John Flavel – The Mortification of Sin
John Flavel (1628-1691)
Excerpt from Meet the Puritans
by Dr. Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson
John Flavel (or Flavell) was born in 1628 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. He was the son of Richard Flavel, a minister who died of the plague in 1665 while in prison for nonconformity. John Flavel was educated by his father in the ways of religion, then “plied his studies hard” as a commoner at University College, Oxford. In 1650, he was ordained by the presbytery at Salisbury. He settled in Diptford, where he honed his numerous gifts.
He married Joan Randall, a godly woman, who died while giving birth to their first child in 1655. The baby died as well. After a year of mourning, Flavel married Elizabeth Stapell and was again blessed with a close, God-fearing marriage, as well as children.
In 1656, Flavel accepted a call to be minister in the thriving seaport of Dartmouth. He earned a smaller income there, but his work was more profitable; many were converted. One of his parishioners wrote of Flavel, “I could say much, though not enough of the excellency of his preaching; of his seasonable, suitable, and spiritual matter; of his plain expositions of Scripture; his talking method, his genuine and natural deductions, his convincing arguments, his clear and powerful demonstrations, his heart-searching applications, and his comfortable supports to those that were afflicted in conscience. In short, that person must have a very soft head, or a very hard heart, or both, that could sit under his ministry unaffected” (Erasmus Middleton, Evangelical Biography, 4:50-51).
Flavel was ejected from the pulpit in 1662 for nonconformity, but he continued to meet secretly with his parishioners in conventicles. On occasion, he would preach for them in the woods, especially on days of fasting and humiliation. Once he even disguised himself as a woman on horseback in order to reach a secret meeting place where he preached and administered baptism. At another time, when pursued by authorities, he plunged his horse into the sea and managed to escape arrest by swimming through a rocky area to reach Slapton Sands.
In 1672, King Charles II issued the Declaration of Indulgence, giving Nonconformists freedom to worship. Flavel returned to Dartmouth, licensed as a Congregationalist. When the indulgence was canceled the following year, Flavel once more resorted to preaching secretly in private homes, secluded neighborhoods, or remote forests. Flavel’s second wife died during this time and he married Ann Downe, a minister’s daughter. They were happily married for eleven years, and had two sons.
In the late 1670s and early 1680s, Flavel carried on his ministry mainly by writing. He published at least nine books in this period. In the summer of 1682, he was forced to seek safety in London, where he joined the congregation of his friend, William Jenkyn, known today for his commentary on Jude. In 1684, soldiers interrupted a prayer service Flavel was conducting with Jenkyn. Flavel narrowly escaped arrest. During his stay in London, Flavel’s third wife died. He married Dorothy, a widowed daughter of George Jefferies, minister of Kingsbridge; she survived him.
Flavel was humble, godly, and learned. He spent much time in study and prayer. One of his children wrote, “He was always full and copious in prayer, seemed constantly to exceed himself, and rarely made use twice of the same expressions.” He was well versed in church discipline, infant baptism, and a number of Oriental languages.
Flavel’s power as a preacher came out of his depth of spiritual experience. He spent many hours in meditation and self-examination. As Middleton writes, “He [Flavel] attained to a well-grounded assurance, the ravishing comforts of which were many times shed abroad in his soul; this made him a powerful and successful preacher, as one who spoke from his own heart to those of others. He preached what he felt, and what he had handled, what he had seen and tasted of the word of life and they felt it also” (ibid., p. 58).
While meditating on heaven on one occasion, Flavel was so overcome with heavenly joy that he lost sight of this world. Stopping his horse by a spring, he viewed death as the most amiable face he had ever seen, except that of Christ’s, who made it so. When he finally arrived at an inn, the innkeeper said to him, “Sir, what is the matter with you? You look like a dead man.” “Friend,” Flavel replied, “I was never better in my life.” Years later, Flavel said that he understood more of heaven from that experience than from all the books he had ever read and all the sermons he had ever heard on the subject.