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Flavel, The Quaker, and the Crown

New Introduction

England 1685–1689

When James II was crowned to the English throne in 1685, succeeding his brother, Charles II, the nation's longstanding terror of Roman Catholicism came once again to a head. It hardly mattered to the public that James, a convert to Catholicism, had never forced it on his daughters, Mary and Anne, and did not plan to force it on England, either. He claimed to seek only religious liberty, tolerance and equal freedom for Catholics to participate in public life and be able to run for seats in Parliament.

Recognizing the widespread public prejudice against Catholics, James thought he might gain his ends more effectively if he extended these new liberties to all religious minorities, especially appealing to the Protestant "Dissenters," who suffered much of the same limitation and persecution as Roman Catholics. As part of this move, James proposed to abolish the Tests and penal laws, creating a new freedom of religion for many of his subjects, a freedom as temporary and tentative as James's own tenure on the throne.

His effective suspension of these laws opened a window of new freedom for John Flavel, Independent (Presbyterian) preacher of Dartmouth and other "Dissenters" like him who had preached illegally and lived insecurely for decades. It did not, however, bring James the security he hoped for his throne. While James was correct in his assessment of the Dissenters' power to overturn the prevailing government, he failed to see that this would lead to his own undoing.

The non-Catholic English, both Anglican and Dissenters, distrusted James. They especially distrusted his relationship with France's Catholic king, Louis XIV, who had been aggressively warring against his neighbours for decades and forcing conversion on his conquered subjects. James was in contrast a mild and timid man, but Louis' political friendship, and apparent power over him, was considered dangerous. If Parliament treated James tolerantly at first, it was because he was over 50 and had no son; the legitimate heir to his throne was his oldest daughter, Mary, like her sister a firm Anglican, and married to an equally pious Calvinist, the Dutchman, William of Orange. As long as the legislators could keep the king in check, his succession would restore religious equilibrium soon enough.

Or so many believed, until 1687, when James's second wife became pregnant, and the king promised England a son. By nature or (as most believed) trickery, the child was indeed male. This, the public began to whisper and cry out, was clearly a plot to force a Catholic dynasty on the land, and was not to be tolerated. William of Orange began to received official "invitations" to visit England and help the English overturn James's rule.

William was a fearless soldier and astute statesman, though the English were to tire of him soon enough. Although his mother had been sister to Charles II, William had no rightful claim to the English throne; it was his wife, Mary, who was the appointed heir. But Mary chose to support William against her father, and he sailed to England in November, 1688, marching towards London and gathering supporters.

If James had chosen to resist William's advance that winter, it would have meant another bloody civil war, but James's courage failed him. As William approached London, James sent his family into safety and fled to exile in France, setting up court at St. Germain under the protection and patronage of the French king. Louis' welcome surely confirmed the English distrust of James's promises for religious toleration, and most public support shifted easily to William. Once William's succession was sure, Mary sailed to join him and began negotiations with Parliament for the terms of their rule. The coronation oath (see p. 93) illustrates well England's dominant concern that their new king support religious liberty. As a Protestant, William readily extended this liberty to Dissenters. Although he never lifted the penal laws against Catholics, in practice he never enforced them.

William and Mary's coronation, on April 11, 1689, became a public celebration of what was quickly called the "Glorious" or "Bloodless" Revolution. Although James, his son ("the old Pretender") his descendants, and their "Jacobite" supporters would periodically push to regain power over the next hundred years, the line of imperial descent had changed, and the mood in 1689 was high. In close (and increasingly unwilling) collaboration with Parliament, William passed a "Toleration Act" that granted religious freedom to any Dissenter willing to profess a belief in the Trinity (thus continuing to exclude the Quakers) and loyalty to the crown.

John Flavel and the Quakers in 1687

Between James's accession and the coronation of William and Mary, John Flavel took advantage of James's effective repeal of the penal laws, undoubtedly expecting the situation to change for the worse at any moment. His biographer describes this period in Flavel's life:

In 1687, when it pleased God to so overrule affairs that King James II thought it in his interest to dispense with the penal laws against them, Mr. Flavel who had formerly been confined to a corner shone brightly, as a flaming beacon upon the top of a hill. His affectionate people prepared a large place for him where God blessed his labours to the conviction of many people, by his sermons on Rev. 3:20, "Behold I stand at the door and knock." This encouraged him to print these sermons under the title of England's Duty, etc., hoping that it might do good abroad, as well as in his own congregation. He made a vow to the Lord under his confinement, that if he should be once more entrusted with public liberty, he would improve it to the advantage of the gospel. This he performed conscientiously, preaching twice every Lord's day and lecturing every Wednesday, during which he went over most of the 3rd chapter of St. John's gospel, showing the indispensable necessity of regeneration. He preached likewise every Thursday before the sacrament, and then after examination admitted communicants. He had no assistance on sacrament days, so that he was often nearly spent before he finished distributing the elements. When the duty of the day was over he would often complain of a sore chest, an aching head and a pained back. Yet he would be early at study again next Monday. He allowed himself very little recreation, considering the time a precious jewel which ought to be improved whenever possible...

Mr. Flavel never delighted in controversies. However, he was obliged, contrary to his inclination, to write against Mr. Cary, the principal Anabaptist in Dartmouth, with whom, however, he maintained a friendly and Christian correspondence. When he wrote his Planelogia, or, Blow at the Root, he declared to his friends that though those studies were very necessary he took no pleasure in them but would rather be employed in practical divinity. When he composed his Reasonableness of Personal Reformation, he told an intimate acquaintance of his that he seldom had a vain thought interrupt him, which made him hope it would do the more good in the world. He intended to enlarge his book of Sacramental Meditations, and had most judiciously stated and handled several cases of conscience on that occasion, which he designed to have inserted into the next edition, but did not live to finish them for the press.

The texts reprinted here capture this sliver of history in Flavel's life through two particular documents. The first is the "Testimony" of the Quaker, Clement Lake, in which is preserved his correspondence with Flavel in 1687. Unlike many 17th century preachers, John Flavel was a man who loved peace and who worked hard, and with compassion to support humane and courteous religious dialogue and diplomacy between those of differing views. His greatest joy at the end of his life was his success at mediating unity between certain Presbyterians and Independents. Despite this commitment as a peacemaker, he was firm in his own beliefs about those theological positions which remained (to his view) heretical. Although he had shared persecution with the Quakers, he continued to view the Quaker teachings as incompatible with a right reading of Christian scripture.

Quaker "testimonies" were an effective means the Quakers used to encourage one another in a society that officially censured and limited their freedom. The correspondence between Clement Lake and John Flavel is one example of this platform from which faithful Quakers might also argue (peaceably) against those Protestants who so adamantly opposed them. The Quaker "Testimony," typically produced by friends after one's death, summarized the individual's personality, gave the general outlines of their life, and preserved any words, experiences or characteristics that might inspire others. These testimonies are various forms of the spiritual biography, written by a spouse or friend, or occasionally autobiographical. Clement Lake's "Testimony" is a compilation of statements by his wife and fellow Quakers attesting to his good character, to which is addended his correspondence with John Flavel.

It is not clear how the two knew one another. It appears that they were close associates prior to Lake's "convincement" or conversion to the Quakers. Flavel appeals to his friend to reconsider his decision, convinced that Lake's optimism is blinding him to the profound doctrinal differences between Flavel's understanding of true Christianity and that taught by the Quakers. The appeal was unsuccessful; each man is utterly convinced of his own spiritual correctness and mode of discernment; what Flavel describes does not match Lake's experience, and Lake clearly does not share Flavel's acute concern that Lake more carefully investigate established Quaker "doctrine." In the end the two are talking past one another, appealing to ideals the other does not share in the same way. Yet Flavel's joy, his gentleness, and his hatred for controversy are evident even here, in the face of his uncompromising opposition to Quaker beliefs.

Whether one sympathizes most with Flavel or with Lake will depend on the reader. The correspondence between them was not as private as it might seem today. Although the Quakers published it in 1692, after both men had died, the letters may have circulated openly between the two communities soon after they were written in 1687.

Flavel and the 1689 Coronation

The second text reprinted here, Flavel's sermon on coronation, is perhaps the most exuberant praise of modern events we find in all his works. He had lived with suppression and persecution for decades; his parents died of the plague in 1665 while in Newgate Prison for their religious worship; John himself had maintained an active and "illegal" ministry since 1660. Despite James's limited freedoms, this new political reality of a fellow Protestant — William — crowned King was clearly a glastnost of unimaginable proportions to England's Calvinist-minded Dissenters. Such liberty might be loosely compared to that of early Christians when Constantine first legalized Christianity in the early fourth century; Flavel refers briefly to Constantine. He uses the sermon above all, however, to point past the earthly event to "spiritualize" coronation in an appeal to turn the heart to Christ's kingship.

Despite the logical analogy of Christ with "king," it is somewhat curious that Flavel — and indeed most of England — focused on the "king" when in fact William's "kingship" was a legal fiction created at the insistence of the rightful sovereign: his wife, the Queen. It was Mary, and Mary alone who was her father's rightful successor under English law; William's role should have been no more than the official consort to the rightful sovereign. But Parliament had insisted on replacing James with Mary, and Mary absolutely insisted that she would not reign unless her husband was granted the title and status of "king." The legal realities had no place in Flavel's christological analogy and scriptural examples of male kings. His exuberance is for William the Calvinist who saved England from Catholic heresy, not Mary the rightful Anglican Queen. To support William as "rightful" king required a certain amount of creative reinterpretation, and in this Flavel was hardly alone. He and and his contemporaries — assisted by William himself — turned this reinterpretation into an art as they defended what had effectively been a palace coup. Flavel's choice to turn the coronation into a spiritual metaphor for higher loyalties reflects the general spirit of William and Mary's ascendency. James helped to support this fiction by abandoning his throne, although he never officially abdicated. It is therefore especially interesting to examine Flavel's treatise for his beliefs about what grants a king the right to rule. Drawing from King David, Flavel suggests that William's legitimacy was based not on blood, marriage, or power, but on the English public's consent to be ruled by him. As many early Christians saw Constantine as God's agent of political justice and hope, so Flavel clearly interpreted scripture according to the political realities of his own day just as much as he interpreted politics in terms of scripture.

As preface to these works we include John Galpine's brief "Life of Mr. John Flavell." This and the coronation sermon were first published together on September 8, 1691, three months after Flavel's death. The many parallels between this "Life" and the longer, anonymous version of the Life included in Flavel's collected works strongly suggests that Galpine wrote the longer text as well. Flavel surrounded himself with men he had trained in ministry and Galpine seems to have been one of these. Galpine clearly shared Flavel's view of William and Mary: "Let all the people rejoice: for these their rulers shall be to them as the light of the morning, as the clear shining after rain." The road to religious liberty in 17th-century England had been long and often bloody. The last two years of Flavel's life were surely experienced by many as a time of morning light indeed.


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