A nonconformist, unifier, husband of three deceased wives, victim of religious persecution, and author of what has been collected into six volumes of reprinted Works, John Flavel (c.1630-1691) of Dartmouth, England not only had an immense following during his own lifetime, but deeply influenced those who would set the course as shapers of religion and culture in the generations to follow.
Flavel's influence remained strong until the end of the nineteenth century, when (for various reasons) historiographical, philosophical, and Christian literature ceased to recognize his life or thought. However, over the last twenty-five years or so, John Flavel has enjoyed increasing popularity among academics, pastors, and laypeople alike, evidenced by the growing number of books and articles on Flavel as well as the number of students taking post-graduate courses of study on his life and thought. More than ever, people are asking, "Who was John Flavel?" And then they ask, "How do you pronounce his last name?"
John Flavel's Legacy & Writing
Anthony á Wood (1632-1695), the Oxford historian, once (reportedly) noted that Flavel had "more disciples than ever John Owen the Independent, or Rich. Baxter the Presbyterian." Increase Mather, himself a well-known New England Puritan and Harvard College president, once wrote shortly after Flavel's death: "[Flavel's] works, already published, have made his name precious in both Englands; and it will be so, as long as the earth shall endure."
Flavel's Works have been published and reprinted numerous times as a collected whole since their first publication in 1701--thirteen editions during the eighteenth century alone! Since Flavel's first printed work in 1664, there have now been at least 721 printings of his roughly thirty-five treatises and sermons. His best-selling work, A Saint Indeed, went through forty-one printings from 1668 to 1800.
Flavel's writing style may be compared to Richard Baxter or John Bunyan in both its variations of simplicity and density. It is not as technical as that of John Owen, nor is its content as difficult to understand. But, as Iain Murray once said, "Certainly if the sustained regard of Christian readers is any guide, Flavel belongs to the very front rank of evangelical authors." Charles Spurgeon, commenting on Flavel's writings, believed that "Master John Flavel"--as he liked to call him--deserved "an honorable place among the makers of metaphors, emblems, etc." He adds that Flavel is "greatest in metaphor and allegory" and that "[Flavel] was popular in the highest degree both at home and abroad."
In addition to the wide variety of topics that Flavel wrote about, he also quoted over 550 different authors. These included ancient philosophers, Greek and Latin church fathers, Roman Catholic theologians, Continental Reformers, and other Puritans. He was a pastor-theologian who sought to communicate the doctrines of the Protestant and Reformed faith in a clear and practical way, which is why his writings may appropriately be considered works of practical divinity.
Well-known Puritans, such as John Howe, Matthew Henry, and Thomas Boston knew of and appreciated Flavel as a pastor and writer, as well as poets and writers, such as Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe). John Eliot, the early missionary to the Native Americans, read and enjoyed Flavel's writings as did Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer, who described Flavel as "that most excellent, practical and evangelical writer." John Howe, with several other prominent ministers, penned the preface to Flavel's The Occasions, Causes, Nature, Rise, Growth and Remedies of Mental Errors, writing that Flavel did not "need any letters of recommendation from us," but rather the preface was simply an "expression of respect to him, a debt." Almost one year after Flavel's death, Increase Mather lamented, "Dartmouth will know, Devonshire will know, that there has been a prophet among them."
"Holy Mr. Flavel," as Jonathan Edwards called him, is quoted in his Religious Affections more often than Richard Baxter, John Owen, Richard Sibbes, John Calvin, Francis Turretin, William Ames, and William Perkins combined. Historian Frank Mott notes, "The two most popular devotional essayists of the Colonial period [were] John Flavel and James Hervey... [Flavel] had an amazing following in America for a hundred and fifty years.... His Works appear in the lists of titles advertised by Colonial booksellers probably more often than any others except those of Dr. Watts, and they continued to be popular well into the nineteenth century."
Archibald Alexander, one of the founders of Princeton Theological Seminary, was converted through reading Flavel. He later recounted: "To John Flavel I certainly owe more than to any uninspired author." Alexander's son, James--also a noted Presbyterian minister and theologian--once remarked: "To my taste, Flavel is the most uniformly interesting, engaging, and refreshing writer on religion, ancient or modern." He adds, "A mix of Baxter and Flavel would be my highest wish as a preacher."
In December 2012, noted Puritan scholars Sinclair Ferguson, Carl Trueman, and Mark Dever overwhelmingly chose John Flavel's The Mystery of Providence as their favorite Puritan paperback title. J. I. Packer agrees: "Flavel is clear-headed and eloquent in the plain Puritan style, orthodox, Christ-focused and life-centered in his subject-matter, with his mind always set on advancing true godliness, with peace and joy in the Lord." The resurgence in Puritan literature in general and that of Flavel in particular among Reformed communities is starting to provide a healthy amount of helpful resources for further study on Flavel's life and thought.
The current six-volume edition of Flavel's Works (W. Baynes and Son, 1820; rpt. The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968) has faithfully served generations of believers and has remained a strong favorite of Puritan literature. However, it contains antiquated punctuation, typographical errors, content errors, and was based on eighteenth-century rather than seventeenth-century documents. These later editions of Flavel's Works have even inserted errors into the text where Flavel originally had them correct. It is time for a new complete edition of Flavel's Works.
In the spring of 2013, I approached The Banner of Truth Trust with a proposal to produce and edit a completely new edition of Flavel's Works based on the original documents. After months of deliberation and narrowing our focus, the agreement was made, and the task began. I asked two other Flavel scholars to help with this enormous project, Nathan Parker and Cliff Boone, and they provided invaluable assistance, especially with tracking down the roughly thirty-five individual treatises and works that were published in the later 1600s. I also assembled an Advisory Board to guide me in the project, which includes noted Puritan scholars Joel Beeke, Derek Thomas, Gerald Bray, John Coffey, Stephen Yuille, and Adam Embry.
The project is currently underway without an exact publication date (but expect it sometime late 2020 or early 2021). As you might imagine, the work is rather tedious and involves careful attention to detail. And yet, the content makes my soul soar! My prayer is that this new edition of Flavel's Works will provide many generations of believers spiritually-rich, Christ-exalting literature to spur affections for our Lord and King, Jesus Christ.
Dr. Brian H. Cosby serves as senior pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta, and author of over a dozen books, including John Flavel: Puritan Life and Thought in Stuart England.