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“In An Atlanta Hotel, 7 March 1922: Winchester with Chafer and Thomas”

“In An Atlanta Hotel, 7 March 1922: Winchester with Chafer and Thomas”[1]

North American 2010 Annual Meeting Evangelical Theological Society

Atlanta Hilton, Room 403 – Thursday, 18 November, 9:20 – 10:00 am

Remarkable things happen when theologians and pastors meet in hotel rooms in Atlanta! Of such occasions, none was more significant than an encounter in the Piedmont Hotel here on 7 March 1922. The Piedmont, located at the corner of Luckie and Peachtree streets, was a five-star location. Opened in 1903, the Piedmont’s parlors, lobbies and corridors were noted for their “splendid appointments.”[2] It was a lush accommodation for three men discussing what could practically be done about the state of theological education in North America. Lewis Sperry Chafer, W. H.  Griffith Thomas and Alexander Brown Winchester brought an international dimension to the table: an American, a Brit, and a Canadian. In spite of their cultural diversity they shared a common theology and a united vision. This paper will concentrate on Winchester, Thomas’ time in Toronto, and minor on Chafer (who is the best known of the three), providing a Canadian angle to the foundation of Dallas Seminary.

Their passion was to train church leaders with more academic credibility than the Bible school movement provided, but to avoid  the stifling academic rigor which left prospective pastors not only unprepared for congregational realities but also spiritually impoverished. The eleven-hour consultation that spring day in Atlanta birthed what is today Dallas Theological Seminary.  But their Atlanta hotel rendezvous had broader significance. It sheds light on an important aspect of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s. It also illustrates the interaction between Canada and the United States: an interaction that makes sense only when the Toronto experience of two of them is taken into account. Toronto was at the time, along with Chicago and Philadelphia, an axis of North American evangelicalism.

Alexander Brown Winchester (1858-1943) had, in common with Griffith Thomas and Lewis Chafer, a hard scrabble childhood. Born in Scotland, the family immigrated to Canada when he was thirteen. Three years after arrival in Woodstock, Ontario, his father was incapacitated by an accident and he became the family’s sole breadwinner. As an elevator operator in Detroit he attended Central (or Scots) Presbyterian Church. The congregation had a strongly evangelical ministry and became a pulpit center, later attracting large crowds with luminaries such as James M. Gray and C.  I. Scofield.  When only twenty-four, after two years of marriage, his wife (the daughter of a senator) died, leaving him with two small children. Sending them to grandparents, he enrolled in Manitoba College, Winnipeg, established by the Presbyterian Church in Canada to train church planters for the western prairies, then opening up to settlement. Graduating in 1887, and recently remarried (again to the daughter of a Canadian senator), he went to China under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (Congregational).  A nervous breakdown sent him home, and he then pastored briefly in Berlin (now Kitchener) Ontario before being appointed missionary to the Chinese in British Columbia.

On 15 January 1901 A. B. Winchester was inducted by the Presbytery of Toronto into the pastoral charge of Knox Church, Toronto. Thus began a forty-two year relationship that proved significant for both the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the wider cause of fundamentalism in North America.  Described by Lewis Sperry Chafer as “one of Canada’s greatest vital churches,” [3] Knox was the first Presbyterian congregation in the city, founded in 1819. It had been given extensive property by the first minister’s father-in-law. Winchester came to a declining church in the city core and five years later initiated a move to a new location.  Leasing the former site to Canada’s largest department store provided ample financial resources. Knox’s generous endowments were a major factor in the expanding ministry that Winchester undertook after 1921 as minister extra muros, set free by the congregation to do itinerant ministry, much of it in Bible conferences where his dispensational teaching, focusing on prophecy, gained a wide hearing.

The location of the new Knox Church, opened in 1909, was fortuitous. Toronto Bible College was just up Spadina Rd. and its Principal, John McNicol was an elder. The offices of five faith missions were within its immediate orbit. And the church was only two blocks from the University of Toronto. Knox College, the largest and most prestigious theological seminary for Presbyterians, was an immediate neighbor. As Knox College became increasingly identified with higher criticism and creedless church union, Knox Church kept a wary eye. Much more congenial was Wycliffe College, an evangelical Anglican seminary, right down the street from the church. Wycliffe, founded in 1877, has been described as “a rallying point for the Evangelical party in the [Anglican] church from the time of its establishment.”[4] One of its lecturers, Dyson Hague, contributed to The Fundamentals articles on “The History of Higher Criticism,” “At-one-ment by Propitiation” and “The Doctrinal Value of the First Chapters of Genesis.”

That same year, 1910, Wycliffe College extended an invitation to W. H. Griffith Thomas, Principal of Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, to serve as a lecturer. Thomas, like Winchester (and Chafer), had a difficult childhood. His father died before he was born and his mother returned to her father who died when Thomas was eight. Wrangling over the estate left the family impoverished and he was forced to go to work at fourteen. While working for his stepfather’s brother in London, and studying Greek in the early hours of each morning, he was offered a lay curacy and took courses at King’s College, completing a brilliant educational career with an earned D D from Oxford University in 1905, his thesis being on the Holy Spirit. In that year he was appointed Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.  A book he wrote on pastoralia is dedicated to the eighty students he trained “with whom it was my privilege and joy to be associated.” As his biographer continued: “He left his mark upon his men in a most distinctive way and that influence has been passed on by them to others, amongst whom I am one.” [5]

Griffith Thomas remains a very complex individual, his persona perceived very differently in the various circles in which he moved. To evangelicals in the Church of England he remains a very Anglican icon.  Not that he was a party man:  he was widely respected by all, speaking on the training of candidates for holy orders at church congresses in 1908 and 1909. It was at the Keswick convention that he first encountered teaching about “the victorious Christian life,” and invitations to speak there in 1906, 1907, and 1908, endeared him to the wider British evangelical public.  He maintained a prodigious work ethic and was a disciplined, readable and voluminous writer.  His Christianity Is Christ, published at that time, has become a classic.

So it was with a profound sense of loss throughout Britain that the news came in 1910 that he had accepted an invitation to be Professor of Theology at Wycliffe College[6]. He had first crossed the Atlantic in 1903 for the Northfield Convention. When he, his wife, and daughter arrived in Toronto, having been promised many things that never materialized, he discovered he was not allowed to teach theology. Inadequate housing arrangements necessitated four moves in eight years. Thomas’ home was an essential part of his ministry, hosting for students a weekly “at home” modeled after the Talking Parties of Charles Simeon[7].

When he was dismissed in 1919 by the administration and council of the College the charges against him were given sensational coverage in the press. In anguished correspondence with 75-year-old Newman Hoyles, a leading barrister, Principal of Osgoode Hall, and one of the original founders of Wycliffe who was the Council’s point person with Griffith Thomas, he rebuts the charge that he had cashed in on his popularity as a speaker[8]. He itemized the number of times he had preached for remuneration in his time in Toronto: in nine years he had visited 59 churches, spoken 287 times without remuneration, and only on five occasions did he receive anything more than his fare. The whole business was incredibly petty and demeaning to a man of Griffith Thomas’ stature and integrity. But he left graciously and without public scandal or personal rancor, moving to Philadelphia to become an editor of the influential Sunday School Times[9].  Thomas had been a regular contributor since 1912. The magazine, whose circulation for a time topped one hundred thousand, was hugely influential and opinion-shaping, mobilizing fundamentalists each week with its articles and cartoons.

The petty jealousies in what must have appeared to someone from Oxford  a colonial back water, meant Griffiths’ vision was never realized during his nine years at Wycliffe. Theological education should shape students for a vital gospel ministry, Biblically and theologically based, enabling them to deal responsibly with higher criticism, and providing a Protestant alternative to Anglo-Catholicism. That vision remained unfulfilled as he moved to the United States. But in his time in Toronto he had formed some close relationships both on the summer Bible conference circuit but also with local pastors, among them Alex Winchester who was himself starting to move out into that wider ministry. Exhausted by the pastoral trauma of dealing with 111 members in the military many of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice, his own son killed at Vimy Ridge, by 1919 Winchester needed a fresh and wider vision and this was provided by Griffith Thomas and the Bible conference circuit to which he introduced him[10].

Griffith Thomas’ move to Philadelphia, rather than a return to England, was significant. He was identifying himself with an American fundamentalism which he found increasingly congenial. One of his key contacts in this shift was Lewis Sperry Chafer. He had first met Chafer at Northfield in 1903 where the Chafers were involved in the convention’s music ministry. The contrasts between the two were obvious, their similarities less apparent. Chafer was basically self-educated, an autodidact who  had come under the spell of C I Scofield  after attending a Bible class at his church in Northfield two years earlier.”I am free to confess,” he later wrote[11], “that it seemed to me at the close I had seen more vital truth in God’s word in that one hour than I had seen in all my life before.” When Griffith Thomas came to North America in 1910 he was welcomed (albeit warily) into the summer Bible conference circuit. A 14 December 1915 letter from Thomas to Chafer indicates some distance, though it expresses gratitude for a copy of The Kingdom in History and Prophecy which had just been published. “I trust,” he writes Chafer[12], “that it will have wide circulation and help people to see that the Kingdom and the Church are by no means one and the same thing.” Two years later, when Chafer’s Salvation appeared, the book was dedicated to Thomas.  In 1918 Chafer’s articles started appearing in The Sunday School Times.

Thomas’ new associations were timely as he was being increasingly isolated from his mainline base. Not only Wycliffe but now also Princeton Theological Seminary was on the attack. He had been invited to Princeton in 1913 to deliver the prestigious Stone Lectures. But in 1918 B. B. Warfield, in an article in The Princeton Theological Review titled “The Victorious Life” took direct aim at Thomas describing as “astonishing” his willingness to fall in with the view of sanctification articulated by Charles Trumbull of The Sunday School Times[13].  The interpretation of Romans 7 and whether eradication of sin in the believer (or “counteraction” as Thomas preferred but Warfield said was no better) was possible.  Thomas responded the next year with two articles in Bibliotheca Sacra, but the distance between him and those identified with classic Reformed theology, centered on Princeton Seminary, was becoming greater. And the time was approaching when evangelicals would need unity and cohesion.

From the center and now from the right division were coming for Thomas and Chafer. For one week, 25 May to 1 June 1919, 6000 delegates from the United States and Canada and eight foreign countries, met in Philadelphia to constitute the World Christian Fundamentals Association. Firebrand W. R. Riley of Minneapolis had cleverly co-opted a prophetic conference the year before in New York City into – as he modestly declared – “an event of more historical moment than the nailing up, at Wittenberg, of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses.”[14] Winchester does not appear to have been present[15]. Chafer was a platform speaker, and Thomas was chair of the Committee on Resolutions, which drafted a statement of faith. There was even a proposal for a theological seminary with a strong commitment to premillenialism. Winchester would write to Chafer 26 January 1921[16] “I fear that Dr Thomas has (a) set his heart on being Dean & (b) that he has gone far towards linking up with Riley’s scheme.” Winchester dismissed Riley’s grandstanding saying that he was trying to turn the Association into “Riley’s Baptist F. C. &c.” Chafer would take a little longer but likewise came to the conclusion that Riley and his cohorts, particularly Frank Norris of Fort Worth’s First Baptist, were “a great embarrassment to the rest of us.”[17]

In the summer of 1920 Charles Trumbull and Griffith Thomas travelled to the Far East[18] and Thomas gained notoriety among  denominational missionary agencies for bringing division in their ranks as a result of warnings he sounded about liberalism. Talks he gave at Kuling led to the formation of the China Bible Union. He was becoming increasingly strident. In an article the next year in The Sunday School Times he asked “How Can The Saints Preserve The Faith?” and he replied: “They must extend it far and wide, by their labors, the testimony of lip and life, the circulation of literature, the proclamation of the gospel, instruction in the Christian faith – these are some ways that the faith ‘once for all delivered’ will be presented intact, without additions and without subtractions.”[19]

Chafer and Winchester were both Presbyterian ministers and part of a developing network of Presbyterian ministers on both sides of the border, committed to dispensational eschatology[20]. James Hall Brookes (1830-1897) of Walnut St Presbyterian Church, St Louis, a great popularizer of John Nelson Darby’s teaching, provided C. I. Scofield with his theological education. He, along with Winchester’s predecessor at Knox Church Henry Martyn Parsons, were founders of the Niagara Bible Conference. Other Presbyterian ministers in the same orbit were Reuben A. Torrey of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and William Blackstone, whose Jesus Is Coming (1886) was the set text of dispensational eschatology. Chafer and Winchester found themselves together at a month-long prophecy conference in Portland Oregon in November 1921 organized by Bernard (“Bert”) Sutcliffe, a local Presbyterian pastor with whom Chafer had a close relationship[21]. Chafer then went to Seattle and while preaching at University Presbyterian Church met up with Griffith Thomas. He later described[22] his time with Winchester, Thomas and Sutcliffe as “being thrown together in work.” It was a fortuitous encounter.

Chafer shared with these three men a vision that had been germinating for a decade for what he later described as “a high-grade theological school” [23] that would train pastors for Bible expository ministry. Chafer with Scofield (who had died that summer) had founded the Philadelphia School of the Bible in 1914. But he wanted something more academically rigorous, a school that would attract students who had, for the most part, already graduated with a first degree. Since neither he nor Winchester met this standard, Thomas’ presence and academic background and Oxford University earned DD was crucial. And important as knowledge of Hebrew and Greek was for expository ministry, Chafer had a strong commitment to English Bible in the curriculum. Princeton Seminary, when Charles Erdman (son of Moody colleague and Northfield speaker William) was appointed in 1905 to teach, among other subjects, English Bible, was divided over this innovation. Teaching of English Bible was regarded by Reformed people as suspect[24] but it was the heart of the rationale for the new seminary. Princeton Seminary dominated the discussion of a new school.“I do feel,” Chafer wrote Thomas[25], “that unless the School is proposing to do something very different than is now being done even at Princeton, there is little call for the undertaking.” In the carbon copy he had crossed out Princeton and replaced it with “other seminaries” but the reference was clear.

When Winchester returned home to Toronto for Christmas 1921 he could barely hide his excitement. His relationship with Chafer had become very intense: “I need your generous affection, your sympathetic ear with its discretionary combination lock, and your sage Christian counsel,” he wrote[26]. He had enlisted several western Canadian Presbyterian luminaries for a new evangelical seminary: Alexander Esler, Vancouver, and Robert Johnston, Calgary, among them.  They had shared his concern, given “the present menacing attitude of the College to vital truths,” for a college “for the training of ministers and Bible Teachers for the unconstrained promulgation of the living Word of God.” He spoke to John McNicol and was surprised to discover that, as Principal of Toronto Bible College, McNicol had been shaping the policy and the curriculum of the College for years to prepare graduates for further theological training in just such an evangelical seminary. “They did not want to take the step until forced to do so by growing apostasy within the Church.”[27]

A month later, writing from Detroit where he was ministering at Central Church, Winchester wrote Chafer saying his first choice for a location to hold their consultation would be Philadelphia, second Atlanta. Atlanta was finally chosen because it was convenient for Chafer and Winchester, coming north from Crescent City, Florida  where they had been together at the Southfield Bible Conference[28]. Thomas was booked to speak 2 – 12 March in Atlanta’s Baptist Temple[29].  As the date approached, Winchester was particularly anxious that the new enterprise have a broad base: “We should conceive, as far as we consistently can, our common ground of faith & study the method which makes for peace and unity in promulgating the truth entrusted to us.” They should avoid “non-vital denominational or other views provocative of controversy and inevitably leading to contention and division.”

Though no minutes were taken at the meeting, from subsequent correspondence we have a general idea as to what was discussed for those twelve hours at the Piedmont Hotel. They included items such as a statement of faith, to be drafted by Griffith Thomas, a discussion of where the school should be located and the possibility of an eastern and a western branch and also personnel to be involved. The consensus was that Lewis and his brother Rollin were the more gifted in administration. The name of the school reflected Griffith Thomas with his English background and Alex Winchester’s Canadian usage. Together they prevailed on Sperry Chafer to call the school “The Evangelical Theological College.” Finances must also have figured in their deliberations and Winchester could offer the wealth of his friend Sidney T. Smith of Winnipeg.[30]  At the close of the meeting Thomas stood up and announced “We have made history today.” Indeed they had. “When we had finished twelve hours of the most intense, construct[ive] work at At[lanta] we were all solemnized with the over-wh[elming] evidence of the presence & leadership of God.”[31]

The implementation of their plans is beyond the scope of this paper. Having turned down the principalship of the new school, Griffith Thomas died suddenly on 2 June 1924. Three months later the new school, whose future was determined on the 7March 1922 in the Piedmont Hotel, opened its doors “A sound theological seminary, having the additional advantage of being denominationally unrelated, has come into being,” A. B. Winchester wrote in The Sunday School Times. Titled “A True Theological Seminary” it went on: “This theological college is not to be looked upon as a Bible institute or a Bible school … It is a theological seminary of the first rank, offering the fullest possible equipment for ministers and pastors. A standard curriculum will be offered. But it is all to be saturated with the Word of God.”[32]

A year later church union in Canada brought together Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists and changed forever the ecclesiastical and religious landscape of the country. Winchester was defiantly anti-union and Knox Church was the scene, just before midnight 10 June 1925, as the continuing Presbyterians were reconvened. He had hopes that the non-concurrents (as they were known ) would form a truly evangelical denomination, grounded in the Scriptures.  On 8 June 1926, after the fate of evangelicals in the new Presbyterian Church in Canada was forever sealed by the election of the liberal Professor Thomas Eakin as Principal of Knox College, the church’s leading seminary, he wrote an anguished letter immediately after the vote to Lewis Chafer. Describing Eakin as “an advanced Modernist” he marveled that Eakin had nevertheless voted in favour of the “standards and that he stands foursquare on the Confession without evasion.” It was clearly a bid to secure his appointment and the disclaimer was accepted by the convener Ephraim Scott, an Evangelical. Winchester asked to speak against it and was only given ten minutes. The appointment went through[33].

After the vote Winchester went to a room at Knox-Crescent Church in Montreal, where the meetings were being held, took special Assembly stationery from the desk and poured out his heart to “My dear brother Lewis”: “43 years preaching the gospel, but feel I am forced out. I will not lift my certificate but just ignore the Church Courts.”[34] From that moment on, Winchester felt free to throw his whole support to Dallas Seminary, and his role in helping establish the institution he subsequently regarded as his most lasting contribution. Shortly before his death seventeen years later Winchester wrote Chafer “My own strength is slowly ebbing out, but my heart rejoices at the possibility of His speedy return. How I thank the Lord for you & for your unique service in so many spheres but preeminently on behalf of the College. With abiding love.  Ever yours ‘Till He Come.’ Alex.”[35]

A. Donald MacLeod,

Research Professor of Church History, Tyndale Theological Seminary, Toronto

Convener, Committee on History, Presbyterian Church in Canada

President. Canadian Society of Presbyterian History


Website: adon

[1] The author acknowledges with gratitude the help of Lolana Turner, Archivist, Dallas Theological Seminary, a tireless and knowledgeable assistant in his research. Also he appreciates the work of Professor John Hannah whose Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) appeared in the middle of his research and has been useful. He is indebted to Professor Sandy Finlayson, Librarian. and Grace Mullen, Archivist, Westminster Theological Seminary, for The Sunday School Times microfilm.

[2] Garrett, Franklin M. “Atlanta and Environs, A Chronicle of Its People and Events, Vol II”  (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1969). http://patsabin.com/atlanta/postcards/PiedmontHotel.htm.

[3]  Chafer, L. S.; “The Passing of One of God’s Great Men” in Dallas Theological Seminary Bulletin (July-September 1943), vol. 19, no. 3,  unnumbered page 5.

[4]  Masters, D.C. Protestant Church Colleges In Canada A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946. 110

[5] Quoted in Clark, Guthrie. W. H. Griffith Thomas London: Church Bookroom Press, 1949. 15.

[6] There is some disagreement here: my source is Guthrie Clark. The Church Society website says that he was appointed to OT Literature and Exegesis (www.churchsociety.org/issues_new/history/griffiththomas/iss_history)

[7] Charles Simeon (1759-1836) was rector of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, and the preeminent Anglican Evangelical.

[8]  WHGT to N.W.Hoyles, 30 March 1919. ADTS.

[9]  Cf Wm. Katterberg in “Redefining Evangelicalism in the Anglican Church” in Rawlyk, G., Ed.; Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical Experience (Kingston and Montreal: McGill Queens University Press, 1997) 171-190 where he states “By 1919 Thomas had left for Philadelphia, free of institutional duties and hoping to spread his influence more widely in the fundamentalist movement. Wycliffe kept his departure quiet, but rumors of mutual animosity and vague reports that Thomas considered Wycliffe doctrinally lax spread among alumni.” 177. Katterberg does not appear to have read the Thomas file at DTS, nor the Toronto papers at the time. Far from being “quiet” it was a well-reported scandal which Thomas graciously refused to exacerbate, leaving in a remarkably Christian manner.

[10]  Winchester (usually above such criticism) was accused of having “an antagonistic spirit” in a 14 January 1920 Knox Session meeting by Rev Joseph W Kemp who had been brought over from Scotland to be a collegial minister and was soon released from his contract (Knox Church Session Minutes 1917-1929, PCC Archives, 2004-4009-18-2.)

[11]  Chafer, L S “What I Learned From Dr Scofield” Sunday School Times (4 March 1923).

[12] WHGT to LSC, 14 December 1915.. ADTS.

[13]  Warfield, B,. B. “The Victorious Life” in Perfectionism II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1932. 580.

[14]  Russell, C.  Allyn. “William Bell Riley, Architect of Fundamentalism.” Minnesota History vol 43 (Spring 1972). 25.

[15] Which is surprising but he presided over a Knox Session meeting 1 June 1919 so he could not have attended.

[16]  ABW to LSC, 26 January 1922  ADTS (Not 6 January, as cited in J. D. Hannah’s helpful “The ‘Thomas’ in the W. H. Thomas Memorial Lectureship” Bibliotheca Sacra 163 Jan – March 2006 9 footnote 28.)

[17] LSC to Arno Gaebelein (13 November 1923) ADTS.

[18] Winchester was invited to go to China in 1923 but there is no record that he actually went.

[19] WGHT, “How Can The Saints Preserve The Faith?” Sunday School Times (19 November 1921) 651.

[20]  It was only in 1944 when the General Assembly of the (southern) Presbyterian Church (US) published “Dispensationalism and the Confession of Faith” that this link was officially challenged.

[21] Sutcliffe helped found Multnomah School of the Bible, Portland, in 1936 and was its first president until 1943.

[22] LSC to Arno Gaebelein, 15 December 1923, ADTS

[23] LSC to Arno Gaebelein 15 December 1923, ADTS

[24] It was the tension between Machen and Eerdman and President Stevenson that led to the breakup of Princeton Seminary in 1929. Eerdman, a moderate irenic Evangelical, was a vacillating 1925 General Assembly moderator,

[25] LSC to WHGT, 13 December 1922 ADTS.

[26] ABW rto LSC, 29 December 1921 ADTS.

[27] ABW to LSC, 29 December 1921. In the same letter he alludes to growing dissatisfaction with his successor.

[28] Founded in 1904 by Lewis and Rollin Chafer and promoted by the SST as the “Northfield of the South.”

[29] He went on to Youngstown’s Tabernacle PC (19-24 March), and then (March 26-31) to 1st UP, Springfield, OH.

[30] Sidney t Smith (1878-1947) founder of Elim Chapel where Winchester (and Chafer) spoke and a grain merchant.

[31] LSC to B. B. Sutcliffe, 22 March 1921. The 11 page letter is quite extraordinary: LSC writes in a large script with frequent abbreviations, his pen seemingly unable to catch up with the emotional high he was experiencing.

[32] “A True Theological Seminary” Sunday School Times (6 September 1924) 525. – the article is not attributed but J. D. Hannah cites A. B. Winchester as the author (An Uncommon Union, 386).

[33]  See Acts and Proceedings of the Fifty-second General Assembly (1926), Presbyterian Church in Canada. 37. Winchester moved an amendment, seconded by his successor J G Inkster, that the matter be referred to a committee. Aside from theological considerations, Eakin was an ineffective Principal and the College languished.

[34] ABW to LSC, 8 June 1926. ADTS.

[35] ABW to LSC 12 February 1942. ADTS.