John Milton Applies His Talents to His Faith

John Milton died on November 8, 1674. He is described as “the greatest poet of Christian themes England has produced”.

Born to a family of means in London on 9 December, 1608, his Christian convictions were most probably invoked through his mother, Sarah, who is described as a very religious person. His genius for poetry revealed itself at an early age. His paraphrase of Psalm 136 was written when he was 15 years of age …
Let us with a gladsome mind
praise the Lord for He is kind …

Originally it had 24 stanzas.

Milton considered himself destined for ministry, and was first taught languages by his father, then was schooled at St Paul’s School and Christ’s College Cambridge. After a year at Cambridge he was suspended for a fist fight with his tutor. Milton held his beliefs firmly. He was not particularly liked by the other students. At Cambridge he composed “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” on Christmas Day 1629.

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After graduation he spent time at home, engaged in literature, and then went to the Continent where he met many notables, including Galileo (then under house arrest by the church), the Pope’s nephew Cardinal Barberini and Calvinist theologian Giovanni Diodati.

Milton returned to London and was then caught up in the English Civil War. He became secretary to Oliver Cromwell writing political treatises to counter critical works originating on the Continent. He also wrote several prose works from a Puritan perspective including pamphlets against the episcopy.

At the age of 44 he became totally blind – but continued to write political treatises.

Then – in later life – he turned back to poetry.

His epic work, Paradise Lost, in which he “sought to justify the ways of God to man” was published in ten volumes in 1667. The copyright was sold for 5 pounds Sterling at a time when Milton’s finances had taken a turn for the worse.

Milton’s blindness made huge demands on his creativity. He would compose verses at night and commit them to memory, then dictate them to his daughters or other assistants in the morning.

Many of Milton’s religious views were at variance to Puritan theology, including his disbelief in the divine birth.

His domestic life was sad. His first wife, 17 year old Mary Powell, who married him when he was twice her age, left him after “a few weeks” then returned two years later (1645) and bore him three daughters.

After her death he re-married (1656), but his second wife died two years later.

At the age of 58 he married again to a much younger woman, despite the opposition of his daughters, and this third wife seemed to bring him peace in his last eight years.

His last manuscript, A Treatise of Christian Doctrine, in Latin, was not found until about 150 years after his death. It reveals Arian views – and a willingness to tolerate polygamy … (Chambers Biographical Dictionary).

Paradise Lost is controversial in its Christian message, subtly presenting Satan as the real hero of the poem. Romantic poet William Blake stated that Milton is “a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

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This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Jacob Arminius in Pursuit of Doctrinal Truth

This is the day that … Jacob Arminius was born in 1560.

Born Jacob Harmenszoon in Oudewater, Holland, the death of his father during Jacob’s infancy devastated the middle-class family. Then the Spanish massacre of Oudewater in 1575 claimed the lives of his mother and siblings.

Raised by friends, he eventually Latinized his name, after a 1st Century Germanic leader who resisted the Romans. Thus the Arminius name became a rallying point for those who resist Calvinist teachings, as Jacob did during his life.

During his studies he spent time in Geneva from 1592, under Beza, the 62 year-old who succeeded Calvin. Beza is responsible for introducing into Calvinist thought the particular emphases of predestination, the sovereignty of God and various ritualistic practices.

He later returned to Amsterdam and pastored the Old Church congregation. In 1590 he married the aristocratic Lijsbet Reael who ensured he kept close contact with the most influential merchants and leaders of the city.

He ministered in Amsterdam for 15 years and in Leiden for 6. He practiced his belief that being a pastor does more for the minister’s holiness than engagement in theological wrangling.

During that time he began to question the distinctive teachings of John Calvin, of which Holland was a stronghold.

Aminius left the pastorate and became Professor of Theology at Leiden, where his attack on Calvin’s view of predestination led to violent controversy.  The student body and Reformed pastors became polarised over the issue.

After his death in 1609 his followers issued a “Remonstrance” – so called because it remonstrated with Calvin’s teaching.  And the Reformed churches countered with their “Synod of Dort” condemning Arminians as heretics.

They were stormy days indeed, and in some circles today the battle still rages.

Note that Arminius had great regard for Calvin’s teachings in general. It seems that the points emphasised by Beza distorted something of the spirit of Calvin’s own insights. In affirmation of Calvin note this quote from Arminius. “I recommend that the Commentaries of Calvin be read…. For I affirm that in the interpretation of the Scriptures Calvin is incomparable and that his Commentaries are more to be valued than anything that is handed to us in the writings of the Fathers.”

Note too that Arminius, although a highly intellectual and widely studied man, was not distracted with theology for its own sake. His sole ambition was “to inquire in the Holy Scriptures for divine truth…for the purpose of winning some souls for Christ.”

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Rowland Hill with Scandalous Style

This is the day that … Rowland Hill was born in 1744, in Shropshire, England, son of Sir Rowland Hill, a baronet. He was afforded education at the best schools, but he chose to relate most with the common man. He scandalised his superiors by undertaking open air preaching and visitation before he was ordained.

This colourful character, whom Spurgeon described as being full of fun in the pulpit (and meant it as a compliment), was one of the outstanding evangelicals of his day.

Hill was converted at the age of 18 and entered the Church of England ministry. But reproved by the bishop for his desire to preach everywhere – “in season and out of season” – he finally opened his own “Surrey Chapel” in London in 1783, which he built with his own funds. At the opening service on 8 June, he took as his text: “We preach Christ crucified” (I Corinthians 1:23). (In later years this same pulpit was occupied by the great F.B. Meyer.)

Holding strong Calvinistic views, Hill joined with Augustus Toplady in the controversy against the Wesleys. As an open air preacher, due to the influence of his friend George Whitefield, Hill often preached to 20,000 at a time. He loved to use personal anecdotes and attention catching comments, but was deemed to go too far at times.

“The Countess of Huntingdon”, we are told, “rejoiced in the success of his labours … but the name of Mr Hill is mentioned in her ladyship’s will as one of the men who was not to be permitted to preach in one of her chapels!” Perhaps his quaint wit, of which anecdotes abound, and his eccentricities would have been too much for her ladyship’s genteel congregations!

He was one of the founders of the London Missionary Society and the Religious Tract Society. And this latter movement gave birth to the British and Foreign Bible Society, of which he was also an ardent supporter.

Rowland Hill died on 11 April, 1833, and was buried in front of the pulpit from which he had dispensed the Word of God for 50 years. His last words had been: “I have no rapturous joys, but peace – a good hope through grace – all through grace.”

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

John William Fletcher Exemplifies Christ

This is the day that … Fletcher of Madeley died in 1785.

John William Fletcher, was born in Switzerland on 12 September, 1729, with the Swiss surname De La Fleceere. He was educated at Geneva and initially sought a military career. When an accident stopped him from sailing with his regiment to Brazil he eventually found his way to England. There he was converted at the age of 22 and became very close to the Methodists, often preaching with or for John Wesley. He was sometimes referred to as “the saint of Methodism”.

But on 6 March, 1757, we find him ordained in the Church of England. His personal conviction was Arminian and he turned down comfortable parish posts in preference to the working class parish of Madeley, where he laboured for 25 years. His personal piety caused him to always be discreet about his beliefs and to avoid conflict, even when he had to take a stand for his own convictions.

Bishop Ryle writes: “How Fletcher got over the difficulty of being a foreigner and not having taken a university degree, I am unable to explain” (Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, page 394). But, adds the good bishop, “things were strangely managed in the Church of England 100 years ago.”

Fletcher became a close friend of John Wesley, the latter’s well-known testimony being that he had never found anyone “in Europe or America who so exemplified holiness as John Fletcher.”

To quote Ryle again – a convinced Calvinist – “I will never shut my eyes to the fact that Fletcher was a Christian as well as an Arminian … he was a rare grace and a minister of rare usefulness” (pages 386-7).

Late in life, at the age of 52, he married Mary Bosanquet, another of Wesley’s ardent disciples.

His parishioners at Madeley – chiefly miners and ironworkers – flocked to hear this man of God … and we read of how he spent whole nights in prayer for them.

For 25 years this continued, until a short illness led to his home-call at the age of 56. It was a Sunday evening. As he lay on his deathbed, unable to speak, his wife whispered to her dying husband: “My dear creature, I ask not for myself. I know thy soul. But I ask for the sake of others, if Jesus be very present with thee lift up thy right hand.” “Immediately”, we read, “he did so, and then a second time” And then he died, “without one struggle or groan” (Ryle, page 417).

So highly regarded was Fletcher’s godly character that even Voltaire cited him. When challenged to produce a character as perfect as that of Christ, Voltaire at once mentioned Fletcher of Madeley.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

Howell Harris Preaching in the Rain

This is the day that … Howell Harris died, in 1773, “loyal to the last to the church whose sacraments he had been denied. His funeral was attended by 20,000 people.”

He was born in Wales on 23 January 1714, and early in life he decided to become a Church of England clergyman.

By the age of 17 he was “playing cards and drinking, dice-playing and gossiping,” and by his own confession, living “like a hypocrite.”

But on Palm Sunday, 1735, the vicar of the church he attended said: “If you are not fit to come to the Lord’s Table, you are not fit to come to church, not fit to live, not fit to die.” Thus began his pilgrimage to the Father’s House, and on 25 May of that same year he was able to rejoice in the knowledge of sins forgiven.

Although he became a member of the Established Church, he was never an ordained clergyman, and the more he sought the friendship of his non-Anglican brethren the more his church parted company with him.

He is remembered as the founder of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, and a remarkable revivalist. Thousands gathered to hear his open-air preaching. “Two thousand people once stood two hours in drenching rain unable to tear themselves away from the spell of Harris’ eloquence.”

It was he who influenced George Whitefield to take his pulpit to the fields.

At times he was subjected to the fury of mobs – especially at Bala in 1741. At Caerleon the angry crowd attacked, and Harris’ fellow preacher was blinded in one eye.

Arnold Dallimore describes him as “the greatest Welshman of that day and, indeed, as among the greatest men that Wales ever produced” (Biography of G. Whitefield, Volume 1, page 246).

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.