On June 30, 2016, the Lord called home Rev. John P. Galbraith at the age of 103. Rev. Galbraith was a highly-respected minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) who earned a reputation as a servant leader. He was the oldest living minister in the OPC and the last survivor of those who founded the denomination in 1936.
Rev. Galbraith’s humility is expressed in his opening words to those gathered to celebrate the OPC’s 75th anniversary on June 11, 2011. At 98 years old, he spoke slowly and paused often for breath, saying to the crowd who welcomed him with a standing ovation, “You’re all so kind. I don’t know if you dwell so much, as often as I do, on one of those well-known, well-remembered statements of the Apostle Paul, ‘The good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do.’ And you give me your applause. I thank you.”
The death announcement released from OPC Stated Clerk, Rev. Ross Graham, stated. “His accomplishments in the development of the ministry of the OPC were unparalleled.”
Less than three weeks prior to Rev. Galbraith’s death, Reformed Forum posted “The Life and Ministry of Rev. John P. Galbraith” podcast. In this documentary-type interview, Camden Bucey wove together audio clips from recent interviews with Rev. Galbraith and Rev. Danny Olinger, General Secretary of the OPC’s Committee on Christian Education. Rev. Olinger, who is widely-recognized for his extensive knowledge of OPC history, spoke at length about Rev. Galbraith’s contributions to the OPC and his “unmatched” integrity. He concluded: “We’re fortunate that we’ve had such a great man with regard to integrity and commitment to the scriptures to try to help the Reformed world.”
On the occasion of Rev. Galbraith’s 100th birthday in 2013, Rev. William Shishko (minister of the OPC in Franklin Square, New York) wrote a tribute in honor of Rev. Galbraith, who had become known “Mr. OPC.” He concluded:
Of all of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s many blessings, one of the foremost is to have had…Rev. John Galbraith as Christ’s gift to us. He is, indeed, Mr. OPC. His service continues to make an impact on the church of which he has been a part from the first day of its existence. In fact, no other OPC minister has influenced the course of the OPC more than John Galbraith. He would be the first to deflect this tribute, giving all glory to God…. The entire Orthodox Presbyterian Church praises God for his grace in giving us the life and labors of Rev. John Galbraith, Mr. OPC.
John Patton Galbraith was born on March 10, 1913. He studied under J. Gresham Machen at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and became friends with him, even attending Machen’s trial in Trenton, NJ, and his appeal at the General Assembly in Syracuse.
On June 11, 1936, seminarian John Galbraith was one of about 130 people who stood to show their commitment to the new denomination that would become the OPC.
Following Galbraith’s graduation from Westminster in 1937, he was ordained to the gospel ministry by the Presbytery of Philadelphia and served the Gethsemane congregation for three years.
At the new denomination’s fourth General Assembly, he heeded the call for someone to write a defense of the OPC. In 1940, his booklet Why the Orthodox Presbyterian Church? was published and became the best-selling denominational literature in the OPC’s history.
During the Reformed Forum podcast, Rev. Olinger credited that tract with earning Rev. Galbraith the name as Mr. OPC. “It sold all through the 40s and 50s and was reissued in the 60s,” he said. “It established him as someone who knew the issues and could articulate them very well.”
Rev. Galbraith served Grace OPC in Westfiled, NJ, from 1940 until 1942, and the OPC in Kirkwood, PA, from 1942 to 1948. Having served these congregations during the first 11 years of his ministry, Rev. Galbraith remained a pastor at heart. But his gifts soon were put to administrative use within the fledgling denomination.
In 1947, he was elected as Moderator of the OPC’s 14th General Assembly. Rev. Shishko relates in his tribute: “It was during that assembly (after which many of those who favored a broad evangelical course for the OPC left the church), that John Galbraith made his mark as the ecclesiastical statesman he would become. A heated floor debate had ensued between Minister Clifford Smith and Dr. R. B. Kuiper, who was…revered by John Galbraith. That deep personal respect (and, no doubt, the sympathies he had with Kuiper’s position) did not prevent moderator Galbraith from gaveling down the heated debaters. As moderator, he did his duty and told them both to apologize for their conduct on the floor. They did. And John Galbraith established his reputation as a man governed by principle rather than by personality—something that has made an inestimable impact on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.”
Rev. Galbraith was appointed as General Secretary for the Home and Foreign Missions Committees in 1948. He continued serving both committees until 1961, when he began his full-time work as General Secretary of the Committee for Foreign Missions.
Rev. Olinger explained that the OPC struggled to pay its missionaries and operated with a deficit in this area every year. “When Mr. Galbraith became the General Secretary, he instituted the Thank Offering to make up the deficit and have something to move forward.” Rev. Olinger also spoke about the amazing way OPC missionaries have gone into “hotspots” at difficult times in history, saying that Rev. Galbraith “did all the spade work that allowed our missionaries to work in these very tough areas.” He added, “He did these types of things over and over again as General Secretary and he was just amazing at it.”
Rev. Galbraith’s influence extended beyond his thirty years of work for foreign missions. He served on numerous other denominational committees and twice as Clerk of the OPC GA. After his ‘retirement’ in 1978, he threw himself into other avenues of service for the cause of Reformed Christianity, which included stints as president of ecumenical councils such as NAPARC.
Rev. Shishko’s tribute cites a dizzying list of service: 32 years on the OPC Committee on Pensions, the Committee on OPC Involvement in the Center for Urban Theological Training, the Committee on Methods of Worldwide Outreach, the Committee on Ministerial Training, a Special Committee to Study the Oversight of Ministerial Candidates, over 30 years on the OPC Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, delegate and OPC missions correspondent to the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (where he served various years as second clerk, first clerk, and moderator), the OPC’s Committee on RES Matters, Committee to Confer with the Christian Reformed Church, and chairman of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). He also authored the article, “The Ecumenical Vision of the OPC” for Pressing Toward the Mark, a semi-centennial volume honoring the OPC in 1986.
“He just did it all,” Rev. Olinger said. “As far as one carrying on Machen’s vision for the church, he carried that mantle well.” He was “the greatest ecumenical figure in the history of our church.”
LIFE IN BALANCE
Rev. Galbraith’s commitment to the OPC and Reformed Christianity did not preclude his dedication to his family, according to Rev. Shishko. He married Ada Mae Kievitt in 1941, and they were blessed with two daughters. He often took the girls to Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, and the family spent a month’s vacation each summer in Maine. Although he sometimes traveled to foreign mission sites, whenever he was home on Saturday nights, he scrubbed the kitchen floor on his hands and knees to help out Ada.
His beloved wife died on July 5, 1995, but his two daughters were by his side when he passed away.
In his message to those celebrating the OPC’s 75th anniversary on June 11, 2011, Rev. Galbraith concluded: “I say to you, ‘Keep standing fast.’ That doesn’t need any exegesis. You know exactly what it means. Stand fast in the faith once delivered to the saints. Stand fast on the Word of God, and then get going on the things that God has given us to do. Teach our people well. Teach them to do their job, and to do it well. And to that I think I can say only my own amen and say also, to God be the glory.”
The above memorial report by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 9 & 10 of the August 3, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.