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William Gurnall (1617-1679)

An English puritan, preacher and author: his work on the armor of God is outstanding.

Today, many Christians are turning back to the puritans to, “walk in the old paths,” of God’s word, and to continue to proclaim old truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no new theology. In our electronic age, more and more people are looking to add electronic books (ePubs, mobi and PDF formats) to their library – books from the Reformers and Puritans – in order to become a “digital puritan” themselves. Take a moment to visit Puritan Publications (click the banner below) to find the biggest selection of rare puritan works updated in modern English in both print form and in multiple electronic forms. There are new books published every month. All proceeds go to support A Puritan’s Mind.

“When thou prayest before others, observe on what thou bestowest thy chief care and zeal, whether in the externals or internals of prayer, that which is exposed to the eye and ear of men, or that which should be prepared for the eye and ear of God; the devout posture of thy body, or the inward devotion of thy soul; the pomp of thy words or the power of thy faith; the agitation of thy bodily spirits in the vehemency of thy voice, or the fervency of thy spirit in heartbreaking affections. These inward workings of the soul in prayer, are the very soul of prayer.”

His Works:

1. The Christian in Complete Armour. (848 pages) Ephesians 6:10-18. PDF Internet Archive
The subtitle of the book is: The saint’s war against the Devil, wherein a discovery is made of that grand enemy of God and his people, in his policies, power, seat of his empire, wickedness, and chief design he hath against the saints; a magazine opened, from whence the Christian is furnished with spiritual arms for the battle, helped on with his armour, and taught the use of his weapon; together with the happy issue of the whole war. EXTREMELY POPULAR WORK

2. The Christian’s Labour and Reward. A funeral sermon preached for Lady Mary Vere.
3. The Magistrate’s Portraiture, Drawn from the Word. A sermon on Isaiah 1:26.


Biography of William Gurnall (1617-1679):

William Gurnall (1617-1679), Rector of Lavenham, in Suffolk, and author of “The Christian in Complete Armour,” is a man about whom the world possesses singularly little information. Perhaps there is no writer who has left a name so familiar to all readers of Puritan theology, but of whose personal history so little is known. Except the three facts, that he was a Puritan divine of the seventeenth century,—that he was Minister of Lavenham,—and that he wrote a well-known book of practical divinity, most persons know nothing of William Gurnall.

This dearth of information about so good a man appears at first sight extraordinary and unaccountable. Born, as he was, in a seaport town of no mean importance,—the son of parents who held a prominent position in the town, —educated at Cambridge, at one of the best known colleges of the day,—the contemporary of leading divines of the Commonwealth times,—minister of the largest church in West Suffolk for the uninterrupted period of thirty-five years,—author of a work which, from its first appearance, was eminently popular,—Gurnall is a man, we naturally feel, of whom more ought to be known. How is it then that more is not known? How shall we account for the absence of any notice of him in the biographical writings of his day?

I believe that these questions admit of a very simple answer. That answer is to be found in the line of conduct which Gurnall followed in the year 1662, on the passing of the unhappy Act of Uniformity. He did not secede from the Church of England! He was not one of the famous two thousand ministers who gave up their preferment on St. Bartholomew’s Day, and became Nonconformists. He retained his position, and continued Rector of Lavenham. Puritan as he undoubtedly was, both in doctrine and practice, he did not do what many of his brethren did. When Baxter, Manton, Owen, Goodwin, and a host of other giants in theology, seceded from the Church of England, Gurnall stood fast, and refused to move. He did not act with the party with which he had generally acted, and was left behind.

The result of this line of conduct can easily be imagined. Whatever opinions we may hold about Gurnall’s conformity, we must all allow that the course he took was not likely to make him a favourite with either of the two great religious parties into which England at that time was divided. A neutral is never popular in a season of strife and controversy. Both sides suspect him. Each party is offended at him for not casting his weight into their scale. This, I suspect, was precisely Gurnall’s position. He was a Puritan in doctrine, and yet he steadfastly adhered to the Church of England. He was a minister of the Church of England, and yet a thorough Puritan both in preaching and practice. In fact, he was just the man to be disliked and slighted by both sides.

I throw out the conjecture I have made with considerable diffidence. It is undoubtedly nothing but a conjecture. But I look at the broad fact that the biographical writers who have handled Gurnall’s age, have chronicled scores of names of far less weight than his, and have refused to say a word about the author of “The Christian in Complete Armour.” Calamy, Clarke, Neal, and Brooke have written hundreds of pages about men for whom the world cares nothing now, but not a page about Gurnall! I leave it to others to offer a better explanation of this fact, if they can. I must be allowed to retain my own settled conviction, that we should know far more about Gurnall if he had not submitted to the Act of Uniformity in 1662, and retained the pulpit of Lavenham parish church.

To supply a correct history of this good man and his times is the object of the biography I am now writing. Ever since I read “The Christian in Complete Armour” I have felt that the author of such a book was a man whose life ought to be known. From the day that I was transplanted into the Eastern Counties, and became a Suffolk incumbent, I have made it my business to study the lives of eminent Suffolk divines. None of them all appears to deserve excavation from undeserved oblivion so much as Gurnall.

Almost the only source of information about Gurnall which we now possess is a small volume, published in 1830, by a writer named M’Keon, entitled, “An Inquiry into the Birthplace, Parentage, Life, and Writings of the Rev. William Gurnall, formerly Rector of Lavenham, in Suffolk, and author of ‘The Christian in Complete Armour.'” This book was printed and published for the author at Woodbridge, in Suffolk, and not in London. It is owing to this circumstance, perhaps, that it seems to have attracted little notice, and to have become comparatively unknown.

Mr. M’Keon was an inhabitant of Lavenham, and likely to procure information about Gurnall, if any one could. He was undoubtedly a painstaking man, and an antiquarian of considerable research. His accuracy and correctness are worthy of all commendation. There is hardly a single date or fact in his book which I have not taken the trouble to verify by inquiry and investigation; and there is hardly one, I feel bound to say, in which I have found him wrong. But it cannot be said that his “Inquiry” is written in a popular and attractive style. In accumulating facts he was most successful; in arranging and exhibiting them to the reading public I certainly think he failed.

However, whatever may be the faults of Mr. M’Keon’s book, it is certainly the only attempt at any account of Gurnall which has hitherto existed. A funeral sermon, to be sure, was preached by Gurnall’s friend and neighbour, the well-known commentator Burkitt; but the information it contains is comparatively very small. I must therefore frankly avow that I am indebted to Mr. M’Keon’s work for the greater part of the facts about Gurnall which 1 have brought together in the following pages. I have tried to re-arrange these facts. I have endeavoured to present them to the reader in an attractive form, by illustrating them with some cross lights from the history of Gurnall’s times. I have added a few facts which Mr. M’Keon was probably unable to obtain. But I think it only fair to state that Mr. M’Keon’s book is the principal mine from which the biographical account of Gurnall now presented to the reader has been drawn. If I have added anything of interest to his work, it is almost always by following up clues which his volume indicated or put into my hand.

William Gurnall was boru at Lynn, in the county of Norfolk, in the year 1616, and was baptized at St. Margaret’s church in that town, on the 17th of November, 1616. His father and mother were married at St. Margaret’s church on the 31st of December, 1615, and the subject of this memoir was therefore their eldest child.*

It has often been observed that the mothers of great men, and especially of great divines, have been remarkable for strong mind and force of intellect. Mothers have been found, as a general rule, to influence children’s character far more than fathers. How far this was true in the case of Gurnall we have, unfortunately, no means of judging. We only know that his mother’s maiden name was Catherine Dressit, and that in all probability she was a native of Lynn.

Gregory, the father of William Gurnall, appears to have been one of the principal inhabitants of Lynn. At any rate he was an Alderman of his native town in the year when his son was born, and was Mayor of the borough eight years afterwards, in 1624 Nothing is known of his calling or occupation. The fact that his son died possessed of certain landed property at Walpole, a country parish not far from Lynn, makes it highly probable that Gregory Gurnall was a landed proprietor. But on this point again nothing certain is known.

* Mr. Hankinson, once Rector of St. Margaret’s, Lynn, informed me that the name “Gurnall,” to the best of his knowledge, is no longer known in Lynn. But he says that the name “Curling” is not uucommon, and that he has little doubt it was originally “Gurnal.” He adds, “I find an entry of baptism in 1799, where the name is ‘Gurnell or Gurling.'” In Suffolk, the names of “Girling” and “Grinling,” as I happen to know from the parish register of Stradbroke, are very common.

Gurnall had the misfortune to lose his father when he was only fifteen years old. His death is recorded in the register of St. Margaret’s, Lynn, as having taken place on the 14th of October, 1631. He was buried in St. Margaret’s church, and a tomb was erected to his memory, with a curious inscription. This tomb is no longer extant, as the spire of St. Margaret’s church was blown down in a violent hurricane in the year 1741, and, falling on the body of the church, destroyed a large portion of the building. Mackerell’s History of Lynn, published about four years before the hurricane, records the inscription. If epitaphs were worth anything, the language of Gregory Gumail’s epitaph might lead us to the conclusion that he was a godly man. But unhappily it is too well known that tombstones are not always to be trusted.

How long Gurnall’s mother survived his father there is no evidence to show. M’Keon conjectures that she married again. It is certainly a curious fact that Burkitt, the commentator, in his funeral sermon on William Gurnall, uses the following language: “How great was that tribute of veneration and respect which he constantly paid to the hoary hairs of his aged parents!” Considering that his father died when he was only fifteen years old, these words can hardly be supposed to apply to Gregory Gurnall. Unless therefore the word ” parents ” in Burkitt’s sermon is a printer’s mistake for “parent,” it seems a very probable idea that Gurnall’s mother married again, and that he had a kind and loving step-father. But who he was, and how long his mother lived, we do not know.

The first fifteen years of Gurnall’s life appear to have been spent in his native town of Lynn. There is, at any rate, no doubt that he was educated at the Free Grammar School of that town up to the time when he went to Cambridge. The fact is recorded in the books of the school.

The first fifteen years of life have often so much weight in the formation of a man’s character, that it would be very interesting to find out the influences under which William Gurnall spent his early years. Unhappily we possess no materials for doing this. Ambrose Fish was appointed Master of Lynn Grammar School in 1626, in the place of Mr. Robinson, deceased, and Robert Woodmansea was appointed Master in 1627. But we know nothing of these men. I can only point out two things which appear to me deserving of attention.

For one thing, we may probably trace up to Lynn Gurnall’s Puritan predilections and opinions. Lynn was one of the chief towns of the most thoroughly Protestant district in England in the seventeenth century. In the days ot Queen Mary and Elizabeth the inhabitants of Norfolk and Suffolk were famous for their deep attachment to the doctrines of the Reformation. In the days of the Stuarts and the Commonwealth they were no less famous for their steadfast adherence to Puritan principles. In no part of England were High Church opinions so thoroughly disliked as in the diocese of Norwich, and in no diocese were the minds of people so continually exasperated by vexatious persecutions of Nonconformists.* Brought up in a large market town like Lynn, we cannot doubt that the religious atmosphere m which young Gurnall moved was essentially Puritan. If, as it seems not unlikely, from a comparison of dates, the famous John Arrowsmith and Samuel Fairclough were Ministers at Lynn during Gurnall’s school days, we get an additional ray of light thrown on the source of his doctrinal opinions. To hear men like Arrowsmith and Fairclough preach every Sunday, and perhaps to be solemnly catechised or examined by Arrowsmith on stated public occasions, were just the things likely to produce an indelible impression on a mind like Gurnall’s.



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