It was a privilege to be part of the Christian Union at Aberystwyth in the mid-1960s. A highlight, apart from the eminent preachers, was when books were put out for display on the book table.
Once a year the Banner of Truth took orders for ‘damaged’ books at only 40 per cent list price. I had heard about Puritan authors, but the works of John Owen in 16 volumes appeared too daunting, while the 6-volume set of John Flavel at less than £3.00 seemed a no-brainer (it has recently been reissued by Banner at £85.00).
I began reading volume 1 of Flavel’s works shortly before our wedding, and the subject, The fountain of life — a display of Christ in his essential and mediatorial glory, had me hooked; so much so, that it was packed in my case for the honeymoon!
We stayed in a small hotel at Ambleside and, while we waited in the lounge for our evening meal, I decided to read some more Flavel. A young man walked in and came across to me. ‘That’s a solid book’, he said. It turned out he was a minister at a church in York, and also on honeymoon.
Other Flavel ‘main courses’ available are A treatise of the soul of man (vols. 2 & 3); A practical treatise on fear (vol.3); The mystery of providence (vol. 4), and Preparation for suffering. Or the best work in the worst times (vol. 6).
‘Side dishes’ include A narrative of some late and wonderful sea deliverances; Navigation spiritualised; Husbandry spiritualised (vol. 4), and The seamen’s companion (vol. 5).
Flavel was learned, but adapted his style to suit his hearers, who were largely seafarers and agricultural workers. He resembled Spurgeon in his love of allegories and illustrations drawn from everyday objects. His works were valued by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, who ranked them alongside John Bunyan and Matthew Henry.
John Flavel (1628-1691) was born at Bromsgrove, the son of the Puritan Richard Flavel. His father was persecuted and ended up in Newgate prison, where he contracted the plague and died soon afterwards, in 1665.
John was of medium height and a weak constitution, and suffered many infirmities. He was educated as a commoner at University College, Oxford, where he was a diligent student. When just 22 years old, he was called to Diptford in Devon as a probationer, and soon after ordained by the Salisbury presbytery, in October 1650.
He married pious Jane Randal, but she died shortly afterwards while delivering her child, which also perished. After a year in mourning, he married Elizabeth Morris and moved to the bustling seaport town of Dartmouth, also in Devon.
Flavel’s sermons were plain but heart-warming, and many conversions were evident among his hearers. One man said, ‘That person must have a very soft head, or a very hard heart, or both, that could sit under his ministry unaffected’.
He continued his studies and mastered the current theological controversies. He also recorded noteworthy sayings heard in his private conversations and made use of them in his sermons and writings.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne tells about an American immigrant, Luke Short, who remembered listening to Flavel preach in England when he was 15 years old. The text was, ‘If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema maranatha’. Eighty-five years after hearing Flavel preach on the horror of dying under God’s curse, the Spirit of God converted Luke Short at the age of 100 as he meditated on that sermon!
While meditating on heaven on one occasion, Flavel was so overcome with heavenly joy that he lost sight of this world. Stopping his horse by a spring, he viewed death as the most amiable face he had ever seen, except that of Christ’s who made it so.
When he finally arrived at an inn, the innkeeper said to him, ‘Sir, what is the matter with you? You look like a dead man’. ‘Friend’, Flavel replied, ‘I was never better in my life’.
Years later, Flavel said that he understood more of heaven from that experience than from all the books he had ever read and all the sermons he had ever heard on the subject.
Flavel was also remarkable for his public prayers, which always came deeply from his heart and were delivered with much passion. He seldom used the same expression twice.
After the Act of Uniformity (1662) was passed, Flavel was ejected from his church, losing most of his financial support. When the Five Mile Act came into effect in 1665 (banishing preachers five miles from their previous parish), he moved to the small seaside village of Slapton after his parishioners had given him a sorrowful farewell.
He continued ministering, but risked being arrested under the Conventicle Act (1664) for holding meetings with more than five persons who were not relatives. On some occasions Flavel preached from the unique pulpit of Salstone Rock, an island in the Salcombe Estuary that is submerged at high tide.
In that refuge, the congregation would ‘linger in devout assembly, till the rising tide drove them to their boats’. In spite of the dangers, he occasionally slipped clandestinely into Dartmouth to comfort his flock, but his enemies were on the lookout for him.
Once he was preaching secretly in a wood three miles from Exeter when his enemies pounced. Many hearers were arrested and fined, but he escaped to another wood where he resumed his sermon.
When Charles II issued the Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, Flavel returned to his Dartmouth parish, where he ministered to all who would hear the gospel. Even a year later, when parliament forced the withdrawal of the indulgence, he continued to preach, in season and out of season.
It was at this time that Flavel’s second wife Elizabeth died, who had been a great help to him in his weaknesses. God again provided a suitable wife in Ann Downe, a minister’s daughter who was to provide him with two promising sons, although she only survived for 11 years.
The persecution re-intensified, so in 1682 Flavel decided to take a ship and flee to London. The previous night he had a dream that there would be a disaster but that it would not prove fatal.
Sure enough, five leagues off Portland, a severe tempest struck in the middle of the night. All hope was lost and Flavel summoned the available crew and held a special meeting for prayer in the cabin.
The huge waves threw the people across the cabin. Flavel grasped both bed pillars and begged God for mercy, using many arguments. No sooner had his prayer ended than one of the crew rushed down the stairs crying, ‘Deliverance. God is a God hearing prayer! In a moment the wind is come fair west’.
Flavel reached London, where he laboured with many encouragements. Here he married his fourth wife Dorothy, a widowed gentlewoman and a minister’s daughter. He was still hounded by his enemies, so after a narrow escape returned to Dartmouth, where he became a virtual prisoner in his house, yet his flock still visited him for the means of grace.
When James II issued a Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, Flavel vowed that, if given the liberty, he would be even more zealous in preaching the gospel. There followed a series of sermons on Revelation 3:20: ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock’, which he published under the title of England’s duty. This freedom of ministry was enhanced with the coming of William of Orange and the Glorious Revolution, in 1688.
Flavel’s many labours and trials had aged him, yet he pressed on with his duties. He preached his last sermon at Ashburton on 21 June 1691, from the text ,‘Wherefore let him that standeth take heed lest he fall’ (1 Corinthians 10:12).
He next presided at a meeting of the Nonconformist ministers from Devon, at Topsham, three miles from Exeter, where they agreed to a union between the Independents and Presbyterians. Flavel concluded the proceedings with great liberty in prayer and praise. He later sent an account of the proceedings to an eminent minister in London, but later that day noticed he could not raise his hand to his head.
Soon his whole side became paralysed, and he was put to bed. Realising his end was near, he said, ‘I know that it will be well with me’. He shortly died without a groan on 26 June and entered into the presence of his Lord.
Let us ponder these words of Flavel as he concludes his great work The fountain of Christ: ‘And now, to close up all, let me persuade all those for whom the dear Son of God came from the blessed bosom of the Father; assumed flesh; brake, by the strength of his own love, through all the discouragements and impediments; laid down his own life a ransom for their souls; for whom he lived, died, rose, ascended, and lives for ever in heaven to intercede; to live wholly to Christ, as Christ lived and died wholly for them’.
Nigel Faithfull is a retired analytical chemist and member of St Mellon’s Baptist Church, Cardiff. In 2012, he published Thoughts fixed and affections flaming (Day One), concerning Matthew Henry.