W. E. Sangster Memories of a Great Leader

Guy Flemming

Margaret Phippen is a brisk, down-to-earth lady who, one feels, is not someone who suffers fools gladly. She also happens to be the daughter of one of the most loved and admired Christian leaders and preachers this country produced in the 20th century - the Rev Dr William E Sangster, Methodist doyen who walked as easily with kings and princes as he did with the inhabitants of slum areas who flocked to hear him preach.

W E Sangster died 45 years ago, in 1959, absurdly early, just when the full flowering of his preaching and teaching looked set to set an even more lasting stamp on the nation. By that time he had risen from a working-class district of Lancashire to command the pulpit, for 15 years, at Westminster Central Hall, then Methodism's headquarters. There he preached to packed congregations of 3,000 every Sunday, many of whom had queued for up to an hour to get into the auditorium. This has never been equalled since.

His name was revered throughout Methodism and he had – still has – many admirers throughout this country and overseas, many of whom heard him during his many preaching tours and also as President of the Methodist Conference. They can testify to his zest in the pulpit and his general bonhomie, which everyone found very attractive. He was well known as well outside the Methodist Church, becoming a kind of 'Mr Preaching Everyman' at conferences throughout the country, including the Filey Convention, the precursor of Spring Harvest. He was also a contemporary of two other Methodist 'giants' of the time in Dr Leslie Weatherhead (at the City Temple) and Dr Donald Soper (at the West London Mission).

But to those who knew him, Dr Sangster was much more than a larger-than-life pulpit giant whose waves of oratory would sweep over a vast audience, subduing, challenging, enlightening or encouraging as the sermon might dictate. He came out as a strong supporter of Dr Billy Graham when the latter was being constantly sniped at and 'put down' by an assortment of religious leaders, many within the Methodist Church.

Sangster's output of books and pamphlets was prolific, and they are still read to this day. Such titles as The Secret of Radiant Life, Why Jesus Never Wrote a Book, God Does Guide Us, and Let Me Commend have been reprinted many times. Thousands of local preachers were indebted to him for his homiletical works, such as The Approach to Preaching and The Craft of the Sermon.

Margaret Sangster was born in Conway, North Wales, the setting for her father's first appointment as a married man. The family was constantly on the move in those early years, averaging a new circuit every three years initially. She shared with her by-then famous father in the London Blitz, living five years with him, and about a thousand others, in the underground shelter where she and her mother had the dubious delight of sleeping in a men's urinal! Her husband, the Rev. Dennis Phippen, was an ordained missionary to India, and that is where she went after their wedding for many years. Margaret now lives in Worthing, West Sussex, where she and Dennis had moved in 1979 when he was appointed superintendent minister. Here she gives a priceless insight into what he was like as a father, as a wise counsellor and, above all perhaps, an instant friend to all those whom he met.

Mrs Phippen recalls that her father's overwhelming characteristic was his zest for life. She says that his personality so glowed that for those near him, including his children, 'he lit up the whole world'. 'In my early days he was already becoming famous as a preacher and a pastor – incidentally, he used to test his sermons out on my mother. He loved God with the whole of his passionate nature and he longed only that others should love him, too. He worked away all day but was always ready in time of real need to drop everything and take one of his children in his arms. He was all love and all compassion'.

'Saturday afternoons were the one time in the week when we could be sure of our father for ourselves. On that afternoon, then, we were all together – my parents, who adored each other and lived a love story every day of their life, my brother (Paul) and I. As I look back, I seem to have spent much of my childhood padding wearily after his tireless form to look at an old abbey or castle, or just the scenery'.

In September, 1939, when he was just 39, Dr Sangster was moved from his Leeds church to London, where he took over the Central Hall, Westminster. It was the month that war broke out and his first announcement to his new congregation was that Britain had declared war on Germany. Mrs Phippen recalls that during the first year of the so-called 'phoney' war, her father turned the Central Hall into a family church. Hundreds and then thousands flocked to hear him, a prince of preachers indeed.

'Most of all, though, his influence was felt in personal lives. Everyone mattered to him, everyone was loved by him. He never forgot a name or a face'.

In 1940 the bombing of London began. Homeless people from the slums of nearby Pimlico needed accommodation, and Dr Sangster threw open the Central Hall's reinforced basement, which became one of the biggest air-raid shelters in the country, the permanent home for up to a thousand people every night.

'He and his family moved in to share it with them, modestly taking one small room in which we were to eat, sleep and live for five years. My mother hastily organized a canteen and provided cheap, good food every night. "Service before services", said my father as he moved among the people, his fund of funny stories, his interest and his love charming all suspicion away. Determined to offer no religion until it was asked for, he was soon begged to take evening prayers, and it became a permanent institution, along with a weekly lecture on current affairs and a Saturday concert. He welded the whole into one huge, happy family. A suspicion even grew up that if he were in the shelter it would not be bombed!'

'And the work in the church above grew and grew. To keep himself sane in crowded days and more crowded nights, my father snatched minutes from his bed to study Christian perfection and wrote a thesis for which London University awarded him a doctorate in philosophy'.

With peace in 1945 the work blossomed with a crowded, glowing church, spiritually at ease. Book followed book, with lecture tours to many parts of the world. In 1950 Dr Sangster became the youngest-ever President of the Methodist Conference and he was genuinely surprised at the honour.

'Travelling home in the train afterwards, his robes on the luggage rack, he met a lonely young naval cadet and together they played at train-spotting, the boy and the President racing from window to window with equal enjoyment!' - revealing a man utterly at home with himself and possessed of an impish delight in simple things.

'“Let's dance", he would whisper on a lonely road, and the two of us would gambol gaily along the pavement, his grey curls on end, and his clerical collar jumping about to his shouts of laughter. You see, he never knew a waltz from a fox-trot!'

In 1955 Dr Sangster was asked to take charge of the Home Mission Department for the whole of British Methodism. He plunged into his new work, administering a great department and travelling continuously – a new bed, a new sermon, nearly every night. He prayed and sweated for a new awakening of the Christian faith. Three years later he was conscious of uneasiness in his throat and dragging in his leg. He went on with his work but soon he could not avoid seeing a doctor and was diagnosed with incurable muscular atrophy. The muscles would gradually waste, the voice go, the throat be unable to swallow. He had thought there would be years of hard work ahead.

In Mrs Phippen's words: 'From dark despair he battled through to triumphant assent. He could still write. He would have more time for prayer. "Let me stay in the struggle, Lord", he pleaded. "I don't mind if I can no longer be a general, but just give me a regiment to lead". Against increasing limitations he forced himself to work. "Why, I'm only in the kindergarten of suffering", he answered sympathizers with his infectious gaiety.

'Gradually his legs became useless and his voice – that melodious organ that had thrilled thousands – went completely. Speechless and helpless, he could still hold a pen. He was radiant. On and on he wrote. Utter suffering, utter acceptance. His delight in my mother never faltered, nor she in her great courage. "You are wonderful" her would write to her with shaking hand, his pen now his only means of communication'.

'On Easter Day he wrote to me, "It is terrible to wake up on Easter morning and have no voice with which to shout, 'He is risen!' but it would be still more terrible to have a voice and not to want to shout".'

W E Sangster died in May 1959, on Wesley Day. He died before his right hand had completely failed, still in the fight for his faith. Perhaps Dr Sangster's Christian ethos may be summed in a sentence he wrote for the preface of his book, The Secret of Radiant Life: 'Men and women were made for God; all parts of our personality are drawn to health when he is resident within'. This great Methodist leader was a shining example of just that.

Guy Flemming is a Local Preacher and journalist in Worthing, Sussex

Headline Spring 2004 pp 16-17.