learn more about him, he befriended Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King, Jr. credits Dr. Jones’ writings about Mahatma Gandhi on inspiring the nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement. Some really, really big pieces here. And as I was reading that and thinking about that it feels like we’re still looking at these topics. We’re still struggling with equity. And this was something that Dr. Jones, from the beginning, he was about equality and he was about lifting up and being fair to all religions. And that feels so progressive and so radical a hundred years ago. So I’d love for you to talk about what we can learn from him. You know his works so well and what can we learn from him because for a hundred years we’ve still been grappling with this?

John Harnish:  Well, thank you. I think I…I try to raise really 2 themes in the book. The first is: Jones had this incredible ability to be very clear, very specific about his faith in Jesus Christ. But he was also able to hold that with an appreciation for other world religions and for people who might see the world differently than he did. And that is best represented by his respect and relationship/friendship with Mahatma Gandhi. And I think that ability to be what clearly claimed Jesus Christ as Lord, but doing it in a way that has an appreciation for other voices. I think that’s an example that we desperately need today. I think the second thing about jones that is important for today is his ability to hold together this, what in the best use of the word would be called ‘evangelical faith’ with a commitment to what today we call social justice. That wasn’t as popular a phrase back in his time. But he was very clear about the implications of the gospel for the social life of the world. And the one that I focus on in the book is his commitment to racial justice. From the very beginning of his life…in fact, he alludes to a time just after his conversion as a 17 year old when he got in a trolley car with his teacher, Miss Nelly. And an African American woman came on the trolley and needed a seat. He describes getting up from his seat, offering it to her and tipping his hat to her. And he says there was a twitter that ran all the way through the trolley car, that he was giving up his seat for a black woman and that he tipped his hat to her. He records that as a teenager. And that passion for any show of equality and racial justice ran all the way through his ministry. Today in the light of all the tensions around ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the racial issues that confront us, that witness of the balance between evangelical faith and a deep commitment to social justice is a balance we desperately need.

Crystal:  Jack, you said that learning more about Dr. Jones you really see how that has influenced your faith through the years. Are there some specific places where you kind of stopped and said, Okay, I could see where Dr. Jones might do ABC here and you kind of took a page of his book, so to speak?

John Harnish:  Well, I think in my preaching it probably goes back to that ability to clearly articulate his faith. And I hope through my preaching 43 years was that it was genuinely Christ-centered, and that the love of Christ, the winds of Christ came through. That was certainly true of E. Stanley Jones. And I think, for me, it was really another conversion experience as I moved along in my life to realize that these issues of social justice were directly related to that faith. He says at one point, “I’m not interested in a personal gospel or a social gospel; I want the whole gospel.” And I think that’s really what we all want in our better moments. So, through my ministry I think that growing awareness of the connection between the proclamation of the gospel, really in Jesus Christ and its implications for the world, became a deeper and deeper conviction. And I give him some of the credit for that.

Crystal:  As I read your book, Jack, it makes Dr. Jones and his work so accessible. He was a prolific author. And I think if you just kind of said, I want to learn about Dr. Jones, that could quickly overwhelm someone. So it felt like it was one part biography and one part the theology of Dr. Jones. How did you arrive at this format so that producing this book did not just become overwhelming?

John Harnish:  Well, that’s a good question because he wrote 28 books. And I have most of them—and a good number of them in first edition. And it is pretty overwhelming to try to paw through all of that. But I think taking a page out of his book, he wrote very simple, almost simplistic level, sometimes. Many of his books were devotional books with one page for each day like the book, The Way and The Word Made Flesh. They were literally daily devotional books, given some were published between the wars and during the war, the print is awfully small, and the pages are pretty tight because they were trying to limit the number of pages. But when I was invited to write this book, of a book written around 30 days of readings, it really seemed to fit because it was the way he wrote many of his books, daily readings. And I think that style of his made him very accessible. Today, you know, you could be overwhelmed if you tried to dig into all of his work. But personally I think if you were going to pick two books of Jones to kind of get started one of the most important books for our day, I think, is The Christ of the American Road. And he directly speaks to American culture, democracy, etc. But in the first couple of chapters he lays out his theology, his faith around Jesus Christ. So The Christ of the American Road might be the first one that I would recommend. The second one is Gandhi: Portrait of a Friend, which has been republished several times. And he details his relationship with Gandhi. There are places where it is a bit stuck in its time. You know, you have to understand the setting in India at the time. But this model of an articulate, outspoken Christian missionary who had such a deep appreciation for Gandhi, I think that example is really helpful for us today. So not to be overwhelmed by his work if I was going to pick 2 books to recommend as a good place to begin, it would probably be those two.

Crystal:  In your book, you write that Dr. Jones was proud to be Methodist, and that he thought that of all the things that being Methodist entailed, that the warmed heart and the world parish, the experience and the expression of those was the most important. Can you talk a little bit about that and just how Dr. Jones lived that out?

John Harnish:  Yeah, I have a chapter that’s exactly where you’re picking up on. His words were experience and expression. What a simple way to describe the core of Methodism! By experience, of course, he goes all the way back to John Wesley, Aldersgate (you know, ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed. I knew that I did trust in Christ—Christ alone for my salvation. And an assurance was given me that he’d forgiven my sins, even mine.’) That warm heart is at the very core and center of the Methodist Movement. And then what he calls expression…it’s the expression of what Wesley would call the world parish. A conduction for the world. One of my first experiences in the Methodist Church, when my family left another denomination and came to the Methodist Church when I was 12 years old. And I remember going to the summer camp in western Pennsylvania, still there—Wesley Woods. And I walked into the dining hall. There was a mobile hanging from the ceiling that had a globe in the middle of the work. But the theme of it was the world is my parish. At the time, as a 12 year old, I wasn’t at all sure what that meant. But I’ve come to discover over the years that that compassion for the world, that sense that we are a part of a large global family, is at the core of Methodism. So Jones brings together these 2 themes. And for me that’s pretty central to why I’m a Methodist—the warm heart and the global expression of our faith. After Jones’s conversion (17 years old) he had a conversion experience in his local church in Baltimore. And he ends the description of that moment by saying, “I rose from the altar and I felt I wanted to put my arms around the world.” I love that phrase. And years later, in his old life, as he writes his autobiography he looks back to that teenage experience and he says, “I felt I wanted to put my arms around the world and I’ve spent the rest of my life doing just that.” I think that’s pretty powerful. So, as a 12 year old the first time I encountered ‘the world is my parish’ I think I could probably say I wanted to put my arms around the world and I hope I spent the rest of my life doing just that.

Crystal:  Jack, when I read that I just had the same reaction. His wife Mabel, also, you had written, said that that was how she felt like her ministry and her work had been putting her arms around the world because she was aware of a need that she had the power to meet. I read that and it just made chills go all over me because it was so filled with love and compassion. And it also felt for me like a challenge. How can I put my arms around the world? And how can I become more aware of the need? You know, Dr. Jones called himself a citizen of the world. And in this whole wrapping arms around the world and showing love in that way it just felt very empowering as I read it. Can you talk a little bit more about how we…that’s how we can take that on today as maybe a personal challenge.

John Harnish:  Sure. Well, let me back up one step. I do want to say a word about his wife. Mabel Lossing Jones, who is part of the forgotten figure. In fact, there is a book about her. It’s entitled, He Had a Wife, [chuckles] as if, by the way, he had a wife. But Mabel Lossing Jones was pretty incredible in her own right. Here in the early 1900s as a single young woman she took off to India by herself as a teacher. And at that time that was a pretty daunting adventure, especially for a young single woman. She became involved in the Methodist mission schools, took over a couple of failing schools. And, to make a long story short, she ended up creating an educational model that is still at work today. She was a good friend of Gandhi as well, and informed him that his work around education for India…she was really quite an incredible woman. But, as you say, that beautiful moment where as a young adult she said, “I felt there was a need I had the power to meet.” And to get to your question, I think that’s a question that comes to all of us in one way or another. Can we find those places where our talents, our gifts, could touch the needs of the world in whatever way that happens? Can we find that sense of call that God is inviting us to make a difference in the world in which we live and maybe that’s close to home? But today that can certainly be global when they’re so connected around the world. You know, when Mabel Lossing Jones went to India it took maybe a month or two to make the trip. But now you can get anywhere in the world in 24 hours. Back then it would take weeks for a letter to go back and forth. Today we’re communicating in real time. To have that passion for the world beyond our doorstep I think is a part of each of our callings. So discover the places where there is a need that we have the ability to meet I think is a calling for all of us.

Crystal: Dr. Jones brought something that he learned from Gandhi…. And I’m talking about the Christian ashram. And he is credited with that movement—a movement that continues today. I don’t know if a lot of people really know about it. Can you talk about the Christian ashram and what that looks like as a part of a spiritual discipline or part of a faith journey?

John Harnish:  Sure. Jones got the idea from Gandhi and other Hindu leaders who held their own ashrams… The word actually means ‘away from work.’ We would say retreat. And the ashram was built around a guru; Gandhi, for example, or whoever the leader was. And they would come around…gather around the guru who would teach and lead. Jones experienced several of Gandhi’s ashrams and others. And he decided to use that model, but instead of placing himself as the guru, Jesus Christ was to be the teacher, the guru. And everyone was gathered around the Christ. In fact, there were comments by some people who attended the ashrams who were so amazed that Jones didn’t put himself at the head of the table. But rather, Jesus Christ was to be at the center. And that became the model, the pattern for the ashram. It began in India 90 years ago. Moved to America about 80 years ago and has literally moved around the world. You’re right. The Christian ashram movement is not very well known outside of its own circle. But they continued to hold these retreats, usually 2 or 3 days. They begin with what is called the hour of the open heart. And I think that should…everyone shares what they are looking for, what they are desiring. And then it ends with the hour of giving thanks and celebration. In between there’s time for personal, private meditation and prayer, time for the group to pray and share together. It also includes work, usually work around the grounds, or some kind of physical work that is a part of the ashram. And they provide an opportunity for persons who really want to go deep into their faith. Jones credited the ashram as being the real anchor for his own faith. And at one point he says he questions whether or not he would have been able to maintain his ministry and his direction had it not been for the community that surrounded him. And I think the model is important for us. But on a larger scale the fact is that we all need a community of faith. You know, this is not a faith that is meant to be lived in isolation. So whether it’s the model of the ashram or the Wesleyan class meeting, or the small group or the Sunday school class, or whatever it is, we all need a community of believers that help us to stay on track and to grow in our faith. And I think the ashram is important for its own sake, but it’s also important as a model of Christian living.

Crystal: You know, I think Dr. Jones would have said the ashram was how he kept his spirit in shape. And which kind of leads us to the question we ask all of our guests on Get Your Spirit in Shape. Jack, how do you keep your own spirit in shape?

John Harnish:  Well, I knew that question was coming. So I’ve given it some thought. You know, for 43 years I lived my life around Sunday. I could tell you the date of Sunday for months in advance because, as ever preacher knows, Sunday comes every 7 days. It doesn’t matter what else happens during the week. And so I built my life around that. And I have to say that preaching…preparing for preaching was an important part of keeping my own soul and my own spirit alive. But there was that quality…that sense in which you were doing this for the sake of the congregation, for somebody else. Eight years now I’ve been retired. Going to worship on Sunday morning as a worshipper has taken on a whole new meaning for me. During the pandemic, you know, Judy and I could…we could link into our worship service. I could hit 2 or 3 on Sunday morning. We could even take communion sitting at our coffee table. But I was really months of really homesick for weekly worship. And you know in a much deeper sense, I think, than maybe I realized before. That has become really important to my soul care. To speak of Jones again, Jones began every day with what he called ‘the listening post,’ where he simply listened to see what God might have to say for him for the day. I usually began almost every day before I get out of bed with that simple prayer from the Order for Morning Prayer: Great God of light, all day long you are working for the world, every day to look for where God is at work in the world. And the third part of my faith that I think is good is my friends. I have a wonderful circle of friends. And I discovered there’s a strength of community and of sharing together. So weekly worship has taken on a different meaning for me now that I’m no longer a preacher, a way of beginning the day acknowledging God’s presence and God’s work in the world and then appreciating the circle of friends that help to nourish me and keep me on the right path.

Crystal: I love that, thank you for sharing that, Jack. Jack, thank you for joining us as a guest today for Get Your Spirit in Shape. I just enjoyed your book so much, learning more about Dr. Jones and having this conversation today with you about that book has just really meant a lot to me and I hope to our listeners as well. So thank you so much for being here.

John Harnish:  Well, thank you for the invitation and it’s been great to share with you, Crystal. Thank you.

Epilogue

Crystal: That was the Rev. John Harnish, a retired United Methodist pastor and author of “30 Days with E. Stanley Jones: Global Preacher, Social Justice Prophet. To learn more about Rev. Harnish, his book and his ministry, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation, you’ll find my email address so you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.