During the Plague of London, in 1665, a few Christian friends were gathered for prayer in a private house in Convent Garden; but, as it was an unlawful assembly, the soldiers broke in with drawn swords and arrested the worshippers. They were committed to Newgate prison, where the pestilence was raging; and an old minister from the country, Mr. Richard Flavel, and his wife, caught the infection, and were released only to die.
Their eldest son was also at this time a minister. Although he did not become a musician or a poet, as his mother had hoped, this nobler vocation was his destiny. As a minister and author, he transmitted the joyful sound of the gospel through the dark reigns of Charles and James the Second; and of all who sang songs in that night, few found listeners so eager and grateful as John Flavel.
In 1656, when he was about twenty-six years of age, the people of Dartmouth, in Devon, chose him as their minister. Going amongst them on their own invitation, and in all the freshness of his affections, he and the inhabitants became ardently attached to one another. With his fund of striking incidents, with his faculty of happy illustration, with a temperament in which cheerfulness and solemnity were remarkably blended, and with a style of address in which friendly encouragement alternated with grave remonstrance and melting pathos, except among the worst reprobates, his ministry was boundlessly popular. And when he went from home, his plain and arresting discourses were so often the means of awakening or converting careless hearers, that he was induced to extend his labors far beyond the bounds of his own large parish.
The period, however, was brief during which he was allowed to ply such a free and unfettered ministry. Ejected by the Act of Uniformity, for some time he endeavored to keep together and instruct the members of his flock; but spies and penal laws made their meetings difficult and dangerous. At last the Oxford Act was promulgated, and according to its terms, Mr. Flavel could no longer reside in Dartmouth. On the day of his departure, the inhabitants accompanied him as far as the churchyard of Townstall, where, amidst prayers and tears, they parted. Nevertheless, his heart was still with his beloved people. He took up his abode as near them as the letter of the law allowed; and, sometimes in Dartmouth itself, sometimes in a quiet apartment in a neighboring village, and sometimes in a wood or other sheltered spot in the open air, he contrived to meet a detachment of them almost every Sabbath day.
At last King James’s Indulgence permitted the open resumption of his ministry. A commodious meeting-house was built, and there, for the remaining years of his life, he continued to warn, exhort, and comfort all who came, with a fervor of which the tradition has not yet died out in Devon. His prayers were wonderful. Much of his retirement was spent in devotional exercises; and in the great congregation he was sometimes seized with such agonies of earnestness, or carried away in such a rapture of praise and thanksgiving, that it seemed as if the tabernacle of clay must perish amidst the excessive emotion. At last, towards the end of June, 1691, he presided at a meeting of the Nonconformist ministers of Devonshire. The object was to bring about a union of Presbyterians and Independents. The preliminary resolutions passed unanimously, and “Mr. Flavel closed the work of the day with prayer and praise, in which his spirit was carried out with wonderful enlargement and affection.” On the 26th, he wrote to a London minister an account of this auspicious meeting, and appeared remarkably cheerful and happy. But that evening, he was taken with the palsy, and soon died.
No period of English history has been so fruitful in religious literature as the half-century between the commencement of the Parliamentary War and the glorious Revolution; or we might say, the period included in the publishing career of Richard Baxter. But amidst that enormous authorship there are few books which retain so much attraction for modern readers as some of Flavel’s practical treatises, such as On Keeping the Heart. For their enduring popularity, they are, no doubt, in some degree indebted to their kind, affable, and earnest tone; but still more, we presume, is due to the skill and felicity with which matters of the greatest moment are expounded. With a view to be useful, the writer’s great anxiety was to be understood, and he sought out the words and the modes of representation which might suit the sailors of Dartmouth and Plymouth, and the farmers of Devon and Dorset. His books abound in anecdote, and they are rich in those homely metaphors and ingenious comparisons which are an effective ingredient in popular oratory. Above all, they command the reader’s attention, by the importance of the themes which they handle; they secure his confidence, by their unaffected seriousness and deep sincerity; and they win his heart, by the evangelical warmth and personal kindness with which they are all aglow.