Review: Revival of Religion in Northamptonshire

Pickles, Davis front coverStephen Pickles, The revival of religion in Northamptonshire and the neighbouring counties under the ministry of Richard Davis (1658–1714) (Bethersden, Ashford, Kent: The James Bourne Society, 2015), 286 pages. If the name of Richard Davis of Rothwell, Northamptonshire, is known today, it is because of John Gill’s recommendatory preface to the seventh edition of his hymns (1748) in which he raises the subject of the free offer of the gospel (p.196). As Stephen Pickles rightly argues and demonstrates in this new study of Davis, which has been clearly a labour of love, this evangelist and preacher needs to be known for other reasons as well. Davis had a remarkable ministry from 1689 to 1714, one that anticipated the revivals of the 1730s and 1740s (p.230). Throughout his preaching ministry, Davis knew the unction of the Holy Spirit and significant numbers were converted by his sermons and congregations planted (p.28, 36–38, 74–78, 158–163, 216, 224), some of which later became Baptist—for example, Southill Strict Baptist Chapel in Bedfordshire (p.37–38) and College Lane Baptist Church in Northampton (p.162–163).

It is probably owing to Davis and his writings being largely unknown that Pickles quotes extensive sections of his works. Chapter 7, for instance, which deals with the relationship of the law and the gospel in Davis’ works, is essentially comprised of very large quotations from Davis’ writings, some of which run for a page or two, with very little analysis. At times, it would have been more helpful to have cited less and given more attention to the scriptural argumentation of Davis—how he interpreted Scripture and the questions he was asking of the biblical text. The advantage of Pickles’ approach, on the other hand, is to lay before the reader who has no easy access to Davis’ works, today found only in a few libraries, the rich literary corpus of this early eighteenth-century preacher.

Pickles devotes three chapters to the opposition that was raised against Davis, rightly showing that it had no basis in fact (chapters 4–6). He also examines Davis’ view of the law and the gospel (chapter 7), his hymns (chapter 8) and various other publications (chapter 10), Davis’ preaching (chapter 11)—which includes a discussion of the free offer of the gospel—and some of his religious practices (chapter 12). In chapter 11, Pickles affirms Gill’s comment about Davis that while the latter used the language of the free offer in his early ministry, ‘before his death, [he] changed his mind in this matter, and disused the phrase, as being too bold and free for a minister of Christ to make use of’ (p.196). Davis never lost his zeal for the salvation of the lost, but his conviction that salvation was all of grace, came to shape the language that he used to express that zeal in his preaching. It is surely fascinating that seventy or so years after Davis’ death, Andrew Fuller in nearby Kettering (less than five miles from Rothwell) was wrestling with the very same issue (how should the gospel preacher address the lost?) and came to quite different conclusions, ones that this reviewer believes are truer to the Scripture model of apostolic preaching.

It is also noteworthy that the one Lord’s Supper hymn of Davis cited by Pickles, ‘Ravishing mercy! Wondrous love!’ (p.147–148), has a high view of the Table. In its fifth stanza, for example, we read:

Ravishing food! Delicious wine!

The flesh and blood of Christ!

With joy and strength we feed upon

The sacrifice and priest.

Such realistic language bespeaks a consciousness that at the Table the believer communes with his risen Lord, albeit spiritually. This Calvinistic view of the presence of Christ at the Table was standard fare for Davis’ day, though, sadly, by the close of the long eighteenth century, it was increasingly rare among Calvinist Nonconformity.

The book is a handsomely-produced volume with extensive illustrations, mostly of figures associated with Davis—ranging from John Owen (p.14) to John Gill (p.215–217; Pickles speculates that Gill may actually have been taught by Davis in the 1710s)—and a comprehensive index. There are three appendices, which include Davis’ statement of faith and the Rothwell Church covenant.

Michael A.G. Haykin

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary