It was a beautiful, bright winter afternoon in Ballinamallard when we visited Mrs Isa Craig just a few days before her 100th birthday. She was born on St Valentine’s Day, 14 February, 1910. This was our 17th visit to a centenarian since June last year, and like many of the other occasions, the conversation was lively and entertaining. Mrs Craig was able to recount her life on Crumlin Road in Belfast during the years of the Second World War as she waited for her sweetheart, Desmond, a Fermanagh man, to return from the war. They didn’t see each other for four years, but were married in Crumlin Road Presbyterian Church on his return. She has been a widow now for 33 years.
She also recalled her father, Jack McGarry, who began his employment in the Belfast shipyard as a 14 year old and retired 59 years later as a 73 year old. He was actively involved as a foreman in the construction of the ill-fated Titanic. He lived to be 103, and it is clear that Mrs Craig has inherited some of the same genes.
Mrs Craig maintains a great interest in the life and work of her local congregation of Irvinestown, and her crochet work continues to win prizes in local craft competitions. A wonderful woman!
As we entered Ballinamallard, I noticed the impressive signpost claiming that the ancestors of both Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin came from this Co. Fermanagh village. I was reminded of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s assessment of the influence of Stanley Baldwin and his claim that Baldwin had contributed to the decline of the place and power of preaching in Britain during the first half of the 20th century. This is how he puts it in Preaching and Preachers (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971):
There was a prime minister in Britain in the twenties and in the thirties named Stanley Baldwin. This man, who was of such little significance that his name means nothing even today, had a considerable effect upon people’s thinking concerning the value of speaking and oratory in the life of peoples. He came into power and into office after the era of a coalition government in England led and dominated by such men as Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Lord Birkenhead and others of that type. Now these men were orators, great speakers. Stanley Baldwin did not have that gift, so he saw that if he was to succeed it was essential that he should discount the value and the importance of speech and oratory. He was competing with brilliant men who were at the same time great orators; so he posed as the simple, honest, ordinary Englishman. He said that he was not a great speaker and conveyed the suggestion that if a man is a great speaker he is a man whom you cannot trust, and is not quite honest. He put these things up as antitheses; and his line was to adopt the pose of the plain Englishman who could not indulge in great flights of oratory and imagination, but who made simple and plain and honest statements. This attitude to oratory and the power of speech has quite definitely become a vogue, especially among the politicians, in Britain. But, alas, I maintain that it has had an influence also upon the Church …it is one of distrust of the orator.
The greatest men of action have been great speakers; and, of course, it is a part of the function of, and an essential desideratum in, a leader that he can enthuse people, and rouse them, and get them to take action. One thinks of Pericles and Demosthenes and others. The general history of the world surely demonstrates quite plainly that the men who truly made history have been men who could speak, who could deliver a message, and who could get people to act as a result of the effect they produced upon them.
I don’t imagine that the residents of Ballinamallard, in claiming an ancestral link with Stanley Baldwin, want to assume any direct responsibility for the situation that Lloyd-Jones describes. If Stanley Baldwin was a conversationalist rather than an orator then perhaps he inherited that gift from his County Fermanagh forebears. In our world of television, email and twitter, we ought to value and nurture that gift.
I believe that if there has been a decline in the place and power of preaching in the Church in recent decades then we should not blame Stanley Baldwin entirely. I think a more accurate reason is to be found in what Lloyd-Jones says a little later in the same volume:
Great preaching always depends upon great themes. Great themes always produce great speaking in any realm, and this is particularly true, of course, in the realm of the Church. While men believed in the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God and spoke on the basis of that authority you had great preaching. But once that went and men began to speculate, and to theorise, and to put up hypotheses and so on, the eloquence and the greatness of the spoken word inevitably declined and began to wane….As belief in the great doctrines of the Bible began to go out, and sermons were replaced by ethical addresses and homilies, and moral uplift and socio-political talk, it is not surprising that preaching declined.
We enjoyed good, stimulating conversation in Ballinamallard. There are many benefits to be had from listening to great preaching on great themes, but our wholesome conversation can also be a source of encouragement and blessing (Ephesians 4:29). These are the thoughts that ran through my mind as we drove home from Ballinamallard.