The Impact of John Hewitt

by Adrian Brookes

London, 1944. Hitler has turned his V1 flying bombs—his vengeance weapons—against England. A 10-year-old boy, playing outside his London home, catches the first inkling of a V1 approaching—a distinctively-pitched buzz. He freezes, and for a few moments tries to persuade himself he is mistaken. Then the wail of the air raid sirens removes any doubt. His wide eyes leap to the sky and seize on the red flame of a rocket winging over the bomb-scarred city. It is coming straight towards him; and, like everyone else under its path, he holds his breath in terror, praying the flame will keep burning until it has passed over.

His neck cranes under the looming mass of the bomb, and the hideous drone fills his ears. Suddenly the flame disappears, the nose dips and the noise gives way to a dreadful silence. The bomb is hurtling towards the ground. In a few seconds it will explode, smash houses and kill.

‘My father was away evangelising,’ recalls John Hewitt, retired president of the Apostolic Church Australia. ‘There was my mother and my two sisters and myself. I rushed inside and said, "Quick! Into the hallway!" because that’s where we were to be in the case of any bombing. I was just pleading, "The blood of Jesus! The blood of Jesus!" We waited and waited—and there wasn’t even an explosion.’

The next day they found the V1 had fallen harmlessly on parkland next to the house, where it was defused. ‘It’s one of those real testimonies,’ says John, ‘that I grew up knowing God’s response to calling on the power of the blood.’

Born in the Fire

John, the son of international evangelist John Hewitt, says he was ‘born in the fire and not prepared to live in the smoke.’ John senior, a Welshman, was one of the pioneers of Pentecost in Australia, and his tireless work kept his family constantly on the move, firstly throughout Australia, then further afield. ‘By the time I was four,’ John says, ‘I was across to the UK for the third time and I’d been to South Africa a few times… I had an elder sister who died at the time of birth in Wellington, New Zealand. The second child was born in Pretoria, South Africa, I was born in Melbourne, Australia, and my younger sister was born in Swansea, South Wales.’

Finding themselves in Britain at the start of the war, they had no choice but to stay there for the duration. They returned to Australia in 1945 and settled in Adelaide, where John got a job in a sports store. He was a keen soccer player, and was selected for the South Australian under 19s squad. However, his refusal to comply with the Sunday training schedule prevented him playing for the state. Switching to Aussie Rules, he was selected for a junior state team and played against Victoria.

Pentecostal by Conviction

During these years John became more and more convinced he was destined for ministry. ‘I really sensed the call of God in my life from a teenager,’ he says. He went to Queensland, planning to go to a Baptist Bible college, but decided against it when he found out he could not marry for three years after beginning his course. He had met his wife Desma in 1950, and they were planning to marry much sooner than the college would have allowed. John studied by correspondence with the Apostolic Ministry Training College, with which he qualified for ministry.

In the meantime his beliefs were firming. ‘Whereas I’d been brought up in Pentecost, now I became genuinely Pentecostal by conviction, and I knew I could never really satisfy myself in anything less than the freedom of expression in the Spirit, as in Pentecost.’

John was ordained in Brisbane on 5th November 1955 and married Desma in January 1956. They spent five years at the Apostolic Church in Brisbane, then moved to pastor a church in Cessnock, where they stayed for two years. They then accepted a call as missionaries in Papua New Guinea. At that stage they had two small sons, John and Dale.

‘We were at Laiagam,’ says John. ‘It was one of the more remote areas that had been just opened up for mission work. During those years we were six hours’ walk away from the nearest Europeans… It had only been derestricted for 12 months when we got there. We were pioneering in an area where there had been no previous Europeans or missionaries or anyone other than an armed patrol having gone into that area.

‘We were there for 18 months without a vehicle and without even a radio. They were pretty primitive days… After 18 months I became the field superintendent, and it was a determined effort on my part to see no-one had that sort of isolation again.’

The Unknown God

The Hewitts had had no training in any of the PNG languages, not even pidgin English. Nonetheless, within a few weeks John was preaching in pidgin, which an interpreter then rendered into the local Enga tongue. ‘I wouldn’t like to hear a recording of that today,’ John says with a chuckle, ‘but it was sufficient for the interpreter to gather what I was saying.’

Learning the Enga language eventually gave them an insight into the culture and into ways they could link the gospel with the people’s worldview. ‘We’d use various things from their culture, stories and history that we’d picked up and that we could use as illustrations to communicate the sense of God’s love for them,’ John said.

‘They had their own gods, and we were able to use that. For instance, they had a god called Yupin. It was a sort of crocheted doll about two foot high, with this little body with a head, arms and legs. We were able to [say] there is a God to be worshipped, but you don’t know him, and because you don’t know him you use this as an image… Then we’d take them a step on to realise there is a God that cannot be seen who is the true and living God.’

John’s and Desma’s third child, Ruth, was born at the mission, but the birth of Lynn, their fourth, might have ended in tragedy. John, with the help of a local nurse, was to drive Desma to hospital when the time came. This meant first of all crossing the Lagaip River next to the mission—but a road bridge, having been declared unsafe, had been dismantled. However, John had his Land Rover ready on the opposite bank, which they were to reach by means of a rowing boat—but when Desma went into labour they found the boat had disappeared. The only way across was a 15-metre log suspended five metres above the water.

It was no more than a felled tree that had been dragged across the riverbanks. ‘I hopped up,’ says John, ‘and walked across that log backwards holding Desma’s hands, and the nurse walked behind steadying her.’ The surface had not been dressed and was slippery, but little by little the strange crocodile worked its way above the stream and finally reached the Land Rover.

‘No Dancing in this Church!’

In 1970 the Hewitts returned to Australia to pastor the Life Centre, Boronia, on the eastern outskirts of Melbourne. ‘Then in 1971,’ says John, ‘I was appointed to the Missions Board, which was good because of having somebody there with experience, not just somebody who knew about missions, but somebody that had experience on the mission field. Then in 1972 I was appointed as the Missions Director.’

Further appointments followed. In 1976 he became national secretary of the Apostolic Church, and in 1980 its president. It was a time of controversy. John was all for the new move of the Holy Spirit, but many were not. ‘It was the days when many Apostolic and AOG ministers were getting upset about people dancing in church,’ says John. ‘There were decrees being made like, "There Will Be No Dancing In This Church"—that type of thing. People were being prayed for and falling down under the power of God, and that too was a thing: "There’s no need of that, you’ve got to stop it."

The Apostolic Church had waned, and by the late 1970s had fewer than 1000 members across Australia. ‘But from those days,’ says John, ‘I had a real vision to see our movement become powerfully effective again in growth and development, and by the time I became national secretary we started to see things implemented. There was an acceptance of what God was doing in our church at Boronia. They could see the growth, they could see what was taking place. They had to understand it was God.’

Under John’s initiative growth targets were set. ‘I had a real conviction that we should have 200 churches by the year 2000 with 20,000 people in fellowship… It was an outstanding time and the whole nation seemed to catch hold of it.’ Though these goals have not quite been achieved, the church has grown considerably. John estimates there are 130 churches with 12,000 committed members.

The vision for the Boronia church had four parts: to preach the gospel, to teach the word, to equip the believers and to send forth labourers. ‘Throughout the years we’ve done that,’ says John. ‘About 40 people have been sent out from here through those years and are now pastoring in all different states of Australia and even in the United States. And we’ve sent folk out to Papua New Guinea on mission work.’

Father to the Future

In 1994 John resigned from the national presidency but remained for a time as a mentor to Joseph Bowes, the new president. In 1998 he handed the Boronia church leadership to his daughter Ruth and son-in-law Wayne. In addition to editing the Apostolic Church’s magazine Impact, he continues his work as a father figure to other ministries. He and Desma travel regularly to minister within Australia and overseas. ‘Last year we were in Wales. We were in the United States, also a second time in the US and then on to the Apostolic world conference in Canada… This year we’ve already been to Tasmania and Queensland, and we go to Western Australia in March. We’re home for a week from there and then we’re off to Italy for four weeks.’

For the future John foresees younger leaders arising and women taking more prominent roles in church leadership. ‘I don’t look at men’s and women’s ministry. I look at ministry, whether it be men or women. I think the day when we don’t have to emphasise women in ministry will be the day when we’ve really got through with it. To have to emphasise women’s ministry means we’re still seeing some difference or some lesser standing… For too long we held back the women.’

So, after more than forty years of ministry, how does he look back on it? ‘I’m just so excited that I was born in the time I was born. I’m so thrilled that I was alive through the 70s and 80s and what God was doing then… It was exciting to be alive in those days. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that. I’m thrilled to be alive today to see what God’s doing in church planting and growth that’s happening. As long as he gives me breath I’m going to be excited to be living in the generation that’s coming on now in this new millennium, and as long as I can be on the run I’ll keep my running shoes handy and keep running.’

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