Expanded and updated version of the book John Stott's Right Hand

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Expanded and updated version of the book John Stott's Right Hand
John Stott's Right Hand - The untold story of Frances Whitehead

Frances Whitehead died in 2019. Her story needs to be preserved. Not many Christian biographies include attempted regicide, or walk-on parts from Gainsborough, Sheridan, Florence Nightingale, the Singer sewing machine family, and Jaqueline du Pre. The land on which Harrods stands once belonged to the Whitehead family, who then owned much of Chelsea. But that is not why this story should be preserved.

Frances Whitehead was secretary to John Stott for 55 years. Their partnership has been described as ‘one of the greatest partnerships in church history’. Stott could not have been half so effective without Frances at his right hand. Both were ‘fast, exacting and determined’. Frances had done secret war work as a mathematician. She would create the framework for each new initiative (of which there were many), and manage its early development until, in her words, it could be ‘flipped onto someone else’. While her letterhead bore the words ‘John Stott’s Secretary’, this title hardly described her role.

As we mark the centenary of Stott’s birth in 2021, it is fitting to bring out an expanded and updated edition of Frances Whitehead’s biography. It provides a unique angle on Stott’s work and his personal life. His flat in London had two small rooms and a shower room. His study assistant’s desk was in his bedroom – a desk which had been rescued from a skip! Frances worked downstairs, in a small office looking out onto a brick wall. It was 25 years before she exchanged a dining chair for an office chair with castors, despite continually getting up to answer the front door, or hauling out filing cabinet drawers. It was all very modest.

Frances was working for a BBC producer when in 1956 Stott asked her, out of the blue, to become his secretary. It seemed like a random, even fatuous suggestion, and Frances thought he was joking, and put it out of her mind. When a phone call came the following week at work, to find out what she had decided, she realised he had been serious. No job description, no proper interview, no terms and conditions. The evangelical world would operate in this way for a further thirty years.

Frances guarded John’s time like a tiger. In the words of one study assistant, ‘She could intimidate the socks off any pushy American!’ Stott planned his days, and planned his hours; he needed to be briefed well, and not be disturbed. But he was not austere. He was ‘Uncle John’ to thousands of students and pastors around the world, and Frances was ‘Auntie Frances’.

Each summer, John, Frances, and John’s study assistant would relocate the office to The Hookses in Dale, Pembrokeshire. This was Stott’s writing retreat, and they would often be joined by friends. Daytimes would be spent working; evenings in reading (Saki was a favourite) or in fellowship, with laughter never far away.

Frances received a Lambeth MA in 2001, hooded in the red silk of Oxford University. Lambeth degrees are considered as earned degrees. It was not Stott who nominated her for it, as has wrongly been assumed by a recent Stott biographer. She never found out who it was. Frances Whitehead retired in 2012, aged 87, having spent a year boxing up Stott’s archive, to be deposited in Lambeth Palace Library.

John Stott’s Right Hand looks at their relationship. Neither married, and both gave their lives to his ministry. Any relationship between two people working long hours is vulnerable. Much rested on this relationship, and it would prove a good friendship. A man and a woman born four years apart, both from privileged homes, each with a privileged education. (Stott Head Boy at Rugby School; Frances Head of Summerside House at Malvern Girls’ College.) Frances was named in Stott’s will as ‘My friend and Executor’.

John Stott died in July 2011 and the book opens with his memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral, with Frances, at his request, giving the opening tribute. His ashes are buried near his writing retreat. Frances Whitehead died in June 2019. Her thanksgiving service, held in All Souls, Langham Place, may be viewed on YouTube. Her ashes are buried in Bovey Tracey, Devon, with her older sister Pamela, who died in childhood. It is the end of an era. We will not see their like again.

John Stott himself hoped this story would one day be told, and I am privileged to have been its writer. The expanded edition provides one of ‘four unique angles on John Stott’, published by Dictum for the 2021 centenary of Stott’s birth.


Article written by the author, Julia Cameron

Together Magazine

Together is the Christian resources magazine for the UK, with stories of what God is doing across the church today, book reviews and publishing industry news. Subscribe now at www.togethermagazine.org.

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