A Tribute: The Rev. John Galbraith, Mr. OPC

William Shishko

Those who are planted in the house of the Lord
shall flourish in the courts of our God.
They shall still bear fruit in old age;
they shall be fresh and flourishing,
to declare that the Lord is upright;
He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.
(Psalm 92:13–15, NKJV)

God willing, on March 10, 2013, the Rev. John Galbraith will celebrate his one hundredth birthday. How fitting that this will be a Sunday. On this day in which the church gathers to worship God and celebrate Christ’s conquest of death, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s oldest living minister will once again enter into the activity he loves the best: The praise of the Lord who is building his church!

Of all of my prized associations with men and women of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, none is prized more than my association with John Galbraith. To me and to so many others, he is Mr. OPC. I am honored to have been asked to write this tribute to Mr. Galbraith—minister, husband, father (and grandfather and great grandfather!), church statesman, man of God, and (as he would point out first) sinner saved by grace.

While John Galbraith is a product of America, his covenant lineage is Presbyterian. His four grandparents and both of his parents were of solid Irish Presbyterian stock. Both his father’s and his mother’s parents settled in Philadelphia, a Presbyterian center, when they moved to the USA from Ireland. His parents-to-be met at Oak Lane United Presbyterian Church, a congregation that gathered a little south of Jenkintown. The Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms were important in that congregation (portions of the Larger Catechism as well as the Shorter Catechism were memorized as part of that church’s life).

Following their marriage, John’s parents settled in suburban Philadelphia, where they attended the United Presbyterian Church in Wyncote. John was born in 1913. During his youth he learned of the controversy at Princeton Seminary in nearby New Jersey. The name of J. Gresham Machen was familiar to him in his teenage years. The reorganization of Princeton Seminary and the subsequent founding of Westminster Seminary in 1929 occurred during John’s junior year of high school.

After his graduation in 1930, John attended a United Presbyterian school, Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. (At that time, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, was a nine-year-old boy in New Concord. He, too, would later attend and graduate from Muskingum College.) While his plan was to be a lawyer, that aspiration would be changed very quickly. During a spiritual emphasis week in his freshman year at the college, John sensed a call to the Christian ministry. Majoring in English, minoring in Bible, and switching from advanced classes in Latin to advanced classes in Greek, John pursued his studies avidly through his graduation in 1934. During that time he was a member of a college club out of which many pursued the Christian ministry. He also faithfully attended a local United Presbyterian Church.

Given his family’s interest in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and his familiarity with J. Gresham Machen, it was inevitable that John Galbraith would attend Westminster Theological Seminary. In the sixth year of the seminary’s life, 1934, John entered Westminster. He was not disappointed with his choice, or with the experience of those years. For John the school’s greatest strength was its faculty. Cornelius Van Til (whose outspoken zeal and passion particularly influenced John), R. B. Kuiper (whose preaching skills left a lasting influence), and J. Gresham Machen himself were among his professors. While Robert Dick Wilson had died the year before John entered seminary, he was still privileged to have learned from Oswald T. Allis, Ned Stonehouse, Paul Woolley, Allan MacRae, and the newest faculty member, John Murray, who joined the faculty the same year in which John entered Westminster as a student.

John remembers the controversies that swirled around the seminary in his final year, 1936–37. Premillennialism (the eschatological view held by Professor MacRae), the desire for conservative Presbyterians to be more generally evangelical in their expressions of faith (a view also espoused by Professor MacRae), and the toleration of dispensationalism (a view held by none of the professors at Westminster) were all hot topics of discussion in that turbulent period. Throughout the first three of his four seminary years, John attended Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia—a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. But that would change in June 1936.

On the afternoon of June 11, 1936, seminarian John Galbraith gathered with 139 other deeply concerned Presbyterians in the auditorium of the New Century Club, at 124 South Twelfth Street, Philadelphia. Not only did he witness the beginning of what would become the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, but he was also among those who stood up, indicating his desire to be part of that faithful “true spiritual succession” of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. (His name, together with two other Galbraiths, is listed among the “laity” on page five of the minutes of the First General Assembly of what was then called the Presbyterian Church of America. John is fond of saying that there were more Galbraiths at that founding assembly than any other family group!) He promptly took up membership in Calvary PCA, Germantown, Pennsylvania—what is now Calvary OPC, Glenside.

On May 25, 1937, following his graduation from Westminster Seminary, John was ordained by the Presbytery of Philadelphia. His first call was to the Gethsemane congregation, a body in southwest Philadelphia that had left the Presbyterian Church in the USA to become part of the then Presbyterian Church of America. He served there until 1940, when he was called to Grace OPC in Westfield, New Jersey, a church founded by Donald Graham, a Westminster classmate of John’s who had been ordained three days after him in the Presbytery of New Jersey. Two years later he would be called to the OPC in Kirkwood, Pennsylvania, where he served as pastor until 1948. It was in that period that John would become more fully acquainted with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as a whole. In 1940 and 1941 he served as stated clerk of the general assembly of the OPC. From 1941 through 1948 he served on the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (CHMCE) of the OPC. From 1944 to 1945 he served on the Committee to Draw Up Standing Rules for the OPC. God was preparing John Galbraith for a long lifetime of service to the church body of which he was a part from the day of its birth.

In October 1948, John Galbraith was called to serve as general secretary of both the OPC Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension and the OPC Committee on Foreign Missions. He would serve as general secretary of both committees until 1961. In that year he became the first full-time general secretary of the Committee on Foreign Missions. He would serve in that role through 1978. During those thirty years, he was also an active participant on several of the committees that would help form the distinctive character of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church: the Committee on Secret Societies (1946–50); the Committee on Union with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod (1946–49); the Committee on Revisions to the Form of Government (1948–77); and the Committee on Christian Education (1957–96), for which he also served as chairman from 1955–56.

In what could be considered a metaphor for the demanding years of service John Galbraith rendered so selflessly for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, one of his first challenging duties was to visit the family of young OPC missionary Florence Handyside, following her sudden death after a very brief period of service in Korea. John drove to Rochester, New York, in a raging snowstorm, in order to minister comfort to the grieving family. Though he was now in an administrative position, he did not lose the pastor’s heart that still marks his ministerial life.

At the top of John’s recollections of those middle years of the life of the now seventy-six-year-old Orthodox Presbyterian Church was the “commitment to the OPC cause” that marked all of the standing committees of the OPC. “We all agreed on what we would present (to the church), and we would present it!” It was John’s idea to have an annual Thank Offering for the work of the Committees on Home Missions, Foreign Missions, and Christian Education. The OPC was hardly a wealthy church. The Thank Offering to this day is a vehicle by which those committed to the work of the OPC can express their thanks for that work and give to see it continued and expanded.

According to John Galbraith, challenges on the arena of the nations during the middle part of the twentieth century brought challenges, as well, to the OPC. It was during the General Assembly of 1949 that he was on the phone with foreign missionaries Egbert Andrews and Richard Gaffin as Communists led by Mao Tse-tung began their march to conquer China. The decision was made to relocate our missionary labors to the island of Taiwan. Likewise, though missionary Clarence Duff desired to return to Ethiopia toward the end of World War II, at the invitation and urging of the British government the OPC began its labors in Eritrea. As general secretary of both foreign and home missions, John Galbraith learned many times that “the mind of a man proposes, but the Lord disposes” all things.

A highlight of any Orthodox Presbyterian minister’s life is to be granted the honor of serving as moderator of the general assembly—a position that, by OPC tradition, is accorded to a man only once. That honor was accorded to John Galbraith at the Fourteenth General Assembly, which met at Cedar Grove, Wisconsin in May 1947. John Galbraith, Floyd Hamilton (who had served as the first-full time general secretary of Christian education since 1943), and Professor John Murray of Westminster Seminary were all nominated to be moderator of the assembly. Professor Murray asked that his name be withdrawn. In what would be a harbinger of things to come in that turbulent assembly, John Galbraith was elected over Hamilton—a man viewed by many of the commissioners as desiring an unwelcome “broad church” character for the OPC.

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 and continues to be 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.

With his “retirement” as general secretary of the Committee on Foreign Missions in 1978 it was as if then sixty-five-year-old John Galbraith began a new chapter in his life as an Orthodox Presbyterian minister. While he no longer had the challenging responsibilities of general secretary, the general assembly of the OPC would not let his experience, gifts, and wisdom lie fallow. Among other duties, he would serve on the OPC Committee on Pensions (a committee position to which he was elected beginning in 1964) until 1996 (a remarkable tenure of thirty-two years!), the Committee on OPC Involvement in the Center for Urban Theological Training from 1980–81, the Committee on Methods of Worldwide Outreach from 1982–84, and the Committee on Ministerial Training from 1990–2005. He had previously served on that committee from 1969–75, and also, in 1966, on a Special Committee to Study the Oversight of Ministerial Candidates. To this day the training of men for ministry in the OPC remains one of his great concerns and interests.

John Galbraith’s decades of experience with international matters in the sphere of foreign missions would also be put to ample use in his years of service to various aspects of the OPC’s ecumenical labors. From 1971–2002 he served on the OPC Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations (for which he served as chairman from 1980–1984); and from 1964 through 1996 (again, another amazing tenure of over thirty years!) he served as the OPC’s missions correspondent to the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (RES), and he also served as a delegate to the Reformed Ecumenical Synod in the years 1963, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1984. He was given the honor of serving as second clerk to the RES from 1968–72, first clerk from 1972–76, and moderator of the RES from 1976–80, 1980–84, and 1984–88. During this time he served on the OPC’s Committee on RES Matters (1973–88), a committee he chaired from 1973–74, and 1980–88.

Ecumenicity on the national level also occupied his attention as he served on the Committee to Confer with the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) from 1967–73, and as chairman of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) from 1976–77 and 1984–85. From Mr. Galbraith dozens of Reformed and Presbyterian church bodies from around the world learned of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It was fitting that John Galbraith authored the article “The Ecumenical Vision of the OPC” for the semi-centennial volume of essays in honor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Pressing Toward the Mark, published in 1986.

All of this emphasis on John Galbraith’s remarkable years of service to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church should not eclipse his life as a faithful husband and father. He was married to Ada Mae Kievitt on October 17, 1941, when he was serving as the young pastor of Grace OPC, Westfield, New Jersey. He and Ada would be blessed with fifty-two years of marriage and two daughters, Priscilla and Suzanne. His engagement and married life were windows on the Christian (and very Presbyterian!) character of John Galbraith. The car and the wedding rings had to be paid for before their marriage!

Any hard working married minister battles with fulfilling the many-faceted duties of his particular ministerial call, while, at the same time, fulfilling his role as a husband and (when there are children) a father. Given his duties as general secretary of both the OPC Committees on Home Missions and Foreign Missions, John Galbraith was often away from home. Ada, ever the helper suitable to her husband’s needs, not only fulfilled home responsibilities while John was away, but also assisted with office duties connected with her husband’s work. Later she would manage her own real estate business—which enabled her to find many homes for Westminster Seminary students. (When he was home, John would often help Ada by putting “For Sale” signs on the properties for which she was responsible!)

Living in Ardsley, Pennsylvania, some two to three miles from both Calvary OPC in Glenside and nearby Westminster Seminary, afforded John and Ada the opportunity to get to know the students at what was, at that time, the seminary from which the Orthodox Presbyterian Church got its ministers. Once a semester John and Ada would open their home on Friday and Saturday nights so that all the Westminster seminarians could come to their home for a “Hoagie Night.” John wanted to get to know each of the students, no doubt with a view of scouting out prospective pastors, home missionaries, or foreign missionaries. John and Ada and their daughters were quite surprised on one of these evenings when one of the seminarians ate two huge hoagies. That student was a young man named Harvie Conn. Harvie would later become an OPC missionary to Korea, and, following that, a professor at Westminster Seminary. Combined with this, traveling missionaries would regularly find lodging at the Galbraith home—a model of Christian hospitality.

John Galbraith’s busy life would never be so harried that it prevented him (and his family) from enjoying the lawful pleasures of this life. Ever a baseball fan (the Philadelphia Phillies, of course), he would hurry home to watch baseball games when he was able. When he would take the girls to the games, he made them promise that they would watch the game and also fill in their scorecards—with the correct scorecard shorthand! And, for a month of summer vacation, Owl’s Head, Maine, became the family get-away. There John and his family enjoyed the relaxation and change of pace that is so necessary for those engaged in demanding Christian service. No doubt the commitment to get a break from the labors of the ministry contributed much to John’s longevity in the work.

As a committed family man, John fulfilled the vows he had taken both to his wife in marriage, and at the time of the baptism of his children. A born teacher, from his children’s earliest years he taught them the things of God. Marian Schoolland’s Big Book of Bible Stories among other books were staples of the Galbraith family’s Christian nurture. Thankfulness for the blessings of God marked their home. To this day, John is eminently a man full of appreciation for everything that his Father in heaven gives to him. He also beautifully demonstrated the heart of a servant—the primary mark of a minister. On the Saturday nights he was not away, he would get down on his hands and knees to wash the kitchen floor—giving Ada a break while she did other chores necessary to prepare the home for the upcoming Lord’s Day.

John’s beloved help-meet departed this life on July 5, 1994. It was painful not to see John walking hand-in-hand with Ada, especially during general assemblies—which they often attended together in Ada’s later years. One of the most moving personal moments at an OPC general assembly was when John gave thanks for both his wife of fifty-two years, and for the gift of God that she was to him. Tearfully, he also thanked God for the divine comfort granted him following her death, and for how the much felt absence of his wife nevertheless was working to his sanctification by a specially felt sense of the presence of the Lord with him. John Galbraith, the church statesman, was, and remains to this day, a man who upholds the grace, goodness, love, and faithfulness of our covenant God.

In these latter years of John Galbraith’s life, he continues to reside at Rydal Park, in Rydal, Pennsylvania—just a few miles north of 7401 Old York Road, the location of the OPC administrative offices in which John’s presence was felt for so many years, and just a few miles south of the current OPC administrative offices. He remains very much interested in everything transpiring in the life of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church—and his disciplined, organized mind has lost little of its ability to recall the facts, personalities, and events that have formed the character of the church which he so much loves.

When asked the highlights of his three-quarters of a century as an Orthodox Presbyterian minister, John responded by saying, “They began when I became one!” He has no regrets about that decision. He was glad that he wrote the booklet Why the Orthodox Presbyterian Church? which first appeared in 1940. It was his way of giving a “message for the world” regarding “what we were about.” “The course of the OPC was set in the second and third general assemblies,” John notes. “Our commitments to the Bible and to Christian liberty” are and remain the hallmarks of the OPC.

And what message does John Galbraith want to communicate to the OPC as he approaches his one hundredth birthday? Ever the preacher, he has three points:

The first is the importance of worship. John notes that the command to honor the Sabbath day (and it is a command!) is a critical transition from the first three “Godward” commandments, and the last six “man-ward” commandments. He is deeply concerned about the growing laxity in attendance at a second worship service on the Lord’s Day, or—even worse—the tendency to eliminate that service altogether. “The Sabbath gives us a whole day for fellowship with God and with his people. It’s a day for us to grow in our knowledge of the Scriptures. Why would any Christian want to neglect that?” he asks. Indeed, in our fast and furious day of modern technology it would seem that we must put more emphasis on the Sabbath, not less.

His second message for the OPC is the need of separation. By that he does not mean, in the first place, separation from things, but rather separation unto God. “Separation began in the Garden of Eden,” he affirms. Separation unto God in all things brings a distinct type of personal, family, and church life. John fears that we are losing that emphasis that marked the early OPC.

And, finally, his greatest fear for the OPC (as he made clear with memorable eloquence at the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration of the OPC) is “inclusivism.” The OPC was never intended to be a “broadly evangelical church.” From the beginning, the OPC has been committed to the Reformed faith and to Presbyterianism as the doctrine and polity given in holy Scripture. “We must test all things by the Scriptures and the standards we have adopted as a church,” he states with passion. In this he sounds very much like the apostle Paul, who wrote: “Test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

Of all of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s many blessings, one of the foremost is to have had (and still have) 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. Nevertheless, this tribute is both fitting and necessary. It is presented in the spirit of that one who was used of God for the foundation of the Christian church itself: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). The entire Orthodox Presbyterian Church praises God for his grace in giving us the life and labors of Rev. John Galbraith, Mr. OPC.




  • The Committee on Christian Education Presentation and Interviews on the OPC’s 75th Anniversary, www.opc.org/GA/media/

William Shishko, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is the pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Franklin Square, New York. Ordained Servant Online, October 2012.

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Ordained Servant: October 2012

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The Revised Historiography of Reformed Orthodoxy: A Few Practical Implications

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