Personal and Family Godliness: A Letter of Christian Counsel to a Destitute Flock, Joseph Alleine.
That Joseph Alleine (1634-68) had a great love for the people of Taunton, England is evident in his service of them, eventually costing his life. As a Puritan Non-Conformist he was one of over 2,000 ministers ejected from their pulpits in 1662 under the Act of Uniformity. Yet being called as a minster of the gospel and with an ardent desire for his flock he could not be silent and continued preaching the word in the parish; and for such faithfulness was thrown into prison.
On his release in May 1664 he steadfastly resumed preaching only to suffer further punishment by being returned to prison. Worn out by his hard work and the relentless persecution and abuse he died at the age of 34 years.
It was said that Alleine desired, "If I should die fifty miles away, let me be buried at Taunton," and that love that he had for the pasture of Taunton, which he tended for his Master, was remembered by its people on his death, bringing him home to rest at his old church St Mary's.
Alleine took great care to instruct his flock in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, desiring that they would examine themselves daily to grow in personal and family holiness. In this letter of counsel to the people and inhabitants of Taunton, written at the end of his sojourn and looking into eternity, he reminds them of their need of Christ and presses again, a final time, the necessity of personal and family godliness in their lives.
A convicting and pastoral letter from one of the most loved Puritans.
Most dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown.
My heart's desire, and prayer for you is, that you may be saved. This is that which I have been praying, and studying, and preaching for these many years; and this is the end of my venturing, and suffering, and writing at this present time. God that knows all things, he knows that this is my wish; Oh that I could but come at your souls! And that this is the prize and the gain that I run for, that I might win souls. I seek not other gifts give me your hearts, let me but part between your sins and you; suffer me but to save you. Give me leave to carry you over to Jesus Christ, and I will not ask you any more. I will serve you gladly, I will suffer for you thankfully, so I may but save you. Do not wonder why I follow you so pressingly, why I call upon you so frequently; let not my importunity be grievous to you; all this is but to save you. Christ did not bethink his blood, and shall I bethink my breath, or ink, in order to your salvation? What pity is it, that any of you should miscarry at last, under the power of ignorance, or by a profane negligence, or a formal and lifeless profession of strict godliness.
Beloved, I am afraid of you, lest (as to many of you) I have run in vain. I cannot but most thankfully acknowledge, that (considering the paucity of these that are saved) there are not a few of you who are the joy of your Ministers and the glory of Christ. But it cannot be dissembled, that far the greater number give little ground to hope, that they are in the state of salvation. And must not this be a pinching thought, to a compassionate teacher, to think, that he cannot for his heart persuade men but that the most of them will wilfully throw away themselves? Is it not a woeful sight, to behold the devil's driving a great part of our miserable flocks, (as they did once the herd of swine, the keepers themselves amazed looking on,) I say driving them violently down the hill, till they be choked in the water, and drowned irrecoverably in the gulf of endless perdition? Ah miserable spe∣ctacle! what through the loosness and sensuality of some, what through the wilful blindness of others, what through the having, and cold, and customary religion of others, how great a number of our flocks is Satan like to carry utterly away from us, after all that hath been done to save them?
Yet I cannot but call after them. Hearken unto me, O ye children. How long will you love va∣nity, and follow after leasing, and trust in lying words? As the Lord liveth you are lost, except you turn: wherefore turn yourselves and live. Ah how mercy woes you! how it waits to be graci∣ous to you! Hear, O sinners, hear. See you not how the merciful Saviour of the world stretches forth his hands all the day long, and spreads forth his wings, and calls you as a hen does her chicken? Hear you not the soundings of his bowels? he hath no need of you; yet how do his compassions melt over perishing sinners? his heart is turned within him, and shall not this turn your hearts? his repentings are kindled together? and shall not this lead you to repentance? Behold, he stands at the door and knocks. O man wilt thou keep Jesus at the door, and lodge Barabbas in thy bosom? and prefer thy cruel lusts, before thy compassionate Lord? Oh his melting love to sinners! he calls after them, he weeps over them, he cries to them; How long ye simple ones, will you love simplicity? will you not be made clean? when shall it once be? why will you die? Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you. Sinner, art thou not yet melted? Oh come in at his loving calls. Come out from thy sins: touch the sceptre of grace and live: why shouldest thou be dashed in pieces by his iron rod? kiss the Son: why shouldst thou perish in the way? set up Jesus as thy King, lest he count thee for his enemy, because thou would that he should not reign over thee, and so thou be called forth and slain before him. Oh how dreadful will this case be to perish under the pitiful eyes of his mercy, and to die by the hand of a Saviour! Oh double hell, to have thy redeemer become thine executioner! and the hand that was so long stretched forth to save thee, to be now stretched forth to slay thee! and the merciful heart of Christ himself hardened against thee, so as that he should call thee forth, and with his own hand hew thee in pieces, (as Samuel did Agag) before the Lord.
But I have been too too long in prefacing to what I intended forthwith to have fallen upon: indeed I am apt to run out in matters that do so nearly touch upon your greatest concernments.
Beloved, I despair of ever bringing you to salvation, without sanctification: or possessing you of happiness, without persuading you to holiness. God knows I have not the least hope ever to see one of your faces in heaven, except you be converted and sanctified, and exercise yourselves unto godliness. This is that I drive at. I beseech you study to further personal godliness and family godliness.
Let it be your first care to set up Christ in your hearts. See that you make all your worldy interests to stoop to him, that you be entirely and unreservedly devoted unto him. If you wilfully and deliberately and ordinarily harbour any sin, you are undone? See that you unfeignedly take the laws of Christ, as the rule of your words, thoughts, and actions; and subject your whole man, members and mind faithfully to him.
If you have not a true respect to all God's commandments, you are unsound at heart. Oh study to get the image and impress of Christ upon you within. Begin with your hearts, else you build without a foundation. Labour to get a saving change within, or else all external performances will be to no purpose. And then study to show forth the power of godliness in the life. Let piety be your first and great business. 'Tis the highest point of justice, to give God his due. Beware that none of you be a prayerless person: for that is a most certain discovery of a Christless and a graceless person, of one that is a very stranger to the fear of God. Suffer not your Bibles to gather dust. See that your converse daily with the word. That man can never lay claim to blessedness, whose delight is not in the law of the Lord. Let meditation and self-examination be your daily exercise, else the Papists, yea, the Pagans, will condemn us. That the short [catechism] questions, which I have given you as a help to self-examination, may be daily perused by you, is the matter of my passio∣nate request unto you. If ever you come to any growth in holiness, without the constant use of this practice, I am grosly deceived; and therefore I would beseech, yea, even charge you, by the Lord, that you would daily examine yourselves by these questions, till you have found a better help to this duty.
But piety, without charity, is but the half of Christianity, or rather impious hypocrisy. We may not divide the Tables. See therefore that you do justly, and love mercy, and let equity and charity run like an even thread, throughout all your dealings. Be you temperate in all things, and let chastity and sobriety be your undivided companions. Let truth and purity, seriousness and modesty, heavenliness and gravity, be the constant ornaments of your speech. Let patience and humility, simplicity and sincerity shine out in all the parts of your conversations. See that you forget and forgive wrongs, and requite them with kindness, as you would be found children of the most High. Be merciful in your censures, and put the most favourable construction upon your brethren's carriage, that their actions will reasonably bear. Be slow in promising, punctual in fulfilling. Let meekness and innocency, affableness, yieldingness, and courtesy, commend your conversations to all men. Let none of your relations want that love and loyalty, that reverence and duty, that tenderness, care, and vigilancy, which their several places and capacities call for. This is throughout godliness. I charge you before the most high God, that none of you be found a swearer, or a liar, a lover of evil company, or a scoffer, or malicious, or covetous, or a drunkard, or a glutton, unrighteous in his dealing, unclean in his living, or a quarreller, or a thief, or a backbiter, or a railer: for I denounce unto you from the living God, that destruction and damnation is the end of all such.
He that has set up Christ in his heart, will be sure to study to set him up in his house. Let every family with you be a Christian Church; every house, a house of prayer; every household, a household of faith. Let every householder say, with Joshua, I and my house will serve the Lord; and resolve with David, I will walk within my house with a perfect heart. Let me press upon you a few duties, which I have been long harping upon, but alas (I speak it to your shame) with many (too too many) of you, to little purpose in general.
First, Let religion be in your families, not as a matter by the by (to be minded at leisure, when the world will give you leave) but the standing business of the house. Let them have your prayers as duly as their meals; is there any of your families, but have time for their taking food? wretched man! canst thou find time to eat it, and not find time to pray in?
Secondly, settle it upon your hearts, that your souls are bound up in the souls of your family. They are committed unto you, & (if they be lost through your neglect) will be required at your hands. Sirs, if you do not, you shall know, that the charge of souls is a heavy charge, and that the blood of souls is a heavy guilt. O man, hast thou a charge of souls to answer for, and dost thou not yet bestir thyself for them, that their blood be not found in thy skirts? wilt thou do no more for immortal souls, thèn thou wilt do for thy beasts that perish? What dost thou do for thy children, and servants? Thou providest meat and drink for them, agreeable to their natures, and dost thou not the same for thy beasts? Thou givest them medicines, and cherish them when they be sick, and dost thou not as much for thy swine? more particularly:
1. Let the solemn reading of the word and singing of Psalms, be your family exercises.
2. Let every person in your families be duly called to an account, of their profiting by the word heard or read, as they be about doing your own business. This is a duty of consequence unspeakable, and would be a means to bring those under your charge, to remember and profit by what they receive. See Christ's example in calling his family to an account, Mat. 16. 11. 13. 15.
3. Often take an account of the souls under your care, concerning their spiritual estates, make inquiry into their conditions, insist much upon the sinfulness and misery of their natural estate, and upon the necessity of regeneration and conversion, in order to their salvation. Admonish them gravely of their sins, encourage beginnings. Follow them earnestly, and let them have no quiet for you, till you see them in a saving change. This is a duty of high consequence, but (I am afraid) fearfully neglected, even by some that are godly. Does not conscience say, Thou art the man?
4. Look to the strict sanctifying of the Sabbath by all your households. Many poor families have little time else. O improve but your Sabbath days as diligently in labouring for knowledge, and doing your Maker's work, as you do the other days in doing your own work, and I doubt not, but you may come to some proficiency.
5. Let the morning and evening sacrifice of solemn prayer, be daily offered up in all our families. Beware they be not found among the families that call not upon God's name; for why should there be wrath from the Lord upon your families? O miserable families, without God in the world, that are without family prayer! What have you so many family sins, family wants, family mercies, what and yet no family prayers? How do you pray with all prayer and supplication, if you do not with family prayer? Say not, I have no time. What hast thou all thy time on purpose to serve God, and save thy soul? and yet is this for which thou canst find no time. Find but a heart, and I will find time. Pinch out of your meals, and sleep, rather than want for prayer. Say not, my business will not give leave. This is the greatest business to save thyself, and the soul's committed to thee. Besides, a whet will be no let. In a word, the blessing of all is to be got by prayer; and what is thy business without God's blessing? Say not, I am not able. Use the one talent, and God will increase. Helps are to be had, till thou art better able. But if there be no other remedy, thou must join with thine abler neighbour. God hath special regard to joint prayer, and therefore you must improve family advantages for the performing of it.
6. Put every one in your families upon private prayer. Observe whether they do perform it. Get them the help of a form, if they need it, till they are able to go without it. Direct them how to pray, by minding them of their sins, wants, and mercies, the materials of prayer. This was the practice of John, and of Jesus, Luke 11. 1, 2, &c.
7. Set up catechising in your families, at the least once every week. It was my parting, dying request, that you would set up and maintain this duty constantly in your families. Have you done it all accordingly? Cannot your consciences witness, cannot your families witness you have not? Well, I thought my parting words would have done something with you: I hoped the fervent request of a dying Minister, would have prevailed for such a small matter with you. What, to this day without solemn catechising in your houses? Ah, what a discouragement to your teacher is this? Brethren, shall I yet prevail with you? will you reject me now also? O let me persuade you, before you take off your eyes from these lines, to resolve to set upon the constant exercise of this duty. Surely I have done and suffered more for you than this comes to: will you now deny me? I beseech you let me find, if ever God do again bring me to visit your houses, that the words of a suffering Minister have some power with you. I have sent you an help on purpose: what, shall all my persuasions be but speaking in the wind? and all my pains but labouring in the fire?
Beloved, have you no dread of the Almighty's charge, That you should teach these things diligently to your children, and talk of them as you sit in your houses, &c. and train them up in the way wherein they should go. Has God so commended Abraham that he would teach his children and household, and that he had many instructed servants,and given such a promise to him thereupon, and will not you put in for a share neither in the praise, nor the promise? Has Christ honoured catechising with his presence, and will not you own it with your practice? Say not, they are careless, and will not learn. What have you your authority for, if not to use it for God, and the good of their souls? You will call them up, and force them to do your work; and should you not at least be as zealous in putting them upon God's work? Say not, they are dull, and are not capable: If they be dull, God requires of you the more pains and patience; but so dull as they are, you will make them to learn how to work; and can they not learn as well how to live! Are they capable of the mysteries of your trade, and are they not capable of the plain principles of religion? well, as ever you would see the growth of religion, the cure of ignorance, the remedy of profaness, the downfall of error, fulfil you my joy in going through with this duty.
I have been too long already, and yet I am afraid my letter will be ended before my work be done. How loath am I to leave you, before I have prevailed with you to set to the work to which you are here directed will you pass your promise? will you give me your hands? Oh that you would! you cannot do me a greater pleasure. Ask what you will of me. See if I will not do as much for you. Oh that your families might be a joy to me, as that twice noble lady's to John; who professes he had no greater joy, than to find her children walking in the truth! Beloved, why should you not give the hand one to another, and mutually engage each to other, for more vigorous and diligent endeavours, in promoting family godliness. I must tell you, God looks for more than ordinary from you, in such a day as this. He expects that you should do, both in your hearts, and in your houses, somewhat more than ever, under these his extraordinary dispensations; my most dearly beloved, mine own bowels in the Lord, will you satisfy the longings of a travelling Minister? will you answer the calls of divine providence? would you remove the incumbent, or prevent the impending calamities? would you plant nurseries for the Church of God? would you that God should build your houses, and bless your substance? would you that your children should bless you? that your Father should bless you? Oh then set up piety in your families as ever you would be blessed, or be a blessing; let your hearts and your houses be the temples of the living God, in which his worship (according to all the forementioned directions) may be, with constancy reverently performed.
Pardon my prolixity, and importunity in so earnest pursuing of you, I am yet afraid I have done too soon, and shall end without my errand. The Lord God persuade you. To Him I turn me; for I am well assured He can prevail with you.
O Father of Spirits, that hast set me over thy flock to watch for their souls as one that must give an account. I have long studied thy will, and taught in thy name, and do unfeignedly bless thee, that any have believed my report. I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me, and they have received them. I have manifested thy name unto them, and they have kept thy word. And now I am no more with them, but I come unto thee: Holy Father, keep them through thine own name, for they are thine. As they have kept the word of thy patience, so keep thou them in the hour of temptation. They are but a flock, a little and a helpless flock: but thou art their shepherd, suffer them not to want. Do thou feed them and fold them. Let thy rod and thy staff comfort them, and let not the beasts of prey fall upon them to the spoiling of their souls.
But what shall I do for them that will not be gathered. I have called after them but they would not answer. I have charged them in thy name, but they would not hear. I have studied to speak persuasively to them, but I cannot prevail. Yea, I said I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain, yet I cannot give them over, much less may I give thee over. Lord persuade Japheth, to dwell in the tents of Shem. Lord compel them to come in, and lay the hands of mercy upon them, as thou didst on lingering Lot, and bring them forth, that they may escape for their lives, and not be consumed. Lord, I pray thee, open their eyes that they may see, and lay hold upon their hearts by thine omnipotent grace. Do thou turn them, and they shall be turned. O bring back the miserable captives, and suffer not the enemy of mankind to drive away the most of the flock before mine eyes, and to deride the fruitless endeavours of thy labourers, and boast over them, that he can do more with them, though he seek to ruin them, than all the beseechings, counsels, and charges of thy servants that seek to save them. Lord, if I could find out any thing that would pierce them, that would make its way into their hearts, thou knowest I would use it. But I have been many years pleading thy cause in vain. O let not these endeavours also be lost. O God, find out every ignorant, every profane sinner, every prayerless soul, and every prayerless family, and convince them of their miserable condition, while without thee in the world. Set thy image upon their souls, set up thy worship in their families. Let not pride, ignorance, or slothfulness, keep them in neglect of the means of knowledge. Let thine eyes be over the place of my desires for good, from one end of the year to the other end thereof. Let every house therein be a seminary of religion, and let those that cast their eyes upon these lines, find thee sliding in by the secret influence of thy grace into their hearts, and irresistibly engaging them to do thy plea∣sure.