2 July 1895 – 5 April 1985
One of the most influential and fruitful evangelistic contributions NZBTI made to this country was through the work of “The Blind Evangelist”, Andrew Johnston. Mr Johnston lost his sight during World War 1 – in fact, he had only been in the trenches five hours when a German shell exploded above, blinding him and instantly killing his mate. He was sent to England for surgery to insert artificial eyes, and then spent months at St Dunstan’s Institute for blind servicemen where he learnt braille, how to type and how to raise poultry – three skills he utilised all his life.
Some years later Joseph Kemp heard about a fruitful evangelistic mission that Andrew Johnston had conducted in the Oamaru Baptist Church in 1928. Without delay he commissioned Oswald Sanders to go and talk to Mr Johnston and ask him if he would work as an evangelist under the Extension Department of the Institute. It was a big ask for a blind man, married with a 7 year old son, to leave the familiarity of home and take up a travelling ministry. However, he felt this was God’s call on his life and for the next 12 years Andrew conducted campaigns in every corner of the country. He was supported by his wife Nellie1 who was his “eyes”, and who overcame intense shyness to sing Gospel songs as a soloist at the missions.
The College’s Reaper magazine is full of accounts of the missions held, some in small churches in farming communities, and others in cities. The curious turned up to hear a blind preacher and encountered a man, full of the Spirit, who gave clear Biblical messages, without sensationalism.
A report in the College’s Reaper magazine in March 1937 gives an indication of the work done by the Johnstons the previous year: 15 missions, 234 addresses by Andrew, 351 solos sung and the total audiences approximately 28,800.
One account from a Methodist Church in Southland noted, “From the beginning the church was full, and in less than a week we had to move to a larger building. The outstanding feature has been a deep conviction of sin. ‘The town has gone mad’ was one comment, for the power of the Holy Spirit was manifest at every meeting. Men were so convicted that they were afraid to attend a second time”.2 Later, Andrew with his keen sense of humour recalled how the mayor, in grateful appreciation for his ministry to the community, presented Andrew, a blind man, with free tickets to the cinema!
The pastor of a church in Palmerston North reported in The Reaper (January 1931) that night after night for three weeks large crowds assembled to hear the missioner. On Sunday evenings the church was crowded to the doors, “people even sitting on the pulpit steps, in the porch, and in the School Hall behind”. He noted, “We have received a great spiritual uplift, and many souls have been born into the Kingdom of God.”
It was not a continuous success story, and often spiritual conflict was fierce. But countless lives were impacted and for decades afterwards Andrew had an enormous amount of correspondence to reply to from missionaries and ministers who had been converted under his ministry.
The heavy workload took its toll, particularly on Nellie who suffered from poor health. This resulted in the Johnstons ceasing full-time mission activity in 1942 and returning to live in Gore, however they continued conducting missions at the request of churches for over 30 years. This remarkable man of God died suddenly on Good Friday, 1985, in his 90th year. Nellie lived for another 11 years.
Photo Left: Andrew Johnston holding his braille bible Photo Centre: Andrew and Nellie Johnston
Photo Right: 50th Wedding anniversary
1 Andrew met a young 18 year old Helen (Nellie) Henderson while visiting some relatives in Scotland during his rehabilitation in 1918. Engaged a year later, Nellie followed Andrew back to NZ and they married in Gore in 1920.
2 J. Oswald Sanders, Expanding Horizons: The story of the Bible Training Institute, Institute Press, 1971, p.70