Lessons from the Life of Thomas Boston

Thomas Boston (1676-1732) was a man of melancholic disposition allied to a fearless spirit when it came to defending Biblical truth. One continuing trial was from the church system of presbyteries and patrons in which he was serving, and which coerced rather than called him to a church. His first appointment was at Simprin, where the manse lay in ruins, so he settled in an old house. This was also in such a bad state of repair, that in a storm he had to leave his own bed and sleep with his father “lest the house should have fallen on me”. The manse at Ettrick, his other charge, was also in a ruinous state. While it was rebuilt his family had to live in the stable and barn, where his son Ebenezer was born, who died shortly after. Altogether, Boston buried six of his ten children.

When he first met his wife he says that he “discerned the sparkles of grace in her”. Twenty years later, aged forty-six, his wife was afflicted with a schizophrenia which lasted the remainder of their married life. It confined her to bed and was often accompanied by fevers, and once she was tempted to suicide.

 

Health problems

Boston’s physical health was a sore trial. While a student, to economise he ate but little, and often fainted and appeared to be dying. His condition, probably exacerbated by a lack of Vitamin C, was so severe that his teeth blackened and gradually dropped out. He subsequently kept them in a box ‘for conversation’! His lack of teeth caused much pain and embarrassed him with difficulty in pronunciation.

 

Publication problems

Boston reluctantly agreed to publish some sermons and writings, but there were many setbacks and delays, lost manuscripts, and on one occasion he ‘was greatly confounded to see the book pitifully mangled, being full of typographical errors, and besides, Mr Wightman had so altered it in many places, that he had quite marred it.’

 

Congregational problems

The congregation of Ettrick was also a trial to him. They often deserted his ministry, neglected worship, and despised the message he preached, so he could say, “The crown is fallen from my head, and I am brought very low! The approaching Sabbath, that sometimes was my delight, is now a terror to me.”

 

Growth in grace

Boston’s path to new life in Christ was a difficult one. He rarely heard gospel preaching, there was no sudden conversion, and he had to shed his legalistic attitudes. His early preaching at the age of twenty-one was so much on the wrath of God, that a minister advised him, ‘if you were entered on preaching of Christ, you would find it very pleasant,’ which he afterwards remembered as ‘the first hint given me by the good hand of my God towards the doctrine of the gospel.’ Once ordained and settled at Simprin, Boston enjoyed a ‘more clear uptaking of the doctrine of the gospel,’ and a vision of ‘Christ’s fullness, his being “all and in all”‘. He resembled the Welsh preacher Daniel Rowland in this transformation.

Being hampered by a lack of commentaries and other books, Boston was deeply hurt when a visiting minister smiled condescendingly at seeing his little library. At times throughout his life he would spend hours in prayer and fasting, searching his heart for unrepented sins in order to confess them, and then he would draw up a fresh covenant with God. He could say two years before he died, ‘I have a measure of confidence, that I will get complete life and salvation.’

 

Praying and preaching

Boston’s great strengths were to be filled with a sense of the majesty and grace of God, and to hold the Scripture in great esteem, applying himself to its study in the original languages. He disciplined himself in prayer, with certain days appointed for personal, family and church fasting, and spent the time between services in prayer and meditation. He would never preach on a text until he had assurance on the subject, which could be obtained with ‘more wasting and weakening to me, than the study of my sermon thereon.’ Boston timed himself with a pulpit hourglass. Once he had a job to stretch his sermon to the hour, but at another time he forgot how many times he had turned the glass over. He records that at one Lord’s Supper, ‘The sermon was more than two hours, which I think was too much. A certain gentleman said, it was above his capacity … I resolved to be shorter.’

 

Providence

Boston ascribed all events to the sovereign providence of God, but should occasionally, have also seen a lack of common sense as the human cause of a misfortune. For example, on one occasion after saddling his horse he was informed it had a swelling, but he still rode it to a communion at Penpont. There the blacksmith came to see it and advised that it was more swollen than before – ‘I was obliged to leave my horse behind me at Penpont under care, and he died’. Not only that, but he himself was unwell, so an elder accompanied him, who subsequently died at Penpont, to his great grief.

Yet his other afflictions, especially his wife’s mental illness, were unavoidable. He wrote ‘I think I have thereby obtained some soul-advantage; more heavenliness in the frame of my heart, more contempt of the world, as the widow that is desolate trusteth in God … more carefulness to walk with God, and to get evidence for heaven; more resolution for the Lord’s work, over the belly of difficulties.’

 

Benevolence

Boston records that although his ‘stipend was small students continued with us at times; so that we ate not our morsel alone’. His salary was subsidized with income from a house he rented and from his office as synod-clerk, so that ‘things honest in the sight of men were readily, by the kind disposal of Providence, laid to hand’. On receipt of his stipend he would lay aside certain amounts, and he kept these in a box in his left-side pocket and gave them out for benevolences and Sabbath offerings. In addition, he fed the poor who called at his house. In all his ministry he used to pray that he “might attain to habitual cheerfulness in the Lord”.

 

The man and his Guide

Like his Lord, Boston had ‘nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” Yet he would say, “If we suffer with Him, we shall reign with Him’. To Boston, the Lord was the Great Leader, and the Sovereign Manager; and of his Word he writes, ‘all is comprehended in the word, Prov. 3:6; both the promise and the precept take in all. You are neither to look for impressions, nor anything else of that kind, whatever indulgence the Lord makes to some of His people in some circumstances, and … set yourself as a Christian man to perceive what in the circumstances appears reasonable to be done’. He was careful that he “might not make a fortune-book of the Bible,” dipping into it at random for guidance, rather he resolved to read it systematically and “though my case should not be touched there, I would wait on God”. Thus he was safely, if not easily, led to his eternal rest.

How soft we are! How easily we grumble at the slightest difficulty or affront which we encounter! Did our Lord meet with less? Are we going to leave the church in a huff over some disagreement in a church meeting? What about the unity of the church? Do we feel overburdened with duties and family pressures and hardships? Are we going to stay at home on the Lord’s Day because of a headache? Would we rather read a devotional book at home than attend the prayer meeting? Shortly before his death, in much pain, lame and so very weak he could not go out to the church, he yet opened the manse window and, with an all but toothless mouth, declared the glorious gospel of Christ. Do you have problems?

“When I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10)

Written by: Nigel Faithfull, author and member of St. Mellons Baptist Church

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Memoirs of Thomas Boston, Banner of Truth, 1988 (First pub. 1899)

 

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