A Month With the Puritans--Thomas Shepard--Part 1

Last year I spent a little time introducing some of my favorite Puritans. Jeremiah Burroughs (Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3) and Thomas Watson (Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3) brought to attention some very rich devotional material. With that in mind, I thought to continue with a few more for the rest of March.

For those detractors of the Puritans who say that Pentecostals ought not to be reading their works, one must consider two things in response to this argument. First, the Puritans had a huge influence on the first Great Awakening that took place in the northeast of this nation in the 1730’s to the 1770’s. The first Great Awakening had a heavy influence on the old holiness movement which birthed the Wesley’s (John and Charles), Peter Cartwright and the Cane Ridge Camp-meetings. The old holiness movement is what brought the outpouring of the Spirit in the early 1900’s although I am not one of those who believe that it had disappeared and experienced a re-awakening then. I believe the Acts 2 experience has been alive throughout all of history. If you have read any Pentecostal histories at all by Cecil Robeck and Vinson Synan you will see this verification of the evidence the old holiness movement had on Spirit-filled believers.

Secondly, the Puritans were a group of men that focused on sanctification or holiness. They did not focus on the gifts or the passing experiences of the move of the Spirit but rather they were Bible readers and Bible preachers who took the Scriptures and applied them in such a way as to bring a sense of application to daily living for the Lord. Having said that I have to give a couple of disclaimers which are my obvious opposition to their Calvinistic views concerning salvation and I do not affirm their Trinitarian view of the Godhead.

Thomas Shepard is another very provoking Puritan although his writings are not nearly as voluminous as some of his cohorts. He was apparently a very emotional and passionate preacher because as you read various biographies about him numerous authors give testimonials of the impact he had on those who heard him preach. Some gave the reason for so much feeling in his preaching was because of the rigorous practice of self-examination of his motives and heart compared with the great scrutiny that he placed on Scripture.

There are many in our world today that would dismiss the practice of such self-examination as unnecessary and spiritually unhealthy. I would contend that some of the challenges faced by the American church are because of the lack of self-examination and lack of real submission to the Bible. Throughout the journals of Shepard it is noted the daily task of self-examination and confession that he used to purge his own soul of the unbelief, sinful practices, and selfish motives that would hinder his communion with God. It is my belief that if those actions were to resurface in our time a healthy spiritual atmosphere would be much different than the superficial, entertainment oriented “worship” services we see in our day.

Thomas Shepard was a Puritan who constantly preached the importance of self-examination and efforts toward being spiritually fit as crucial components of the Christian’s life. He was born in Towcester, Northampton in England in 1605. The small town is located to the northwest of London. He was the youngest of nine children and his mother died when he was four years old. When his father re-married, his stepmother had little time to devote to the children and so Thomas soon turned toward being a rebellious young man.

His educational experience was not a good one early on because of the man who was the schoolmaster. He was an old, ill-tempered Welshman who was very cruel to his students and did very little to encourage them to learn. When Thomas’ father died he was ten years old and the responsibility of his education fell to the lot of his stepmother who had little interest in him and so it was neglected. Later, his older brother, John got involved in his schooling and fortuitously for Thomas, the old Welshman schoolmaster died and was replaced with one who lit a fire in Thomas’ mind and he begin to excel.

He was sent to Emmanuel College in Cambridge when he turned fifteen. The college was very much geared toward religious training. In fact, many of the Puritans were trained in these schools and would later have a great impact on the religious revivals that took place in England and the United States. However, when Thomas came to Cambridge because there was no real supervision in the hours after school, he begins to run with the wrong crowd. He desired the company of some of the young scholars who were given to drinking, gambling, and generalized carousing that did little good for his soul.

In his autobiography, he writes of how he would continue to go to the chapel services and the Sunday worship services and listen to the preaching. He was profoundly convicted by his sinful actions particularly when he heard the preaching of John Preston. Preston was the new headmaster at Emmanuel College. He wrote that Preston would “open up the secrets of my soul before me—the hypocrisy of all good things I thought I had in me—as if one had told him.” In another place he wrote about Preston, “he is the most searching preacher in the world.”

One day, Preston preached on the text from Romans 12:2 about being transformed by the renewing of the mind. From that moment on, Shepard wrote in his personal journal, “I resolved to begin to meditate daily upon the evil of sin, the beauty of Christ, and the deceitfulness of the heart.” He noted that the truthfulness of Scripture starting ushering in thoughts of the terror of the Lord and coming judgment. It was through all of this preaching of Preston and the contemplations of Shepard that he understood that no conversion of a man can really take place “unless he first see, be convicted of and loaded with the evilness of his sins.”

Concerning preaching, I have to drive this point home to all men who are godly preachers that read this blog, you must give yourself to preaching! It does not matter how unpopular it may become and how pressured we are to conform and turn preaching into self-help lectures and feel-good “talks” we cannot afford to do it! Great preaching is hard work! Not only does it require the preparation of the mind but also of the heart and sometimes the heart work is more difficult than the mental work.

As a sidebar, if you have never read William Perkins book The Art of Prophesying it is worth your time. In the preface he wrote, “God uses preaching as the means instrumental in gathering the church and driving away the wolves from the folds of the Lord.” It allures the soul by subduing our “self-willed minds” and changing people from “an ungodly and pagan lifestyle to a life of Christian faith and repentance.” He therefore believed that of all the gifts given to the church by the Spirit, “prophesying” stood as the most excellent gift of all. He noted that we should never despise this great gift but should reflect on the tremendous responsibility and the difficulty of the task of those who would shepherd souls through the Word of God.

After Shepard’s graduation from Emmanuel, he began to preach under the guidance of Thomas Weld who was a pastor in Terling, Essex. This man provided him with some very good pastoral and practical training. It was also at this time that Weld introduced Shepard to the friendship and preaching of Thomas Hooker who lived in nearby Chelmsford.

During this period of time, the Church of England flourished because of the political pressure the King would place on preachers in England. Such pressure was placed on men in the pulpits that they were required to preach and uphold the affirmations and edicts of the Church of England. Obviously this state religion was a very worldly and political message that did not suit many of the Puritan preachers in the country at the time. Those who refused to preach the messages of the Church of England were placed in the category of non-conformists. Some of these men were imprisoned, run out of the country or brought under the withering attack of malicious character assassinations.

In 1630, Shepard was called in for non-conformity and was forbidden to exercise any religious duties falling under the auspices of the diocese in London. Because of his refusal, he was summoned a second time and he was dismissed from his pulpit and told to leave the diocese of London. After a third time of being called to meet with Laud, he left and went to Yorkshire where he was appointed as a pastor. All of this took place in 1632.

Before too long, Shepard started listening to some of his elders, John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, Thomas Weld, and Samuel Stone who were considering immigrating to America. Shepard who suffered from very poor health finally left England in 1634 and headed for Boston. On that voyage in 1634, he was pushed back by a storm and the trip had to be abandoned. A second attempt was made successfully in 1635 and he and his family arrived in Boston on October 3, 1635 after a six week voyage across the Atlantic.

Sadly, his wife had contracted tuberculosis and it would lead to her death just four months after their arrival to Boston. Obviously the harsh winters in the northeast did not help her condition. In all of this difficulty, the Shepards had settled in Newtown, Massachusetts. This town would later have its name changed to Cambridge and would become the home of Harvard University. Thomas Shepard developed a friendship early after his arrival to Boston with John Harvard who actually founded Harvard as an institution to train men for the ministry. In fact, if you look at all the foundations of the Ivy League schools you will notice a very heavy Puritan influence and understand that they all had their inceptions as Bible colleges and seminaries to develop ministers. How far they have drifted!

As mentioned earlier, Shepard’s writings aren’t nearly as prolific as some of the other notable Puritans. However they are all very rich in devotional matter and will provide much for contemplation and meditation. He wrote an autobiography and also a journal. He is most widely known for a series of sermons he preached from 1636 to 1640 entitled The Parable of the Ten Virgins of which I shall delve into much more detail in a subsequent post. He also wrote The Sincere Convert and a companion volume called The Sound Believer. Theses Sabbaticae is a collection of thoughts and writings in defense of a Sabbath for every believer.


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