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Trade Paperback
256 pages
Jan 2005
Baker Books

J. Sidlow Baxter: A Heart Awake: The Authorized Biography

by Ernest A. Johnston

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



The Lad

    Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, neither was the word of the LORD yet revealed unto him. And the LORD called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, Here am I; for thou didst call me. And Eli perceived that the LORD had called the child.

1 SAMUEL 3:7–8

His Birth

What youthful mind has not wistfully daydreamed of olde England? With its colorful lore of castles and knights, kings and queens, its empire could make nations quake. England’s scepter stretched across the globe, its Royal Navy ruled the seas, and nations’ leaders bowed to her throne.

So it was to England that Alice Baxter returned, without her unfaithful husband, John, leaving behind in Australia the turbulent memories of her troubled marriage and taking with her their three small children and her faith in God. Little Sid was two at the time.

Although James Sidlow Baxter was born February 25, 1903, in Sydney, Australia, it would be the green hills and rolling countryside of England he would remember. The Pennine Hills of Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire, England, welcomed the Baxter family with smiling peaks. He would grow up to treasure the memory of those Pennine Hills, for they represented the delights of his youth. He grew up playing in their valleys, he sought refuge in their majesty, and as he grew up in their shadow he discovered the beauty of love and the discouragements of life.

He and sisters Daisy and Eunice would frolic in the flower-speckled meadows unaware of the poverty and hardship of a single mother raising three children in a mill town. Life was hard for most people in those earlier times in England. The workday began well before dawn and ended after sunset. People labored in fields and factories earning their bread with the sweat from their brow. It was a time before world wars. It was a time before televisions and computers. It was a time now forgotten. But it was also a time that J. Sidlow Baxter would fondly recall for the rest of his life.

    His Mother
    And extol God above for the gift of her love!
    The debt that I owe I can never know
    There’s no one just like her, that mother of mine.


Alice Baxter was a hardworking Christian woman who loved her Lord as much as she loved her three young children. Daisy, Eunice, and Sidlow were the joy that sustained her during those difficult early years. It was Alice’s faith in the Lord Jesus and her devoted service to him that made her a well-respected citizen in that little town in Lancashire County.

For twenty years she was the police court missionary. She was the one who gave a hand up to the down-and-out. Her work in the rescue missions was hard, and at times discouraging, although the children never heard her complain. Her efforts in the rescue missions so impressed young Sidlow that when he died almost a hundred years later he bequeathed all his clothing to the local rescue mission in the city of Santa Barbara, California.

Alice canvassed the environs of Manchester. She walked everywhere wearing her blue uniform and blue bonnet, visiting the women prisoners at the jail, then going door-to-door in the slum areas of town to hand out gospel tracts. She trusted in the power of Christ to transform a person’s character no matter how bad that person was. She never believed in social reform and its assumption that a better environment led to better citizens. She believed that communal problems stemmed from a moral and spiritual vacuum that only the gospel of Christ could transform.

At the evening meal table Alice would share the day’s “case histories” with the three children—a young trinity is the term Sid used to describe him and his siblings. Their eager minds would listen in suspense to the lurid tales of some poor woman in prison who was the victim of her own descent into sin. It usually began with a casual sip of beer “just to be social,” then the poor girl would take that liquid gateway to dirty sex and eventual ruin in a life mired in pig swill. The downgrade was always the same: liquor, sex, and ruin. These tales of horribly ruined individuals so scared young Sid that he lived a pure life from then on. He did not want to end up in prison or in pig swill.

Occasionally, some of these ruined women would accept the gospel message that Alice shared with them, and their lives would be transformed to the glory of God. Alice loved to tell the children those stories of victory over sin.

Yet it was her dedication to the Lord’s service that stuck out in Sid’s mind many years later. One such incident he relates in his book Does God Still Guide?:

    My beloved mother was out delivering Gospel tracts in a slummy city area. She prayed that each tract might find the right target. She knocked at a door, and waited. No one answered, but she heard movement within, so she knocked again. After three knocks and waits the door slowly opened, and a rough-faced man was there, on hands and knees, or, rather, on hands and stumps—for both legs had been amputated above the knees, as a result of a recent accident. My mother immediately apologized for having brought him to the door, but he did not mind, and was willing enough to take the tract. He gave one glance at it, and then, with quivering lips, asked, “Missis, did you pick this one specially for me?” The title of the tract was: NOT A LEG TO STAND UPON!—and it was used of God to bring home to the man his spiritual condition before God.1

J. Sidlow Baxter fondly spoke of his mother throughout his life. She was the compass that guided him through life’s troubled waters. She was the godly influence that molded him. And her many prayers for him shaped his character and taught him to lean on an almighty God in every circumstance of life.

When young Sid turned sixteen, Alice handed her son a Bible with the inscription, “‘Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.’ John 2:5.” It was the text of Jesus’ mother Mary telling the servants at the wedding to prepare the water pots of stone for the first miracle of Jesus turning water into wine. Years later, Sid realized the magnitude of that verse for his life. He later commented, “It was years before my thick head realized that my dear mother was telling me that whatsoever Jesus saith unto me to do it!”

Another example of her godly influence in his life occurred when a teenage Sid was at a movie theater with some friends watching a Buster Keaton comedy. Everyone in the theater was laughing except Sid. He felt uneasy, so he left the theater and ventured out in the rain and walked home. As he approached the door he heard a voice inside. At first he thought it belonged to a nosy neighbor whom he disliked so he turned to walk away. But then, recognizing the voice to be that of his mother, he stopped to listen and peeked through the window. There on the hard wooden floor was Alice, on her knees, praying audibly, “Oh Lord Jesus, wherever my dear son Sid is tonight in your world, I pray that you make him uneasy so he will not enjoy it.” The young J. Sidlow Baxter quietly turned in the doorway and walked back out into the rain. As cold pellets of rain hit the back of Sid’s neck, he pulled his coat collar up to lessen the sting as he walked away from the little cottage where his mother remained, interceding with God for her rebellious son.

His Childhood

The weather in England, seldom friendly, is cruelest in winter. It was December 1908. Sidlow was age five. In the typical working-class cottage of that era, heating was limited to a single fireplace of the living room downstairs. Coal was a precious commodity.

It was a December they each would remember. Little Sidlow had the measles. He was trembling and cold—he could not stay warm. The local doctor advised Alice to bring his bed downstairs into the warm room. Over Christmas the little boy worsened. The frail laddie’s resistance was low and the measles turned into whooping cough. Coughing spasms wrecked havoc on his little frame. Then the worst happened. The dreaded illness that seizes the weakened—lobar pneumonia—set in. The following days were terrifying for the family.

Daisy and Eunice were sent to Rostherne to stay with relatives lest they come down ill as well. The doctor visited their cottage to examine the frail, feverish patient. The physician’s countenance was grim and he had bad news for Alice. He felt Sid would not make it to the morning for meningitis had now set in. He advised the young mother to prepare for the worst.

Alice did the only thing a godly mother could do—she prayed. All through the night she cried out to God for mercy for her little Sid. She reminded God of the covenant she had made with him, whereby she had set her boy apart for the ministry of the gospel. She pleaded for God to spare him so that the boy could grow up to tell others about Jesus Christ. Finally, somewhere through her tears and intercession, the Lord gave her a verse to stand upon. It was in Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may endure for a night, But joy cometh in the morning.”

The next morning the doctor arrived, expecting the worst. To his surprise the little patient smiled as he entered the room. It was a miracle, he said; young Sid was healed. Alice bid farewell to the doctor and shut the door. Then she got on her knees to give thanks and praise to the Almighty One who had heard her prayer.

It was not to be the last time J. Sidlow Baxter would come close to death and be healed. God had a very special purpose and plan for Sid and God remembers his covenants with his people.

Baxter speaks of another pivotal childhood incident in his devotional book Daily Wings:

    When I was five I went with my mother to an evangelistic meeting. After preaching, the missioner gave the “invitation” and I was one of several who went out across a corridor to anterooms where counselors waited to help us. The lady who dealt with me was a near neighbor. With wonderful diplomacy she said, “Oh Sid, how delighted we are to see you coming to receive Jesus!” To a five-year-old that meant much. The text she used was Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock! If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in . . .” Afterward I went back to the main hall, to an addendum meeting in which testimonies were being given. When a pause came I stood, and my little voice piped out, “Tonight I have taken Jesus as my Savior, and such a burden has rolled away . . .” I got no further. Sitting in front of my mother and me were two maiden ladies, one of whom loudly whispered, “How ridiculous! A mere child talking like that!” My mind went confused. My cheeks crimsoned. I faltered and sank down humiliated. This conversion business suddenly seemed an adult sham. From then onward I just could not believe. I shut Jesus out of my life, and grew up a thorough worldling. Oh, how careful we should be with children! How harmed they can be by thoughtless comment!2

Those cruel words drove a dagger into his little heart and the wounded boy would remain a worldling well into his midteens. God would eventually heal Sid’s wounded heart—as he heals all wounded hearts that turn to him.

His Youth

England during J. Sidlow Baxter’s youth is best explained by his own words from his book For God So Loved,

When I was a young boy over in England, the British empire was at its zenith, with a population of four hundred and ten million, embracing twelve and one-half million square miles, one fifth of the world’s surface and over one-fifth of its inhabitants; the widest-spreading empire ever known. At that time a common saying was, “All roads lead to London,” greatest city on earth and metropolis of the largest empire ever. All the main railroads and all the main roadways led to London. All the main sea-routes seemed directly or indirectly connected to London. It was a resounding echo of the long-ago cry, “All roads lead to Rome.”3

Growing up in England made his constitution hearty. Overcoming the earlier illness that almost killed him, he grew strong in the inclement weather and his physical frame filled out to his tall stature. Now a normal healthy lad, he enjoyed the sports of youth. With his schoolmates he played football and enjoyed learning the sport of boxing. Bullies learned to respect his fists. Yet, for all his budding manliness, Sidlow had a more tender side to him which blossomed in the arts. He learned to play the piano and had a natural gift for music, even composing hymns later in life. He possessed a poet’s heart. Poetry would be a lifelong expression for his creative talents.

Although he was a normal healthy child, one important feature remained absent from his life: his desire for the things of God. Alice noticed this too keenly. She continued to pray for her strapping son, and he obediently accompanied her to the Methodist meetings. However, all the religion in the world could not overcome the damaging words spoken by the two old biddies who questioned his young salvation. He grew in stature only. His spirituality remained stagnant, stowed away in a trampled heart.

Yet there were incidents that reminded him of a loving God. In his book Does God Still Guide? he talks about such an occurrence:

    One day, away back in my youth, I was in a hen-run belonging to a friend of mine. Suspended in a string-bag from the branch of a tree was some edible substance which was evidently very tasty to the hens, for they kept jumping up and pecking at it, one after another. When I asked my friend why he kept it tantalizingly hanging above them instead of on the ground, he laughed. “It’s put there for a purpose,” he said. “These little hens of mine need exercise, and that’s one way of making sure that they get it.” I have never forgotten it. How often we wonder why something dearly wanted or keenly needed seems kept just beyond our reach! Little do we realize God’s good purpose in this. What spiritual exercise it causes! How it develops us in our Christian life! It often means that as well as guiding us, God is training us.4

Little did the youthful Sidlow know how much his heavenly Father was training him for future work. Because his tender heart had been so cruelly hurt, God seemed to be gently reminding Sid of his existence in every aspect of life. God seemed to be saying to his young heart, “For I the LORD thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee” (Isa. 41:13).

His Conversion

“If I may refer to my boyhood days again,” Dr. Baxter writes in Going Deeper, “I remember how, again and again, my dear mother would softly sing the following verse before going out to her preaching appointments:

    Oh, to be nothing, nothing,
            Simply to lie at Thy feet;
    A broken and emptied vessel
            For my Master’s use made meet!
    Emptied, that Thou mayest fill me,
            As forth to Thy service I go;
    Emptied, that so, unhindered
    Thy life through mine might flow.”5

Later in life, when he treasured time with Christ from waking moments to evening hours, J. Sidlow Baxter would always regret the years he spent as a “Godless worldling.” He regretted those years of his youth when, instead of putting God first in his life, he had not even put him last; he had left him out altogether. He also recalled the words of his mother when asked what was the greatest commandment. She replied, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matt. 22:37). He knew full well he had not been doing that.

He did not want God to interfere with his life; he had chosen his own way. He was a bright student. Handsome. The girls liked him. His fellow athletes admired him. He felt he did not need God. Yet, try as he might, Sid could not outrun God. There was the daily witness of his mother, who prayed and sang hymns around the house. There was the preaching at the Methodist church that he still attended out of respect for his mother. His intellect was telling him he was fine without God; his heart was telling him otherwise.

What impact the printed sermons (two thousand in all) of Charles H. Spurgeon have had on eternity only the courts of heaven know. Prisoners in foreign lands, getting their hands on a sermon of Spurgeon, would read and be converted to Christianity. Called the “Prince of Preachers,” Spurgeon filled the five-thousand-seat Metropolitan Tabernacle in London every week until his death in 1892. And it was one of these printed sermons that fell into the hands of young Sid that would radically change his life.

One evening, while sitting up in bed, Sid was reading a sermon of Spurgeon. Sid had been taught since childhood the truths of the Bible, but they had lain dormant in his mind, producing no fruit. As he read about Christ’s work on the cross and how Jesus died for him—that sin was a hereditary condition and that religion in itself never saved a soul—suddenly a light broke forth in his mind. He saw spiritual truths he had never before realized. It wasn’t long after that evening when the sixteen-year-old gave his life to Christ. He came to trust in Jesus as his Lord and Savior while attending an evangelistic campaign that was conducted by Frederick and Arthur Wood, founders of the National Young Life Campaign in Britain. He would eventually join the Young Life Campaign as the touring piano player.

In his book The Master Theme of the Bible, he talks about that turning point in his life.


I could not easily put into words what it meant to me when the bigger, pretemporal, preterrestrial, supercosmic meanings of the Cross really broke through into my own thinking. It gave a new poise of reassurance to my mind that nothing since, either outward or inward, has disturbed.

        Everything began to look different. God and the universe, time and history, permitted sin and suffering, the future of our world, and destiny beyond the grave all took on a new complexion. It did not suddenly answer all the interim questions relating to permitted troubles, and injustices now, but it utterly answered that deep-down question beneath all others as to the integrity and safety and beneficence of the universe—and of God. Problems of providence, painful enigmas, poignant puzzles of permitted injustice, and other mysteries still remained, but now I saw the light of that guaranteeing Cross streaming with prophetic promise through them all. In William Cowper’s words, behind every “frowning providence” there was the “smiling face” of temporarily hidden good purpose. Through every dark cloud I saw that gleaming rainbow of evangelical covenant which overarches the throne of grace.

        With deepening adoration I began to discern more surely that in a way that only the crimson of Calvary could express it, God had given himself not only for me, but to me, if my loving trust would have him! I began to see, in Calvary’s boundless dimensions and unobliterable guarantee, the love that would never give me up and never let me go. All fear became inexcusable, except the fear of grieving such a God, who had now made me so willingly his again, and himself so dearly mine. It set my heart singing with richer gratitude, Wade Robinson’s words:

    Heav’n above is softer blue,
    Earth around is sweeter green;
    Something lives in ev’ry hue
    Christless eyes have never seen!
    Birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
    Flow’rs with deeper beauties shine,
    Since I know, as now I know,
    I am His, and He is mine.6

Sidlow’s life was changing. He was singing a new song. His mother’s heart had never been gladder.