THE COMMENCEMENT OF THE CHURCH OF CHRIST AT BEDFORD
Also a letter from its Pastor, John Gifford*
In this town of Bedford, and the places adjacent, there have for a long time been godly persons, who in former times, (even while they remained without all form and order as to visible church communion according to the Testament of Christ) were very zealous according to their light, not only to edify themselves, but also to propagate the Gospel, and help it forward, both by purse and presence, keeping always a door open and a table furnished and free for all such ministers and Christians who shewed their zeal for, and love to, the Gospel of Christ. Among these that reverend man Mr. John Grew was chief, also Mr. John Eston, senior, and brother Anthony Harrington, with others: men that in those times were enabled of God to venture far in shewing their detestation of the bishops and their superstitions. But as the said persons, with many more, neither were, nor yet desired to be, embodied into fellowship according to the order of the Gospel, only they had in some measure separated themselves from the prelatical superstition, and had agreed to search after the non-conforming men, such as in those days did bear the name of Puritans.
But when it pleased God (who had before appointed that holy ordinance of the communion of saints) to show this mercy to this people, he placed Mr. John Gifford among them for their minister in Christ Jesus and to be their pastor and bishop and the steward of God to communicate unto them the knowledge of His will, in the holy mysteries of the Gospel. Of whom (because there appeared a more than ordinary hand of God in his call to the ministry and his place and office among them) take this short relation of him, both before and after grace received.
Mr. Gifford was a Kentish man, a great royalist, and an officer [viz. a major) in the King’s army. He also had his hand in that rising which was in that county, for which he was also apprehended and adjudged with 11 more to the gallows. But the night before he was to die his sister, coming to visit him, and finding the sentinels that kept the door asleep, and his companions within, heavy through drink, she told him of the door and the watch that stood before it, and entreated him to take the opportunity to escape and save his life:
which also he did, and passed through them all, there being as it were a deep sleep from the Lord upon them, and made his escape into the field and creeping into the bottom of a ditch, lay there about
three days, till the great search for him was over, and then by the help of his friends he came disguised to London, where he abode not long but was conveyed down into this country, where he also lay hid from his enemies, in the house of certain great persons who were of like mind with himself. And after a while he came to Bedford, and there, being utterly a stranger, he professed and practised medicine, but was still very vile and debauched in life, being a great drinker, gamester, swearer etc. But in his gaming so it was that he usually lost, which would sometimes put him into some dumpish and discontented fits, and resolutions to leave that practise, but these resolutions were but like the chains on the man mentioned in the Gospel, which could not hold when the fit to be vile was upon him, wherefore he went on and broke them still.
But one night, having lost, as I take it, about Â£15, it put him into a rage and he thought many desperate thoughts against God. But while he was looking into one of Mr. Bolton’s books, something therein took hold upon him, and brought him into a great sense of sin, wherein he continued for the space of a month or above, but at last God did so plentifully discover to him by His Word, the forgiveness of his sins for the sake of Christ, that (as he hath by several of the brethren been heard to say) all his life after, which was about the space of five years, he lost not the light of God’s countenance, no not for an hour, save only about two days before he died.
But when it had pleased God to awaken this man, he sought forthwith to get acquainted with those godly persons that are above mentioned, but they could not at first believe that he was a disciple;
yet he would inquire after their meetings, and being naturally bold, would thrust himself again and again into their company, both together and apart. Yet they had jealousies about him, for he had indeed been a very vile man, and had also in the town attempted in a very rude manner to do several actions that showed great extravagancy of mind and wildness of heart. Besides, as himself did after say, he often had thoughts to kill brother Harrington, merely from that great antipathy that was in his heart against the people of God and the holiness of the Gospel.
But so it was that in little time he was much in his heart put upon it to preach, but yet would not without he consulted first with the godly, but they being at a stand in the case, he first offered his gift before them in private, and afterwards in an open way before the world: whose word God so blessed that even at the first he was made, through grace, a father to some through the Gospel. For instance sister Cooper, a woman whose memory is yet precious among us, was converted by the first sermon he preached in public.
Now having continued preaching a while, and receiving some
light into the Congregational way, after some acquaintance also with other ministers, he attempted to gather into Gospel fellowship the saints and brethren in and about this town, but the more mature professors, being used to live as some other good men of these times, without regard to such seperate and close communion, were not at first so ready to fall into that godly order.
Wherefore many days were, by him and them, set apart for prayer to seek of God light and counsel therein. They also conferred with members of other societies and at last by the mercy and goodness of God, they began to come to some blessed resolution therein.
And first they consulted, after they had determined to walk together in the fellowship of the Gospel, and so to build a house for the name of our God, who were most expedient to begin to be laid in this building as foundation stones. And at length twelve of the holy brethren and sisters began this holy work: viz. Mr. John Grew and his wife, Mr. John Eston the elder, Anthony Harrington and his wife, Mr. John Gifford, sister Coventon, sister Bosworth, sister Munnes, sister Fenne and sister Norton and sister Spencer, all mature and grave Christians well known one to another, sister Norton being the youngest.
The manner of their putting themselves into the state of a Church of Christ was:- after much prayer and waiting upon God and consulting one with another, by the Word, they, upon the day apointed for this solemn work being met, after prayer and seeking God as before, with one consent they jointly first gave themselves to the Lord, and one to another by the will of God.
This done they with one mouth made choice of brother Gifford to be their pastor or elder, to minister to them in the things of the kingdom of Christ, to whom they had given themselves before. Wherefore brother Gifford accepted of the charge, and gave himself up to the Lord, and to His people, to walk with them, watch over them, and dispense the mysteries of the Gospel among them, under that consideration by which he was chosen of them.
Now the principle upon which they thus entered into fellowship one with another and upon which they did afterwards receive those that were added to their body and fellowship was faith in Christ and holiness of life, without respect to this or that circumstance or opinion in outward and circumstantial things. By which means grace and faith was encouraged: love and amity maintained: disputings and occasion to janglings and unprofitable questions avoided, and many that were weak in the faith confirmed in the blessing of eternal life.
This principle was maintained in the Church to her mutual comfort and edification, even till the death of brother Gifford, who also because of his care to congregation while he was fetching his
last breath, wrote an epistle to the congregation, to persuade them to continue in the faithful maintaining of the above named principle among them, with many other exhortations tending to peace and holiness and brotherly love, which epistle here follows:-
To the Church over which God made me an overseer when I was in the world.
I beseech you brethren beloved, let these following words (wrote in my love to you and care over you, when our heavenly Father was removing me to the kingdom of His dear Son) be read in your Church gatherings together.
I shall not now, dearly beloved, write unto you about that which is the first, and without which all other things are as nothing in the sight of God, viz. The keeping the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. I shall not, I say, write of these things (though the greatest) having spent my labours among you to root you and build you up in Christ (through the grace you have received) and to press you to all manner of holiness in your lives, that you may be found of the Lord without spot, and blameless at His coming.
But the things that I shall speak to you of, are about your Church affairs, which I fear have been little considered by most of you;
which things, if not minded aright and submitted unto according to the will of God, will, by degrees, bring you under divisions, distractions, and at last to confusion of that Gospel order and fellowship which now through grace you enjoy.
Therefore my brethren, in the first place I would not have any of you ignorant of this, that every one of you are as much bound now, to walk with the Church in all love, and in the ordinances of Jesus Christ our Lord, as when I was present among you; neither have any of you liberty to join yourselves to any other society, because your pastor is removed from you, for you were not joined to the ministry, but to Christ and the Church. And this is, and was, the will of God in Christ to all the churches of the saints. Read Acts 2.41 and compare it with Acts 1.14,15. And I charge you before the Lord, as you will answer it at the coming of our Lord Jesus, that none of you be found guilty herein.
Secondly. Be constant in your Church assemblies. Let all the work which concerns the Church be done faithfully amongst you; as admission of members, exercising of gifts, election of officers, as need requires, and all other things like these, which the Scriptures, being searched, will lead you into through the Spirit. Which things if you do, the Lord will be with you, and you will convince others that Christ is your Head, and your dependency is not upon man. But if you do the work of the Lord negligently, if you mind your own
things and not the things of Christ, if you become indifferent in spint, whether you mind the work of the Lord in his Church or not, I fear the Lord, by degrees, will suffer the comfort of your communion to be dried up, and the candlestick which is yet landing, to be broken in pieces, which God forbid.
Now concerning your admission of members, I shall leave you to the Lord for counsel, who hath hitherto been with you. Only thus much I think expedient, to stir up your remembrance in, that after you are satisfied of the work of grace in the party you are to join ,with, the said party do solemnly declare (before some of the Church at least), that union with Christ is the foundation of all saints’ communion, and not any ordinances of Christ,** or any judgment or opinion about externals. And the said party ought to declare, whether a brother or sister, that through grace they will walk in love with the Church, though there should happen any difference in judgement about other things.
Concerning separation from the Church about baptism, laying on of hands, anointing with oil, psalms, or any externals, I charge every one of you respectively, as you will give an account for it to our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge both quick and dead at his coming, that none of you be found guilty of this great evil, which whiles some have committed and that through a zeal for God, yet not according to knowledge, they have erred from the law of the love of Christ, and have made a rent from the true Church which is but one.
I exhort you brethren, in your comings together, let all things be done decently and in order according to the Scriptures. Let all things be done among you without strife and envy, without selfseeking and vain glory. Be clothed with humility and submit to one another in love. Let the gifts of the Church be exercised according to order. Let no gift be concealed which is for edification:
yet let those gifts be chiefly exercised which are most for the perfecting of the saints. Let your discourses be to build up one another in your most holy faith and to provoke one another to love and good works. If this be not well minded much time may be spent and the Church reap little or no advantage. Let there be strong meat for the strong, and milk for babes. In your assemblies avoid all disputes which gender to strifes, as questions about externals, and all doubtful disputations. If any come among you who will be contentious in these things, let it be declared that you have no such
order, nor any of the churches of God. If any come among you with any doctrine contrary to the doctrine of Christ, you must not treat with such an one as with a brother or enter into dispute of the things of faith with reasonings (for this is contrary to the Scriptures) but let such of the brethren who are fullest of the Spirit and Word of Christ, oppose such an one stedfastly, face to face, and lay open his folly to the Church from the Scriptures.
If a brother (through weakness) speaks any thing contrary to any known truth of God (though not intended by him), some other brother of the Church must in love clear up the truth, lest many of the Church be laid under temptation. Let no respect of persons be in your comings together. When you are met as a Church, there’s neither rich nor poor, bond nor free, in Christ Jesus. Tis not a good practise to be offering places or seats, when those who are rich come in. Especially ’tis a great evil to take notice of such in time of prayer or the Word: then are bowings and civil observances at such times not of God. Private wrongs are not presently to be brought unto the Church. If any of the brethren be troubled about externals, let some of the Church (let it not be a Church business) pray for and with such parties.
None ought to withdraw from the Church if any brother should walk disorderly, but he that walketh disorderly must bear his own burden according to the Scriptures. If any brother should walk disorderly, he cannot be shut out from any ordinance before Church censure. Study among yourselves what is the nature of fellowship, as the Word, prayer and breaking of bread, which few, I judge, seriously consider that there is much falling short of this duty in the Churches of Christ. You that are most eminent in profession, set a pattern to all the rest of the Church. Let your faith, love and zeal be very eminent: if any of you cast a dim light, you will do much hurt to the Church.
Let there be kept up among you solemn days of prayer and thanksgiving, and let some time be set apart to seek God for your children, which thing has hitherto been omitted. Let your deacons have a constant stock by them to supply the necessities of those who are in want. Truly, brethren, there is utterly a fault among you that are rich especially in this thing. ‘Tis not that little which comes from you on the first day of the week that will excuse you. I beseech you, be not found guilty of this sin any longer. He that sows sparingly will reap sparingly. Be not backward in your gatherings together. Let none of you willingly delay till part of the meeting be over, especially such who should be examples to the flock.
One or two things are omitted about your comings together, which I shall here add. I beseech you forbear sitting in prayer, except parties be any way disabled. Tis not a posture that suits with the majesty of such an ordinance. Would you serve your prince so? In prayer let all self-affected expressions be avoided and all vain repetitions. God hath not gifted, I judge, every brother to be a mouth to the Church. Let such as have most of the demonstration of the Spirit, and of power, conclude all your comings together, that ye may go away with your hearts comforted, and quickened. Come together in time, and leave off orderly, for God is a God of order amongst His saints. Let none of you give offence to his brother in indifferent things, but be subject to one another in love.
Be very careful what gifts you approve of by consent for public service. Spend much time before the Lord about choosing a pastor, for though I suppose he whom the Lord has appointed, is before you, yet it will be no disadvantage to you I hope if you walk a year or two as you are before election. And then (if you be all agreed) let him be set apart according to the Scriptures.***
Salute the brethren who walk not in fellowship with you, with the same love and name of brother or sister as those who do. Let the promises made to be accomplished in the latter days, be often urged before the Lord in your comings together, and forget not your brethren in bonds.
Love him much for the work’s sake who labours over you in the word and doctrine: let no man despise his youth. Muzzle not the mouth of the ox that treads out the corn to you. Search the Scriptures. Let some of them be read to you about this thing. If your teacher at any time be laid aside, you ought to meet together as a Church, and build up one another. If the members at such a time will go to a public ministry, it must first be approved of by the Church.
Farewell. Exhort, counsel, support, reprove one another in love. Finally, brethren, be all of one mind. Walk in love one to another, even as Christ Jesus hath loved you and given himself for you. Search the Scriptures for a supply of those things wherein I am wanting.
Now the God of peace, who raised up our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, multiply His peace upon you, and preserve you to his everlasting kingdom by Jesus Christ. Stand fast. The Lord is at hand.
That this was written by me I have set my name to it, in the presence of two of the brethren of the Church.
*This account is a modernised form of the original found in The Minutes of the First Independent Church (now Bunyan Meeting) at Bedford 1656-1766. Published by the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society in 1976.
**This strongly independent church would not make differences about baptism a reason for refusing membership. John Bunyan wrote at length in 1673 on “Differences in Judgment about Water Baptism No Bar to Communion”. The publishers of this magazine do not share all his views on this matter but feel the letter contains so much important advice to churches that it was well worth reprinting.
*** Evidently a reference to John Bunyan.