The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the hand cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” – 1 Cor. 12:21-22
History is full of significant figures. In the second half of the 20th century, John Stott was one of the major figures of world Christianity. As pastor of All Souls Church in London for roughly the third quarter of the century and then a global figure traveling and speaking all over the world, Stott made a powerful impact. It is perhaps in his many books, especially Basic Christianity and The Cross of Christ, that his lasting legacy to many of us is to be found. Though Stott may not have quite the North American name recognition as Billy Graham, a recent major history of evangelicalism referred to the period from the 1940s to the 1990s as “The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott.”
In terms of the apostle Paul’s metaphor of the Christian church as Christ’s body, Stott is one of those parts that anybody can see has an important role to play. His speaking and writing, after all, led many people to faith in Christ, and perhaps drew many more to a deeper foundation in that faith.
But Paul insists that those less obvious parts of the body are also vital to its functioning. And one shining example of just such a hidden member was a woman named Frances Whitehead.
Whitehead wandered into All Souls Church in the early 1950s, a young woman raised in the English church but with no sense of personal faith in Christ. Over the next several months she kept coming back to hear the clear Bible teaching Stott was delivering in the services there. In time she came to give her heart to the Lord, trusting Jesus alone for her salvation. In 1956, when she was eager to get involved in the church as an expression of her own faith, Stott asked her if she’d be interested in working as his secretary–a somewhat trying job that had by that time worn out a couple of previous applicants. Frances Whitehead was working for the BBC at the time, and didn’t know if Stott was serious about the request. He was, and she took the job. She would keep that job for 55 years, only retiring in 2011, the year Stott died at the age of 90, when she herself was 85.
During those 55 years, Frances was a partner in a very meaningful ministry, even if it was one that went unseen by most of the world. Those who were closer to Stott were never in any doubt of her significance. The prefaces to many of his books through the years bear Stott’s own witness to her share in the labour that brought them to the public.
Both Frances and “Uncle John,” as he became known to many in later years, remained single for their entire lives, fully committed to Jesus Christ and to the particular ministry to which they, in different but important ways, were called.
A recent biography of Frances Whitehead, by Julia Cameron, bears the title John Stott’s Right Hand. It’s a fittingly Pauline image for her ministry. As Chris Wright, one of Stott’s closest colleagues and friends, put it: “Every Bible reader knows Jeremiah, while few know about Baruch, his secretary. Baruch was a servant of the servant of the Lord. That was the role Frances gave her life to fulfil. It was, as she says, ‘a life, not a job.'”
For a touching glimpse of Stott and Whitehead’s unique partnership, you might watch the introduction and tribute to Stott she delivered at his memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral in January 2012. The link is below. Beginning at 4:19, you can watch Michael Baughen, Stott’s successor at All Souls, introduce Frances before she speaks. You also might want to check out the Quaerentia podcast interview with her, in which she talks about her life as Stott’s secretary.