Bible Conferences: Puritans and their Conferences

          “Post-Christian” is just one of the many titles being used these days to describe our brave new world, a world where absolute truth and the Truth have been pushed to our societal margins. And of course, this should come as no surprise to the alert and watchful Christian who has been following our Western culture’s decades-long, nay, centuries-long commitment to individual autonomy. One result of this has been an increasingly noticeable and more open antagonism of the world toward the church. But alas, there is nothing new under the Sun and ever since the days of Cain and Abel, the faithful of God have been waiting for the Messiah (either for his first coming or his second) under a world ruled by the prince of the power of the air. Come Lord Jesus, Come!

            Though the church will stand triumphant on that Last Day, we labour now as weary sojourners constantly considering “how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as we see the Day drawing near.” Yes, this is done primarily and preeminently in and through the local church where we gather on the Lord’s Day to hear God’s word preached, the partake together of the Lord’s Supper, praying and singing together in fellowship. And this is all God’s normal and ordinary means of sustaining grace to his church.

            But another way in which the church has historically sought to bring about encouragement and strength is through informal times of gathering with the wider church catholic. And this is especially so in times where the wider culture is more starkly hostile to the gospel.

            After the oppressive reign of Queen Mary where countless pastors and reformed believers were either exiled or killed, many congregations throughout England were left without godly shepherds. One region that remedied this problem early on was the Stour Valley where what was known as the “Conference Movement” or “Prophesyings” quickly developed. By God’s grace, these conferences brought gospel light back to the area. These conferences were times where clergy and even lay believers from around the region would gather to hear sermons preached (hence the prophesyings) and theology discussed in order to both refresh, strengthen and bring unity to these pastors as well as bring strength and unity to their respective churches.

            One observer of these conferences, the Catholic priest William Weston, described it as all the clergy and laity “flocking from all quarters to be present at their exercises. These they used to begin with three or four sermons, preached one after the other... They had all their Bibles, and looked diligently for the texts that were quoted by their preachers, comparing different passages to see if they had been brought forward truly and to the point... When the [conference] was dismissed, after the long fast that had been imposed upon them all, and after the whole day had been consumed in these exercises, they ended... with a plentiful supper.”[1]

            This notably Puritan practice made such an impact on the Stour Valley region that the whole area came to be known as the “Godly Kingdom of Stour Valley”[2] In fact, when certain ministers from the region were sometimes summoned to appear before Church of England courts for their nonconforming practices, they were almost always released without punishment due to “appreciation of the good done by reformist ministers in preaching Protestant doctrines and raising the standards of public morality.”[3]

            One local pastor described these conferences as “very necessary for the increase of knowledge to all ministers.” The archdeacon of Essex, John Walker, said that there was in these events “an increase in learning, and edifying of the people to have grown thereby” finding biblical precedence in Paul who went “to Jerusalem after he had longed preached the Gospel to confer with the rest of the apostles, and divers times to decide and debate controversies.”[4]

            The future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony John Winthrop, who grew up in the Stour Valley, described these conferences as times that “God so blessed unto us, as we were all much quickened and refreshed by [them]... I find often times that coming out of good company I am sometimes more disquieted than before.”[5] Winthrop was so effected by the godly fruit of this practice seen throughout his early upbringing in the “Godly Kingdom of Stour” that he made it a point to organize and maintain this practice of conferencing as a leader in New England.[6]  Francis Bremer notes that for Winthrop, prophesyings and conferences were essential means in bringing this fledgling New England colony toward symmetry and unity and giving religious health to its society.[7] Perhaps it was this context that sat behind his famous sermon where he exhorted those early Puritan colonists to make Massachusetts a “city upon a hill, watched by the whole world.”

            As we look back with thankfulness to a time where God used conferences to maintain Gospel preaching, sanctify the saints, and even develop godly societies, let us not neglect in this current “Post-Christian” atmosphere that old Puritan practice conferencing. Perhaps God will be pleased to do the same in our day as he did in the Stour Valley and in the New England colonies.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.



[1] Francis J. Bremer, John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father. (Oxford Press, 2003), p. 60.

[2] ibid., p.51.

[3] ibid., p.53.

[4] ibid., p.54.

[5] ibid., p.111-112.

[6] ibid., p.197.

[7] ibid., p.220.

 


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