In eighteenth century England, the market town of Olney in Buckinghamshire was noteworthy as the home of three evangelical Christian leaders, John Newton, converted slave-trader turned minister and hymn writer, who held the curacy of the parish church between 1764 and 1779, William Cowper, poet, who assisted Newton in the compilation of the Olney Hymns, published in 1779, and, perhaps less well-known, Thomas Scott, Bible commentator, who succeeded Newton as curate in 1781.
Thomas Scott was born in 1747 in Braytoft, Lincolnshire, one of thirteen children. His father was a grazier whilst his mother, an educated woman, taught the children to read and write. The Scotts had intended that their eldest son should go into medicine, but when he died Thomas was chosen to succeed him. So, at about eight or nine years old, he was sent away to school, remaining for five years without returning home. Afterwards he was apprenticed to a surgeon, but was dismissed and sent home in disgrace. As a result, all prospects of a good education were lost and he was obliged to work for his father.
For nine years he worked on the farm, taking increasing responsibility, and suffering frequent bouts of ill-health due to the nature of the work. When he was sixteen, Thomas began to realise that he was a sinner, and attempted to amend his life and appease his conscience. He made repeated efforts but always fell back into his old ways. He fretted that he was not able to study, and hoped that he might yet obtain a university education and go into the ministry of the church. One day he learned that he would not inherit the farm when his father died. This left him with no prospect of future advancement, and he resolved to leave home and seek to fulfil his desire for ordination. Taking out his old Latin and Greek books, he began to study them again much to his father’s displeasure until one evening, having experienced a particularly trying day, he threw off his working clothes declaring that he would never again assume them. Taking his books with him he went off to stay with his brother for the night.
The following day he went to ask the advice of a clergyman he knew concerning entry into the ministry. Being asked whether he knew anything of Latin and Greek, Thomas read some verses from a Greek New Testament translating them into Latin and English without hesitation. Surprised at this display of learning, the minister arranged for Thomas to see the archdeacon the following week, with a view to meeting the bishop. Whilst awaiting the interview, Thomas returned home to help his father and to continue his studies. To his dismay he was rejected for ordination on suspicion of being a ‘Methodist’, and therefore sought a further interview with the bishop. Though treated with courtesy, his application was refused until he should receive both his father’s consent, and the support of two other clergymen. These being eventually obtained, in September 1772 he was ordained deacon in the Church of England, and six months later, presbyter. In his account of this period of his life Scott records with shame his motives for entering the ministry which were “a desire of a less laborious and more comfortable way of procuring a livelihood, than otherwise I had the prospect of; the expectation of more leisure to employ in reading, of which I was inordinately fond; and a proud conceit of my abilities, with a vainglorious imagination that I should some time distinguish and advance myself in the literary world.”
Scott’s first curacy was at Stoke and Weston Underwood, near Olney, where he immediately immersed himself in literary studies, undertaking just enough of his church responsibilities to maintain respectability. However, his conscience would allow him no peace, and he frequently thought of the awful consequences of meeting death in his present state. About this time he married Jane Kell, a widow, who was a woman of sweet temper and good sense, and was a great support to him until her untimely death. After their marriage, Scott began family prayers, which he continued throughout his life, gradually improving the content and conduct, so that it became a time of deep blessing and enjoyment to many who came under his roof.
An incident in early 1774 began the train of events which led ultimately to conviction of sin and conversion. In January, two of his parishioners lay dying, but he refused to visit them because they had not sent for him. However when the woman died he learned that John Newton, whom he had heard preach from time to time, had several times visited them from Olney, and his conscience was smitten that he should have so neglected his duty of care “to those, who, as far as I was concerned, might have been left to perish in their sins.” Immediately seeking God’s forgiveness, he went to the home, and seeing one dead and the other dying, he was so deeply affected that he never failed thereafter in his duties towards the sick.
Early the next year, Scott hoped to obtain preferment within the church, which would require a renewal of his subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. One Sunday, his eye was drawn to the eighth Article where reference is made to the authority and warrant of the Athanasian Creed, setting out the doctrine of the Trinity. He did not believe this doctrine, but reading the words that the creeds “ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture” so troubled him that he felt that he should no longer subscribe to them. After some inward debate he advised his patron, and thereupon gave up all hope of advancement. He was immediately censured by his friends and relations, but refused to change his mind. Newton, upon hearing of his decision, declared that “such a man would surely soon be led into all truth”. For two years, Scott studied the Scriptures with a new-found urgency, until he came at length into a knowledge of the truth. “Thus I trust, the old building which I had purposed to repair, was pulled down to the ground, and the foundation of the new building of God laid aright. My boasted reason I have discovered to be a blind guide, until humbled, enlightened, and sanctified by the Spirit of God… Thus hath the Lord led me, a poor blind sinner, in a way that I knew not… and hath brought me to a place of which I little thought when I set out; and having done these things for me, I believe, yea, I am undoubtedly sure, he will never leave me nor forsake me.”
Scott’s domestic life during this time was filled with sadness. His father died in 1777, followed by his mother, and then by his own two children. He faced constant poverty and suffered frequent bouts of illness. His wife was a great support and comfort to him, as also was Newton with whom, following a previous correspondence which Scott had ended somewhat acrimoniously, he had resumed acquaintance and now valued as a friend. He had begun to write and to publish, but this yielded little additional income. Two years after Newton left Olney for London, Scott succeeded him, moving to what he saw was a wider sphere of labour. Though not the most popular preacher, he endeared himself to many through his self-denying work in the parish. He also undertook preaching tours, sometimes for as much as two months or more, which were much blessed.
In 1785, he left Olney to become visiting chaplain and morning preacher at the Lock Hospital in London, assuming responsibilities in other churches also. Scott prepared his sermons carefully and would preach extempore for an hour. An eminent lawyer once remarked that he heard him “for professional improvement, as well as for religious edification”, which suggests that his sermons were closely argued and well thought out. However, not all appreciated him. The governors of the Hospital did not enjoy his evangelical fervour, and he was frequently denounced as an Arminian and unsound. Though at times tempted to resign, his wife persuaded him to persevere, and he was greatly loved by the patients.
Whilst in London, Scott began his Bible commentary which was published in weekly parts from January 1788; he was paid a guinea per issue. When after four months his publisher advised him that for financial reasons the project would have to cease, Scott used his slender resources and such other money as came to him to maintain the work. Eventually the project was finished, though he afterwards admitted that he had not deliberated, consulted and prayed over the matter as much as he should have done. Three thousand copies were published, but he made little if anything from it. A second edition was commissioned in 1800, followed by a third in 1807, at the end of which he sold the copyright for two thousand pounds: Despite this, his profit for twenty-one years of labour was less than one thousand pounds. “I do not however regret this”, he wrote, “God has provided for me and mine very graciously. By means of this publication, my grand design of accomplishing from the press what I found myself little capable of effecting from the pulpit has succeeded beyond my expectations. I needed my trials and difficulties, both to correct the many evils connected with the undertaking, and to counterbalance any flattering circumstances arising out of it.”
Scott wrote other works, but is perhaps best remembered for the autobiographical account of God’s dealings with him, The Force of Truth, in which he tells how he was brought to faith in Jesus Christ and to a right understanding of the Christian religion. Published in 1779, it ran to a number of editions, and was republished as recently as 1984 by the Banner of Truth. The book provides much food for the soul, and supplies many themes for meditation in the heart of the Christian believer; it also constitutes a warning to any who sit lightly upon the doctrines of God.
In 1790, Scott’s wife died, but a year later he married again and enjoyed thirty years of “unspeakable blessing” with his new wife. During his time in London, Scott, together with other eminent Anglican evangelicals, Newton and Simeon among them, founded the Church Missionary Society, becoming its first secretary. Interestingly, he had previously had an influence on the founder of the Baptist Missionary Society, William Carey, who wrote “If I know anything of the work of God in my soul, I owe it to the preaching of Mr Scott”. Early in 1803, Scott accepted the living of Aston Sandford a very small village in Buckinghamshire. Relinquishing his secretarial responsibility, he now undertook the tutoring of young men to prepare them for the mission field.
In 1813 when he came to balance his accounts with his publisher, Scott discovered that many of his books remained unsold and that he was Ã‚Â£1200 in debt. In some considerable anxiety and not wishing to die insolvent, he wrote to family and friends offering them sets of his works in five volumes at a reduced price. This brought about the desired results, and with additional gifts the debt was paid, leaving a surplus sufficient for his needs. His earthly life came to an end on 16th April 1821, his body worn out by his diligent and unremitting service for the Lord, and his soul, though at times cast down, departing “to be with Christ which is far better.”
Scott was a man for his own day. His Bible commentary is little seen now and his other works apart from The Force of Truth (Banner of Truth) are largely unknown, but at a time when there was a growing hunger for the word of God, when there was a desire among ordinary people for the Bible to be explained and applied, Thomas Scott was raised up by God, and he rightly takes a high place among those used as instruments to point His chosen ones to the Lord Jesus Christ. John Westmacott
With permission from Our Inheritance, Summer 2005
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