Archive for September, 2005

Two Men on the Western Frontier: Jonathan Edwards and William Johnson

September 29th, 2005 Posted in Uncategorized

When Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was ministering at Stockbridge, he encouraged his son, the future theologian-pastor Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (1745-1801), to spend time learning the culture and language of the Oneida. The boy went with a missionary, Gideon Hawley, to an Oneida village at the head of the Susquehanna, about two hundred miles away from his family. The young boy was here from April 1755 to mid-January 1756. What amazing confidence the senior Edwards and his wife Sarah must have had in a sovereign God to send their son into such a potentially dangerous place!

In the winter of 1756, the situation did indeed become too dangerous for the young Jonathan and Gideon to stay with the Oneida. War was engulfing the western frontier and  the younger Edwards and Hawley trekked back to Fort Johnson, the fortified mansion of Sir William Johnson (1715-1774), now in present-day Amsterdam, New York. The young Edwards spent most of the winter there. The elder Edwards considered Johnson as “a man of not much religion” [James Thomas Flexner, Mohawk Baronet: A Biography of Sir William Johnson (1959 ed.; repr. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1989), 290]. What a contrast Johnson’s home would have been then to the godly home in which the younger Edwards had been raised.

Johnson was a remarkable Irishman, born and raised not far from Dublin, who had come to America at the age of twenty-two. An extremely tall man, gargantuan in his day, Johnson was a resourceful businessman and went on to create a mini-empire in the Mohawk Valley. Key to this empire were his own brains and his third wife, a Mohawk by the name of Molly Brant (c.1736-1796), or Koñwatsi’ tsiaiéñni as she liked to be known. Her younger brother was Joseph Brant (1742/43-1807), well-known in Ontarian history. But Molly was actually much more powerful than her brother in her day, because Mohawk society was matriarchal and she was the wife of the one of the most powerful British land barons in that area of the new world.

I visited Fort Johnson this past weekend, as well as the larger fortress-mansion that Johnson built nearby and which today is called Johnson Hall. I was reminded again of the turbulence of Jonathan Edwards’ world. Johnson himself was active in the French and Indian War (1755-1760), in which he saw action. He commanded forces at the important Battle of Lake George (1755), in which Edwards’ cousin Ephraim Williams was killed. A display case at Fort Johnson held a book that was open to an account of Ephraim’s death.

Johnson’s empire, though, was not to last. He died in 1774. Two years later, his family, loyal to the British crown like Johnson, took the British side in the civil war which we know as the American Revolution. In the turbulence that followed the entirety of the Johnson estates were confiscated by the American government and all of his labours were brought to naught. Flexner, in his biography of Johnson, indulges in counter-factual history and wonders what would have happened if Johnson had lived. Johnson might have secured the Mohawk Valley for the British and the course of the war might have been quite different (Mohawk Baronet, 352-356).

But Johnson did not have a role to play in the American Revolution, for he died in 1774. What a parable is his life of the folly of building kingdoms in this world. How different the empire-building, if it can be called that, of the two Jonathan Edwards, both father and son. In their books and preaching they sought to spread the rule of the King of kings, the Lord Jesus, and as such they built for eternity.

One wonders if Molly Brant later acquired the faith that was absent in her husband’s life. After the American Revolution she went to live in Kingston. There in the 1790s, possibly not long before her death, an anonymous traveller saw her in the Anglican Church and wrote this account: “in the Church at Kingston we saw an Indian woman, who sat in an honourable place among the English. She appeared very devout during Divine Service and very attentive to the Sermon.”

Hannah Review of a God Entranced Vision of All Things

September 26th, 2005 Posted in Uncategorized

John D. Hannah, who teaches Historical Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, has written a review of A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, eds. John Piper and Justin Taylor (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), which are the papers of a 2003 conference on Jonathan Edwards held at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. It has just appeared in the e-zine, Reformation 21.  Read the review and then get the book and savour some very fine studies of the thought and life of this superb American theologian.

Hannah concludes the review thus:

“In a world where most celebrated figures are anti-heroes, Edwards is truly remarkable. He was a man, as [Mark] Dever and [Sherard] Burns demonstrate, that at times did not rise above the cultural presuppositions and blinders of his day (e.g., his aristocratic attitudes in a culture rejecting past conventions and his embrace of slavery). Though a genius by any cultural standards, his attempt to defend the Reformed faith with cleverly constructed and novel arguments at times seemed to take him to the edge of Orthodoxy though he was wise enough to know that some answers have not been revealed by the all-wise, incomprehensible God of the Holy Scriptures, as [Paul] Helms and [Sam] Storms ancillarily indicate. As…[John and Noël] Piper…indicate, [J. I.] Packer and [Donald] Whitney collaborate, Edwards’ spirituality is truly exemplary, as is his conception of God; he managed to put life in sync with his lofty encounter with the one whose name is above every name. I can heartily commend this popularly styled volume.”

Abraham Cheare and Panting for the Holy Spirit

September 26th, 2005 Posted in Uncategorized

Ever since I begin to read Baptist history in the 1980s, I have had a love for the lives and stories of our Baptist forebears. This past weekend I had the privilege of considering again the story of Abraham Cheare (1626-1668), pastor of a Calvinistic Baptist work in Plymouth during the period of the Commonwealth and also during the early years of persecution under the so-called “Merry Monarch,” Charles II (r.1660-1685).

The early years of Abraham Cheare are obscure. One recent writer names his father as a John Cheare, who leased a couple of fulling mills built by the Elizabethan naval captain Sir Francis Drake at Plymouth [C. E. Whiting, Studies in English Puritanism from the Restoration to the Revolution, 1660-1688 (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1968), 568-569]. Cheare himself described his parents as “mean,” that is lowly in social standing, “yet honest” [“Post-script” to his Words in Season (London: Nathan Brookes, 1668), 293]. Nathan Brookes, the publisher of one of his books, notes that his parents were also believers who took care to nurture their son in God’s ways [“The Publisher to the Reader” in Words in Season, (6)].

Apart from a journey to London in the 1650s, Cheare appears to have spent the entirety of his life in the vicinity of Plymouth where he was born and raised. During the tumult and turbulence of the civil wars in the British Isles during the 1640s and 1650s he was able to avoid fighting with any of the armies, but he did serve for a time in the local militia at Plymouth (“Post-script” to his Words in Season, 293). This was possibly during the long siege of Plymouth by the Royalist armies in 1643, a siege that failed to drive the Parliamentary troops out of the town or bring about its fall. At one point he also served as an army chaplain, but he was able to obtain a discharge after a few weeks (“Post-script” to his Words in Season, 293-294).

Around 1648, Cheare says that he was convinced “of his Duty to the Lord, by evidence of Scriptural Light” and he “joyned himself in an holy Covenant, to walk in all the Ordinances of the Lord blameless, to the best of his Light and Power, in fellowship with a poor and despised People” (“Post-script” to his Words in Season, 294). This “poor and despised People” were the Plymouth Calvinistic Baptists.

If this congregation had a preacher before Cheare, his name has not come down to us. Cheare is the first known pastor of this congregation. Though Cheare rarely left Plymouth, he was involved in the nation-wide church planting of the Calvinistic Baptists during the 1650s. He was in correspondence, for example, in January 1655 with a certain Robert Bennet about the organization of Calvinistic Baptists in the neighbouring county of Cornwall. And he was present as the pastor of the Plymouth Church at an important meeting of the Western Association of Baptist Churches in May, 1658, in Dorchester. On that memorable occasion some individuals who were sympathetic to the “Fifth Monarchy” movement—these were individuals who believed in using military violence to prepare for the establishment of Christ’s messianic kingdom—failed to convince the representatives of the churches in the Association, including Cheare, to publicly espouse the ideals and goals of this party.

Cheare proved to be a man with a wide knowledge of the Scriptures. This is well seen in Sighs for Sion, a tract that was published in London in 1656 by Livewel Chapman. (By the way, how typically Puritan is this man’s personal name! In other books that he printed, his first name is spelt “Livewell”). A second printing followed in 1657, which was also done by Livewel Chapman. Written mostly by Cheare, but with the help of four other Baptist leaders—Henry Forty, Robert Steed, John Pendarves (1622-1656) and Thomas Glasse—this tract essentially pled with the churches to which it was sent to overlook their differences of opinion regarding eschatology and to pray for the outpouring of the Spirit which the authors deemed vital if they were to see their churches quickened and strengthened (p.10-11).

Cheare and his co-authors cited examples of faithful praying from the Old Testament—such men as Nehemiah, Ezra, and Daniel—to stir up their readers to be fervent in prayer (p.12-13). In fact, the writers felt that God had already given the churches a taste of “this glorious blessing of the Spirit of grace and supplication”—a reference to Zechariah 12:10—and done great works on behalf of his people (p.15-16). But there had been defections from within their churches and “vain men,” in the words of Cheare and his colleagues, had attacked the Baptist position (p.17). Ongoing prayer for Christ’s cause to be honoured among them was thus still needed.

In a powerful exhortation the churches were urged to reflect on what kind of congregations they ought to be like. Were they the sort of people they should be, then, Cheare and his fellow authors wrote,

“the zeal of the Lord’s house would eat us up, and love of it would crucifie us more unto, and wean us from those interests of earth, and men, whereupon we have been apt to lean, and whereunto we have been deeply and dangerously engaged: causing us also to wait to be with Jesus, which is best of all; and in the mean time to pant, and thirst uncessantly, for that holy Spirit of promise, that alone can present us with the ravishing glory of that expected day, and raise up our spirits to a sweet and suitable disposition, according to the will of God, to wait and act aright toward it” (p.18-19).

Though so many things have changed between Cheare’s day and ours, our need is ultimately no different from that of the Baptists being addressed by Cheare and his friends. May the Lord grant us “to pant and thirst” without ceasing for the same Spirit of supplication that we might live for the glory that is to come!


September 22nd, 2005 Posted in Uncategorized

Blogging is undoubtedly bringing a batch of new terms into the English language: blogosphere, blogdom, bloggage are some that I have seen in recent days. One that I have just run across in relation to blogs focused on the Scriptures is “biblioblog,” which biblical scholar Mark Goodacre of Duke University has defined as “Blogs which have a primary focus on academic Biblical Studies” (NT Gateway Weblog).

This being so, I suppose that what I am doing here is an ecclesioblog, a “blog that is primarily focused on the history of the church.”

Nehemiah Coxe

September 22nd, 2005 Posted in Books

Reformed Baptist Academic Press (Palmdale, California) are about to publish Nehemiah Coxe’s A Discourse of the Covenants. Edited by Ron Miller, James M. Renihan and Francisco Orozco, this important work by Calvinistic Baptist Nehemiah Coxe (d.1689), a one-time associate of John Bunyan (1628-1688), has not been reprinted since it first appeared in the 17th century. This is strange, for some of our Calvinistic Baptist forebears—men like John Sutcliff (1752-1814) of Olney—appeared to have deeply appreciated it.

Be this as it may, this fresh edition is extremely welcome. It clearly demonstrates that 17th century Calvinistic Baptists like Coxe—and his modern descendants in this century—are fully part of that stream of Reformed theology that has come down from the Reformation work of men like Huldreich Zwingli, John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, and Théodore de Bèze. More times than I can count—and personally I find it so frustrating—I have heard Reformed theology defined in such a way that it excludes those who hold to believer’s baptism. This valuable work will help set the record straight.

Presbygationalism Affirmed

September 22nd, 2005 Posted in Uncategorized

If you happen to read the post on Gill by President Bauder @ Nos Sobrii (mentioned in my previous entry), also read this earlier blog from him that deals with some recent discussions at John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist congregation on baptism and church membership: Presbygationalism. A very wise post on a vital issue for Baptists on how biblical church government should work.

Reading John Gill

September 22nd, 2005 Posted in 18th Century, Books

I have long been interested in John Gill (1697-1771). In standard histories of the English Calvinistic Baptists he usually gets blamed for the decline that came upon this community in the 18th century. It’s a judgment that has poisoned many against his very name and they want nothing to do with the man. I think the actual impact of Gill upon the Baptists of his day, though, is far more positive than the usual reading of his life allows and a much more complex story than these histories present.

In this vein it was good to find this blog from Kevin T. Bauder, the President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Minnesota, about his reading of Gill: Biblical Languages Then and Now (@ Nos Sobrii ). Bauder begins thus:

“I’ve been spending a good bit of time lately in some of John Gill’s commentaries. His treatments are in certain ways typical of the Puritan writers (not that Gill was a Puritan—just that these similarities do exist). He was quite verbose, which does more than his profundity to account for the remarkable length of his volumes. He was skilled with logic and argued well. He was enormously learned by the standards of his day, and mastered the biblical languages to the level at which they were then known.”

He goes on to speak of the deficiencies of Gill’s knowledge by today’s standards. But I am thrilled that Gill is being read.

Learning & the Cross of Christ

September 21st, 2005 Posted in Uncategorized

In its early years, the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton, had a number of Presidents whose tenure in office was relatively brief. One thinks, of course, of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the theologian of the eighteenth century, who was there less than three months. Samuel Davies (1723-1761), who succeeded Edwards, was President for about nineteen months before he died. He was succeeded by Samuel Finley (d.1766), who was president from 1761 to 1766. And the very first president of the school, Jonathan Dickinson (1688-1747), was in office for but five months.

The longest serving of these early Presidents was Aaron Burr, Sr. (1716-1757), the son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards. He was in office for nine years. It was Burr who led the school from Newark to the village of Princeton in 1756, only to die the following year.  Only with the coming of John Witherspoon (1723-1794) in 1768 was this line of brief presidencies broken.

But linking together these short presidencies was a shared worldview that esteemed the Scriptures as the supreme source of wisdom and knowledge. It was a worldview that was in hearty agreement with Dickinson’s declaration about the educational ideal of the fledgling school when it first met in the parlour of his home: “Cursed be all learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ.”

Toronto Baptist Seminary, where I serve as principal, was founded 180 years after the College of New Jersey in very different circumstances. But I hope we, as a school, share Dickinson’s passion for a Christ-centred education.

PS I am thankful to Pastor Ron Shinkle of Lemoyne Baptist Church, Toledo, Ohio, for drawing my attention to Dickinson’s statement.


September 20th, 2005 Posted in Uncategorized

’Tis so good to see a dear friend, Heinz Dschankilic, entering the blogopshere with his new blog, QuoVadis . Check it out and read. Blog on, Heinz.

John Taylor of Norwich

September 19th, 2005 Posted in Uncategorized

Speaking of Arianism (see previous post), I recently worked through a biography of John Taylor (1694-1761), pastor of the Presbyterian work in Norwich, in his day one of the leading towns in England. Geoffrey T. Eddy, a Methodist minister based in Warwickshire, England, has produced a long-overdue biography of this noted Hebraist, strident critic of classical Calvinism, and eighteenth-century Arian [Dr. Taylor of Norwich: Wesley’s Arch-heretic (Peterborough, England: Epworth Press, 2003)].

Taylor became well-known for his Hebrew Concordance (vol. I—1754; vol. II—1757) that placed him in “the forefront of the leading Hebrew scholars of his day” (47). But he also became infamous for being a “radical champion of freedom of thought on theological questions” (40). Imbued with the optimistic confidence in human reason that was typical of so many in his day (154-155), he deprecated what he called “Athanasianism” because of what he believed to be its denial of God’s unity (40). Eddy thinks Taylor was probably closest to Arianism in his theological convictions (40, 150, 152).

And though he believed in the infallibility of the Scriptures, Taylor saw no foundation for the doctrine of original sin in Scripture (83). This led him to be the target of attack by two of the most famous Christian authors of that era, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who critiqued him in his The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1757), and John Wesley (1703-1791). Eddy details both of their responses. Of Edwards’ response he is very dismissive: “Modern readers are unlikely to think it worth while to plough through the book, based as it is upon a cosmology and a view of Scripture neither of which can any longer be the basis for argument” (96). At a later point, Eddy, with regard to what he believes to be Wesley’s failure to mount an effective response to Taylor, comments that the doctrine of original sin has “simply ceased to be credible” (121). Where then did Taylor stand when it came to salvation? His teaching was, Eddy says, “frank Pelagianism,” in which “we are saved by our own efforts, with a little help from the Holy Spirit” (119, also 152-153). Little wonder that many regarded Taylor as an arch-heretic.

Eddy relates the way that one of Taylor’s critics, a Calvinistic Baptist minister by the name of John MacGowan (1726-1780)—minister of the historic Devonshire Square Baptist Church in London and a man, in Eddy’s words, “over-addicted to irony and vituperation” (236, n.5)—attacked him. In a tract that appeared in the year of Taylor’s death, MacGowan depicted Taylor as now sinking down in hell in “despair, while the direful floods of omnipotent vengeance rolled upon him” (6). Eddy terms this book of the London Baptist the “weirdest of all the attacks” upon his hero (5). And yet, a careful reading of the words of the Lord Jesus about the final state of unbelievers would show that MacGowan was not so weird after all.

There is no doubt that much good biography is rooted in sympathy with one’s subject and in Eddy, John Taylor has found both a good biographer and admiring advocate. However, this reviewer would strongly dissent from Eddy’s dismissal of such critics of Taylor as Edwards and Wesley. They were no mean students of the Scriptures and sought to subject all their thinking to that body of divine truth. And they would have been very surprised to be told, as Eddy tells us, that when it comes to original sin, for example, they were simply under the thralldom of Augustine (xi)! They were certain—and this reviewer would say, rightly so—that this teaching has an apostolic ring about it. And they would have also rightly believed that what Taylor called Athansianism is nothing more, nothing less than a Scriptural view of the Godhead.