One advantage of growing older is that hindsight gives a clearer view of one’s life. Events that once puzzled me, or that I ignored because they seemed trivial, appear now in a clearer light, revealing how the Lord has been ordering and over-ruling so much in my life. So as I write that I was fortunate to be born into a Christian family, I realize how inadequate the word “fortunate” really is.
My father’s family had migrated to the Albany district of West Australia in 1910 from London, England. My mother was born into a Cornish migrant family in New Plymouth, New Zealand, and by a roundabout route came to Albany, where she met, and later married, my father. Both my parents were soldiers in the Salvation Army, a denomination which played a large part in both my early life and my Christian growth. Looking back now, I can see how the Lord was ordering circumstances and experiences to prepare me for what was to be my major work for Him.
I was born in November, 1932, at Albany, the second child of my parents. The family moved to Bunbury when I was four years old, and it is in that port town, in the immediate post-war years, that I was nurtured and trained in so many ways by the Lord. Attending Sunday School and the adult meetings at the Army was the norm through my childhood, and I accepted the Lord as my Saviour when I was 14. I taught in the Sunday School, played the organ for the meetings, and also got the band going again after the war years, by teaching younger teenagers and children to play brass instruments.
What was to be of most help later, however, was the experience gained in public speaking. As members of the youth Bible study class, we were encouraged to take personal part in the meetings, such as leading in prayer, giving our personal testimonies, leading hymn-singing etc. I think, however, that the best training in speaking came in the regular street meetings that were held. One could be called on, without notice, to speak in these meetings, and the varied ‘congregations’ listening on the footpath were not always as friendly as one would like. It was wonderful training.
In my late teens, I felt a strong conviction to offer myself for officership (i.e. ministry) in the Army, and at the age of 21, I entered the Officers’ Training College in Melbourne, Victoria. On successfully completing my training, I was appointed to lead various Army Corps (churches) in Victoria. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We need to go back to Bunbury.
I regularly attended the Tuesday night prayer and Bible study meeting, where, one night, the Officer spoke on the opening verses of Genesis, presenting what I later learned was called the ‘Gap Theory’. It made sense to me, and it was, I believe, the first time that I saw that themes in the Bible were linked. When the meeting finished, I asked the Captain where he had got his ideas from. He said it was from the writings of J. Sidlow Baxter, and he recommended that I get Baxter’s set of Bible study volumes entitled “Explore the Book”. I did not forget his advice, and when I concluded my officership training, I procured the set. I started to work my way through the studies and found them very helpful. Apart from the Bible knowledge gained, Dr. Baxter’s use of language was excellent, and this helped me greatly in improving my own preaching and teaching.
My first real ‘Wow’ experience came when I arrived at the studies of Matthew’s Gospel. Dr. Baxter pointed out that Matthew’s theme is the Lord Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, coming to bring the Kingdom of God, and he followed that with a statement that would eventually lead to a radical change in my service for the Lord. His statement was, “… and the Kingdom is not the Church”. I certainly had no idea of the full implications of that statement at the time, but I understood that it was an important point. By the way, I had never read or heard anything like that before.
I continued working through Dr. Baxter’s studies and arrived at the Book of Acts. On the very first page, Dr. Baxter had printed this statement in bold letters: The Book of Acts is the second offer of the Kingdom to Israel. I felt almost as if I had been hit on the head with a cricket bat! In the studies of Acts that followed, Dr. Baxter emphasized the Jewish context of Acts right to the last chapter. He concluded, however, by saying that, at the beginning of Acts it is all about Israel, but by the time one gets to the end of Acts, it is obvious that the beginning and growth of the Church was really God’s purpose.
That was where I stayed in my understanding for about the next seven years, during which time Eveline and I were married and started our family. We were moved every couple of years or so to a new appointment, and eventually found ourselves in the small country town of Broadford. It must be understood that back then, we had no say in our appointments. Headquarters directed when and where we to go, and we simply loaded the kids and our personal gear into a van and went. Now, I must tell this next part of the story in some detail, because in a real sense, it was our ‘Acts 28’ experience.
In our first week at Broadford, we bought a copy of the local weekly newspaper, and in it, there was a letter to the editor which talked about the Book of Acts and how it really was for Israel and not the Church. It was signed by Dr. R. Sobey, and at that time I had no idea who he was. I was a bit surprised that such a letter was even in the paper.
The next Sunday, we were relaxing in our lounge room after lunch, when there was a knock at the front door. Our visitor introduced herself as Mrs. Sobey, the doctor’s wife, and said they lived just across the street. She was calling to welcome us to the town, and Roy, her husband, would be along in a little while as he was attending to someone who had fallen off a horse.
The Doctor arrived in due course, and we settled down for afternoon tea. I remembered the name Sobey from the letter in the newspaper, so I asked Roy if he had written the letter. He said it was his letter, and I could see that he became a little tense. I think he thought I was about to attack him. I told him, however, that I knew what he was going to say next, and he responded by saying that I couldn’t possibly know. So I told him that he would say that Acts was about Israel and the Kingdom of God, and that the Church was not Israel or the Kingdom, that Acts was the second offer of the Kingdom to Israel and that many things in Acts were not for or about the Church. The dear man could not believe his ears. I was the first minister who came to the town who had even the faintest idea of what he was trying to say.
We became firm friends in the years that followed, and he took me on the next step on my journey to the truth. I found out later that Roy Sobey was one of three men in Australia at that time, who had the next piece of information that was the key to the proper understanding of God’s truth. The Salvation Army leaders, not realizing they were carrying out God’s will for me, transferred us to Broadford, where our house was right across the road from that of the Doctor. What a wonderful coincidence!
Dr. Baxter, although acknowledging that Acts 28:28 was the point in time where God had set Israel aside, did not apply that principle to the New Testament epistles, lumping them all together. Roy had an extensive library of Bible study books. He also had many tape recordings of Bible studies by Charles Welch of the Chapel of The Opened Book in London, and I revelled in them. Here were the studies that took the principles taught by Sidlow Baxter to their logical and scriptural conclusions, and armed with this knowledge, I happily immersed in learning about this principle of the ‘Right Division’ of Scripture.
I should say at this point, that it was not so easy for my wife, Eveline, to grasp Dispensational Truth as it was for me, as she had not read Sidlow Baxter’s studies as I had. But encouraged by Dr. Sobey’s discussions with us, she careful read Ephesians, and saw that Paul, in ch. 3, indeed speaks about a previously hidden Secret that God had given to him to reveal. Her understanding of Dispensational Truth and the total support she has given me through the years since then, has been of immeasurable help to me.
Roy put me in touch with the Berean Agent in Australia, George Collier, who lived at Umina Beach o on the Central Coast of New South Wales. Over the next couple of years, we travelled up to Umina for holidays and spent as much time as we could with George and his wife, Daisy. Soon after that, we resigned our ministry in the Salvation Army, convinced that it was God’s will for us to become part of the small Acts 28 group that met in Sydney.
We bought a house in Umina near George and Daisy, so I could learn from them, and stayed there for almost two years. I had wanted, for some time, to open a Christian Bookshop as an outlet for the writings of the Berean Publishing Trust. So, without going into details, we moved up to the lower Hunter Valley of which Newcastle is the hub, and a couple of years later, opened our bookshop. It was not a roaring financial success – although I read a lot of good books – but I made many contacts, some of whom became the earliest members of the Newcastle Acts 28 fellowship.
There was no witness to Dispensational Truth in Newcastle when we came, and as we made friends with folk who showed interest in learning more about Scripture, we started a Bible study group in our home. This was the beginning of the Newcastle Acts 28 group. During these years, we continued travelling to Sydney for the monthly meeting there, and upon George’s death in 1971, the Sydney group asked me to become their leader, which I was happy to do.
In the ensuing years, the groups slowly grew in numbers, especially in Newcastle, and it was time to put the Fellowship onto a more formal footing. We incorporated as a non-profit group named, firstly, the Berean Bible Fellowship of New South Wales. Several years later, we dropped the words ‘New South Wales’, and substituted Australia. We started having an annual conference – I think the first one was in 1974 – and three years later, we invited Stuart Allen from London to visit us and conduct a number of meetings for us. This went very well, and brought new folk into contact with us. We have continued to have overseas speakers from time to time.
Athol (top left) at a Berean gathering in 1976. Included are his wife, Eveline, and some of their children. Stuart Allen, the guest speaker, was the photographer. Click on this photo to enlarge it.
All this time, I was leading studies in our own groups, and also anywhere else where they would have me, and my understanding of Scripture generally, and of Dispensational Truth in particular, deepened as I did the necessary preparation. Along the way, I encountered Christians who thought I was a heretic, and that my doctrine was dangerous. The discussions I had with these people were not only interesting, but also very helpful, for it helped me to clarify my thoughts and also, to explain my beliefs more clearly. It has been a joy in recent years to see a number of people who once thought ill of us, change their minds as they got older, and are now enthusiastic attenders at our study meetings.
I must say that, in the 50 years since Dispensational Truth was presented to me, I have not met anyone who has been able to refute the position from the Scriptures. It has been a marvellous journey growing in the Truth of God’s Word, being used to lead others, not only to the Lord, but also to a deeper knowledge of Scripture, and through it all, finding the shackles of tradition and religion falling away. Freedom indeed! I can’t really say why the Lord chose me for this work, but I am so grateful that He did. All the praise and the glory is His!