This memoir reproduced with the permission of the Banner of Truth magazine. (May 1988. Issue 296. pp 26-30)
by Michael Plant
The ministry of Rev. Richard Davis of Rothwell, Northamptonshire, lasted from 1689 until 1714 and was marked, especially prior to 1700 and the collapse of Davis’ health, by zealous itinerant evangelism and the grace of God at work in reviving power. Davis had an unfortunate press. His main claim to fame seems to be the fact that he is regarded as a Hyper-Calvinist and an Antinomian whose views and activities wrecked the Happy Union of Presbyterians and Congregationalists within two years of its launching in 1691. But in Richard Davis’ ministry we have a happy blend of sound Calvinistic theology and passionate evangelism. In addition we have ample evidence of God’s grace in reviving His cause among saints and sinners.
In 1689 William and Mary acceded to the throne. This marked the end of almost thirty years’ persecution of the dissenters. In April 1682 the Rothwell meetings had been broken up and their minister imprisoned. On 3rd April 1684 the Church book reads, ‘From the last date (fourteen months previously) a sore persecution and scattering lay upon us, that we hardly got together, much less obtained church meetings’ and again (13th May 1686), ‘The church had but little communion for some months till God put it upon our hearts to humble ourselves, reform his house and set upon our works almost lost by five or six years persecution and the death of our pastor.’ Their pastor, a Mr Browning, died on 9th May 1685. There is evidence of God already at work in the Rothwell congregation prior to Richard Davis’ settlement among them but generally the dissenting cause was weak. A report in 1690 by the managers of the Common Fund stated that dissenting congregations in Northamptonshire were disintegrating for want of ministers. This Urgent need explains the form Richard Davis’ ministry was to take. We ought also to note a sharp antagonism between the Congregationalists at Rothwell, who had suffered cruelly during the years of persecution, and some of the neighbouring Presbyterian congregations, who had conformed during this period. The local tensions were worsened by the situation that existed nationally between Presbyterians and Congregationalists. On the surface all was well and the establishing of a common fund preceded the Happy Union of 1691. This union was intended to produce a unity of doctrine and practice but strict Congregationalists, Davis included, felt there had been unacceptable concessions and no doubt high Presbyterians felt the same. More crucially a deep doctrinal divergence was taking place. Baxterianism, Amyraldianism or Neonomianism (New law-ism) was spreading amongst the Presbyterians. In 1677 Daniel Williams published a book entitled Some of the paradoxes contained in the scheme and these ideas were very influential. High Calvinists such as Isaac Chauncy and Thomas Cole, pastor of Silver Street Congregational Church where Davis was a member, wrote against the scheme. It is over simplistic to make this strictly a Congregational/Presbyterian divide because Robert Traill, a Presbyterian, wrote against Neonomianism in A Vindication of The Protestant Doctrine of Justification from the Unjust Charge of Antinomianism and John King, one of Davis’ most vicious opponents, was a Baxterian and the Congregational minister at Wellingborough. Let us summarise the two positions in the doctrinal controversy. Firstly the High Calvinists taught that God’s law is unchanged and unchanging and that Christ has lived and died for His elect. He suffered in their place for their sins and provided for them a perfect righteousness imputed to them for acceptance with God. This to be received by faith alone. The Baxterian position is different all along the line. Firstly Christ did not bear the punishment of His people on the cross but endured an equivalent punishment. The gospel is then thought of as a new ‘law’ and to receive the saving benefits is made conditional on repentance and faith. Such diverse views meant that high Calvinists made accusations of legalism and Arminianism and suffered counter-charges of Antinomianism and Hyper-Calvinism. Certainly it needs to be admitted that doctrinal Antinomianism and Hyper-Calvinism did exercise increasing influence at the start of the eighteenth century. Davis avoided such errors in his teaching.
Richard Davis was born in 1658 and was a native of Cardiganshire in South Wales. He was well-educated and was a schoolmaster in London from 1680-89. Shortly after his arrival in London he came to faith in Christ. Whilst seeking Christ, he had a memorable conversation with the great Dr John Owen. John Owen said to him, ‘Young man, pray after what manner do you think to go to God?’ Mr Davis answered ‘Sir, through the mediator’. To which the doctor replied, ‘Young man, that is easily said but I do assure you that it is another thing to go to God through the mediator, indeed, than perhaps many men who make use of the expression are aware of. I myself preached Christ for some years, when I had but little if any experimental acquaintance with access to God through Christ; until the Lord was pleased to visit me with sore affliction, whereby I was brought to the mouth of the grave, and under which my soul was oppressed with horror and darkness, but God graciously relieved my spirit in a powerful application of Psalm 130 v. 4, “But there is forgiveness with thee that thou mayest be feared” ‘ From whence I received special instruction, peace and comfort, in drawing near to God, through the mediator; and preached thereupon immediately after my recovery.’ This conversation was among the means used in Richard Davis’ conversion and he became a member of the Silver Street Congregational Church. At this time he married a widow, Mrs Rosamund Williams. Within the Silver Street Church he was encouraged to exercise a preaching gift and in due course was called to pastor the Congregational Church at Rothwell, Northamptonshire. He left London with the blessing of the Silver Street congregation, who close their letter of dismission: ‘So recommending him to your holy fellowship as a brother in Christ, whose orderly walking and exemplary conversation among us hath been as becometh the gospel. Thus wishing to him and to you much of the Spirit and presence of God in your holy administrations. We take leave and rest. Your living brethren in the fellowship of the Gospel, Thomas Cole (Pastor) etc.’ On 20th February 1689, the Rothwell Church records, ‘Mr Richard Davis, after a full and large account given of God’s work upon his heart, was with the full and rejoicing consent of the whole church joined to their communion in order to his being pastor.’
RICHARD DAVIS’ MINISTRY
Ill-feeling from neighbouring ministers was evident at Richard Davis’ ordination. As a strict Congregationalist he was ordained by the elders of the Rothwell Church and when they were not invited to participate, some of the local ministers left, saying there was nothing for them to do. From the beginning, the ministry was richly blessed and during the twenty-five-year ministry, 795 members were added to the church (an average of thirty-two a year). The majority came in early on in his ministry. Davis writes, ‘It pleased God in a short time not only to make my service acceptable to the saints, and useful to their edification; but also to own the labours of the meanest of his servants with success in the work of conversion’. Not only was God honouring his gospel in Rothwell but small groups of Christian people near and far called for his services. Davis ministered in thirteen counties, travelling on horseback over eighty miles from Rothwell and visiting perhaps fifty congregations on a regular basis. To regard him as a forerunner to Whitefield and Wesley would be accurate in view of the zeal and diversity of his labours but not in the form they took. Each congregation was organised as part of the Rothwell Church and would celebrate the Lord’s supper and exercise church discipline. In time each became a separate church. It is important we realise that the blessing attendant on Davis’ ministry was a sign of the riches of life from above granted to the Rothwell Church as a body. A work of conversion was already in progress before his ministry began and the Church book shows a church in a state of spiritual ferment. They debated in the church meeting the existence and use of such officers as evangelists and administrators. On 28th October 1700 ‘the Church ordered some time to be spent every church meeting in relating their profession of faith and experiences and prophesying if God lays any word upon the heart of any brother’. Richard Davis wrote, ‘so glorious a work of Christ upon the wheel, must needs be expected to awaken all the rage of Satan against it’. This opposition took various forms in the years which followed. From 1700 onwards he was in poor health, never able to travel and rarely able to preach and in 1706 he published Faith the Grand Evidence of our Interest in Christ. In the foreword he states his reason was because, ‘The Lord’s sick family did in a most peculiar manner want visits of love and the souls of disciples stood in the greatest need of confirmation in so gloomy a dispensation’. He also writes, ‘The souls of believers, they are generally under great desertion, darkness and deadness’. These comments on the changing scene show, 1 believe, that not only was Davis less active than formerly but also that the Holy Spirit was no longer poured out in such fullness. In the early 1690s the experiences of the believers at Rothwell were characterised by strong and joyful assurance. At that time Davis contended strongly for the Reformers’ understanding of faith as including assurance as against that of late Puritan writers. He wrote, ‘I judge it is a safe way to form a definition of faith from the Holy Scriptures of Truth rather than the dark low experiences of weak believers’. But in 1706 he is urging his readers that, ‘The weakest act of saving faith in Christ takes possession of Him, and eternal life in Him’. Davis’ health continued poor and it handicapped his ministry considerably until his death in 1714.
RICHARD DAVIS AS A MAN OF GOD
We have already heard the Silver Street Church’s description of Davis as one whose ‘orderly walking and exemplary conversation among us bath been as becometh the gospel’. His Christian character is further revealed when he was asked why he was leaving the advantages of life in London for such poor prospects with a small, impoverished dissenting congregation. Davis simply replied that according to Christ’s word he was to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’. Davis also shows the Christian grace of forbearance and his controversial writings are very mild by seventeenth-century standards. Matthais Maurice shows this was not natural temperament but a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Maurice writes: ‘He was loving and kind to all his adversaries, patiently bearing injuries without revenge. And when at any time he was surprised into passion against any that offended him, it was always very manifest that the Spirit of Christ which dwelt in him would presently make faith and love to flourish, and melt him into meekness so that he could with greater ease forgive the offence than his own resentment’. Hence we see a naturally fiery man tamed by grace. Concerning Davis’ life of prayer Maurice writes: ‘The Spirit of Prayer he did in an eminent manner enjoy. His prayers were fervent and frequent … with what faith, humility and holy familiarity did he address the Almighty! With what self-abhorrence, yet with what holy boldness did he approach the throne of grace. With the greatest awe upon his spirit would he speak unto God, and yet with evangelical fondness, if I may so express it, would he in the spirit of adoption, throw himself into the bosom of his heavenly Father and there melt and mourn, pray and plead’. A man’s measure is what he is with God. Finally he died well, showing strong faith to the end. Just before Davis died, Matthias Maurice asked him how it was with his spirit in view of death and eternity. His answer was, ‘I am sedate’. His mind was stayed upon his Lord and so kept in perfect peace. He rejoiced greatly that he was going to the God of all grace and desired others might join with him on that account. Davis adhered to the Calvinism of the Savoy Declaration. He lived in a time of blessing. Persecution was now removed and the Spirit was poured out. Whilst Richard Davis did not stand alone doctrinally, he did stand largely alone, until the Methodist awakening, in his zeal and concern to reach the lost. Was this period Nonconformity’s missed Day of Grace?
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