John R. W. Stott’s death last July, at the age of 90, prompted an outpouring of grief and fond memories all over the Christian world. But nowhere were there more panegyrics than among American evangelicals. In a community infamous for squabbles and schisms, polarized by politics and endless theological feuds, here was an unusual moment of unanimity: everyone from fundamentalists to left-wing peace activists adored this self-effacing Anglican preacher.
“You cannot explain English-speaking evangelicalism in the 20th century without crucial reference to the massive influence of John Stott,” Albert Mohler, the conservative president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Christianity Today. “Both his keen intellect and his deeply authentic spirit made a powerful impact on me,” wrote Jim Wallis, a progressive activist and spiritual adviser to President Obama, who ranked Stott second only to Billy Graham in his influence over global Christianity. Rick Warren called him “one of my closest mentors.” He followed up with ten Tweets about what he learned from Stott, the longtime rector of a traditional London parish and a chaplain to the Queen with a degree from Cambridge—at first glance, an odd role model for Warren, a megachurch pastor known for preaching in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt.
Stott was the only person whose words could hush the bickering evangelical horde. Upon his death, he has been beatified by Christians on both sides of the culture wars who say he was just the man of faith they aspire to be—whether their aspirations include campaigning against global warming or razing abortion clinics (and despite the fact that Stott did neither of these things himself). A closer look at Stott’s popularity and influence reveals a great deal about American evangelicalism’s aspirations and ambiguities. Stott shared his American fans’ most basic beliefs, but they loved him so much because he was so wholly unlike them.