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THE celebrated subject of this memoir was born in Oxfordshire, and it would seem in the city of Oxford. He entered Magdalenhall in 1615, in the seventeenth year of his age, where he took his degree in arts; and in due time receiving holy orders, entered on the ministerial work. Mr. Coleman possessed singular talents, which a favorable combination of circumstances unfolded, and stimulated to a most successful exertion, particularly in the knowledge of the Hebrew language; in which his proficiency was such, that he was commonly designated Rabbi Coleman. His vigorous mind, thus cultivated by an excellent education, his learning shed a peculiar luster round his name, and he was soon preferred to the rectory of Blyton in Lincolnshire, where he continued till 1642, that he was forced to withdraw to London from the persecution of the cavaliers, or king’s party. On his arrival at London, he was preferred to the rectory of St. Peter’s church in Cornhill. and the following year he was chosen one of the assembly of divines. Mr. Wood says, “He was called to sit in the assembly chiefly on account of his great knowledge of the Hebrew language, and that he behaved modestly and learnedly in that assembly, holding the tenets of Erastus, and was one of the chief supporters of that opinion.” That the reader may form a correct notion of the doctrine of Erastus concerning church government, it may be necessary here to state his opinion. He maintained that Jesus Christ and his apostles had prescribed no particular form of government and discipline for the Christian church, but had left the keys in the hands of the civil magistrate, who had the sole power of punishing transgressors, and of appointing ‘such particular forms of church government as from time to time were considered most conducive to the peace and welfare of the commonwealth. In his view the pastoral office was merely persuasive: That the Lord’s supper, and other ordinances of the gospel, were free to” all: That the minister might dissuade the vicious and unqualified from the communion, but might not refuse it, nor inflict any kind of censure whatever, all punishment being reserved for the civil magistrate. The learned Dr. Lightfoot was also a strenuous contender for this mode of discipline in the assembly, and some of the greatest names in the house of commons appeared on the same side. The several parties in this assembly, Presbyterians, independents, and Erastians, agreed that the constitution of the primitive church was the only model for their imitation, and that therefore it was necessary to make a strict inquiry into the usages of that early period. The primitive church being considered as founded upon the model of the Jewish synagogues, this investigation gave Lightfoot, Coleman, Shelden, and other eminent masters of Jewish learning, a fine opportunity to display their superior learning, and produced uncommon interpretations of some parts of scripture.
When committees were chosen to prepare materials for a new form of church government, the independents agreed with the Presbyterians, against the Erastians, that there was a certain form of church government laid down in the New Testament which was of divine institution. But when they came to the question, What is that form of, government, and is it binding on all ages of the church? Then the independents, as well as the Erastians, opposed the Presbyterians—The first holding that it was congregational, the latter that it was not of perpetual obligation. The proposition was stated thus: “That the scripture holds forth, that many particular congregations may, and, by divine institution, ought to be under one Presbyterial government.” Mr. Neal says, “The debate lasted thirty days: That the Erastians did not object to Presbyterial government as a political institution, were it established by the civil magistrate; but they denied the divine right.” This Mr. Coleman declaimed against in the pulpit, as well as in the assembly; apprehending, that if admitted with a divine claim, presbytery would soon become as tyrannical as prelacy had been. He therefore proposed, that the civil magistrate should have the sole power of the keys in the meantime, till the nation was in a more settled state. The independents opposed the proposition, by advancing the divine right of independent and congregational churches. For fifteen days they stated themselves as opponents, and fifteen days they stood on the defensive. At last the main points of the Presbyterian proposition were carried by a large majority. The independents gave in a written dissent, and complained of unkindly usage in the assembly. Their antagonists replied, that they were not conscious of having done them any injustice.
When the erastians saw how matters went, they reserved themselves for the House of Commons, where they were certain of being joined, both by their own party in the’House, and also by the disappointed patrons of independency. Accordingly, the clause of divine right was lost in the commons, much to the grief and disappointment of the Scottish commissioners and their English adherents. The assembly’s proposition, in its amended form, stood thus: “That it is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the church be governed by congregational, classical, and synodical assemblies.” The erastians had endeavored to maintain their point, by contending that the Jewish church and state were all one: That a distinction of civil and ecclesiastical laws or causes were unknown amongst that people: That the Jewish church was their commonwealth, and that their commonwealth was their church; and that consequently the church and state were the same thing under different appellations. “I am sure (said Mr. Coleman) that the best reformed church that ever was went this way—I mean the church of Israel, which had no distinction of church government and civil government.” In opposition to this opinion of Mr. Coleman’s, Mr. Gillespie, one of the Scotch commissioners, and other divines, replied, and maintained that the Jewish church was formally distinct from the Jewish state: That there was an ecclesiastical sanhedrim and government distinct from the civil: That there was an ecclesiastical excommunication distinct from civil punishment: That there was also in the Jewish church a public confession, or declaration of repentance, and thereupon a readmission of the penitent offender to fellowship with the church in holy things; and that there was a suspension of the profane from the temple and passover.
Mr. Coleman having attacked the intolerant and tyrannical spirit of prelacy, has been roughly handled by a very zealous historian of that party, who, speaking of those divines who preached before parliament, says, “Another of these brawlers, who seldom thinks of a bishop, or of the king’s party, without indignation, is Mr. Thomas Coleman. In one of his sermons, he thus rants against the church of England, and violently persuades the parliament to execute severe justice upon her children. Our cathedrals, says he, are in a great measure, of late, become the nests of idle drones, and the roosting places of superstitious formalists. Our formalists and government, the whole hierarchy, are become a fretting gangrene, a spreading leprosy, an insupportable tyranny. Up with it, up with it to the bottom, root and branch, hip and thigh! Destroy these Amalakites, and let their place be no more found! Throw away the rubs, out with the Lord’s enemies, and the land’s Vex the Midianites, abolish the Amalakites, else they will vex you with their wiles, as they have done heretofore! Let popery find no favor, for it is treason; nor prelacy, because it is tyranny! This, adds the historian, was rare stuff for the blades at Westminster, and pleased them admirably. They therefore give strait orders, to Sir Edward Aiscough and Sir John Wray, to give the zealot hearty thanks for his seasonable directions, and to desire him, by all means, to have his sermon printed; which he did accordingly, and in return for his thanks, de dicateshis fury to their worships, where he falls to his old trade again, calling the king’s army partakers with atheists, infidels, and papists—saying they have popish priests and masses, with cold, lifeless, and unedifying forms of superstitious worship; that it swarms with drunken and debauched clergymen, and harbors all idle, dumb, and unpreaching ministers, tyrannical church dignitaries, and spiritual courtsmen, oppressors of God’s people, and persecutors of his faithful ministers; and that it is the common sewer, the sink and recipient of all the filth of the present and past generations. This man’s railing, he adds, pleased the Commons so well, that they could think of no man fitter to prate when their wicked league and covenant was taken; which he did to excellent purpose, tickling their filthy ears; and for this stuff colonel Long must be ordered to give him the thanks of the House.” Admitting the quotations to be true, had the historian suffered as much from the same quarter as thousands of the puritans had done, he had been less scurrilous with his remarks; for though the expressions are severe, they were not given without abundant provocation; and the history of the timbs authenticate much of their veracity.
Mr. Coleman fell sick while the great debate was pending in the assembly; and some of the members visiting him, he requested they would suspend the matter in controversy, and not bring it to a conclusion till they heard what he had farther to say. To which the assembly agreed. But his complaint increasing, he died in a few days; and the whole assembly paid their last tribute of respect to his memory, by following him to the grave, March 30th, 1647.
His works are, 1. The Christian’s Course and Complaint, both in the pursuit of Happiness desired, and for Advantages slipped in the course of that pursuit.—2. The Heart’s Engagement; a Sermon preached at the public entering into covenant at St. Margaret’s, Westminster.—3. God’s Answer to a Solemn Fast, preached to both houses of parliament.—4. A Brqtherly Examination Examined; or, a clear Justification of those Passages in a Sermon against which Mr. Gillespie did preach and write.—5. A Short Discovery of some Tenets which entrench upon the Honor and Power of Parliament.—6. A Model, etc.