The Ministry of Septimus Sears (1819-1877) as Seen By his Congregation and Challenged by David Gay
Septimus Sears, renowned in England as one of the country’s most outstanding pastors and preachers, started his ministry at the age of 20 before taking over Clifton Strict Baptist Church, Bedfordshire which he shepherded from 1842 to his death in 1877. Sears suffered all his life from severe heart trouble and was burdened by long periods of paralysis and typhus. His neck bones were so deformed that he had to wear an iron collar to support his head. Nevertheless, he preached three times on the Lord’s Day and often during the week. He edited two Christian magazines, The Little Gleaner and The Sower, and published many sermons besides a number of popular hymnbooks and poetical works. The invalid pastor-poet established a school for poor children, founded organisations to care for orphans and the needy and erected homes for widows and the aged. He believed that gospel witness should be social and practical as well as spiritual. His labours were immense in the Lord and certainly not in vain.
All gospel-minded Christians will thus profit from reading the following testimony to Sears’ preaching penned by his converts, congregation and friends.[1. Memoir of the Life and Labours of the Late Septimus Sears] They say his preaching included: “the infinite and inflexible justice of God in His holy law; the awful consequences of the fall as seen in the spiritual death and total depravity of all men by nature, and in the eternal vengeance that must overtake all graceless sinners; the necessity of regeneration, repentance and faith; the glorious person of Immanuel, God with us, the representative at God’s right hand of all the household of faith, the great covenant Head through whom God can be just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus; the love of Jesus as set forth in the free invitations of the Gospel to the sinful, the poor, the burdened, the thirsty, the lost; the precious promises made in God’s Word to certain characters; the object for awakened souls to seek after, namely, the reception by faith of the record which God has given of His Son in the Gospel; the fountain head of all the blessings of salvation, and the cause of all right experience, namely, the electing love of God irrespective of all merit or demerit on the part of the elect; the privileges of believers as adopted children of God; the gospel obligation which lies upon all who are saved by Christ to seek grace from Christ that they may live unto Christ, yielding their members as instruments unto righteousness; and, finally, the mind of God concerning the future coming, and kingdom, and glory of the Lord Jesus” (1 Thess. 1:10).
Upon some of these points we wish to dwell a little in this place, since it was his faithful inculcation of them that exposed Mr. Sears to misrepresentation and trial. When preaching the terrible threats of God’s holy law he strove earnestly to tread in the footsteps of one who said, “Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.” It was no part of his creed that the sole business of a gospel minister is to preach comfort to saints, with the idea “if a stray arrow strikes any unconverted sinner, well and good; but my business is not with them.” No. In the pulpit he felt to be face to face with the conscience of every hearer, and endeavoured so plainly, closely, and faithfully to deal with the conscience of every natural man as to be pure from the blood of all (Acts 20:26). In so doing he felt convinced that he was not giving an undue prominence to one or two isolated Scriptures, but preaching in harmony with the revealed will of God. A sense of the value of the soul of man, of his own responsibility as a spiritual guide, of the brevity of time and the dread realities of eternity, made him particularly zealous in this part of his work; a gracious superiority to the fear of man preserved him from being fettered therein; and a solid spiritual acquaintance with the grand truths of divine sovereignty, unconditional election, and absolute grace prevented him from leading his hearers into any delusive notions of human merit or free-will. On one occasion he remarked to us in conversation, “I can honestly assert that all I have ever said when addressing unconverted sinners only amounts to this, “Now consider this, ye that forget God; lest I tear you in pieces and there be none to deliver.” Natural people who attended his ministry could not say to him, “You never have anything to say to us.” And his spiritual hearers were preserved from thinking that ten minutes in the pulpit spent upon outsiders were ten minutes lost. Perhaps they had noticed that a considerable part of the Epistle to the Romans is of this character, where the apostle turns aside from the saints at Rome to spend a whole chapter in argumentative expostulation with hardened, impenitent Gentiles, and self-righteous Jews. (See Romans 2.)
Nor was he less anxious to bring forth the sweet invitations and promises of the Gospel, as suited to the needy, naked, undone sinner who has lost all hope from the law and all help in self, and who, from an experimental sense of his perilous condition, fears that there is no help for him in God. All such he tenderly sought to encourage, pointing out to them that their very convictions and cries for mercy were marks in their favour, and pledges of better things to come. And in this difficult part of a minister’s work he seems to us to have been gifted with peculiar wisdom and faithfulness. The comfort which he administered to an awakened sinner was a bracing cordial, not a sleeping draught. Like good John Bunyan’s Evangelist he would give such a one a parchment roll, wherein was written, “Flee from the wrath to come!” To one who could not see yonder wicket gate, but only a shining light, he would say, “Keep that light in thine eye, and go up directly thereto; so shalt thou see the gate at which, when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.” In plain words, knowing the universal proneness of sinners to build on something different from the one foundation which God has laid in Zion, and to settle down in self or even feed on inward grace received instead of a full and complete salvation in Jesus Christ, he was not content that souls should be simply encouraged by the hope of being in the right way; his anxiety was to conduct the pilgrim to the cross, and to espouse his hearers and readers as chaste virgins unto Christ (2 Cor. 11:2). He would that none who seemed to be under convictions should stop short of the city of refuge, or die by the hand of the avenger of blood. Hart’s language was his:
“Fly then, awakened sinner fly,
Your case admits no stay:
The fountain’s opened now for sin,
Come, wash your guilt away.”
Did this imply that either he or our favourite poet believed that the sinner had any innate power to come? Verily no; both would have scorned such a thought. But knowing that it has pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe, they strove to preach to the full the preaching that He had bidden them, and humbly left the issue in the hands of that blessed Spirit who alone can make effectual a warning to a sinner, an invitation to a seeker, or an exhortation to a saint.”
Sadly this firm Biblical testimony to Sears’ preaching is now questioned by David Gay,[2. Septimus Sears: A Victorian Injustice and Its Aftermath] who believes he knows Sears better than the sinners he led to Christ. So Gay claims the Memoir is unacceptable ‘at face value’, it goes ‘too far’, and ‘falls short’ of the truth.[3. P. 24, fn 5.] Gay realises the poverty of his evidence, and claims he has not studied the facts ‘by a long chalk’[4. See pp. 14 fn 615] so that people will call him ‘perverse’ and ‘too conceited’ in his condemnation of Sears.[5. P. 11.] He, nevertheless, thinks he must write his booklet for polemic reasons against Gospel Standard churches of which Sears was not a member.
Challenging the Memoir, Gay says Sears did not preach repentance and faith to sinners as sinners but only to those who had responded positively to the gospel and believed.[6. Pp. 13-14; 16, 23-24, 53.] Gay claims that Sears called these already believers ‘sensible sinners’ and addressed them but not those whom Gay calls ‘non-sensible’ sinners.[7. P. 14 and elsewhere.] Who then had previously preached the gospel of repentance and faith to these ‘non-sensible’ sinners so that they trusted in Christ or became sensible to sin? No one but Sears, so we must reject Gay’s unfounded hypothesis. Gay, notwithstanding, claims that Sears was ‘muddled’[8. P. 20-21 and passim. Needless to say, Gay, after giving most muddled accounts of several characters in his book, such as Philpot and Hawker, complains that they also were ‘muddled’.] on repentance and faith and did nothing towards lost sinners’ conversions.[9. PP. 13, 14, 23-24, 28, 39 and passim. Gay gives other (different) definitions of ‘sensible sinners’ in his two books on the free offer.] However, in the Clifton Sermons, which Gay professes to have studied, Sears pleas passionately and often with the lost, saying:
‘Don’t tell me that a man preaches the Gospel if the most conspicuous figure in his sermon is not Jesus Christ and him crucified. The preached Gospel is the exhibition of a bleeding Saviour opening a fountain to wash guilty sinners in; an inviting Saviour, exclaiming to the thirsty perishing sinner, ‘Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.’
He then addresses sinners directly with the words:
‘Are you made willing to close in with a whole Christ? Are you longing to be clean in His blood, clad in his righteousness, and to wear his easy yoke?’ ‘Sinners you and your sins must part.’ ‘Oh, you have never been brought to Christ, you must here by the means of the Gospel, by the power of the Spirit, receive Christ by faith, or perish’. [10. Sin’s Yoke Forsaken, January 1865.]
Gay repeatedly denies that Sears made such direct appeals to sinners, though he criticises Sears godly prayers that the Lord will open sinners’ hearts and let dead sinners live as in this sermon.[11. P. 38.] In the August 1865 Clifton Sermons under the heading ‘What think ye of Christ?`, Sears confronts sinners with his very first words, saying:
‘Are you born again? Are you in the narrow way? Are you prepared to die?’ ‘Remember before you die you must be saved.’
Gay must have seen this but nevertheless claims that when Sears thought he was inviting and commanding sinners to come to Christ, he was not.[12. P. 16.] When he commanded sinners to believe or perish, or spoke of Christ inviting sinners to salvation, Gay believes Sears did not know what he was talking about![13. Pp. 28-31, 40.] Yet Gay cannot deny that so many were converted under Sears’ ministry. The Lord must have been with his preaching.
Our duty as evangelists is to preach Christ to sinners trusting that the Holy Spirit will make them sensible to their plight. Gospel preachers rely on the work of God in Christ to do the rest. This was Sears’ method outlined in his sermons concerning an inviting Saviour. This Gay denies, ignoring first-hand evidence.[14. See also p. 48. Here Gay is clearly wrong.] Besides, the few sources Gay gives, leaving aside the fact that Gay’s quotes, confusing comments and misinterpretations are mostly inappropriate and irrelevant, are too small a platform on which to build his anti-Sears accusations.
Indeed, Gay complains repeatedly that he has been denied sources,[15. E.g., see Note to the Reader.] giving one understandable instance only, but this did not stop him writing his attack on Sears. On page seventy-seven, the reluctant researcher thus asks others to do his research for him. The general and easily available sources Gay gives are often merely secondary and unnecessary cosmetic padding as they have little or nothing to do with Sears. Works are listed in footnotes without their relevance to the topic being stated. Books of mine are added though I have never written a word on Sears. Gay also complains that lack of space hinders his documentation, claiming, ‘if I were not limited for space by the necessary constraints of this book-form . . .,’ or, ‘I am concentrating on what I see as his (Sears’) faults, and, through lack of space, omitting much that is good and profitable,’[16. P 15.] or ‘if I had space, I could have given examples’.[17. P. 49.] Instead of wasting space like this, Gay could have used it for the extra evidence he says he has. Incredibly, Gay complains that he has been forced to write a ‘lop-sided’ work.[18. P. 15.]
Yet Gay was not limited for space as his book which starts on page 11 and ends on page 77 could have been much longer. However, much of the booklet is only remotely connected with Gay’s subject. Much, too, is directed against the Gospel Standard churches where Sears is merely treated as a foot mat before entering Gay’s favourite quarrel. Indeed, Gay’s brief opening account of Sears’ life and ministry is merely an ill-chosen stepping stone (the other is Anglican Robert Hawker) to hit out at the GS Added Articles.[19. See especially pp. 53, 67 where Gay sees Hawker’s influence on the Added Articles as being greater than Philpot’s.] Gay pretends to defend Sears against John Gadsby’s criticisms but his own criticisms are far more severe than Gadsby’s. So, too, though Gay refers to the Gospel Standard Magazine as Sears’ enemy, he is often treated with praise there and the GS Library still stocks and recommends many of his works which Gay does not appear to have consulted.
Gay complains that Sears ‘hid himself behind Scriptural commands’[20. P. 38] instead of using his own words thus indicating that he believed differently himself. This damning hypothesis is used against the growing number of sound brethren that Gay now accuses of being ‘Hypers’, including this writer. How wonderful it is to trust in the words of Psalm 32, ‘Thou art my hiding place thou shalt preserve me from trouble’. Sears’ undocumented guesswork is unacceptable. When reading pages 28 and 38 of the work under review, it becomes obvious that Gay is criticising Sears’ reliance on Christ’s own invitation to sinners. When Sears speaks directly to sinners saying ‘Christ invites you to draw near him in faith’, this is wrong preaching, Gay mistakenly thinks. The preacher must say in his own words, ‘I invite and command you to come to Christ at once’.
Gay has a very restricted way of preaching which must take note of the right terminology and the right methods of moving sinners in the right place, otherwise he feels the Spirit cannot work. Gay’s gospel restricted by this strait-jacket is thus certainly different to Sears’ more open gospel, but this does not make it right and Sears’ gospel wrong. Gay is so bogged down with his muddled mixture of New Divinity and Latitudinarian terminology and rhetoric centring on the duties of the sinner rather than the graces of a sovereign God, that he is in no position to criticise preachers of righteousness who are not fettered like himself. Gay denigrates Baptist Sears because he will not accept the free offer, duty faith gospel, initiated by Congregationalist Matthias Maurice and developed by Gay himself. Those who neglect to preach God’s saving will for all men and man’s fallen duties to exercise faith, Gay argues, must be Hyper-Calvinists who do not believe in preaching the gospel to sinners as sinners. However, most of those Gay condemns as ‘Hypers’, including Sears, Gill and Hawker, do preach directly to sinners, urging them to repent and believe and yet reject Gay’s gospel of God’s alleged contradictory wills in salvation and the duties of fallen man to believe. In short, Gay condemns Sears because he does not include Liberal elements which were historically and Biblically not in the gospel in the first place. Gay admits that Sears does not use Gay’s special terminology. He nevertheless insists that Sears was, in effect, combating Gay’s own Latitudinarian and New Divinity understanding of man’s natural and spiritual capacities and the mutable will of God in salvation. This means, for Gay, that Sears was not preaching the gospel properly.[21. P. 19 and passim.] Well, good for Sears if he rejected then what has come to be Gay’s surrogate gospel now! Yet where is Gay’s evidence and why has he aimed to destroy the reputation of a good man through a booklet of sheer, undocumented, malignant, ‘might have been’ gossip?
George M. Ella is a historian, author and biographer. His writings may be accessed at the online archived, ”Biographia Evangelica”.
George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.