John Barrs

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My full name is John Barrs and I live in a small village in the north of Hampshire, UK. Born in Oxford, 1944 I am now therefore in my early sixties. This is a brief résumé of my education:


1944: Born in OxfordShire

1948-51 Primary/Secondary Education in Lincolnshire

1951-1954 Primary Education in Hampshire, 11+

1954-1962 Grammar School in the New Forest, O-levels and A-levels

1962-1964 University at Southampton, BSc (2:1, Botany)

1964-1972 Research at Southampton

1974-1977 Theology at  Covenant Seminary, St Louis, Mo., MDiv (cum laude)

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Primary Education

Secondary Education 



Born in the maternity unit of the Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford on the 7th January, 1944 I am the eldest child of E. V. Barrs and M. Barrs (nee Kingstone) . The E. V. stands for ‘Ernest Victor’ but for all my life  people, including my mother, called him ‘Peter’. (As a teenager I discovered that his own family called him ‘Ian’) At the time of my birth he was probably 44, 45 or 46 years old and my mother (Muriel) was 19. He was working as head gardener on the estate near Blenheim and we lived in a little village just outside of Oxford My brother Jerram followed nearly two year later and my sister Judith Anne some eight years later still.


Primary Education

When I was about three years old Dad took a job as senior gardener with the Forestry Commission at Alice Holt in Hampshire but because there was no suitable accommodation (we were packed into in a very small caravan) after about a year he took a job in Lincolnshire in a hamlet called Thurlby some ten miles south of Lincoln. It was there I first went to school and proceeded to romp through the village school until by the age of six I was in the top class of 14-year olds - these being my educational equals. However, because of my health we had to move away from the East Coast and came back to Hampshire to a small village called Bighton, about half way between Alton and Winchester – and I was put back into a class with people of my own age.

The fears about my health were justified. I had contracted TB. Over the next two-three years I spent about half the time in and out of hospital and much of the other half not getting up until midday. I read voraciously, everything in the house. Eventually I went back to school more regularly and was moved into the top class. To get me used to taking exams again I was put in for the 11+ (an exam that was  then used to cream off the best pupils into grammar schools at age 11 while the ‘rest’ went to ‘secondary moderns’) I passed! although I had taken the exam while still only 9.


Secondary Education

Subsequently I was placed in a small boarding house attached to a large Grammar school in the New Forest. The reason for this was that I was not well enough to face the stress of daily travel – hence boarding; and my father wished me to have co-education – hence Brockenhurst. The boarding house was small because Brockenhurst was not a boarding school but had attached to it a converted hotel for the children of servicemen to enable them to have a static education even though their parents were being posted around the world. About 30 boys was the maximum at the boarding house while the school was at one time the largest in the country with about 1200 pupils commuting into Brockenhurst daily from much of south-western Hampshire.

The disparity between my age and that of my peers was maintained throughout my school career. I was about 30 months younger than any of my classmates. In the boarding house it was even greater for I was the only first-former (year 7) and there was no-one in the year immediately above me so my ‘peers’ in the boarding house were more than 4 years older than me, and the difference in all sorts of ways between 10 and 15 is enormous. Nevertheless I survived!

Later I took ‘O-levels’ (the then equivalent to today’s GCSE) passing 11 (failing 1) and subsequently went on into the sixth-form. I was, of course, so young that I was probably going to be unable to attend university at the end of two years. I wanted to do History, Geography and Economics at A-level because they were my best subjects, but the school fancied me as an 'Oxbridge' scientist and my parents took the advice of those ‘in-loco-parentis’ - so we compromised; I would do two years Chemistry, Physics and both Pure and Applied Mathematics, then do another two years on my choice of subjects - and I’d still be younger than most people and would be able to choose exactly what I wanted to do at university from a much wider range of subjects. It was not to be. I passed my 4 ‘A-levels’ and then the school forced me into the third-year sixth continuing to work in the sciences to enter the scholarships for Oxford and Cambridge. I rebelled for a variety of reasons and applied, and received, a place to read double honours nuclear chemistry at a redbrick university. The school were unhappy having someone who was not studying anything but even more unhappy that I wasn’t taking exams so I was forced to sit the ‘mock’ exams again – I did so well on Maths that my papers were sent to Oxford and one of the colleges there offered me a place to read either Natural Sciences or Mathematics. Meanwhile I had been interesting myself in Gardening – what is in the blood will come out – and eventually chose to change subjects completely – I applied to read Botany and because the professor wanted a mathematician I was accepted. (in those days, Biology was a non-mathematical science - to the extent that many schools scheduled Maths and Biology A-level classes at the same time - Biologists were people who wanted to do science but could not do Maths.)



In 1962 I arrived at Southampton University: The Botany Department had an entry of about a dozen people per year and first and second years attended the same lectures so we got to know each other very well. Of course, as this year's second year had studied with this year's third year and they in turn had studied with most of the first year research students and so on, we were a very tight and friendly department. Added to which there were some undergrads who had done their National Service before university (I think I was the first year that did not have to do National Service)  therefore there was a greater range of  age and maturity than one might find nowadays and once again I was being educated with people who were mostly older than myself.

The professor under whom I studied was one of the great biologists of the time. Bill Williams was a polymath, a plant physiologist who was a mathematician and he played a mean jazz piano; a member of the old brains trust, the founder of a whole school of computational classification, initially as applied to ecology and then to plants themselves, he was also an accomplished concert piano player. The stories are endless. I learnt a great deal from him and am very grateful.

In my third year I specialised in Taxonomy and Biochemistry. Taxonomy is my great love. Biochemistry taught me that I shouldn't have been doing it: me and glassware just do not mix! none the less, although I failed to do what I was set to do I had found out enough about why I had failed that within two weeks we were successful in being the first people to extract high-molecular weight DNA from plants. I ended up with a 2:1 degree. To get a 'first' means knowing some part of the subject upside-down, inside-out and sideways from both directions. I was told subsequently that my 2:1 was awarded not because I knew anything about any part of Botany particularly well but because I really had a feel for what Botany itself was about.

What do you do after University? You stay on to do research.



My love being Taxonomy I opted to do research into the Classification of the Polygonaceae - docks, rhubarbs, buckwheats and knotgrasses etc. I enjoyed the theoretical side, homonyms and types etc but again my practical abilities let me down. I am not much use at drawing and worse at working with microscopes and slides and such like. by about half-way through my first year I was bored and frustrated. At about that time the then third-years were in the depths of their undergraduate projects and one asked me for help as to 'how-to' analyse his results. As we talked it over it occurred to me that we could.... suffice it to say that I invented a method of handling his results that relied on a lot of mathematical manipulation. As the department had no computing time  I did it all by hand. When his tutor - who was also my supervisor - saw the paper he realised that the methodology of the analysis must have come from me. In fact I had invented a method of classifying things using mathematics. He promptly encouraged me to write to Bill Williams - who had left to do research in Canberra. It turned out that we were working on the same lines and in fact my ideas weren't quite so new but Bill got a shock because he had not yet published and I was anticipating his methodology. It was decided that I would be better off working in that area of computational classification than in trying to collect data myself so I switched to research on methodology using the only published comparitive data available - on the Gramineae (grasses, grains and bamboos)

Over the next two years of the duration of my research grant I played around with techniques and methodology, jumping all over the place and doing just enough real taxonomy to keep my supervisor out of my hair but not really doing anything systematically enough to write up a PhD.



During this time I learned statistics and computer programming. They both occurred as a result of helping other people. 

While I was an undergrad I had learned autocode and machine code on the University computer in 1964..... a Ferranti Pegasus, a valve machine that was the size of a small house and had 4K of memory. Since then the university had taken delivery of an ICL 1900 series machine - about equivalent to the old IBM 700 series) while the machine was now smaller - about room sized, it required enough subsidiary cooling equipment to require most of a whole floor of  the math tower. I learned to program in Fortran in order to help my then girlfriend who was working in industry.

The statistics in the department was looked after by a South African (who had built one of the first computers in South Africa). Naturally, Hermann and I talked together, the only two people with any maths training in the department! He died very suddenly of a heart attack aged 37. I soon found out that he had been 'doing' the stats for people all over the university and they came to me for answers. I'll give a particular example to show what I mean. I was rung up at 11:00 one morning by someone in Oceanology. "I have been collecting data on shrimps. I think they are bigger the nearer to the power-station hot water outlet, how can I find out?" I asked a few more questions and then said I was too busy today but could he come and see me tomorrow morning? I then spent the next 24 hours finding out how to do that kind of analysis and appeared quite calm and knowledgeable the next morning. Frequently I found that there were no computer programs to do such things so I offered, and wrote programs to analyse the data. I became fairly efficient at both statistics and programming. This was before the days of SSSP - of which more later.

Hermann had been working with the ecologists in our department writing a suite of programs and he was replaced by someone else. So I continued my firefly exploration of classification techniques in taxonomy and learning other people's statistics. As I came to the end of my time, the other man also returned home. The Ecology lecturer realised that they had no replacement for him and I was there 'ready-made' as it were.  We were unable to get a grant to pay for me so we sold the use of the computational package that ecology had developed in order to pay for me. The computer packages were also classification methodology so I was quite at home with them. The difference between a taxonomist and an ecologist at this point is merely one of direction: The taxonomist starts with lots of individual plant species and is interested in putting them together to form genera and tribes and families; so he or she is interested in fusion, how to join these individual things together. The ecologist on the other hand, although their data is individual plots of land is interested in how all the data splits down to give biomes and eco-communities and micro-biomes; so he or she is interested in division, how does this mass of data split down. As I say, it is merely a difference in approach and one of my advantages was that I didn't care in which direction I went. In fact there are advantages from looking at things the 'wrong' way round

The ecology packages were written in a machine code mnemonic language called PLAN which I did not know; but when something went wrong with the package I deduced where it was in the program and what the problem was. The department had paid for a consultant to come down and resolve the problem;  he talked to me, took the code away and rang up the next morning to confirm both my analysis and solution. As the cost for that one two hour visit was about equivalent to 15% of my yearly salary the decision was taken to get me properly trained in PLAN and from then on I researched in FORTRAN but produced packages in PLAN.

After that year we got a grant to resolve an 'insoluble' problem. The grant was for three people for three years. A mathematician, a programmer (me) and an assistant. We cracked the 'insoluble' problem in six months which thus gave us time to really sort out the classification methodology field.

By now this has become more of 'career' than education so I will terminate this phase here. (see My Career) The other phase of my education is also later; see Seminary below

During the whole of my university tenure I had been involved in some interaction with students. Research students acted as demonstrators for the practical 'lab' work of undergraduates. I moved out of being a Research 'student' into being something else - and it was difficult to know what I was. I suppose as a computer specialist I was a technical expert but the technicians did not want to know about people like me. The technical unions had very special arrangements for the ratio of junior to career to senior technicians and people in computing were paid more than the equivalent level technicians and we would have upset a carefully negotiated balance. Eventually we were taken under the wing of AUT, the Association of University Teachers. This actually fitted me quite well because even before that eventual AUT decision I had been teaching. Initially an odd lecture here and there in either taxonomy or ecology. About this time universities relaxed their very tight entry requirements and we began getting students without the basics to understand the ancillary subjects. Someone with A level Music and English is going to struggle with Chemistry, without any Chemistry, then biochemistry is a closed book and biology was moving more and more into biochemistry. I began to fulfill some of these needs, teaching a course on 'Chemistry for beginners' (I also did a course 'Science in Science Fiction' but that was for fun although the underlying intention was to impress upon students the interelatedness of the sciences.) As a department we also began to realise that the Statistics department, being mathematicians, did not understand the fear in the heart that a symbol like Σ generates to a non-mathematician; and more seriously, they were often unaware of the nature of biological data and while trying to be helpful would use examples like leaf sizes that just do not demonstrate a 'normal' distribution. Anyway, I got to teach a full course of lectures in Statistics to Biologists.

Meanwhile, I was heavily involved with PhD students. Not only as being the person who knew about statistics and programming but also because of my wide general knowledge and quick thinking. At one point I was employed as an 'ideas man'. Eventually all these jobs came together and I was appointed as a lecturer with tenure.



While all this was happening, I have told elsewhere (My Faith) how I became a Christian. One of the effects this had on my life was that I was an 'ideas man' but in this area of my faith I did not have the knowledge to be very wise. After talking with my elders and other people I decided that it would be helpful if I did get that knowledge and was advised to go to Covenant Seminary in St Louis. Having a first degree, in the USA it is not so easy to do another, one is expected to do a further degree and so I was enrolled in the MDiv (Master of Divinity) course. This course is primarily taken by people who wish to go into the pastoral ministry. I intended to use it to give me the information I was lacking and then to return to the academic life in Botany and maybe become an elder in a local church.

Let me say first and foremost that I loved every minute of seminary. I may not have always appreciated some of the teaching at the time but I have since realised its value. Partially because of cultural differences and partially my perverse character I did not always see eye to eye with the men teaching me but with a single exception I loved them as men and had and still have a great affection for each of them (even if it was sometimes expressed somewhat mockingly at the time) - just one example will suffice to show what I mean. The 'colonel' taught us homiletics and was very demanding in the standards he required. On my first mini-sermon in class he left me standing at the pulpit and turned to the class and said "Well, men. Mr Barrs can get away with it because he is English but I do not want to hear you men do it. Mr Barrs says 'often' and I presume that is the King's English, but as Americans you are to say 'offen'." then turning to me he said "Mr Barrs, I find it difficult to believe that 'off-T-en' is King's English. What do you usually say?". I promise  that I did not do it deliberately but my reply was "We often say 'offen'"

He was a little upset! (and his mode was not improved by a sotto-voce comment from someone in the class during the following expostulations "Someone should tell the colonel that it is Queen's English nowadays"). Let me repeat; as with the other men, nearly everything he taught us, while not all appreciated at the time, I have come to realise its value since in my own preaching career.

Initially I had to do some 'propaedeutic' courses - this means that did not have the requisite subjects to do the main course - for instance I needed to be already aware of New Testament Greek and needed to have a basic knowledge of Biblical Content and History. The course was  102 hours (an hour being one-hour a week for one 13 week semester) A normal student would go through in three-years - averaging 16 hours a week of lectures and adding in a couple of inter-term courses. One of the unwritten rules was that  for every additional 'stress' then a student should plan on adding another year. 'Stress'  is a bad term to use, what was intended was that a student realised his responsibilities so items to take into consideration included being newly married, each child under 15, ten hours of part-time job per week, eldership in a church and any extra courses you had to do. Not only did I have these 'propaedeutic' courses but I got married at the end of the first semester, had to work for my accommodation and fees and - as it happened - I did several courses units from outside the MDiv syllabus - from the DMin (Doctorate in Ministry) course - I ended up doing more than 20 hours extra and in my final year was also teaching high-school, yet I went through in the three years. There were two main shocks of being back on the 'other side' of the lecturer's lectern. One was just being there! The other was a cultural difference.  I was addressed by my surname for the first time in nearly 20 years! I felt that I was 10 years old again. Most, but not all of men teaching us were very polite and always used an honorific in the classroom environment. To one dear gentleman I was 'Mr Barrs' even in the smaller third-year classes. In fact, by the middle of the second year most were using our Christian names in private conversations but there were a few who right to the very end addressed me as plain 'Barrs'.

The amount of out-of-class work expected of us was very high indeed. And we were put on trust 'before the Lord' to do it. Sometimes it was rather unimaginatively applied. One man expected us to read 3 hours 'out' for each hour in class. As I read very fast, I told him I had limited myself to 300 pages a week, which I knew was far in excess of anyone else. He asked me how long I was taking and when I said about 6 hours (which was half of the time he had asked us to read) then he promptly docked me a quarter grade point! Mind you, the weight was sometimes on the other foot. I had to sign a statement saying I had heard the material on nearly 30 hours of tapes by Dr Schaeffer on a subject I knew extremely well as I had spent so much time at L'Abri - so I put  a tape recorder on almost minimal volume and carried on working on something else.. well I had 'heard' the material on the tapes.. (and I received an A+ on that course)

Mid-way through my first semester a visiting lecturer took us for homiletics. At the end of his exegesis of a passage in 1 Corinthians I felt that God had called me into the pastoral ministry though this man's teaching. I am fully aware that personal feelings are not the criterion to use. The people of God confirm a man's calling by themselves calling him as an elder and appointing him to serve in their midst. But he has to be called by God first, they confirm that internal calling - without their confirmation it remains merely an emotional feeling. Not only am I fully aware that my feelings are not the criterion, I don't like that kind of not-totally-under-the-control-of-my-head process. However, when I discussed it with my classmates I found that there were two of us who had come to seminary with no intention of going into the pastoral ministry who had been convicted by that exegesis that this is what they should be doing.  However, amazingly, there were three others who all their lives had been aiming at the pastoral ministry and who had come to seminary to pursue that end yet who felt very strongly convicted that they were not called into ministry. Those three left at the end of the semester. I felt that if God could produce entirely opposite results from the same message then perhaps it was the Holy Spirit speaking. Accordingly I shifted target from mere knowledge hunting to becoming equipped as a man of God.

Over the remainder of my course I fell in love with the teaching of one man and vowed to take every course that he did - hence some of my DMin courses;  I appreciated the scholarship and value of one of the New Testament men and contrived to wangle my way into some of his DMin courses too; sadly, my Hebrew was never up to sufficient strength to take other specialist courses.

I ended up graduating cum laude in 1977 and returned back to the UK to complete the practical side of my pastoral training  by working at English L'Abri where Jill and I worked for two years as Workers.