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Puritan Memoirs - Mr. John Preston

Puritan Memoirs - The Life and Death of Some Reformed Ministers

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The life and death of Mr. John Preston.

THIS famous divine, a descendant of the Prestons of Preston, in Lancashire, was born at Heyford, in Northamptonshire, in 1587. He was educated first at King’s, and after at Queen’s college, Cambridge. In this last situation he was a pupil of the pious arid learned Mr. Oliver Bowels, with whom he acquired an astonishing proficiency in almost every branch of polite literature, especially in philosophy. But being naturally ambitious, and indulging extravagant expectations of court preferment, he accounted the study of divinity beneath the attention, of a great mind. In 1609 he was chosen fellow of his college; and the Lord, who designed him to fill an important place in his church, was pleased to cool the fever of his raging ambition, by means of a sermon preached at St. Mary’s church by Mr. John Cotton. From this time forward he became remarkable for serious Christian piety; and though he had heretofore despised the work of the ministry, he now directed all his studies towards that sacred office.

When king James visited the university of Cambridge, Preston, from his extraordinary learning and talents, was chosen for one to dispute before his majesty. The subject of dispute was, whether brutes had reason, and to that degree that they could make syllogisms? Preston maintained the affirmative, and illustrated his argument by the case of a hound, who, when he comes to a place where three ways meet, first tries one, then another, and finding no scent, runs down the third with full cry; having drawn the inference, that as the hare had not gone in either the first or second way, she must necessarily have gone in the third. This argument is s id to have had such’ a wonderful effect on the audience, particularly on the king, that it would have opened a door to his preferment, had not his puritanical opinions stood in the way. Sir Fluke Graville, afterwards lord Brook, was so enamored with his wit, and other talents, that, in addition to other demonstrations of his esteem, he settled fifty pounds per annum upon him, and continued his friend for ever after. Having found the treasure hid in the gospel field, Preston wisely sacrificed all his towering hopes, that he might make the invaluable purchase, even the present promising opportunity of obtaining the royal favor, he considered unworthy of his attention, tramelled, as it must have been, with submissions incompatible with his allegiance to the King of kings. Courtiers, and such men as aspired to places of honor and emolument, were astonished to see a young man of such brilliant talents neglect to improve such a golden opportunity of rising in the world; while good men admired him for the same act of indifference, mortification, and self-denial; and their good opinion received additional strength from the following circumstance:

The king, visiting the university a second time, Preston was requested that one of his pupils might support a female character in a comedy, for the entertainment of his majesty; but he politely refused, saying, “I do not like the motion; nor can I believe his friends intended him for a player. I beg therefore to be excused.” This instance of his peculiar care for his pupils exceedingly raised his reputation as a prudent and conscientious teacher, so that he soon procured the fame of being the best tutor in the university; which induced many persons of distinguished eminence to commit their sons to his tuition, to whom he was particularly careful to communicate the knowledge of sound religion, as well as good literature. Fuller calls him the greatest pupil monger ever known in England, having had sixteen fellow commoners admitted in queen’s college in one year. He was, at the same time, so exceedingly intent on his studies, that he deprived himself of necessary rest and sleep. He used to lay his bedclothes over him in such a manner, that they might drop off at an early hour, on purpose that the cold might awaken him; which practice had nearly ruined his situation, though, by the use of suitable means, his health was in a great measure restored. It is natural to expect that so great a man could not fail to be greatly popular. When he delivered his catechetical lectures in the college chapel, the house was usually crowded with strangers before the fellows came; which awakened the malice of such as envied his popularity who complained to the vice-chancellor, that it was not safe for the church that Preston should be thus adored, unless they intended to erect puritanism on its ruins. An order was therefore forthwith issued from the consistory, that the scholars and townsmen should henceforth confine themselves to their own preachers, as they would not, in future, be allowed, on any pretence whatever, to attend on these lectures. At this time there’ Was very little preaching throughout the university, the two lectures of Trinity church and St Andrew’s having been put down, and the lecturers silenced; which shows the impropriety and malice, bat by no means the necessity, of this tyrannical measure. He was at length allowed the use of Botolph’s church, belonging to Queen’s college; but here, as formerly, his uncommon popularity exposed him to the bitter resentment of his envious adversaries. Dr. Newcomb, commissary to the bishop of Ely, was exceedingly offended, on coming to the church, at the mighty crowd of people there assembled; which occasion he forbade him to preach, commanding that evening prayers only should be read. The earl of Lincoln, and a number of other influential men, and even the minister of the place, entreated the commissary, that he might be allowed, at least on the present occasion, to preach his sermon; but Newcomb was inflexible, and went home in a rage, leaving them to have a sermon at their peril: so Mr. Preston was advised to run the hazard, and deliver his sermon. Next morning Newcomb set off for Newmarket, where the court was then held, and lodged his complaint with bishop Andrews and others, asserting that Preston was a nonconformist at hearty and that if some severe measures were not adopted, he would soon also be one in practice. From his great popularity, he assured the bishop, that all order and conformity in the district would be destroyed and prelatical authority trodden under foot; adding, that Preston was possessed of such cunning, that he must be roughly handled, otherwise all endeavors would prove ineffectual. At this time the king being in Newmarket, the whole affair was laid before him, who instantly gave orders for his prosecution. Preston was therefore immediately cited before them where he defended himself with great modesty and firmness. Bishop Andrews told him, that the king had been apprised, that he held all forms of prayer unlawful; and that, owing to his wonderful .popularity, such opinions were likely to prove publicly mischievous to the peace of the church. Preston repelled the charge as a malicious slander, seeing he neither considered forms unlawful, nor had he, at any time, refused to use them. Upon which the bishop promised to be his friend, and have him released from the present prosecution. Many of the courtiers were well affected to Preston, but afraid to undertake his cause. Dr. Young, dean of Winchester, had the boldness and honesty, however, to inform him, that bishop Andrews, under the mask of friendship, was hypocritically endeavoring to have him expelled from the university. All which appeared from his future behaviour; for Preston, after waiting on the bishop till almost ashamed, was ordered, on a certain Lord’s day, to declare his sentiments on forms of prayer before the congregation, in St. Botolph’s church, or undergo a farther, prosecution. This circumstance being noised abroad, it was reported that he must preach a recantation sermon; which exceedingly gratified the malice of those who were hurt at his great reputation. To witness his anticipated disgrace, they crowded to church to hear him perform this humiliating service. But Preston preached, from the same text he had last used, a very close and searching sermon; and, in the conclusion, delivered his opinion on the set forms; so that all who went to laugh met with a mortifying disappointment.

Preston having acquitted himself .with honor, his friends rejoiced that he had been liberated, and permitted to preach. Soon after this he was appointed to preach before the king; which service he performed to the admiration of his august auditory. He was endowed with an uncommon fluency of speech, a commanding elocution, and a most tenacious memory, which enabled him to preach without notes. At the conclusion, his majesty expressed great satisfaction with the sermon, particularly with an observation respecting the Arminians; namely, that they put God into the same extremity in which Darius found himself involved, when he wished to save Daniel from the lions, and could not. The marquis of Hamilton earnestly recommended to the king to appoint Preston to be one of .his chaplains, saying, “This man is none of your pen and inkhorn preachers, but a man that is fully master of his subject, from whom something substantial may be expected.” The king acknowledged all this; but said, it was too early. The real cause, however, was, that the king had not as yet forgotten the Newmarket affair.

About this time Preston set out for the continent, where ho visited several of the foreign universities, and acquired much literary improvement, by conversing with the most learned men in those parts where he had traveled. On his return, his popularity at court, as well as throughout the kingdom, became nearly universal; so that he was told he might be chaplain to almost whom lie pleased. The duke of Buckingham, in the meantime, not knowing what friends he might stand in need of, persuaded the king to appoint him chaplain, in ordinary, to the prince of Wales. In the year 1622 he was chosen preacher at Lincoln’s inn, London; and on the resignation of Dr. Chadderton, made master of Emanuel college, Cambridge; when he took his doctor’s degree. The duke of Buckingham highly esteemed him; and being anxious to ingratiate himself with the puritan’s, who were becoming formidable in parliament, had hoped that by his means he might effect his purpose. Good men now began to hope for more auspicious times, and were rejoiced to see that honest men were not all of them despised and rejected. The earl of Pembroke, and the countess of Bedford, taking much interest in his” welfare, he ,was considered by all as a rising man, and respected as such. In 1624 he was invited: to take the lecture at Trinity church, Cambridge; for which, there was a strong contest between him and Mr. Micklethwait, fellow of Sidney college, and likewise an excellent preacher. The contest, in. voting, was so strongly supported on both sides, that the ulterior decision was referred to the king, who was strongly opposed to the doctor’s preaching at Cambridge, and had a secret wish to separate him from his puritan friends,’ and secure him to the church Accordingly, he was informed, that by giving up the lecture, he might have the bishopric of Gloucester; which he refused. The duke, who was resolved not to lose him, took care that nothing should be done against his inclination; so when he could not be moved by any consideration of emolument, power, or preeminence, the lecture was confirmed to him. This was his last preferment, and here he continued till the day of his death. Thus preferring a situation of eighty pounds a year, collected by sixpenny subscriptions, with’ the prospect of being useful to the souls of perishing sinners, to the bishopric of Gloucester, or any other preferment in the kingdom.

About this time he was deeply engaged in controversy with some learned Arminians. He was called to take a leading part in two public disputations procured by the earl of Warwick, and held at Yorkhouse, in the presence of the duke of Buckingham, and a number of the nobility. The first of these contests was by bishop Buckridge and the dean of Carlisle on the part of the Arminians; and bishop Morton and Dr. Preston on the part of the Calvinists. “In the conclusion, the earl of Pembroke observed, that no person returned from this learned dispute with Arminian sentiments, who had not brought them along with them. The second conflict was between Dr. White and Mr. Montague on the one side; and bishop Morton and Dr. Preston on the other. On this occasion, the doctor is said to have displayed his powers of disputation, and matchless erudition, to the astonishment of the auditory, as well as to, the honor ,and signal advantage of the cause he migaged to defend.

By the great interest the doctor had with the duke of Buckingham and the prince of Wales, he was of essential service to many of the silenced ministers. He was in waiting when king James died, and came up with king Charles and the duke in a close coach. The duke offered Dr. Preston the broad seal; but he was too wise to accept of it. Finding, however, that he could neither obtain the confidence of the puritans, nor detach the doctor from their cause, the duke, changed his measures, and bade adieu to his chaplain. The doctor, who saw the storm beginning to gather, quietly retired to his college, where it was feared he would feel the effects of the duke’s future, displeasure. But he had other work on hand, which engaged all his attention till the day of his death. He was assassinated by Feltoh, August 23d, 1628.

Dr. Preston was originally of a strong constitution, which he had worn down by hard study and constant preaching. The question with him was not, “How long have I lived, but what have I done?” Apprehending his sickness was unto death, he was desirous of breathing his last in his native country and amongst his old friends. Accordingly, he removed to Preston, near Heyford; and after revising his will, and settling his worldly concerns, he committed himself to the gracious disposal of his heavenly Father.

Observing the symptoms of death approaching, he said, “The time of my departure is at hand; but I shall not change my company, nor shall I still converse with God and saints.” A few hours before his death, he said, “I feel death approaching my heart, let me go to my Father’s house, and to Jesus Christ, who bought me with his blood. I have accompanied saints on earth, and shortly: shall be associated with saints and angels in heaven, where my pains shall be changed to pleasure, and all my sorrowings into joy unspeakable and full of glory.” He died in the month of July 1628, being only forty-one years of age. His remains were interred in Fausley church, and Dr. Dodd preached his funeral sermon to an immense crowd of people. Fuller, who has classed him with the learned writers of Queen’s college Cambridge, says, “He was all judgment and gravity, .and a complete master of his passions, an excellent preacher, a celebrated disputant, and a perfect politician.” Echard styles him the most celebrated of the puritans, an exquisite preacher, a subtle disputant, and a deep politician.

His works are, 1st, The Saint’s Portion.—2d, The Breastplate of Faith and Love.—3d, Sermons before the King.—4th, Eternal Life.—5th, The Lifeless Life.—6th, Mortification and Humiliation.—7th, Spiritual Life and Death.—8th, Judas’ Repentance.—9th, The Saints’ Spiritual Strength.—10th, The Saints’ Qualifications and Remains.—11th, Sermons.—12th, The Golden Sceptre, with the Church’s Marriage, and the Church’s Carriage.—13th, The Love of Christ.

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