THE AXMINSTER ECCLESIASTICA
K. W. H. Howard
It is both sad and surprising that Church History is not a subject of general interest among Christians for it is of far greater importance than is commonly realized. What makes it so is the
nature of the Church which, both visible and invisible, local and universal, is a Divine society. Indeed the Church is the only society or organisation that carries the explicit warrant of Holy Scripture for its existence in the Christian cause. Other Christian societies may have the implicit warrant of the Word of God; the Church has its express and explicit authority. The history of the Church, and the churches, is the history of an utterly unique organism the like of which is not to be found anywhere. It is to be feared that lack of interest in Church history usually reflects low views of the Church. What happens to and in the church of the living God must therefore be matter of concern to her members
We should have some interest in the records, whether those of the inspired Book of the Acts of the Apostles, or those of later origin, which speak of the rise and growth, success and failure, achievement or non-achievement, of this distinctive and quite incomparable society whose only king and head is the Lord Jesus Christ.
Where, then, are we to look for these later records? The memoirs of godly men and women are valuable sources, Christian
biography being a particularly rewarding field of reading. There
are, in addition, church records both official and unofficial, which are first-hand sources. Confining our attention for present purposes
to England alone, the National Church has its diocesan records
and registers, and the parish churches their registers of births, marriages and deaths, at least. Presbyterianism has its session and classic records, while Independency, both Congregational and Baptist, has its Church Books. It is in these Church Books, or Ecclesiastica, that one finds first-hand information as to the origin and growth and history of local churches. This is where the real ‘stuff’ of the history of English Nonconformity is found, and generally speaking, the older the books the more interesting and informative they are. We cannot go back in this particular field much earlier than the seventeenth century, and sadly, scores if not hundreds of these church books have perished with the passing of the years. Taking into account the general lack of security in which such records have usually been preserved it is surprising that as many have survived the hazards of time as are still extant. Some Nonconformist church books have been published and are well known, such as the Church Book of Bunyan Meeting, Bedford,
which includes the period of Bunyan’s pastorate there. In the nineteenth century the Hanserd Knollys Society published the Broadmead Records, a fascinating first-hand account of a church under persecution in seventeenth century Bristol. The same Society also published the records of the Nonconformist churches at Fenstanton, Warboys, and Hexham, relating to the period 1644Â— 1720. In recent years there has been published a most interesting volume of extracts from the seventeenth century church books of Nonconformist churches in the Bedfordshire area, and another containing the Association Records of the Particular Baptists prior to the year 1660, both of which contain valuable historical, doctrinal, and spiritual matter. I commend this kind of literature to your notice because the seventeenth century was a kind of crucible in which the distinctive Nonconformist churchmanship was refined. Indeed, we must go back to the first century for the roots of these principles; but we are not so superior to our later forefathers that we cannot profit from their rediscovery of these things, nor from the lessons arising from the pains and cost at which they made them.
The Axminster Ecclesiastica belongs to this category of Christian literature. Written by an unidentified hand in the seventeenth century, it remained in manuscript form until 1874 when it was published in a very limited edition, and the manuscript disappeared. Thus what is really a minor puritan classic has by today become virtually unknown, and its republication in 1976 is born of a deep conviction that it has a valuable contribution to make to contemporary Christian thought and life. We read that:
On the 26th day of the 8th month (1687)…. it was agreed by the church that this Book of Remembrance should be procured, in which the most material matters and things relating to this church should be recorded, and kept for a memorial for those that may succeed in after times.
Implementing this resolution, the puritan independent, or congregational church of Axminster in East Devon compiled its Ecclesiastica or Church Book, beginning with the scripture warrant for keeping such church records. Scripture precedents for commemorating the works of the Lord are recounted, ‘that the generation to come might know’, with this conclusion:
Shall kingdoms and commonwealths have their chronicles, civil courts their rolls and records? Shall tradesmen keep books of accounts, lawyers books of precedents, physicians their collections of experiments, and travellers their journals? And shall not the churches of Christ have their registers and books of remembrances wherein they may record their church transactions and the various dealings of God with them? …. Hereby not only the present but the future generation may be excited to praise the Lord when they shall see the series of His mercies in a register as so many pearls in a string, and by the frequent reading
of them may keep the same fresh and green in their memories.
From this introduction one may rightly conclude that the Axminster Ecclesiastica is no dreary factual and formal minute-book comprising nothing but dry as dust minutes, motions, and memoranda. It compresses in a most moving manner the events of some thirty-eight years in the life of a living Christian community. And it is a record that reads strangely like an addendum to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, in that it breathes the apostolic spirit, and partakes the primitive virtues and practices and problems of the apostolic churches.
The story begins in the year 1660, with the end of the Crom-wellian commonwealth and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy by the return from exile of King Charles II. It ends in 1698, after thirty years of persecution and eight or nine years of toleration. In its beginnings the record surrounds the life and work of a puritan worthy named Bartholomew Ashwood, the Oxford-educated vicar of Axminster:
An able minister of the Gospel…. a man of eminent piety, wisdom, and gravity. He had a deep insight into the mysteries of the gospel, and was very zealous for the pure instituted worship of Christ according to gospel rule and the order of the primitive churches.
No sooner had the king returned than the bishops pressed for the proscription of the puritans; and they secured their aim with speed. The Act of Uniformity required every minister to swallow every syllable of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; and it had the effect of excluding from the National Church nearly two thousand of the most godly ministers in the land on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1662. Some were ejected even earlier than this, and Ashwood was among these; he was in fact already languishing in Exeter gaol whilst the celebrated farewell sermons of July and August 1662 were being preached. But, before all this happened, and forseeing that it would come to pass, while Ashwood still ministered at the parish Church of Axminster:
The Lord blessed the ministry of His servant through the powerful and effectual operations of the Holy Spirit…. to the awakening, enlightening, converting, and effectually drawing over some souls to close in with Jesus Christ, and whose hearts were engaged and made willing to be the Lord’s covenant people. These continued waiting on his ministry in the public dispensations of the gospel, and frequently assembled themselves together with one accord in more private seasons …. they were waiting for an opportunity and capacity to form themselves into a Church of Christ according to gospel rule and the pure institution of the Lord Jesus Christ, after the order of the primitive churches at the first publication of the Gospel….
And form a church they did, toward the latter end of the year 1660. What is the right way to form, constitute and embody, a local church? Here is an account of how, with profound simplicity, a few souls, some twelve or thirteen persons, on a solemn day of prayer and supplication gave themselves to the Lord, and to each other by the will of God, solemnly covenanting and engaging to walk together. There is no doubt that in their minds ‘covenanting’ was the operative word. They drew up a church covenant and signed it, renewing it from time to time and applying it constantly to issues that arose in their church life. Their God was a covenant God, their gospel a Covenant of Grace, and their church relationship with each other as members was one of covenanted obligation.
Having embodied the church, the church then called the pastor.
Presently Mr Bartholomew Ashwood was chosen by them
to be their pastor, and…. was ordained and set apart
for the pastoral office.
From that point on this little church met in houses and woods, barns, and obscure and solitary places. It was subject to all the rigours of the repressive legislation of the two Conventicle Acts which forbade worship outside the parish church, and the Five Mile Act which prohibited ejected ministers like Bartholomew Ashwood from preaching within five miles of the place of their ejectment. But Ashwood’s ministry was already highly esteemed by godly souls from up to as much as twenty miles away, with the result that their gatherings were often held at a distance from Axminster. On Lord’s days and apparently once a fortnight on weekdays as far as possible the church met for worship. The atmosphere of those gatherings as seen in restrospect is duly recordedÂ—
Thus this little society continued stedfastly in a due observance of all the ordinances and institutions of the Lord Jesus Christ with gladness of heart, the Lord adding to them and increasing the number. Ah! what liveliness, what zeal and forwardness in the work and ways of God, what spiritual edifying conversations, what fervent love and warm affections, what a spirit of sympathy one with another, what tender care and watchfulness over each other! What a blessedness was there seen and found amongst them! What an eminent presence of God in the midst of them, what a resemblance of heaven upon earth! How amiable and lovely were their assemblies! How sweet, how profitable was a day spent in communion with them! Ah! these were espousal days.
In 1662 after Ashwood’s release from gaol, the church appointed two ruling elders to assist the pastor in spiritual oversight; and in the following year two deacons were appointed to care for material and practical matters. Often their assemblies were broken up, as on Â—
the 13th day of the seventh month 1663, it being a Sabbath day, the church had appointed that day for their celebration of the sacred ordinance of the Lord’s supper in a lonesome place near a great wood, where a great number of people from divers parts were assembled together…. And, oh! what an eminent presence of God did many of His poor people experience in that ordinance;
what down-pourings of the Spirit, touching, affecting, melting, warming, and enlivening the hearts of many… But ah!…. soldiers brake in amongst the people and dispersed them. Some persons were carried away….
Then follows the inevitable Â—
Now at the next general assizes, those ministers of Christ, and others of the Lord’s people who were in bonds for the sake of Christ, His gospel and worship were brought forth before that Judge Foster …. a man of violence and cruelty to the poor people of God …. who sentenced them ….
How did they survive such things? Here is their own testimony of these times Â—
O how much of God has been seen, wonderfully hiding and preserving a poor unworthy people all along in a dangerous day in one howling wilderness and another… How has this church been fed and nourished in the wilderness! Sometimes the rage of the enemy and the fury of an oppressor have been so restrained that they have assembled peaceably together…. Sometimes, again, the rage of the enemy has been let out against them and they have been constrained to retire into more solitary places … sometimes…. constrained to take the solitary night watches to assemble together to worship the Lord. But still their church communion and their fellowship in the gospel have been continued, and members have been added to this church in the worst of times.
Better times, it seemed, were coming. In 1672 Charles II defied Parliament and the bishops and issued a Declaration of Indulgence which permitted worship outside the parish church on possession of a royal licence. The king’s real object was to favour Roman Catholics, but many Nonconformists availed themselves of the opportunity to secure licences for both houses and preachers. Thus, in the State Papers preserved in the Public Record office in London, it is written:
Mr Bartholomew Ashwood’s house in Axminster, licensed to be a place of meeting of the Independent way. Apr. 11 1672. The like (license) to Bartholomew Ashwood of Axminster to be an Independent Teacher in any allowed place. 11 Apr. 1672.
So, with a king’s licence to worship the King of kings in public without molestation, the Axminster church secured the use of Weycroft manor house (some part of which still stands), and
although these licences were revoked by Parliament the following year and recalled altogether two years later, for ten years the church worshipped in this house, with varying degrees of liberty and regularity.
Before the year of the Indulgence was out, the pastor was stricken with a serious illness, resulting in an impressive pastoral epistle to the church, which is fully recorded in the Ecclesiastica. By this time the church, like all visible churches, had known declension and the need of discipline, and the pastor’s heart was heavy for the ‘breaches of covenant’ among some of the members. This Epistle to the Church, dictated “from my mouth in much weakness”, breathes through all its eleven points an affectionate pastoral concern and shows Ashwood as having the heart of a true under-shepherd for the spiritual prosperity of his flock.
In the event, Ashwood recovered from his illness, and lived to preach his last sermon in 1678, dying the same year, the Ecclesiastica noting some of his dying sayings. Only outlines and brief references to his pulpit ministry are supplied in the church-book, but we are not without substantial examples of his savoury and perceptive preaching, for he published three books, two at least of which, are still extant. The Heavenly Trade, or the Best Merchandising, a 350 page volume based on Proverbs 3.14, was in the press at the time he died. It was first preached as a series of sermons to the Axminster congregation, and in the preface, written shortly before his death, Ashwood has this to say:
I have the greatest reason to expect from you the entertainment of these truths, who have chosen and received me in the Lord, to declare the Gospel of His Son to you. You also have known my labours, infirmities, and afflictions with you and for your sake; that for twenty years space I have served you in the Gospel, in reproach, wants, weaknesses, dangers, and sufferings…. There are some among you that I am jealous of with a godly jealousy lest I should have laboured in vain for you…. I have often cried aloud in your ears against the sin…. -of an earthly spirit and conversation ….
The second work of the Axminster pastor appeared three years later: The Best Treasure, or the way to be Truly Rich. Based on Ephesians 3.8, it is a treatise setting forth the personal riches of Christ Himself and the purchased riches of Christ’s finished work. In almost 400 pages of exposition, exaltation, and application of a precious Redeemer, Ashwood revels in the glories of Jesus Christ. John Owen read this work and wrote a commendatory preface to it only three years before he penned his own much better known Meditations on the Glory of Christ.
Ashwood’s third publication was expanded from a funeral sermon, but I have so far failed to find a copy. It was entitled Groans from Sion. With his death in 1678 the first main part of the Axminster Ecclesiastica closes. He was fifty-six years of age, a shining light in his day and place, revealed in both the church
book and his own writings as a man of God, of considerable learning yet of the humblest disposition, and a true pastor.
Bereft of their pastor and teacher, the Axminster church was not, however, entirely bereft of spiritual oversight, for this was the continuing responsibility of the two ruling elders. Thus we readÂ—
Now after the death of Mr Bartholomew Ashwood .. .the Lord stirred up the spirits of Thomas Lane and James Hawker, ruling elders in this church, who endeavoured to the utmost of their care and prudence to preserve this body entire, and…. laboured to promote their communion together …. at which time the church did renew their covenant with the Lord and each other afresh, and engaging to maintain their fellowship and communion in the gospel.
The second pastor was a young man named Stephen Towgood, a son of the ejected rector of Semly, Wilts. The Ecclesiystica tells how,
the church, having had a taste of his spirit, his gifts and graces, the hearts of the people were soon knit to him… and… were inclined to give him a call to the pastoral office amongst them.
Towgood proved an able and worthy successor to Ashwood, and had the health and vigour of youth to help him face the return of much fiercer persecution. Two years later, in 1681, the church was driven out of its ‘hired house’ at Weycroft, not to return for five years. It was a day of clouds and thick darkness. The Conventicle Act was then enforced more rigidly than before;
informers against meetings in houses and woods were well paid, and most diligent in their work. Congregations of the Lord’s people were broken up in many parts of the west country; yet, in some un-named and secret hiding place the Axminster Church carried on its worship.
O what a flocking was there of many persons to this assembly. It was an affecting sight… And, oh! how great was the mercy of this congregation, that the Lord…. should set a man over this congregation…. one whom the blessed God had raised up for such a time as this…. And oh what seasonable and suitable messages did the Spirit of the Lord help him to bring forth to the congregation! What discoveries and unveilings of a blessed Jesus, and of the great and glorious mysteries of the gospel from sabbath to sabbath! And whence was all this distinguishing grace and mercy? Surely these were the motions of sovereign pleasure, of Him that causeth rain to fall on one city and not on another…. that the gospel dew and rain should descend on this congregation when other congregations were even parched with drought. O how free, how admirable was this grace to an undeserving people!
Times came, however, when the tables were turned, and when the Axminster church was unable to meet at all for weeks or months together. Distinguishing mercy works in varied ways and there were experiences of the opposite kind, as whenÂ—
On the 15th day of the 12th month (1684), on the sabbath day in the evening, when he (Towgood) was come to the house appointed for the meeting, near the town of Axminster, the people being assembled together, through the indiscretion of some persons the adversaries had knowledge of it, and before the duty was begun the officers of the town…. brake in like lions among them…. some persons (were) siezed, supposing they had apprehended Mr Towgood, but…. he slipped out at the door…. so he was marvellously delivered this time also…. Blessed be God who hath delivered, and doth deliver.
Matters went from bad to worse within a few weeks of this event, when King Charles II died, to be succeeded by his brother, James II, an open and avowed Roman Catholic.
It was now an amazing time with many. The popish party began to win the day apace in England. This new king publicly and constantly resorted to the mass … to the great encouragement of the papists … And now was that remarkable year for gloominess and bloodiness ushered in, 1685….
This was the year of the Monmouth Rebellion. James, Duke of Monmouth, returned from exile with an army of eighty men to rid England of a Romish monarch, and instate himself as the protector of Protestant liberties. He landed at Lyme Regis, and marched through Axminster. Having endured so much under Charles II and James II, many of the dissenters of the west responded eagerly, if somewhat unwisely, to the Duke of Monmouth in his pose as the champion of Protestantism. They regarded him as a hero who would deliver them from the Clarendon Code and give liberty of public worship to Nonconformists at a stroke. In his march from Lyme Regis, through Axminster to Taunton, Monmouth increased his army to five thousand undisciplined, untrained, and ill-equipped men. Among these were some members of the Nonconformist Churches of Dorset, Devon and Somerset, and including the pastor, the ruling elder, and at least six other members of the church at Axminster. Others, however, held back from such an ill-organised venture which, after three week’s maneuvering against the formidable royalist army was routed at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Several pages of the Ecclesiastica are taken up with the affairs of this Rising; with its effects on the Axminster church, and on the members who took part. The pastor and the elder returned safely; others were killed, or suffered afterwards under the Bloody Assizes presided over by that villain of a Lord Chief Justice, George Jeffreys. Says the Axminster Church-bookÂ—
And now was a time of sore distress and perplexity…. and, oh! how many were sentenced by that cruel judge;
some to death, others to banishment, many that were hanged up, barbarously and cruelly butchered. O what an amazing time it was, many even at their wits end, filled with tremblings of heart and sorrow of mind. Yea, many eminent pious Christians fell in the same common calamity with others. Ah! what an heart-affecting sight was it to behold the blood of many even of the precious saints of the Lord to be spilt as water upon the ground and their dead bodies hung up in the open air, and none permitted to bury them. Ah! what hath sin done….
But in the very month that George Jeffreys rode into the western circuit (September 1685) the Axminster Church resumed its gatherings, and their chronicler saysÂ—
Though the people of God were brought into a blacker and more howling wilderness, yet the Lord was graciously pleased to spread a table for this people in this wilderness, and to make choice provisions for them…. Now in the tenth month, the 6th day of the month…. being assembled in this desert place, according to an appointment, celebrated that great and sacred ordinance of the Lord’s Supper; and it was a night much to be remembered for the wonderful protection the Lord gave this people in such a dangerous day, when bands of rude soldiers were in divers places round about them. Mr Towgood then preached from the Scripture, Rev. 12.6, ‘And the woman fled into the wilderness where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days’. And the Lord made this a feasting season unto them, and, which must not be omitted, notwithstanding the dolor and dismalness of that day, there was this night a member more added to this church.
The sermon preached before the ordinance that Sabbath night in that ‘desert place’ was taken down, and recorded in the Church-book, as well as being written in the people’s hearts by the finger of the Holy Spirit. Before the month was out, however, all assemblies became impossible:
Sanctuary privileges failed, temple work ceased. The solemn assemblies broken, teachers removed into corners, many sorrowful for the solemn assemblies, so that things appeared with a sad aspect, iniquity abounding more and more, popery, profaneness, blasphemy, enmity and rage against religion, persecution and oppression still growing up to a greater height, and the poor people of God that walked humbly and mournfully before Him were trodden down under the foot of pride….
Matters appeared to brighten a little when the King announced another Declaration of Indulgence; but his motives were inspired from Rome. Revolution followed, and while James and his popish advisers fled to France, William of Orange, the only Calvinist king England has known, sailed into Torbay, and marched with his army through Axminster to London, there to be crowned, though only after assenting to the Declaration of Right which stipulated the Protestant succession of the British throne. Within months William III had brought out the Act of Toleration, 1689, conferring welcome but limited freedom on the Nonconformists. They could worship freely, provided it was not behind locked doors, and provided their places of worship were registered as such by the bishop of the diocese; and the penalties of the Conventicle Acts against them were abolished. A Calvinist king on the throne was not, however, an automatic solution to the troubles of the nation. William’s reign was a time of almost continuous war in Ireland and in Europe, largely provoked by James II with the connivance of Louis XIV, the French King, with a view to restoring James to the English throne. The Axminster Ecclesiastica speaks of it thusÂ—
Now, although the churches and people of God did enjoy much peace and tranquillity, O yet how did the face of times and things look with a sad and lowering aspect this day:…. Most if not all the nations in Europe in a flame; wars, rumours of wars, great preparations everywhere for blood and slaughter…. Likewise that which was matter of bitter mourning, it was a time of sore decays and declensions amongst the professing people of God as to the power of religion and godliness.
They of Axminster saw such things as matters of Divine judgement. Their words about the state of the nation in 1695 could have been written of 1976 with equal timeliness.
The Lord was distressing this nation by other means. The coin of the nation being spoiled, there was a great want of current money; besides there was a considerable price on corn and other provisions for the outward man. Likewise, the Lord was breaking men in their earthly trades and interest, bringing the nation low, giving it up into the hands of spoilers. The Lord was emptying the nation, making it waste…. The Lord did blow upon persons interests, estates and gatherings and it wasted and withered. The nation was impoverished…. O the wants! O the distresses were in many families; and yet, O the stupidity and insensibleness of most. O the murmuring, the complaining and fretting against the providences of the day…. cursing their King and their God in their hearts, looking to the earth and lo! there’s trouble and darkness, dimness and anguish. Alas! alas! … few that lamentingly say, ‘What have I done?’ That consider whence is all this that is come to pass, that lay to heart
the wastes of God’s house, the decays of religion. Most are eagerly pursuing their own things, their earthly interest which, as with eagles’ wings are flying away apace. Ah! this should be for a lamentation.
With the coming of liberty and toleration, the Axminster Church set about regularising various matters in their church life, such as had been impossible under circumstances of persecution. They arranged to observe the Lord’s Supper every sixth Sabbath, and a weekday meeting before that sabbath was constantly observed as a day of preparation for the ordinance. They arranged to meet once in six weeks for a church meeting ‘for regulating matters respecting this church’Â—and this was essentially a spiritual meeting, often including preaching relevant to the subjects in hand. On other weekdays they gathered toÂ—
resolve cases of conscience, in which each brother that would or had a capacity had liberty to bring in his sentiment to which case was to be spoken unto and resolved.
There was, quite clearly, a caring for each other in all matters;
covenanted membership obligations bound them together; if one member suffered, all suffered and sought to heal the wound.
But it was now 1698. Toleration had permitted the opening of other meeting places; there was no longer the need to travel so far. Weycroft was in any case a mile and a quarter out of the town of Axminster. So the church was peacefully divided, and a new meeting house in the town catered for those who resided there.
What, then, are the lessons to be learned from this fascinating record? There are many, but three seem to be paramount.
(i). The faithfulness of God. We may bemoan our times, as they of Axminster (for very different reasons) also did. But they never faced trouble and found God to fail them. The Church was and is, in God’s purpose, and He builds His church be the times good or ill.
(ii). The importance of the local church and of New Testament simplicity in its order and organisation. No more than they were ready to be governed in church matters by the law of the land were they content to drift on in the traditions of the fathers. Scripture warrant was sought for church structure and church life. That the Divine society had and has a God-given order is something to be heeded still.
(iii). The abiding reality of the gospel of free and sovereign grace. Prosperities and adversities alike were seen as under God’s sovereign hand. Blessings were traced back to distinguishing mercy. Losses were seen as judicial dispensations. They knew that as sinners they deserved the worst. They were always amazed when as sinners saved by grace, they received of the very fulness of God. So their religion was real, and warm, and experimental, and practical, and all-embracing; and its recurring keynote, the theme of the whole record isÂ—
Admired be free grace!