Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

James Hervey (1713-1758): The Prose Poet

Written by Dr. George M. Ella
Introduction: Dr. Ella was born in England, and as a teenager moved to Sweden to continue his training as a Forestry Apprentice. After his conversion he returned to England to study theology. While a student at the London Bible College, he attended the worship services of the well-known Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Upon graduation at London and Hull Universities, he worked as a school teacher and evangelist among the Lapps. For the last 27 years Dr. Ella has lived in Germany, near the Dutch border. His career included work as a senior civil servant, university examiner and writer of curricula on library management and retailing for the state's commercial colleges. He is married to Erika and has two sons. After adding various degrees in business, education, history, psychology and library science, he gained a doctorate in English literature. Dr. Ella has written a number of books, including biographies of James Hervey, John Gill, and William Huntington. Further works on Augustus Toplady and Isaac McCoy are to appear shortly. His magnum opus is an exhaustive biography of the famous English poet William Cowper, published by Evangelical Press. Dr. Ella frequents the Haamstede Conferenties in Holland, which are attended by ministers of our Dutch sister churches (CGK) and the Reformed Alliance (Gereformeerde Bond). As a result he knows Revs. Baars, Den Butter, and many others familiar to us. In September 1997 he spoke for the Free Reformed Student Society. Dr. Ella is a lover of experiential Reformed truth, particularly as summarized in the Canons of Dort. - C. Keuning

Dr. George M. Ella is the author of a number of books dealing with the lives of ministers and evangelists of the 18th century Great Awakening in England.

Few Gospel ministers have lived as close to Christ as James Hervey, the Poet of Prose; called such because the beauty of his language matched the beauty of his life. Hervey, a country parson's son, was born at Hardingstone near Northampton and received his first education from his mother who taught him his letters by means of a horn book with a passage of Scripture written on it. When James was seven years of age he was sent to the Grammar School at Northampton where he made excellent progress in Greek grammar, soon wishing to tackle the Classics. His teacher, however, had a very dull son and he would not allow his pupils to progress beyond his own son's standard. Thus the bright pupils such as James fought boredom on the sports field until the slow-coach learnt his lessons. In 1731, Hervey, now 17 years old, entered Lincoln College, Oxford on a scholarship of £20 a year. His tutor, Richard Hutchins, introduced him to Hebrew, guiding him carefully through Genesis. John Ryland, no mean Hebraist himself, reported that Hervey quickly became one of Europe's leading experts in Biblical Hebrew. Nevertheless, historians tell us that "Scriptural, experimental religion was become quite unfashionable" at Oxford and for two years Hervey showed no spiritual interest, merely studying science, medicine, natural history, poetry and the Classics. By 1733 Hervey had begun to think more seriously and became eager to reform his soul as well as his mind. Through reading books on science, he was moved to think about creation and the Creator. He informed his sister of his new 'religious' ideas:

What sweet complacency, what unspeakable satisfaction shall we
reap from the contemplation of an uninterrupted series of
spotless actions: No present uneasiness will prompt us
impatiently to wish for dissolution, nor anxious fears for
futurity make us immoderately dread the impending stroke; all
will be calm, easy, and serene; all will be soothed by this
precious, this invaluable thought, that, by reason of the
meekness, the innocence, the purity, and other Christian graces
which adorned the several stages of our progress through the
world, our names and our ashes will be embalmed, the chambers of
our tomb consecrated into a paradise of rest, and our souls,
white as our locks, by an easy transition, become angels of

Hervey, still a teenager, had become a religious snob, trusting in his frequent good works to transform him into an angel. His new tutor John Wesley, encouraged him in these thoughts and together they read the notorious "Whole Duty of Man" to improve their morals. Another friend, Risdon Darracot, was more useful. He had found Christ through Dr. Doddridge's ministry and began to turn Hervey's gaze away from his own righteousness to the righteousness of Christ, putting him in touch with godly writers such as Walter Marshall. Marshall, however, was left unread for some time as Hervey had joined a group of students who had become dominated by his new tutor's views on the perfect life. Hervey's friend John Ryland says of these members of the so-called Holy Club:

These men became his spiritual physicians; and foolish
physicians they were: their religion consisted in a set of
outward observances, and a punctilious regard to rules of their
own devising - rising at stated hours - fasting several times in
the week - giving the food they saved by fasting to the poor -
saying prayers at certain hours - visiting the prisoners in the
jails - frequent attendance upon the sacrament - binding
themselves by vows and covenants, to certain virtues and
practices. This was the sum total of their religion: they had no
spiritual perception of the person of Christ: no understanding
of his glorious righteousness for our justification: no
acquaintance with the spirituality and vast extent of God's law:
no sense of the immaculate purity of God: no conviction of the
plague of their own hearts; no deep discernment of the power,
deceit, and malignity of indwelling sin: no sight of the
absolute necessity of regeneration by God the Holy Spirit: no
knowledge of his divine person, and the infinite importance and
necessity of his operations in the scheme of our salvation: no
experience of the pleasures of vital religion.

As a result of this reckless living, one student died and, though once a strong and robust sportsman, Hervey's health broke and left him an invalid for the rest of his short life. After five years at Oxford, Hervey took his degree and was ordained a deacon of the Church of England. He had no idea of the Gospel and was still 'righteous overmuch' in his own estimation. But God was already preparing the mind and heart of an unlettered farmhand in order to humble him. Because of his poor health, the doctors advised Hervey to accompany a ploughman over the fields as the fresh air and odours of the newly-turned soil would do him good. For one who had his nose in a book night and day, it was obviously sound advice, so Hervey decided to follow it.

While Hervey was walking alongside the ploughman, he decided to catechize him. He began with the question, "What is the hardest thing in religion?" The ploughman replied, "I am a poor illiterate man, and you, Sir, are a minister. I beg leave to return the question." Taking up the cue, Hervey said, "The hardest thing is to deny sinful self." He was thinking of the Lord's words in Matthew 16:24, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." Hervey then lectured the labourer on self-mortification. The son of the soil soon realized what was lacking in Hervey's view of sanctification. "There is another instance of self-denial," he said patiently, "to which the injunction extends, is of great moment, and is the hardest thing in religion, and that is, to deny righteous self."

The simple man had seen that Hervey's own righteous self, his own self-righteousness, was standing between him and a saving knowledge of Christ. Whilst Hervey was taking this in, it was the ploughman's turn to lecture his clergyman friend. "You know," he continued, "that I do not come to hear you preach, but go every Sabbath, with my family, to Northampton, to hear Dr. Doddridge: We rise early in the morning, and have prayers before we set out, in which I find pleasure. Walking there and back I find pleasure; under the sermon I find pleasure; when at the Lord's table I find pleasure. We read a portion of the Scriptures and go to prayers in the evening, and we find pleasure; but to this moment, I find it the hardest thing to deny righteous self. I mean the instance of renouncing our own strength, and our own righteousness, not leaning on that for holiness, not relying on that for justification."

Hervey looked at the man with pity, thinking "What an old fool!" but God had begun a work in his heart. He found himself thinking of Christ's holy life. Suddenly, he felt that he hated Christ's righteousness as it stood in the way of a trust in his own. Nevertheless, Hervey could not forget this experience and was soon led to see that he had been the ignorant fool and the uneducated farmhand had taught him solid sense and godly wisdom.

Hervey's letters over the next five years show how a work of grace was taking place in the young minister's life. He now tells his sister, "Let us remember, and remembering, let us acknowledge, that we are nothing, and have nothing, and deserve nothing, but shame and contempt, but misery and punishment." For the first time in his life, Hervey saw his own sinfulness and nothingness before God.

George Whitefield had entered Lincoln College the year after Hervey and became the first of the Holy Club members to find Christ. By the end of 1735 he had joined Darracot in witnessing openly to Hervey, saying that he would never find righteousness unless he was clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Hervey accepted the point but was too ashamed to reply. He began to study Walter Marshall's "Gospel Mystery of Sanctification" and Jenks on "Submission to Christ's Righteousness" and, slowly gained insight into the need for a new birth. Whitefield's sermon "What think ye of Christ?" was the final link in the chain of divine providence that granted Hervey repentance and faith and caused him to shed all trust in his own righteousness. He was quick to inform Whitefield of the news, saying:

I now desire to work in my blessed Master's service, not for,
but from salvation. I believe that Jesus Christ, the incarnate
God, is my Saviour; that He has done all which I was bound to
perform; and suffered all I was condemned to sustain; and so has
procured a full, final and everlasting salvation for a poor
damnable sinner. I would now fain serve Him who has saved me. I
would glorify Him before men, who has justified me before God. I
would study to please Him in holiness and righteousness all the
days of my life. I seek this blessing, not as a condition but as
a part - a choice and inestimable part - of that complete
salvation, which Jesus has purchased for me.

Hervey took over his late father's work amongst a very faithful flock. The poor walked as much as 12 miles to the Lord's Day services, and the rich drew up in their coaches from far wider afield. Though marked by illness and often only able to recline on a couch whilst preaching, Hervey always had a full church. His portrayals of Jesus and His salvation were so moving that his hearers longed to depart from this life and be with Christ for ever.

Hervey started work before six in the morning, writing his best-selling books or preparing sermons. At eight, he called his servants, his family and visitors to morning devotions. They were questioned on the texts expounded the day before and given additional instruction. Prayers were then conducted until breakfast for all at nine. During the rest of the morning and early afternoon, Hervey would either work in his study without a break for lunch, or visit his flock whom he catechized on doctrine and the Scriptures. He also distributed Bibles, books, household goods and clothing to the poor, rather than distribute money. If he discovered, however, that a family was in financial straits and had medicine bills etc. to pay, he would dig deep into his own pocket and settle the bills.

Though Hervey earned a huge sum on "Meditations" and "Theron and Aspasio" alone, he gave it all to the poor. He paid particular attention to the health of his flock, consulting the best doctors on their behalf. Whenever a prominent doctor was in the vicinity, Hervey sent messengers to him, begging him to visit his sick parishioners, promising to meet all expenses himself. In the late afternoon Hervey had a cup of tea and then gathered his family and servants around him to hear verses of Scripture expounded from the Hebrew or Greek Testaments. The remaining hours until the main evening meal were usually taken up by study and preparation. At eight he would dine and at nine expound the Scriptures again to his family and his numerous visitors.

Hervey's prolonged illness and his death at the early age of forty-four were such glorious testimonies to the grace of God that James Stonehouse, his doctor, received a call to take up Hervey's mantle and become a minister of the Gospel. Hervey's last words were "Precious salvation. Precious salvation."

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