Part II: Loving Christ
As mentioned in the first part of this three-part article on Benjamin Francis, it is disappointing that none of his sermons have survived. Describing his preaching, his son-in-law Thomas Flint (d.1819) emphasised two things: Francis was always firm in expressing his doctrinal convictions but was also a compassionate preacher, who often wept openly for his hearers.
Possibly the closest we get to hearing what some of his contemporaries termed his ‘melodious voice’ is in the circular letters he drew up for the Western Association of Calvinistic Baptist Churches.
Associations of churches in geographical areas had been a feature of Calvinistic Baptist life since the denomination began in the mid-seventeenth century. By the last half of the eighteenth century these associations were in the habit of holding annual meetings that usually lasted for two or three days.
At these meetings, representatives of the various churches (usually the pastor and one or two elders) would meet for times of corporate prayer and fellowship. And there would also be occasions for the public preaching of the Scriptures.
A poem that Francis penned, entitled ‘The Association’, sought to capture the ideals that informed these yearly gatherings.
Thee, bless’d assembly! emblem of the throng
That praise the Lamb in one harmonious song
On Zion’s hills where joys celestial flow,
The countless throng redeem’d from sin and woe;
Thee, bless’d assembly, have I oft survey’d,
With sweet complacence, charmingly array’d
In robes of truth, of sanctity and love,
Resembling saints and seraphim above…
The sacred page thy only rule and guide,
‘Thus saith the Lord,’ shall thy debates decide;
While charity wide spreads her balmy wings
O’er different notions, in indifferent things,
And graceful order, walking hand in hand
With cheerful freedom, leads her willing band …
In thee, the guardians of the churches’ weal,
Whose bosoms glow with unabating zeal,
With balmy counsel their disorders heal,
And truth and love and purity promote
Among the sheep, Immanuel’s blood has bought.
In thee, impartial discipline maintains
Harmonious order, but aloud disclaims
All human force to rule the human mind,
Impose opinions and the conscience bind.
No doubt this gives an idealistic picture of these annual meetings, yet it shows us what one eighteenth-century Baptist saw as the ethos of these assemblies.
For Francis, they were times when wise advice could be sought and given; when God’s people could be free to discuss, in love and without bitterness, non-essential issues on which they disagreed; and when the sole binding force on the conscience was Scripture alone.
Most importantly, Francis saw in these gatherings a visible symbol – in his words, an ’emblem’ – of the unity and joy that would fill believers when they were in heaven, worshipping Christ the Lamb.
Each of the churches in the association was supposed to send a letter to the annual meeting informing their sister congregations of their spiritual condition, newsworthy items and prayer concerns.
Also, at some point during the meeting, one of the pastors would be chosen to write a letter to all the churches in the association on behalf of the association itself. He may actually have been chosen before the annual meeting, giving him time to ponder what he wanted to say on behalf of the association.
The letter would be read to the delegates, ratified, and then printed and sent out as a circular letter after the meeting.
The Western Association, which had existed since 1653, gave Francis the privilege of writing this letter no less than five times – in 1765, 1772, 1778, 1782 and 1796. In these letters Francis touches on a number of themes.
He speaks, for instance, of the challenges of poverty and affluence among his readers. He mentions the danger of dead orthodoxy and discusses the nature of genuine faith. He presses home the need for a Christianity in which the heart is vitally engaged.
He treats of the various disciplines of the Christian life. And he seeks to nurture a concern for unity in the churches to which he is writing.
But there is one theme that comes up again and again: the beauty of Christ and the passion that should be ours in serving him. In the final analysis, it was this passion for Christ and his glory that underlay all the evangelistic and pastoral labours of Benjamin Francis, mentioned in Part I.
Live daily on Christ
In the circular letter of 1772, for example, Francis addresses those of his readers ‘who are sickly and feeble in the spiritual life’ and who have become ‘almost strangers to closet devotion, deep contrition for sin, earnest wrestling with the Lord in prayer, heavenly affections, and sensible communion with God’.
He encourages them to ask themselves these sobering questions: ‘Will you call this the religion of Jesus? Is this the fruit of his love and crucifixion?’
Without a ‘living faith in Jesus Christ’, Francis reminds his readers, ‘our orthodox notions’, church attendance, and outward morality will ultimately avail for nothing.
Consequently he urges upon his readers their need for ‘a spiritual sight of the awful perfections of God, of the adorable glories of Christ, and of the ineffable excellency of divine and eternal things’.
They also need to beware of resting their salvation on their performance as Christians and their faithful attendance on ordinances. ‘Constantly rest in Christ alone’, says Francis, making use of one of the central watchwords of the Reformation, solus Christus, Christ alone.
He encourages his readers to ‘look for every blessing … in and thro’ [Christ,] the infinitely prevalent Mediator’. Building on this exhortation, Francis urges his readers to ‘live daily on Christ as your spiritual food, and seek hourly communion with him as the beloved of your souls’.
Spirituality for all
It should not be forgotten that all of this counsel was being given to men and women who were farmers, labourers, shopkeepers, croppers and weavers; people who spent much of their time simply ‘getting by’.
Yet Francis rightly believed that such were capable of living out their daily lives as ‘the sincere disciples and intimate friends of Jesus’.
In other words, his advice was not for a select few who had leisure to spend in spiritual pursuits. It was advice for men and for women who had much to occupy their time. But such was the glory of eighteenth-century Evangelicalism – the spirituality that was promoted in its ranks was for all.
An inexhaustible fountain
The 1778 circular letter, which is mostly concerned with the nature of genuine faith, has a similar emphasis. In a section that deals with the differences between assurance and faith, Francis exhorts his readers:
‘Place then your entire confidence in Christ for the whole of salvation: let the declarations and promises of the gospel be your only warrant for believing in him: and consider your purest principles, happiest frames, and holiest duties, not as the foundation, but the superstructure of faith.
‘Let not your sweetest experiences, which are at best but shallow cisterns, but Christ alone, be the source of your comfort, and constantly live upon that inexhaustible fountain.’
For the believer, Christ alone is the source of salvation and he alone gives the strength for the Christian life. The final sentence alludes, of course, to Jeremiah 2:13. There, the Lord rebukes his people for forsaking him, ‘the fountain of living waters’, and living instead on the water drawn from ‘broken cisterns’ of their own devising.
Inspired, no doubt, by such New Testament passages as John 4:10-13 and 7:37, where Christ states that he is the source of ‘living water’ that quenches spiritual thirst, Francis identifies the ‘fountain’ of Jeremiah 2 as Christ.
Francis’ Christ-centred spirituality continued to the end of his life. In a letter written on 6 November 1798, only a year or so before his death, he declares:
‘O that every sacrifice I offer were consumed with the fire of ardent love to Jesus. Reading, praying, studying and preaching are to me very cold exercises, if not warmed with the love of Christ.
‘This, this is the quintessence of holiness, of happiness, of heaven. While many professors desire to know that Christ loves them, may it ever be my desire to know that I love him, by feeling his love mortifying in me the love of self, animating my whole soul to serve him, and, if called by his providence, to suffer even death for his sake.’