The year was 1665 and England was overcome with two plagues: one physical and one spiritual. As a physical pestilence spread throughout the country killing people left and right, another more pernicious disease came from the courts of the king himself, which infected the church. The Act of Uniformity, passed by the English Parliament in 1659, required conformity to the Book of Common Prayer. By 1662 over 2,000 ministers were ejected from Church of England pulpits as a result. These Puritans were effectively silenced because they could not in good conscience submit themselves to any authority but God’s Word when it came to the worship of God’s people. Stripped of their recognized clergy status, these ministers were kicked out of their churches. Legally restricted from preaching within the buildings of the churches, many preached in the cemetery yards outside of the churches, in barns, fields, or secluded woods.
Rev. Richard Flavel, a non-conforming pastor, was gathering in London with a few Christians for secret worship in the house of a Mr. Blake in 1665. During the prayer of Minister Flavel, soldiers broke in with swords drawn. Previously, Richard Flavel had been effectively ejected from the Church of England for a sermon on Hosea 7:6 where his application was taken as a biblical rebuke to the Act of Uniformity. Richard “was of such an extraordinary piety, that those who conversed with him, said, they never heard one vain word fall from his mouth”. Upon entering the house of worshippers, the soldiers demanded they give up their preacher. They were threatened and bribed, but to no avail. One of the worshippers threw a cloak over Richard to help disguise his identity. Together they were taken in custody. Once the women were released, the men were sent to the Newgate Prison where the physical pestilence pervaded. Richard’s wife was taken with him. These Christians were effectively doomed to their deaths due to the contagion of the plague. Richard was released along with his wife. But it was too late, the plague had already infected them and they both died shortly thereafter.
“Providence is like a curious piece of tapestry made of a thousand shreds, which, single, appear useless, but put together, they represent a beautiful history to the eye. Providence is wiser than you, and you may be confident it has suited all things better to your eternal good than you could do had you been left to your own option.” Such was said by Richard Flavel’s oldest son, John.
Born in 1628 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, John came from courageous Puritan stock. He would see a lot of heartache in his life, not just the death of his parents from the plague. He would marry four times with only his last wife outliving him. His first wife, Joan Randall, died giving birth to their first baby who died as well. The death of children was very common in Flavel’s day. It was the lot many were given, but didn’t choose. Flavel, however, volunteered for another kind of trial. The name Flavel is derived from one of the most important officers of William the Conqueror. But this Flavel traded in his sword for a Bible. He was a man of the Sword of the Lord–a battle hardened veteran warrior for his Savior. He preached on the run from legal authorities, often in fields or private homes. During his twilight years, speaking of his fellow brother-ministers, he noted, “We have long borne the burden and heat of the day; we are veteran soldiers almost worn out.” Flavel was simply indefatigable when it came to the task of preaching.
We live in an age where many ministers demand a comfortable living, but Flavel was like most English non-conforming preachers of his day. To these battle-worn soldiers of the cross, conviction was more important than comfort. Standing for truth was more critical than widespread acceptance and praise. Sometimes these men stood alone, or only with a small band of other devout Christians within the confines of private homes as they worshipped according to Scripture alone. Such was true of both Richard, as well as his son John.
Puritanism flowed from at least three primary desires: 1) the need for Biblical preaching based upon Reformed doctrine, 2) the work of the Holy Spirit in producing personal piety, and 3) simplifying the government and liturgy of the church so that pure, biblical worship according to God’s Word could take place unhindered. Doctrinally speaking, Puritanism was unapologetically Calvinistic. Evangelistically, it was bold, yet not brash. Experientially, it was devotional. Ecclesiastically, it was overtly theocentric and intensely worshipful. Politically, it saw Scripture binding the believers conscience over the king or Parliament. And culturally, its impact was felt generationally on into our own day.
After training at Oxford for his education, John Flavel received a request to preside as a minister in the parish of Diptford on April 22, 1650. He was twenty-two years old. The presiding minister was ill, and the plan was for Flavel to join him with the intent of replacing him eventually. On October 17, 1650 he was ordained as an associate pastor for the aging minister by a group of ministers in Salisbury after being examined and preaching a trial sermon. As planned, he succeeded the old minister upon his death and Flavel remained at Diptford for six years.
In 1656, Flavel accepted a call to minister in Dartmouth. Dartmouth was a busy seaport, and the congregation larger, but the salary meager in comparison to Diptford. But in 1662, Flavel was ejected from the pulpit in Dartmouth due to his non-conformity. His people were saddened by this and loved him dearly. He loved them in return and began meeting secretly with them in private conventicles. Periodically, at the request of the people he would agree to preach to them in the woods. On one occasion, he disguised himself as a woman and rode on horseback to the undisclosed location to preach and administer the sacrament of baptism! Another time, he managed to outrun the authorities on horseback before plunging his horse into the sea. But he was able to swim to safety without being caught.
But the Oxford Act (Five-Mile Act) of 1665 forbade him to be within five miles of Dartmouth. His faithful congregants accompanied him out of town with tears and prayers. But Flavel didn’t go far, choosing to live just outside the five-mile boundary. He regularly met detachments of his beloved congregation of Dartmouth in the woods every Lord’s Day and preached to them. At other times, he sneaked into Dartmouth itself. When this wasn’t safe, he met with them in nearby villages in private homes. He was so resilient in preaching the Word and determined to finish his sermons that on at least one occasion soldiers broke up a meeting in the woods, even arresting some of the worshippers. But those not arrested joined Flavel in another section of woods so he could finish the sermon he started! If it wasn’t a stump for a pulpit, it was a rock. Preaching like his Lord in the outdoors, Flavel frequented Salstone Rock, an island submerged during high tide. It was said that the congregation there would “linger in devout assembly till the rising tide drove them to their boats.”
In 1772, King Charles II issued the Declaration of Indulgence allowing non-conformists ministers back in the pulpits. This only lasted a year before it was cancelled, but during this time Flavel went back to Dartmouth and was officially licensed as a Congregationalist minister. Once the indulgence was cancelled, however, Flavel was back on the run preaching seaside, in the woods, and in private homes. Eventually, he returned to Dartmouth where church was held every Sunday in his own private home. Crowds gathered on other evenings of the week as well to hear him preach from his house. Finally, another indulgence was issued by James II in 1687 allowing the legal public ministry of non-conformist ministers. His last four years of public preaching took place in a meeting house built for that specific purpose by the people of his beloved congregation in Darmouth.
On June 26, 1691, while visiting Exeter to preach, Flavel died of a stroke. He was sixty-three years old. He was buried in the Dartmouth churchyard.
Flavel’s ministry was filled with much adventure, heartache, courage, and faithfulness. His loyalty to the people of Dartmouth is beyond commendable. His love for the Word of God over the acclaim or riches of the world is beyond question. It also says much about the people who sat under his ministry. This “little flock” risked persecution, arrest, and death. Here is what one of those members of the church at Dartmouth said about Flavel. This is a glorious description of a faithful minister of the Word. It describes what every minister should aspire to be. At the same time, it describes the type of minister every Christian should desire to sit under.
“I could say much, though not enough of the excellency of his preaching; of his seasonable, suitable, and spiritual matter; of his plain expositions of Scripture; his talking method, his genuine and natural deductions, his convincing arguments, his clear and powerful demonstrations, his heart-searching applications, and his comfortable supports to those that were afflicted in conscience. In short, that person must have a very soft head, or a very hard heart, or both, that could sit under his ministry unaffected”.
Aside from pastoring and preaching, Flavel has written works bearing fruit into our own day. His works are published in 6 volumes made available by Banner of Truth. Often using illustrations related to seafaring due to his ministering in the seaport of Dartmouth, one will find Flavel easy to read. His works include: Communion with Christ, The Mystery of Providence, A Treatise on Keeping the Heart, The Righteous Man’s Refuge, Preparations for Sufferings,The Reasonableness of Personal Reformation and the Necessity of Conversion, and The Character of a Complete Evangelical Pastor, Drawn by Christ. This list represents only a sampling. Also available in Banner’s six-volume set of Flavel is an interesting sermon series written for seafaring men entitled A Seaman’s Companion. This series includes expositions of Acts 21:5-6, Psalm 107:23-28, Psalm 139:9-10, Deuteronomy 8:17-18, Luke 5:5, and Deuteronomy 33:19.
Primary Sources Consulted:
“The Life of the Late Rev. Mr. John Flavel: Minister of Darmouth”, The Whole Works of John Flavel, Volume 1.
The Culture of English Puritanism, 1560-1700, Edited by Christopher Durston and Jacqueline Eales
Why You Should Read the Puritans, Joel Beeke
Meet the Puritans, Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson
John Flavel, https://www.the-highway.com/bio_Flavel.html