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The Life of John Flavel

Category Book Excerpts
Date September 25, 2023

The following excerpt is drawn from the biographical sketch* in Volume 1 of the Works of John Flavel, published by the Trust.

Mr. Richard Flavel left two sons behind him, both ministers of the gospel, viz. John and Phinehas. John the eldest was born in Worcestershire. It was observable, that whilst his mother lay in with him, a nightingale made her nest in the out-side of the chamber-window, where she used to sing most sweetly. He was religiously educated by his father, and having profited well at the grammar schools, was sent early to Oxford, and settled a commoner in University College. He plied his studies hard, and exceeded many of his contemporaries in university learning.

Soon after his commencing batchelor of arts, Mr. Walplate, the minister of Diptford, in the county of Devon, was rendered uncapable of performing his office by reason of his age and infirmity, and sent to Oxford for an assistant; Mr. Flavel, though but young, was recommended to him as a person duly qualified, and was accordingly settled there by the standing committee of Devon, April 27, 1650, to preach as a probationer and assistant to Mr. Walplate.

Mr. Flavel considering the weight of his charge, applied himself to the work of his calling with great diligence; and being assiduous in reading, meditation and prayer, he increased in ministerial knowledge daily, (for he found himself that he came raw enough in that respect from the university) so that he attained to an high degree of eminency and reputation for his useful labours in the church.

About six months after his settling at Diptford, he heard of an ordination to be at Salisbury, and therefore went thither with his testimonials, and offered himself to be examined and ordained by the presbytery there: they appointed him a text, upon which he preached to their general satisfaction; and having afterwards examined him as to his learning, etc. they set him apart to the work of the ministry, with prayer and imposition of hands, on the 17th day of October, 1650.

Mr. Flavel being thus ordained, returned to Diptford, and after Mr. Walplate’s death succeeded in the rectory. To avoid all incumbrances from the world, and avocations from his studies and ministerial work, he chose a person of worth and reputation in the parish (of whom he had a good assurance that he would be faithful to himself, and kind to his parishioners) and let him the whole tithes much below the real value, which was very pleasing to his people. By this means he was the better able to deal with them in private, since the hire of his labours was no way a hindrance to the success of them.

Whilst he was at Diptford he married one Mrs. Jane Randal, a pious gentlewoman, of a good family, who died in travail of her first child without being delivered. His year of mourning being expired, his acquaintance and intimate friends advised him to marry a second time, wherein he was again very happy. Sometime after this second marriage, the people of Dartmouth (a great and noted sea-port in the county of Devon, formerly under the charge of the Reverend Mr. Anthony Hartford, deceased) unanimously chose Mr. Flavel to succeed him. They urged him to accept their call, (1.) Because there were exceptions made against all the other candidates, but none against him. (2.) Because, being acceptable to the whole town, he was the more like to be an instrument of healing the breaches among the good people there. (3.) Because Dartmouth, being a considerable and populous town, required an able and eminent minister, which was not so necessary for a country-parish, that might besides be more easily supplied with another pastor than Dartmouth.

That which made them more pressing and earnest with Mr. Flavel, was this; at a provincial synod in that county, Mr. Flavel, though but a young man, was voted into the chair as moderator, where he opened the assembly with a most devout and pertinent prayer; he examined the candidates who offered themselves to their trials for the ministry with great learning, stated the cases and questions proposed to them with much acuteness and judgment, and in the whole demeaned himself with that gravity, piety, and seriousness, during his presidency, that all the ministers of the assembly admired and loved him. The Reverend Mr. Hartford, his predecessor at Dartmouth, took particular notice of him, from that time forward contracted a strict friendship with him, and spoke of him among the magistrates and people of Dartmouth, as an extraordinary person, who was like to be a great light in the church. This, with their having several times heard him preach, occasioned their importunity with Mr. Flavel to come and be their minister; upon which, having spread his case before the Lord, and submitted to the decision of his neighbouring ministers, he was prevailed upon to remove to Dartmouth, to his great loss in temporals, the rectory of Diptford being a much greater benefice.

Mr. Flavel being settled at Dartmouth by the election of people, and an order from Whitehall by the commissioners for approbation of public preachers, of the 10th of December, 1656, he was associated with Mr. Allein Geere, a very worthy, but sickly, man. The ministerial work was thus divided betwixt them; Mr. Flavel was to preach on the Lord’s-day at Townstall, the mother-church standing upon a hill without the town; and every fortnight in his turn at the Wednesday’s Lecture in Dartmouth. Here God crowned his labours with many conversions. One of his judicious hearers expressed himself thus concerning him; “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.”

By his unwearied application to study, he had accquired a great stock both of divine and human learning. He was master of the controversies betwixt the Jews and Christians, Papists and Protestants, Lutherans and Calvinists, and betwixt the Orthodox, and the Arminians and Socinians: he was likewise well read in the Controversies about Church-discipline, Infant-Baptism, and Antinomianism. He was well acquainted with the School-divinity, and drew up a judicious and ingenious scheme of the whole body of that Theology in good Latin, which he presented to a person of quality, but it was never printed. He had one way of improving his knowledge, which is very proper for young divines; whatever remarkable passage he heard in private conference, if he was familiar with the relator, he would desire him to repeat it again, and insert it into his Aversaria: by these methods he acquired a vast stock of proper materials for his popular sermons in the pulpit, and his more elaborate works for the press.

He had an excellent gift of prayer, and was never at a loss in all his various occasions for suitable matter and words; and, which was the most remarkable of all, he always brought with him a broken heart and moving affections: his tongue and spirit were touched with a live coal from the altar, and he was evidently assisted by the Holy Spirit of grace and supplication in that divine ordinance. Those who lived in his family say that he was always full and copious in prayer, seemed constantly to exceed himself, and rarely made use twice of the same expressions.

When the act of uniformity turned him out with the rest of his nonconforming brethren, he did not thereupon quit his relation to his church, he thought the souls of his flock to be more precious than to be so tamely neglected; he took all opportunities of ministering the word and sacraments to them in private meetings, and joined with other ministers in solemn days of fasting and humiliation, to pray that God would once more restore the ark of his covenant unto his afllicted Israel. About four months after that fatal Bartholomew day, his reverend colleague, Mr. Allein Geere, died; so that the whole care of the flock devolved upon Mr. Flavel, which, though a heavy and pressing burden, he undertook very cheerfully.

Upon the execution of the Oxford act, which banished all nonconformist ministers five miles from any towns which sent members to parliament, he was forced to leave Dartmouth, to the great sorrow of his people, who followed him out of town; and at Townstall church-yard they took such a mournful farewell of one another as the place might very well have been called Bochim. He removed to Slapton, a parish five miles from Dartmouth, or any other corporation, which put him out of the legal reach of his adversaries. Here he met with signal instances of God’s fatherly care and protection, and preached twice every Lord’s-day to such as durst adventure to hear him, which many of his own people and others did, notwithstanding the rigour and severity of the act against conventicles. He many times slipped privately into Dartmouth, where by preaching and conversation he edified his flock, to the great refreshment of his own soul and theirs, though with very much danger, because of his watchful adversaries, who constantly laid wait for him, so that he could not make any long stay in the town.

In those times Mr. Flavel being at Exeter, was invited to preach by many good people of that city, who for safety chose a wood about three miles from the city to be the place of their assembly, where they were broke up by their enemies by that time the sermon was well begun. Mr. Flavel, by the care of the people, made his escape through the middle of his enraging enemies; and though many of his hearers were taken, carried before Justice Tuckfield, and fined; yet the rest, being nothing discouraged, re-assembled, and carrying Mr. Flavel to another wood, he preached to them without any disturbance; and, after he had concluded, rode to a gentleman’s house near the wood, who, though an absolute stranger to Mr. Flavel, entertained him with great civility that night, and next day he returned to Exeter in safety. Amongst those taken at this time, there was a Tanner who had a numerous family, and but a small stock; he was fined notwithstanding in forty pounds; at which he was nothing discouraged, but told a friend, who asked him how he bore up under his loss, That he took the spoiling of his goods joyfully, for the sake of his Lord Jesus, for whom his life and all that he had was too little.

As soon as the Nonconformists had any respite from their trouble, Mr. Flavel laid hold of the opportunity, and returned to Darmouth, where, during the first indulgence granted by King Charles II. he kept open doors, and preached freely to all that would come and hear him; and when that liberty was revoked, he made it his business notwithstanding to preach in season and out of season, and seldom missed of an opportunity of preaching on the Lord’s-day. During this time, God was pleased to deprive him of his second wife, which was a great affliction, she having been a help-meet for him, and such an one he stood much in need of, as being a man of an infirm and weak constitution, who laboured under many infirmities. In convenient time he married a third wife, Mrs. Ann Downe, daughter of Mr. Thomas Downe, minister of Exeter, who lived very happily with him eleven years, and left him two sons, who are youths of great hopes.

The persecution against the Nonconformists being renewed, Mr. Flavel found it unsafe to stay at Dartmouth, and therefore resolved to go to London, where he hoped to be in less danger, and to have more liberty to exercise his function. The night before he embarked for that end, he had the following premonition by a dream; he thought he was on board the ship, and that a storm arose which exceedingly terrified the passengers, during their consternation there sat writing at the table a person of admirable sagacity and gravity, who had a child in a cradle by him that was very froward; he thought he saw the father take up a little whip, and give the child a lash, saying, Child be quiet, I will discipline, but not hurt thee. Upon this Mr. Flavel awaked, and musing on his dream, he concluded, that he should meet with some trouble in his passage: his friends being at dinner with him, assured him of a pleasant passage, because the wind and weather were very fair; Mr. Flavel replied, That he was not of their mind, but expected much trouble because of his dream, adding, that when he had such representations made to him in his sleep, they seldom or never failed.

Accordingly, when they were advanced within five leagues of Portland in their voyage, they were overtaken by a dreadful tempest, insomuch that betwixt one and two in the morning, the master and seamen concluded, that, unless God changed the wind, there was no hope of life; it was impossible for them to weather Portland, so that they must of necessity be wrecked on the rocks or on the shore. Upon this Mr. Flavel called all the hands that could be spared into the cabin to prayer; but the violence of the tempest was such, that they could not prevent themselves from being thrown from the one side unto the other as the ship was tossed; and not only so, but mighty seas broke in upon them, as if they would have drowned them in the very cabin. Mr. Flavel in this danger took hold of the two pillars of the cabin bed, and calling upon God, begged mercy for himself and the rest in the ship. Amongst other arguments in prayer, he made use of this, that if he and his company perished in that storm, the name of God would be blasphemed, the enemies of religion would say, that though he escaped their hands on shore, yet divine vengeance had overtaken him at sea. In the midst of prayer his faith and hope were raised, insomuch that he expected a gracious answer; so that, committing himself and his company to the mercy of God, he concluded the duty. No sooner was prayer ended, but one came down from the deck, crying, Deliverance! Deliverance! God is a God hearing prayer! In a moment the wind is come fair west! And so sailing before it, they were brought safely to London. Mr. Flavel found many of his old friends there; and God raised him new ones, with abundance of work, and extraordinary encouragement in it. During his stay in London, he married his fourth wife, a widow gentlewoman, (daughter to Mr. George Jeffries, formerly minister of King’s-Bridge) but now his sorrowful relict.

Mr. Flavel, while he was in London, narrowly escaped being taken, with the reverend Mr. Jenkins, at Mr. Fox’s in Moorfields, where they were keeping a day of fasting and prayer. He was so near, that he heard the insolence of the officers and soldiers to Mr. Jenkins when they had taken him; and observed it in his diary, that Mr. Jenkins might have escaped as well as himself, had it not been for a piece of vanity in a lady, whose long train hindered his going down stairs, Mr. Jenkins, out of his too great civility having let her pass before him.

Mr. Flavel after this, returned to Dartmouth, where with his family and dear people he blessed God for his mercies towards him. He was in a little time after confined close prisoner to his house, where many of his dear flock stole in over night, or betimes on the Lord’s-day in the morning, to enjoy the benefit of his labours, and spend the sabbath in hearing, praying, singing of psalms, and holy discourses.

Mr. Jenkins, abovementioned, dying in prison, his people gave Mr. Flavel a call to the pastoral office among them, and Mr. Reeve’s people did the like. Mr. Flavel communicated these calls unto his flock, and kept a day of prayer with them to beg direction of God in this important affair; he was graciously pleased to answer them by fixing Mr. Flavel’s resolution to stay with his flock at Dartmouth. Many arguments were made use of to persuade him to come to London, as, that since he was turned out by the act of uniformity, he had had but very little maintenance from his church; that those at London were rich and numerous congregations; that he had a family and children to provide for; and that the city was a theatre of honour and reputation. But none of these things could prevail with him to leave his poor people at Dartmouth.

In 1687, when it pleased God so to over-rule affairs, that King James II. thought it his interest to dispense with the penal laws against them, Mr. Flavel, who had formerly been confined to a corner, shone brightly, as a flaming beacon upon the top of an hill. His affectionate people prepared a large place for him, where God blessed his labours to the conviction of many people, by his sermons on Rev. 3:20. Behold I stand at the door and knock. This encouraged him to print those sermons, under the title of England’s Duty, etc. hoping that it might do good abroad, as well as in his own congregation. He made a vow to the Lord under his confinement, that if he should be once more entrusted with public liberty, he would improve it to the advantage of the gospel; this he performed in a most conscientious manner, preached twice every Lord’s-day, and lectured every Wednesday, in which he went over most of the 3d chapter of St John’s gospel, shewing the indispensable necessity of regeneration. He preached likewise every Thursday before the sacrament, and then after examination admitted communicants. He had no assistance on sacrament-days, so that he was many times almost spent before he distributed the elements. When the duty of the day was over, he would often complain of a sore breast, an aking head, and a pained back; yet he would be early at study again next Monday. He allowed himself very little recreation, accounting time a precious jewel that ought to be improved at any rate.


*It is unclear who wrote this sketch of the life of John Flavel.

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