In 1860 James Nichol published the six-volume works of the Puritan Thomas Brooks. Of all the Puritan divines Nichol reprinted, Brooks proved to be the most popular.
Thomas Brooks was probably born some time in 1608 – 400 years ago this year – and in spite of their age, these chunky volumes were republished in 1980 and remain in print (and on-line). They contain a treasure trove of what Richard Baxter called ‘affectionate practical’ writing and what a more modern writer has dubbed ‘treatises for the heart’.
Unlike some Puritans, Brooks is not difficult to read. For Spurgeon, he was ‘of all the Puritans … the most readable, if we except John Bunyan; and if he cannot display the depth of Owen or the raciness of Adams, he leaves them far behind in excessive sweetness and sparkling beauty of metaphor’.
According to Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson, ‘He communicates profound truths in a simple manner and is appropriate reading for young people and adults. His writings exude spiritual life and power and are particularly comforting for true believers’.
In 1860 Spurgeon published a book (now available on-line) with the witty title, Smooth stones taken from ancient brooks containing around a thousand sayings gleaned from Brooks’ writings. Here are some examples:
‘There is no such way to attain to greater measures of grace than for a man to live up to that little grace he has’.
‘Zeal is like fire: in the chimney it is one of the best servants; but out of the chimney it is one of the worst masters. Zeal, kept by knowledge and wisdom in its proper place, is a choice servant to Christ and the saints; but zeal not bounded by wisdom and knowledge is the highway to undo all, and to make a hell for many at once’.
‘As a body without a soul, much wood without fire, or a bullet in a gun without powder, so are words in prayer without the spirit of prayer’.
Brooks was a prolific writer. Between 1652 and 1670 he produced some 16 highly popular books of Christian devotion and edification. Apples of Gold (1657) reached 17 editions by 1693. Many works were later translated into other languages.
Volume 1 of his Works begins with his famous Precious remedies against Satan’s devices. This ends with the following ten ‘helps’: Walk by the rule of God’s Word; don’t grieve the Spirit; strive for heavenly wisdom; resist Satan’s first motions; labour to be filled with the Spirit; remain humble; pursue watchfulness; retain communion with God; fight Satan by drawing strength from the Lord Jesus; and be much in prayer.
Also in Volume 1 is The mute Christian under the smarting rod on coping with suffering and the cryptic titles Apples of gold and A string of pearls, which look, respectively at youth and old age and at heaven.
Other volumes contain such excellent fare as Heaven on earth on assurance, and The privy key of heaven on prayer. Volume 4 contains no less than 58 sermons on a single text – Hebrews 12:14 (The crown and glory of Christianity, or, Holiness the only way to happiness).
But what do we know of the man himself? In short, very little. In Nichol’s edition of his works, the editor, Alexander Grosart, is forced to dwell on the lack of information about Brooks and why it has been lost.
There is no known portrait of Brooks and we know nothing of his ancestry or parentage. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) suggests he was born in Sussex, possibly Lewes. Since Brooks died in 1680 aged 72, he was born in 1607 or 1608.
The first solid date we have is a Cambridge University record stating, ‘Thomas Brooks: matriculated as pensioner of Emmanuel, July 7th 1625′ – the year Charles I became King. Pensioner suggests that Brooks was well born. Emmanuel was a strongly Puritan college and he probably rubbed shoulders with men like John Milton and the prospective New Englanders Shepard, Cotton and Hooker.
When or how he was converted we do not know. After 1625 the meagre trail again disappears. It is now thought that he left university before graduation and was not ordained until around 1640. In 1652 he writes of having preached for 13 years, mostly in London, but his ministry had been an unsettled one.
A strong Puritan, Brooks always stressed that true religious knowledge must be inward, experimental, even mystical – not merely external, notional and formal. The ODNB suggests that in the spectrum of Puritan thinkers he can be placed ‘on the radical side of Independency’.
He denounced antinomians and the radical ideas of Levellers and Fifth Monarchy Men, but like Owen and Thomas Goodwin he believed strongly in the autonomy of the local church.
As an Independent during the Civil War (1642-1648) he supported the army and was close to Thomas Fairfax, Commander-in-Chief of Parliamentary forces. He almost certainly acted as a chaplain to Parliamentary commanders on land and sea.
His ministry at sea is mentioned in some of his ‘sea-devotions’. He also speaks of enduring ‘some terrible storms’ but adds, ‘I have been some years at sea and through grace I can say that I would not exchange my sea experiences for England’s riches’.
Preaching to Parliament
In 1647 and again in 1651 he signed declarations issued by Independent and Baptist churches that openly espoused the principle of rule by the godly. On 14 November 1648 he preached the funeral sermon for Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, urging army leaders ‘to side with the Saints, let the issue be what it will’.
A month later, after the purge of the Long Parliament, he preached to the Rump a sermon on Psalm 44:18 (later published as God’s delight in the progress of the upright) in which he not only justified the action but exhorted the MPs to execute ‘justice and judgement’. In 1650 he appeared before Parliament again to preach a thanksgiving sermon from Isaiah 10:6, following Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar.
Brooks was one of the Independent ministers Cromwell called to his residence in July 1652 to discuss providing godly men to preach the gospel in Ireland. In early 1655 Cromwell again asked him to be present at an interview with the Fifth Monarchy Men.
Act of restoration
In 1648 Brooks was invited to be minister of St Margaret’s, New Fish Street Hill, but laid down uncompromising terms. He requested that the parish elders chosen under the Presbyterian system should resign and that the godly people of the parish should gather in conference to own one another’s grace and receive godly strangers, though differing in opinion, into their church.
Furthermore, he would offer communion only to members of this newly constituted church and baptise only their children. In effect, he wanted to transform this parish church into an Independent congregation. This was too much for the people and negotiations broke down.
It was not until March 1652 that, with an order from the committee for plundered ministers, he was finally settled at St Margaret’s. After the Restoration, Brooks continued to preach, first in London, then at Tower Wharf and in Moorfields, near St Margaret’s.
In 1662 he fell victim to the notorious Act of Uniformity and was ejected from his living. He continued to preach in London, however, apparently suffering little persecution. Unlike many ministers, he stayed in London during the Great Plague of 1665, faithfully tending his flock and comforting those afflicted by the Great Fire of 1666.
The lengthy treatise London’s Lamentations (Works Volume 6) is based on Isaiah 42:24-25 and is ‘a serious discourse concerning that late fiery dispensation that turned our (once renowned) city into a ruinous heap: also the several lessons that are incumbent upon those whose houses have escaped the consuming flames’. It is ‘perhaps the most remarkable contemporary memorial’ of the event.
The fall of death
In 1672 he was licensed to preach as a Congregationalist in Lime Street under the Declaration of Indulgence, but that licence was revoked in 1676. In that same year his first wife, Martha Burgess, a godly woman whom he greatly treasured, died.
He wrote: ‘She was always best when she was most with God in a corner. She has many a whole day been pouring out her soul before God for the nation, for Zion, and the great concerns of her own soul’.
He later married a godly young woman named Patience Cartwright – she, as Grosart puts it, ‘spring-young’ and he ‘winter-old’. She proved an excellent companion in his closing years.
Brooks died on 27 September 1680 and was buried on October 1 at Bunhill Fields. In his funeral sermon John Reeve spoke of Brooks’ ‘sweet nature, great gravity, large charity, wonderful patience and strong faith’. Grosart discovered and printed his Last Will and Testament, composed six months before. It begins:
‘Death is a fall that came in by a Fall: that statute Law of Heaven “Dust thou art and to dust thou shall return” will first or last take hold of all mortals; the core of that apple that Adam ate in Paradise will choke us all round one by one; there is not one man living that shall not see death; though all men shall not meet in Heaven, nor in Hell, yet all men shall meet in the grave whither we and all a[re] going’ [spelling modernised].
Brooks’ most important legacy lies in his published writings and in this anniversary year we may want to take time to peruse one or other of his works, giving thanks to God for what remains. In Brooks’ own words:
‘Remember that it is not hasty reading, but serious meditation on holy and heavenly truths, which makes them prove sweet and profitable to the soul. It is not the mere touching of the flower by the bee which gathers honey, but her abiding for a time on the flower which draws out the sweet. It is not he who reads most, but he who meditates most, who will prove to be the choicest, sweetest, wisest and strongest Christian’.