E. Stanley Jones was born in Baltimore, Md. on January 3, 1884. He was educated in Baltimore schools and studied law at City College before graduating from Asbury College, Wilmore, Kentucky in 1906. He was on the faculty of Asbury College when he was called to missionary service in India in 1907 under the Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
He began his work among the members of the very low castes and the outcasts in India. He did not attack Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, or any Indian religion. He presented the Gospel of Jesus Christ, disentangled from western systems and cultures, and their sometimes non-Christian expressions. "The way of Jesus should be—but often isn't—the way of Christianity," he said. "Western civilization is only partly Christianized."
Jones conducted great mass meetings in leading Indian cities. At one such meeting, their leader said, "We may not agree with what Dr. Jones is saying, but we can certainly all try to be like Jesus Christ." He inaugurated "round table conferences" at which Christian and non-Christian sat down as equals to share their testimonies as to how their religious experiences enabled them to live better. Thirty years before the United Nations came into being he proposed a Round Table of Nations.
Jones spoke about Jesus Christ to hundreds of thousand of people in India. Most of them did not become Christians, but some did. He helped to re-establish the Indian "Ashram" (or forest retreat) as a means of drawing men and women together for days at a time to study in depth their own spiritual natures and quest, and what the different faiths offered individuals. Later, Jones developed "Christian Ashrams" designed for people who were already Christians to reflect on their faith and practice. These "Christian Ashrams" spread to many nations and cultures.
E. Stanley Jones went to earth's trouble spots helping to promote international understanding. "Peace," he said, "is a by-product of conditions out of which peace naturally comes. If reconciliation is God's chief business, it is ours—between man and God, between man and himself, and between man and man." He was once welcomed to Japan under the banner "apostle of peace."
During Jones' long ministry in India, he became close friends with Gandhi. Gandhi once told Jones: "I do not reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ." On another occasion, Jones asked Gandhi:
"How can we make Christianity naturalized in India so that it shall no longer be a foreign thing identified with a foreign people and a foreign government, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India's uplift?" He responded with great clarity:
"I would suggest first of all that all of you Christians, missionaries and all begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating or toning it down. Third emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is in them, so that you might have a more sympathetic approach to the people."
Jones offered these words of guidance to the people of India who were considering Christianity:
Jesus is the gospel. We therefore bring him to the East and West and say: Take him direct. You don't have to take our interpretation of Christ, except as you find it helpful in forming your own. Go straight to the gospels to discover Jesus anew, and if you show us a better interpretation we shall sit at your feet. The system which we have built up around Christ in the West may be useful and helpful as embodying a collective experience, but it is no integral part of the gospel. Create out of your own experience the corporate expression of that experience. Christ is universal but he uses local forms to express that universality. We expect you in India out of your rich cultural and religious past to bring to the interpretation of the universal Christ something which will greatly enrich the total expression. Especially now that Gandhi has lived and died we think you can interpret Christ in terms that are lacking in the West.To the Christians of India, Jones said this about sharing their faith: "Don't talk about it. The rose doesn't have to propagate its perfume. It just gives it forth and people are drawn to it. Don't talk about it. Live it. And people will come to see the source of your power."
In his book, Gandhi: Portrayal of a Friend, E Stanley Jones wrote:
Nonviolence was accepted out of necessity. And yet out of choice. And further: Undoubtedly an overruling Providence was using India as a paving ground for a new type of power - the power of the soul. But the Mahatma repudiated with all his might the idea that the method of truth and nonviolence was used because you are weak and cowardly. He insisted that it was the method of the strong, and only the method of the strong.Martin Luther King, Jr. once told Eunice Jones Matthews (daughter of E. Stanley Jones) and Methodist Bishop James Matthews (son-in-law of E. Stanley Jones) that it was this passage that clinched his decision to work nonviolently for Civil Rights in the United States. King showed Bishop Matthews that in the margin of the book, he had written, "This is it!" Without this book, Martin Luther King, Jr., would still have probably reached a similar decision by some other means. But as it turned out, this book by E. Stanley Jones was, according to Martin Luther King, instrumental in shaping the missional direction of his use of nonviolence. The grandchildren of E. Stanley Jones and the grandchildren of Gandhi remain friends today.
Jones' book The Christ of the Indian Road (1925) reflected on his missionary experience in India. It sold more than one million copies world-wide. He wrote dozens of other books that were devotional in nature. In Resident Aliens, the Methodist theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon quoted another saying of E. Stanley Jones: "We inoculate the world with a mild version of Christianity so that it will be immune to the real thing." (p. 90)
Jones was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his reconciliation work in Asia, Africa, and between Japan and the United States. He is the only person known to have been elected a bishop in the Methodist Church who declined the offer. He died in 1973 in his beloved India. Half of his ashes were buried in India, and half were buried in Baltimore, Md. I have included E. Stanley Jones in my list of the top 20 theologians in the Methodist tradition because of the wide-ranging impact he had on the church and its understanding of its own mission.