The tale of the thousands who camped out for years in a field they called Sion and the man with the wooden leg that would grow back when Jesus appeared, is an fascinating Bejemanesque nugget of puritan history in this puritan county — a part of our story that’s desperately unfashionable these days, but worth telling. What does it mean in context?
- We like to think we live in an age of social and political upheaval, but the late seventeenth century saw everything turned upside down and inside out, civil wars, and the King executed. This age of Diggers, Ranters, Shakers, Muggletonians and Quakers was electric with a sense that the old religious institutions had failed to deliver anything except strife and war. Significant proportions of the population swirled into what we would regard as marginal movements, seeking enlightenment and a spiritual home. In this first age of great diarists Religion became a much more internal personal matter.
- Following the Reformation, public visual art had been pretty much verboten in England, and had been confined to court circles and a domestic siding. Artistic endeavour poured into Literature and poetry well after the age of Shakespeare. You couldn’t be a puritan and a visual artist, but you could be a John Milton or Andrew Marvell.
- As cultural life picked up after the restoration the first public art form to flourish in England was Music — John Blow, Henry Purcell, Jeremiah Clarke. Mason was pretty much the first English popular original vernacular hymn writer.
Honesty is the best policy and innocence the best wisdomWhat can we learn from John Mason?
Firstly, His is a deeply personal faith. Christianity is not a religion of forms and dogma, institutions and cultic participation, but a way of life which recommends itself by how it is lived. Mason walked the walk as well as talked the talk — “a light in the pulpit and a pattern out of it,” they said. Saint Paul said this about his congregation in Corinth:
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.So it’s the attitude to living and people, God and faith, that counts, rather than being a member of a particular sect or following a particular doctrine. Just like today?
Secondly, this is Christianity for the streets — faith sans frontières. Here is Mason’s friend Isaac Watts, writing in 1744:
I have often thought that this short collection of short sentences, under various heads, are very proper to attend christians of the middle-rank of life, either in the parlour or the kitchen, in the shop or the work-house; and for that end I have been a frequent purchaser of them, to distribute in families, among private christians.This is a Lay Spirituality — no dependence upon parsons. Everyone is called to be holy, and can serve God as faithfully and effectively by working as an apprentice, tradesman or housemaid as they could by being a clergyman. All are called to ministry — just like today?
Thirdly, as well as keeping it personal, keeping it real, Mason plays skilfully with language like a metaphysical poet, turning words upside down and back to front playfully, but always in simple language anyone could understand:
Man is not made for the world, but the world for man.Here’s one for next time your children tell you they are bored:
We hated God without a cause, and he loved us without a cause.
As every shred of gold is precious, so is every minute of time
A Christian should never say he hath nothing to do. It was not for nothing that we were called out of nothing.Fourthly (best Puritan sermons went on to twenty-seventhly — not this one!) He protests the emptiness and materialism of his age and ours.
We put a price on our riches, but riches cannot put a price on us.John Mason’s religion is personal, opposed to materialism, full of surprise and delight. It is down to earth, beautifully simple, and, compared to other preachings of his age, straightforward and memorable. He being dead yet speaketh, to quote the letter to the Hebrews, to a world of indifference, show, celebrity as an end in itself, selfishness, materialism and sickness of heart.
Riches are indifferent things; good or bad, as they are used; be then as indifferent to them as they are to you.The world promises comforts and pays sorrows
Riches and prosperity will either kill with care, or surfeit with delight
Be not proud of riches but afraid of them, lest they be silver bars to cross the way to heaven.
Confronted by our own upheavals, uncertainty, emptiness, and materialism, we cold do worse than learn from John Mason. Our society, like his is profoundly weary and suspicious of institutions. The future of the Christian church lies not in institutional triumph, but in simple straightforward lay discipleship. At the heart of John Mason’s teaching lies a simple picture of what a lay Christian is, apart of all the technicalities and circumstantial upheavals of his age
They that believe have Christ in their hearts, heaven in their eye, and the world under their feet. God’s spirit is their guide, God’s fear is their guard, God’s people are their companions, God’s promises are their cordials, holiness is their way, and heaven is their home.Does he mean us? He surely does!