Ever since I begin to read Baptist history in the 1980s, I have had a love for the lives and stories of our Baptist forebears. This past weekend I had the privilege of considering again the story of Abraham Cheare (1626-1668), pastor of a Calvinistic Baptist work in Plymouth during the period of the Commonwealth and also during the early years of persecution under the so-called “Merry Monarch,” Charles II (r.1660-1685). The early years of Abraham Cheare are obscure. One recent writer names his father as a John Cheare, who leased a couple of fulling mills built by the Elizabethan naval captain Sir Francis Drake at Plymouth [C. E. Whiting, Studies in English Puritanism from the Restoration to the Revolution, 1660-1688 (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1968), 568-569]. Cheare himself described his parents as “mean,” that is lowly in social standing, “yet honest” [“Post-script” to his Words in Season (London: Nathan Brookes, 1668), 293]. Nathan Brookes, the publisher of one of his books, notes that his parents were also believers who took care to nurture their son in God’s ways [“The Publisher to the Reader” in Words in Season, (6)].
Apart from a journey to London in the 1650s, Cheare appears to have spent the entirety of his life in the vicinity of Plymouth where he was born and raised. During the tumult and turbulence of the civil wars in the British Isles during the 1640s and 1650s he was able to avoid fighting with any of the armies, but he did serve for a time in the local militia at Plymouth (“Post-script” to his Words in Season, 293). This was possibly during the long siege of Plymouth by the Royalist armies in 1643, a siege that failed to drive the Parliamentary troops out of the town or bring about its fall. At one point he also served as an army chaplain, but he was able to obtain a discharge after a few weeks (“Post-script” to his Words in Season, 293-294).
Around 1648, Cheare says that he was convinced “of his Duty to the Lord, by evidence of Scriptural Light” and he “joyned himself in an holy Covenant, to walk in all the Ordinances of the Lord blameless, to the best of his Light and Power, in fellowship with a poor and despised People” (“Post-script” to his Words in Season, 294). This “poor and despised People” were the Plymouth Calvinistic Baptists.
If this congregation had a preacher before Cheare, his name has not come down to us. Cheare is the first known pastor of this congregation. Though Cheare rarely left Plymouth, he was involved in the nation-wide church planting of the Calvinistic Baptists during the 1650s. He was in correspondence, for example, in January 1655 with a certain Robert Bennet about the organization of Calvinistic Baptists in the neighbouring county of Cornwall. And he was present as the pastor of the Plymouth Church at an important meeting of the Western Association of Baptist Churches in May, 1658, in Dorchester. On that memorable occasion some individuals who were sympathetic to the “Fifth Monarchy” movement—these were individuals who believed in using military violence to prepare for the establishment of Christ’s messianic kingdom—failed to convince the representatives of the churches in the Association, including Cheare, to publicly espouse the ideals and goals of this party.
Cheare proved to be a man with a wide knowledge of the Scriptures. This is well seen in Sighs for Sion, a tract that was published in London in 1656 by Livewel Chapman. (By the way, how typically Puritan is this man’s personal name! In other books that he printed, his first name is spelt “Livewell”). A second printing followed in 1657, which was also done by Livewel Chapman. Written mostly by Cheare, but with the help of four other Baptist leaders—Henry Forty, Robert Steed, John Pendarves (1622-1656) and Thomas Glasse—this tract essentially pled with the churches to which it was sent to overlook their differences of opinion regarding eschatology and to pray for the outpouring of the Spirit which the authors deemed vital if they were to see their churches quickened and strengthened (p.10-11).
Cheare and his co-authors cited examples of faithful praying from the Old Testament—such men as Nehemiah, Ezra, and Daniel—to stir up their readers to be fervent in prayer (p.12-13). In fact, the writers felt that God had already given the churches a taste of “this glorious blessing of the Spirit of grace and supplication”—a reference to Zechariah 12:10—and done great works on behalf of his people (p.15-16). But there had been defections from within their churches and “vain men,” in the words of Cheare and his colleagues, had attacked the Baptist position (p.17). Ongoing prayer for Christ’s cause to be honoured among them was thus still needed.
In a powerful exhortation the churches were urged to reflect on what kind of congregations they ought to be like. Were they the sort of people they should be, then, Cheare and his fellow authors wrote,
“the zeal of the Lord’s house would eat us up, and love of it would crucifie us more unto, and wean us from those interests of earth, and men, whereupon we have been apt to lean, and whereunto we have been deeply and dangerously engaged: causing us also to wait to be with Jesus, which is best of all; and in the mean time to pant, and thirst uncessantly, for that holy Spirit of promise, that alone can present us with the ravishing glory of that expected day, and raise up our spirits to a sweet and suitable disposition, according to the will of God, to wait and act aright toward it” (p.18-19).
Though so many things have changed between Cheare’s day and ours, our need is ultimately no different from that of the Baptists being addressed by Cheare and his friends. May the Lord grant us “to pant and thirst” without ceasing for the same Spirit of supplication that we might live for the glory that is to come!