Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Days of Humiliation

Tommorrow (12th December) has been appointed by the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland as a Day of Humiliation and Prayer throughout the congregations of the Church on account of the increasing manifestations of divine displeasure against the nation for our national sins. The following report shows much of this. http://www.fpchurch.org.uk/ReligionMorals/2007Report.pdf

During the time of Westminster Assembly there were monthly Fast-Day Sermons before the Long Parliament for prayer and humiliation. John Wilson wrote a book that examined these, JF Wilson. Pulpit in Parliament. Puritanism During the English Civil Wars 1640-1648 (Princeton, 1969. Hugh Trevor-Roper, commonly unsympathetic, has a useful summary http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/719/77055 on 2007-12-11.

The fast day sermons reveal the interdependence of collective and individual piety in puritanism (cf. Wilson:166-196). Issues that concern collective identity on a local and national level are addressed, responding as they do to major critical events in the life of a community they participate in fostering the emotions of collective cohesion and belonging that such moments instinctively call forth. The note that John Preston strikes in his national fast sermons of the Caroline years is unambiguously that of the Old Testament prophets, as he urges repentance and immediate responsive action in the face of certain imminent judgement upon the nation and church as he sees it spreading from Europe. Preston emphasises the notion of ripe time, a dramatic sense of the moment when certain actions must be engaged. 'For all private actions, as well as for those that are publicke, there is a time…The times for the severall changes to which every man, every Common-wealth, and every Citty is subject, these times God hath assigned…and they are as bounds that cannot be passed'.

Puritan sermons generally urge an activistic rather than contemplative conclusion. Hence John Preston would apologize if he stayed too long in 'the doctrinal part' of the sermon since he held that the end of theology is in action. It seems clear that John Preston and Richard Sibbes gave most attention to the application part of the sermon. The direct application is the portion in which exhortation emerges most strongly, in contrast to the belaboured establishing of the text's content.

The purpose of the puritan sermon is that the application be enacted. When the sermon is said, the sermon has only begun to be done. As Watkins indicates, the puritan principle as reflected in their spiritual autobiographies was that, 'the only masterpiece worthy of the name was to be achieved in the most complex and difficult of all forms of creative endeavour: a human life'. The contrary mode of preaching at the time, High Anglican or Laudian, differs markedly in its insistent stress upon passive rather than active obedience.

When Revolution came in the 1640s, ministers were summoned to Parliament to preach upon monthly national fast days. Action continued to be the insistent note of such sermons. The role of the parliamentarians was given unambiguous statement by Edmund Calamy in particular:
'It is certain that God hath begun to build and plant this nation, and he hath made you his instruments'. The role of the ministry (as persecuted prophets) was given great emphasis, Marshall wondered whether 'the negligence and corruption of our governors' had accounted for the poor state of the clergy, and whether neglect of preaching had been 'one main cause of the ill success of so many former Parliaments?'. In one fast sermon, George Gillespie issued the blunt dictum, 'Reformation ends not in contemplation, but in action'.

Samuel Bolton's sermon to the House of Commons (March 2 1646), on the text Genesis 18:19 gives particular emphasis to direct application. On the 25th of the same month he would preach to the Commons Hamartolos Hamartia: Or The Sinfulness of Sin upon Matthew 1:21b: as John Wilson makes plain concerning this sermon, 'Bolton in effect applied it for his audience without the intermediate structure of doctrines and reasons'. In the prior sermon, however, Bolton immediately draws attention to the 'forme and matter of the text' in order to demonstrate that he derives his doctrine exegetically. After dwelling upon the form of the text, the doctrine is eventually stated that 'God doth communicate rare secrets to certaine knowne and chosen men'. Bolton first speaks of 'humbling, convincing, converting secrets'. This suggests a typical fast sermon which would involve great initial stress upon humbling followed by proportionate stress upon duty. Having spent only a brief space upon such secrets, Bolton breaks out in earnest exhortation:

Tell me, how doe these Secrets worke upon thee? art thou willing to take a pardon upon faire and honourable termes? wouldest thou doe any thing, suffer any thing, forgoe any thing, that thou mightest be at peace with this mighty God? Dost thou desire Direction from God, Reconciliation and communion with him? Why then I have some encouraging secrets to impart unto thee.

Bolton returns to the 'Gospell secret' and lists more secrets. When the last secret is arrived at it is clear that it corresponds most closely with the text since it concerns God's secret revelation of his future action. Bolton extends the possibility of being in the secret confidences of God, which in the midst of a military struggle was supremely inviting.

At this point Bolton inserts an anticipated objection along the lines "this is a secular not a religious secret". Bolton negotiates this objection with the answer that it is 'for religious purposes': such are edifying secrets. The 'secular' secret soon becomes a sermon in itself:

Abraham was not to repeate it as a story, but as a sermon to his Posterity, that they might behold the Majesty of Jehovah…and be perswaded to walke in the way of Jehovah.

The secular and religious can be rival motivations and allegiances rather than merely different spheres of public life: 'this Secret is not secular which takes within the heart from all secular accommodations, and teaches men to choose their seate or dwelling not for secular advantages, but for Spirituall accommodations'. Thus far the secrets have been only partially delivered, in truth Bolton is more concerned with the secrets of interiority and personal piety, much like Thomas Watson's Gods Anatomy Upon Mans Heart (1649) that sought to make examination of the hypocrisy of the Rump. Watson's doctrine was, 'The most secret Cabinet-designes of mans heart are all unlocked and clearly anatomized before the Lord'. Bolton soon proceeds to say that 'God knows our secrets'.

Presently Bolton drops the theme and takes up: 'Doct. It is our duty to endeavor to bring all that are under our command, to be at Gods command'. Bolton had only been demonstrating the 'forme' of the text and applying it; because this 'opening' of the text, has been mainly application the sermon seems almost back to front in structure. Bolton introduced the incentives to obedience before the teaching is developed.

The responsibilities of fathers to their families are then developed at great length as though this will be the central issue of the sermon. Eventually, however, the application comes, 'You that are Parliament men are Members of an Honourable House' 'the only way to preserve your Honour is to walke in the way of Jehovah' The appeal is to family identity, to a paternalist affection and duty: Bolton's purpose in developing the paternal role is the encouragement of those emotions and considerations. The climax of this mode of persuasion is not to bring a word from the Lord but to bring a word from the people, not to warn and rebuke the Parliamentarians in the name of God as had become the custom of fast day preachers but to appeal to their sense of community and collective identity, a mixture of patriotism and duty. The approach is surprising and striking in its expression:

But I am not worthy to advise a Parliament, the motion is humbly presented; and though it be rejected with smiles, I intend not tot appeal from you to the people: but give me leave in My Master's Name to present the Peoples Appeal to You. Consider the cries, and out-cries of the godly part of this kingdom for a Reformation, they speak plain, and tell you, that,
1.They have fasted, prayed, wept, for a Reformation
2.They have exhausted their Treasures, many of them
3.Adventured their lives, lost their limbs, their blood, their friends for Reformation
4.You have promised us a Reformation
5.And we have prayd for a Reformation
6.You are therefore in debt to us for a Reformation

The list continues to climax in emotional intensity in stating its grievances. Bolton moves between the things that are outwith the remit of Parliament such as house to house teaching and the purity of families as churches and the things that may be accomplished by legislation namely: educational reform and 'justice and judgement'. The principle undergirding this combination is the necessity of personal piety to collective piety as well as perhaps another principle, to which it seems to give new meaning: that politics is the art of the impossible.