The Life and Influence of John Flavel
‘Puritanism has left a vast literature of homiletics and casuistry, which is wholly dead save for an occasional excursion of the curious. Nothing could be more wearisome to the modern reader than its voluminous controversy. The Calvinistic theology, which was the intellectual form of Puritanism, is dead beyond recall.’
These words were penned in 1912 by a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, who was also a Canon and Sub-dean of Westminster and the Bishop of Durham. Had he known what the next 100 years held in store in the field of Puritan studies, Dr. Henson would have most likely tempered this precipitous judgement. Today, in the second decade of a new millennium, research into the works of the ‘wholly dead’ is stronger than ever.
It is fair to say that the three Puritans who have received the most attention since the mid-twentieth century revivification of interest into 16th and 17th century Puritanism are Richard Baxter, John Owen, and John Bunyan. To be sure, these men are certainly giants who rightly merit attention, but they are not the only luminaries who light up the sky. One man who is well worth study was an influential Puritan by the name of John Flavel. Flavel was a minister and author who, for the better part of his ministry, laboured in a coastal town in Devon. After studying at University College, Oxford, he began working as a Presbyterian minister in 1650. Six years into his ministry he removed to Dartmouth, and, due to the intermittent legality of nonconformist ministerial activities, he was permitted to labour only sporadically, sometimes clandestinely, and on one occasion in a disguise — as a woman! So strongly did he sense a divine calling to remain in Dartmouth that twice in his career he refused offers of more lucrative livings so that he might continue his work amongst ‘his poor people in Dartmouth’. Perhaps it was his admirable devotion to his humble flock that ultimately caused his influence to have a ripple effect in ever-widening circles for more than 320 years.
In his lifetime, John Flavel was extremely popular and influential within diverse strata of people across two continents. Flavel had an immediate local impact on his parishioners, an indirect impact later on the evangelical revivals, and a literary impact which continues to the present day.
Flavel’s parishioners who regularly heard him preach attest to his facility, power, and impact on their souls whilst he taught from the pulpit. We can do no better than to hear the testimony of one of his parishioners: ‘I could say much, though not enough, of the excellency of his preaching; of his seasonable, suitable and spiritual matter; of his plain expositions of Scripture, his taking method, his genuine and natural deductions, his convincing arguments, his clear and powerful demonstrations, his heart-searching applications, and his comfortable supports to those that were afflicted in conscience . . . In short that person must have a very soft head, or a very hard heart, or both, that could sit under his ministry unaffected.’
In 1689, he preached a series of sermons which evidently converted many people. Increase Mather, an influential leader in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the president of Harvard College, said this: ‘I am informed by unquestionable hands, that there was a remarkable pouring out of the Spirit when these sermons were viva voce delivered, a great number of souls having been brought home to Christ thereby.’ The effect of his faithfulness in southwest England was evidently a great benefit to many people.
Although the impact of his forty-one year ministry was substantial for the locals of Devon, his influence showed itself during the Great Awakening as well. In the next generation, arguably the greatest theologian to come from America, Jonathan Edwards, was deeply affected by ‘holy Mr. Flavel’, as he designated him. In The Religious Affections, which was Edwards’ evaluation and criticism of the Great Awakening, he quoted Flavel more than Richard Baxter, John Owen, Richard Sibbes, John Calvin, Francis Turretin, William Ames, and William Perkins, combined. In addition to the great admiration that George Whitefield and Robert Murray M‘Cheyne professed to have for Flavel, Archibald Alexander, the first professor of Princeton Seminary, said, ‘To John Flavel I certainly owe more than to any uninspired writer.’
However, Flavel’s impact was not restricted to the upper echelons of society or to famous and noteworthy people. His influence was felt on both sides of the Atlantic amongst all classes of people. Writing in 1688 in the preface to the eleven Englands Duty sermons, Increase Mather said of Flavel: ‘The worthy author . . . is one whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches. His other books have made his name precious and famous in both Englands.’ When one considers that Flavel’s writings were not printed in the American colonies until 1708, we can infer that copies of Flavel’s books were tucked under the arms of the harried and bedraggled Puritans as they boarded ships for the Colonies.
Flavel left not only a local and an intellectual footprint, he has also had an impact through print which began with the publishing of his first book in 1664 and continues to the present day. The last 348 years have seen more than 600 printings of the 35 treatises and sermons. His writings can be found in 15 languages. Various writings of his have been printed in Armenian, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Khmer, Korean, Polish, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish, Tamil, Urdu, and Welsh. As the example, consider his best-selling work, A Saint Indeed (aka Keeping the Heart), which was first published in 1668. Between the date of its first publication and the present day, there have been almost 100 editions of this work. In addition to that treatise, consider two of his other works, The Mystery of Providence and Navigation Spiritualized. The former is a classic defence of God’s beneficent and wise ruling of the universe; the latter likens the life rhythms of the Christian to the work of a sailor in a sort of spiritual allegory. Both of these writings remain in print from the Banner of Truth (in the Works, though the former is also available as a Puritan Paperback).
What makes Flavel an author worth reading is that he seems to have combined the best features of all of the ‘great’ Puritans. This is the reason he could arouse the world’s greatest minds with his intellectual precision and at the same time bring uneducated, sea-hardened sailors to their knees. Flavel did not have the intellectual power of John Owen, nor the poetic eloquence of John Bunyan, nor the encyclopedic comprehensiveness of Richard Baxter. But Flavel struck a healthy balance between these three and may be the best all-around English Puritan. What made Flavel great was his vision, estimate, and portrayal of the person and work of Christ. It was this feature which pervaded his writings. In his 42-sermon series titled Fountain of Life (1673), he wrote this about the human limitations of praising Christ:
The whole world is not a Theatre large enough, to show the glory of Christ upon: or unfold the one half of the unsearchable riches that lie hid in him. These things will be far better understood, and spoken of in Heaven . . . than by such a stammering tongue, and scribbling pen as mine; which doth but mar them. Alas! I write his praises but by Moon light—what shall I say of Christ! The excelling glory of that object dazzles all apprehension; swallows up all expression. When we have borrowed metaphors from every Creature that hath any excellency or lovely property in it, till we have stripped the whole Creation bare of all its ornaments; and clothed Christ with all that glory: when we have worn our tongues to the stumps, in ascribing praises to him; alas! We have done nothing, when all is done.
In light of all of this, where should one begin reading Flavel? I would heartily recommend starting with The Mystery of Providence. Flavel wisely handled this rich topic with deep insight into the mind of God, which he tenderly applied as a skilful physician of souls. Next would be A Saint Indeed. This book (found in Volume 5 of his Works, which, happily, remain in print with Banner of Truth) is a masterful treatment which addresses the question ‘How can Christians avoid sin and constantly maintain their communion with God?’ Lastly, for the ambitious reader, his six-volume Works is a must-have in any theological library and can easily be read through over the course of time. Their insights promise to generously benefit the reader, both in this life, and more importantly, for eternity.
This article was originally published in the August-September 2012 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.
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