Hugh Geoffrey Thomas, commonly known as
just Geoff, is a lanky man with beady eyes, fuzzy
hair and an inimitable laugh. Some think he is
a Tom Hanks’ doppelgänger. Others regard him
as a formidable Bible preacher, a prolific Christian
writer and a reformed church leader of the last 60
or so years. What has inspired him and who has
motivated him? In the Shadow of the Rock
tells his own story in his own words.
However, this autobiography is a somewhat tricky volume for me to review. The author and subject of this book has been my pastor for over 40 years. We moved to Aberystwyth in 1976 and began attending Alfred Place Baptist Church where Geoff Thomas had already been the minister for about 11 years. And I, and my wife and children, subsequently chose to sit under his ministry until his retirement in 2016. In other words, we knew him for more than three-quarters of his time in Aberystwyth and we heard him preach at least 4,000 sermons. Beat that!
Hence, we are more than good friends, and some warm prejudice from this reviewer is perhaps inevitable. Moreover, I was entirely surprised to be namechecked (twice!), with appearances in a couple of blurry photographs, plus two pages about me and my work on bioethical issues. So, bear with me. How can I be hard, even merely open-minded, about such a long-term and kind supporter? After all, Geoff has been the principal director of my life in Christ for several decades. The upshot is that I have been greatly favoured and truly thankful for such sustained, creative, biblical ministry and pastoral care. We love you Geoff.
Overall, this is a delightful book, and I enjoyed reading it. There, I’ve prejudicially said it! But it is not without faults. Let me get some niggles out of the way. It is an American production and US spelling and phraseology can be annoying, but ‘pouring over the morning newspapers’ is simply semantically wrong. And ‘the COVID-19 pandemic’, ‘the coronavirus pandemic’ and ‘the coronavirus threat’ refer to one and the same dreaded lurgy. Enough. Please do not send me a list of errors in my books. We could all benefit from astute copy editors.
The book follows the normal chronological pattern of autobiographies beginning with Geoff’s earliest days, but with a vivid indebtedness to his parents, Harry and Elizabeth. That is sweet. Indeed, it is a signal characteristic of the book – Geoff is eager to acknowledge the debt he owes to many others, be they relatives, school chums, teachers, lecturers, daughters, wives, fellow preachers, or members of his congregation.
Another recurring theme of the book is the mingling of past and present – the intersection of church history and personal piety. Doctrine and practice are forever best friends here. There is no sterile Christianity in these pages. In addition, Geoff never misses a trick of introducing gospel truth into biography, whether his own or someone else’s. So, for example, he describes the highs and lows of the 1904 Welsh revival, Spurgeon’s downgrade and the dearth of present-day winsome and awakening preaching across the Principality and elsewhere. Such events have a deadening effect upon a population and upon the souls of individual men and women. He has seen and understood it all and his warnings are worryingly apt.
Geoff has long been a driven man. He had hoped to preach through every one of the Bible’s 66 books to his congregation. Mission almost accomplished. Or he would drive to speak at a Saturday meeting somewhere across the UK and then drive back home to Aberystwyth to preach two sermons at the Sunday services. Few men have such energy and motivation. An early inkling of Geoff’s ambition can be found on p. 78 when he was about to start at university and wanted to spurn the typical student flotsam and jetsam activities. ‘I was in Cardiff on a much more important enterprise: to know God and to comprehensively enjoy Him, to grow in my relationship with my Creator, to understand the incarnate majesty of Jesus Christ, to see His glory in every blade of grass and drop of rain, to adore Him for the love that kept Him on the cross until my redemption was achieved. I was also looking to find people to assist me and inspire me in our corporate quest.’ Big and bold stuff, though I expect, as a late teenager, his explanation would have been somewhat more prosaic.
While there his days as a student at Cardiff University were generally disappointing – with the huge exception of meeting his sweetheart and future wife, Iola Williams. However, this lack of academic challenge was more than countered by his three years at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Those days in Philly became foundational and life changing. His pen sketches of the cherished academic staff are more than interesting – he found most of those men ‘delightful’. There he met one of his heroes, John Murray. At their first meeting, Geoff was disappointed because he thought Murray was the one-eyed janitor. Yet he soon learned that great men of God can seem quite ordinary. The lesson – if you must have mortal models, pick the deep-rooted, good ‘uns.
High among Geoff’s other major heroes was Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. And which decent Welsh preacher of the last century does not owe much to the work of Lloyd-Jones? Geoff certainly pays his dues. Few encounters delighted him more and he treasured the Doctor’s sagacity.
Yet much of everyone’s life, celebrities and commoners alike, is filled with the forgotten mundane. Geoff’s has been no different. What are these obscure places so precious to him, such as Penydarren and Pengam, and who are these unknown people, like David Joseph and Brian Dicks? Some, several, most of the people described in this book will be unfamiliar to 95% of readers. That is OK because they were all influential in shaping Geoff’s life. My favourite was the godly Miss Patterson, an elderly Northern Ireland believer from Alfred Place, who once gave Geoff a frozen trout for his birthday. Minor event, maximum impact!
As stated earlier, Geoff gave me sustained, creative, biblical ministry and pastoral care. He was certainly sustained. Not many get the benefit of two 45-minute sermons each week for 40 years from the same man. He was also creative. I think that perhaps his greatest talent was to preach and challenge both the minds and hearts of his listeners. Geoff barely knew the word ‘platitude’. He could be seriously creative. I well remember him preaching on the 10 Commandments. He had been down to the beach at Aberystwyth and had gathered 10 huge, rounded stones. He could scarcely manage to hold his hefty props in the pulpit. His ministry was biblical, but invariably grounded in the plight of modern men and women. He read and read a vast range of literature and he was media savvy and therefore could be connected and constructive with his congregation – his one day of teaching each week sustained his congregation for the other six as they lived in the real world. The sermon that I recall most strikingly from the Sunday 4,000 was when he preached on Matthew 5:44, ‘… But I tell you, Love your enemies …’. Not every sermon was such a humdinger. A series on John’s gospel got uncharacteristically stuck and had to be abandoned. He liked his pastoral care to be broadcast from the pulpit. Biblical truths preached give biblical answers applied. He rarely visited us as a family. But when we raised a doubt or a question, he was soon knocking on our front door.
This review is not a triumph. Normally I can read a book, make notes in the margin and rattle off a few hundred measured words. This exercise has been quite different. I have made no notes. The words have tumbled out of my brain and into my computer. This book appraisal has turned into a rather personal appreciation of Geoff Thomas – the man who helped reform my head, heart and hands. Deo gratias.