Protestant Profiles # 19: Granville Sharp [and the British abolitionists]

Granville Sharp (1735 – 1813)

granville sharp

Born: Durham, England
Role: Champion of human rights and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire; Classical grammarian (and contender for Christ’s divinity against heretics in that capacity)
Emphases: The Divinity of Christ; the human dignity of slaves
Protested against: Slavery; Socinianism; Catholic influence in Church and State

Most of this profile is adapted from a biographical sermon on Sharp’s life, in relation to Titus 2:11-14. As a result, it is longer and more detailed than some of the recent installments. 

When it comes to selecting a representative from the notable Christian figures involved in the British Abolition movement, there are a handful that possess a kind of “X Factor” that makes them noteworthy in the timeless sense. William Wilberforce is the most famous and pushed the relevant legislation through the British Parliament after years of setbacks and defeats. Hannah More wrote poems addressing this contentious social issue in “one of the earliest propaganda campaigns for social reform in English history”[1]. John Newton, a slave-trader-turned-gospel-minister was a powerful spiritual companion to the leading abolitionist campaigners and author of America’s favourite hymn Amazing Grace. And Olaudah Equiano came from the opposite end of slavery to Newton – having once been owned as the property of men, but becoming the leading black voice against slavery in the UK in the years following his emancipation.


Newton_jOlaudah_Equiano,_frontpiece_from_The_Interesting_Narrative_of_the_Life_of_Olaudah_Equiano (1)

TL – BR: William Wilberforce, Hannah More, John Newton, Olaudah Equiano

Any of these figures are worthy of a dedicated profile and yet this series can only hone in on one Protestant opponent of nefarious 18th century human trafficking.

Granville Sharp was considered the elder statesman of the abolition movement – the “father” or “grandfather” of the cause that Wilberforce and others would take up with such zeal. His “X Factor” was that he so thoroughly loved God and his neighbour that he would work tirelessly to uphold the glory of His King and the rights, well-being and dignity of his fellow man. This is displayed in his defense of the biblical teaching on Christ’s deity and his advocacy for slaves and others whose suffering moved him to action.

A self-taught scholar and champion for Christ’s honour

As the grandson of an Archbishop of York in the Church of England, one would expect Granville Sharp to have had a privileged upbringing. But he was a younger son in a large family and lacked the educational opportunities his two elder brothers received. Yet he was raised in a devout Christian home and was privileged to know God’s truth from a young age.

But Granville’s privilege of knowing God and the teachings of Jesus would drive him to improve his knowledge in areas where he’d lacked education. And in turn, he seemed apt at utilising whatever new knowledge he gained to help him live more effectively as a Christian.

This was demonstrated early on in his career, while working as an apprentice for a linen draper. One of his work colleagues was a Socinian – a member of a group that denied fundamental Christian teachings on Jesus and the Trinity. This young man would debate Granville on those issues and others, and told him that his positions came from his lack of ability to comprehend the original Greek of the New Testament. In response to this, Granville began diligent private study of NT Greek over many years and paid careful attention to how to read the passages dealing with Jesus being fully divine. He also studied Hebrew after some discussions with a Jewish colleague, who likewise suggested that Granville misunderstood the Old Testament prophecies relating to Christ due to language.

Despite never receiving formal tuition in either language he became basically an expert in both and discovered a grammatical rule that’s still taught to students of New Testament Greek today. The “Granville Sharp Rule” as it has come to be known, addresses the grammatical issues in several key passages of the New Testament which Trinitarian Christians cite as evidence for the deity of Christ, while unitarian sects offer alternative interpretations of the grammar that produces wildly different theology.

Without going into technical detail that would be lost on readers with no acquaintance with NT Greek, Sharp’s contribution is key in passages such as Titus 2:13, which refers to “our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (the dispute being over whether this refers to one Person, i.e. Jesus Christ, who is [both] our Great God and Saviour OR two persons, i.e. 1) Our Great God & 2) [our] Saviour Jesus Christ) and 2 Peter 1:1, which refers to “the righteousness of our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” Sharp proved convincingly that in such passages, the two titles in Greek refer to the same person: Jesus.

His important work has not silenced cultish opponents of Christ’s divinity, but Sharp’s rule gives greater confidence to orthodox Christian students of the New Testament in interpreting these crucial passages; provides a possible avenue of correction for those who have been led astray by false teaching employing these texts and increases the condemnation of those who reject the biblical teaching when confronted with their errors. Sharp provides a model for serious biblical scholarship motivated by a love for Christ and the truth concerning Him.

A tireless champion for the oppressed

When he was thirty – and already accomplished in his language capabilities – certain circumstances caused Granville’s life to take an unanticipated turn.

His brother William was a doctor, who allocated time each morning to provide medical treatment to the poorer members of their community. One day a black African slave who had been brutally pistol-whipped and cast out by his master turned up at William’s house for treatment. Granville met this man, whose name was Jonathan Strong, and learned of his situation. The Sharp brothers provided care for Strong and got him into hospital where he spent around four months recovering. Afterwards, they assisted him in finding employment in the services of a local pharmacist and his family.

sharp strong.jpg

Two years later, Granville received a letter from a man interned at a local prison. It turned out to be the same slave he and his brother had helped out earlier. He had been kidnapped in a plot hatched by his former master and was being sold on to someone else for £30 (maybe around $6000 Australian dollars today). Granville managed to get Strong released from prison by the Lord Mayor of London and set free – but his master, a lawyer named David Lisle sued Granville and his brother James, for depriving him of his lawful property. The slave – he maintained – had always belonged to him.

The odds were against the Sharps. Their legal counsel told them that the legal opinion of the day, including that of the Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, was that slaves do not become free upon coming to England and that therefore they lacked the grounds for a solid defence against the charges. With no realistic prospect of victory or even being able to secure professional legal representation – the Sharps were not in an optimistic situation.

But Granville, in a step of great boldness and faith in God, did not look for an easy way out of the situation, but instead, in his own words he was compelled “to make a hopeless attempt at self-defence” – despite never having opened a book on the subject of law in his entire life. But something amazing happened.

Over the course of two years, with the prospect of legal defeat and financial loss constantly hanging over his head, Granville Sharp made a dedicated, in depth study of English law – especially in matters that related to the entitlement of liberty belonging to subjects of the British Crown.

And after hours of diligent study, the man who discovered a principle in Greek grammar to use in defense of the truth about his Saviour, also discovered a principle in English law that he could use to defend the right to liberty of a black man made in the image of the God Granville loved and served.

Granville published a tract titled “On the injustice of tolerating slavery in England,” which he circulated to various eminent legal professionals, including those involved in his case. In it, he presented a compelling case against the way the legal status of slaves had been regarded by the courts in recent times and argued strongly that slaves were human beings on English soil and thus were entitled to all the liberty and legal rights of any other subject of the King. He also went to great lengths to demonstrate that slavery contradicted English law & that the supposed rights of masters over their slaves would never stand up in court.

His adversary’s lawyers were too intimidated to proceed with the case and the slave-owner was fined by the courts for wasting their time. Against all odds, Granville had triumphed and Jonathan Strong remained a free man.

jonathan strong.jpg
Artistic depiction of Granville’s intervention on behalf of slaves

Granville’s “good works” related to abolishing slavery included using his time, energy and money to assist black slaves in having their cases heard in court. While he succeeded in securing the liberty of several men through legal action, he had also began seeking opportunities to fundamentally challenge the entire status quo regarding slavery in Britain. He did this by writing, sending private letters to key members of society he felt could do something about the evils being suffered by slaves. But he also published tracts which he hoped would continue to influence members of the legal profession as his earlier work had, while also affecting attitudes towards slavery in the wider society.

His tracts presented strong cases for slaves’ welfare, not only based on English justice, but also on biblical grounds. Granville was convinced that God had judged slave-holding societies in the past and would do so with Britain and her colonies if there was no repentance. While many sought to justify slavery on biblical grounds and many non-believers continue to attack the Bible’s supposed endorsement of slavery today – Granville forcefully and consistently used the Old and New Testaments to condemn the existence of slavery in a professedly Christian society. All would have to answer to God for failing to love their neighbour as themselves and for subjecting Africans to a harsh form of slavery that went well beyond the kind of servitude that was temporarily permitted in Israelite society.

But he also contributed directly to many great developments in the fight against slavery. In 1772, he was the driving force behind a legal victory in the landmark Somerset Case. The result of the case was the release of James Somerset a slave originally from America who had been rescued by court injunction in the midst of being sent from England to Jamaica by his master for resale. The court found that there were no grounds in English law for the man to be regarded as enslaved to his master now he was under British legal jurisdiction. This didn’t mean immediate freedom for all slaves in Britain, but in principle it deprived slave-masters of a strong case for ownership of their slaves if ever brought to court.

In 1783, he learned of a horrific massacre that occurred at sea when the crew of a slave-trading vessel threw around 140 slaves overboard so they could claim them under insurance as jettisoned cargo. Granville failed in his attempts to have the ship captain prosecuted for mass murder, but he used the horrid nature of this event to awaken the British public about the horrors of the slave trade.


The Zong Massacre, which disturbed Sharp profoundly

In 1787 he co-founded and became the inaugural chairman of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This group worked hard to change public opinion about slavery, but also made a concerted effort to see legislative change in parliament. That change came in 1807, when Granville was 71 years old. British Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, which prohibited all slave trading within the British Empire and was enforced by the Royal Navy.

Lasting legacy

While Granville Sharp died twenty years before the total abolition of slavery itself was achieved through the efforts of William Wilberforce and others in 1833 – he had provided both the groundwork and the inspiration for many of the men and women who fought and won that battle in their day. Through the various causes and societies he was involved in promoting or even initiating – he had shown himself zealous for good works in every way. A man who loved God’s truth and was determined to see it understood properly and applied to the benefit of his fellow men.

During his 78 years he had glorified God and sought the good of others, through his studies, through his writing, through his advocacy, through his philanthropy and through involvement not only in the cause of oppressed Africans, but in organisations like the British and Foreign Bible Society and at least two mission societies. In the final year of his life, he also helped found the Protestant Union in Britain, which sought to preserve British political and religious freedoms in the face of a possible Catholic resurgence in the nation (which he understood to preclude freedom to non-Catholics).

Granville Sharp’s life challenges us to think about what really matters in life and helps us consider how to live in light of the glorious truths of the gospel.

Some Christians think a lot about theology – but are putting very little time, energy and money into things that help the spiritual and physical welfare of their neighbours. Others care about social issues and try to do lots of stuff, but lack a deep appreciation of who God is and lack the ability to explain the gospel and important biblical truths for themselves and for the benefit of others. Others profess Christ but don’t do very much of either.

Granville Sharp shows us that what matters most in life is to know who Jesus is and what He’s done for us. He shows us that devotion to better understanding the Bible and how to share its truth with others is not simply the territory of Bible college students. He shows us that the goal of all our studies should be to glorify God by acquiring knowledge that can be utilised in seeking the good of others. He shows us what being “zealous for good works” in response to the gospel might look like.

Rather than being daunted by Granville Sharp’s obvious brilliance, we can draw inspiration from his determination. Ours is an age where precious, central biblical truths need defending and Christians need to be strengthened in the confidence that they are holding fast to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude v. 3). It’s also a time when human trafficking remains an enormous problem and Protestants ought to be protesting about the wicked treatment of our fellow human beings.

Sharp has shown us the way: love for Christ, love for our neighbours and hard work and determination to serve the interests of those we love.

[1] Anne Stott, Hannah More, 83.




Protestant Profiles #18: George Whitefield

George Whitefield (1714 – 1770)

George Whitefield

Born: Gloucester, England
Role: Itinerant Preacher; significant (Calvinistic) Methodist figure; chaplain
Emphases: Divine Sovereignty; need for spiritual regeneration; open-air preaching; working across boundaries
Protested against: Anglican unfaithfulness to the gospel; Roman Catholicism

George Whitefield was closely associated with the subjects of our last two profiles (John Wesley and the Countess of Huntingdon), but he himself is a giant in the history of preaching, evangelism and religious revival; a key figure in Methodism and in American and English religious history.

American historian Thomas Kidd summarises Whitefield’s significance:

1. “Whitefield was the most influential Anglo-American evangelical leader of the eighteenth century.”
2. “He also indelibly marked the character of evangelical Christianity.”
3. He “was the first internationally famous itinerant preacher and the first modern transatlantic celebrity of any kind.”
4. “Perhaps he was the greatest evangelical preacher that the world has ever seen.” [1]

Whitefield was one of the earliest Methodists – joining the Wesleys’ ‘Holy Club’ at Oxford around 1729/30. After having a conversion-experience as a result of reading the 17th century Presbyterian Henry Scougal‘s work The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Whitefield promptly dedicated himself to gospel preaching. He was ordained as a deacon within the Anglican church, but continued to be actively involved with the earliest Methodists.

In early 1739, he preached to a very large open-air crowd in Kingswood, near Bristol in England. Whitefield gave the following account of his outdoor-evangelistic debut:

‘At four I hastened to Kingswood. At a moderate computation there were about ten thousand people … All was hush when I began: the sun shone bright, and God enabled me to preach for an hour with great power, and so loudly that all, I was told, could hear me…About nine I came home, rejoicing at the great things God had done for my soul [2]   

Later that year, he invited John Wesley to begin open-air preaching and continue the work he had begun in the area, as he prepared to head for Georgia in North America (where Wesley himself had gone a few years earlier, only to return to England after a terrible ‘false start’ to his ministry).

It is estimated that Whitefield preached to crowds of up to 50 000 people at a time during this first year he spent touring the American colonies. He started an orphanage in Georgia, which he tirelessly raised funds for while going about his evangelistic preaching ministry on both sides of the Atlantic. A friend began advertising Whitefield’s upcoming preaching dates in local newspapers to publicise the events and attract as many people as possible – which contributed enormously to his popularity and reach.

His theological differences with Wesley – one of the most famous Calvinist-Arminian conflicts in church history – led to a natural alliance with the similarly minded Countess of Huntingdon within the growing Methodist movement. The two became the lead figures among the Calvinistic Methodists and had a somewhat strained relationship with the Wesleys and other Arminian Methodists over the years. The Countess made Whitefield her chaplain and funded many of his evangelistic tours in England and America.

Like Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield’s preaching in North America was one of the major means through which God worked to bring about the spiritual revival known as the (First) Great Awakening. Whereas in our day it is not uncommon to meet Christians in their autumn years who were converted after attending a Billy Graham crusade, an enormous multitude had profound spiritual experiences under Whitefield’s earnest, dramatic and powerful preaching. And, also not unlike Graham, there was division among Christians and churches across the country as to whether Whitefield’s ministry and the revivals that seemed to be occurring were a positive thing or not.

It is of course difficult to gauge how many people who had a spiritual experience during the revival went on to bear the ongoing fruit that evidenced a true conversion. But there can be no denying that God used Whitefield’s preaching to draw many souls to Himself and bring them to salvation through the gospel of Christ. Reportedly 80% of America’s population at the time heard him preach at one time or another. And biographies of his life testify to his tireless work – day in day out, all year round – for the advance of God’s Kingdom through the preaching of the gospel.

Whitefield died in his mid-fifties and the Countess of Huntingdon took care of his orphanage in Georgia after his death, along with the estates he bequeathed to her. He had laboured in the gospel for 33 years and touched countless lives. Mass evangelism has continued as a medium long after his death – made easier by the construction of stadiums and arenas, along with the advent of new technology. And yet there has never been another figure quite like Whitefield in the years since.

He remains an inspiration to evangelists, Calvinists, Wesleyans and many other Christians the world over.

You can read more about Whitefield’s life and ministry here.



[1] Thomas Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, pp. 260 & 263.
[2] George Whitefield’s Journals137.

F. Lambert, “Whitefield, George” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.
“George Whitefield” wikipedia.


Protestant Profiles #17: Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon

Selina Hastings (1707-1791)


Born: Leicestershire, England
Role: Patroness of evangelical ministry; founder of eponymous Connexion; Principal of Trevecca College
Emphases: Training of effective gospel ministers; Calvinistic Methodism; renewal of English Church

Due to a combination of illness and endeavouring to spend more time with family during a holiday break, this installment of the series is regrettably both late and concise.  

Selina Shirley (later Hastings) was born in the early 18th century to a noble family and herself married an earl in 1728. Her marriage lasted for the better part of two decades, before her husband’s death in 1746. Following her conversion seven years earlier, the Countess Huntingdon was active in the evangelical scene of the Anglican church – but her significance to Protestant history – and the Methodist movement in particular – largely came about during her four and a half decades of widowhood.

The Countess was part of the very early Methodist movement and a member of the society established by the Wesley brothers and others. But over time, she found that her theological perspective aligned much more comfortably with the emergent Calvinist branch of Methodism, which included figures such as George Whitefield (see next profile).

Taking advantage of a legal provision which allowed the English nobility to establish their own private chapels and appoint chaplains (in reality ‘preachers’) as they saw fit, the Countess financed and facilitated a network of godly, revivalistic preachers across the country. While there were apparently some grumblings within church and society that she was overstretching this provision, the Countess was not prevented from establishing more than 60 chapels that allowed for ministers of her choosing to conduct evangelistic preaching ministries.

The Countess established an evangelical Bible College in Wales in 1768 – effectively the world’s first Methodist seminary – but it did not manage to attract the number of ministry candidates she had hoped for. Eventually her excessive liberality with respect to acquiring personal chapels and chaplains reached a breaking point with the Anglican establishment and in 1783, she found herself and part of her network operating outside of the state church – effectively becoming a dissenting denomination which would come to be known as the “Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion.” While the Connexion had an entirely male ministry, it was at the time perhaps the only English denomination that was in effect headed by a woman.

One of her biographers, H.M. Jones says of the Countess:

“Lady Huntingdon’s significance was remarkable. The roles she exercised (hostess, patroness and private spiritual exhorter) were acceptable for a woman of high rank, but she exercised them on an unparalleled scale, thanks to her combination of rank and wealth with an iron will and charismatic character. She thus acquired a degree of religious authority that was, for a woman, almost unprecedented. By hosting worship and preaching in her own home (a great mansion) she created an alternative space for worship from that of the established church. By giving her patronage to not one or two, but to hordes of preachers and clergy, she became, in one sense of the word, their bishop.”[1]

Measuring the Countess’ true impact as a patron of the Methodist renewal movement is a difficult task. On the one hand, the college and denomination she founded continue to this day in different forms – but they do not appear to be making the same impact on the 21st century religious landscape of the U.K. that their founder had on the 18th. On the other hand, everyone who heard Whitefield and the other preachers that she supported is long gone – and yet in the last 250 years or so, surely thousands upon thousands of people have become Christians in England, Wales and around the world during the harvest of the seeds the Countess of Huntingdon sowed through her financial and spiritual investments in her 50 years of zealous ministry.


[1] D.M. Jones, “Huntingdon, Selina Hastings, Countess of”, Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, p. 320-321.

“Countess of Huntingdon” wikipedia

Protestant Profiles #16: John Wesley

John Wesley (1703 – 1791)


Born: Epworth, Lincolnshire, England
Role: Minister, Preacher, Founder of (Wesleyan Methodism)
Emphases: personal holiness; justification by faith; circuit preaching & lay ministry
Protested against: Catholic sacramentalism; transubstantiation, purgatory; indulgences

John Wesley is an interesting, yet significant figure when it comes to the history of Protestant Christianity. He made an enormous contribution to the emergence of evangelicalism through his pioneering Methodist movement.

Wesley was born to Anglican rector Samuel Wesley and his devout wife Susanna. Both of his parents came from dissenting religious backgrounds, but had migrated to the Church of England earlier in their lives. Though Wesley would not found the religious movement known as “Methodism” for many years, the ‘methodical’ approach to religion and devotion was part of his upbringing – as his mother trained all of the Wesley children rigorously in the knowledge of Scripture and in spiritual exercises.

Wesley’s desire for holiness of life and true, inner spirituality was a constant theme during his youth, education and early ministry. He treated his daily activities and religious progress with the utmost seriousness and famously formed a group at Oxford University (known derisively as the “Holy Club”) to pursue a live that was more devout than that of the typical university student or academic.

Wesley’s “General Questions” were a series of spiritual diagnostic inquiries to determine the genuineness of one’s religion and motives. They are worth reproducing here as a sample of his flavor of spirituality:

  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
  2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
  3. Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?
  4. Can I be trusted?
  5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?
  6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
  7. Did the Bible live in me today?
  8. Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?
  9. Am I enjoying prayer?
  10. When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?
  11. Do I pray about the money I spend?
  12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
  13. Do I disobey God in anything?
  14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
  15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
  16. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
  17. How do I spend my spare time?
  18. Am I proud?
  19. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
  20. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
  21. Do I grumble or complain constantly?
  22. Is Christ real to me?[1]

There can be little doubt that Wesley’s rigourous and methodical outlook enabled him to excel at religious duties and spiritual disciplines where so many others have failed. But his quest for sincerity also led him to doubt the genuineness of his spirituality. He was heavily influenced by Moravian Christians in his early thirties and concluded that there was something pivotal to their Christian experience that was missing in his own. When he was just shy of thirty-five, he had what has come to be known as his “Aldersgate Experience”, where his heart was “strangely warmed” during a reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans and he experienced a deep assurance of his salvation.

In 1739 Wesley began to establish Methodist societies – small parachurch groupings where Christians who were serious about conversion and holiness could gather and be encouraged, while reaching out to people in their local area. These groups were designed to facilitate Wesley’s goal of reformation and revival within the Anglican Church – but as with previous (i.e. Puritan) attempts at such spiritual renewal within the state church, Methodism began as a grassroots movement inside local parishes across the country, but would end as a completely separate religious entity due to the Church’s unwillingness to change.

Wesley earned the ire of Anglican authorities for his willingness to appoint lay preachers who were not authorized – let alone ordained – by the state church. Wesley himself was an indomitable itinerant preacher, constantly travelling to preach and establish the movement in different parts of the country. Methodist preachers followed suit, travelling in circuits from town to town to preach and provide pastoral care to Christians who belonged to the new societies.

Wesley and other notable, early Methodist figures (see our next 2 Profiles) had a widespread impact on Christianity in England and the American colonies. Despite Methodism never growing to become a large demographic percentage in either country, its vitality and dedication to the gospel were catalysts for positive change in other sections of the Christian community.

Wesley’s rejection of Calvinist soteriology in favour of a modified form of evangelical Arminianism sets him apart from many of the other figures featured in this series. Some Reformed Christians would see certain Wesleyan theological emphases as departures from the theology of the Reformation. But for all the deficiencies in his theology, Wesley did faithfully propagate many of the core doctrines and emphases of evangelical Protestantism and bequeathed that legacy to his followers (though many who claim to follow him have long since departed from them!).

His approach to Christian piety was an earnest and affective response to the lacklustre spirituality of the Anglican church in his day – and yet it carries with it a dangerous over-optimism about sanctification in this life. But Wesley possessed a remarkable passion for spreading the gospel and his thought and ministry have made an enormous impact on Protestantism and evangelicalism ever since.

Millions of Christians – not only in the Methodist Church, but offshoots such as Holiness Churches; the Salvation Army; the Church of Nazarene and many branches of Pentecostalism – continue to be impacted by Wesley’s emphasis on holiness and example of dedicated ministry. Even those who hold deep concerns about his understanding of sovereignty, soteriology and sanctification can find things about him to admire and give thanks for.

Protestant Profiles #15: Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)


Born: East Windsor, Conneticut Colony, North America
Role: Pastor/Preacher; revivalist; theologian; supporter of mission to Native Americans; 3rd President of Princeton University
Emphases: Beauty, Majesty and Sovereignty of God; religious affections; justification by faith
Protested against: Arminianism, false revivalism

Jonathan Edwards looms as a giant of giants among early American Protestants. Dubbed by some “the last of the Puritans,” Edwards was a major figure in the religious revival known as the “(First)  Great Awakening” and delivered perhaps the most famous sermon in the English language. He had an incredible impact: in his native New England; throughout America; and across the Atlantic. His influence would also later inspire many missionaries as they prepared to take the gospel to unreached parts of the world.

Edwards became assistant minister to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in his mid-20s. A couple of years later his grandfather died, leaving the young Edwards in charge of one of New England’s most prestigious and important churches. Edwards was concerned with the spiritual health of many in his congregation, but in the mid 1730s (a few years into his solo ministry), he began to see some incredible results in response to his faithful, gospel preaching.

In the space of just six months, around 300 people were recorded as experiencing a meaningful spiritual conversion under Edwards’ ministry. Edwards took a great interest in how Christians should understand the nature of true conversion and this concern characterised his ministry and writing for many years to come – as religious revivals occurred across the land. Edwards rejoiced in the ministry of the revival-preachers that saw much fruit in New England during the next decade, such as George Whitfield and Gilbert Tennent, but he grew concerned about some of the emotionalism and unscriptural attitudes that arose as the Great Awakening unfolded.

In addition to his production of several important treatments of the nature and characteristics of true revivals, the 1740s saw Edwards publish three of his most notable works.

In 1741 he preached his most famous sermon – perhaps the most famous ever American sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards was not theatrical or manipulative in his presentation, unlike some later revival-preachers, but the sheer gravity of his message about the imminence of divine judgement and the real and present danger of sinners falling into hell-fire at any moment, had a profound impact on many of his hearers. While many Protestants and Evangelicals in the 21st century would be embarrassed by the nature of such a message, there is little denying that Edwards’ handling of these themes in a serious manner carried spiritual potency.

In 1746, he produced a work on Religious Affections, showing his indebtedness to earlier Puritans when it came to the effect that religious knowledge should have upon the hearts of those who receive them. The gospel moved the heart to an intense fear of judgement; an intense love of God and an intense hatred of sin and worldliness. This is the kind of resource from Christian history which is invaluable to those concerned about cold, heady Reformed orthodoxy on the one hand and warm, fuzzy spirituality unanchored in doctrine on the other.

1749 saw Edwards publish the Life and Diary of David Brainerd – detailing the ministry and intense personal struggles of a sincere, Christian young man who had gone to live among Native Americans and share the gospel with them. Through making Brainerd’s life known to many Christians around the world, Edwards was used by God to challenge untold numbers of people to missionary service to the unreached ends of the earth.

A couple of years after publishing this work, Edwards became involved in ministry to Native Americans himself, as his family relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a town where relations were tense between white American settlers and local tribes. Edwards enjoyed a productive, but by no means easy ministry during the 1750s, before accepting the presidency of the College of New Jersey (today Princeton University) in 1758. In a strange and unexpected twist to the end of his life and ministry he died in March of that year after volunteering as a test subject for a smallpox vaccine in the name of promoting medical research. He was president of the college for just a few weeks.

Edwards theology and spirituality continue to have a sizeable impact on American Reformed Evangelicalism and he continues to attract the interest of lay Christians, pastors and scholars in many parts of the English speaking world: including the UK, South Africa and Australia. As we celebrate 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, Edwards not only reminds us that religious revivals do have a legitimate place in the life, ministry and history of our movement – but provides us with resources to evaluate the extent to which a “move of God” is occurring.

You can read Edwards’ well known “Resolutions” for living (produced when he was around 20 years old), here.
Or Desiring God has an extensive treatment of his life and ministry by John Piper here.


“Jonathan Edwards” at Wikipedia
R.W. Caldwell & D.A. Sweeney, “EDWARDS, Jonathan” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals
Diane Severance, “The Great Awakening”

Protestant Profiles #14: John Bunyan

John Bunyan (1628-1688)


Born: Bedfordshire, England
Role: Author, baptist preacher and pastor
Emphases: Christian life as pilgrimage/warfare; divine grace; justification by faith
Protested against: Roman Catholicism; legalism; English Religious Conformity; Quakerism

Pressed for time this week, so a disproportionately short sketch of a very significant figure in Church History follows, supplemented by a helpful video about his life and ministry. 

John Bunyan came from humble beginnings, had a colourful, personal spiritual and religious journey and endured a fair share of suffering for his biblical convictions. He became the author of one of the most notable works of English literature – a book which has been called the first English novel and one of the best-selling and most widely read English texts after the KJV Bible.

Bunyan was the son of a tinker and learned his father’s trade, before being swept up in the chaos of the English Civil Wars, in which he served as soldier in the Parliamentary Army that was waging war on forces loyal to King Charles I. He had something of a spiritual awakening as a result of reading devotional works of earlier Puritans, Arthur Dent and  Lewis Bayly. His first wife had gifted him with copies of Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Pietywhich he read with great interest and acknowledged the profound impact they had on his outlook for the rest of his life.

At least as early as his late twenties, Bunyan was associating with Separatist congregations of Independent or Baptist persuasion, which operated outside the structures of the official, national English Church. He was an effective preacher and came to have a significant influence amongst these congregations. It was likely because of this that he was singled out for particularly harsh treatment by the authorities when the monarchy was restored in 1660 and  (what we would now call) Anglicanism was enforced as the state religion. Bunyan spent 12 years in prison from 1660-1672 for rejecting the Book of Common Prayer and preaching without a state-sanctioned licence to do so.

His masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress, is believed to have been penned in the mid-late 1670s, while Bunyan was imprisoned for a second, much shorter period. It is a Christian allegory, charting the journey of a pilgrim (named ‘Christian’) from his homeland (“The City of Destruction”) to the Celestial City, after being told the good news by a character called Evangelist. Along the way, Christian is joined and encouraged by other pilgrims and meets characters who bring him spiritual refreshment or enlightenment. But the journey is perhaps even more characterised by Christian’s encounters with characters and places that threaten to prevent him from reaching his destination.

Christian embarks on his journey

Thousands of Christians in the last three centuries have been blessed and encouraged by this work (not to mention Bunyan’s other writings) as they see themselves and their own struggles in the story of the Pilgrim’s journey. Every page drips with the intense, Puritan vision of the spiritual life as a quest to remain faithful to Christ and follow Him to the Heavenly Jerusalem in the midst of perilous temptations, trials and discouragements.

Desiring God has a full and free version of Pilgrim’s Progress, which includes a more substantial biographical account of Bunyan’s life by John Piper. A great opportunity to read this classic if you never have before (or would like to again!). The video below gives a good account of Bunyan’s life and historical context if you prefer something audiovisual.


“John Bunyan” wikipedia

“Pilgrim’s Progress” wikipedia

D.L. Jeffrey “BUNYAN, John” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.

Protestant Profiles #13: Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686)


Born: Yorkshire, England
Role: Pastor; author; presbyterian activist; promoter of Puritan piety
Emphases: the Puritan idea of godliness; need for regeneration; Westminster theology
Protested against: hypocrisy and formal religion; Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic doctrine and worship

Watson is one of the most frequently quoted and republished Puritans, but relatively little is known about his origins or personal life. But with his promotion of godliness; ability to apply theology pastorally and practically; and capacity for warm, vivid and often striking preaching and writing – Watson represents some of the best aspects of the Puritan movement on both sides of the Atlantic.

Watson came to prominence in a very unstable time in English history. This is best illustrated by the fact that his first published work was the transcript of a sermon he preached before the nation’s parliament – just after control of it had been seized by partisans aligned with the victors of the first and second English Civil Wars. Not long after this sermon was delivered, this group of politicians and officers executed King Charles I (the loser of the Civil Wars) – an act which shocked Watson and many of his more moderate peers. In this key sermon, Watson criticised many of those in attendance as using religious pretenses to satisfy their greed and ambitions for power and preached sharply against all forms of hypocrisy.

“If there are any here, that when they should have been doing God’s work, have been by stealth hiding the Babylonish garment [see Joshua 7], making themselves rich, feathering their own nests; who, instead of driving in nails into God’s temple to fasten it, have been driving a wedge of gold into their chests – God sees it!”[1]

Many of the winners in the Civil War were religiously affiliated with the Puritan movement in some way, shape or form, but mere outward profession meant very little to Watson. He firmly believed that the theology and principles of the Protestant Reformation necessitated the recovery of a certain kind of spirituality described in the Bible. All outward religious expressions had to be genuine reflections of one’s heart towards God – highlighted by YHWH’s complaint against Israel in the OT that they honoured Him with their lips, but their hearts were far away and Jesus’ contentions with the scribes and Pharisees about their hypocrisy and selective obedience in the NT. Therefore, Watson cared little whether his contemporaries claimed to be “reformed” if their actions betrayed them as insincere.

Much of Watson’s ministry focused on how to live the Christian life appropriately in light of the truths revealed in the Gospel. His work The Godly Man’s Picture was written to present an in-depth picture of what godliness was according to the Puritan understanding of the Bible, at a time when those with Watson’s beliefs were facing persistent religious persecution. The last work he published before his death (Religion our True Interest republished in the 20th Century as The Great Gain of Godliness) returned to this important theme, with a particular focus on how godly Christians should live in the difficult times they found themselves in. His best known work, A Body of Practical Divinity (published by friends a few years after his death) systematically works through the Presbyterian theology formulated by the Westminster Assembly (during the 1640s) and Watson goes to great lengths to apply each doctrine pastorally and practically.

An excellent sample of this comes from his treatment of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s fundamental question, “What is the chief end of man?” “A: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever”:

Glorifying God consists in APPRECIATION. To glorify God is to set God highest in our thoughts, and to have a venerable esteem of him. “You, Lord, are most high for evermore!” “You are exalted far above all gods!” There is, in God, all that may draw forth both wonder and delight; there is a constellation of all beauties; he is the original and springhead of being, who sheds a glory upon the creature. We glorify God, when we are God-admirers! Admire his attributes, which are the glistening beams by which the divine nature shines forth! Admire his promises which are the charter of free grace, and the spiritual cabinet where the pearl of price is hid! Admire the noble effects of his power and wisdom in making the world, which is called “the work of his fingers.” To glorify God is to have God-admiring thoughts; to esteem him most excellent, and search for diamonds in this rock alone!

Watson was not afraid to take risks and suffer for his convictions. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and came close to being executed in 1651 for his involvement in a plot to restore the monarchy with Charles I’s son (also Charles and later Charles II) as the king. He saw this as a way of righting the wrongs done by the parliamentarians who executed the king and hoped the new king would bring about a better religious status quo (Charles II had promised to implement Presbyterian government in the Church of England upon his return, which he later reneged on).

In 1660 the monarchy was eventually re-established, but Watson received no favour from the new king for his earlier support. In 1662, he was ejected from his ministry within the national church for his refusal to subscribe to unbiblical religious regulations being imposed upon the clergy by the bishops who returned to power with the king. He carried out the next decade of his ministry as an effective ‘outlaw’ preacher – unable to hold meetings in the usual places, but still determined to exhort local Christians to live godly lives in the midst of great ungodliness.

Watson’s great gift to the church today is his clear presentation of the Puritan vision of godliness and biblical spirituality. There are things that contemporary evangelicals are right to disagree with the Puritans on, when it comes to how we should approach the Christian life, but there is comparatively much more we could learn – and be corrected on – by clear and notable promoters of Puritan piety like Watson.

Today many professedly Reformed Christians could do with the same wake-up call from Watson that those in the English Parliament received three and a half centuries ago – about whether our hearts are sincerely devoted to God. In a time when many are guilty of a kind of cold, over-rationalised orthodoxy that more resembles the Vulcans of the Star Trek universe than the holistic piety practiced by many earlier generations of faithful Christians – Watson could be the remedy that many Protestant Christians and churches are in need of.

“Strive for the reality of godliness. Do not rest in the common workings of God’s Spirit. Do not think that it is enough to be intelligent and discursive. A man may discourse of piety to the admiration of others, yet not feel the sweetness of those things in his own soul.  The lute gives a melodious sound to others, but does not at all feel the sound itself.”[3]

You can read more about Watson’s life, ministry and significance here.

My doctoral research is focused on the significance of Thomas Watson and I can’t recommend highly enough that you read him for yourself! To get a taste for his emphasis on genuine heart piety, start here or here.


[1] God’s Anatomy Upon a Man’s Heart (1649)
[2] A Body of Practical Divinity (1692)
[3] The Godly Man’s Picture (1666)