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Puritan Memoirs - Mr. Bernard Gilpin

Puritan Memoirs - The Life and Death of Some Reformed Ministers

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The life and death of Mr. Bernard Gilpin.

THIS extraordinary individual was born of an ancient and honorable family at Kentmire in Westmoreland, in the year 1517, and educated in queen’s college, Oxford. Here he studied with persevering ardour; and the proficiency he acquired corresponded with his great exertions. Having set his heart on the study of divinity, he made the scriptures his principal rule and director; and that he might the better acquaint himself with their sacred import, he was anxious to improve himself in the knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew languages. His industry soon procured him the character of a young man of excellent parts and considerable learning; while the mildness of his disposition, and the elegance of his manners, procured him the love and esteem of all his acquaintances and associates. He took his degrees in arts at the usual time, and was elected fellow of the college. His reputation was even such, that he was selected by cardinal Wolsey to supply his new founded college. Gilpin, brought up in the popish religion, still continued an adherent to that superstition, in defense of which he held a disputation with John Hooper, afterwards bishop of Worcester. But after the accession of king Edward, Peter Martyr having been sent to Oxford, delivered public lectures on divinity in a strain to which that university had been little accustomed. He attacked the Romish superstition with such energy, that the popish party became alarmed and the university induced the popish party to solicit, with the most pressing anxiety, his assistance in defending the church from the audacious attempts of her reforming antagonists; but found his zeal in this particular less fervent than their own. He had never been a bigotted papist, nor had he ever an opportunity of informing himself thoroughly concerning the doctrines of the reformers; only, in his dispute with Hooper, he had discovered that many of the tenets, held by the Romish church, were not so well supported by scripture as he had imagined. Under these circumstances, he hung in a sort of doubtful suspense, and considered himself but ill qualified to defend either side in a public disputation. His inclination was rather to stand by, as an unprejudiced, but attentive observer, ready to embrace the truth wherever it made its appearance. To the pressing importunities of his friends, however, at last he gave way, and on the following day made his public appearance against Peter Martyr.
Thus drawn into the controversy, rather against his inclination, Mr. Gilpin was resolved to bring his old opinions to the test, and see how far they could be supported by the sacred oracles, that he might learn whether they were grounded on truth, or that he had hitherto been involved in error. For this purpose, he had resolved to forego all shifting and cavilling, and follow the truth, from which he was determined no consideration on earth should make him swerve. The disputation having commenced, he soon found that the arguments of his adversary, enforced by the sacred authority of scripture, were too strong for him; nor could he help acknowledging that they were of a very different nature and complexion from the fine spun arguments, and forced interpretations, in which he had hitherto acquiesced. The disputation of consequence was soon over; Mr. Gilpin had too much honesty to defend suspected opinions, and publicly acknowledged that he could not maintain what he had undertaken to defend, and that he would enter no more into disputation till he had gained a full information of the merits of the controversy; which it was his greatest anxiety to obtain.

His mind, thus shaken by the arguments of his antagonist, his first step was to commit their substance to paper, and examine the points in dispute, particularly those on which he had been the hardest pressed. At the same time, he began, and proceeded, with singular assiduity, in examining the scriptures and the writings of the fathers wherever they bore on these controverted opinions. The consequence was, a thorough conviction, that many grievous abuses, and scandalous corruptions, existed in the Roman church, which it was desirable to have reformed.

Mr. Gilpin was urged, by his friends, to leave the university; but he had too just an opinion of the ministerial work to rush into it without proper qualifications. He considered more learning than he had then attained indispensably necessary, particularly in an age of controversy; and that protestanism could not suffer more from its open enemies, than it was sure to do from the rawness and inexperience of its teachers. These considerations detained him at Oxford till the thirty-fifth year of his age, when he was presented to the vicarage of Norton, in the diocese of Durham, 1552; but, in the meantime, he was appointed to preach before king Edward at Greenwich. Mr. Gilpin had resolved to improve so fair an opportunity of’ publicly reproving the avarice and scandalous corruptions of the times, and had accordingly arranged his discourse for that purpose. He introduced his sermon with a sharp attack on the clergy. “He was sorry (he said) to observe amongst them such shameful negligence, and manifest indifference, in discharging the duties of their office—Duties of the first importance to the people, whether they were considered as individuals, or as branches of the community; whether these duties regarded their soul or their bodies, their happiness here or hereafter: Duties, the conscientious discharge of which would one day be rewarded with the approving smile, and the honorable declaration of, “Well done, good and faithful servants, from him in whose favor is life:” Duties, moreover, the neglect of which must unavoidably subject unfaithful delinquents to the most awful responsibility. Their bustling anxiety, care and ambition, is to get possession of as many livings as can be obtained, and at the same time to perform none, or almost none, of the duties required. One half of them are pluralists and nonresidents; in either case, how is it possible that these most important, these most responsible duties can be performed; and what a lamentable consideration must it be, to see the inhabitants of whole districts thus perishing for lack of knowledge, while their instructors are far off, or lolling in indolence and luxurious ease? Should not the shepherd feed the flock? But what, if possible, is still more insufferably disgusting, is to see these same pluralists, these pleasure hunting nonresidents, defending their criminality, by quoting the laws of men in direct opposition to the laws of God: For if any such laws exist, they must be remnants of popery, and ought therefore to be repealed, that these negligent and woolfish shepherds may no longer have it in their power to plead so miserable and unworthy excuses; for so long as men’s consciences will permit them to hold as many livings as they can possibly attain, and perform none of the duties thence arising, it is vain to look for the peaceable fruits of righteousness amongst their wandering and neglected flocks.”

From the clergy he turned to the court, and observing that the king was not present, he was under the necessity of introducing that part of his sermon, by expressing his sorrow, that those, who, for example’s sake, ought to have been present, had absented themselves. “Business (he said) might perhaps be pled as an excuse, though, for his own part, he could not conceive how the service of God could hinder any part of the ordinary business of life; and if his voice could reach their ears, he should willingly make them hear, even in their chambers; but that being impossible, he was determined they should hear him by proxy; and having no doubt but what he said would be told them, ha would take the liberty of addressing their seats.” “Great prince (said he), you are appointed by God to rule and govern this land, permit me then to call upon you in behalf of your injured and much neglected people: You have it in your power to redress their grievances, and these are many. All dispensations for pluralites and non-residence ought to be withdrawn, and every pastor permitted to hold one benefice, and one only; and, as far as possible, every clergyman ought to be obliged to do his duty, or give place to others who will do so with conscientious alacrity. A, glance of your grace’s eye over the realm would be of more service than a thousand of these lukewarm and idle preachers that disgrace the pastoral roll of the country, and must continue that disgrace so long as the nobility and patrons of the church are permitted to make merchandise of the gospel, by disposing of their livings, without regard to character or qualification, providing they can obtain the highest remunerating terms. These evils ought to be removed; and were your grace to send out surveyors to see the shameful manner in which benefices are bestowed, their report could not fail to convince you of the necessity of correcting them without loss of time. And I must tell your grace, that all these evils will be laid to your charge, unless you exert the authority with which you are invested, to remove or amend them. For my part, I have resolved to do my duty, in apprising your grace of the corruptions and abuses that everywhere prevail in the church; and I pray God to direct your heart to regulate and amend them.”

In addressing the nobility and magistrates, he told them: “That having received all their powers, their honors, and authority from God, he expected they would exercise them for the purposes for which they had been bestowed: That they would demean themselves as patrons of virtue and discouragers of vice, a terror to evildoers, and a praise to them that do well: That from the ambitious strivings for these carnal things, which he had observed at court, he was afraid that they were not considered in their true light: That the most careless observer might perceive, that a spirit of avarice, as well as of ambition, had crept in amongst them: That the country cried out against their extortions:—And that, when the poor came to London to seek for justice and redress, the great men would not see them till their servants had first been bribed for that purpose. Oh! said he, with what cheerful hearts, with what tranquil consciences, might noblemen retire to rest after a day spent in listening to the complaints, and redressing the wrongs of the poor; while their negligence, in performing this honorable part of their duty, obliges injured poverty to search after justice amongst the lawyers, who quickly devour everything they have. Then let me call upon you, who are magistrates, and put you in remembrance of a truth that merits your serious consideration, namely, that if you have a legitimate claim upon the people for obedience, they are equally entitled to your care and protection. The obligation is reciprocal; and though it be true that they cannot so easily enforce their claim, yet, know ye, that if you deny them that protection, God will assuredly espouse their cause against you. And now, if it be inquired from what fountain springs up all these bitter waters, what baneful root shoots forth all these poisonous branches, I answer, avarice. It is this that makes the unworthy nobleman the tyrannical magistrate, the timeserving pastor, and the all-devouring lawyer.”
Having thus freely addressed his audience, he concluded his discourse, by exhorting all to consider these things; and that those who found themselves culpable, would seriously set about amending their lives. In this way Mr. Gilpin commenced his ministerial labors. He considered himself, in some degree, chargeable with those vices, which, knowing their existence, he failed to rebuke. His plain dealing, on this occasion, therefore tended rather to recommend him to the notice of men of rank and Sir William Cecil presented him with a general license for preaching. Soon after this he took up his residence amongst his parishioners, and, with becoming seriousness, commenced the duties of the pastoral office; and though he availed himself of his license to preach occasionally in different parts of the country, he still considered that his own parish required the principal part of his labors. Though fully resolved against popery, as yet he had not discovered the doctrines of the reformation in their clearest light; and not being thoroughly settled in some of his religious opinions, he became diffident and uneasy in his mind. He thought he had engaged in the ministry before he was sufficiently qualified; and having, for a long time, been anxious to travel, that he might have an opportunity of conversing with learned men; and being advised by bishop Tonstal, his kinsman, to spend a year or two in Germany, France, or Holland, he resigned his living, and set out for London to receive his last advice from the bishop, and so embarked for the continent. Upon his arrival in Holland, he travelled to. Mechlin to see his brother George, who was prosecuting his studies in that place. Afterwards he went to Louvain, from which he made frequent excursions to Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, and other places, where he usually spent a few weeks with persons of reputation, ‘both papists and protestants. But Louvain, being accounted the best place for the study of divinity, was his principal residence. Here some of the most celebrated divines, on both sides of the question, resided, and the most important points in divinity were frequently discussed with great freedom.

Mr. Gilpin’s first business was to get himself introduced to men eminent for learning, to whom his pleasing address, and literary attainments, were no mean recommendation. He attended all public readings and disputations, committed every thing material to writing, reexamin6d all his opinions, proposed his doubts privately to his friends, and in every respect made a proper use of his time; by which means he soon attained a more correct view of the protestant faith, saw things in a stronger light, and felt great satisfaction in his mind from the change he had made. After having spent three years on the continent, Mr. Gilpin was fully satisfied with regard to his former scruples, and firmly convinced of the propriety, as well as the necessity, of the reformation. Accordingly, in 1556, he returned to England, notwithstanding that the persecution was still raging with unabating severity. Bishop Tonstal received his kinsman with great kindness, and soon after his arrival presented him with the archdeaconry of Durham, to which the rectory of Easington was’ annexed. Mr. Gilpin immediately repaired to his charge, and preached against the vices, the errors, and corruptions of the times, with uncommon boldness and conscientious severity, and by virtue of his office of archdeacon, labored incessantly to reform the manners of the clergy. But the freedom of his reproof, and the sharpness of his reprehensions, provoked the malice, and roused the indignation of many of his clerical delinquents, who exerted all their influence and ingenuity to remove so troublesome an observer. With this view they found means to circulate their calumnies among the people, till it became “a popular clamour, that he was an enemy to the church, a scandalizer of the clergy, a preacher of damnable heresies, and that if he was suffered to proceed in his mad career, religion would be totally unhinged by such doctrines as he was daily propagating. To realize their hopes of having him removed, a charge of heresy, consisting of thirteen articles, was drawn up, upon which he was accused in form before the bishop of Durham; but the bishop found means to protect his nephew from their malignity without endangering himself. However, the malice of his enemies could not test so long as he continued to expose their negligence and unbecoming deportment; and Gilpin, to be freed from their malevolence, resigned both his places.

Soon after this he was presented to the rectory of Houghton le Spring. The living was valuable, but the duty was laborious. The parish contained four villages, and the people had long been so destitute both of instruction and becoming example, that ignorance and superstition had nearly expelled every trace of genuine Christianity, and offered fair also to extirpate reason and common sense. Nor could it be otherwise expected from the treatment they had received. Whether it was the effects of negligence or design it is difficult to ascertain; but certain it is, that the change of religion, which took place on the accession of king Edward, was not known in that parish or countryside at the death of that prince. Mr. Gilpin was grieved to see ignorance and vice so lamentably prevalent, but did not despair. He encouraged himself in the power and promise of God, and set about the strict performance of his duty. The people soon perceived that they had got a teacher very different from those they had formerly been accustomed to attend, and they crowded around him, and listened to his discourses with patience.

Knowing the temper of the clergy, he was now more cautious than heretofore lest he should give them offence; more cautious indeed than he afterwards approved of, for he often taxed his behavior, at this time, with weakness and cowardice. But his caution was of little or no avail, for his enemies accused him a second time before the bishop, who again found means to protect him from their malice. From this time, however, his uncle’s favor towards him began visibly to decline; and the better to evince his dislike of heresy, and the conduct of his nephew, he struck him out of his will, though he had made him his executor. The loss gave Mr. Gilpin very little uneasiness; he was sorry that the bishop should have been offended at what he considered the discharging of an imperious duty, and would have given up almost any thing to satisfy him but a good conscience, which he considered the best friend, and the most agreeable companion, and he had determined never to part with it to please any man, or body of men.

In the meantime, his enemies were so enraged at their second failure, that they caused thirty-two articles to be exhibited against him before Bonner. At last they had got the right sow by the ear. Bonner, who was formed by nature for an inquisitor, extolled their laudable concern for religion, and promised them that he would have the heretic at the stake in a fortnight. Mr. Gilpin, who was well aware of the bishop’s summary mode of despatch, received this information with great composure, and prepared himself for the worst. Laying his hand on the shoulder of a friend, he said, “They have prevailed against me at last. They have accused me to the bishop of London, from whom there is no escaping. God forgive their malice, and grant me strength to endure the trial.” Then calling his servant, he ordered a long garment to be provided, in which he might make a decent appearance at the stake, and that it might he done immediately, as he knew not how soon he might have occasion for using it. Mr. Gilpin had scarcely completed his arrangements when he was apprehended, and set off for London without the smallest hope of being again relieved from the malice of his enemies. In the course of his journey he had one of his. legs broken, which unavoidably retarded his march. His conductors took occasion, from this misfortune, to retort upon him an expression which he had frequently made use of, namely, “That nothing happens to men but what is intended for their good.” And being asked, whether he believed his broken leg was intended for his advantage? He readily replied, that he had no reason to doubt it. Nor were his hopes disappointed, for before he was able to travel, queen Mary had finished her course of blood, and Mr. Gilpin thus again escaped the snares of his enemies, and returned to Houghton, through crowds of the people, expressing the joy of their hearts, and their gratitude to heaven for this singular interposition of divine providence. His uncle, the bishop of Durham, died the following year; but the earl of Bedford recommended him to queen Elizabeth, who offered him the bishopric of Carlisle; and the bishop of Worcester, his relation, urged him to accept of it; but no arguments could induce him to act contrary to his conscience. Dr. Heylin insinuates, that Gil pin’s scruples, on this “point, would have evanished, might he have had the old temporalities undiminished; but here the doctor is egregiously mistaken, for the bishopric was offered him with the old temporalities undiminished. His principal reason for rejecting the proffered preferment, was his objections to some points of conformity. Bishop Pilkington, who succeeded his uncle in the see of Durham, connived at his nonconformity, and excused him from subscribing to the use of the habits, but could only screen him for a time; for during the controversy concerning the habits about 1566, he was deprived for his nonconformity;, though it is probable he was not long under ecclesiastical censure, seeing, the following year, he was again nominated to the bishopric of Carlisle, and offered also the provostship of queen’s college, Oxford; both of which he modestly declined. His heart was so set on the instruction of the people, that he had no relish for ecclesiastical preferment.

Mr. Gilpin continued for many years at Houghton, and discharged the duties of his office without being further molested. When he first undertook the care of souls, he settled it as a maxim, in his own mind, to watch over their morals, to attend particularly to their instruction, and do all the good in his power. His future endeavors were therefore wholly directed to these important objects; and the better to effect his purpose, he endeavored, in the first place, to gain the affections of the people, and to obtain this without making any servile compliances. His means, as well as the end in view, were laudable. His behaviour was frank without levity. He was courteous and obliging without meanness, and insinuated himself into their good graces, not by flattering them in their vices, but by convincing them that he really and sincerely labored for their happiness both here and hereafter. He was not satisfied with the instruction he gave them in public, but taught them from house to house, and encouraged his people to come to him with their doubts and difficulties. In this way be admonished the vicious, and encouraged the well-disposed; and, by the blessing of God on his faithful labors, an important change for the better was soon apparent throughout the parish. But it grieved his righteous soul to see the surrounding parishes so shamefully neglected by their spiritual instructors, and in consequence so deeply sunk in ignorance, superstition, and immorality, that true religion, and a godly conversation, were almost unknown among them. Such indeed was their deplorable condition, that bishop Grinjdal found it necessary, in 1570, to publish an injunction, wherein, among other things, he commands, “That no pedler shall be admitted to sell his wares in the porch • of the church during divine service: That the parish clerks shall be able to read: That no lords of misrule, or summer lords and ladies, or any disguised persons, morice dancers, or others, shall come irreverently into the church, or play any unjseemly parts, with scoffs, jests, wanton gestures, or ribald talk, in the time of divine service.” The bishop’s prohibition amounts to a positive proof that these disgraceful scenes were common at that period in the see of Durham; and Mr. Gilpin, that he might as far as in his power correct these abuses, travelled regularly every year through the most neglected parishes of Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Yorkshire: And that his own people might not suffer from his absence, he was at the expense of keeping an assistant. There is a tract of country on the borders of Northumberland, called Readsdale and Tynedale, inhabited by a banditti who lived chiefly by plunder. In this wretched place, where men were afraid to travel, Mr. Gilpin spent some part of his time every year. He had fixed places and appointments for preaching, to which he punctually attended. Where there was a church he made use of it, where none, he preached in barns, or other large buildings, or in the open fields, and never failed of a large congregation.

Having at one time made the requisite preparations for an excursion into these deplorable places, he received a message from Dr. Barns, bishop of Durham, appointing him to preach a visitation sermon on the following Sabbath. He acquainted the bishop with his engagements, and begged his lordship to excuse him for that time; and receiving no answer, concluded that his excuse had been admitted, and so proceeded on his journey; but was not a little astonished, on his return, to find himself suspended. Some short time after this he received an order to meet the bishop and a great number of his clergy; which he did, and was immediately ordered to preach. Mr. Gilpin excused himself, by pleading his suspension, and that he was wholly unprepared; but no excuse could be admitted, the suspension was removed, and accordingly Mr. Gilpin, unprepared as he was, had to mount the pulpit, where he preached upon the important charge, and awful responsibility of a Christian bishop. In his sermon, after censuring, with unsparing severity, the corruption and vices of the clergy, he boldly addressed the bishop in these words: “Let not your lordship excuse yourself, by saying that these crimes have been committed by others without year knowledge; for be assured, my lord, that whatever is done, either by yourself in person, or by others in consequence of your connivance, is wholly your own: In presence, therefore, of God, angels, and men, I pronounce you the author of all these evils; and in that great day of general account, I shall be a witness against you, that all these things have come to your knowledge by my means; yea, and all these men who have heard me, will also witness against you.”

Mr. Gilpin’s friends were much alarmed for his safety: From the great freedom he had used, they imagined that the bishop had now got that advantage against him which his enemies had so long wished to obtain; and when they expostulated with him, he only said, “The Lord God ruleth over all; and if my discourse answer the purpose intended, I am not very careful what be the consequences with regard to myself.” Mr. Gilpin called on. the bishop to pay his compliments, who, after some conversation, told Mr. Gilpin, that he had determined to wait on him to his house; which he accordingly did. As soon as he had conducted him into the parlor, the bishop turned round, and taking him by the hand, said, “Father Gilpin, I acknowledge you are fitter to be bishop of Durham, than I am to be the parson of your parish. I ask forgiveness for past injuries. Father, forgive me. I know you have enemies; but so long as I am bishop of Durham, be assured none of them shall give you any farther trouble.”

Mr. Gilpin’s benevolence and hospitality were admirable, strangers and travellers found a cheerful reception at his house, all that came were made welcome; even when from home, the poor were fed, and strangers entertained as usual. Twenty-four of the poorest of his parishioners were his constant pensioners. Four times in the year a dinner was provided for the poor in general, when they received a certain quantity of corn, and a small sum of money; and lest the modesty of suffering individuals might prevent their relief, he was at great pains to search them out; but the money best laid out, in his opinion, was that which encouraged industry. If a poor man had lost a beast, he would send him another; or when, at any time, the farmer had a bad crop, he would remit a portion of his tithes. Thus, as far as possible, he took the burden of the parish upon himself; nor were his generosity and beneficence confined to the bounds of his own parish, through the distant places where he preached, and even on the road, he still exercised his usual liberality.

Towards the close of life, Mr. Gilpin went through his laborious exercises, with great difficulty. By many years arduous labor and fatigue, his constitution was worn down, and his health considerably impaired. In a letter to a friend, he says, “To sustain all these travels and troubles I have a very weak body, subject to many diseases, by the motions of which I am daily warned of my approaching dissolution. My greatest grief is, that my memory is almost gone; my sight, and also my hearing, fast failing me, with other ailments more than I can well express.” While thus struggling with old age, and a shattered constitution, an ox ran him, down, with such violence, on the street, that though he survived the ehockj he continued lame to the end of his life.

During his last illness he signified his apprehensions to his friends, and spoke of death with happy composure of spirit. Some few days before his, departure, he requested that his friends, his acquaintances and dependents, might be called into his chamber, where he delivered, to each of them, the pathetic admonitions of a dying Christian; and soon after finished a life of unremitting labor in the cause of religion and holiness, under the consoling prospect of that eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised. His death took place the 4th of March 1583, and in the sixty-sixth year of his age.

Such was the happy termination of the life and unremitting exertions of Mr. Bernard Gilpin, whose learning, piety, charity, and conscientious labors, have seldom been equaled in modern times. He was possessed pf a. ready comprehension, a powerful memory, and a profound judgment. He was greatly superior in the knowledge of languages, history and theology; and so intent on the instruction, of the ignorant, that he was usually, called, the apostle of the north; and his beneficence was so universal, that they styled him the father of the poor. He was a decided puritan and nonconformist in principle; but hesitated concerning the duty of separating from the church. Full of faith and good works, he was accounted a saint, even by his enemies, and died lamented as he lived, revered.

By his last will and testament he left one half of his property to the poor of Houghton, and the rest to a number of poor scholars at the university, from his childhood Mr. Gilpin was inclined to thoughtfulness, as will appear by the following anecdote. “A begging friar, coming on a Saturday evening to his father’s house, was received with great hospitality; but making too free with what was set before him, got disgustingly intoxicated. Next morning, however, he ordered the bell to be rung for public worship, and from the pulpit attacked the vices of the age with unmerciful severity, particularly the disgraceful sin of drunkenness. Young Gilpin, then a child on his mother’s lap, for some time seemed earnestly attending to the friar’s discourse, and at length cried out, with indignation, “Mamma, do you hear that fellow how he speaks against drinking, and was drunk himself last night!”

The disinterested pains he took among the barbarous people in the north, excited in their bosoms the warmest emotions of gratitude and esteem. Being once on his journey to Readsdale and Tynedale, he had his horses stolen through the carelessness of his servant. The news were quickly spread through the country, and every one expressed the highest indignation at the base transaction. In the meantime, the thief was rejoicing over his prize; but finding, by the general report, it was father Gilpin’s horses he had stole, he became exceedingly terrified, believing the devil should carry him off bodily for stealing the property of such an excellent man; and under this fearful panic, came trembling back and restored the horses. Strangers and travellers were so kindly entertained, and even their beasts were so well taken care of at Mr. Gilpin’s house, that it was humorously said, “If a horse was let loose in any part of the country, he would soon find his way to the rectory of Houghton.”

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