Saturday, September 29, 2018

"The Worlds of A. Wetherell Johnson" Founder of Bible Study Fellowship . . .

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CRC Blog Analysis On A. Wetherell Johnson’s
Created for Commitment: The Remarkable Story of the Founder of the Bible Study Fellowship
“The Worlds of Audrey Wetherell Johnson”

Tyndale House Publishers ( published A. Wetherell Johnson’s memoir Created for Commitment:  The Remarkable Story of the Founder of the Bible Study Fellowship ( on December 1, 1982.
One would think the memoir would be outdated since Johnson died in December 22, 1984 but Bible Study Fellowship, an international Christian interdenominational Bible Study, is now active in over 35 countries and every single state of the union.
       When Audrey’s mother, Maud Wetherell, became a born again believer she told her widowed and strongly Anglican mother that she was converting outside of the Anglican faith.  As a result Maud was kicked out of her own home and estranged from her mother.  Maud sought employment as a nanny where she met her first husband staunch Anglican John Cope.  The couple had four children, two boys and two girls:  Claude, John, Katherine, and Marjorie.  (Above Right:  The Cope Family Home) 
 John died and his wife and four children moved into his parents’ house.  When the children were all teenagers Maud  moved herself and her four children to Leicester in order for them to have a better education.  She supported the family with the proceeds from the sale of the family home and by working at Dr. F.B. Meyer’s church. (Above Left:  Maud, Kitty, Marjorie, and Henry Johnson)
There she met her second husband and Audrey’s father Henry Johnson and Audrey was born on December 1, 1907 in Leicester.  Audrey and her older sister Katherine “Kitty” moved with Maud and Andrew to France where Andrew served as a Christian missionary. Her mother Maude became seriously ill and had to return back to England.   While Andrew continued his ministry throughout France, Africa, and Switzerland, the two sisters Kitty and Audrey finally returned back to Kenilworth, Warwickshire, England to join their mother in August of 1914, due to the threat of World War 1. The three moved to the suburbs of Birmingham while Andrew continued his ministry, visiting his wife and children every chance he got.  (Above Right:  Audrey Wetherell Johnson in 1914) 
       Audrey found escape and solace in classical music by Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, and Back which she and her sister Kitty would listen to every night before going to bed.

       She also found solace in books by Shakespeare, Mark Twain’s The Prince and The Pauper, Kipling’s The Jungle Book, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Jack London, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, C.S. Lewis, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

In her late teens at the request of her father, she moved to Paris, France to be tutored in the French language and culture by Mademoiselle Mercedes Heldwein.  Heldwein taught Audrey a smattering of French, Latin, made sure she excelled in sports and took her to French Intellectual Salons where she observed the discussion of the great intellectuals of the day.  She also  introduced her to professors and journalists from France, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Spain and Japan.   (Above Left:  Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier's A Reading in the Salon of MME Beoffrin in 1755)
       She also studied history, philosophy, psychology, Buddhism, Confucianism, read books by Fredrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Hegel, Coue, Blaise Pascal, and Voltaire

It was while she was in France that she discovered that all of her Christian experiences were feigned and that she no longer believed in the Bible and at best considered the Bible a bunch of myths; in other words she identified herself as agnostic.  She returned to England to visit her mother where she was appalled at the blood of Jesus Christ and found it harder to still hide her unbelief from her Christian parents; perhaps she was afraid her mother would reject her like her mother before her. (Right:  Maud Wetherell Johnson) 
At her father’s (Henry Johnson Left)  request she attending a business college and then got a temporary job as a member of the faculty of a public high school, which she excelled, but still within her she was in great despair:  she no longer believed in the Christian God Jesus but yet she had nothing to fill the emptiness.  She started her quest –what is the truth?  Is God real? She prayed that God would reveal if He was real along
with some reasonable philosophy that made sense to her.  Johnson details the inner conversation she had with God and how that conversation led her to accept Jesus Christ as Personal Lord and Savior and that her salvation experience was not superficial or based on emotion but authentic.  Soon she had a spiritual hunger to read, research, and study the Bible and immediately took five correspondence Bible courses from well-respected Bible Scholars.
I studied with three questions in mind:  (1)  What does this Bible passage say?  (2) What did it mean to the people of the day when it was written?  And (3) What does it mean to me? Page 43
Thus began her love story not only with the Trinity God but also with the Bible, which she read with such passion, such velocity and such intensity – that each experience of reading the scriptures was a literal touch or message from the Holy Spirit.  
Soon she began to give speaking engagements about the Bible and what she learned.  She realized that she wanted to commit to full time Christian ministry and preferred to work with the most depraved and the most poor, in what she was convinced was Sudan.  In the meantime she taught a group of factory girls about Trinity God and the Bible in the slum area of Floodgate Street in Birmingham, England. (Left:  Girl in the slums of Floodstreet)
       She then received training as a delivery nurse and became the nurse for a large district in Bracknell, Berkshire where she delivered over 600 babies on her own without anesthetics or doctors present during her two years there.   During that two- year period she also taught Bible classes; one that focused on the writings of Andrew Murray. (Right)
She still had the desire to be a missionary to Sudan, but read a variety of magazines about mission work in different countries around the world.  But
what made a huge impression on her was Mildred Cable’s autobiography Something Happened, where Cable details her conversion experience as well as her and her sisters’ (Evangeline French, and Francesca French) experiences serving as missionaries in China.  When she heard about the meeting to be led by Mildred Cable in London she knew she had to attend.  (Above Left:  Sisters Evangeline, Francesca, and Mildred)
Mildred spoke of the absolute paganism in China, the danger of the travels, and the glory of seeing God change lives after only one hearing of the gospel.  I sat enthralled.  Deep down in my heart, it seemed God was saying to me, “This is what I have for you.  Why do you keep trying to get Me to call you to Africa.”  Page 62.  (Left China Map in 1935) 
       Audrey filled out her application and sent it to the China Inland Mission founded by J. Hudson Taylor and was called for an interview by Mr. Roland Hogben and was later accepted into the C.I.M. Bible Institute in London where she studied theology, Bible, how to teach the Bible, the Chinese language and its culture and its history.
She was scheduled to sail for China in 1935, but due to the murders of C.I.M. Candidates in China all missionary assignments to China were stopped.  In the mean time, Audrey worked as a missionary for Thonon Mission located in France on the Switzerland border near the Haute Savoie Mountains, where she was assigned to minister to a group of 30 girl scouts. (Left:  the building where Audrey taught the girl scouts) 
       Finally in September of 1936 Audrey (Right) set sail on the H.M.S. Ranchi for China where she would remain for the next nine years without taking a single furlough. Her first task was to attend the language school in Yangchow where she learned to write, speak, and read in Chinese.  
In April of 1937 she was assigned to her first missionary station in Kiangsi Province of China where she arrived in June of 1937.  While at Kiangsi Province of China Audrey experienced illnesses and bouts of depression.  She sought comfort from her spiritual mentor and dear friend Miss Ruth Brittain.(Below Left)
I remember going into her room once feeling very despondent and like an unworthy Christian.  I said, “I need a fresh touch from God, perhaps an outstanding work of the Holy Spirit.”  She replied, “What you need is to saturate yourself in the Bible.  Why don’t you leave your study, and lie on an enclosed private porch, and meet God through saturating yourself in one of the books of the Bible!” This was a shock.  I had just come out of the Bible Institute, under Mr. Hogben no less, and thought I knew the Bible.  Page 115
Audrey did what Miss Brittain suggested by going to the upstairs balcony and started reading the book of Hebrews the way she always had but nothing happened.  She then prayed an earnest prayer to God and then started reading Hebrews all over again and a miracle happened.
Looking back I cannot explain any particular truth the Lord gave me or remember any particular verse that shone with special meaning.  But what happened was this: Through reading God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit and depending upon God to give life through it, it was as though God had picked me up and taken me into Heaven where He dwells.  I had been with Him!  My entire spiritual being was renewed.  Leaving the balcony, feelings of lassitude disappeared, depression was gone – I had received God’s words and was rejuvenated in every part of my being.  Page 116.
Her next station was at Lin Ming Kawn in the Hopeh Province of north China where she arrived in March of 1939.   There she ministered to a Chinese congregation of 300 Chinese who would walk 9 miles to get there.  Services were held all day on Saturdays and Sundays.   
Until that hot day in August of 1942 when the Japanese came to the Chinese Inland Mission’s headquarters and took all the missionaries to two interment camps, one in Shanghai and the other fifteen miles away called the Longhua Camp.  It was the Longhua Camp that Audrey along with 2000 other aliens would be held for three long years.   

For the next three years she would eat rice covered with worms, one-inch cube of meat, and every now and again a half spoonful of vegetables (spinach, cabbage, tomatoes, and beans) that the prisoners grew themselves from the packets of vegetable seeds they smuggled in their luggage and pockets.  She along with her fellow prisoners would stand in line twice a day for water.  At bedtime, 7 p.m., she would strap her waist with a tight belt to ease the hunger pains.   She did have her triumph – one of her greatest was her being able to teach 500 children in one room with only a blackboard and chalk.

Then the war ended and in August of 1945 allied  airplanes appeared in the sky dropping every color possible of parachutes full of cans of food.  Audrey saved a red parachute as a memento.  Then an American Liaison officer arrived at the camp and for the next two hours told them all the news of the war and how they won.  He and the other Americans then passed out newspapers and magazines to the prisoners. (Above Left:  F Block Internees on top of the buildings roof the night the war ended)
Then the most emotional and compelling part of Created For Commitment happened:  the prisoners of the internment camp now set free decided that they needed to put the Japanese Flag (what they called the Rising Sun or the Poached Egg) down and raise all the flags representing all the countries the prisoners were from.  Immediately the women set to work and gathered any materials they could to produce each country’s flag.   Once the flags were made it was decided by the prisoners that they would unfurl all of the flags on the same balcony and same place where guards would stand with their guns in what would be a religious service.  
Never will I forget the dramatic scene.  Two thousand newly released prisoners stood before that balcony where the flags were now mounted but still unfurled!  Someone had managed to procure from the Chinese a small harmonium.  We sang, “Our God Our Help in Ages Past,” and also “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven.”  Then the master of the ceremonies read two meaningful passages of Scripture from the Old Testament, chosen partly in deference to the Jewish friends present.  He read Deuteronomy 8 (Below Right), which remarkably fitted our situation and was a warning to the nations, “lest ye perish.”  Following this, he read the beautiful Psalm 23. Below Left)
Following the singing and reading, the leader led us in prayer, and all the flags on the balcony – about ten of them – were unfurled.  We were asked to keep silence as we remembered the lives laid down for this victory.  The sun was setting, the sky was red, the only sound we hear was the flap, flap, flapping of the treasured unfurled flags that represented our new freedom. 
At the end of the silent prayer someone sat down at the harmonium and played the national anthems of all the nations represented.  There was not a dry eye among us as we sang.   Pages 161-162
In 1947, at the age of 40, Audrey and her spiritual mentor, best friend and companion Miss Brittain sailed to San Francisco, where after a six-month rest, she began speaking at conferences and universities.  
It was here that she decided to go by the name Wetherell instead of Audrey since there were so many women named Audrye in the United States.  Then in 1952 while Wetherell finished a speaking engagement at a church in San Bernardino, California,  five women from that church asked Audrey to please teach them from the Book of Colossians.
These were all earnest Christian women, well-versed in Bible content.  My heart fell!  What had I come to?  There in San Bernardino was such an abundance of churches where people could hear God’s Word, while by contrast in China were millions who had not even heard His name.  Am I to give more to those who already have so much? Page 214  (Right:  Wetherell Johnson in 1950)  
After much prayer and God leading her to read verses Jeremiah 45:5 and Zechariah 4:10 Wetherell decided to grant the five women’s request but she did have her own conditions which she felt were God ordained.

A few days later, when these ladies returned for my answer, I said, “I will not spoon-feed you.  Are you willing for me to dictate a few questions, which will help you in your study of each passage?  I would then like you to first share with all of us what God has given you, after which I will share with you what He has give nm.”  Readily they were happy to agree to this method of study and teaching.
Wetherell soon made a demand upon herself when she noticed that during her lecture she saw the women taking notes which she felt was a distraction from them listening to her own words which could diminish the spiritual impact they might otherwise experience. (Left:  The Bible Study Fellowship production department in Oakland, CA)
Therefore I decided to type a resume of each lesson, together with typewritten questions applying to the following lesson.  I stipulated that the use of commentaries would not be allowed!  Little did I anticipate then that these lesson notes, with questions, would someday develop into the composition of 5,000 words to each set of notes and twenty related questions for the following week’s lesson.  Page 214 (Above Right: BSF notes in Chinese) 
Bible Study Fellowship did not discriminate:  everyone of every single color, economic status, and religion or lack thereof were welcome:  atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, Christian Scientists, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, Jews, and every Christian denomination one could think of including Catholics.

       A Catholic priest attended my class for six weeks and we developed a real friendship.  Sometime during the 1960s after Pope John advocated Bible reading, we noticed a great increase in Catholic membership.  Priests in one of the Bay Area churches were so impressed with Bible Study Fellowship that any one who taught catechism on Saturday had to be a member of Bible Study Fellowship class.
Page 238  (Right: Wetherell Johnson in 1969)

The remaining the 392-page-book Wetherell explains the growth of BSF, and the guidelines for the Christian life, what the Bible says about salvation, reading the Bible, how to live the confident Christian life, and how to be triumphant even amongst a suffering life. (Left: Johnson in 1980)

There is so much more in Created For Commitment:  Wetherell’s extensive traveling all across the globe and how she found the presence and existence of God in every experience; her heartbreak over her family including her half sister who suffered a nervous breakdown and severe depression; her broken romance; and her life while living in England, China, Switzerland, France, California and Texas. (Right: Johnson in 1981)
Some might say this book is about Audrey but this writer would say the book is ultimately about Jesus living through Wetherell’s (Left) spirit and the birth and the metamorphosis of BSF, which exists and thrives to this very day.


  1. Thank you for your article. You may want to make one or two small corrections. I knew Miss Johnson and she was called Wetherell as opposed to Audrey in the US, because, as she said, "there are so many Audreys here" and her birthdate was December 1, 1907. She died December 22. You also did not mention her friend and companion in her later years, Miss Alverda Hertzler. Miss Hertzler was largely responsible for establishing the Children's Program in BSF.

  2. I am in the BSF class in New Jersey. This article helps me to know how BSF become the best bible study experience for me. Thanks for sharing.