Eli Stanley Jones was born in Clarksville, Maryland, on January 3, 1884, at the height of the American Holiness Movement. Even though as a Christian Jones was shaped by this movement, his years as a Methodist missionary in India radicalized him in ways that are instructive today.
Jones’ Life and Faith
Jones grew up in Baltimore with two older brothers and a sister. His father was an alcoholic. As a child, Jones started attending the nearby Methodist Episcopal Church, and there he was soundly converted at age seventeen under the ministry of evangelist R.J. Bateman, himself a converted alcoholic.
Jones started attending the Methodist Sunday School at age five. The first time he went his mother dressed him in a brand new suit that Jones was keen to show off to the grown-ups. In his 2005 biography of Jones, S. Graham suggests that “from an early age, Stanley Jones did not hesitate to seek public attention and enjoyed being on center stage” (Ordinary Man, Extraordinary Mission: The Life and Work of E. Stanley Jones [Abingdon, 2005] 22).
Many decades later, I heard Jones speak several times in the years shortly before his death in 1973. Once or twice he held an Ashram for Asbury Seminary students while I was enrolled there in the 1960s. I was struck by this small, lively man’s clarity, precision of speech, and passion for authentic Christian experience. But I did not understand his radicalism until much later.
When I was a professor at United Theological Seminary in the 1980s, a faculty colleague recalled hearing Jones speak in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1950s. Reader’s Digest had published an article entitled “Methodism’s Pink Fringe” (February 1950). Jones was pictured unsympathetically—a Communist sympathizer, or worse. Responding to the charge in his Columbus talk, Jones retorted: “Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never has been called a Red?” This was of course during America’s Red scare. The story showed that Jones was more than just the inspiring evangelist, the gentle mystic, and the devotional writer I knew about.
I had discovered Jones’ true radicalism a few years earlier, in fact, when I was ministering in Chicago. A friend lent me Jones’ book, Is the Kingdom of God Realism?, which I noted was published in the year of my birth, 1940. I read the book—a key one in my formation—and discovered what Jones was really all about.
Jones Discovers the Kingdom of God
Although Jones became a famous Methodist missionary to India and global Christian evangelist and statesman, he was best known for his many devotional books. He is also the person for whom Asbury Seminary’s School of World Mission and Evangelism is named. But I believe his early books are the most prophetic ones for church and mission today. We have loads of devotional books; we do not have enough that take church, culture, and mission seriously from a biblical kingdom-of-God perspective.
Jones first came to international attention through his 1925 book, The Christ of the Indian Road—over a million copies sold in a year. A friend of Mahatma Gandhi, Jones built on ancient Indian precedents in founding the Christian Ashram movement—a form of spiritual growth and discipleship in community.
Jones published four remarkable books in the critical period 1933–1940, as he was finding his way missiologically: Christ and Human Suffering (Abingdon, 1933), Christ’s Alternative to Communism (Abingdon, 1935), The Choice before Us (Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1937), and Is the Kingdom of God Realism? (Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1940). Jones’ engagement with Hinduism and Islam, with Communism during its most attractive idealistic phase, and more generally with culture, economics, and international politics, led him to wrestle with issues that remain central in discussions of church and mission. The continuing relevance of Jones’ writing lies not in the particularities of the time but in the scope, nuanced comprehensiveness, and biblical roots of his vision.
Consider, for example, The Choice before Us. Jones saw the Christian church as inescapably caught in the global struggle between Communism and Fascism (including Nazism). Today, perhaps we would say the global struggle is between economic and technological materialism and various world religions and ideologies, between “globalism” and “localism.” At root, however, the issues are the same; perennial.
Jones said the choice is between the kingdom of God and all other ways. He argued that “the Kingdom of God [is the] conception” that transcends both Fascism and Communism—“something so universal that it takes in every human relationship and gives purpose and meaning to the whole, and something so intimate that it takes in one’s own personal need and meets it with redemption and power by which to live” (15). In an eight-page, four-column chart, Jones compares Communism, Fascism, Nazism, and Christianity. He lists a spectrum of issues from morality to economics, family life to art. Discussing individualism versus community and cooperation, Jones argues for a conception of Christianity that fosters both community and a healthy individuality.
In Chapter 3, “The Kingdom Comes with Power,” Jones focuses on Pentecost and the book of Acts. He explores the social and economic implications of God’s reign, arguing against a dualism between piety and economic-political life. Early Christians “naturally and normally saw that the spiritual unity could not be kept apart from economic and social unity. They refused to compartmentalize their unities. Life was one,” he says (55).
Jones advocated family as a central “underlying principle” of worldwide human organization, based on the fact of God as sovereign Father. He argued:
A family is based upon this principle—each one in a family gets his share of whatever there is according to his need…. The Christian Church has fought for the maintenance of the family all through the centuries, and yet it is the most communistic of all institutions. The human family is co-operative and not competitive. The Christian Church has defended that co-operative order of the family, feeling that it had an affinity to its own principles and life, but it does not now see the inconsistency of defending at the same time the competitive order that is utterly at variance with every principle it holds. It was and is right in defending the family; it is wrong in defending our present economic system. It must extend the family spirit into the economic and social system, for it is working for the family of God, the Kingdom of God. This larger Family would be based on “to each according to his need” as the lesser family is. (59, italics added)
Was Jones a socialist? He may sound like one when he writes, “The means of production must be in the hands of all for the good of all and not in the hands of the few for the exploitation of the many” (57). The sentiment, however, is more populist than socialist. Jones is not arguing for socialism but for kingdom-of-God economics that combines the dynamism of entrepreneurship with a commitment to civic good. This vision resonates with three important new currents in global economics today: microenterprise, social entrepreneurship, and ecological economics (cf., e.g., H. Daly and J. Farley, Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications [Island, 2004]; M. Yunus, Creating a World without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism [Public Affairs, 2007]). Contemporary Christians must now show how to ground these dynamics in a truly biblical, missional theology.
Is the Kingdom of God Capitalism?
Jones strongly criticized capitalism as he saw its exploitation and the dehumanizing individualism it often fosters. Perhaps he overreacted. Overall, capitalism has proved to be more resilient, creative, and beneficial than Jones expected. But Jones was right to raise the issues and mount his criticisms, pointing to the contrasts between capitalism and the gospel. He was prophetic also in insisting that God’s reign is not just an ideal or solely a future or otherworldly reality. It is a present reality and agenda for both church and society, with clear socio-economic implications.
In the early 1900s, many Christian writers advocated a social vision of God’s reign, often with implicit or explicit critiques of capitalism. Jones’ work is distinctive, however, transcending this milieu in five ways: (1) Jones never lost his focus on Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, Savior and Lord; (2) he conjoined personal piety and social engagement; (3) he articulated a comprehensive vision of God’s kingdom that combined present and future, personal and social, spiritual and physical dimensions; (4) he saw the essential link between God’s kingdom and visible Christian community; and (5) he remained deeply grounded in Scripture.
One of Jones’ profoundest insights was that the gospel involves both the Person (Jesus Christ) and the Plan (the kingdom of God). The Person without the Plan yields personal piety only; the Plan without the Person yields social reform but not its essential source and power. Jones wanted to proclaim the whole gospel for the whole world. He had a comprehensive view of the gospel and mission that is much needed today.
My take on Jones’ trajectory is this: Raised in the Holiness Movement where sanctification was the Bible’s hermeneutical key, Jones, in the 1930s, came to see the kingdom of God as the central key—a paradigm shift. Personal and social holiness were part of one kingdom life and message.
Focusing on Jones’ early prophetic books does not diminish Jones’ many other accomplishments. Summarizing Jones’ long legacy, S. Graham notes that Stanley Jones established hundreds of Christian Ashrams worldwide, many of which still meet; had a strategic influence on Gandhi and Nehru; supported Indian nationalism and independence from England, unlike many missionaries; met with President Roosevelt on December 3, 1941, trying to head off Pearl Harbor; and had “a life-changing impact on the millions of people throughout the world who heard him” or read his books (20-21).
Stanley Jones was married to Mabel Lossing Jones, a lifelong educator in India. They had one daughter, Eunice, who became the wife of Methodist Bishop James K. Mathews. For years, however, Jones hardly saw his wife as he traveled globally.
One of Jones’ most intriguing and self-revealing statements came in a letter to Mabel just five months before his death. The “essential difference” between them, he said, was this: “You [Mabel] are the final authority in your sub-conscious mind; with me [it] is the Holy Spirit [who is] The Final Authority.” He told Mabel, “You are under your own guidance: I am under the guidance of the Holy Spirit—I may misinterpret that[;] for this I get forgiveness” (K.R. Hendershot, E. Stanley Jones Had a Wife: The Life and Mission of Mabel Lossing Jones [Scarecrow, 2007] 150).
Perhaps all Stanley Jones meant here was that he must obey God rather than man (or woman). But the language hints at Jones’ sense of exceptionalism and his absolute certainty that he was being led by the Spirit.
In retrospect, it appears to me that much of the time Jones in fact was. His feet, even if of clay, were dedicated to walking the gospel road.
Bibliographic Note: Jones later reprised some of his kingdom of God themes in The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person (1972), which is still in print. David Bundy provides a fine overview of Jones’ theology in his essay “The Theology of the Kingdom of God in E. Stanley Jones.” An essential new resource in understanding Jones is K.R. Hendershot, E. Stanley Jones Had a Wife: The Life and Mission of Mabel Lossing Jones, which is part of the Revitalization Series of Asbury Seminary’s Center for the Study of World Christian Revitalization Movements. Among many other sources, including Jones’ own books, see S.A. Graham, Ordinary Man, Extraordinary Mission: The Life and Work of E. Stanley Jones (Abingdon, 2005). The Asbury Theological Seminary archives has a large collection of Jones’ papers, though many important documents, especially personal letters, still remain with the family. I discuss Jones’ kingdom-of-God theology in Models of the Kingdom (Abingdon, 1991).