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CHARACTERISTICS OF THE NONCONFORMISTS OF THE SEVENTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES.
N. S. VOL. VIII.
As it is now very frequently asserted that the Nonconformists of England have changed their opinions on Christian doctrine and ecclesiastical polity, it may be interesting and seasonable to take a rapid historical survey of the characteristics both of their ministers and people, two centuries ago and in the present age; which may assist the reader to ascertain what amount of truth there is in that assertion, and how far it reflects on the piety and intelligence of those to whom it applies.
The existence of Nonconformity in this country must be dated from the commencement of the reign of queen Elizabeth, whose taste and temper led her to procure the first Act of Uniformity. That legislative measure, which not only prescribed a uniformity of Common Prayer and service in the church and administration of the sacraments, but also empowered the queen "to ordain and publish such further ceremonies and rites as may be for the advancement of God's glory, and edifying of his church, and the reverence of Christ's holy mysteries and sacraments," passed through parliament in the month of April, 1559, and received the royal assent without any sanction from the convocation of the clergy,—a circumstance which led Heath, the archbishop of York, to observe, "that not only the orthodox but even the Arian emperors ordered that points of faith should be examined by councils; and Gallio by the light of nature, knew that a civil judge ought not to meddle with matters of religion."* Fond of pompous ceremonies, and most tenacious of royal prerogatives, Elizabeth was little disposed to consult the feelings of those who desired to see the work of reformation from popery carried forward, and who longed
*Neal's Puritans, cap. IV.
to witness the ecclesiastical polity of the country in better agreement with the genius and pattern of the New Testament. Her haughty temper led her to maintain with unyielding firmness the supremacy her father had usurped, and throughout her long reign, to punish the unhappy Nonconformist, whether papist or puritan, who dared to question it, with a severity that will ever be a reproach on her character and government. Her Stuart successors inherited all her Tudor notions, and resisted with equal dislike, though not with equal success, the many attempts that were made for civil and ecclesiastical reformation.
A combination of disastrous measures, throughout the reigns of James I. and Charles I., at length brought on the civil war, which terminated in the overthrow of the prelacy, and the decapitation of the king. That impolitic and unconstitutional measure was however followed by a degree of religious liberty before unknown; and while we must deplore many events that transpired during those twenty years of civil conflict and constrained legislation, yet it must be regarded by all impartial persons as a period eminently favourable to religious freedom, biblical learning, and true piety. The Puritan ministers who had outlived the cruelties of the preceding reigns, now taught from the pulpit, the press, and the professor's chair, those opinions which they had derived from primitive Christianity as exhibited in the word of God.
Whilst, however, there prevailed amongst them a very general agreement respecting Christian doctrines, as was demonstrated by their unanimity on the doctrinal articles of the confession of divines at Westminster; yet there existed considerable diversity of opinion upon all the questions of church polity and discipline. Their grand object, however, was to diffuse amongst the people a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus; and it is probable that religion never was in a more prosperous state in this country than during the period of their unrestricted ministrations. The restoration of the Stuart family to the British throne was quickly followed by the second Act of Uniformity, which ejected from their livings more than two thousand ministers, who, on various considerations, chose rather to expose themselves and their families to all the inconveniences of poverty and persecution, than to sacrifice their consciences on the altar of a state religion. These venerable men were the fathers of nonconformity in the seventeenth century, and it is the characteristics of them and their people that we propose to compare with those of the Nonconformists of the present age.
In proceeding to portray the Nonconformist ministers of the seventeenth century; we may observe, that time has not destroyed the efforts of art to preserve for the gratification of their posterity the venerated features of those extraordinary men. We gaze upon their
portraits, and imagine that we behold in the countenances of the Puritans and the confessors of Bartholomew's day, the traces of inflexible firmness, protracted labour, and unusual suffering; while in the pictures of the later Nonconformists, we discover the fine intelligence, the philosophic wisdom, the poignant wit, and the courtly bearing, which were developed by their controversies, and demanded by their associations. But it is not with their appearance, but with their characters that we have to do; and we shall attempt to describe them.
1. As Divines. Besides the advantages which they derived from having prosecuted their studies either in the British or continental universities, at a period when the spirit of the Reformation had just unsealed the fountains of learning, and had cast therein the salt of godliness, by which they were sweetened and sanctified,-besides these advantages, the peculiar circumstances of their times were highly favourable to their eminence in theological learning. Whilst civil war desolated the provinces, and a deadly pestilence wasted the population of our cities, and persecution forbade their approach to any market town, they were necessarily shut up to the seclusion of their studies for years together. The activity of minds like theirs could only find relief in the exercises of extraordinary devotion, and in interesting efforts of intellectual labour. To solve the problems of Christian casuistry, to sound the depths of theological truth, to develope the secrets of Christian experience, to illustrate the duties of a life of godliness, were the business of their days and nights through many dreary years. Often, no doubt, they looked forth from their secluded homes, upon the giddy multitudes who were living in pleasure and were dead while they lived, with tender compassion, and longed for permission to beseech them in Christ's stead to be reconciled to God. But an all-wise, though to them inscrutable Providence had determined that their profound views of Divine truth, their rich experience of the power and grace of Christ, and their elevated maxims of practical godliness, should not all evaporate in the routine labours of the ministry, but should be condensed like some precious essence, and preserved in their works to refresh and gladden succeeding generations. In those works our fathers have bequeathed to us a rich inheritance. In the expository labours of Ainsworth and Hildersham, of Cradock and Greenhill, of Caryl and Borroughs, of Gouge and Owen, of Henry and Poole, what stores have we of sound criticism, and faithful interpretation of the sacred text! While the writings of Bates and Howe, Owen and Baxter, Manton and Flavel, Charnock and Goodwin, with a multitude of their coadjutors, have supplied the text-books of most who, in succeeding times, have wished to combine harmonious views of evangelical truth with an experience of its power in consoling the heart and sanctifying the life.
Most blessed men! Your watchings and prayers have not been
in vain. Multitudes, since you entered into the joy of your Lord, have learned from your labours the truth as it is in Jesus; and while the works of licentious poets, and scoffing philosophers, are accumulating for them from age to age a fearful amount of retribution, it is well for you that the fruits of your assiduous studies, painful sufferings, and persevering prayers, continue to multiply from age to age, and will at length be seen in an innumerable company turned by your toils to righteousness, amongst whom you shall shine forth as stars for ever and ever.
2. As Preachers.-On this part of their character there exists a great diversity of evidence. Were you to consult the sermons of Dr. South, you would find that he described their preaching "as crude incoherences, nauseous tautologies, and saucy familiarities with God." He will tell you that "Latin was with them a mortal crime; and Greek, instead of being owned for the language of the Holy Ghost, was looked upon as a sin against it; so that, in a word, they had all the confusion of Babel amongst them, without the diversity of tongues." But this was Dr. South. Happily we possess testimony of a very different class. In "The Directory for the Public Worship of God," &c., put forth by the assembly of divines, there is a section on preaching the word, from which we shall see that a very different method was recommended by the preachers at Westminster.
"It is pre-supposed (according to the rules for ordination) that the minister of Christ is in some good measure gifted for so weighty a service, by his skill in the original languages, and in such arts and sciences as are handmaids unto divinity, by his knowledge in the whole body of theology, but most of all in the holy Scriptures, having his senses and heart exercised in them above the common sort of believers; and by the illumination of God's Spirit, and other gifts of edification, which (together with reading and studying of the word) he ought still to seek by prayer, and an humble heart, resolving to admit and receive any truth not yet attained, whenever God shall make it known unto him. All which he is to make use of, and improve, in his private preparations, before he deliver in public what he hath provided."
"He is not to rest in general doctrine, although never so much cleared and confirmed, but to bring it home to special use, by application to his hearers: which albeit it prove a work of great difficulty to himself, requiring much prudence, zeal, and meditation, and to the natural and corrupt man will be very unpleasant; yet he is to endeavour to perform it in such a manner that his auditors may feel the word of God to be quick and powerful, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart; and that if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his heart made manifest, and give glory to God."
"But the servant of Christ, whatever his method be, is to perform his whole ministry,
"1. Painfully, not doing the work of the Lord negligently.
"2. Plainly, that the meanest may understand, delivering the truth, not in the enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect; abstaining also from an unprofitable use of unknown tongues, strange phrases, and cadences of sounds and
words, sparingly citing sentences of ecclesiastical, or other human writers, ancient or modern, be they never so elegant.
"3. Faithfully, looking at the honour of Christ, the conversion, edification, and salvation of the people, not at his own gain or glory, keeping nothing back which may promote those holy ends, giving to every one his own portion, and bearing indifferent respect unto all, without neglecting the meanest, or sparing the greatest in their sins.
"4. Wisely, framing all his doctrines, exhortations, and especially his reproofs, in such a manner as may be most likely to prevail, showing all due respect to each man's person and place, and not mixing his own passion or bitterness.
"5. Gravely, as becometh the word of God, shunning all such gesture, voice, and expressions, as may occasion the corruptions of men to despise him and his ministry. "6. With loving affection, that the people may see all coming from his godly zeal, and hearty desire to do them good. And,
"7. As taught of God, and persuaded in his own heart, that all that he teacheth, is the truth of Christ; and walking before his flock, as an example to them in it; earnestly, both in private and public, recommending his labours to the blessing of God, and watchfully looking to himself and the flock, whereof the Lord hath made him overseer; so shall the doctrine of truth be preserved uncorrupt, many souls converted and built up, and himself receive manifold comforts of his labours even in this life, and afterward the crown of glory laid up for him in the world to come."
Daniel De Foe, himself one of the ablest and most captivating writers of which our country can boast, has said of them, "They preached sound doctrine without jingle or trifling; they studied what they delivered; they preached their sermons, rather than read them in the pulpit; they spoke from the heart to the heart; nothing like our cold, declaiming way, entertained now as a mode, and read with a flourish, under the ridiculous notion of being methodical; but what they conceived by the assistance of the great Inspirer of his servants, the Holy Spirit, they delivered with a becoming gravity, a decent fervour, an affectionate zeal, and a ministerial authority, suited to the dignity of the office and the majesty of the work. And as a testimony of this, their practical works left behind them are a living specimen of what they performed among us. Such are the large volumes of divinity remaining of Dr. Goodwin, Dr. Manton, Dr. Owen, Dr. Bates, Mr. Charnock, Mr. Poole, Mr. Clarkson, Mr. Baxter, Mr. Flavel, Mr. Howe, and others too numerous to mention." *
How perseveringly they preached under all the discouragements of their position, ought not to be overlooked: they endured extraordinary fatigue, and exposed themselves to no common danger, that they might preach Christ to their neglected countrymen; and in many a barn, or in many a wood, have they at the midnight hour addressed a hungry multitude on the truths of the Gospel. The City of London, too, when suffering under the successive calamities of plague and fire, witnessed their compassionate zeal for perishing souls. At the height of the pestilence, ten thousand persons died in a single week; and under that
* Present State of Parties, pp. 289, 290.