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John Wilson, (1588–1667)

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“Religious worship is devout behavior towards God, whereby we acknowledge his Sovereignty over us, and the dueness of our obedience to him, appearing before him, and waiting upon him, in the way he hath appointed in his Word.”

Biography of John Wilson (1588–1667):

John Wilson (1588–1667) A. M. was an excellent divine born at Windsor, in 1588, and educated first at Eton school, then in King’s college, Cambridge, where he was chosen as a fellow. He was a youth of considerable talents, application and improvement; and when the Duke of Biron, ambassador from the court of France, visited the school, he was appointed to deliver a Latin oration in his presence, of which this honorable person manifested his high approbation by giving him a very generous gift. 

During his abode at Cambridge he became seriously concerned about his soul, which in turn sparked his conversion before God. This soon awakened in his heart the warmest desires for the welfare of others, especially the malefactors in prison, whom he industriously visited and instructed. He remained for some time exceedingly bigoted to the established church, and decidedly averse to the puritans, as if they held many strange and erroneous opinions. He utterly declined their acquaintance; yet, on account of his precise theological demeanor, he was labeled one of them. Afterwards, by reading some of their works, he saw cause for altering his opinion, and for thinking more favorably of them, when he formed an intimate acquaintance with Mr. Richard Rogers, Mr. Greenham, Mr. Dod, and others. He now saw, that they who were stigmatized by the name of puritans were the most suitable companions for one seriously concerned about his own salvation. He, therefore, embarked with them, though accounted the offscouring of all things, and united with several of his brethren in the university in keeping private meetings for prayer, fasting, and religious conversation.[1]

Here he remained a conformist, but determined to examine the subject for himself. To this end he procured all the books in his power, both for and against conformity, and entered upon a minute and impartial examination of the arguments on both sides; the result of which was, that he cordially espoused the principles of the nonconformists. Mr. Wilson having, on conviction, imbibed these sentiments, acted on them, and omitted certain human impositions in the worship of God; for which the Bishop of Lincoln pronounced his expulsion from the university within fifteen days, if he did not conform. His father, Dr. William Wilson, rector of Cliff, and prebendary of St. Paul’s, Rochester, and Windsor, used all the means in his power to bring him back to conformity, and interceded with the bishop to have a longer time allowed him. He sent his son to several learned doctors, with a view to have his scruples and objections removed; but this, instead of reclaiming him, only served to confirm him all the more in his principles. His father latter then diverted his attention from the ministry, and directed himself to the study of the law. He accordingly went to London, and spent about three years at one of the inns of court. All his father’s efforts, nevertheless, proved ineffectual. He was still bent on the ministry, and he could be satisfied with no other employment. Therefore, with the consent of his father, he returned to Cambridge, and, by the favor of the Earl of Northampton, obtained admission into Emanuel college without subscription, afterwards called Boston. This they found a more healthy and agreeable situation.[2]

Mr. Wilson, having finished his studies at the university, became chaplain in several respectable families; and after preaching about three years at Burnsted, Stoke, Clare, and Cavendish, in Suffolk, he was chosen to succeed old Mr. Jenkin, minister at Sudbury in that county. Here he preached with great acceptance and applause for several years; but was at length suspended by the Bishop of London; and after being restored, he was again silenced by the Bishop of Norwich. Afterwards, by the favor and mediation of the Earl of Warwick, he again obtained his ministerial exercise. But, as he found himself constantly exposed to fresh troubles, he resolved to withdraw from the scenes of persecution, and retire into a foreign land. Previous to his departure, visiting his father on his deathbed, the old gentleman addressed him in this way, “I have taken much care of thee,” said he, “while thou wast at the university, because thou wouldst not conform. I fain would have brought thee to some higher preferment; but I see thy conscience is very scrupulous about somethings imposed in the church. Nevertheless, I have rejoiced to see the grace and fear of God in thy heart; and seeing thou hast hitherto maintained a good conscience, and walked according to thy light, do so still. Go by the rule of God’s holy word, and the Lord bless thee.”[3] Previous to his departure from his native country, he married the pious daughter of Lady Mansfield.

In the year 1630, Mr. Wilson, together with a number of his friends, embarked for New England, where they arrived in the month of July. As the great object of these Christian pilgrims, in leaving their native country and settling in this wilderness, was, “to enjoy the ordinances of the gospel, and worship the Lord Jesus Christ according to his own institutions;” so they were no sooner arrived than Mr. Wilson, Governor Winthrop, and some others, entered into a formal and solemn covenant with each other, to walk together in the fellowship of the Gospel. This covenant was as follows, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in obedience to his holy will and divine ordinance, we whose names are here underwritten, being, by his most wise and good providence, brought together to this part of America, in the Bay of Massachusets, and desirous to unite ourselves in one congregation or church, under the Lord Jesus Christ our head, in such sort as becometh all those whom he hath redeemed and sanctified to himself, do hereby solemnly and religiously (as in his most holy presence) promise and bind ourselves to walk in all our ways according to the rule of the gospel, and in all sincere conformity to his holy ordinances, and in mutual love and respect to each other, so near as God shall give us grace. John Winthrop, Isaac Johnson, Thomas Dudley, John Wilson, etc.”[4]

A foundation was thus laid of the church at Charlestown, in the Massachusetts colony. This was in July, immediately on their arrival; and in the month of August the court of government ordered, that a dwelling-house should be built for Mr. Wilson at the public expense, and the governor and Sir Richard Saltonstall were appointed to put the same into effect. By the same authority it was also ordered, that Mr. Wilson’s salary, until the arrival of his wife, should be twenty pounds a year. However, before the following winter, he, with the greater part of the church, removed from Charlestown and settled at Trimountain.

Sometime after Mr. Wilson’s settlement at Boston, he came over to England, when his wife, with many others, returned with him to the new plantation. He afterwards came to England a second time, and, upon his return, four ministers and nearly two hundred passengers accompanied him. He continued pastor of the church at Boston to the day of his death, and was greatly admired and beloved. The celebrated Dr. William Ames used to say, “If I might have my choice of the best situation on this side heaven, I would be teacher to a congregational church of which Mr. Wilson was pastor.” This happiness enjoyed Mr. Cotton, and after him Mr. Norton, in the church of Boston. He was a most exact and judicious preacher, especially in his younger years, and was greatly admired by Dr. Thomas Goodwin, Mr. Jeremiah Burroughs, and other celebrated divines. During the latter part of his life he took greater liberties when his sermon’s chiefly consisted of exhortations, admonitions, and counsels, delivered with much warmth and affection.

He was a man of great piety, and uncommon charity and liberality, employing all his estate to supply the needs of the necessitous. Being of a sweet natural disposition, he was universally beloved, and accounted the very father of the new plantation. All the inhabitants of the town being once on a general muster called together, a gentleman present in this way observed to Mr. Wilson, “Sir,” said he, “here is a mighty body of people, and there are not seven of them all who do not love Mr. Wilson.” To which he replied, “Sir, I will tell you something as strange: There is not one among them all but Mr. Wilson loves.”

Mr. Wilson was a man of a meek and quiet spirit, and always discovered a becoming resignation to the will of God. When at any time he sustained any outward distress, he quietly submitted himself to his heavenly Father’s will. Having been once on a journey, a person of his acquaintance met him on the road and told him, saying, “Sir, I have bad news for you. While you have been abroad, your house is burnt down.” To which he meekly replied, “Blessed be God: he has burnt down his house, because he intends to give me another.” He vigorously opposed the antinomian and familistic errors in the synod of 1637, but favored too much the prosecutions of the Quakers and Baptists, by encouraging the magistrates to put the penal laws in execution against them. Indeed, this was the common error of those times.[5]

Mr. Wilson, during his last sickness, was visited by all the neighboring ministers, who took their final farewell with many tears. The elders of his own church also came to see him, when the venerable old man, after offering up a short prayer, lifted up both his hands, and blessed them, saying, “I am not likely to be long with you. The Lord pardon and heal us, and make us more heavenly, and take us off from the world, and make us burning lights by our doctrine and example. I beseech the Lord, with all my heart, to bless you, and to bless all his churches, to bless all his people, all your families, all your wives, and all your children, and your children’s children, and make us all more and more meet for our inheritance, and in good time bring us to enjoy it.” As the hour of his departure approached, he raised up his hands towards heaven and said, “I shall now soon be with my old friends, Dr. Preston, Dr. Gouge, Dr. Sibbes, Dr. Taylor, Dr. Ames, Mr. Cotton, Mr. Norton, and my children and grandchildren in the kingdom of my God.” And after offering a short and affectionate prayer, he died, August 7, 1667, in the seventy-ninth year of his age, having been pastor of the church at Boston thirty-seven years.[6] During all the changes through which he lived, he continued unmoved in his principles, full of faith and prayer, eminent for sincerity and humility, and highly distinguished for love and acts of kindness. He was eminently charitable in his deportment, orthodox in judgment, and holy in conversation; and few ever left the world so universally reverenced, beloved, and lamented.[7]

[1] Edwards’s Gaograna, part i. p. 196. Second edit.

[2] Bailie’s Anabaptism, p. 95. See Art. Thomas Lamb. Mather’s History of New Eng. b. iii. p. 41, 42.

[3] Mather’s History of New Eng. p. 42-44.

[4] Backus’ Hist. of Baptists, vol. i. p. 46.

[5] Matter’s Hist. b. iii. pp. 44-46.

[6] Ibid. p. 44-49

[7] Morton’s Memorial, p. 183.


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