Saturday, November 30, 2013

John F. Thornbury, uncommon Christian pastor, author and fellow admirer of James Brainerd Taylor (1801-1829) . . . 44-year pastorate at the same Pennsylvania church, 1965-2009

As an example of delayed gratification, I finally met in-person a favorite biographer of mine and the author of the Foreword to my An Uncommon Christian: James Brainerd Taylor, Forgotten Evangelist in America's Second Great Awakening (University Press of America, 2007).

On November 20, 2013, I met Dr. John F. Thornbury for lunch in Lexington, Kentucky. Afterward, he invited me to his home where I met his wife (Reta) of 50 years, viewed his personal library, talked about his son (author and president of New York City's King's College, Dr. Gregory Alan Thornbury) whom I had heard speak in Louisville just weeks prior, learned about his bookbinding hobby and prayed for and with him. A blessed time of fellowship it was!

John F. Thornbury (right) and Francis Kyle (left).
Lexington, Kentucky, USA. November 20, 2013.

It was during the early years of my Christian life in Washington State (October 1992- ) and my Canadian student days at Bible college and seminary (1994-2000) that I first learned of Dr. Thornbury. The introduction came through the reading of his biographies David Brainerd: Pioneer Missionary to the American Indians (Evangelical Press, 1996) and God Sent Revival: The Story of Asahel Nettleton and the Second Great Awakening (Evangelical Press, 1993).

Since the famed missionary David Brainerd (1718-1747) was a maternal cousin of James Brainerd Taylor (1801-1829), and since the itinerant evangelist Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844) was a ministerial mentor to Taylor, I was very pleased that in 2006 Dr. Thornbury agreed to write the Foreword to my An Uncommon Christian. To my surprise and delight, he was already familiar with J. B. Taylor and the once-popular Memoir of James Brainerd Taylor (American Tract Society, 1833). If I recall correctly from our conversation, a copy of the 19th-century memoir was given to him as a gift by an older female member of a Kentucky church he pastored in the 1950s or early 1960s. He asked that I sign his 1833 copy, of which I happily complied.

Here is an excerpt from Dr. Thornbury's Foreword to An Uncommon Christian:

The second reason I recommend this book is evangelical and is, of course, related to the first. Kyle refers to James Brainerd Taylor (1801-1829) as "an uncommon Christian" and he obviously was. Today we might refer to him as an "extraordinary" believer, who in his love for the triune God his self-denying spirit, and his intense desire to win the lost, lived above the level that most of us experience. The last part of this book gives credible proofs, based on those who knew him intimately, that he was, if we may so speak, "sold out to God." For many today, even those who hold high offices in the church, their commitment to Christian principles seems almost half-hearted when we look at the standard of behavior set by Jesus and the apostles. Aside from the gross wickedness that has plagued some prominent Christian leaders today, even the best of believers, it seems, are offering to God an alloy of consecration rather than the whole-hearted affection for God, his word, and his church, that the Christian faith deserves.
There is no doubt about it: believers can be instructed, motivated, and inspired by reading the lives of the saints of the past. In the life of James Brainerd Taylor, we see what God's grace can do in the life of one of his children. It shows how, in the midst of great suffering and hardship, a Christian cannot only blossom with the beautiful flowers of piety, but can be happy in the process. In one respect, the subject of this biographical work excelled his maternal relative, who he was so much alike, David Brainerd (1718-1747). He never suffered from the chronic depression that dogged the Indian missionary. Though often plagued by illness and though even at times persecuted for his loyalty to the gospel, Taylor seemed largely to live on the high plateau of joy in the Lord. In this respect, he was like another man, J. Hudson Taylor (1832-1905), who I read somewhere stated with humility, but with profound gratefulness, that for many years not a cloud of doubt had passed between himself and his Savior.

An Uncommon Christian.
University Press of America, 2007.
Foreword by John F. Thornbury.
Because Brainerd, Nettleton and Taylor were all born in Connecticut, the land of my (non-Christian) upbringing (ages 5-20), my interest in them--and their historical eras of the First Great Awakening (1730s and 1740s) and Second Great Awakening (ca. 1790-1830)--was and remains high.

Interestingly, all three studied at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, but with different outcomes: Brainerd was expelled in 1742, Nettleton was a member of the Class of 1809 and Taylor died while a student on medical leave from Yale Seminary in 1829 (he died and was buried in Virginia).

Concerning Brainerd, Dr. Thornbury pastored near where Brainerd ministered to the Delaware Indians in eastern Pennsylvania. In An Uncommon Christian, I include an 11-page appendix entitled "David Brainerd and James Brainerd Taylor: A Comparative Chart."

In addition to his biographies on Brained and Nettleton, A Pastor in New York: The Life and Times of Spencer Houghton Cone [1785-1855] (Evangelical Press, 2003) is Dr. Thornbury's third biographical work.

His other, non-biographical works include The Doctrine of the Church: A Baptist View (Pilgrim Publications, 1971); Help Us To Pray (Evangelical Press, 1991); A System of Bible Doctrine (Evangelical Press, 2003) and You Want to Get Married! For those who have wedding plans or wish to (self-published, 2008). These works are in addition to his contributions to various books and journals.

What is fascinating about Dr. Thornbury is that his writing ministry was in addition to his family life (he and his wife of over 50 years raised two kids) and pastoring the same Pennsylvania church for 44 years (1965-2009).

After serving churches in Kentucky and leaving Winfield Baptist Church in Winfield, Union County, Pennsylvania, in 2009, he returned to his native Kentucky. Since 2011, he has been serving as the Pastor of Worship at Bellepoint Baptist Church in Frankfurt, the capital city of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

For an insightful August 12, 2009, online interview with Dr. Thornbury, see here. Also, see here for "a handful of brief observations . . . made from afar" regarding Dr. Thornbury's longevity in pastoral ministry. Lastly, a sampling of his sermons (2004-05) can be found here.

John F. Thornbury.
Bellepoint Baptist Church.
Frankfurt, Kentucky, USA.

Dr. John F. Thornbury, Mrs. Reta Thornbury and Dr. Francis Kyle.
Lexington, Kentucky, USA. November 20, 2013.

Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry.
Crossway, 2013.
By Gregory Alan Thornbury, son of John F. Thornbury.