As we look to the history of the church to observe “Christian Men and Their Godly Moms,” we encounter a number of mothers who were remarkably accomplished. Some have forceful personalities, some are skilled theologians, some are worthy of full-length biographies in their own right. Yet many more are perfectly ordinary, serving their families in quiet obscurity, wondering if they are making any significant impact in the world.
In this entry in our series, we look to how God used an ordinary mother to raise a godly man who would accomplish extraordinary things. He would have a worldwide ministry that will soon be in the history books. She would only ever toil inconspicuously. Still, John Piper would say, “What I owe my mother for my soul and my love to Christ and my role as a husband and father and pastor is incalculable.”
An Ordinary Mom
John Piper was the second child and first son born to Bill and Ruth Piper. Ruth Eulalia Mohn was born on October 7, 1918, in Wyomissing Hills, Pennsylvania. By her young teens, she had already made a serious profession of faith and was actively pursuing God in personal and group Bible study. In high school, she met Bill Piper and the two quickly fell in love. William Solomon Hottel Piper had been born three months and a day after Ruth into a devout, working-class family in nearby Bethlehem. He made a legitimate profession of faith when he was just 6. Later, when he was 15, he experienced a profound spiritual stirring, which led him to preach the gospel for the first time. It was during this simple sermon, when ten people made commitments to Christ, that he first felt the thrill and joy of leading others to the way of eternal life. He determined he would give his life to evangelism.
After Bill and Ruth graduated together in 1936, they each went to college, Bill to John A. Davis Memorial Bible School to be trained as an evangelist and Ruth to Moody Bible Institute to study music education. They were married on May 26, 1938, and soon moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, where they both transferred to Bob Jones College. This school’s fundamentalism sat well with both Pipers, and they quickly developed a friendship with Bob Jones Sr. Bill graduated in 1942 and immediately began the full-time evangelistic work that would consume his life. He was also appointed a trustee of the college, a high honor for a recent graduate. Ruth remained in Cleveland and settled into homemaking, giving birth to their first child, Beverley, in 1943.
Their son John was born in nearby Chattanooga on January 11, 1946, making him among the very first of the baby boomer generation. Just a few months later, Bob Jones College announced it would relocate to Greenville, South Carolina, and the Pipers agreed to move with it. They would raise their family in Greenville, just blocks from the college.
An Omni-Competent Mother
All through John’s childhood, his father traveled extensively and was typically away from home two-thirds of the time, or just over 250 days per year. To put that in perspective, by the time John was 18, his father had been home for six years and away for 12. Most of his trips lasted 10 days, but they were occasionally far longer. Ruth fully supported Bill in his ministry, even though it left her carrying a double burden for a majority of the time.
To Ruth fell the responsibilities of managing rental properties, of paying bills, of caring for the home and property, and even of working a part-time job to earn extra income. It also fell to her to take the lead in teaching, training, and disciplining the children. Many years later John would write, “She taught me how to cut the grass and splice electric cord and pull Bermuda grass by the roots and paint the eaves and shine the dining-room table with a shammy and drive a car and keep French fries from getting soggy in the cooking oil. She helped me with the maps in geography and showed me how to do a bibliography and work up a science project on static electricity and believe that Algebra II was possible. She dealt with the contractors when we added a basement and, more than once, put her hand to the shovel. It never occurred to me that there was anything she couldn’t do.” He looked admiringly to a mother who seemed for all the world to be omni-competent. Her consistent example left John with a love of hard work.
While Bill was away, she led the family and ran the home. Yet as soon as he returned, she ceded leadership to her husband. Now he would lead family prayers, he would round up the family to church, he would initiate discipline. This set an early example of complementarity between husband and wife that resonated with John. He would later say, “It never occurred to me that leadership and submission had anything to do with superiority and inferiority. And it didn’t have to do with muscles and skills either. It was not a matter of capabilities and competencies.”
Ruth was no scholar or theologian. Her faith was deep but simple. Her children have no memory of her reading any book but the Bible and no recollection of her quoting any of its verses except Proverbs. John wrote in a poem in her honor:
Mama knew the Good Book — especially the Proverbs;
years later when I was three thousand miles away
she kept on quotin’ Proverbs in her salutations.
The message was always the same — the pulse beat of her heart —
Be wise son, be truly wise:
Fear God and keep your heart warm.
John speculated that the incredible burden she bore while parenting alone may have driven her to mine Proverbs for every last drop of wisdom she could apply to her life and that of her children.
No one had a deeper spiritual influence on John than his mother, so it seems fitting that when John was 6, it was Ruth who knelt with him and led him in prayer as he received Christ as his Savior. Though the memory of that day soon faded from his mind, it remained fixed in hers as the day of his conversion. His childhood was often measured by Bill’s trips. The family would be involved in packaging and mailing letters asking pastors to host evangelistic meetings at their church. Together Bill, Ruth, and the children would stuff the envelopes, put them in the mail, and pray for a response. Together they would drive Bill to the airport, then pray as a family for safety in travels and success in preaching the gospel. Ten days later they would pick him up again and rejoice to hear how those prayers had been answered. Family life revolved around the preaching of the gospel and rejoiced at its victories.
John would later feel a deep inner call to vocational ministry and overcome a phobia of public speaking to become a powerful preacher. Through his theological studies in America and overseas and the beginnings of his own family, he remained in close contact with his mother. In 1980, he would become Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and remain in that position until 2013. His 1986 work Desiring God would become a bestseller and prove the spark that would propel him to worldwide influence. Today, he is known for his passionate preaching, his voluminous writing, and his instrumental role in the resurgence of Calvinistic theology.
John saw his mother for the last time in the summer of 1974. He had returned to America after earning his doctorate in Germany and was about to take up a teaching position in St. Paul, Minnesota. But before he headed west, he returned to Greenville for a visit. In December of that year, Bill and Ruth joined a tour of Israel. On the second to last day, they visited the “Rock of Agony,” where Christ is reputed to have cried out to the Father to remove his cup of wrath. Both Pipers were deeply moved by the experience of seeing the rock and meditating on what it represents. They then boarded the bus to go to their next destination, taking their place in the front seats. After a few minutes, Bill stood and turned to speak to the other passengers, then suddenly felt the bus lurch and heard the sound of breaking glass. A truck driven by Israeli soldiers and carrying a heavy load of lumber had swerved to miss them, but many of the boards smashed through the bus’ front window, instantly killing Ruth. Bill was severely injured and survived only because he had stood a moment before the accident.
That evening, the phone rang in John’s house, and he was told the dreadful news. “Daddy is in the hospital. But your mother didn’t make it.” One study of his life describes his response: “John needed to be alone, so he walked to their bedroom, knelt by the bed, and sobbed—heaved—for two hours. He cried to Jesus for his Daddy, his maternal grandmother MaMohn, his sister Beverly, and his brother-in-law Bob. He didn’t feel any urge to deny her death, and he didn’t think ‘it should not be so.’ Rather, his dominant thought was for his dad: ‘O Lord, help him … help him.’”
Shortly after Ruth died, John found one of Ruth’s folders labelled “Unfinished Business.” He opened it to find it empty and took this as an apt symbol of her life. “Mother, while she lived here, was a finisher of tasks,” he said in his eulogy. “She left no business behind that was left unfinished because of sloth or mismanagement. What she left undone, God chose to leave undone, not Mother.”
John Piper is a great theologian whose primary influence in life and faith was, in his words, “not very much of a theologian.” Though she did not give him the content of his theology, she shaped the way he approached life. Through her willingness to bear any burden, through her simple but tenacious faith, through her tender empathy, through her ordinary life, she made an immeasurable impact on her son. When he provided a testimony to Bethlehem Baptist Church as a pastoral candidate, he paid her the ultimate tribute: “She stamped me more than anybody in the world—there’s just no doubt about it.”
Perhaps you are ashamed of your lack of theological knowledge or concerned that you do not know the Bible as well as you would like. Can God still use you to impact your son? Perhaps you grow weary of laboring in obscurity and wonder if your son deserves someone who does more, someone who is known for her accomplishments. Can God use someone so very ordinary? From the life of Ruth Piper, we see that he can—in fact, that he delights to—use ordinary mothers to carry out his purposes. Ruth dedicated her life to serving her husband and nurturing her family. Though she did this in simple ways, it made a profound impact. So as you give yourself to ordinary study of the Bible, ordinary service, and ordinary tasks, know that God often uses such faithfulness to bring about extraordinary things.
The information for this article was drawn from John Piper: The Making of a Christian Hedonist by Justin Taylor, For the Fame of God’s Name, edited by Sam Storms & Justin Taylor, and several of John Piper’s sermons, all of which are available at DesiringGod.org.