Some important things to remember
Having considered how Christ is presented in Proverbs as a tender Bride to be won, we come secondly to some important things to bear in mind in approaching the book that affect interpretation and homiletics.
Firstly, the book's structure. This is very straightforward.
Chapters 1-9 Introductory material. This part of the book is the most like other parts of Scripture and is the least unusual.
Chapters 10-24 This is where we find the bulk of the proverbs proper
Chapters 25-29 Here we have further proverbs copied by Hezekiah’s men
Chapter 30 The words of Agur
Chapter 31 The words of Lemuel and the epilogue of the noble woman
It is good to bear in mind that one is dealing with a collection. Each proverb needs to be matched with others and with the rest of Scripture teaching.
As with many books of the Bible there is a good deal of repetition here and we need to be prepared to deal with it. Some proverbs or parts of proverbs are either repeated exactly or reproduced in similar form. An examination of their context will usually reveal their particular aim.
As ever, even where the verses and groups of verses jump from subject to subject, an appreciation of context is most important. We must take care that we do not let the intensely practical concern with material things and this world in the proverbs lead to an imbalanced view. Worldly success does not equal righteousness, as we know.
One must bear in mind the proverbial nature of the proverbs. The statements in the proverbs are proverbial and must not be understood as if they were Law. One of the most common and obvious mistakes with proverbs is to take them literalistically. We would not do it with English proverbs. We are quite happy to recognise the truth both of Too many cooks spoil the broth and Many hands make light work; Look before you leap and he who hesitates is lost. However, when it comes to biblical proverbs we are conscious that this is Scripture and so we want somehow to absolutise them in a wrong way. Proverbs are designed to be memorable rather than theoretically accurate. No proverb is a complete statement of truth. It will not automatically apply in any and every situation. One is expected to use one’s common sense. These are not legal guarantees.
When blessings or rewards are promised it is important to remember that these are likely to follow if one adheres to the advice laid down. Proverbs does not guarantee success. Treating the proverbs as laws or being literalistic in interpretation is dangerous.
For example, if you were expounding 10:22, The blessing of the LORD brings wealth without painful toil for it you would want to remind the congregation that this is both a proverb and in the Old Testament where God’s blessing was often of a more obviously material sort. We cannot argue from this verse that ‘every believer is a wealthy believer’ or ‘every blessed believer is blessed with wealth’. If we bear in mind other Scriptures we will remember that wealth can be a curse or a blessing and so the point is that when God brings a blessing it can come very easily. Truly it can be said of those in Christ, All things are yours (1 Corinthians 3:21).
Or take 14:23, All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.
There are situations where hard work brings no profit at all. All the gains are wiped out in a moment. However, there is a proverbial truth here that ought to be accepted.
Similar things could be said about other proverbs such as
15:25 The LORD tears down the proud man’s house but he keeps the widow’s boundaries intact. 16:3 Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed. 29:12 If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked.
In 22:26, 27 we read Do not be one who shakes hands in pledge or puts up security for debts; if you lack the means to pay, your very bed will be snatched from under you. There are two questions here. If you put up security for a debt will your bed be snatched from under you? Well, of course, in many cases it never comes to that. This is simply a strong warning of the sort of danger you court if you do this type of thing. Some would say such verses teach that no Christian should put up security for another person’s debt. Does a verse like this prohibit Christians from doing such a thing? Again I think we have to say that the point is not a legalistic ban but a warning of the dangers involved. Surely the chief concern, too, is a spiritual one. A person who is committed to supporting unbiblical teachings will lose out heavily.
Bear in mind the need to transculturise many of the proverbs. A good many of the proverbs are rooted in Old Testament practices and institutions in their expression. If we forget that we will run into trouble.
An obvious example would be 25:24, Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. The verse may conjure up a man sitting on the corner of a sloping roofed house with his feet in the gutter. That is not the picture intended. A transculturised version would be more like ‘Better to be in the spare room than share the house with a quarrelsome wife’.
Without this perspective what do you do with a verse like 30:17? The eye that mocks a father, that scorns obedience to an aged mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures. It sounds pretty gruesome until you recall that this is written for a culture living on the edge of a desert. The boy is warned not to go wandering off into that desert but he doesn’t listen. Maybe he gets away with it once or twice but then one day he wanders off and gets lost. Days later they find his remains. The vultures have eaten his flesh; the ravens have pecked out his eyes.
Types of proverb
Finally, the proverbs proper can be divided into a number of general types. It is worth bearing in mind that to some extent the proverbs can be classified. Just as in the Hebrew poetry found in the Psalms we have various sorts of parallelism and other poetical devices, so the proverbs can be sorted into more or less clear cut categories.
Many writers note that in 10:1-15:33 we have mostly antithetical or contrasting proverbs. These are of the ‘on one hand … but on the other …’ sort.
Eg 10:1 A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son grief to his mother
Some contrasts are simple, as in the above example. Others are more complex, as when the antithesis is suppressed in one half and has to be inferred from what is in the proverb’s other half.
Eg 10:8 The wise in heart accept commands, but a chattering fool comes to ruin.
2. Synonymous and synthetic.
In 16:1-22:16 we mostly find synonymous and synthetic proverbs.
Synonymous. Here the first line is repeated in different words.
Eg 11:25 A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.
16:11 Honest scales and balances belong to the LORD; all the weights in the bag are of his making
Synthetic. In synthetic proverbs, the first line is added to with a subsequent one.
Eg 10:22 The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, without painful toil for it.
16:3 Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.
There are also straight similes. There are many of these in Chapters 25-27 but one or two appear earlier
Eg 10:26 As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so are sluggards to those who send them.
Some proverbs defy neat categorisation and even within categories, there can be variation. Other distinctive types worth noting are
The ten better than proverbs. The first is in 12:9 Better to be a nobody and yet have a servant than pretend to be somebody and have no food.
And the six how much more proverbs. The first of these is in 11:31 If the righteous receive their due on earth, how much more the ungodly and the sinner!
Charles Bridges has helpfully written of Proverbs, "Surely if the book conduced to no other end, it tends to humble even the most consistent servant of God, in consciousness of countless failures. The whole book is a mirror for us all, not only to show our defects, but also a guidebook and directory for godly conduct." If this is borne in mind along with the fact that the book is chiefly about Christ, there is hope that we may benefit from its teaching and pass it on to others.
This article first appeared in the Banner of Truth Magazine
Understanding what Proverbs is about
The chief theme of God's Word is the coming of Messiah. Since before the beginning of the world, God has always intended to send an anointed one, a Saviour, to the world to save his people. It was always his intention that the Second Person of the Trinity should take to himself a human body and soul to live and to die as Messiah on earth.
In order for a person to live out his life as a human being here on earth certain things are necessary. You have to have somewhere to live, for example - a land. So what we call the Promised Land was prepared for the coming of Messiah. It was always intended that he should be born in Bethlehem, live in Nazareth, base his ministry in Capernaum, die in Jerusalem.
Further, you have to have a people - so the choosing of Abraham and the whole story of how the Jewish nation was formed.
A language was necessary - Hebrew it was, but also, following exile, for every day use Aramaic, and, thanks to Alexander the Great, with plenty of Greek thrown in too.
To be a nation you need laws and they are all set out for us in the opening books of the Old Testament.
Other things are necessary too to make a nation. Nations have a history; they have heroes and traditions; they have their songs and their sayings too. The eighteenth century Scots patriot and politician Andrew Fletcher famously said that "if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation". Think of an Englishman singing Jerusalem, a Welshman singing Calon Lan and you will see what he means. The impact of the Psalms on the Jews and on Messiah himself ought not to be underestimated.
In a similar way, a nation's sayings shape it and are very much part of the fabric of that nation. Hear a Welshman say Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon (a nation without a language is a nation without a heart) or a Scotsman Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye (what's meant to happen to you, will happen to you) or an Englishman saying Two wrongs don't make a right or the early bird catches the worm and you will see it.
Just as we have a collection of Hebrew songs in the Bible, so we also have a collection of Hebrew Proverbs. Just as the core of the Psalms was written and collected by King David so the core of the Book of Proverbs was written and collected by his son King Solomon.
It is fair to say that if it is true that we need to take note of the Psalms of David in order to understand Messiah then we also need to take note of the Proverbs of Solomon in order to understand Messiah. As it has been put, if the Psalms give us Jesus singing the Law, the Proverbs give us him meditating on it.
The New Testament
That statement could be considered to be wide of the mark as there is no evidence of direct quotations from Proverbs in the Gospels. However, on closer examination we see parallels.
For example, in Luke 14:7-11 Jesus tells his hearers to take the lowest place at weddings, then they will be invited to a higher place. This is straight from Proverbs 25:6, 7 Do not exalt yourself in the king's presence, and do not claim a place among his great men; it is better for him to say to you, "Come up here," than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.
Or take the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Firstly, the seek and you will find idea (Matthew 7:7, 8) which is very much like Proverbs 8:17 where wisdom says I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me. Secondly, the story of the wise man and the foolish man grows out of Proverbs such as Proverbs 14:1 The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down.
Beyond this is the very way that Jesus very often summed up his teaching in a pithy way, very similar to that found in Proverbs
Matthew 6:24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Matthew 6:33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 7:20 ... by their fruit you will recognise them.
Matthew 22:21 Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's
Mark 2:17 It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.
Mark 10:43,44 ... whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
John 14:6 I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father except through me.
Christ the subject
More than that, Proverbs itself is all about Christ. This may not be immediately clear to a casual reader but if it is borne in mind that the book is a presentation of true wisdom and that apart from anything else Christ is wisdom then it is evident that ultimately the book is about the true wisdom found in Christ.
In Proverbs we see Christ especially as the one greater than Solomon who has become for believers, to quote 1 Corinthians 1:30, wisdom from God. Christ, and especially his death on the cross, seem foolish to the world. But the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom.
As stated, it is clear that Jesus knew this book well and that often his sayings, parables and other teachings parallel and reflect things found there. To truly understand Jesus, we must get to grips with Proverbs.
Proverbs is incontrovertibly about wisdom, about how to be wise. It is important to remember that, ultimately, wisdom is not something abstract but something personal. In his commentary David Atkinson argues that the personification at the end of Chapter 1 is not a mere literary device but a reflection of the essential nature of biblical wisdom as wisdom is for living by. It cannot be known until it is lived out.
Each prophet and apostle of God, before Christ and after, has been sent in the wisdom of God, and brings God’s wisdom to this world. And so in Matthew 23:34 and Luke 11:49 we read
God in his wisdom (note) said … Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers … some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.
At the apex of all this is the coming from heaven of the true Wisdom of God (see 1 Corinthians 1:24).
In Luke 7:35 and Matthew 11:19 Jesus closely identifies himself and his ministry with God’s wisdom. He says that wisdom is proved right by all her children. He is the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3).
What about the fact that in Proverbs wisdom is presented as being female? This is not a problem. Jesus spoke of himself as being like a mother hen longing to gather her chicks. He is both the Bridegroom and, in this book, a tender Bride to be won.
To be truly wise we must listen to Christ. We must receive him. To find Christ, or to be found by him, is to find wisdom.
We know that every part of the Bible points us to Christ in one way or another. In Proverbs Christ speaks as wisdom. The book also has a great deal to say about righteousness. When we remember that Christ is the Righteous one and that true righteousness comes only through him, we can again see how a proper exposition of Proverbs must point people to Jesus Christ.
I have preached through the Book of Proverbs more than once. In seeking to preach through Proverbs I found myself saying things like this
What do we all need? Wisdom from God. We need wisdom to know how to live and how to make sense of life. True wisdom gives us definite truths to live by and teaches us to be obedient. This is fleshed out most clearly in the New Testament. Put quite simply, the purpose of life is to live for the glory of the God who made us. No-one does that by nature and so we deserve the judgement of hell.
However, in his mercy God has provided a way out, a way of wisdom (the Way) in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He himself has provided a way back to God by means of his perfect life and his atoning death. This is the teaching, the words, the understanding or sound learning that we need. It is the obedience of faith to the command to trust in Christ, God’s wisdom, that we need.
Some would fail to see that Christ is the subject of Proverbs Chapter 8 but the best commentators are clear that he is. For those with eyes to see he can also be found very clearly in Proverbs 31.
This article first appeared in the Banner of Truth Magazine
We began last time to describe a book or collection of books found in the personal library of the eighteenth century Baptist pastor Benjamin Beddome (1717-1795) currently housed in the Angus Library of Regents Park College, Oxford. The library catalogue has recently been digitalised and can be accessed online through the Oxford University Solo website (http://solo.bodleian. ox.ac.uk – all books begin with the prefix bed).
In our first article we sought to briefly describe the five books or pamphlets bound together on the subject of baptism. These are
1. David Rees (Credobaptist) Infant-baptism no Institution of Christ.
2. Samuel Hebden (Paedobaptist) A treatise on the subjects and mode of baptism.
3. Anonymous (Credobaptist) An Answer to a late anonymous Pamphlet entitled, A treatise on the subjects and mode of baptism. (We suggested that this work is probably the work of Portsea minister John Lacy, giving the impression that the Beddome book confirms this but a further inspection reveals it does not.)
4. Caleb Fleming (Paedobaptist) The Challenge, Occasioned by an Answer to a Late Treatise on the Subject and Mode of Baptism.
5. Anonymous (Paedobaptist) A review, and vindication, of a late Treatise, on the Subject and Mode of baptism, By Way of Reply, to a Zealous, Angry Answerer. Closer inspection of this item conforms this to be the work of Samuel Hebden who defends his own work, the second item in this collection.
In our previous article we also sought to give a fuller description of the first and most substantial work in the collection, David Rees's 290 page work opposing infant baptism and answering a previous work by Congregationalist Fowler Walker (d 1753).
We want to proceed by more closely describing the other four shorter works bound with the Rees volume.
The arguments in the books (continued)
Samuel Hebden's A treatise on the subjects and mode of baptism.
This 60 page book looks first at subjects (1-37) then at mode (37-60). Hebden begins by saying that the topic is too often debated with “anger and intemperate zeal, especially on the one side” (ie the Credobaptist side). He calls his opponents Baptists, Anabaptists (re-baptisers) or (his preference) Anti-paedobaptists. Despite his aspersions, they are “these friends of ours”.
He begins to look at the proper subjects of baptism by asserting that he does not oppose baptism of adult proselytes nor advocate baptising adults with no profession of faith. He certainly does not think baptism is essential to salvation. Further, he is not advocating indiscriminate infant baptism. Children of Heathen, Pagans or Papists should not be baptised nor those whose parents have not themselves been properly baptised.
He argues, he says, not from ancient practice but from Scripture. He announces five lines of argument he wants to pursue. Firstly and most importantly, from the perpetuity of God's covenant with Abraham, a covenant of grace, baptism being appointed to succeed circumcision as the initial sign and seal.
His also argues from various texts, including some that are often used against paedobaptism. His final argument is from the absurd consequences of failing to baptise htose infants he wants to see baptised.
He begins by asserting that the covenant in Genesis 17 was the covenant of grace. He argues this chiefly from its title – everlasting. “Nothing but inveterate prejudice can hinder man's inferring from hence and the foregoing discourse … that God's covenant with Abraham and his seed, could be no other than the covenant of grace” (p 9).
He then argues from several practical Scriptures that he feels speak plainly on the issue. These include Matthew 19:14, Romans 11:16 (where he argues that the children of believers are federally holy and so should be baptised), 1 Corinthians 7:14 (where he takes holy to mean “in covenant with God”), Acts 2:39 and Ephesians 2:12, and moving on to focus on Matthew 28:19 and Matthew 3:6, 11.
He concludes that despite “all the noise they make” Credobaptists cannot produce “a hint of God's casting the children of his people out of his covenant” and all these texts favour Paedobaptists. At various points Beddome has written in the margins of the text. On page 25, where Hebden looks at Matthew 28:19, he has typically written “See manifest inconsistency between this and the next page”. He again argues with him in the margin of page 29 over baptism replacing circumcision and at several other points.
On page 30, Hebden lists five ends of baptism. It is a token of God's taking persons into covenant; a sign of the blessing of regeneration; a seal of remission of sins to true believers; a means of distinguishing disciple from non-disciple, showing who is in the visible church; a means of putting God's professing people under covenant bonds and engagements.
This leads to the question of whether children should take communion. Here he opposes Essay in favour of the ancient practice of giving the eucharist to children by nonconformist minister James Peirce (1673-1726). Hebden finds the historical part defective and the argumentative part just as bad. Beddome here sees another contradiction in Hebden when he says that “arguments that overdo are good for nothing at all”.
As for mode, Hebden says there are three views - dipping is essential, dipping is more regular or that we may and ought to sprinkle. He argues for this last view.
He does not deny that dipping is the ancient method. However, according to him, then candidates were naked and were dipped three times over. Further, sprinkling (clinical baptisms) were always known.
He claims that some idolise dipping and others speak too highly of it, when in fact this is not warranted by linguistic arguments from the Scriptures. He knows that John Gale (1680-1721) has piled up quotations to support the Baptist view but he finds him at fault in his understanding. He goes on to examine several Scriptures seeking to get at the real meaning of the baptising and washing words. He claims that the dipping mode is not warranted by any one precept or example in the Bible and is not even unwilling to grant that John the Baptist dipped. He also brings up the old argument about how impracticable it would be to dip 3000 in one day as some claim was the case in Acts 2.
Having exhausted his main arguments, he comes to more controversial ground. He claims that dipping is unsafe and may be dangerous (in the case of infants, whom most dippers have no wish to baptise, and the sick). He also claims that it is indecent and will incite lust (!). He then has a bizarre argument about extreme bodily strength being necessary to do the thing properly and mocking because candidates partly baptise themselves once they step into the water. It is somehow against the sixth and seventh commandments and contrary to the principle that mercy is greater than sacrifice. He finally turns to Romans 6, which he sees as being certainly about Spirit baptism.
In closing he speaks warmly of Particular Baptists like Henry Jessey (1603-1633) and John Bunyan (1628-1688) but feels that General Baptists such as Henry Danvers (d 1683), Dr Gale and his protégé James Foster (1697-1753), are zealous party men who should be ashamed of themselves.
Lacy's An Answer to a late anonymous Pamphlet entitled, A treatise on the subjects and mode of baptism.
This is a reply to Hebden and is more or less the same length. The writer is clearly upset by Hebden's “violence and effrontery” and argues that despite his irenic pretensions he must have expected such a reaction as a footnote to his contents page refers to people being upset by his remarks. Hebden's book, he says, put him in mind of Fundamentals without a foundation a 1703 Paedobaptist work by David Russen.
For this writer, mode is the main issue. He has read Hebden but complains of his ambiguity, inconsistency, frequent shuffling and wriggling and frivolous distinctions, calling the work a “loose, groundless harangue”.
He objects against the grounds for baptism being your parents' faith not your own. He cannot see how this would exclude Papists and raises the matter of baptised parents who belong to no visible church and do not take communion.
He feels that a lot of time could have been saved with some of Hebden's covenantal arguments with their absurdities and inconsistencies.
He says clearly, “We maintain that there is no warrantable connection between circumcising infants of old, in the Jewish church and baptising of them in the Christian church”. He adds “and they with all their skill have never yet been able to prove it”.
As to the matter of when the transition comes our Baptist writer is quite happy to tie it to the coming of John the Baptist, who clearly rejected circumcision as a covenant marker. There is nothing about infant baptism in the story of John the Baptist he maintains. John says nothing about infants - “an irreparable loss and prejudice to the business of infant baptism”.
As for Romans 6 he cannot see how Abraham can in any sense be called the father of the infants of believers. He does not deny that in God's secret providence infants may be saved but that is not something known to us. His final point in the first part of his book is that there is no greta regard to be paid to Hebden's claim that baptism is an initial and initiating seal. This “though he has dinned his readers with the repetition of it above sixty times in” almost as many pages, and no less than six times on one page! Circumcision is called a seal but not baptism.
From page 26 the author begins to argue from specific Scriptures. Again he has a lot to complain of in Hebden. He accuses him of innuendo, of being “vague and trifling” and of “impatient repetition and obvious absurdities”.
As for mode, Hebden may be a hero to his own and one who has cut the Gordian knot but for this writer that is far from being the case. To suggest that dipping was an innovation in the second or third century without blushing is amazing. Hebden's arguments appear to be that mode is not dictated by the Scripture's use of the word baptise and dipping is inconsistent with the way that the baptism of the Spirit is spoken of. He is particularly offended by Hebden's idea that Naaman washed himself rather than being immersed. Hebden's “very magisterial air” and “forced interpretation” are roundly criticised. Our Baptist writer concludes by noting how strange it is “that it should come into any man's head to write so many pages, and to so little purpose” and then to publish these irreconcilable things.
This article was in In Writing. The third and final article never appeared.
In recent years Martin Salter, a Baptist, and David Gibson, a Presbyterian, have publicly debated the credo- and paedo-baptist positions. They have done this both in print (in Themelios) and in person (at the John Owen Centre). The debate is not, of course, a new one. It was one that quietly simmered away throughout the eighteenth century and beyond.
Though never entering into public debate, one of the many with an interest in the subject was the Baptist minister, Benjamin Beddome (1717-1795). The bulk of Beddome's personal library still exists. It was in the early fifties that Ernest Payne (1902-1980) rescued it from the attic of the descendant of one of the members of Beddome's Gloucestershire church and brought it, on permanent loan, to Regents Park College, Oxford, where it can still be found in the Angus Library, where it is currently being catalogued in digital form. It has been described as “a gold mine waiting to be discovered”.
Beddome was clearly interested in the baptism question as one of the books in his library is a single binding of five different titles covering both sides of the question. The decision to have the works bound together was presumably his.
Beddome (pronounced Beddam) was born in Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire, and was a son of the manse, his father being John Beddome (1674-1757). Initially apprenticed to a surgeon in Bristol, Beddome Junior began to train for the ministry and in 1739 was baptised in London, where he became a member of the Little Prescott Street church, Goodman's Fields, under Pastor Samuel Wilson (1702-1750). In 1740 he began to preach at Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire, where he eventually became the minister. There was something of a revival at the commencement of his ministry. He remained there for the rest of his long life being very active in the life of the Baptist community. His fame travelled far and in 1770, he was honoured with an MA from Providence College, Rhode Island.
In 1752, Beddome published A Scriptural Exposition of the Baptist Catechism, by Way of Question and Answer. He is best remembered today as a hymn writer. His hymns were regularly sung following his sermons. Some 13 of them appeared in the Bristol Baptist Collection of Ash and Evans, and 36 in the later Selection made by John Rippon (1751-1836). In 1817, a posthumous collection of 830 pieces was published. It contains some 39 hymns on baptism. Several volumes of sermons were also published posthumously.
The books and pamphlets Beddome gathered together have by now become quite obscure and forgotten, as have their authors, but no doubt they had their day and were praised or decried by those who read them as they appreciated or failed to appreciate the arguments they contain. The five books or pamphlets are as follows.
The five books or pamphlets
David Rees (Credobaptist)
Infant-baptism no Institution of Christ. The title page adds The rejection of it justified from Scripture and antiquity in answer to Mr Fowler Walker's Book entituled A Defence of infant-baptism, etc.
The first of the five is quite substantial and is itself a reply to a previous work. Fowler Walker (d 1753) was a Congregationalist minister based in Abergavenny whose own book, A defence of infant baptism appeared in Welsh in 1732 as well as in English in 1734. Walker's birth date is unknown but he died in 1753 and was the father of an eminent London barrister of the same name.
Abergavenny is where the first public debates in Wales on this vexed subject had taken place. In 1653, the Baptist John Tombes (c 1603-1676), who had debated Richard Baxter (1615-1691) in Bewdley in 1650, along with local Baptist John Abbott, debated the subject with Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) and John Cragge. Both sides claimed victory.
Things had gone fairly quiet by the time that Walker published. He wrote, he himself tells us, because of the scarcity of the work in Welsh by the Independent James Owen (1654-1706), Bedydd Plant o'r Nefoedd (Infant baptism from heaven, his treatise in favour of infant baptism) of 1693 and his reply to the Baptist Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) of 1701. Keach, who had published Gold refined or baptism in its primitive purity in 1689 had also written, at the request of fellow Baptists in Wales, in 1692, The rector rectified or corrected; infant baptism unlawful against William Burkitt (1650-1703) and, four years later, Light broke forth in Wales expelling darkness; or the Englishman's love to the antient Britons (Goleuni wedi torri allan yng Nghymru, etc) Both had been translated into Welsh by Keach's friend Robert Morgan of Swansea, it seems. Morgan had also translated Owen into English for Keach's perusal.
Geraint H Jenkins has called the Baptist rejoinder to Fowler Walker by David Rees a magisterial synthesis. It was first published in 1736. David Rees (c 1688-1748) was associated with the Baptist cause in Hengoed and, like James Owen, educated under Samuel Jones (1628-1697) at Brynllywarch. He appears to have been baptised and to have been induced to preach in the early 1700’s during the early years of the ministry of Morgan Griffiths (1699-1748). He went on to minister in London, eventually becoming the well respected minister of Lime-house in 1709. He was ordained by Joseph Stennett Sr (1663-1713) and John Piggott (d 1713) and remained there until his death, while maintaining his contacts with his native Wales, where he was held in high regard.
Best known for his work on baptism, he authored several other volumes on parts of the shorter catechism, psalm singing, ministerial remuneration and providence. His funeral sermon was preached by Joseph Stennett Jr (1692-1758).
The book has a supplement, Animadversions on the Rev Dr Thomas Ridgley's Discourse of infant baptism. Thomas Ridgley (1667-1734) was the author of several volumes including a two volume body of divinity that appeared between 1731 and 1733 and follows the pattern of the Westminster Larger Catechism.
Samuel Hebden (Paedobaptist)
A treatise on the subjects and mode of baptism is the second book or pamphlet in the collection. It is much briefer than the Rees volume and is the work of the Independent minister Samuel Hebden (c 1692-1747), It takes the opposite view to that of Rees (and Beddome, of course). It was published in 1742. Hebden was at Canterbury from 1714-1724, where he was apparently not very successful. He went on to Wrentham in Suffolk where he married in 1729, being widowed the year before his death. The Congregationalist historian John Browne (1823-1886) calls him a man of considerable learning with a remarkably strong memory. He wrote many books besides this one, looking at original sin, baptismal regeneration, the Lord's prayer, written prayers, old age and death. He seems to have had a taste for controversy.
John Lacy (Credobaptist)
This third item is entitled An Answer to a late anonymous Pamphlet entitled, A treatise on the subjects and mode of baptism. Wherein the author's pretended arguments ... are fairly examined, and refuted. Published in 1741, it is again in favour of the Baptist position and seeks to refute the previous volume. Beddome would have known the Baptist publisher Aaron Ward, who was active between 1726 and 1747, from his London days. Although published anonymously, the work appears to be that of John Lac(e)y (1700-1781) who grew up in Portsea, Portsmouth, in Hampshire, and successfully ministered 50 years in the Baptist cause there. Lacy also produced two other works. Beddome's copy of his work on baptism was previously owned by an Isaac Keene and he has written in the book that the author is Lacy of Portsmouth. It is worth noting that Lacy was very sympathetic to Methodism and even helped Paedobaptist Methodists to finance meeting houses.
Caleb Fleming (Paedobaptist)
This particular item is The Challenge, Occasioned by an Answer to a Late Treatise on the Subject and Mode of Baptism and it appeared in 1743. It seeks to answer Lacy. The author of this fourth writing is the Independent Caleb Fleming (1698-1779). Fleming, who came late to the ministry, has been called an “unwearied writer of argumentative and combative pamphlets, the greater part of them being anonymous”.
Fleming also wrote at least five other tracts on the subject, namely, Plunging, a subject of bigotry, when made essential to baptism; A plea for infants, or the scripture-doctrine of water-baptism stated; An appendix to the plea for infants, in which their right to baptism is vindicated against the reverend Mr Joseph Burrough's attempt to exclude them ….; A farther defence of infant-baptism, occasioned by a pamphlet, called, the plea for infants impleaded, published at Canterbury, 1742. signed, Dan. Dobel and A defence of infant-baptism, or a vindication of the appendix, &c. against the reverend Mr. Joseph Burrough's defence of his two discourses (Daniel Dobel d 1774 and Joseph Burroughs 1685-1761 were General Baptists. Dobel, from Kent emigrated to South Carolina and Burroughs was based in London. He appears to have later fallen into unorthodoxy).
The title of the last of the five items is Like the Hebden volume, it was published by the bookseller John Oswald, who worked from several London addresses between 1712 and 1764. This volume also first appeared in 1743. The author is anonymous and it is written again from the Paedobaptist standpoint, reviewing and seeking to vindicate the work of Samuel Hebden.
So, in summary, we have five works, published between 1736 and 1743, two by Credobaptists, David Rees and (anonymously) John Lacy, and three advocating the Paedobaptist position. These latter are by Samuel Hebden, Caleb Fleming and a third writer who remains anonymous.
The arguments in the books
David Rees's Infant-baptism no Institution of Christ (Credobaptist)
Rees's substantial and scholarly work is in eight chapters with a preface. Rees is happy to talk of adult rather than believer's baptism. He marshals quotations in support of his view early on from Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and his fellow Remonstrants Stephanus Curcellaeus (Etienne de Courcelles, 1586-1659) and Johannes Casparus Suicerus (Johann Kaspar Schweitzer, 1620-1684) and the historian Gerard Brandt (1626-1685). He also quotes the statement of John Calvin (1509-1564) that “it is evident that the term baptise means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church”. Rees contends for baptism of believers by immersion, which even the prayer book recommends he says, and expresses his belief that the practice of infant baptism leads to disorder in churches.
Walker had used a threefold argument – Scripture precepts, precedent or example and good consequence. Rees tackles him along these lines, quoting Walker all the way. He begins with Matthew 28:19, picking up Walker for saying that Jesus says to go and baptise all nations. The command is to go and teach all nations and then baptise. The text is Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Walker, like those he alludes to in his work as agreeing with him (Henry Hammond 1605-1660, Daniel Whitby 1638-1726, Cuthbert Sydenham 1622-1654 and Joseph Hall 1574-1656) wants to put baptism before teaching. They only do this, Rees suggests, because they believe in infant baptism, where teaching is necessarily subsequent. He points out that Hammond, whatever he argues elsewhere, gives the order teach then baptise in his paraphrases. He does not think Whitby, whom he quotes, gives Walker any support at all. Rees also has fun with the fact that the Book of Common Prayer insists that in the case of baptism for those “of riper years” it is required that they are properly instructed. He tries to do something similar with the first part of the answer to Question 95 in the Shorter Catechism (“Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him”).
Rees also thinks Walker on shaky ground to want “all the inhabitants of a nation embracing Christianity” to be baptised as even at that time this would include Jews and other adults not professing Christian faith at all, some of them most dissolute individuals. Having dismissed some further arguments, Rees adds a few more counter arguments before closing the chapter with a rather demanding section, containing several footnotes, refuting the idea that infant baptism was common practice among first century Jews. This tedious section is prompted by the fact that Walker and others laid store by such arguments.
In Chapter 2, Rees continues with Walker's arguments from Scripture. He looks at Acts 2:38, 39 and points out that this is not an exhortation to baptism but to repentance and baptism. He also notes that, unlike Walker, Hammond and Whitby do not attempt to argue the case from these verses.
Walker's second category of argument is precedent or good example. This brings us to the loci classici of Acts 16:14, 15, 18:8 and 1 Corinthians 16:33, all of which refer to household baptisms. The Baptist arguments to show there were no infants in these households are well known and are duly rehearsed here. The chapter closes with an attack on Walker's distinctive idea that if the head of a Jewish or pagan household is converted and the rest of the family are willing to be baptised, this should be done.
Chapter 3 comes to necessary consequence and deals with the more solid arguments for infant baptism grounded on the covenant of grace. Rees seeks to answer six questions. What is the covenant of grace? Were all children considered to be in it? Are all children of believers infallibly in it? Are the children of unbelievers not sometimes in it? Was the covenant with Abraham the same covenant? Are Old Testament circumcision or New Testament baptism ever said to be seals of the covenant of grace to those to whom they are applied?
He bases his definition of the covenant on Hebrews 8:9 and excludes infants from it, which he says is in the Reformed tradition. As for the next three questions, references to Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, etc, and Rahab and Ruth, etc, quickly satisfy him on these questions. He denies that the covenant with Abraham can simply be equated with the covenant of grace, being a mixed covenant and a peculiar one at that. In order to answer his last question to his own satisfaction, he distinguishes between sign and seal, asserting that neither circumcision or baptism are spoken of in Scripture as seals. In the course of dealing with this matter he quotes from the Hebrew and mentions the church father Gregory of Nazianzus (329-c 390) and John Tombes, from whom he quotes. Rees is unimpressed by the claim that Baptists make their children like those of Jews or heathen by not baptising them.
The fourth chapter takes up other of Walker's arguments from necessary consequence, returning firstly to Acts 2:38, 39 but, if anything, with even less sympathy than the first time. He complains that Walker is “so ready to catch at every twig” that wherever he sees a reference to children he “thinks their baptism must be nigh at hand, how far soever this may be from the design of the holy pen man”. He is no better impressed with arguments from the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea or the fact that our Lord held infants in his arms and blessed them or any other of Walker's ingenious arguments.
In Chapter 5 we come to differences between Christian baptism and John's baptism among other things and again Rees and Walker are at loggerheads. Rees's scholarship is again in evidence as he quotes more church fathers - this time Cyprian (c 200-258) and Tertullian (160-220). He also quotes the Dutch annotations of Theodore Haak (1605-1690) and the Swiss theologian Johannes Wollebius (1689-1729). In common with many Baptists, Rees believed that
if the translators of our Bible had done justice, as they in some other countries have done, in rendering the words Baptist and Baptism in plain English dipper and dipping, I am of opinion, it would have prevented many tedious disputes, and that this ordinance of Christ, would have been better understood, and better treated than it is, by many well meaning people in this nation, who either through ignorance, or rather the prejudice of education now trample upon it.
The chapter also raises the issue of why infants are allowed baptism but not communion and then broaches the whole vexed matter of mode. He is disappointed at Walker's apparent unwillingness to examine the very thorough linguistic work of continentally educated scholar John Gale (1680-1721) in his Reflections on the work of Mr Wall's History of Infant Baptism of 1711. He brings forward some of Gale's references to Homer, Plutarch, Strabo, etc, in order to establish that baptism is by immersion or dipping not by sprinkling or pouring. Gale was responding to the Anglican William Wall (1647-1728) who had published his very popular History of Infant Baptism in 1705, expanding it in 1707 and again in 1720. He received an Oxford doctorate for his trouble. This work was itself a response to Joseph Stennett Jr's answer to a David Russen, who had written Fundamentals without foundation in 1703.
Rees's linguistic arguments continue in Chapter 6 as further loci classici much beloved of Baptists, namely John 3:23, Matthew 3:16 and Acts 8:36-39, are re-examined. Rees is again unimpressed with Walker, especially when he says that anyway “John's baptism is not to be the Christian pattern, as to the mode of it”! Rees continues to oppose Walker at length bringing in many scholarly references. He quotes Sir Norton Knatchbull (1602-1685) the baronet, MP and Bible scholar and church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch (35-108), Justin Martyr (c 100-165), Basil of Caesarea (329 or 330-379), John Chrysostom (c 348-407) as well as Anselm of Canterbury (c 1033-1109), Thomas Aquinas (1224-1279) and the Reformers Calvin and Girolamo Zanchi (Hieronymous Zanchius, 1516-1590). The chapter closes with extensive quotations from Cyprian in order to deny that Cyprian ever equated sprinkling and baptism by immersion.
Chapter 7 replies to Walker's insinuations about health and modesty and continues to object to his understanding of early church history. Rees is happy that Walker has used Wall, Hammond, William Cave (1637-1713) author of Primitive Christianity and the then anonymous work on the same subject now known to be by the Lord Chancellor Sir Peter King (1669-1734). However, he feels Walker has missed the point and his arguments in favour of sprinkling and against dipping appear to him “frivolous and uncharitable”. He feels the same way about Walker's use of Cyprian, Origen (182-254) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Rees quotes from Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas in favour of a Baptist understanding and calls in the Amyraldian Jean Leclerc (1657-1736) for support. Walker's conclusions from history hold no weight for Rees or are denied. For Rees the evidence from first two centuries unquestionably supports the Baptist view. The chapter closes with renewed appeals to Justin Martyr and Tertullian and a placing of blame for the advance of infant baptism at the doors of Cyprian and Augustine.
The final chapter of the book takes up Walker's claim that the Baptist position only came in after 1522. Referring to the French Protestant Pierre Allix (1641-1717) and his work on Ambrose of Milan (c 340-397) he asserts that Ambrose was in the habit of dipping. This leads on to a discussion of the architecture of ancient baptisteries, the authority this time being Joseph Bingham (1668-1723) with a passing reference to the medical doctor Sir John Floyer (1649-1734). Again Rees is insistent that the pattern was always immersion. We then get into some Reformation history with evidence to show that the Baptists were no slower off the mark in most places than Presbyterians and Independents and were sorely persecuted by Luther and the other magisterial Reformers.
Leaning on Allix and Brandt, Rees claims that many of the Waldensians opposed infant baptism, even as far back as Gundulphus in 1025. He also suggests that Berengar of Tours (c 999–1088) and Arnold of Brescia (c 1090-1155) rejected infant baptism.
As Baptists often do, he then turns to all sorts of heretical groups such as the Cathars and Albigensians (drawing partly on Stennett's work mentioned above), claiming them as possible brother Baptists. At the same time he wants to carefully distance the Baptists from the Munster commune of 1534, 1535, while unable to resist giving several examples of anabaptists put to death for their faith.
By this point he has clearly had enough of Walker's book and signs off fairly abruptly.
A perusal of Beddome's published work on the catechism would suggest that he was in substantial agreement with David Rees and some of the arguments in this book do come out there.
To be continued
This article first appeared in In Writing
Marking the anniversary of the birth of David Brainerd in 1718
Expelled from Yale College as a young man for making disrespectful remarks about a tutor, he became a pioneer missionary to Native Americans and was a man of great earnestness and prayer. He died from tuberculosis before he had reached the age of 30. This year sees the 300th anniversary of his birth.
His name was immortalised by the pen of the great Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), in whose home he died. When we think of the life of Brainerd we are really thinking of at least two things. On one hand, there is the life of David Brainerd 1718-1747. On the other, there is Edwards' Life of the Late Rev David Brainerd (1749 to the present). That is to say, there is the actual life of Brainerd but there is also Edwards' An Account of the Life of the Late Rev David Brainerd published in 1749 and subsequent versions of the story that have continued to have an impact down to the present day.
We draw here chiefly on the work of John A Grigg on this subject. (1) He quotes Andrew F Walls, who says, “David Brainerd became the principal model of early British missionary spirituality.” (2) Grigg demonstrates this.
William Carey and the BMS
When the Baptist Missionary Society was founded in 1792 a major catalyst for its founding was a book by William Carey (1761–1834). Carey had come to a Baptist church in Leicester in 1789 and that had brought him into closer contact with a circle of Calvinistic Baptist ministers who encouraged him to write about the need for concerted missionary effort. This led to the publishing of An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.
The book was inspired by a number of missionaries, including Brainerd. An objection to mission it deals with is the “uncivilised, and barbarous way of living” of the target audience. Such a consideration, Carey declared, “was no objection to an Elliot [sic] or a Brainerd.” (3) In fact, he argued, the “uncivilized state of the heathen” should “furnish an argument for” sending missionaries. Indeed, he noted,
such effects [civilisation] did in a measure follow the afore-mentioned efforts of Elliot [sic], Brainerd, and others amongst the American Indians.
Carey also invoked Eliot and Brainerd to counter another objection: fear of death at the hands of those to whom one was preaching. He suggests that most acts of brutality reported against Europeans may have originated in “some real or supposed affront [to local peoples], and were therefore, more properly, acts of self-defence, than proofs of ferocious dispositions.” To support his argument, he notes that “Elliot [sic], Brainerd, and the Moravian missionaries, have been very seldom molested” and insists that most native peoples had “principally expressed their hatred of Christianity on account of the vices of nominal Christians.”
In concluding his Enquiry, Carey reminds readers that they are “exhorted to lay up treasure in heaven,” and a great reward must await Paul, Eliot, Brainerd and others who “have given themselves wholly to the work of the Lord.”
For Carey, Brainerd exemplified the missionary life. John Ryland (1753-1825) spoke of Brainerd's diary as “almost a second Bible” to him. Portions of a diary Carey kept, when he arrived in India, apparently in conscious emulation of Brainerd, have survived, and his respect for Brainered comes out there. On one occasion, he acknowledged being “much humbled by Brainerd - O what a disparity betwixt me and him; he always constant, I unconstant as the wind.” A little humorously, he complains on one occasion that he could not pray in the woods like Brainerd “for fear of tygers”!
David Bogue and the LMS
In 1795, the London Missionary Society was founded. Its roots are complex and disparate, but at least two of those who contributed to its foundation urged people to look to Brainerd’s example.
In his 1794 Letters on Missions Melville Horne (1761-1841) declared that the “labours of a Brainerd and an Elliot [sic] deserve to be had in everlasting remembrance.”
David Bogue, addressing the LMS founding meeting, also invoked the spirit of Brainerd. Refuting the claim that it was not yet time for the conversion of the heathen, he pointed to what had “already been effected by the preaching of the gospel among the heathen” by men such as “Brainard [sic], [Azariah] Horton [1716-1777] and others.”v(4) He went on to remind his audience that the Indians were “converted by the power of the gospel: and the same glorious truths confirmed by the holy lives of our missionaries, and accompanied by the energy of the Spirit, will, I trust, still produce the same effects.”
From 1793, with Andrew Fuller and others, Bogue sponsored the quarterly Evangelical Magazine. Part of every issue was set aside to document the “progress of the Gospel throughout the kingdom” and the magazine soon became a voice for mission promoters. Bogue published a preliminary appeal for missions in the September 1794 issue, and there were frequent reports on the LMS.
The fourth volume, in 1796, featured an excerpted version of Brainerd's life, totalling about 25 pages across three issues. The editors noted that “few lives are more interesting than that of Mr. Brainerd.” They hoped readers would “perceive how easily God can provide instruments for his work” and that his success, “in circumstances most discouraging,” would provide “the clearest demonstration that those difficulties which, to us, appear insuperable, instantly vanish at the presence of the Almighty.” The Anglican periodical Missionary Register did something similar in 1816.
When missionary training institutions began to spring up they most frequently turned for instructional inspiration to the writings of the Moravians and the Life of Brainerd. David Bogue’s academy at Gosport, which turned out 40% of all LMS missionaries in the period, included lectures that were mainly based on Bogue's reflections on the lives of past missionaries such as Brainerd. Of only five books in the Gosport Library, one was the life of Brainerd.
The Church Missionary Society's library was similar. Samuel Marsden (1765-1838) worked with the CMS in Australia and on the voyage from England he read “of Mr Brainerd’s success among the Indians,” and determined that the “same power can also effect a change upon those hardened ungodly sinners to whom I am about to carry the words of eternal life.”
Student-led mission societies at Scottish universities encouraged their members to read the Life of Brainerd (along with those of other missionaries) and even to present papers on their readings.
Brainerd was frequently cited and referred to by the mission boards. CMS candidates expected to be asked if they had read Brainerd’s Life, and, by the 1820s, the LMS Committee of Examination required candidates to read it, along with several other biographies. William Crow was judged to be a good candidate after his initial examination and was subsequently given a copy of the Life and a month to read it and write an essay on his perspective on the “character, difficulties, and privations of a Christian Missionary.” There are also frequent references to Brainerd in the writings of missionaries and mission candidates. Often, these men were challenged by Brainerd’s example of the ideal Christian.
The men who "held the ropes" for Carey – Ryland, John Sutcliff (1752-1814) and Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) were as enthusiastic for Brainerd as he. At the end of 1781 Sutcliff wrote to Fuller to know if he can borrow Edwards' Life. Fuller has to disappoint him not having a copy. Sutcliff obviously did get to read it eventually as it became top of his recommended reading list when anyone asked about missionary work.
In May, 1780, at the annual meeting of their association, The Northamptonshire Association it was agreed to recommend the book to all who “love evangelical, experimental, and practical religion, and especially to our younger brethren in the ministry”.
When Samuel Pearce (1766-1799) another godly man who died young, read part of the biography in 1793 he wrote that “the exalted devotion of that dear man almost made me question mine. Yet” because “at some seasons he speaks of sinking as well as rising” he felt that while lacking Brainerd's “singular piety” he too knew the same “feelings, prayers, desires, comforts, hopes, and sorrows” and that could at least be followed. Carey's son Samuel Pearce Carey, dubbed Pearce “The Baptist Brainerd” when he wrote his biography. The official memoir was put together by Fuller. He too saw Pearce as another Brainerd and, according to Michael Haykin, “clearly modelled” it on Edwards' life of Brainerd. He wrote, like Edwards, “out of the conviction that telling the stories of the lives of remarkable Christians is a means of grace for the church.” (5)
Yet another missionary who died young was Henry Martyn (1781-1812). He too wrote warmly of Brainerd. On arriving in Calcutta in 1806 he wrote
most abundantly encouraged by reading D Brainerd’s account of the difficulties attending a mission to the heathen. Oh, blessed be the memory of that beloved saint! No uninspired writer ever did me so much good.
On another occasion he wrote
thought of David Brainerd, and ardently desired his devotedness to God and holy breathings of soul.
Shortly before his departure for India, he noted that a reading of Brainerd had led him to a time of prayer “for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, and that I might be sent to the poor heathen.”
Aspiring missionaries either wanted to, or quickly learned that they were expected to, incorporate lessons from Brainerd in their applications. William Miller, in his written application to the LMS, declared that he desired the “ardent love and compassion which [Brainerd] manifested toward those who were ignorant and far from God,” as well as Brainerd’s “exquisite tenderness of conscience and deep abhorrence of sin.” Similarly, BMS missionary John Chamberlain declared, “I long to be like [Brainerd]. Surely, if ever I arrive at the heavenly world, I shall be eagerly desirous of seeing him.”
One final example of a missionary who died young who was inspired by Brainerd is the martyred Jim Elliot (1927-1956). In August 1949 he wrote of being in a
spiritual stir over reading David Brainerd’s diary. If I were honest, my writing would be more in anguish as his is. But how cold I have grown, and how careless about it all.
Some months later, he wrote that he desired that he might
receive the apostle’s passion, caught from vision of Thyself, Lord Jesus. David Brainerd’s diary stirs me on to such in prayer.
The writing of the book
Edwards, John Thornbury tells us, was not the first to make use of Brainerd's diaries.(6) As well as his personal diary, Brainerd composed a journal in which he chronicled the story of his ministry among the Indians. In this he explained in detail Indian customs and manners, what he preached to them and the difficulties and successes he knew. He prepared the Journal for the leaders of the missionary society from whom he received financial help. In 1746 William Bradford (1663-1752) in Philadelphia published these portions for The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in the Highlands of Scotland and in popish and infidel parts of the world. The extracts deal with his work at Crossweeksung June 19-November 4, 1745; November 24, 1745-June 19, 1746. The account of great revival became an important instrument in stirring up interest elsewhere in missionary work among native Americans. Both in America and in Britain many eagerly read it.
It was the private diary, however, that formed the basis of Edwards' Life. His edition became the standard one, although over the years it has been published many times with various editorial notes and alterations.
A complete edition appeared in 1765 in Edinburgh and an abridged American edition was published in 1793. In 1822, Edwards' great grandson Sereno Edwards Dwight (1796-1850) edited and published the life and diary entire, with letters and other writings. In 1843 the Presbyterian Board of Publications printed an abridgement entitled The Missionary in the Wilderness or Grace displayed among the heathen. John Wesley (1703-1781) included the Life in abridged form in Volume 12 of his collected works (Bristol, 1771-1774). The abridgement was partly to remove the Calvinism. A complete edition was printed in London in 1851 in the Christian's Fireside Library series. The diary continues to be in print in various forms. In 1884 a more thorough revision was prepared by James Manning Sherwood (1814-1890) in New York. It is the 1902 edition of this that was reprinted by The Banner of Truth in 2007. (7)
By 1749 Edwards was already a well-known writer. His first publication in 1731 was God Glorified in Man's Dependence on 1 Corinthians 1:29-31. Others followed, such as A Narrative of Surprising Conversions (1736) dealing with the Great Awakening; his famous Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1742) and Religious Affections (1746). Edwards was about to set to work on his treatise Freedom of the will when these materials came to hand. (Freedom of the will did not appear until 1754). It seems the Brainerd project took priority because Edwards saw it as providing an excellent example of the sort of qualities extolled in his previous book The Religious Affections (1746). Perhaps no book by Edwards was to be more significant than his one on Brainerd.
Edwards rewrote parts of Brainerd's testimony and diary, which can be tedious in its repetitions. He also omitted phrases he deemed unsuitable for the Christian public. The book contains a preface (10 pages); Brainerd's edited papers interspersed with Edwards' narrative in eight parts (378 pages); further 'remains', mostly letters (33 pages); reflections and observations (42 pages); the funeral sermon (12 pages). (8)
It has been said that Brainerd is the phantom in the background of other works by Edwards. The Life gave a flesh and bones example of the sort of thing that Edwards was commending. In the Yale edition Professor Norman Pettit has written that
If it is true that his treatises were too abstruse to make an impact on the spiritual life of the ordinary person, then his Life of Brainerd represents an effort to reach a larger audience and to teach by example.
He draws attention to similarities between Brainerd's conversion and that of Edwards' wife Sarah, described anonymously in Some thoughts concerning the revival of religion in New England (1742). He also points out that though the text of Edwards' biography is largely Brainerd's “the volume as Edwards conceived it belongs to him”. Brainerd's journal provided not only his own example but that of other conversions, all judged according to the criteria laid down in Edwards' Distinguishing marks of 1741. Brainerd in turn undoubtedly influenced Edwards, who spent most of his last seven years working among Native Americans in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
The Book's Impact
It is perhaps no surprise that the life of Brainerd, one that exemplifies spiritual intensity and zeal for the salvation of souls, had such a profound impact on all who read about this brief but powerful ministry. The historian William Warren Street (1818-1959) remarked
Indeed, David Brainerd dead was a more potent influence for Indian missions and the missionary cause in general than was David Brainerd alive.
Iain Murray in his life of Edwards goes as far as to say that “No book did more to create concern for wider missionary endeavour than Edwards' Life of Brainerd.” He mentions Gideon Hawley (1727-1807), Edwards' assistant at Stockbridge, as the first in a long line of Calvinist missionaries to benefit from the book. He carried it in his saddle-bag as he pioneered among the Iroquois. (9)
The Welsh revival leader Howell Harris (1714-1773), we know, was one who was reading an edition of Brainerd's life in 1761. In England Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) had read Edwards' work much earlier and was among the first in England to do so. “I have been reading the life of excellent Mr. Brainerd,” he writes, “and it has greatly humbled and quickened me.” He recommended it widely and went on to publish parts of the diary.
John Wesley once said
Find preachers of David Brainerd's spirit, and nothing can stand before them, but without this what will silver or gold do?
He also asked “What can be done to revive the work of God where it is decayed?” His answer? “Let every preacher read carefully over the life of David Brainerd”. Methodist preachers in those days were all required to carefully read Edwards' Life. Later, at Princeton Seminary too, the Life was often commended, but without Wesley's cautions about Brainerd's failure to understand Christian perfection.
When Robert Murray M'Cheyne (1813–1843) read the Life of Brainerd, he wrote that he could not “express what I think when I think of [Brainerd]. Tonight, more set upon missionary enterprise than ever.”
M'Cheyne's friend Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) wrote a preface commending the work in 1851. He warns there against supposing Brainerd’s life a perfect example and points out some few defects. He goes on to commend him, however, as a protest “against the easy-minded religion of our day.” His hope was that the book would quicken consciences and urge people forward in the “same path of high attainment” leading to “unspeakable blessing.” The example of Brainerd’s “life of marvellous nearness to … God, which he lived during his brief day on earth,” continues to inspire Christians, says Bonar. “His life was not a great life, as men use the word,” but “a life of one plan, expending itself in the fulfilment of one great aim, and in the doing of one great deed - serving God.”
When in 1881 Horatius's brother Andrew Bonar (1810-1892) visited America at the invitation of D L Moody (1837-1899) one of the things he made certain to do was to visit Brainerd's grave. Though an admirer, Bonar felt that Brainerd should have looked more to Christ and less to himself.
One could go on. Two more statements to close. In 1924 the preacher Frank W Boreham (1871-1959) wrote
Have a good look at him. He is a man in a million; he did more than any other to usher in the world's new day.
More recently the American preacher John Piper has written
Brainerd’s life is a vivid, powerful testimony to the truth that God can and does use weak, sick, discouraged, beat-down, lonely, struggling saints, who cry to him day and night, to accomplish amazing things for his glory.
We worship God not men but here is a reminder of how one life, and more specifically one book on that life, can have a profound effect in the providence of Almighty God.
1 John A Grigg The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon (Religion in America Series) New York, Oxford 2009
2 A F Walls “The Evangelical Revival, the Missionary Movement, and Africa” eds Noll, Bebbington and Rawlyk Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond, 1700–1990 (Religion in America Series) New York, Oxford 1994
3 John Eliot 1604-1690 was a pioneer missionary to native Americans.
4 Horton was another pioneer missionary to Native Americans
5 Michael Haykin in Andrew Fuller Complete Works Volume 4, Memoirs of Rev Samuel Pearce Berlin, Boston 2017
6 John Thornbury David Brainerd: Pioneer Missionary to the American Indians Darlington 1996
7 “His story,” wrote Sherwood of Brainerd “has done more to develop and mould the spirit of modern missions, and to fire the heart of the Christian Church, than that of any man since the apostolic age.”
8 Page numbers refer to the Yale Edition which reinserts missing entries
9 Iain H Murray Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography Edinburgh 1987
This article first appeared in In Writing
The year 1850 saw the birth of at least three people who, though largely forgotten now, made their own important contribution to English hymnody by penning at least a great hymn still sung today. Sadly, little is known about two of these three.
O breath of life, come sweeping through us was written by Elizabeth Ann Head (1850-1936). She was also known by here maiden name of Bessie Porter. The hymn was probably written in 1914 and first appeared in her Heavenly Places and other Messages in 1920. By the mid-thirties it had become a firm favourite especially at the annual Keswick Convention. Norfolk born, Mrs Head was involved in various forms of Christian work including the YMCA. Her husband was a Swansea man. The author of the tune Spiritus Vitae was a Mary Jane Hammond (1878-1964). Little is known about her.
As originally published the hymn included a fifth verse often omitted
O heart of Christ, once broken for us,‘Tis there we find our strength and rest;Our broken heart now solace,And let thy waiting church be blest.
In tenderness he sought me appears in both Christian Hymns and Grace. Unlike the other two hymns mentioned here it does not merit inclusion in the new Praise! hymn book. It first appeared in an American hymnbook published in 1894 called The Coronation Hymnal. The author of the hymn, W Spencer Walton (1850-1906) seems to have been an associate of the author of the music, Adoniram J Gordon (1836-95). Gordon (for whom Gordon College was named) was a Baptist minister and a friend and supporter of D L Moody. He edited The Coronation Hymnal along with Arthur T Pierson.*
O teach me what it meaneth is sung to various tunes and contains the distinctive request
Teach me that if none other,Had sinned, but I alone,Yet still thy blood, Lord Jesus,Thine only, must atone.
The author is again someone who is otherwise unknown. Her name was Lucy Ann Bennett (1850-1927) and she lived from 1850 until 1927. It again appears in both Grace and Christian Hymns. The Praise! version begins O teach me, Lord, its meaning.**
On November 19, 1900 the minor hymn writer, Samuel John Stone (1839-1900), died. He was born April 25, 1839 in his father’s rectory in Whitmore, Staffordshire. Educated at Charterhouse, he went on to Pembroke College, Oxford (BA, 1862; MA, 1872). After his degree he entered the Anglican ministry and became curate of Windsor. In 1879 he joined his father at St. Paul’s, Haggerston, a poverty stricken parish in London. In 1874, he succeeded his father as incumbent and remained there until 1890 when he became Rector of All-Hallows-on-the-Wall..
He wrote at least four dozen hymns. His works include Lyra Fidelium (1866), The Knight of Intercession and Other Poems (1872) Sonnets of the Christian Year (1875), Order of the Consecutive Church Service for Children, with Original Hymns (1883) and Hymns (1886). He is best remembered for his hymn The Church’s one foundation, the Church’s ‘national anthem’. He is also the author of Weary of Earth and Laden with My Sin which also appears in both Christian Hymns and Grace (but not Praise!).
The Church’s one foundation was written in 1866 partly in response to the liberal ideas being promoted by Bishop Colenso of Natal, that stirred up great consternation among the faithful. It is the ninth of the 12 hymns that appeared in his Lyra Fidelium which contained 12 hymns based on the 12 articles of the Apostles Creed. This original had seven stanzas. A revised five verse version appeared in 1868 in an appendix to Hymns Ancient and Modern. A longer ten verse version was also produced later. The tune Aurelia was composed in 1864 by Samuel Wesley.
Weary of Earth is also from Lyra Fidelium. It is based on Article 10 of the Creed (Forgiveness of sins). He wrote of it as the hymn ‘Most dear to me because of the letters I have received from, or about, persons to whose joy and peace in believing it has been permitted to be instrumental in the first instance or later.’
Among his other hymns are
A Sower Went to Sow His SeedBear the Troubles of Thy LifeBy Paul at War in Gentile LandsBy Shepherds First Was HeardBy Thy Love Which ShoneChrist the Wisdom and the PowerDark Is the Sky That Overhangs My SoulDeeply Dark and Deeply StillFar Off Our Brethren’s CryGod the Father’s Only SonLord of Our Soul’s SalvationLord of the Harvest, It Is RightMistful Are Our Waiting EyesNone Else But Thee ForevermoreRound the Sacred City GatherThrough Midnight Gloom from MacedonWeary of Earth and Laden with My Sin;Winter in His Heart of Gloom
Here we close with the text of another of his lesser known hymns
O Thou before Whose presence naught evil may come in,Yet Who dost look in mercy down on this world of sin,O give us noble purpose to set the sin bound free,And Christlike tender pity to seek the lost for Thee.Fierce is our subtle foeman: the forces at his handWith woes that none can number despoil the pleasant land;All they who war against them, in strife so keen and long,Must in their Saviour’s armor be stronger than the strong.So hast Thou wrought among us the great things that we see!For things that are we thank Thee, and for the things to be.For bright hope is uplifting faint hands and feeble knees,To strive beneath Thy blessing for greater things than these.Lead on, O Love and Mercy, O Purity and Power,Lead on till peace eternal shall close this battle hour:Till all who prayed and struggled to set their brethren free,In triumph meet to praise Thee, most holy Trinity.
*I subsequently discovered that Walton was born in London. Converted at 22, he began to serve the Lord full time as an evangelist, firstly in the UK then in South Africa, his first trip there being in 1888. Back in England he establish the Cape General Mission (1889) and married Kathleen Dixon, who also served in South Africa. Sadly, after only 10 months together, she died in childbirth. In 1893, he married Lena Gibson, and they continued to work in South Africa through war, famine and plague. In 1904, the mission sent the Waltons and their three children to America and Britain. As they travelled Walton was taken ill and died. He was only 56.
** Again to add to the scant information - Born in Falfield, Gloucestershire, as of 1881, she was living with her brother in Holdenhurst, Hampshire. After visiting Keswick conventions, beginning in 1888, she met many notable Christians of the day. Among her correspondents were Christina Rossetti and C H Spurgeon. She was instrumental in founding All Nations College and Mount Hermon College, Streatham Common.