This week, I learned that historian, Professor Don Lewis, a former teacher of mine at Regent College in Vancouver, had died suddenly and unexpectedly. He was 71 years old and had just notched up 40 years at the College. He was a solid, enduring presence and featured heavily in the experience of thousands of students, especially those of us who focused on history subjects.
A passionate teacher, he loved to share his vast and detailed knowledge of the discipline.
At Oxford University his focus became the Protestant evangelical mission to the British working class in London. This work sparked a lifelong fascination with nineteenth-century British Evangelicalism, and on that subject, there would be few who knew more than him. He loved to bring to light, for a contemporary audience, figures like the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (Lord Ashley) who, driven by his faith, became a hero of working-class people for his political efforts to alleviate the suffering of those subjected to the cruelty of nineteenth-century factories, mines, and mental asylums, along with a commitment to education of the less privileged.
Don Lewis filled several important roles at Regent: Academic Dean, Summer School Dean, Secretary of the Anglican Studies Program, and Editor of CRUX journal. Don spent nearly ten years fashioning and editing the formidable Dictionary of Evangelical Biography: 1730-1860 and was the author and editor of several books such as Lighten their Darkness: The Evangelical Mission to Working-Class London, 1828-1860. He was a fine scholar whose motivation was to gain knowledge so as to serve others.
When studying at Regent a few of us Australians used to refer to him simply as “The Don”. It was a mark of respect—that name in our country being reserved only for the greatest of course. He didn’t immediately stand out or draw the adulation of star-struck students in the way some professors did. But the quality of his work was undoubted and anyone who had anything to do with him would speak of his deep interest in his students, his support and encouragement and kindness that very often extended well beyond their time at the College. He had time for people. He seemed to know what was important. He was committed to elevating other people, rather than himself.
… anyone who had anything to do with him would speak of his deep interest in his students, his support and encouragement and kindness …
He was a mentor and confidante to many and seemed to gain his greatest satisfaction from that role. They will all be feeling a loss this week.
In his final sermon, delivered to a church in Vancouver two days before he died, he exhorted the congregation to “Be of good cheer”, recalling the enormous comfort from Jesus’ promise that, for those who trust in him, he is not only with us and before us, but in us. Even in times when you are despairing or discouraged, he said, “Remind yourself of the three heartening, encouraging words from the lips of Christ himself … ‘Your sins are forgiven’, ‘I am with you’, ‘I have overcome the world’.”
Don Lewis once told me how when Lord Shaftesbury died, the streets of London were lined with hundreds of thousands of working-class people, standing in the rain to pay their respects to the politician who had been their unfailing advocate and support. At the news of Lewis’s death people from all over the world have been offering a digital equivalent of that this week. They’ve shared their memories of their professor, lamented his passing and, without exception, spoken of his kindness and love for them.
For me, one of the most moving aspects of these online tributes was the enduring Christian conviction that this is not the end of the story; that even in the face of a jolting death there is hope for a future. “Bye for now,” one wrote. “Rest in peace and rise in glory.”
Simon Smart is the Director of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX). Below is two-part interview he conducted with Professor Don Lewis in 2014.