The Influence of Thomas Boston of Ettrick
Described by Principal John Macleod as ‘one of the brightest lights in the firmament of the Reformed Church in Scotland’ Thomas Boston was born in 1676 the youngest of seven children. A native of Duns in the Borders he learned through his childhood experiences to sympathise with the Presbyterian Covenanting cause. His father, John Boston, a God-fearing cooper, was a strong opponent of Prelacy who, for his non-conformity to imposed Episcopacy, suffered a period of imprisonment. Little Thomas spent one night with him in Duns jail ‘to keep him company’.
When James II, in 1687, gave liberty of worship to dissenters from the Established Church – which he did for the sake of his RC subjects – John Boston was not slow to avail himself of his newfound liberty. He attended the ministry of Henry Erskine, the father of Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine – men with whom Thomas Boston was to be closely associated in the future when during the Marrow controversy they made a stand for the free offer of the Gospel. It was while attending these services at Whitsome that Thomas, then a boy of twelve, was converted. Referring to it in his Soliloquy on the Art of Man Fishing, he says: ‘There thou got an unexpected cast’. Christ caught him by the Gospel hook. Two particular texts were blessed to him: Matthew 3:7: ‘O generation of vipers…’ and John 1:29: ‘Behold the Lamb of God…’ He writes of his new-found spiritual hunger:
In the winter sometimes it was my lot to go alone, without so much as a horse to carry me through Blackadder water, the wading whereof in sharp frosty weather I very well remember. But such things were then easy, for the benefit of the Word which came with power.
Following graduation from Edinburgh University, Boston was licensed as a preacher of the gospel in 1697. But two years elapsed before he was ordained as minister of the parish of Simprin. Though naturally timid and retiring, Boston hated man-pleasing flattering. Courteous and respectful, at the same time he would not soften the truth in its bearing upon the conscience of any hearer, high or low. While the common people heard him gladly, particularly exercised Christians, the heritors and proprietors disliked his plain faithful dealing with their souls. Patronage shut him out from many pulpits until in 1699 he accepted a call to one of the smallest and least attractive rural congregations in the Scottish Borders. The deep trials and self-questioning of his call to the ministry during this period led to his soul-searching Soliloquy on the Art of Man Fishing.
Convinced that Simprin was a door opened to him of the Lord, Boston threw himself entirely upon his Master who did not fail the devoted selfless young minister. It was there that he first preached the sermons later published under the title Human Nature in its Fourfold State – formerly found in the pious households of many, and greatly blessed to multitudes. Robert Burns in a delightful picture of family worship in his Cottar’s Saturday Night, describes the choice little library of the God-fearing poor cottar as consisting of ‘Bunyan, Brown and Boston’, – Pilgrim’s Progress, Brown’s Self-Interpreting Bible and The Fourfold State. Although at first a most discouraging field of service, yet Simprin under his zealous, faithful ministry became transformed into ‘a field, which the Lord has blessed’.
In 1707, Boston was transferred to the parish of Ettrick, where he found the people sadly divided by separatism. The Cameronians (followers of Richard Cameron), who had repudiated the Revolution Settlement of 1688, stood aloof from Boston’s ministry and while among the parishioners generally there was much Presbyterian zeal for their Church, there was but little vital godliness. Not until 1710, three years after his induction to Ettrick, did Boston dispense the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; and indeed, even after labouring for a further five years, he concluded that his ministry there had all been in vain. But when, in 1716, he received a call to Closeburn, his people at Ettrick showed the utmost anxiety at the prospect of losing their minister. But the threatened removal did not take place. Boston stayed at Ettrick and witnessed a remarkable work of grace in what had formerly been a spiritual wilderness. At his first communion in 1710 only 60 persons communicated. At his last communion, in 1731, the number was 777.
It was during his Ettrick ministry that he first published his Fourfold State. Many obstacles had attended its publication – as if the Enemy of souls was determined to prevent it seeing the light of day. Boston’s low self-esteem of his own ministerial gifts and writing skills meant that only the pleadings of discerning Christian friends and the encouragements of his friend Dr Trotter, who generously offered to defray the cost of publication, persuaded Boston, after much secret prayer, to consent. Another problem was the conceited proof reader employed by the publisher who, not content to confine himself to proof reading, took upon him the liberty of revising Boston’s homely, simple, plain style, changing his wording, sentences etc. We may well imagine Boston’s horror when he had his revised manuscript returned to him prior to publication! But Satan’s wiles were overcome and Boston’s original manuscript was eventually published.
Sent into the world with much earnest prayer for the divine blessing, and passing through numerous editions, it was received with joy by earnest Christians and souls seeking Christ. Spiritual declension had entered many parish pulpits and what Ebenezer Erskine, a few years later in his sermon before the Synod of Fife, castigated as ‘harangues of cold morality’ could not feed the souls of their hearers. Its success exceeded all expectations and by it Boston’s ministry was extended far and wide (including the Scottish Highlands). ‘There is no book of practical divinity’, writes Principal John Macleod, ‘not even William Guthrie’s Trial of a Saving Interest in Christ, nor Rutherford’s Letters, that was more read in the godly homes of Scotland than this treatise. It did more to mould the thought of his countrymen than anything except the Westminster Shorter Catechism’. Its doctrinal content had been greatly influenced by Boston’s discovery, in a humble home in Simprin, of Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity. This little book had the effect of giving Boston a clearer and fuller insight into the free grace of God as the sole cause of salvation; and it immediately ‘gave a tincture’, as he put it, to his preaching. Other like-minded ministers read The Marrow, including Hog of Carnock who had it republished in 1718 (the General Assembly had already condemned the Auchterarder Creed a year earlier).
Boston was a man of scholarly attainments, widely recognised as a self-taught Hebraist who corresponded with the foremost Reformed scholars in Europe of his time, and a theologian of such eminence that Jonathan Edwards judged him to have been ‘a truly great divine’. Never a robust man, he had his full share of tribulation – personal, family and ministerial trials, as his Autobiography so touchingly shows. He left behind him twelve volumes of collected writings. The two books that did most to extend his ministry throughout Scotland and even England, America and Holland were The Crook in the Lot and Human Nature in its Fourfold State.
One whose life and ministry was influenced by Boston was the late Rev Kenneth MacRae of Stornoway. In his Diary, we find him commending Boston’s General Account of My Life. ‘It has’, he says, ‘been a blessed book to me’. Referring to the opposition he encountered in his own stand for Sabbath Observance, he writes, ‘Boston’s troubles comfort me’. On another occasion he writes:
Worked out a text which Boston had handled and then compared the two. The comparison made me feel ashamed, but what I was interested to notice was that Boston sheared far closer to the conscience than I am wont to do, and did not deal out God’s comforts with such a liberal hand. I find Boston’s style very profitable to my own soul in wakening me up and disturbing my slothful spirit.
What lessons may we ourselves learn from Thomas Boston? What relevance has his early 18th-century ministry for us in our own 21st century?
1. His Character as a Devoted Servant of Jesus Christ
He was habitually a man of prayer. He saw God’s hand in the minutest providential details of daily life. He had a constant awareness of being under the omniscient gaze of the Searcher of all hearts. His practical life turned on these two principles: first, that it was his duty to discover the Lord’s mind and will in everything, great or small, which concerned himself: second, that all things both external and spiritual fell out with him good or bad, just as he followed or failed to follow the divine will. Numerous instances are given in his Autobiography. He took everything to God in prayer. He feared God above many, and when duty became clear, he acted, on pain of the divine displeasure. He was ever watchful to see how things turned out with him; anything successful was ascribed solely to the Lord’s gracious favour, but when it failed, he felt that he alone was to blame. His self-scrutiny extended even to his frame of mind. If he felt spiritual bondage, cold, dull, or formal in prayer, praise or preaching, he believed that in some way he had grieved the Holy Spirit who had justly deserted him. What anxiety he then manifested to get things put right again! His earnest crying was expressed in the prayer of the Psalmist, ‘Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation’.
Boston was deeply conscious of his own weaknesses and failings. His sense of personal unfitness for any spiritual task is apparent. In demeanour he was gentle, unobtrusive, affectionate and kind, esteeming others better than himself. In temperament he was prone to introspection and to depression of mind. His bodily health was poor and he suffered greatly. His domestic afflictions were severe. His beloved wife, an eminent Christian, became deranged in mind and for years was confined to a room in the manse. They had ten children, six of whom Boston buried during his Ettrick ministry. But like other pious parents such as Rutherford and Halyburton he had comfort in their deaths as children who had evidently died in the Lord. Through it all Boston’s submissive faith shone. In his own words: ‘Sovereignty must have a latitude’.
2. His Theology of Grace
This indeed was the dominant element in his preaching. ‘By grace are ye saved through faith’. In strong opposition to the increasingly prevailing Pelagian, Arminian and Legalistic influences in early 18th century Scottish pulpits, mixing law and gospel and recognising in man a certain natural ability to do right, or to co-operate with God in so doing, he enforced pure grace as the source of salvation. Grace in its sovereignty ‘of God that shows mercy’; in its freeness, offered to all without money and without price; in its fullness, pardoning, adopting, sanctifying, glorifying; in its simplicity, without works of the law; in its certainty and security, ratified by the everlasting covenant; in its appointed channels, coming through the Word and ordinances, and above all, grace in its practical fruit, teaching men that ‘denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, they should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present evil world’.
But what was it that influenced Boston’s theological convictions? He had been trained in Covenant Theology (that of the Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms). But Boston was a highly intelligent deep thinker who found, in his thinking and preaching, difficulties in reconciling the Covenants of Redemption and Grace with the Full and Free Offer of Salvation to all Sinners Without Exception.
Mention has already been made of his discovery of the Marrow and of the Auchterarder Creed which had been imposed by that particular presbytery on anyone seeking licence or ordination within their bounds. The Creed read as follows: ‘It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must first forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in covenant with God’. The intention of the Presbytery was clear: to uphold the doctrines of free and sovereign grace and safeguard its pulpits from legalism and arminianism. The wording, however, led its opponents to construe it as favouring antinomianism. It was condemned and the Presbytery censured.
Boston and other godly men present were grieved at the Assembly decision. Boston chided himself for his silence: ‘Poor I’, he writes, ‘was not able to open a mouth before them; although I believed the proposition to be truth, howbeit not well worded’. But a useful lesson was learned: ‘to balance my natural diffidence and bashfulness, and to incite me to speak when I saw the cause of truth call for it’. Independent of the ‘Marrow’ being republished, it would appear that there were many others in the Established Church of the time who were concerned to preserve evangelical orthodoxy and a Christ-centred Gospel of grace.
Controversy was stirred the following year when a new edition of the ‘Marrow’ was published. Its teachings came under attack from Principal Haddow of St Andrews who saw in it dangerous Antinomian error. It was opposed in Presbyteries, Synods and finally, in the General Assembly which in 1720 condemned the book. Next year a Representation and Petition signed by twelve ministers, including Boston, was laid on the Table of the General Assembly complaining that the previous Assembly, in condemning the Marrow, had condemned gospel truth, particularly in regard to the believers freedom from the law as a covenant of works, and also in regard to misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Marrow which, they believed, involved a substantial degree of legalism. The Petition was referred to the Assembly’s Commission for consideration, resulting in the 1722 Assembly confirming the 1720 Act, vindicating it from the aspersions of the ‘Marrow Brethren’. Although rebuked at the Bar of the Assembly for erroneous doctrine and ‘injurious reflections’ against the Assembly, the men returned to their parishes, Boston having received the rebuke and admonition ‘as an ornament put upon me, being for the cause of truth’. A protest drawn up by Boston was received but not read.
The Marrow Controversy ended, but its influence did not. In 1726 Boston published a new edition of the Marrow with useful extensive notes and, despite the Assembly ban, it was widely read. It influenced many notable evangelical ministers in the Established Church such as John Willison of Dundee. The year following Boston’s death, the Original Secession occurred over the evils of patronage. Its leaders were all ‘Marrow men’, learned theologians: Fisher, Wilson, Moncrieff, and the two Erskines, Ebenezer and Ralph. Towards the close of the 18th century in the Established Church we find an outstanding ‘Marrow’ theologian in Dr Colquhoun of Leith whose writings are characterised by evangelical warmth, clarity and solid gospel truth. (His little volume on Evangelical Repentance has been republished by the Banner of Truth.) Colquhoun’s ministry was highly prized by discerning exercised Christians and his advice frequently sought after by Established Church students. On one occasion being asked by a student about what books he should read, his memorable reply was: ‘Noo, I daurna advise ye tae read the Marrow since the Assembly condemned it. But ye ken the Assembly didna condemn Tammas Bowston’s Notes on the Marrow, and that’s a book ye ought tae read!’ Although their description of the sinner’s warrant to believe on Christ as the Father’s ‘deed of gift and grant of His Son to sinners of mankind’ laid them open to the charge of teaching a doctrine of universal atonement – a charge vehemently denied by the accused – yet the crucial point of the Controversy in reality was not so much the extent of the atonement as the Marrowmen’s attempt to solve the old difficulty of reconciling a universal call with a definite atonement. When some ministers in the Synod of Fife, opposed to the Marrowmen, denied that there was any gift of Christ to sinners of mankind, the redoubtable Ebenezer Erskine rose and sternly replied, ‘Moderator, our Lord Jesus Christ said of Himself, ‘My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven’. This he said to a promiscuous multitude, ‘and let me see the man who dare say He said wrong!’ Never before, except perhaps among the 17th-century Protesters and the later fervent Covenanting field preachers, had such stress been laid on the free offer of the Gospel to every sinner without exception.
It was the Marrowmen who conserved a warm living piety in Scotland at a time when it was endangered by cold legalism and formality. What they sought to do was to explain the inter-relations of the covenants and to point out the way to true Gospel peace and liberty for those who felt fettered by a legal spirit and were ignorant of the secret of Free Grace. A careful perusal of their writings makes it abundantly plain that their whole contention was to magnify grace and to oppose the insidious legalistic views that were undermining the very foundations of the Gospel. Dr Colquhoun of Leith, in his Treatise on Saving Faith, lucidly summed up its doctrine of assurance as follows: ‘the assurance of faith is as inseparable from faith as light is from the sun; but it is quite otherwise with the assurance of sense. A man cannot have faith without having assurance in it; but he may have faith and not the assurance of it. The object of the assurance of faith is Christ revealed and offered in the Word; the object of the assurance of sense is Christ formed and perceived in the heart. The former is the root, and the latter is the fruit.’
3. Boston – The Preacher and Pastor
Boston was in his element when in his pulpit or preparing for it. In his early ministry in Simprin he formed meticulous habits of work, prayer and study and soon had his parish well organised. Every Sabbath he had a morning and afternoon service, one of which would be a lecture on a passage of Scripture and the other was the sermon. Evenings were devoted to catechising his family and servants. Each Tuesday evening there was a meeting at the manse for praise and prayer. On Thursdays he held a mid-week meeting where he preached and after which he always spent about an hour in private prayer and meditation. His small parish, lonely and isolated, numbered less than one hundred souls, yet Boston gave to his little flock the finest of gospel wheat. Although he laboured under serious difficulties, having no commentaries, he was a gifted linguist, a classical scholar able to translate a book which he had written on the Hebrew accents into Latin to the judgment of learned European scholars! He studied the Scriptures in their original languages. ‘God’, he says, ‘was a commentator to me’. His sermons were literally prepared on his knees and preached to his own soul before entering the pulpit. Early difficulties in fixing his mind on a text were overcome as the Lord directed him to deliver at intervals a series of expository discourses on a single verse or paragraph of Scripture. This was quite common among 18th century preachers. They called it their ‘ordinary’.
One might think that such pulpit fare would lead to repetition, sameness, loss of interest and even boredom among hearers, but not so with Boston’s hearers. He preached to the consciences of his flock with a freshness, liveliness and solemnity as a man fully awake to the realities of heaven and hell. When he began to preach as a probationer he aimed at conviction of sin by the Law and, as he says, ‘I would fain have set fire to the devil’s nest’! Little wonder that worldly-minded heritors were hostile to his settlement in any vacant parish! But after his call to Simprin, an older minister suggested to him privately that if he would preach more on Christ and the promises of the Covenant he would find it sweeter and more beneficial to himself and others. The kindly hint was taken as from the Lord. He now preached not only the moral law in its spirituality and comprehensiveness, but also Christ in all His fullness as the end of the law for righteousness in justifying the ungodly. Henceforth Christ had the supreme and central place in his preaching as the fountain of life and salvation.
Boston was equally conscientious in his pastoral duties, visiting every household regularly, as well as visiting those who were sick. In all his visiting he would engage in catechising every person in the household, and by doing so he was discovering the true state of their souls.
One entry in his Memoirs reads, ‘on the Monday, I visited the sick and spent the afternoon in catechising, and found great ignorance prevailing. On the Tuesday, visited a sick woman who was grossly ignorant. After I had laid out before her, her wretched state by nature, she told me that she had believed all her days. I thereupon sat astonished for a while, lifted up my eyes to the Lord, and addressed myself to her again, for her conviction. Howbeit, nothing but stupidity appeared. Therefore I saw that I had enough to do among my handful.’ Boston continues:
I had another diet of catechising on the Wednesday afternoon, and looking to the Lord for help, I got it, and had more comfort in them than I had before. Having inculcated on each of them their wretched estate by nature, and they frequently attending the means of instruction, there were but few examined that day that did not show some knowledge of the point. But the discovery I made of their ignorance of God and of themselves, made me the more satisfied with the smallness of my charge.
He describes his method of visitation: I made a particular application of my doctrine in the pulpit to the family. I exhorted them to lay these things to heart, namely, their natural state and their need of Christ, their duty of having family-worship, and then prayed with them.
He was not long in Simprin when he could report that every home now had family worship. Occasionally his own family-worship was combined with forenoon fasting, confession of sin to God, followed by an afternoon family meal. Monday morning was spent in private prayer, followed by catechising. In the afternoon he visited the sick, and the evening was spent in study. ‘I found’, he says, ‘my heart much bettered, my confidence in the Lord much strengthened; the world less valuable in my eyes; and my soul free from temptations that otherwise I was liable to.’ He studied all day Thursday for the evening sermon and all day Friday was devoted to study for the Sabbath.
4. Boston – The Presbyterian Churchman
We find here a whole-hearted loyalty to the principles and practices of the Established Church of Scotland as set forth in her Confessional Standards. Given to an introspective cast of mind and constant heart-searching as to the mind of the Lord in every detail of life, his tender conscience would not permit him to temporise with any perceived disloyalty to the Truth. This was clearly witnessed in Boston’s solemn Protest to the 1728 General Assembly against its leniency in dealing with Professor Simson of Glasgow who had been found guilty of teaching Arminian, Socinian and Arian errors between 1714 and 1727. The Assembly merely deprived him of his teaching post but allowed him to keep his emoluments. Boston argued that Simson’s offences merited deposition from the ministry for ‘the dishonour done to our glorious Redeemer, the great God and our Saviour’. The Moderator, concerned for the peace and unity of the Church, pleaded with Boston not to insist on having his Protest recorded in the minutes. ‘Will you tear out the bowels of your mother?’ he asked. Boston’s sensitive conscience was deeply touched. ‘If I had the conviction of that being the tendency, I would rather take it (the Protest he had read) and tear it in a thousand pieces.’
The following day, Boston gave in his answer, stating that while he adhered to his Protest, yet for the sake of peace he would not insist on it being recorded in the Assembly minutes. This shows Boston’s deference to, and respect for, the highest court of the Church and his love of peace and concord while still maintaining his conscientious testimony for his Master’s honour. He was a true Presbyterian in heart and life and never neglected the practical business of church courts, serving in the onerous capacity of Synod Clerk. ‘It was’, says Boston, ‘a work of great labour and painfulness; even the reading of papers was a business of great toil.’ Lord Minto, Clerk to the Council of Scotland, being on one occasion present, remarked that he had never seen anyone draw up a minute ‘with greater skill, accuracy and faithfulness.’
In every part of his ministerial work, Boston heeded the Apostolic admonition, ‘whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.’ He concludes his Memoirs, written for the benefit of his children, with this advice:
Labour for the experience of religion in your own souls, that you may have an argument for the reality of it from your spiritual sense and feeling; and cleave to the Lord in His way of holiness, His work also, His interests, and people in all hazards, being assured such also shall be found wise in the end.