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A cloud of witnesses

February 2001 | by Michael Haykin

The life and ministry of Hercules Collins (d. 1702)

When Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, a number of the puritan generals who had fought alongside him against the tyranny of the Stuarts during the Civil War (1642-1651) began to fear that anarchy was about to overtake English society. In a move that would have a profound impact down to the present day, they felt that they had no choice but to restore the monarchy in the person of Charles II (reigned 1660-1685). The generals, though, asked Charles to ensure that religious liberty would continue to exist as it had done during Cromwell’s republican government.

Charles pledged himself to guarantee such freedom. Those who came to power with Charles, however, had no intention of allowing the Puritans this liberty. Over the next few years a repressive body of legislation, known as the Clarendon Code, was passed. This had as its chief goal the destruction of the power base of the puritan cause. The rulers of England were determined that never again would the Puritans exercise the sort of political power they had wielded during the 1640s and 1650s.

Nonconformists

The vast majority of the Puritans were subsequently forced out of the Church of England. They now found themselves to be all but second-class citizens. In fact, between 1660 and 1688, the puritan cause was very much that of a church under the cross. The state actively harassed those outside the established church and imprisoned their leaders. Henceforth these Puritans (found primarily in three denominational groupings – Presbyterians, Congregationalist or Independents, and Calvinistic Baptists) would be collectively known in history as Nonconformists or Dissenters.

This new series of articles celebrates the memory and achievements of this dissenting body of men and women ‘of whom the world was not worthy’. The time period on which we shall focus is the ‘long eighteenth century’, from 1688/1689 (years that saw the establishment of the Glorious Revolution bringing some genuine religious toleration to England and Wales) until 1815 (the end of the Napoleonic Wars).

We begin the series by looking at a figure whose life and ministry falls partly before the beginning of our time period, namely, Hercules Collins, the Calvinistic Baptist pastor of Wapping Street Baptist Church, London.

Collins appears to have received little formal education. A keen interest in Christianity showed itself at an early age, which may indicate that his parents were Christians. If his parents were believers, the fact that they gave their son the name of a pagan Greek hero is curious, to say the least! Beyond this, though, nothing is known about his parents.

Pastor

There is some evidence that, by the mid-1670s, Hercules was a member of Petty France Particular Baptist Church in London. If so, he might have received some pastoral training in this congregation. On 23 March 1677, he was appointed pastor of the Wapping Particular Baptist Church in London, situated at that time between Broad Street and Old Gravel Lane.

God blessed his ministry and, ten years later, at the end of the summer of 1687, Collins moved the congregation to another London location. The congregation erected a new building for worship on James Street in Stepney. The boldness of the move – religious toleration had not yet been declared in England and Wales – displayed the vigorous leadership that Collins exercised both within his own church and in the larger Calvinistic Baptist community of London.

Three years prior to this, in 1684, Collins had been imprisoned in Newgate under the provisions of the Five Mile Act (1665), which forbade Nonconformist preachers and pastors to live within ‘five miles of any city or town or borough’. A defence of Nonconformity that Collins had penned two years earlier, Some Reasons for Separation From the Communion of the Church of England, and the Unreasonableness of Persecution Upon that Account, may well have been a factor in his imprisonment.

When toleration for Nonconformists did arrive in 1689, Collins was present at the national assembly of Particular Baptists that gave official sanction to a confessional document known as the Second London Confession of Faith. This would become the doctrinal standard for the British Calvinistic Baptist community well into the nineteenth century.

By the time that Collins died on 4 October 1702, he was probably preaching to a congregation of roughly 700 people. A funeral sermon preached by fellow London Baptist John Piggott, and later published, unfortunately contains the scantiest of biographical details. We thus know relatively little about Collins’ life. He was buried in London’s central Nonconformist burial ground, Bunhill Fields.

Theological writings

According to the early eighteenth-century Baptist historian Thomas Crosby (1683-c.1751), Collins did not enjoy the advantage of a learned education. Yet, there is little doubt that he was well versed in theology. This is quite evident from a number of his publications. He published a Baptist version of the Heidelberg Catechism (1562) in 1680, which was entitled An Orthodox Catechism. And during the 1690s a steady stream of books and tracts issued from his pen.

These publications dealt with a variety of subjects, such as divine sovereignty (Mountains of Brass: or, A Discourse upon the Decrees of God, 1690), believer’s baptism (Believer’s Baptism from Heaven, and of Divine Institution, 1691), and the death of infants (Truth and Innocency Vindicated, 1695).

In Truth and Innocency Vindicated Collins shows that he was not afraid of thinking differently from his Calvinistic Baptist contemporaries. The Second London Confession of Faith had asserted that ‘elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit’ (10.3). Though he admitted that such ‘secret things’ are ultimately known only to God, Collins was ‘inclined to believe all dying Infants [are] in the Election and Covenant of Grace’.

The Temple Repair’d

Collins’ last work was The Temple Repair’d (1702), an eloquent plea for Calvinistic Baptist churches to serve as seminaries for aspiring pastors and preachers. In it Collins tackled what appears to have been a controversial subject of his day. Should pastors ‘study to declare God’s Mind’?

There were evidently some in the Calvinistic Baptist community who ‘contemptuously’ spoke against such study, and believed, it seemed to Collins, that men ‘were to preach by Inspiration, as the Prophets and Apostles of old did’. Such individuals obviously regarded any preparation and study as fundamentally dishonouring to the Holy Spirit.

Collins unequivocally responds by emphasising what we would want to assert today: good preaching requires hard work and preparation. In his words: ‘he doth the best Work and the most Work, that labours most in his Study, with a dependence upon God for a Blessing’ (p.22).

While Collins was well aware that ultimately it is the Spirit that makes men preachers of the gospel – ‘tho it be granted that human Literature is very useful for a Minister, yet it is not essentially necessary; but to have the Spirit of Christ to open the Word of Christ is essentially necessary’ (p.19) – yet study is still vital.

2 Timothy 2:15 was his salient refutation of the view that study is not essential. The comparison of pastors with workmen in this text led Collins to declare: ‘We should study to be good Workmen, because our Work is of the highest nature. Men that work among Jewels and precious Stones, ought to be very knowing of their business. A Minister’s Work is a great Work, a holy Work, a heavenly Work’ (p.22).

Sermons

Collins also gave instructions regarding the best way in which to shape a sermon. Attention first had to be given to the context of the verses being preached upon and difficult terms in the passage had to be explained. Then what the passage taught in terms of doctrine should be made fully clear and established by reference to parallel texts of Scripture.

Finally, how the doctrinal teaching applied to the hearers’ lives was to be set forth. Among the various additional directions that the London pastor gave regarding preaching, Collins emphasised that the preacher’s speech must be:

‘… plain, as Paul’s was. Not with enticing Words of Man’s Wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of Power [1 Corinthians 2:4]. Use sound Words that cannot be condemned. Rhetorical Flashes are like painted Glass in a Window, that makes a great show, but darkens the Light …The Prophets and Apostles generally spoke in the vulgar and common Languages which the ordinary People understood: They did not only speak to the Understanding of a King upon the Throne, but to the Understanding of the meanest Subject (p.28).’

It was such ‘sound Words’ that made many Nonconformist pulpits of Collins’ day places of light and fire – light that showed the way of salvation and fire that enflamed hearts with devotion to Christ.

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Historical