Posted by: stpowen | August 20, 2010

John Robinson’s farewell to the Pilgrim fathers

On our recent holiday in America, Mrs Marprelate and I visited the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts where the so-called ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ landed in December 1620.  These men and women were Puritans and Separatists– they sought a simpler, purer form of Christianity and did not believe that this could be obtained within the Church of England.  On his accession to the throne, James I had promised either to ‘make them conform or harry them out of the land.’  Rather than compromise their Christian principles, they had fled, first to Holland and then to the New World.

I found my day in Plymouth quite moving as I read about all the privations and difficulties of these first settlers.  We have our freedom very cheaply these days- though that may not always be the case!  The spirit of the Pilgrims is summed up in certain ways by the farewell sermon of their Minister, John Robinson.  It was decided that Robinson would not accompany the first emigration, but would follow on later.  In fact he died before he could fulfil his ambition.  Here is the close of his sermon, which was given on Ezra 8:21-22.

‘We are now ere long to part asunder, and the Lord knows whether ever we shall live to see one another’s faces.  But whether the Lord has appointed it or not, I charge you before God and His blessed angels, follow me no further than I follow Christ; and if God shall reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth by my ministry.  For I am confident the Lord has more truth and light to break forth from His holy word.  I bewail the state and condition of the Reformed churches, who have come to a full-stop in religion, and will go no further than the instrument of their reformation.  The Lutherans cannot be drawn beyond what Luther saw; the Calvinists, they stick where Calvin left them.   This is a misery much to be lamented; for though they were shining lights in their times, yet God did not reveal His whole will unto them, and if they were alive today they would be as ready to and willing to embrase further light, as that they had received.  Keep in mind our church covenant, our promise and covenant with God and one another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from His written word.  But take heed what you receive for truth- examine it well and compare and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth before you receive it.  It is not possible that the Christian world should so lately come out of such thick anti-Christian darkness, and that the perfection of knowledge should break forth at once. ‘

The first observation I make on this remarkable statement is its humility.  These are the days of celebrity Christianity.  We have preaching tours by ‘famous Christians’ to promote their latest book or CD, and promoters of Christian conferences feel the need to bring in well-known preachers at considerable expense in order to achieve a good attendance.  Robinson knew nothing of this.  He did not commend his books or his sermon collections to his departing congregation, but rather God’s written word.  He bids his people to follow Truth from whatever source they find it, regardless of denomination. 

Secondly, he did not view the Bible as a dead letter that could be studied, fully comprehended and exhausted as water can be drunk out of a bottle leaving it empty, or as a butterfly can be pinned and exhibited in a display cabinet.  To Robinson, the Bible was a living thing, and he understood the well-known, but neglected saying of the Reformers:  Ecclesia Reformata semper Reformanda.  The Reformed Church is always in need of Reformation.  He did not regard himself or his church as the final authority of truth, but bade his congregation constantly search the Scriptures to see what the Holy Spirit might reveal to them. In our day, we seem to have either those who rush to the latest fad in Christianity without the careful, prayerful study of the word that Robinson commended and those who feed upon them by introducing ever-stranger novelties into their books in order to make money, or those who, having adopted one or other Confession, set it in stone and treat it as if it were Holy Writ. 

Does this mean that Robinson would have been opposed to the Westminster Confession or the Baptist 1689 adaption of it?  I don’t believe so.  I was converted in a church that eschewed all confessions and ‘just followed the Bible.’  The result was dreadful confusion, as there was no settled view on the Charismatic question, Arminianism versus Calvinism or the different teachings on the end-times, and folk were continually battling over the differing positions.   Eventually there was an almighty split within the church which ended in a position where controversial portions of Scripture are never preached lest old wounds should be reopened and the teaching has become desperately thin.   It is not enough for a church to declare that it believes the Bible.  A church, if its members have any real concern for the truth, will need to have a confession or a constitution, which spells out  its basic understanding of what the Scriptures teach.  That way, prospective members will know what sort of assembly they are coming to and if they disagree, can find somewhere more congenial to them.  Confessions are not to shackle the consciences of Christians but to free them, in the same way that the Football Association rules are not to stifle the skills of footballers but give them the arena where they can be displayed.

This is what Spurgeon said when he republished the 1689 Confession in 1855.  ‘This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness. Here the younger members of our church will have a body of divinity in small compass, and by means of the Scriptural proofs, will be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them. Be not ashamed of your faith; remember it is the ancient gospel of martyrs, confessors, reformers, and saints. …Above all, live in Christ Jesus, and walk in Him, giving credence to no teaching but that which is manifestly approved of Him, and owned by the Holy Spirit. Cleave fast to the Word of God which is here mapped out for you.’

But alas, the great confessions are today too often too often used as a substitute for thought, for Bible study and for the Holy Spirit.  Those who read some of the American ‘Reformed’ discussion forums will see that many of those who post on them are arguing from the W.C.F. rather than from the Bible.  How this would have dismayed John Robinson!  He insisted that the meaning of Scripture was not to be found in tradition, but in Scripture itself.  As soon as our churches become  hidebound by tradition, no matter how august and glorious, they will start to die.


  1. Re: The Brethren in Plymouth

    Dear Martin. Those who have read my brief biographies of the early New England settlers, both males and females, and their great work for God in the New World, will understand that I stand very close indeed to them in the gospel. Nevertheless, there are a few points made in your fine piece on John Robinson which need to be altered so as not to harm the harmony of your overview.

    One cannot really speak of ‘Separatists’ at the time of James VI (and I) and those of say the mid 1640s in the same breath. The distinction between say Presbyterians and Independents had not crystallised out and even the budding Baptists of 1620 were much different to those of 1660. Nor were they persecuted by Abbott and James as they had been for a time earlier. Indeed, James did more than most British monarchs to bring peace between the Brethren of the various Protestant churches and campaigned for a pan-European united fellowship of Protestants. This is one of the many reasons why he entered into the Thirty Years’ War with money and troops to support the various Protestant churches of Europe who were persecuted by Rome and the Emperor. Indeed, towards the end of James’ reign, there were some 50,000 British troops fighting for their King and Protestantism in Germany alone. The records show that a third of Scotland was defending Protestantism on the Continent. Not that I approve of this, but I am merely trying to readjust the tilted picture of James some of us have. We tend to forget that James called the Hampton Court discussions at the instigation of the Nonconformists and granted many of their requests. Others had already been granted by Convocation. It was not the Church’s attitude to doctrine that worried these men as much as the fact that they wanted King and Parliament to stand behind them. Their Christianity was highly tinged with politics so they appealed to Caesar. James pioneered the Synod of Dort because many Dutch were altering the doctrines of grace to suit their national temperament. Sadly, many Reformed churches were not invited or could not attend and the Reformed Church was narrowed and weakened. It was mostly a Dutch club. The French had already gone much further in anchoring their faith in Reformed doctrines.

    During the early years of the Westminster Assembly, the Presbyterians and Independents of the New England kind, began to quarrel. Men of peace such as John Durie tried to mediate but Independents such as Thomas Goodwin and Philip Nye, though they were Durie’s close friends and fellow pamphlet writers, refused to give a Biblical defence of their position and pleaded for absolute freedom of worship and organisation on the basis of human rights. This angered especially the Scottish Presbyterians whose intolerance went to the other extreme. They threatened force on the ‘Separatists’ (Think of Rutherford’s criticism of the Congregationalists) but the great Scottish army that the Presbyterians had called to invade England to force her to accept the Solemn League and Covenant, now decided to support the Independents. Fellow Scotsman Robert Baillie, a close supporter of Durie, broke with him on the Independent issue.

    One would not expect the Congregationalists to look down on the Westminster Confession as a growing number of Independents sat on it. John Durie had now a circle of some fifty Puritans around him who were mostly balanced Independents. He still refused to take any party line and thus was a true ‘Separatist’. Because of his neutrality, the WA appointed him to keep the WA records and help author the WC Standards. The aim of the Congregationalists remained however to place themselves under the Bible alone and not confessional creeds which aged, reflected temporary historical situations and tended to supplant the Bible in time. Have you noticed how, when you witness to Presbyterians, they start by saying ‘The WC says. . . .’ However, the Presbyterians were a broken party by the time the WC was finished and much in it, especially its ecclesiology, does not agree with their basic position.

    Just a few thoughts,


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