Lessons From Thomas Boston - Rev William Hughes
05 Jan 1997
Thomas Boston was born in the middle of the seventeenth century in Scotland in the midst of one of the most turbulent and yet one of the most noble periods in the history of Britain. Charles II was restored from exile in 1660 and soon forgot his coronation pledge, that he would support Presbyterianism in Scotland. As you may know, Charles was a profligate king; he impoverished the country in order to provide for his many mistresses and his illegitimate children; and if the cause of true religion was to be promoted, it certainly wasn't going to be promoted by Charles. He recognised that if he was going to govern successfully, then the Church was a force that had to be reckoned with, and the best way of securing control of the Church was to have the last word in all of its affairs. The Episcopal form of church government had proved more pliable and more manageable than Presbyterianism, and so Charles determined that the rule of Bishops must be restored. He said, "Presbyterianism is no religion for a gentleman"; and its moral and ethical codes repelled him.
Believing that the monarch had a Divine Right to rule as he pleased, Charles put down ruthlessly everything that he regarded as a challenge to his power. It became high treason to deny his absolute authority and eventually it was enacted that Episcopacy should be the form of church government in Scotland. The struggle of the people to safeguard the spiritual independence of the Church continued, and Scotland is peppered with the gravestones and memorials of many people who were killed and buried in that struggle. It went on for twenty eight years until James succeeded to the throne on the death of his brother. One epitaph that was composed on the death of Charles II was this:
"A secularist; he shook off Presbyterianism as a viper, utilised Episcopacy as the readiest political tool, and finally, put on Popery as a shroud to die in."
James had always been an avowed Roman Catholic, and an avowed Roman Catholic he determined to remain. His reign was one of great tyranny, and when in 1686 he asked the Scottish Parliament to repeal the laws which were against Roman Catholics he met with great resistance. And James' tyranny had far reaching results, because Protestants grew closer together in their resistance, and basically it had the reverse effect: it accomplished the downfall of a dynasty which had brought the land almost to destruction. On the 5th of November 1688, William of Orange landed at Torbay with an army to claim the throne, and James Stuart, who had made fugitives of most of the best people in his realm, became a fugitive himself.
Now it was twelve years prior to this that Thomas Boston was born. It was a time of great turbulence, and yet it was a period that produced some of the greatest Christian men in Scottish history. Boston was born in Duns, in south east Scotland in 1676; he was the youngest of seven children, four brothers and three sisters. He came from a Presbyterian background, his father on one occasion being imprisoned for his stand on non-conformity; and one of the earliest memories that Boston had was the one where he stayed with his father in jail, in order to keep him company. His education began at an early age under the guidance of the local school mistress who lived in his father's house, and she was the one who first expressed the desire, that one day she would see this young boy engaged in the work of the Gospel. At seven years of age he was reading the Bible, more out of curiosity than godly concern; and at eight years of age he entered the grammar school, where he remained until he was thirteen.
His first awareness of the dealings of God with his soul took place when he was eleven. His father took him to hear Rev Henry Erskine preach. Erskine, the father of Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, was a puritan: he'd been ejected from his charge twenty five years earlier by the Acts of Uniformity. There are one or two interesting things that should be said about Henry Erskine. First of all, Henry Erskine was one of thirty three children. The next thing is that his wife was buried before Ralph and Ebenezer were born. Mrs Erskine had been buried in the local churchyard, and because her husband was so distraught, the family heirloom of a gold ring wasn't removed from her finger, which was still heavily swollen. So she was laid in her coffin still wearing the ring; and the church sexton, knowing that the valuable item was there in the graveyard, resolved that he would steal it before the grave was finally closed. Armed with a strong knife, he opened the grave and he began to cut off the ring finger; and you can imagine his astonishment when blood spurted from the wound, and Mrs Erskine sat up in her coffin. The man fled in terror, and the good lady literally rose from the grave. She made her way to the door of the home, and she stood and knocked for admittance. Her husband, conversing with friends who were trying to comfort him, when he heard the knock at the door, said "Were it not that I had just put my wife in her grave, I would say that that was her knock." He rose and went to the door, and there stood his wife wrapped in her grave clothes, with her uplifted finger dripping with blood. "My Margaret!" he exclaimed. "The same," said she. "Your dear wife in her own proper person. Don't be alarmed." She lived after that for eight years, and became the mother of several children, among whom were Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine.
It was said of Henry Erskine, "Above Henry Erskine's head, let the weather be foul or fair to his neighbours, the sky was always blue. In his heart, every month of the twelve, the birds sang, the flowers bloomed, and the river of the water of life made happy music."
Now it was a difficult path for Boston into the new life in Christ: he had a melancholic disposition. Those of you who read his memoirs will know that he was melancholic. And he had a very, very sensitive conscience, so his melancholy coupled with his sensitive conscience. If he fell and banged his head against the wall, he would search his soul for hours on end, wondering what the meaning of this was. Like Jonathan Edwards, he met to pray with friends whilst he was a teenager, and he vowed that he would pray to God three times a day: a vow that he later lived to regret. But it was through Erskine's faithful preaching that the young Thomas Boston was awakened to his dead spiritual condition and to his need of Christ. Erskine had preached on John 1:29, "Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world," and he'd also preached on Matthew 3:7, "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Now this is what Boston says:
"By these I judge God spoke to me, however I know I was touched quickly after the first hearing, wherein I was like amazed with some new strange thing. My lost state by nature, and my absolute need of Christ being thus discovered to me, I was set to pray in earnest. I also began to attend the preaching of the Word at Reavlaw, where Mr Erskine had his meeting house, about four miles from Duns. In the summertime company could hardly be missed, and with them, something to be heard, especially in the returning, that was for edification, to which I listened. But in the Winter sometimes it was my lot to go alone, without so much as the benefit of a horse to carry me through Blackadder Water, the wading thereof in sharp, frosty weather, I very well remember. But such things were then easy, for the benefit of the Word, which came with power."
Some people can't even get into their car to come to church on the Sabbath. Well, he had some proficiency in Latin, in classical literature, a working knowledge of the New Testament; he left the grammar school at the age of thirteen, and at fifteen he entered the University of Edinburgh. There is little record of his life at university, except that he traces the beginnings of his lifetime of trials, and his lifetime of afflictions from that particular period. He received the bursary of the Presbytery of Duns as a student of theology, and entered upon his theological course in Edinburgh in January, 1695. He was there for one short session. His physical health was always a sore trial to him. He ate very, very little as a student, in order that he might eke out his father's small resources. He often suffered from fainting fits, and at times appeared to be dying; his condition probably aggravated by a lack of Vitamin C, which was so severe that he lost his teeth in later life: they blackened and eventually dropped out. It gave him a great deal of pain, and acute embarrassment as he struggled with pronunciation, not having any teeth.
Now, it was a common practice in those days for some students to complete their studies by supporting themselves financially by means of teaching, and this was the practice that Boston followed. He was settled as the tutor of the step-son to Lieutenant Colonel Bruce, of Kennet, near Clackmannan, and he lived with this family for about a year. When he looked back on it, he regarded it as one of the greatest periods in his spiritual development; and despite his natural timidity and his reserve - he describes himself at the end of his life as being naturally slow, timorous and diffident - nevertheless he still had a consuming zeal for the things of God:
"Though I was not properly the chaplain of the family; nor had I, that I remember, any particular order from the master of the family; and neither Laird nor Lady were at home for some considerable time after I went there; yet finding myself providentially settled there in the character I bore, I judged myself obliged in conscience to seek the spiritual good of the family, and to watch over them, and to see to their manners. Accordingly, I set up family worship, catechised the servants, pressed the careless to secret prayer, reproved and warned against sinful practices, and earnestly endeavoured the reformation of the vicious. I held on, as new occasions offered, to discharge my conscience until I left the family; and though it prevailed not according to my desire, yet by the good hand of God, fencing me, my struggle had an awe with it, and it was not openly treated with contempt. Though their words of me were like sharp swords, yet to me they were as smooth as butter. I remember one Saturday night they had set a fire in the hall for drying their clothes they had been washing, not to be removed till the Sabbath was over. Grieved with this as a profanation of the Lord's Day, I spoke to the gentlewoman who, insinuating that she had not done without orders what she had done, refused to remove them. Whereupon I spoke to the lady, who soon removed the clothes, and disposed of them otherwise. In like manner, on the Lord's Day, word being sent to me that my pupil was not going to church that day, I went and enquired into the matter, and he was caused to rise out of his bed; and both mother and son went to church that day."
Now, remember, all this was done in a military household that was not used to those kind of intrusions. He didn't remain in Kennet for very long, but it was a time which proved greatly beneficial to him in his later Christian life and ministry; and there are times when we need to recognise the sovereign providence of God in our pre-converted state, and in our earlier training. God can make use of the things that we have learned in our earlier lives for His service later on.
Boston had worked for a solicitor, and there he had learned to take notes, which was a great help to him later on. It was also there that the solicitor owed him money for his working for him; and when Boston couldn't get the man to pay him, he stole a book, thinking that this would settle the debt. Now the book was Dickson's commentary on Matthew - a very good and a very helpful book, but not a very Christian thing to steal it. However, his conscience getting the better of him, he returned the stolen prize; and he says that he learned from the incident the necessity of restitution, and also the dread of stealing like a burnt child dreading the fire. When he left the household at Kennet, he said,
"Though it was heavy to me that I was taken from the school of divinity to Kennet, yet I am convinced that God sent me to another school there, in order to prepare me for the work of the Gospel for which he had designed me. For there I learned in some measure what it was to have the charge of souls; and being naturally timorous and much subject to the fear of man, I attained by what I met with there to some boldness, and not regarding the persons of men when they are out of God's way. There I learned that God will countenance one in the faithful discharge of his duty, though it be not attended with the desired success; and that plain dealing will impress an awe on the party's conscience, though their corruption still rages at the one who so deals with them."
He left Kennet in February 1697, and in June that year he was licensed by the Presbytery of Duns. During one of his trial sermons the precentor failed to arrive, and he had to precent., himself; and yet he saw even in that, the overruling providence of God, in getting him to overcome his natural timidity. During the two years that he was a probationer he was sought after by a number of churches. These, of course, were the times when the local heritor was still a governing factor in the settlement of ministers, and Boston would not court the local heritors, which inevitably delayed his settlement into the ministry. Queen Victoria once said of Gladstone, "He addresses me as if I were a public meeting." Well, Boston received that kind of accusation concerning his manner of preaching; the people described him as a railer. This is what he says himself:
"The first Sabbath I preached, being timorous, I had not confidence to look upon the people, though I believe I did not close my eyes. The second Sabbath I had more confidence; and the next, again more; till very soon I had enough and was censured as too bold, particularly in meddling with the public sins of the land. The truth is, my God so far pities my natural weakness, indulging me a while after I first set out to His work, that whatever fears I was liable to ere I got into the pulpit, yet once the pulpit door was closed on me; fear was, as it were, closed out. And I feared not the face of man while preaching God's Word."
Now, the time of his probation was a very heart-searching and perplexing time to him. He sought the guiding hand of God continually concerning his future sphere of service, and through prayer and fasting, he was enabled to keep on going on. Finally in 1699, a call came from a small obscure parish where the people and the heritor were agreed; and he lists his reservations concerning his acceptance of the call.
These were some of the reservations he had about going to this particular place: First of all, he says, the rarity of the godly that were there - very, very few godly people. Secondly, the smallness of their number. Thirdly, the smallness of the stipend. Fourthly, the temperament of the people, being so different from his own. Fifthly, the other ministers in the area were not such that he could work alongside. And Sixthly, the apparent lack of opportunity to be of service there.
He says, "I was not far from thinking that I was more useful in my unsettled condition, than I would be if minister of Simprin." Now it may be helpful to mention some of the principles that he laid down for accepting the call. He says that he gave himself time for prayer and fasting, and then he says:
"Three things were suggested to me, prompting me to be so at pains for light in the matter, thinking with myself thus:
1.Unless I be sure of my call to this from the Lord, how will I stand against the discouragements that I shall meet with there?
2.How can I think of profiting them, if He send me not to them?
3.How will I stand before them at the Tribunal of God, if I joined them without a call from Himself?"
Then, having been led to accept the call, he says he took time again for prayer and fasting, "in order that," he says, that he might get "habitual nearness to God;" that he might have a "due impression of the weight of the work that I am called to; for God's presence with me in it; for contentment with my lot; and lastly, that I might be kept from cooling in my zeal." And then he sums it all up by saying, "It has cost no small struggling to put the knife to the throat of all my inclinations, and to sacrifice them to the good pleasure of my God." And many a minister knows what that is all about.
Now, it was during the ordinary course of his preparation of a sermon on Eph 1:5, that the Lord impressed it upon his heart, that he should accept the call to Simprin. He felt that he was unfit for any other position; and on Thursday, 21st September 1699, he was ordained to the ministry of the parish of Simprin, eight miles south east of Duns, in the borders. G H Morrison in the introduction to Boston's memoirs describes the situation: "It would be difficult to picture a better situation for any house of God. To the north, the eye catches the slopes of the Lammermuirs; southward, the country rolls away, by Flooden Field, into the heights of the Cheviot; all around is the rich country of the Merse, with here and there a manor-house, 'bosomed high mid tufted trees'. Of the church itself, little is standing today but the east gable. The roof is gone. The walls are crumbling away. Nettles and thorns, with here and there, the seedling of a plane tree, ramble and root among the corner-stones. And the whole structure is on a scale so diminutive, that five short paces carry one from wall to wall, and twenty from end to end." That was in 1899, I think it is much the same today.
The manse was almost in ruins, and when he arrived he settled in an old house that was in such a bad state of repair, that in a storm he had to leave his bed and sleep with his father, "lest," he says, "the house should have fallen in on me."
It is perhaps helpful if we consider some of his early habits and duties, as a pastor and a preacher at this point. These were the formative years of his life and of his ministry, and he was always meticulous in all his habits of work, and of prayer, and of study; and so he soon had the parish well organised. Every Sabbath there was a morning and evening service, of which he preached the sermon; both sermons upon the same subject. In the morning service he included a lecture upon the chapter, and an address by way of preface to the whole. There was a meeting on the Sabbath evening for the study of the Catechism, after which he individually catechised the family servants. Each Tuesday evening at the manse there was a meeting for praise and prayer. Every Thursday he held a mid-week meeting where he preached, and after which he always spent an hour or so in private prayer and meditation. He visited every household regularly, as well as visiting those who were sick. That is quite a demanding schedule to engage in week after week, and month after month. In all of his visiting, he says he would engage in catechising every person in the household, and by doing that he was discovering the true state of their souls. He says,
"On the morrow, I visited the sick and spent the afternoon in catechising, and found great ignorance prevailing. One the Tuesday, visiting a sick woman, who was grossly ignorant, after I had laid out before her, her wretched state by nature, she told me that she had believed all her days. I thereupon sat astonished for a while, lifted up my eyes to the Lord, and addressed myself to her again, for her conviction. Howbeit, nothing but stupidity appeared. Therefore I saw that I had enough to do among my 'handful'."
He often refers to his flock as, 'my handful'.
"I had another diet of catechising on the Wednesday afternoon, and looking to the Lord for help, I got it, and had more comfort in them than I had before. Having inculcated on each of them their wretched state by nature, and they frequently attending the means of instruction, there were but few examined that day who did not show some knowledge of the point. But the discovery I made of their ignorance of God, and of themselves, made me the more satisfied with the smallness of my charge."
Now his method of visitation, he says, was this:
"I made a particular application of my doctrine in the pulpit to the family. I exhorted them to lay these things to heart, namely: their natural state and their need of Christ. I exhorted them to prayer, supposing that they kept family -worship. I urged their relative duties; prayed with them; and then made the master of the house to pray; but I think this last might have well been forborne."
One of the great attributes in the pastoral ministry is to have a good dose of Christian tact. He realised that these heads, these fathers of the families just would not pray. Within a short time of being in Simprin he was able to report that every home now had family worship, and part of his own family worship was the occasional family fast; and the whole family would meet together without having breakfast, and from 10 o'clock until 12:30 they would confess their faults and their sins in prayer to God. From 12:30 to 2 o'clock would be spent in private prayer, and then at 2:30 they would dine together. On Mondays he would endeavour to keep his heart in a heavenly disposition by spending the morning in private prayer, and then in catechising. In the afternoon he visited the sick, and the evening was spent in study. "In this," he says, "I found my heart much bettered; my confidence in the Lord much strengthened; the world less valuable in my eyes; and my soul free of the temptations that otherwise I was liable to." He studied all day on Thursday for the evening sermon; and all day Friday was devoted to study for the Sabbath.
Now, remember that all that was being done for a parish of eighty eight souls; and very, very few strange faces - no visitors that would come to that church. And where many another man would have been tempted to skimp in his preparation, Boston gave to his 'handful' the very best that he could. Now that whole period of his life was one of great heart-searching and introspection; and his conscience, as I mentioned earlier, was extremely tender. He tells us how he felt rebuked by God over a period of days, because he had been engaged in worldly conversation immediately prior to the mid-week service. He also held that "the unedifying conversation of ministers, and my own among others, is the one great cause of unsuccessfulness of the Gospel." Its an interesting comment.
Now like many pastors who find themselves in lonely and isolated situations, he was prone to long periods of depression and dejection; and many of us know what it is, and we can sympathise with him. He continued to labour on in the work of the Gospel, constantly in prayer to God. He had this consuming passion for hard work, for study; he possessed an amazing memory for the Scriptures; and at this time in his ministry he had no books and he had no commentaries; and he says, "God was a commentator to me." He struggled through the Psalms in Hebrew; he came to an understanding of the Hebrew accents; he taught himself French; and set himself the task of mastering the deep questions of theology. Now he was hampered by his lack of commentaries and other books, and he was deeply hurt when a visiting minister smiled, condescendingly, as he looked at his little library. During that time in Simprin, he preached on the subjects which were to become widely read and known throughout the world as Human Nature in its Four-Fold State. and the Lord blessed his faithfulness. Soon the little church could hardly accommodate those people who were coming to hear him; and his final weeks at Simprin were marked by a great spiritual awakening, and there was great spiritual blessing.
Now, it will help to understand a little more fully the labours of this man, and the accomplishments that he achieved, when you recognise something of his domestic and family life. Nearly twelve months after coming to Simprin, at the age of 25, he was married to a Catherine Brown. He first met her prior to leaving Kennet, in Clackmannan. She was two years his elder, and it seems as if it was love at first sight. He says when he first met her, "something stuck with me"; and that both of them were in great distress. He says that he, "discerned the sparkles of grace in her". She was the daughter of a physician, who had practiced at Culross, and her father had passed on to her a great deal of medical skill. Boston was not a man who was robust, and on one occasion he took ill when Catherine was present, and she came to his rescue. She applied boiled wormwood to his stomach in linen bags. At one point he was told to cut off his hair for the sake of his health; and so he says that he wore a wig for a number of years. "However", he says, "finding it troublesome when going abroad, I laid it aside and betook me again to my own hair, which to this day I wear."
Concerning Catherine, he said, "What engaged me to her was her piety, her parts, her beauty, her cheerful disposition fitted to temper mine, and that I reckoned her very fit to see to my health." He proposed to her, at which time he had neither church nor manse; and so, not surprisingly, she hesitated, and she delayed. Then after some months of agonising and waiting, he finally received her acceptance, and she became an ideal wife to him, and he pays great tribute to her in his diary. Yet, like many another servant of God, their married life was not without shadow, or without suffering. Two of their children died in childhood; one child was born with a cleft palate. Boston lived to bury six of his ten children; and Catherine herself, after the first six weeks of their marriage, was confined to bed for 10 years with schizophrenia; and Boston had to struggle on, with his wife in that condition. She tried to commit suicide, and he laboured on, having to take care of his wife in those conditions.
Now, there are many men, of course, in the Christian ministry who can bear tremendous burdens of a household, as well as the care of the churches in the work of the Gospel. You only need to think of James Fraser of Alness; John G Paton. William Carey, had to care for his wife, who also was mentally deranged for most of the time that he was in India. Spurgeon, of course, his wife was never robust in health. Kenneth MacRae of Stornoway writes in his diary, "Boston's troubles comfort me." In comparison to what this man went through, we look at our own situation and we can take heart. Like some of the Old Testament prophets, Boston was refined and he was moulded by love and by sorrow, by pleasure and by pain; and he was refined in the furnace of affliction, in order that he might bear more fruit to the glory of God. In May 1707 he left Simprin for the parish where he was to remain for the rest of his life, and with which he is mainly associated, that of Ettrick in Selkirk.
We associate Baxter with Kidderminster; Fletcher with Madeley; Rutherford with Anworth; M'Cheyne with Dundee; and we associate Boston with Ettrick. It was a much larger parish, but even more remote than Simprin; set at the foot of the lofty hills along the Ettrick River. The earliest records of the parish in 1755 give the population as 397. It has no advantages as a parish: hardly any roads, and those roads are easily cut off for most of the winter. Now the manse at Ettrick was no better than the manse at Simprin, and whilst it was rebuilt the family had to live in a stable. It was in the stable that Ebenezer, his son, was born and died very shortly after birth.
It was in that lonely spot that Boston proved what can be accomplished under God, through sheer hard work and persistent prayer; but for a long time hard work and prayer seemed to be powerless. Only the fact that he was absolutely sure of the call of God upheld him against all this sea of troubles that he met with at Ettrick, and meant he knew that he was in the place where God wanted him to be. Now, it was said of the people of Ettrick, that whilst they were hospitable, and generous to the passing stranger, they were at the same time full of pride and self-assurance, and these were the things that were the plague of Boston's life. They had been four years without a pastor, and this had its effect. The people, he says, were "noisy and inattentive during worship"; they had to be told oft to keep order while he was preaching; there was widespread immorality; cursing and swearing was common amongst most of the people - and these were the things that burdened his heart and his mind, and his diary will reveal to you just how downcast he often was.
After eight years working in that situation, he says that he had a longing to be away. He says to his wife, "My heart is alienated from this place"; and the main thing that kept him there was the thought of the sad plight of the people if he left. And that is the thing that keeps many a man in his pulpit, and in his ministry - the sad plight of the situation and the church, if he leaves. And it is sometimes only when a pastor leaves that people realise the precious gift that they had. Now it is at this point that the memoirs can be very encouraging to the minister of the Gospel; and despite all the opposition, the sea of troubles that he encountered, he continued.
In the end, after about ten years, this dogged perseverance began to have an effect among the people, and upon the preacher himself. Men and women began to feel the power of the Spirit in the preaching and in the ministry. As a result of the publication of his sermons he became more widely known, and he began to receive calls from other churches. As these calls came to him, the people of Ettrick began to realise that they had been greatly blessed in having him as their minister. He received a call from a church in Closeburn, down in Dumfrieshire, and they appointed a congregational fast in Ettrick. It was at that point, when he received the call from Closeburn, when they felt that they might lose him altogether, that was the turning point in his ministry. From then on, he ministered to the people with great authority, and blessing, and effect.
These first ten years in Ettrick were years in which God was using and enriching His man, and during that time Human Nature in its Fourfold State was published, and Boston little realised the multitude of people that it would reach and the impact that it would have upon the spiritual life of Scotland in the future. The Fourfold State is a treatment of human nature in its fourfold state:
1.Primitive Integrity - the state of innocence;
2.Entire Depravity - the state of nature;
3.Begun Recovery - the state of grace;
4.Consummate Happiness - the eternal state of glory
Although there are twelve volumes of Boston's work, this book more than any other is the one for which Boston is remembered most: a book that had quite a history, and something that Boston prayed about constantly. He prayed every time he put pen to paper; and always the subject of the prayers at the family fast, were the books that Boston was writing. And this book was almost lost at the outset, by the interference of somebody who read the manuscript, and unknown to Boston, they altered the manuscript. He then had the altered copy set up for print; and as the printers began printing they discovered Boston's original. The providence of God brought Boston to Edinburgh just in time to save the situation. The book was first published in 1720, and it had an immediate impact. New editions were called for and it was being read by people from all walks of life.
Whilst for the most of his life Boston remained within the seclusion of the Selkirk hills, ministering and pastoring his 'handful', he was nevertheless involved in a number of ecclesiastical controversies within the National Church, and the first concerned the Abjuration Oath, which was based upon Acts of Parliament, which stipulated that the reigning Sovereign should be a member of the Episcopal Church of England, and you will recognise that this is the most current issue in the nation today. This is what the discussion and the debate is all about with regard to Prince Charles. The Abjuration Oath pledged Presbyterian ministers to uphold Episcopacy. It wasn't something that was forced upon them, but something which was to be held at their own discretion. Now, as you would expect, Boston was one of the first to refuse, and he took his stand in that particular ecclesiastical controversy and issue.
The second issue concerned a Glasgow Divinity Professor, Professor Simson, who was an Arminian. He was a man of little depth or dignity of character, and he was a problem for the Church for over fifteen years. He denied the doctrine of the Trinity; he denied the real nature of the Person of Christ; but the problem was that it was difficult to prove the charges against him, because all the lectures that he had given were in Latin. So unless you were a Latin scholar, you couldn't refute the man. It was said of Simson, that he was adept at "teaching heresy orthodoxy". Such men are extremely dangerous. There was a long series of meetings and committees, and eventually he was found guilty of the charges. The problem was, that having been found guilty, he was simply reprimanded, and allowed to continue in his post on full pay, without being able to teach. Thomas Boston stood up, alone, in a crowded Assembly, protesting that this man should be dismissed, and he said, "I dissent in my own name, and in the name of all that shall adhere to me. . . . and for myself alone if nobody shall adhere". Now the aged Moderator, concerned for the unity of the Church, asked him, "Will you tear out the bowels of your mother?" Taking the paper in his hand, Boston responded, "If that were the tendency of this, rather would I take it, and tear it in a thousand pieces." The following day he allowed his statement of protest not to be officially minuted, in order to prevent a split within the Church, but he acted with tremendous courage and great dignity, and it impressed everybody at that Assembly.
Now, those two cases were soon to be forgotten, but the third case was not to be forgotten, and in many ways this also is a current issue. The echoes of this case continued for a number of centuries. It is known as the Marrow Controversy and among all the ministers involved in it, none were more deeply involved than Thomas Boston. At the outset of his ministry, Boston was still coming to terms with the great matters of Christian doctrine. He'd been trained in Covenant Theology, and he was constantly thinking through the big issues that Covenant Theology presents. One day in 1700, sitting in an old soldier's cottage at Simprin, he saw on a shelf above the window, a book entitled, The Marrow of Modern Divinity. It was a new name to him: he'd never heard of it before and he began to read it with great satisfaction. It was helpful to him in sorting out his theological and doctrinal difficulties, especially with regard to the Covenants, and the Full and Free Offer of Salvation. Now among the books that he possessed, this one was the most choice to him throughout the rest of his life. It was a treatise by Edward Fisher of Oxford, and it was first published in 1646, the year of the Westminster Confession. Now it didn't make any claims to originality: as its title suggests, it simply gathered together the most marrowy passages of the acknowledged masters of divinity. The main concern of Fisher was to deal with the great issues of the relationship between law and grace. He saw that the liberty which Christ bestows in the Gospel was being turned into unworthy licence - it is still a problem today. Fisher had been bound for twelve years by a legal spirit, and had been ignorant of the free grace of God in Christ. When he found light and liberty in Christ, he determined to make that known. G H Morrison says:
"To some it may seem not a little strange that such a thesis should ever call for vindication. They must remember that they were never trained to think in terms of that noble system of Covenant Theology. Every theology has its point of strain. And in the covenant-system. . . one point of strain must always be the inter-relations of the covenants. Was the moral law a covenant of works? What, then, is the standing of the moral law in the covenant of grace? Was the covenant between God and Christ the very same as that between God and Adam? Does the believer accept the moral law out of the hand of God the Creator or God the Redeemer? Such questions seem very far away to us. They sound unpractical. They speak a language we hardly understand. But sooner or later they must be asked and answered by every student of Covenant Theology. And they were never better answered than by Fisher."
Now in 1717 the General Assembly was called upon to give its judgement on the Auchterarder Creed. This so-called creed was a proposition framed by the Presbytery of Auchterarder, and put to students when applying for licence, and the terms of the creed said this:
"It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must first forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in covenant with God."
Now to many people that statement had an ugly sound about it, and it seemed to be an incentive to a lawless life. As such, it was condemned by the Assembly. It was on points like this that Boston had been helped by the Marrow in his younger days, and during the discussion of the Auchterarder Creed, although he never engaged in the debate, he did something else. He had been speaking to some of his fellow-ministers about the Marrow of Modern Divinity, and as a result of those conversations, these ministers came to read the Marrow, and to love the Marrow. As a result a new edition was published in 1718, and then the stir began. Because of the recent Simson case and the Auchterarder issue, the book became a source of violent debate, and it was attacked in the Synods and in the next General Assembly. A committee sat in judgement on it, and by an Act of Assembly it was condemned in 1720.
Obviously, Boston was deeply grieved, and such was his concern that he could not remain silent. He fought the matter at Presbytery and at Synod, but all to no avail. A petition rebutting the charges was drawn up by him, and it was signed by eleven likeminded ministers, and laid before the Assembly of 1721. This was then handed over to the Commission, who wearied and worried these Marrow Men, as they were known over a period of months. But neither the answers of the Marrow Men, nor the support of the common people moved the Commission, and in May 1722 they ratified the overture, and admonished and rebuked the Representers. A protest, drawn up by Boston was received, but was not read.
Eventually the Marrow Controversy ended, but the influence of that controversy did not end. Four years later Boston published another edition with extensive notes, and that book had a wide and extensive sale. Morrison says:
"Weighted with the authority of saintly names, and rich in the added interests of church debate, the book was read by multitudes, and proved to many 'a light struck up in darkness.' It was interpreted in some of Boston's most familiar writings. Men caught the echoes of it in the preaching of George Whitefield. It was a silent witness against the dry morality of countless pulpits. And if the nation was at all in readiness for the evangelical revival of the succeeding century, directly and indirectly the Marrow had played its part in that. It was in the Marrow controversy, for the first time since the Revolution, that the country saw a little band of venerated ministers united to oppose the Church's will, for conscience' sake."
During and after those controversies, Boston's faithful ministry among his flock continued, despite the fact that his wife's health was tragically declining. He continued visiting, catechising, and writing. The sermons of his last two years are considered by many to be his greatest sermons, published after his death in a volume entitled The Crook in the Lot, based on Ecc 7:13, "Consider the work of God; for who can make that straight, which He hath made crooked?" It concerns the gracious work of God in afflicting incidents in the lives of believers; and it seems obviously to be the fruit of his own experience under many trials and afflictions.
As the year of 1732 came on it was clear that Boston's work was nearly finished. His sufferings were increasing; his strength was ebbing away; and yet his testimony was, that he had never spent a silent Sabbath through ill health. His last sermons to his people were preached from the window of the manse. He was in so much pain that he was no longer able to walk into the pulpit. He died on Saturday, 20th May 1732, at the age of 56, and was buried in the churchyard at Ettrick. His gravestone memorial still stands there. His wife lived on a few years after him; and of the ten children born to him, only four survived their father. His Memoir was written for the benefit of his children. Thomas, the youngest, was ordained to the ministry at Ettrick in 1733.
There are many lessons that can be gained from this man's life, especially for those who are engaged in the ministry of the Gospel, and for those who are committed church members.
Lessons for pastors?
Well, Boston was faced with situations and conditions that we are confronting today: godlessness, carelessness, indifference, and immorality. All of these things confronted this man. He tells us that many people would sleep during his sermons. He was tempted to cancel the mid-week prayer meeting because of lack of support: how many churches have been tempted to do that? At times, he says, he was the most hated man in the parish. Yet he continued to labour on.
His domestic situation was an immense burden added to his many cares. He had a large family and very little income; for a good many years he possessed only a handful of books. His stipend was so low that he had to subsidise it by renting out part of the house. He would lay aside a certain amount of his stipend (he kept it in a little box in his pocket), and out of that he would give his offerings and gifts to the poor. And in all his giving, he used to say, that he might do it "in order to attain habitual cheerfulness in the Lord."
He continued his visitation, his catechising, and his diligent shepherding of the flock. He says, "While I was in the pulpit, I declared to that people the whole counsel of God as He had given it me; the which was sweeter to me than their stipend would have been. I would have fain set fire to the devil's nest."
Now, preaching and pastoral concern like that does have an effect, and it did with Boston; even in remote Ettrick it produced the most remarkable results. In 1710 when he first held Communion, 60 people had partaken. In 1731, his last communion, 777 people took part. That is a marvellous example and inspiration to us, especially if you find yourself in an isolated and what you think is a comparatively small sphere of service. And if you think that you are naturally reticent and timid, well here was a man who was like that. He tells us that it is not the size of the work, it is the work itself which is of paramount importance. He remained faithful to that little flock, and gave them all the best of his time and of his talents.
He preached from most parts of Scripture, unlike some men who after a whole lifetime in a congregation confess, without embarrassment, let alone even shame, that there are vast tracts of Scripture that they've never even read or studied with their people. He wrote out his sermons in full; his notes often contained Greek, Latin and Hebrew. He never quoted in those languages from the pulpit: he always desired to express the things of God in their mother-tongue. He timed himself with the pulpit hourglass: on one occasion he said he had a job to stretch the sermon out for the hour; and on another he said he forgot how many times he turned the hourglass over. If you are in the ministry or are considering going into the ministry, there is a little gem, that Boston has written, called A Soliloquy on the Art of Man Fishing. He calls it 'that scribble', but it is a masterly little booklet dealing with the lessons, the motives, the manner, the rewards of preaching.
Boston was a man of great intellect, but he did not fall into the snare of intellectualism in the pulpit, which simply preaches to the intellect alone. He didn't succumb to the danger of being sidetracked by intellectual pursuits: those kinds of schools of interpretation and theories, which are never applied practically to the congregation. He realised that the wisdom of God is foolishness with men, and if a man by taking thought cannot add one cubit to his stature, its quite certain that by taking thoughts he cannot save his or another's soul. Boston trusted implicitly in the sovereign grace of Almighty God. He declared the Gospel: the only Way, the only Truth, the only Life. That is the message that will draw men's hearts to Christ; and that together with a prayerful, holy life is the way that Boston preached.
He had an overwhelming concern for the glory of God. Whatever he suffered, whatever he endured, whatever he did, he says, he did it out of a passionate zeal for the glory of the God of all grace. He took heed to the flock of God: he cared for it, his 'handful'. He realised that the work was not simply his, it was God's work, it was God's Church. He had this passionate concern, not only for the glory of God, but also for the people of God: he loved them. Like the Apostle Paul, he nursed them with a nursing mother's care. He had this fatherly concern for them. He pastored them. He wasn't simply a preacher, who had no concern for people. He loved his people. He sought their welfare, all the time; and that, of course, produces results.
The great expectations from this kind of work? Well, Boston's life and ministry will tell you this: that if you are engaged in the work of the Christian Gospel there will always be misunderstandings. People maligned him as a person; they criticised him as a preacher; some of them stamped out of the services; and they opposed his ministry with the most utter contempt. He says that the congregation at Ettrick were often a trial to him: they deserted his ministry; they neglected the worship; and they despised the message. He says, "the crown is fallen from my head. I'm brought very low. The approaching Sabbath that sometimes was my delight is now a terror to me." That can be a test to your faithfulness to God, and your love for men and women. "The servant is not above his master": that is the way that the saviour went, and that is the way that the servant should follow. There will be great misunderstandings.
There will also be brokenness of heart. In the secret place, like Boston you will find yourself broken down, when you consider the sins of your people. The hardness of heart. The total indifference. The misunderstanding. To see those people who looked so promising coming to nothing, as the devil plays havoc with them. That can drain you. There will be exhaustion: nervous exhaustion, and mental exhaustion, and spiritual exhaustion. And physical health can be greatly affected.
But there will also be the greatest joys of your life as, like Boston, you see the grace of God at work, here and there, among men and women. As you see individuals, and as you see homes, and then perhaps, like Boston, even to see communities transformed by the power of the Word of God. Seeing people, as Boston saw them, coming together on the Lord's Day to worship God: the God whom they had once blasphemed. And to hear them praying for those people with whom once they associated. And to see them, in turn, reaching out to win the lost for Christ. To see them becoming ministers of the Word. To have the privilege of being able to share with them, in their joys, in their sorrows, in their losses, in their bereavements. In other words, to have the highest privilege, like Boston, to be a minister of Christ unto men and women.
I trust and pray that Boston's life and his ministry will inspire you to read more, and to trust God more, and to trust in His sovereign grace.
This article was transcribed from a recording of Lessons From Thomas Boston - a lecture given by Rev William Hughes, at a public meeting of the Inverness Branch of the Scottish Reformation Society, in January 1997.
SCOTTISH REFORMATION SOCIETY
The Scottish Reformation Society was founded in 1851, following a protest against the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. The original constitution of the Society set out its objectives as being “to resist the aggressions of Popery; to watch the designs and movements of its promoters and abettors; and to diffuse sound Scriptural teaching and information on the distinctive tenets of Protestantism and Popery”.
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