John Flavel: The “Lost” Puritan -- By: Brian H. Cosby

Journal: Puritan Reformed Journal
Volume: PRJ 03:1 (Jan 2011)
Article: John Flavel: The “Lost” Puritan
Author: Brian H. Cosby


John Flavel: The “Lost” Puritan

Brian H. Cosby

Anthony à Wood (1632-1695), the Royalist historian of Oxford and contemporary of John Flavel, once noted that Flavel had “more disciples than ever John Owen the independent or Rich. Baxter the presbyterian.”1 Increase Mather (1639-1723), himself a well-known New England Puritan and Harvard College president, once wrote shortly after Flavel died: “[Flavel’s] works, already published, have made his name precious in both Englands; and it will be so, as long as the earth shall endure.”2 Unfortunately, Mather’s prophecy has not come true. Among the annals of Puritan studies, Flavel is often lost in the corpus of historical studies of the Puritan “greats”: Richard Sibbes, John Owen, John Bunyan, and Richard Baxter. But if Wood is correct as a historian and as a contemporary, then Flavel had more of an influence in the seventeenth century than did either Owen or Baxter. This present study is an attempt to reveal this “lost Puritan” as both an important and influential English character and as someone who deserves a second look in the field of Puritan studies.

Flavel as a “Puritan”

That Flavel is called a “Puritan” is immediately a designation in need of some qualification. The term held different meanings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and those who were labeled as such often espoused different theological emphases, different ecclesiological

tendentiousness, and even different goals. As historian John Spurr points out:

Theological innovation reflected pastoral experience; some groups emphasize[d] one aspect rather than another.... The term ‘puritan’ was dynamic, changing in response to the world around it and applying to several denominations...but [it] also denotes a cluster of ideas, attitudes and habits, all built upon the experience of justification, election and regeneration, and this in turn differentiates puritans from other groups such as conformists or the Quakers.3

Because of the changing milieu surrounding the use of “Puritan” and “Puritanism” in their contemporary setting, the problem of defining them was not only one of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but, even more so, remains a modern historiographical problem.4

Albeit changing emphases, there remained some elements that were common to most, if not all, Puritans. First, Puritans were reactionaries to the Elizabethan Settlement (1559) in favor of ...

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