Thomas Boston: At the Borders of Glory
21 September 1999 marks the tercentenary of the induction of Thomas Boston to the parish of Simprin, in the eastern Scottish Borders. From this tiny rural charge, as later from Ettrick, the Word of God went out with power.
Why the ministry of Thomas Boston (1676-1732) should have been so effective must be a matter of the utmost interest to all who are concerned for the prosperity of the church. There may be no single answer to this question, apart from the sovereign blessing of God upon his labours; yet even this gracious blessing was not bestowed indiscriminately, but in a way that bore witness to his faithfulness and his painstaking studies and toils. It is good, then, to look at the whole picture of his life and calling: his younger days and family background, his conversion and call to the ministry, his pastoral method, his diligent studies and the style of his preaching. All of these will together form an answer as to why he preached so effectively. Boston was frequently subject to heavy inward and outward trials, and these too shaped his consciousness, and guided him to his texts and illustrations.
It lies outside the scope of this article1 to discuss in detail the Marrow controversy, though Boston's clear stance here greatly strengthened his gospel appeals, giving him a freedom that he lacked initially. His pastoral methods in his Simprin ministry will be examined more closely, as they were formative for the longer ministry at Ettrick.
Thomas Boston lived in times that were no friendlier to evangelical Calvinism than the present, and an answer to the question formulated above will point the way to a true revival of the church of Jesus Christ today, as the glorious gospel of saving grace is proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit.
1. His Personal Preparation
Thomas Boston was born on 17 March 1676 in the neat Border town of Duns, Berwickshire, situated to the south of Duns Law, where General Sir Alexander Leslie raised the standard for the Covenanter army in 1639. The town claims as its natives the able scholar John Duns Scotus ('the subtle doctor' — no 'dunce'!) and the historian Dr. Thomas McCrie; William Cunningham also attended school there. Boston's family lived in a north-facing tenement house in Newtown Street, Duns; the house was rebuilt in 1893, but still displays a memorial tablet.
His father, John Boston, was a cooper by trade, and an intelligent and pious man, who had loved the gospel from his youth, and been shaped in his life by its truths; his wife, Alison Trotter, was a prudent and virtuous woman, but not savingly exercised until harvest-time in the year 1690, when the Presbyterian church was restored. The family stock came from Ayr, and was of the humbler middle class, reputable among their neighbours; Thomas was the youngest of seven children (comprising four sons and three daughters).
Boston's father suffered for his Nonconformity during the time of prelacy in Scotland, and the young Thomas sometimes kept his father company in the prison of Duns. The memory of this revived with peculiar vividness when later in life he refused to sign the Abjuration Oath, but Boston himself was never imprisoned.
Boston began his schooling at an early age with a school-mistress who taught in an upper room of his father's house. He showed a marked aptitude for learning, the Bible and the Shorter Catechism being used for the teaching of reading. In the long winter evenings, when the other children had gone home, this lady made him read aloud to her, but she also regaled him with the wonderful Scripture histories, to which he listened with delight; 'though he owns that this arose principally from curiosity, yet he was thankful that this book was made his early choice'.2
As Andrew Thomson remarks, The lessons were never forgotten, for nature always paints her earliest pictures on the memory in undying colours.3
At the age of about eight, Boston moved on to the grammar school, taught by James Bullerwell, where for four or five years he made good progress in his education. There he learned English grammar and Latin, and was introduced to New Testament Greek. He was of a serious inclination; he says, 'I was at no time what they call a vicious or roguish boy', but he was 'a dexterous player at such games as required art and nimbleness.' 4
He records two sins which afterwards burdened his conscience — 'playing pins' with a companion on Duns Law on the Lord's Day, and nearly being enticed to seek a fortune teller. However, he met with two boys, Thomas Trotter and Patrick Gillies, in a room at his house for reading the Scriptures, discussion and prayer, a practice that was helpful to them all.
It was not until towards the close of his schooldays that Boston came into a saving experience of Christ. Henry Erskine (father of Ralph and Ebenezer), whose monument stands in the churchyard at Chirnside, 5 was preaching in the hamlet of Rivelaw (now Ravelaw), near Whitsome, after James II had passed the Act of Toleration in 1687. No longer were the people of Duns constrained to listen to the sapless and wearisome Episcopal preaching in their parish church, but they gladly crossed the Blackadder river and made the four-mile journey to Rivelaw to hear the Word of life from this old Puritan. As George Morrison says, 'John Boston was not the man to listen to the curate in the parish church of Duns when a sufferer and a saint like Henry Erskine was preaching four miles from his door ... It was at these meetings, and under that preaching, that Thomas Boston was awakened.' 6 Erskine was one who knew the 'art of man-fishing', and young Thomas got an 'unexpected cast' when his thoughts were not really on Christ, heaven, or himself; he was 'going on in the way to hell as blind as a mole'.7 Erskine's texts were, 'Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world' (John 1:29), and 'O generation of vipers, who bath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?' (Matthew 3:7). He was spiritually awakened, and drank in the Word, profiting especially from the company and conversation on those walks back. But in wintertime Thomas sometimes had to go alone, wading the Blackadder in sharp frosty weather without a horse; he notes, 'But such things were then easy, for the benefit of the Word which came with power.' 8
William Blaikie calls Erskine 'a most spiritual preacher', 9 one of comparatively few outstanding men in Scotland at that time — others being old Gabriel Semple, much blessed in his ministry, and Thomas Hog of Kiltearn, who had survived illness during imprisonment on the Bass Rock. The church in Scotland after the Revolution settlement had for its ministers: ninety who were ejected in 1662, and who had suffered much; then Presbyterians who had accepted the indulgence; then also the Episcopalians who owned William and Mary as the rightful sovereigns of the country. The extreme Covenanters, or 'Cameronians', were indignant at this church settlement, and would not worship in the kirk; they held those Presbyterians to be traitors who had conformed to Episcopacy for twenty-five years. Blaikie observes, 'All this tended to subdue the enthusiasm and chill the ardour of the restored Presbyterian Church.' 10 William Carstares, who had a large share in guiding the policy of the church, was an excellent and a spiritual man; but his great aim was to keep things quiet, and maintain the status quo. The church thus had less spiritual power and influence on the world, and the restoring of lay patronage in 1712 weakened her yet further.
Thomas Boston never went again to the parish church in Duns until the Episcopalians were turned out, which took place with some excitement on a Wednesday in June 1690, this being market-day in the town. A great crowd assembled, the rough soldiers now protecting the Presbyterians, and the worthy Henry Erskine preached.
When Thomas had exhausted the resources of his local grammar school, being proficient in his studies, his parents saw their son's natural gifts and earnest piety, and resolved to give him to the Lord for the Christian ministry; and 'all the more when they learned from their son himself that his own desires had already begun to point tremblingly in the same direction.' 11 But the required course of study at university was altogether beyond John Boston's modest means, as he could not obtain a scholarship for his son. So Thomas was apprenticed to Alexander Cockburn, a notary in the town, to learn the work of a lawyer. This employment continued for two years, which Thomas later acknowledged had been for his greater maturity and readiness when his father's improved circumstances did allow him to go up to Edinburgh. It also made him a capable and accurate clerk, who later served in both presbytery and synod, and who by his ability to word things correctly saved many disputes. The testimony of his friends was:
He had an admirable Talent at drawing a Paper, which made a Statesman (Baillie of Jerviswood), a very able Judge, say (when Mr. Boston was Clerk of the Synod of Merse and Teviotdale) that he was the best Clerk he had ever known in any Court, Civil or Ecclesiastical. 12
Thus Thomas was led through many difficulties, even at an early age; one of these was his mother's death on 1 February 1691, only six months after her saving change. His father was also seriously ill at the same time, and 'Thomas had his first deep taste of the bitterness of earthly sorrow.' 13 Yet his father recovered, and the way opened for his further studies. 'When God delays his blessings, it is that they may come at last with a fuller stream and upon a more prepared heart.'14 Thomas was still only fifteen years old, and rather shy; he was accepted for the second class at the university of Edinburgh, but lived there a very restricted life, going between his classes and his lodgings, and managing for himself very frugally. His entire cost for three sessions was £128. 15s. 8d (Scots), or £14 sterling. He paid for this economy with fits of fainting, and a permanently weakened constitution, though this never lessened the intensity of his mental energy.
In addition to Greek and Latin, he studied logic, metaphysics, ethics and general physics; he also took private singing lessons from a qualified tutor. His voice was good, and he loved music; this was to stand him in good stead, both in presenting for worship, and in singing the psalms devotionally in private. It was the custom then to sing a psalm right through, thus 'being brought into sympathy with all its changes of thought and emotion'.15 Public worship began with a sustained time of psalm singing and reading of the Scriptures, led by the precentor, before the preacher stood up to take over.
After his 'Laureation' in the summer of 1694, young Boston (still only eighteen) began his specific studies for the Christian ministry, now aided by a bursary from his native presbytery of Duns and Chirnside. After spending the autumn in private reading, using his father's malt-loft as a study, he went up to Edinburgh in January 1695, nearly losing his life on the forty-mile journey by fainting in a great snowstorm. He studied theology for one session under 'the great Mr. George Campbell', one of the ninety, 'a man of great learning, but excessively modest, undervaluing himself...'16 He went to Hebrew classes with Alexander Rule, but his interest was not kindled by this; surprisingly he made little progress in Hebrew at this time, as it later became his great passion.
Reluctantly, for economic reasons, Boston then followed the allowed alternative of working as a tutor and studying theology under the oversight of a presbytery. After a brief but unhappy period in the beautiful parish of Glencairn, Dumfriesshire, he settled early in 1696 as tutor to Andrew Fletcher17 of Aberlady, stepson of Lieut.-Col. Bruce of Kennet in Clackmannanshire. This nine-year-old boy already went to school, so that Boston's duties were not heavy, though later he had to teach two other boys to read. As well as his own studies, he found time and scope to visit the needy in their homes during a time of famine, and he conducted family worship and religious instruction whilst Col. Bruce was away on military service. He learned tact and discretion here, as well as boldness and zeal in rebuking sin. It was a development of character that could not have taken place in a purely academic environment.
Licensing and Call
As his studies came to an end, a growing diffidence made Boston hesitate to seek a licence to preach, but eventually he consented to be proposed for licence by his native presbytery. He left Kennet in February 1697, and after an elaborate course of examinations and written exercises in theology was unanimously approved, and enrolled on the list of probationers. He was licensed on 15 June 1697.
Boston was not ordained as minister of Simprin, 18 however, until 21 September 1699, a delay of two years and three months, despite his gifts being readily acknowledged and appreciated, for 'everywhere Boston preached, the word came with power'.19 This delay came about because, although there were several places where he could have settled happily, he would not trim his message to suit the principal heritors (landowners in the district), whose veto could overturn the free vote of the people. He feared to soil his conscience by obtaining a parish on the wrong terms, and would not spend his Sabbath evenings with these men. In 1699, during this prolonged period of inward misery and longing for God's opening, he wrote the Soliloquy on the Art of Man-Fishing, based on the Lord's words in Matthew 4:19, 'Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.' It is a striking and useful little book, which seems to come from a far greater experience; it was the true expression of his great desire to preach the gospel. 20
Boston was deeply concerned to be in God's will, as his diary continually shows. Finally, at the parish of Simprin, the principal heritor (the Laird of Langton) joined cordially with the rustic people in their call, and the way opened for him to settle in one of the smallest and most meanly endowed parishes in Scotland, whose little rectangular church building measured about sixty feet by fifteen. 21 Out in the countryside of the Merse, seven miles south-east of Duns, was begun a ministry which was to influence the whole of Scotland for generations to come.
As Ivan Milsted comments, When the Word of the Lord is preached faithfully, there is no way of knowing just how great and farreaching is the resultant work of grace the Holy Spirit will accomplish in the hearts and lives of the auditors.22
Habits of Quiet Retirement
A vital part of Boston's personal preparation for the ministry was the development of habits of retirement for prayer and self-examination, accompanied by fasting. He had time at Kennet to retire to quiet spots, especially in the orchard, where his joy in God overflowed, and the place became to him as the gate of heaven; like Jacob, he 'anointed the pillar and vowed the vow'.23He was scrupulous in his self-examination, a practice that he never regretted, by which he set his life in the searching light of God's eternal judgment. Principal John Macleod alludes to 'Rabbi' Duncan once saying that Boston had a 'pernickety' conscience 24— one that took note of details of conduct, and was intensely self-critical. As his friends observed: 'He was accurately and extensively regardful of the divine Law, in all Manner of Life and Conversation (even in Things that escape the Notice of the most Part of Christians).''25
Thus his autobiography is almost unique, being 'based on a faith in the particular providence of God, in the intimacy of his fellowship with his children, and in the closeness of the connection between their spiritual and their natural life...' 26He was constantly concerned to know God's will, in matters small and large.
This inward discipline of rigorous self-scrutiny was closely related to spiritual power in the pulpit. He was fearless there, but in himself was 'gentle, unobtrusive, affectionate, domestic'.27 He once rode through the night from Ettrick to Edinburgh because news had reached him that his fourteen-year-old daughter Jane was ill.
What a tender heart that during the long hours thought so wistfully of her, schooling itself into submission, and anchoring itself on the indefeasible rightness of God's doings! — experiencing a hundred times the bitterness of death, yet ever clinging to the hope of life!28
The last two sermons that he preached, from the window of the Ettrick manse in his weakness and illness, were from 2 Corinthians 13:5, on the necessity of self-examination. In this way, not only at his end, but throughout his life, he endeavoured to keep himself in a state of constant readiness for dying.
2. His Pastoral Method
D. D. F. Macdonald describes the young Boston as 'a tender-hearted, loveable man, wise, grave, industrious, studious, and above all, in earnest'.29 But the new pastor did not try to influence his parishioners simply by personal example, but by means of a distinct pastoral method, established at Simprin, and continued at mountainous Ettrick till his health eventually failed him for such demanding toil.
He began with a thorough survey of his little parish, and found that the full truth had not been told him. The people were ignorant of spiritual truth, and needed to be instructed in the simplest things. Their thoughts were bounded by their life on the land, with its cycle of ploughing, sowing and harvesting. Two facts stood out:
That in all the parish of Simprin, with its eighty-eight 'examinable persons', 30only one household observed family worship;
The Lord's Supper had not been observed for several years, because of the general indifference to spiritual things.
Little wonder, that the young pastor was subject to times of depression and despondency! But his aim was to know the condition of his flock, that he might shepherd them rightly.
Boston established regular services in the small stone building. The morning and afternoon services on the Sabbath were re-instituted; in the morning he gave a lecture on the chapter that was read, and in the afternoon he preached more freely, though seldom for more than thirty minutes. On Sunday evening the zealous pastor catechised his people, either on the Shorter Catechism or on the preaching of the day. He was unpopular among the local clergy for being so conscientious. On Tuesday there was a friendly meeting in the manse for praise and prayer, and on Thursday a gathering for worship and fellowship, in Boston's home on a winter evening, and in the church at lunchtime in the summer. His gift of singing would have been well used in these meetings.
This practice of closely questioning the people was very revealing to the young pastor, as indeed it would be today. He was disappointed at first to find that they had remembered his vivid illustrations, but failed to grasp the spiritual truth being illuminated. Gradually, however, this changed, and the return of spring in the Merse brought also a spiritual budding and awakening in that neglected parish.
Boston could only remember there being two elders when he was ordained at Simprin, 31 the eldership does not figure largely in the accounts of his work there. Doubtless the kirk session was enlarged and strengthened as suitable men were raised up by the Lord. Boston's later practice at Ettrick would strongly suggest this:
Nor was he slow in surrounding himself at an early period with a body of Christian elders, who strengthened him much with their experience and friendly counsel, and aided him in many ways in the spiritual oversight of his flock, forming a living link between him and his people ... The eldership is the strong point in the Presbyterian system, and the minister of Ettrick was not slow to recognise and appreciate the fact.32
The Lord's Supper
In both pastorates Boston was in no rush to hold the Lord's Supper, knowing how far the people fell short of what was required. He waited more than three years at Ettrick, and then he interviewed each candidate personally and privately. But generally he worked in conjunction with the kirk session, carefully sifting the knowledge and profession of new communicants, and watching over the conduct of others, to ensure that their walk was worthy of Christ.
The communions were held twice yearly at Simprin, but only annually at Ettrick; even so, they were times of great refreshment, and a means by which the pastor could measure the progress of his people year by year. In each place, the numbers communicating steadily increased, to the total of seven hundred and seventy-seven in his final communion season in 1731. That number included, to his great joy, his younger son Thomas (aged nineteen years), and thus all his own family were brought into the Lord's fold.
When first settled at Simprin, Boston had to live some miles away in Duns, but on Thursday 7 December 1699, he moved into an old house at the west end of the village of Simprin. His father came to live with him, and his first cousin Alison Trotter was servant. Boston lived there till the new manse was finished in 1702. From the beginning of his pastorate, though, he practised systematic visitation of every home in his parish. In this he endeavoured to win their confidence, and show his seriousness of purpose; as well as praying and catechising, he listened to them.
As Milsted notes: He had time for personal and private conversations — often a missing feature in the conduct of many ministers in our time — and was ready to offer counsel.33
This brought him into contact with the ways of thinking of his people, and he soon entered into all their family histories; this helped him greatly in preaching to them, in the selection of texts and the finding of gripping and suitable illustrations.
He encouraged them, too, to rebuild the neglected family altar, and by the time he left Simprin it was the case there, just as in Baxter's Kidderminster, that every home offered up its morning and evening sacrifice of prayer and praise. When it is remembered that Boston regarded every home in the area as his responsibility, this was a remarkable achievement, and nothing less than a local revival — it was 'a field which the Lord had blessed'.34 Ettrick was a larger and more scattered parish, with the Cameronian separatists an active presence in the hills; the unity achieved in Simprin was never achieved there, though even that rough and wild place became like 'the garden of the Lord.' 35
Boston always regarded pastoral visitation as an integral part of his ministry, and only laid it aside with sorrow when failing health prevented him scaling mountain sides and crossing swollen streams to find his flock at Ettrick.
As Thomson says: Those home visits, winning their affections and their confidence, invested his preaching with a double power, and opened the way for the entrance of the word.36
He entered into the lives of his people with real sympathy and understanding, for 'that pastor's heart was the chosen depository of his people's sorrows, and cares, and joys'. 37 He would warn those in moral danger, and urge them to 'close with Christ'; backsliders were brought back with prayers and tears and thanksgiving. Flagrant sin, of which there was much at Ettrick, always grieved him: 'such wounds struck very deep'.38 Whenever there was sickness, or bereavement, or pressing need, he was there, in the home, as the faithful under-shepherd of God's flock.
Boston regarded it as part of his piety and his ministerial duty to be self-disciplined and well-organized in his work.
He discovered early on that plunging into worldly business on a Monday lowered the tone of the whole week, and thus he devoted the opening hours of each Monday to prayer. He was diligent in study, not only for the pulpit, but in theology and languages especially. He soon discovered, too, that leaving sermons to be finished on Saturday was too late; he resolved to be finished by Friday evening, and to rest somewhat on Saturday, preaching the morrow's message to his own heart before he preached it to his people. He exclaims over one such discourse, 'O! that it were written in my heart, as it is in my book!' 39
On Wednesday 17 July, in the year 1700, Thomas Boston married Catherine Brown (born 3 February 1674), the fifth daughter of Robert Brown of Barhill, Clackmannan, a medical practitioner; they were married at Culross, on the banks of the Forth, by George Mair, who was Boston's friend and minister of the parish. It had been a case of 'love at first sight' after a brief encounter when Boston was on the point of leaving Kennet; yet there were many hindrances, and some considerable time had elapsed before they could be married.
Not long after this, the young minister invited others to join with them at their times of family worship, at which he expounded the chapter that he had prepared. This invitation was a definite success, and was taken up by many; 'the interested worshippers returned to their home cares, or their out-of-door industry, toned for the day'.40
Times of sorrow soon cast their clouds over this happy home; but in all these many trials, Boston deeply valued his wife, and was convinced that his marriage was of the Lord, for from the first he discerned in her 'the sparkles of grace'.41
One feature of their household was family fasts, which Boston had first experienced in Mair's house in 1699.42 In addition to these were the minister's personal times of fasting and self-examination. Boston later published a little book on this subject which, by its sheer scope, takes away any ground for thinking that there has been an advance in spirituality or self-understanding since that time.43
In connection with self-examination, both Boston and his wife made personal covenants with God in a written form, of which a photograph of one made by Catherine is found in Morrison's Memoirs.44
3. His Preaching
Boston's preaching cannot be accessed by means of numerous audio-tapes, in the same way as the ministry of the late Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones or other recent preachers. Even his friends comment, at the close of their tribute to him, that 'the hearing him preach one Sermon would have said something that cannot be said now.''45
A Man Who Preached Christ
At the beginning of his preaching, as a probationer, Boston had fixed on rousing texts such as Psalm 50:22, 'Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.' He 'would fain have set fire to the devil's nest',46 and thought by this style to terrify men and women into the kingdom. But John Dysert, minister of Coldingham, pointed out to Boston that if he began to preach Christ, he would find it very pleasant. This was a timely and helpful correction, which Boston acted upon; he at once sought out texts where Christ was central, such as 1 Peter 2:7, 'Unto you therefore which believe he is precious...'
From this time on, and throughout his ministry, his preaching was fragrant with the Name that is above every name, and it could truly be said of him that he preached Christ — in other words, 'that he earnestly endeavoured to give to Christ in his preaching the same supreme and central place that he occupies in the Word of God.' 47
A Man Who Knew the Bible
Any reader of the Fourfold State must be impressed by the aptness of Boston's citations of Scripture; the whole English Bible was at his fingertips, and he drew verses from both Old and New Testament on every subject. The same was true of his preaching; as Morrison comments, 'There was in it a scriptural fulness that nothing but passionate devotion to the Bible gives.' 48
By the year 1705, Boston had mastered French, carefully transcribing its grammar from the books that he had borrowed into his Adversaria, or Common-place Book (his 'jotter'!). He also read the Dutch Bible in order to compare translations. Since his school days he had been proficient in Latin, both written and spoken, some of his presbytery trials at Duns having been conducted in this language.
Boston was also 'well seen in the Greek', and, despite his rural situation and few advantages, 'will ... in Ages to come, be admired, and had in Honour by the learned World ... for the Skill he attained in the Hebrew.''49 ln Boston's own words: 'I bless my God in Jesus Christ ... that ever he gave me the blest Bible, and brought me acquainted with the Originals, and especially with the Hebrew Text.' 50
The word-pictures latent in the Hebrew original brought vividness and colour to his preaching, especially in his later years, when his fluency in the language had increased. As Thomson remarks: 'In his riper ministry he seldom preached from a text in the Old Testament without previously examining the Hebrew original, making it contribute to the freshness and fulness of his instructions.' 51
This study of the Hebrew Bible was, next to preaching itself, the work in which Boston chiefly delighted, and it led eventually to the attempted explanation of the mysterious accents that accompany the Hebrew text. 52
Boston's preaching was textual, but always an exposition of the text chosen; laying hold of the right text was frequently his greatest difficulty, and so in 1705 he started a folio notebook to keep a record of any outlines suggested to him by his own Bible reading. Sometimes he would take a longer passage, such as Christ's epistle to the Laodiceans (Revelation 3:14-22), and work at it like a mine of truth for some months; 53 when the passage seemed to be exhausted, his holy ingenuity would bring out fresh gems, to the wondering delight of his people. This theological content of his preaching is the key to its great interest; Dr. James Walker rated him as 'the freshest and most powerful of Scottish living theologians.' 54
Boston's format in preaching was exactly that of the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God (1644): he opened with an introduction, a statement of the doctrine, and the headings of the address. As he proceeded, he would sub-divide the matter further (this can be seen in many places in the Fourfold State); he rarely departed from this pattern. His contemporaries bear witness to the aptness of his delivery:
His Invention was rich, but judiciously bounded; his Thoughts were always just, and often new; his Expression proper and pure; his Illustrations and Similes often surprising; his Method natural and clear; his Delivery grave and graceful, with an Air of Earnestness, Meekness, Assurance and Authority tempered together. No Wonder his Ministrations in holy Things were all of them dear and precious to the Saints...55
A Man Who Knew His People
Boston's friends also note that he 'Had a great Knowledge and Understanding of human Nature, of the most proper Methods of addressing it, and the most likely Handles for catching hold of it.' 56 For instance, to the landowner he says: 'If you lie down on the grass, and stretch yourself at full length, and observe the print of your body when you rise, you may see how much of this earth will fall to your share at last.' 57
He has observed the labourers too, and says of them: 'The shadows of the evening make the labourer work cheerfully, knowing the time to be at hand when he will be called in from his labour.' 58
This knowledge of his people stemmed from his living among them, and sharing their joys and hardships. Again, Boston mirrors the Westminster Directory:
And, as he needeth not always to prosecute every doctrine which lies in his text, so is he wisely to make choice of such uses, as, by his residence and conversing with his flock, he findeth most needful and seasonable; and, amongst these, such as may most draw their souls to Christ, the fountain of light, holiness, and comfort. 59
Boston closed the paragraphs of his sermons with pithy, epigrammatic sayings, long remembered; he was a craftsman with words, shaping them to 'strike and stick'.
A Man with Intense Earnestness
Boston's appearance in the pulpit was striking and impressive; as Thomson notes,
When his congregation saw him enter his pulpit on the morning of the Lord's Day, they knew that they were looking into the countenance of one who had just come forth from intimate communion with God, and who was at once God's ambassador and their friend.60
Everything combined to attract and retain the attention of his hearers. His fine musical voice, trained whilst at university, 'increased the effect of his speaking, and made it pleasant for the crowding multitudes (at Ettrick) to listen...' 61But it was not merely gifts and eloquence that held the people; it was the fact that Boston felt deeply in his own heart every word of the gospel that he uttered: 'There was a grip in it that no preacher wins who is a stranger to his own heart.' 62
In short, it was earnestness — that quality which is often lacking today, when preachers must be gentle and careful not to offend in their speaking, since they live in what D. D. F. Macdonald called 'velvet-shod days'.63 Macdonald paints a vivid picture of Boston's early ministry in his introduction to the Soliloquy:
Here in this little church there preached and laboured a man whom the devout in Scotland cannot surely ever forget. He had a gift, which he sedulously cultivated, hiding it under no bushel, and which in the mercy of God did more to fan the flame of true piety in Scotland than that of any other single minister in his generation. Here in this tiny edifice ... the young minister held forth with almost apostolic fervour, preaching, expounding, lecturing, and praying with and for these Simprin ploughmen and their families. He was intensely earnest — earnest, with that fiery fervour, that lifts the poorest sermon above criticism, the kind of zeal that makes us fear there is too little of it left among us since he died. He preached as if the angels were looking in on him and his little country congregation, and as if he actually expected to be carried home by them before another sermon day came round...64
A Man Who Offered the Gospel Freely
Boston's small bookcase contained little in the early days except the works of Zanchius, Luther on Galatians, and Beza's Confession of Faith. But he digested thoroughly what he had, in accordance with Richard Baxter's timeless advice: 'It is not the reading of many books which is necessary to make a man wise or good, but the well-reading of a few, could he be sure to have the best.' 65
With his lack of commentaries, Boston was strengthened by being thrown back upon more independent thought, pursued in a heavenly and spiritual frame of mind.
One book, in particular, had great influence over him and his ministry, an influence which spread to many others. It was The Marrow of Modern Divinity, the first part of which he found on a shelf above the window in a Simprin cottage, and borrowed to read. He eventually purchased it from the owner, who had been a soldier in England during the Civil War and had brought the book back to Scotland. The author of this volume was Edward Fisher, a member of the Guild of Barber-Surgeons and of a Presbyterian Church in London; the first part was published in May 1645, and the second three years later. It consisted largely of extracts from the great Reformers and Puritans, dealing mainly with the way that a sinner might approach God. The book was strongly recommended by Joseph Caryl, censor of theological works to the Westminster Assembly, and passed through seven editions in a few years after its publication.
Boston now found in this volume answers to many of the theological difficulties that he had been listing in his notebook. Before this time, he had hesitated to offer Christ freely to sinners, knowing that Christ had died for the elect; now he emphasized that all who will come are welcome, and none will be driven away by the Saviour:
Behold him smiling and inviting you now to himself, sending love-looks to lost sinners, from a joyful heart within! ... the Mediator's joy is not complete, till you come and take a share ... there is a gap made in the devil's prison; some have made their escape by it already, O! will not ye follow?66
This brought a noticeable freshness and life to his preaching at Simprin from that time on. Boston held that it is not presumption to take God at his word, and to believe the glorious gospel promises. David Lachman comments that each hearer should in faith 'apply Christ to themselves in particular, for each person who hears the gospel is warranted to receive its offer for himself'.67 As Boston says,
He heartily invites you to come to him ... These invitations look not like one who cares not whether sinners come or not, far less like one who is not willing to receive them ... the hearers of the gospel who perish, are inexcusable; the door was open, but they would not enter in.68
Boston strongly rejected any notion of a sinner needing preparation or qualification to come to Christ. Invitations such as Matthew 11:28 speak to those who are weary and labour under a burden of sin, whether they are aware of their sin and misery, or not; the invitation does not restrict those who may come to people who are consciously sinners, previously convicted of their sin, but it is open to all:
The devil's drudges and burden-bearers are welcome to Christ, as the great gift of the Father to sinners, to come and take it ... Come to him, then, ye broken impoverished souls, that have nothing left you but poverty, wants, and debt.69
The preparatory work of the law is to make sinners see their need of Christ, value him and desire him; but it is not thereby qualifying them to receive him, for this is all of grace, in the outworking in history of God's absolute Covenant of Grace, Jesus Christ being the Mediator:
True, it is never right coming to Christ, which sense of misery alone produceth ... The worst of sinners are welcome to Christ: however great their burden of sin and misery be, it is no hindrance in their way to come to Christ. Where all are invited, none are excluded ... Christ allows sinners to come to him, rather on account of the desperateness of their case, than otherwise ... let the desperateness of your disease bring you to the great Physician.70
The gracious call and invitation here given ... is ... in the text ... addressed only to the labouring and heavy laden; but is not this a character common to all the hearers of the gospel? Are not all more or less in this situation? ... Come to him, then, as you are, as labouring and heavy laden.71
Perhaps this emphasis of the Marrow men on the free offer of the gospel has become so familiar, and permeates so thoroughly recent Evangelical literature and preaching, that it is now forgotten what a liberating power this understanding had in Boston's day. The Marrow teaching was, ironically, strongly opposed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in a long struggle, but this simply drew attention to the book, which was widely read and greatly helpful.72 It enabled Calvinistic ministers to be flaming evangelists, and many sinners joyfully entered into the kingdom of Christ at this time.
Boston's farewell sermon at Simprin was on 15 June 1707, from the great gospel text John 7:37. It was heard by thousands who had gathered; although many were in tears, there was a prevailing element of joy.
The memorial tablet at Simprin, placed there in connection with the bicentenary commemoration of his ministry, 73 includes the following words from his Memoirs:
SIMPRIN! O BLESSED BE HE
FOR HIS KINDNESS AT SIMPRIN.
A FIELD WHICH THE LORD HAD BLESSED.
4. Heavy Trials
It is surely no accident that Boston cherished the words of Psalm 71:20-21, 74 for his ministry grew in power and influence only as he himself went through numerous heavy trials. As he wrote to his children: 'The World hath all along been a Step-Dame to me, and wheresoever I would have attempted to nestle in it, there was a Thorn of Uneasiness laid for me.' 75
Boston went through 'long periods of deep dejection ... (but he) deliberately gave his best to his handful.' 76 The fewness of the people, the rarity of the visits of strangers, and the ignorance and indifference all around him were enough to daunt the stoutest heart.
When he could not speak to others, he wrote in his diary, leaving a touching record of his many struggles. After a while, however, he gathered a circle of like-minded friends, whose help and support he greatly valued — namely Henry Davidson of Galashiels, John Simson of Morebattle, and especially Gabriel Wilson of Maxton. Boston says of this last, 'He served as a spur to me and I as a bridle to him ... I have often admired the wise conduct of Providence that matched us together.' 77 Boston is speaking here with self-knowledge of his own temperament; though he was sometimes in the thick of public debate, he was essentially an introvert, disliking social gatherings, and being slow to get involved in new things. Even from when he was first sent upstairs to 'school', he writes that he was 'timorous and hard to enter on, but eager in the pursuit when once entered'.78 He comments, 'As (this) early discovered itself, so I think it hath spread itself all along through the whole of my course.' 79 Boston and his friends Davidson and Wilson became eventually like the 'threefold cord' (Ecclesiastes 4:12), supporting each other, and in agreement when public controversy arose. 80
The full account of Boston's family is as much a record of sorrow and loss as of joy. His father, who was living with them, died in 1701 at the age of seventy; although this was not unexpected, Boston says, 'It was a heavy death to me, the shock of which I had much ado to stand.' 81 Shortly after, on 24 May 1701, their first child Katherine was born, but with a double cleft-lip, which made her incapable of sucking normally. Both father and mother bore this trial bravely, submitting to God's sovereignty as the Former of all things. But the child was weak, and when they were away briefly on business at harvest-time, they returned to find that she had died. (Strangely, Mrs. Boston had a dream the night before, in which she saw her child perfectly formed — 'the natural defect being made up, and extraordinarily beautiful.' 82 Though they hurried back, the child was, by the time of that dream, already in glory.)
Boston also buried a son Robert at Simprin, aged ten months, and when they moved to Ettrick (a three days' journey to the west), he laid little Ebenezer, aged four months, in the grave there. He gave the same name to the first son born at Ettrick, praying that this one might be spared; but two months later his heart was pierced to lay this son also in the dust. The young minister's faith nearly stumbled at this point, there being only a year between these two burials. His failure to kiss the second Ebenezer, like his wife Catherine had done, he speaks of vividly:
When the child was laid in the coffin, his mother kissed his dust. I only lifted the cloth off his face, looked on it, and covered it again, in confidence of seeing that body rise a glorious body. When the nails were driving, I was moved, for that I had not kissed that precious dust which I believed was united to Jesus Christ, as if I had despised it. I would fain have caused draw the nail again, but because of one that was present I resented and violented myself.83
Also buried at Ettrick were Thomas (1712) and Katherine (1716), making his surviving family to be John, Jane, Alison and Thomas — just four children, out of ten that were born.
His Wife's Illness
Thomas Boston never doubted God's leading him to Catherine Brown as his dear wife, but she rarely enjoyed good health, and was subject to a peculiarly painful mental illness from 1720 onwards which often confined her to her bed in much distress.
Boston had the highest opinion of his wife's character — her patience, wisdom and prudence; her modesty, cheerfulness and sociable disposition; her skill in teaching children, managing the home, and caring for the sick in the parish. 84 It was a great loss to him and to the work of the ministry to have her laid aside like this. Once, in 1724, when all the rest of the family, including the servants, were ill, she managed to get up and care for them.
Boston viewed all these domestic trials as his heavenly Father's discipline. As he wrote to William Hog in Edinburgh:
It is a very sweet view of affliction, to view it as the discipline of the covenant; and so it is indeed; and nothing else to the children of our Father's family. In that respect it is medicinal; it shines with many gracious purposes about it; and, end as it will, one may have the confidence of faith, that it shall end well.85
In 1712 the parliament of the United Kingdom imposed on all Scottish ministers the Abjuration Oath, disclaiming all loyalty to the Pretender, and affirming that the successor to the throne should be of the Episcopalian communion. The Oath was debated by the General Assembly, and Boston was among the scruplers, especially so when he had obtained a copy and had opportunity to study the 'small print', for nothing would induce him to support Episcopacy, be it in England or Scotland. He twice refused to take this Oath, though it carried the ruinous penalty of £500, more than all the stipend that he had ever received. Boston made preparations to be put out of his charge, and spoke earnestly to his people. But there were so many non-jurors that the authorities hesitated to carry out the penalty, and he remained unmolested. The effect on his parish, though, was electric: their pastor had put all on the line for the sake of a good conscience and a clear testimony. The respect of the people of Ettrick for him increased enormously, and some who had previously neglected public worship now began to attend on his ministry. Through this severe trial God prepared the way for greater blessing on his ministry, and for the wider triumphs of the gospel at Ettrick.
From the beginning of his ministry there,86 Boston had been troubled by the separatist group led by a certain MacMillan; as Principal Macleod comments, '...he had his troubles, not only with ungodliness untamed, unabashed and unbroken, but also with the right-hand extremes of the Cameronians, the Hill-men, who stood aloof from his ministry.' 87 (Boston lived before any of the secessions; he stood for one church in Scotland, and regarded anything else as schism.) Low notes that 'the Cameronians held aloof from the Stuarts, at whose hands they had suffered so much; and from the occupants of the British throne since the Revolution, who were not bound by the Covenants in which they gloried.'88 Although this party was never wholly subdued, yet some of the disaffected in the parish were recovered by Boston's conduct regarding the Oath (above) and the call to Closeburn.
The Call to the Parish of Closeburn
In 1716, somewhat unexpectedly, Boston received a call from the parish of Closeburn in Dumfriesshire. His people were 'much alarmed, and in their own rough way shewed a mighty concern for my continuance among them.' 89 Commissioners from Closeburn and its presbytery were seen plying their way to the Ettrick manse. They urged on Boston the claims of the church in Nithsdale: it had its problems, but they felt that with his experience, he could deal with these; moreover, the situation offered a better stipend and a higher social position.
It may seem strange to think of a call as a trial, yet this is what it was to Boston. He did not have any liberty from God to leave contentious Ettrick, even though the cold and damp air may have disagreed with his wife's fragile health, which was then beginning to deteriorate. This was urged on him as another reason to leave, and he was driven to much prayer and waiting upon God.
The call went through lengthy stages in kirk sessions, presbyteries and synods; finally it went before a Commission of the General Assembly in 1717 for settlement. Even then, not until Boston rose and requested permission to speak was there any likelihood that it would be stopped; but his passionate speech90 swayed the balance, and persuaded them to leave him in Ettrick. A day of thanksgiving was declared there for 18 September, and from then on he ministered in Ettrick with a new authority.
His Own Increasing Ill-Health
Boston's health had not been good since the over-frugality of his university days. He feared tuberculosis, and was troubled with a painful binding in the chest. In 1724 he had the first attack of gravel (small stones in the urine); two years later he noticed a rigid shaking of the head, which spread in time to his whole body.
He had to give up his mountain treks, and met instead with the young people around a portable peat fire in the kirk. He had to preach from a large arm-chair, but eventually became confined to the manse, and the two sermons on self-examination previously mentioned were preached from his bedroom window to a large and loving congregation outside on 2 and 9 April 1732. He died aged 56 on 20 May 1732, which was a Saturday, the day on which he normally rested from his labours.
All these trials were, in God's mysterious and wonderful providence, an integral part of that faithful ministry, without which it would have lost much of its depth, sweetness and sympathy. Boston himself wrote in his Miscellanea that the afflicted child of God 'will have the praises of free grace in his mouth sounding more loudly, and will sing the song of Moses and the Lamb in a more elevated strain and higher notes, than if he had never been in danger through the whole of his course.' 91
5. The Fruitfulness of His Labours
Thomson remarks, '... it is possible for us to drink from a stream, and be refreshed by its waters, without our being aware of the fountain from which it has flowed far up among the everlasting hills.' 92 Boston's ministry still refreshes, though not many trace that refreshment back to the difficult and isolated Border areas where he laboured.
His ministry 'lends credibility to the spiritual principle that it is not where a Christian serves, but what quality of service he renders, that really counts ... it is as a loving, faithful, rigorously self-disciplined Christian pastor, and one deeply committed to the grace of God, that Boston is best remembered.' 93
The Effect on Simprin and Ettrick
The transformation of Simprin has already been described, but it must be remembered that it was not always so attractive a place. It was not without an inward struggle that Boston was first settled there; as he records: 'I was, through the blowing of the Spirit on me, brought to a contented frame of heart with respect to the affair of Simprin.' 94
It was only after seven years and eight months of concentrated labour there that he could exclaim, 'Simprin! O blessed be he for his kindness at Simprin.' 95 By then, 'the universal ungodliness and indifference among its people were supplanted by a living faith and holy conduct, so that "the wilderness became a fruitful field."'96 Simprin was perhaps a small sphere of labour, but the thoroughness of its transformation was a paradigm for spiritual renewal elsewhere.
When Boston came to Ettrick, it was uncongenial in the extreme; he found profane swearing, neglect of public worship, and impurity in some of its worst forms amongst its parishioners. He was often hindered in his preaching by many of the people walking out, without reason or excuse, while he was speaking, and doing so in a noisy and uncouth way; they would indulge in loud conversation and laughter afterwards around the church door. It was some years before all these evils yielded to the might of the gospel, and it was not without the perseverance and personal trials described above, accompanied by much prayer and earnest toil.
A Visit to Whitsome
The change in Boston's public standing over the years is well illustrated by an incident. When settled at Ettrick, he revisited the area of Simprin, and preached at nearby Whitsome. The old church of Whitsome, built on the rectangular plan, 97 stood on a little knoll, with a fine view of the Merse; the building has gone, but the graveyard is well maintained and is still in use. It is accessible by a green lane from the road near the present church building, which can be seen across the field and was constructed in 1803. The excitement generated by Boston's visit is recaptured in this account:
The famous Boston on one occasion officiated in this old church, then thatched; and such a multitude of people flocked from all quarters that many, in their eagerness to hear him, mounted the roof of the humble edifice, tore off portions of the straw, and thus contrived to gratify both eye and ear.98
His Personal Humility
Despite the attention given him, Boston never used the pulpit to advance his personal reputation, and had no thoughts of seeking a more prominent social position, as can be seen from his refusal of the call to Closeburn. He was always surprised at the ready circulation of his books. Writing in 1730, two years before his death, he says:
When I have considered the acceptance that the book (The Fourfold State) met with, I could not but impute it to an over-ruling hand of kind Providence, that would needs have it so.99
Boston was little in his own eyes; he speaks of being in company, and then says:
With thankfulness to my gracious Father, I returned on the Thursday night, with a humbling view of my unprofitableness in conversation, and a conviction, as usual, that my obscure and retired life is really best for me.100
Yet Boston's friends note that he was 'Quite free of that Sourness of Temper, or ascetical Rigidity, that generally possesses Men of a retired Life.''101
Boston's preaching was effective because of his total commitment to, and entire concentration on, the work to which God had called him. Such single-minded concentration on close study, persevering prayer and earnest preaching is rare today, when ministers have varied demands made on them, and many distractions. Boston's whole life revolved around his pulpit work, to produce vigorous, imaginative and theological preaching, with detailed personal application. When this was converted into books, it was immensely useful, both to his own area, and far beyond (though Boston had considerable practical difficulties in getting his work published accurately!) However, the above account of his life shows that such preaching is not simply an intellectual achievement, but arises out of a dedicated life of sacrificial Christian service, where pastoral contact with the people interacts with preaching and teaching. Boston was very bold and imaginative in his use of Sabbath evenings in the kirk for informal questions and dialogue; however, this practice showed great wisdom on his part, and through these times, and also his careful district visiting, he became well acquainted with the thinking and actual needs of his people.
Boston was totally committed to the truth of the gospel, and although a loyal Presbyterian, was no mere conformist; he stood alone, even in the General Assembly, when the precious doctrines of God's Word were under threat:
The great, the grave, judicious Boston's gone,
Who once, like Athanasius bold, stood firm alone;
Whose golden pen, to future times, will bear
His name, till in the clouds his Lord appear.102
His temperament gave him a love for the studies which engaged his interest, and enabled him to pursue them under so many difficulties and disadvantages; this same temperament made him unyielding in the truth, once he had by hard labour discovered it, and gave him the moral courage that he so often needed. He preached Marrow doctrine, even when the book was condemned, and refused the obnoxious Abjuration Oath. Such commitment to the truth is costly, and sometimes brings isolation and personal hardship, but it is essential to spiritual power in the pulpit.
Boston was deeply concerned about his own godliness, and the spiritual prosperity of his greatly loved wife and children. He did not neglect them, to serve others. He lived to see all his surviving children at the Lord's Table, and his wife remained spiritually bright even through the times of most distressing illness that came as a cloud over their later years together. Their family worship and open home was the focal point of community life in Simprin. Boston lived as one who knows that God sees and read the heart, and requires transparent holiness in his servants.
Boston's life and ministry is strikingly free from denominational idiosyncrasies, and in that way it is open for all to imitate; yet it is also a standing reminder that the revival of the church brings a cost to her ministers. It is tempting to feel that there must be some missing factor, some formula, that will bring revival. God's way is the way of prayer, trials, and pleading with tears. God makes his ministers little in the eyes of the world, that his grace in salvation may be magnified. He makes his ministers know and feel their weakness, that it may be seen that it is he that saves souls. Those who long to preach effectively, and who yearn after the revival and renewal of the church in the present, must be willing to be made 'the off-scouring of all things'103 and must be committed to the work without any reserve, even to their dying day, to bring it about that
...generations yet unborn
Shall praise and magnify the Lord.104