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Thomas Hooker: Beholding the Majesty of God

by Iain H. Murray


[This is the first of a five part series originally published in the Banner of Truth magazine under the title "Thomas Hooker and the Dctrine of God." This portion was in Issue 195, December 1979, pp. 19-29. Reprinted by permission of the Banner of Truth Trust. The entire five-part series, along with helpful footnotes (here omitted) may be downloaded as a single PDF file, 61 pages, 260K.]


Among the multitude of Puritan books which have survived the 17th Century The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan has often been regarded as one of the few which can be called uncontroversial. It is an incorrect judgment, for Part I of Bunyan's classic, published in 1678, describes the process by which Pilgrim became a Christian in terms which are by no means acceptable to all Christian traditions. One last-century preacher, H. H. Almond, went as far as to declare that 'There is not an instance in the New Testament of a convert made after the manner of Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, driven to distraction, dreaming hideous dreams, and uttering lamentable cries'. While we question the fairness of this representation, it has to be accepted that Almond does identify the fundamental issue, namely, the nature of a true conversion experience. Plainly, Bunyan saw conversion as no simple, easy event, no single step from unconcern to immediate assurance of salvation. Much more was involved. When Pilgrim left the City of Destruction, crying, 'What shall I do to be saved?' there was, Bunyan narrates, 'a very wide field' to cross, and a 'slough of despond' to be met, before he came to the wicket gate. Even with that gate passed, Christian — as we now see him to be — had further to go before he obtained the joy of assurance. Of course, Bunyan did not intend his leading character to be the model of every conversion experience, yet the opening pages of The Pilgrim's Progress undoubtedly reflect a general consensus of Puritan teaching on the subject of conversion.

For the existence of this consensus Bunyan was not responsible. It was established before he was born, and in 1628, the year of his birth, the advocates of a distinctively Puritan view of conversion were already spread across England. Among their number none was more influential than Thomas Hooker, late Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and in that year lecturer and curate at St Mary's in Chelmsford, Essex. At the outset it should be said that in divinity Hooker was an all-rounder. His Comment Upon Christ's Last Prayer in the Seventeenth of John, 1656, shows that he was far from being absorbed with the threshold of Christian experience, while his Survey of the Summe of Church-Discipline, 1648, reveals him as an equal of all the great divines who so fully debated the subject of ecclesiology in that period. The preacher whom Cotton Mather calls 'the Light of the Western Churches' was far from being a man of one subject. Nonetheless, Thomas Hooker's overriding interest was evangelistic or with what was then called 'the application of redemption'. Certainly the doctrine of conversion was the focal point of the many books under his name which flowed from the printing presses of London in the 1630's and 40's and it was appropriate that the following words by Thomas Goodwin and Philip Nye should preface the work which contained Hooker's definitive treatment of this theme: 'It hath been one of the glories of the Protestant Religion that it revived the Doctrine of Saving Conversion . . . But in an eminent manner, God cast the honour hereof upon the Ministers and Preachers of this Nation, who are renowned abroad for their more accurate search into and discoveries hereof'.

Like so many other Puritan leaders, Hooker's spiritual life began at Cambridge whither he went in 1604. Born at Markfield, Leicestershire, on July 7, 1586, Hooker, at nineteen, was three years older than the average entrant when he matriculated at Queen's College on March 27, 1604. Whatever the reason for this circumstance it was not backwardness, for the same year he won a scholarship (perhaps from the grammar school at Market Bosworth, Leicestershire) which secured a free-place in the University and raised his status from that of a 'sizar' to that of a 'scholar'. At the same time, it seems, he transferred from Queens' to Emmanuel, a college which was then only twenty years old.

To join Emmanuel in 1604 was hardly shrewd policy. Sir Walter Mildmay's foundation of 1584 was already noted by the authorities in church and state as a nursery of Puritans, and the new king, James I, had let it be known that the Puritans were a 'sect insufferable in any well-governed commonwealth'. Laurence Chaderton, Master of Emmanuel, had come back from the Hampton Court Conference in that same year 1604, with the news that the monarch who spoke of Rome as 'our Mother Church' was not going to give any countenance to those who appealed to Scripture for further changes in the Church. For a while Emmanuel might pursue its own quiet reformation, but with the death of William Perkins (the University's foremost Puritan preacher) in 1602, with the representatives of the Puritan school at the Hampton Court Conference all over fifty years of age, and with a measure of persecution already apparent, the prospects were not promising.

In fact, however, the brightest days of Puritan and evangelical advance in Cambridge were still to come. While Hooker studied for his B.A. in 1608, he saw the sparks which formerly 'did fly abroad into all corners of the kingdom' under Perkins' ministry, continue to fly under three preachers, who like Perkins, were all Fellows at Christ's College — Thomas Taylor, Paul Baynes and William Ames. Between 1608 and 1610 all three were silenced in succession but not before their spirit was multiplied in others. Baynes was the instrument in the conversion of Richard Sibbes. Sibbes, in turn, was used in the awakening of John Cotton, and one of the first-fruits of Cotton's ministry was John Preston — a student filled with ambition to shine at court when 'Mr Cotton's sermon so invaded him that Kings and Courts were no such great things to him'.

One could wish that the anecdotes which survive concerning the conversion of other Cambridge men included Hooker but in his case we hear nothing of the preachers or of the books which influenced him. There is reason to think that his conversion may not have fallen into the more usual pattern. Hooker was no spiritually-careless, ambitious career-man before his conversion. That he was an orthodox and religious member of his College may be concluded from the fact that his evangelical experience came after he was made a Fellow of Emmanuel in 1609, for intellectual abilities alone would scarcely have secured him such a position in those days. Others no doubt regarded him as a Christian in 1609, a view which Hooker himself may well have shared. How long it was after his appointment that, in Mather's words, 'It pleased the Spirit of God very powerfully to break into the soul of this person' is not known. What is on record is that his distress under 'the Spirit of bondage' was intense, that he could not allay it by the principles which he was already teaching to others, and that his chief help came from a young sizar, Simeon Ash, who was his servant in the College. Night and day, in his trouble, Hooker clung to the promises of Scripture and with a certainty born of experience he would later counsel others, 'That the promise was the boat which was to carry a perishing sinner over into the Lord Jesus Christ.'

Hooker saw all the many memorable events which were to occur in Cambridge during these years: the expulsion and banishment of Ames in 1610; the lectureship held by Sibbes at Trinity Church from 1610 to 1615; the rise of Preston, made a Fellow at Queens' in 1609 (the same year as Hooker's appointment at Emmanuel) and destined to be 'the greatest pupilmonger in England'; the departure of John Cotton (another Fellow of Emmanuel) to Boston, Lincs, in 1612; the increasing hostility of the University's Vice-Chancellor, Samuel Harsnett, to the Puritans — these things were certainly all matters of conversation within Emmanuel. The reputation of Emmanuel entertained in high places was to sink yet lower with the royal visit of James I to the University in March 1615. With new gravel spread on the roads and fresh paint decorating the fronts of colleges, 'pious Emmanuel was conspicuous by her refusal to adorn herself for the occasion'. Few of Emmanuel's students were likely to be among the 2000 who gathered at Trinity to see the plays put on for His Majesty's entertainment.

But if Emmanuel faced cold from without there was for many the warmth of a spiritual brotherhood within. On their deathbeds a number of Emmanuel's men were to recall the Christian fellowship of their Cambridge days and joyfully anticipate its renewal. Samuel Stone, a contemporary of Hooker's at Emmanuel — who died at far-off Hartford, New England, in 1663 — declared at the end, 'Heaven is the more desirable, for such company as Hooker, and Shepard and Baynes, who are got there before Me'.

Made Master of the College in 1584, Laurence Chaderton remained Master until 1622, having lived to see the fulfilment of Sir Walter Mildmay's original hope. 'Sir Walter, I hear you have erected a Puritan foundation,' Queen Elizabeth had said to Mildmay. 'No Madam,' was the response, 'far be it from me to countenance anything contrary to your laws: but I have set an acorn which, when it becomes an oak, God alone knows what will be the fruit of it'. Chaderton, though his service continued for near forty years, never lost that original vision. William Bedell, another Fellow of Emmanuel, spent 'seventeen years under that good father Dr Chaderton, in a well-tempered society' and he found it none too long.

Hooker had under him not a few of England's future spiritual leaders. In his case, as in others, it was true that 'a preacher in the University doth generare patres, beget begetters'. Hooker's 'storm of soul', says Mather, 'had helped him unto a most experimental acquaintance with the truths of the gospel', and from the first 'he entertained a special inclination to those principles of divinity which concerned the application of redemption'. Many notes of his preaching upon that subject as a College catechist, says the same writer, 'were transcribed and preserved'.

The circumstances which led to Hooker's departure from Cambridge about the year 1618 are unknown. It may well have been due to the increasing restrictions upon Puritan preaching which were being imposed in the University. Certainly he had no intention of settling down to a mere academic life. Perhaps he discussed the matter with John Dod — an older Fellow of Emmanuel, nicknamed 'Faith and Repentance' by his enemies — and if so, Dod would have emphasized the same point as he did to John Preston on another occasion when he declared that 'English preaching was like to work more and win more souls to God' than divinity professorships. Dod, at any rate, seems to have been responsible for Hooker's first curacy at Esher in Surrey. The patron of that parish, a certain Francis Drake, had called for Dod's help, particularly with regard to his wife's spiritual distress which others had been helpless to relieve. Dod, in turn, recommended Hooker and between them the two men saw the once despairing Joan Drake wonderfully prepared for heaven before her death in 1625. Significantly the first title of Hooker's to appear in print was to be The Poor Doubting Christian Drawn Unto Christ (1629).

Late in 1625, or early in 1626, Hooker moved to Essex, taking with him his wife, Susannah, formerly woman-in-waiting at the Drake's home, where he had resided on going to Esher. Between 1626 and 1629 they were to lose two daughters in infancy.

Hooker's appointment in Essex was as lecturer and curate at St Mary's in Chelmsford. In part he may have been drawn to East Anglia by the presence of friends. Mather mentions his indebtedness to Alexander Richardson who 'lived a private life in Essex' after leaving Emmanuel, and also says that he wanted to be near to John Rogers of Dedham whom he esteemed 'the prince of all the preachers in England'. But the chief claim of the busy market-town of Chelmsford upon Hooker was its spiritual need — 'wanting one to "break the bread of life" unto them.'

The influence of sermons is not to be measured by their quantity. Hooker's four years in Essex, when he was in his mid-forties, were to have a formative influence in the spiritual history of that county. 'If any of our late preachers and divines came in the spirit and power of John Baptist,' wrote Goodwin and Nye, 'this man did'. Nor did Hooker simply awake the indifferent and shake the careless. There was outstanding fruitfulness. In the words of Mather: 'There was a great reformation wrought, not only in the town, but in the adjacent country, from all parts whereof they came to "hear the wisdom of the Lord Jesus Christ" in his gospel, by this worthy man dispensed'. The Holy Spirit 'gave a wonderful and unusual success unto the ministry wherein he breathed so remarkably.'

Liveliness was Hooker's first characteristic in preaching - 'a liveliness extraordinary', says Mather, 'life in his voice, in his eye, in his hand, in his motions'. And, while acknowledging that a part of this belonged to Hooker's personality, he adds that such was the nature of this vigour, 'being raised by "a coal from the altar"', that 'it would be a wrong unto the good Spirit of our God if he should not be acknowledged the author of it.'

Coupled with this there was a remarkable boldness. Whether Hooker was visiting his home-county of Leicestershire, or preaching in Rogers' pulpit at Dedham — addressing a people rich in spiritual privileges — or evangelizing in Chelmsford, he flattered no one. Once on a fast day in Chelmsford, when the judges in their circuit were present in a vast congregation, Hooker alluded plainly in his prayer to the marriage of Charles I to the Catholic Henrietta Maria, beseeching God to lay his Word upon the heart of the King — 'an abomination is committed . . . Judah hath married the daughter of a strange god; the Lord will cut off the man that doeth this' (Malachi 2.11-12).

Giles Firmin, another Puritan, commenting on the words, 'Moses endured, as seeing him who is invisible', makes this reference to Hooker: 'What cares Moses for all the pleasure and honours in Pharaoh's Court? he slights them; what cares he for the wrath of the King, "though it be as the roaring of a lion" [Prov 19.12]. Moses makes nothing of him; he (as one said of Mr Thomas Hooker, a man so awed with the majesty and dread of God) 'would put a king in his pocket'. It was declared in a later generation of George Whitefield that he 'preached like a lion'. The same was true of Hooker.

The content of Hooker's preaching in those all-too-short years at Chelmsford will occupy us in due course, it remains for us now to sketch the outline — for little more is known — of the rest of his life.

The rigour with which Puritan preachers were dealt with at this period depended largely upon the attitude of the bishop in whose diocese they were found. In Leicestershire it appears that Hooker was silenced as early as 1619. At Chelmsford he came under the Bishop of London, George Montaigne, who, hearing him preach on one occasion, confined his remarks to advice 'not to meddle with the discipline of the Church'. But when William Laud, arch-opponent of the Puritans, succeeded Montaigne in 1628, Hooker's continuance at Chelmsford was soon in doubt. There were many clergy in Essex who had been made uncomfortable by his ministry and who were ready to act as informers against him to their new Bishop. One such man, Samuel Collins, Vicar of Braintree, was particularly involved in supplying Dr Arthur Duck, Laud's chancellor, with news of Hooker's activities and influence. Writing to Duck on May 20, 1629, concerning the question what should be done with Hooker, Collins advised against the harshest punishment because the consequences of such action might 'prove very dangerous', for 'all men's ears are now filled with the obstreperous clamours of his followers'. At the same time Collins urged that Hooker would not be silenced if he was merely suspended from his lectureship — a course of action which Laud followed with other Puritans. Thomas Hooker, Collins wrote, was no ordinary man:

'If he be suspended . . . it's the resolution of his friends and himself to settle his abode in Essex, and maintenance is promised him in plentiful manner for the fruition of his private conference which hath already more impeached the peace of our church than his public ministry. His genius will still haunt all the pulpits in the country where any of his scholars may be admitted to preach. There be divers young ministers about us . . . that spend their time . . . in conference with him . . . and return home . . . and preach . . . what he hath brewed . . . Our people's palates grow so out of taste that no food contents them but of Mr Hooker's dressing. I have lived in Essex to see many new ministers and lecturers, but this man surpasses them all for learning and some other considerable parts, and . . . gains more and far greater followers than all before him."

Hooker's removal from the country, Collins believed, was what was needed. His letter concluded with this significant plea: 'And now I humbly crave your silence, and that when your worship hath read my letter none may see it, for if that some in the world should have the least inkling hereof, my credit and fortune were utterly ruined.'

Hooker's movements during 1629 cannot be clearly traced. There are glimpses of him visiting Leicestershire, and also Lincolnshire where at Sempringham Castle (the home of the Earl of Lincoln) he met with John Cotton, John Winthrop and other Puritans, to discuss both the new colony in Massachusetts and the evangelization of its native Indian population. In June, 1629, he was in London to appear before Laud. Samuel Collins reported from Braintree on June 3, 'All men's heads, tongues, eyes, and ears are in London, and all the countries about London taken up with plotting, talking, and expecting what will be the conclusion of Mr Hooker's business . . . It drowns the noise of the great question of Tonnage and Poundage'.

It must have been a surprise to Collins when Laud's action against Hooker went no further than threats. The Vicar of Braintree already knew that threats would be useless and so it proved. John Browning, the anti-Puritan Rector of Rawreth, complained to Laud on November 3, 1629, that 'Mr Hooker doth even still to this present continue his former practices. May it therefore please your lordship,' he continued, 'grant us the help of your honourable authority, if not to the suppressing and casting out (as we hope) such an one from amongst us, yet at least to the defending us who live in obedience'. Browning promised that if Hooker were suppressed he would use the weight of his influence to counter the re-action of those 'over much addicted to hearing the Word (as they call it)'. Knowing Hooker's danger, forty-nine beneficed clergy in Essex, of opposite stamp to Browning, petitioned Laud for the continuance of the lecturer at Chelmsford, holding 'Mr Thomas Hooker to be for doctryne, orthodox, and life and conversation as honest, and for his disposition peaceable, no ways turbulent or factious.'

Before long, it seems, Laud did suspend Hooker but, as Collins had anticipated, it was not enough. At a new home at Cuckoos Farm in Little Baddow, some five miles from Chelmsford, the Puritan leader both continued his regular conferences with other ministers and started a school with the aid of a young convert from his ministry — John Eliot, the future pioneer missionary among the North American Indians. The outcome was inevitable. On July 10, 1630, an ecclesiastical court, sitting at Chelmsford, cited Hooker to the ecclesiastical Court of High Commission in London. In view of the absolute power and savage procedures of that Court, Hooker chose instead to leave the country for the Continent. Had he not done so he might well have died in prison in London along with Sir John Eliot, one of the leaders of the 'Puritan faction' in Parliament.

Yet it does not appear that Hooker hastened his departure from England. 'The Earl of Warwick now became his friend,' writes T. W. Davids, 'and concealed him for some time at "Old Park".' The date of Hooker's final sermon in Essex is not known but its contents have largely survived, being published subsequently under the title, The Danger of Desertion. The text was Jeremiah 14.9, 'And we are called by thy Name, leave us not'. Even in the imperfect notes (taken by two of his hearers) which have survived we can sense something of what this farewell meant to both preacher and hearers. From the application of the sermon we take the following:

I am an importunate suitor for Christ. Oh, send me not sad away I What are you resolved of ? Are you willing to enjoy God still, and to have him dwell with you? Well, look to it, for God is going, and if he do go, then our glory goes also. And then we may say with Phinehas' wife, [I Sam 4.22] 'Glory is departed from Israel'. So glory is departed from England; for England hath seen her best days and the reward of sin is coming on apace, for God is packing up of his gospel because none will buy his wares. God begins to ship away his Noahs which prophesied and foretold that destruction was near; and God makes account that New England shall be a refuge for his Noahs and his Lots, a rock and a shelter for his righteous ones to ran unto; and those that were vexed to see the ungodly lives of the people in this wicked land shall there be safe. Oh, therefore my brethren, lay hold on God, and let him not go out of your coasts! He is going! Look about you, I say, and stop him at the town's-end, and let not thy God depart! Oh, England, lay siege about him by humble and hearty closing with him, and although he be going, he is not yet gone! Suffer him not to go far, suffer him not to say, 'Farewell, or rather fare-ill, England!'

Now God calls upon thee, as he did sometime upon Jerusalem, [Jer 6.8] 'Be thou instructed therefore', O England, 'lest my soul depart from thee, and lest I make thee desolate like a land that none inhabiteth . . .' This is our day of atonement. This present day is ours. We have nothing to do with tomorrow. We are at odds with God, and this is the day of our reconciliation. This is the day wherein we are to make our peace with our God! Let us labour, therefore, to prevail with God, and, that we may not lose his presence, do as the spouse in Canticles 3.1, She sought him, but she could not find him, yet she gave not over, but she followed him till she found him. So our God is going, and shall we sit still on our beds?

Would you have the gospel kept with these lazy wishes? Oh, no, no! Arise! Arise from off your downy beds, and fall down upon your knees, and entreat God to leave his gospel to you and to your posterity! Shall we, by our sins, disinherit our infants and posterity of such a blessing? Shall we bereave them of the gospel, which is, or should be, the life of their lives, and so have them brought up in superstition? No, no! Lord, we cannot abide this. Oh, give us neither wealth nor any other blessing but thy gospel! This is our plea, Lord. And when we have found God, then let us bring him home to our houses, and there retain him, that so he may be our God, and the God of our posterity. We will cry, 'Lord, have mercy upon us'. Oh, my beloved, carry God home with you I Lay hold on him. Let him not go. And let him be a father to you, and to your posterity!"

June 1631 found Hooker in the Netherlands, his wife and children meanwhile being cared for, it seems, on the Earl of Warwick's estate at Great Waltham. Two things marked Hooker's stay in the Netherlands, first his harmonious assistantship to the exiled Scots minister, John Forbes, who ministered to English-speaking merchants in the Prinsenhof Church at Delft, and, second, his meeting and friendship with the great William Ames, whom he had last seen in Cambridge in 1610. If Ames remembered the young Fellow of Emmanuel he certainly found him now to be a different man. Cotton Mather records Ames' assertion that 'though he had been acquainted with many scholars of divers nations, yet he never met with Mr Hooker's equal, either for preaching or for disputing'. These were memorable words in a generation of men who were not given to praising one another.

In March, 1633, or thereabouts, Hooker left Delft for Rotterdam and appears to have made a short visit to England to ascertain both for himself and Forbes the prospect in New England. It may well have been shortly before that visit that he wrote to John Cotton (in hiding in England), advising him that he saw no cause to encourage fellow countrymen to settle in the Netherlands and going on to speak of his own perplexity in knowing the guidance of God:

My ague yet holds me. The ways of God's providence, wherein he has walked towards me in this long time of my sickness and wherein I have drawn forth many wearyish hours under his Almighty hand (Blessed be his Name!), together with pursuits and banishment which have waited upon me, as one wave follows another, have driven me to an amazement, his paths being too secret and past finding out by such an ignorant, worthless worm as myself. I have looked over my heart, and life, according to my measure, aimed and guessed as well as I could, and entreated his Majesty to make known his mind, wherein I missed. And yet methinks I cannot spell out readily the purpose of his proceedings, which, I confess, have been wonderful in miseries and more than wonderful in mercies to me and mine.

Probably Hooker's visit to England decided his mind as he met and conferred with old friends. The emigration to New England of which he had spoken publicly in 1631 was quickening in pace. A number of his Essex hearers and converts were already at Mount Wollaston in Massachusetts Bay by August 1632, being known as 'Mr Hooker's company'. Others were ready to leave. These former hearers pressed him to join them, and to bring Samuel Stone with him as an assistant. When 'aged and holy Mr Forbes', as Mather calls him, heard the hopeful news when Hooker returned to the Netherlands he nevertheless decided to stay in the land where he was to die in 1634. In the early summer of 1633 Hooker was back in England, experiencing escapes from arrest which were not due to any lack of effort on the part of the authorities. At length with his wife and their children, with John Cotton, Samuel Stone, and some 200 others they sailed from the Downs on the Griffin in July, 1633. 'None but Mr Stone was owned for a preacher at their first coming abroad,' writes Mather, 'the other two delaying to take their turns in the publick worship of the ship till they were got so far into the main ocean that they might with safety discover [reveal] who they were.'

Forty-eight years old when he arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1633, Hooker and Stone first served the church formed at Newtown (Cambridge) and then, in July, 1636, removed to Hartford where, in due course, the new colony of Connecticut was formed beside the river from whence it took its name. Differences in opinion between Hooker and some of the leaders in Boston undoubtedly contributed to the decision to remove further from the Bay. These differences did not concern the doctrine of conversion or the fundamentals of the gospel; on these things Hooker ever remained in union with his brethren; they had to do rather with the political policy in Massachusetts. The counsel which prevailed in Boston, influenced by the assumption that at various points a Christian state should follow the Old Testament theocracy, restricted suffrage to church members and was ready to deal with differences of religious opinion by force of law. Hooker saw the error in this thinking. Along with all Puritans, 'Hooker held that the care of the Church was the first duty of the magistrate, and that civil laws for the support of a chosen Church were salutary for both Church and State. But,' writes Sanford H. Cobb, 'he never attempted to blend the two together'. The existence of greater religious liberty in Connecticut is directly attributable to the man whom Mather calls 'the chief instrument' in its beginning.

His wisdom on the state and church issue was not to be the principal thing for which Hooker was to be remembered after his death in July, 1647. As with Paul, the chief commendation of his ministry, was supplied by the men and women who had become 'the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God'. In the opinion of Winthrop, noted in his journal, at the time of the passing of New England's 'Luther': 'The fruits of his labours in both Englands shall preserve an honourable and happy remembrance of him forever'. This brings us back, then, to the subject of conversion and to the preaching which was the instrument of drawing many to Christ. We have already noted how Samuel Collins, Laud's informer, warned that even with Hooker silenced in Chelmsford 'his genius will still haunt all the pulpits in the country'. What that 'genius' was, in respect to the preaching of the gospel, it remains for us to consider.




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