Meet the Puritans: Isaac Ambrose
February 22, 2016
Isaac Ambrose (1604–1664)
Isaac Ambrose was the son of Richard Ambrose, vicar of Ormskirk, Lancashire. Entering Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1621, he graduated B.A. in 1624, and was ordained to the ministry. He became vicar of the parish church in Castleton, Derbyshire, in 1627, then served at Clapham, Yorkshire, from 1629-1631. The following year he received a M.A. from Cambridge. Through the influence of William Russell, Earl of Bedford, Ambrose was appointed one of the king’s four itinerant preachers for Lancashire, and took up residence in the town of Garstang. The king’s preachers were commissioned to preach the Reformation doctrines in an area that was strongly entrenched in Roman Catholicism. About 1640, Lady Margaret Houghton selected him as vicar of Preston. As long as Ambrose lived in Preston, he enjoyed the warm friendship of the Hoghton family. His sermon, “Redeeming the Time,” preached to the large congregation assembled for Lady Hoghton’s funeral, was long remembered in Lancashire.
When the first civil war began, Preston remained loyal to the king and became headquarters for the Royalists in Lancashire. Nonetheless, Ambrose declared himself a Presbyterian when he subscribed to the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, and was one of the ministers who served on the committee of Parliament appointed to oversee the ejection of “scandalous and ignorant ministers and schoolmasters” during the Commonwealth. Preston became a battleground between the opposing forces of king and Parliament. Ambrose was arrested twice for his Presbyterian beliefs, but he was quickly released on both occasions because of his friendship with the Hoghtons and other neighboring gentlemen and his own reputation for godliness.
Presbyterianism in Lancashire was served well by Ambrose in the 1640s and early 1650s, though not without strife. In 1648 he was a signatory of the harmonious consent of the Lancashire Presbyterian clergy, which expressed solidarity with the Westminster Assembly and opposed calls for toleration. In 1649, the local committee for the relief of plundered ministers ordered him to be briefly imprisoned in London. When Ambrose returned to minister in Preston, he faced ongoing persecution. Finally, in 1654, he gave up his post there, perhaps due in part also to illness (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1:921). Ambrose moved north to become minister of Garstang, where he was ejected from his living in 1662 because of Nonconformity. He lived in retirement among his friends at Preston, dying suddenly of apoplexy on January 23, 1664. It was said of him: “He was holy in life, happy in his death, honored of God, and held in high estimation by all good men.”
Ambrose was a Christ-centered and warmly experiential author. He spoke of himself as a son of Boanerges and Barnabas, though his writings and ministry appear to have reflected more of the latter than the former as his writings are remarkably free of polemics. “As a religious writer Ambrose has a vividness and freshness of imagination possessed by scarcely any of the Puritan Nonconformists. Many who have no love for Puritan doctrine, nor sympathy with Puritan experience, have appreciated the pathos and beauty of his writings, and his Looking unto Jesus long held its own in popular appreciated with the writings of John Bunyan” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., 1:800).
Prima, Media, et Ultima. Prima and Ultima were published in 1640 and Media in 1650. Prima presents the message of regeneration, Media presents sanctification and the spiritual duties that the believer should engage to grow in grace and deeper union with Christ, and Ultima deals with the last things—life, death, judgment, hell, and heaven.
War with Devils:Ministration of, and Communion with Angels (1674) traces the ways in which God’s divine messengers assist the believer at the various periods of life from birth to the judgment. According to Ambrose, angels defend and keep us safe from the temptations of the devil, and act as God’s servants and instruments of providence. Angels may work in our dreams and therefore we must be careful to discern the origin of our dreams to see if they are of God. This is Ambrose’s most speculative work.
The Christian Warrior: Wrestling with Sin, Satan, the World, and the Flesh (1661). Based on Ephesians 6:12, Ambrose presents three key truths: 1) all God’s people must be warriors, 2) we have powerful and malicious enemies to contend with, and 3) we must wrestle and strive against these enemies. He shows how Satan attacks us at different times and under different conditions in life, and how we can prepare to withstand his assaults. His ten ways to cope with sinful anger are most helpful. Ambrose’s directives are insightful, probing, and succinct. For instance, Ambrose advises, “Be not satisfied with sudden pangs of affection, but labor to preserve those impressions which the Spirit has made on your soul” (p. 69).
Looking Unto Jesus (1658). After a serious illness in the early 1650s, Ambrose wrote this devotional on what the Lord had done for his soul, stressesing identification with Jesus in thought and behavior; it soon became a classic of Christ-centered divinity. Ambrose describes numerous aspects of Christ’s ministry. For example, he presents Jesus’ ministry from eternity and his ministry during his life from a nine-point perspective: 1) knowing Jesus, 2) considering Jesus, 3) desiring Jesus, 4) hoping in Jesus, 5) believing in Jesus, 6) loving Jesus, 7) rejoicing in Jesus, 8) calling on Jesus, and 9) conforming to Jesus in a particular aspect of his ministry. Regarding conforming to Christ in his resurrection, Ambrose wrote, “Look much at Christ raised, Christ glorified. [Let us] see our own personal vivification linked inseparably unto, and bottomed immovably upon the resurrection of Christ. When we can by faith get a sight of this, how courageously and successfully the soul will grapple in the controversies of the Lord against the devil, and our own deceitful hearts…. O that I could set my faith more frequently on Christ’s resurrection, so that at last I could see it by the light of God to be a destinated principle of my vivification in particular!” (p. 503).
Excerpted from Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 11–14.
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