Part III - The Unity of the Spirit
19 - Frances and her Sons
HAM HILL in Somerset rises like a little range beyond Norton village, and up there the golden Ham stone was quarried from Roman times and has been used on most of the villages and churches in this part of Somerset. Workmen emerging from the quarries and children playing up there saw great stretches of Somerset lying below them. The stone was not grudged in church-building, and Norton Church, like others round about, has a magnificent tower and spacious nave - out of proportion, we might think, to its modest village of farmers and quarrymen.
To this pretty place the Rev. William Gilpin had brought his family, you will remember, when he first gave up the Cheam School headship. The London patrons of this living (a Mr. William Locke, of Norbury Park, being one) must have been friends of the Farishes and Gilpins, for a William Farish had had it earlier, and again for eighteen years after Mr. Gilpin went to Pulverbach. When it fell vacant in 1824, the next incumbent was Rev. John Benson, Mr. Gilpin's son-in-law, and thus Frances came again, as a rector's wife, to the house she had first seen when a girl of twelve. The large rambling rectory was a happy home for their family of seven sons and a daughter. One and another of her sisters from the North used to pay her long visits. Frances was a conscientious rector's wife, "very attentive to the wants of her husband and children, and very careful to act consistently with her profession of Christianity according to the light she had".
In the year 1832 she had a sudden illness from which she was not expected to recover. She received very gentle but clear teaching in that illness which enabled her to feel (not lightly) that she could willingly part with her dear husband and her children. She says, I thought if I did but know that all my children would be His, that I might at the last meet them all, yes, all made clean and white in the blood of the Lamb, then I thought I could indeed leave them without a sorrow. Again however, and again I was much exercised about them and my dear husband, if I should be taken from them - sinful creature that I was! As often as the harassing thought crossed my mind He seemed to say to me, If there is one desire left of remaining on earth you cannot be happy to follow Me. At length after many struggles of this kind He brought my heart so far to trust in Him that for one moment I smiled at the prospect before me. It was, as it were, but a glance, and it was gone. I remember it, and can never forget it. It left a savour of peace upon my mind".
She recovered from this illness and some months later her youngest son James was born. The following year Matilda came to stay with her. That year - 1833 - was the vital year in the life of their young brother Bernard, and there in Somersetshire did these two sisters receive and pore over his letters, until, as we have seen, Matilda felt she must get to London herself and meet these godly men - Mr. Burrell, Mr. Nunn, Mr. Abbott, and Mr. Bourne.
She was free to go and did so. Frances could not. A very different path was planned for her. Her wish was that she and her husband might be led the same way as Bernard and Henrietta, but it was not to be. For ten years "the Word of God inwardly calling and working in her, she increasingly felt that if she would indeed follow Christ she must separate herself from a profession in which, as the light shone more clearly in her heart, she perceived she had been entangled. She felt, however, that she needed strength and wisdom from above in all this, that she might not needlessly wound one (her husband) she most tenderly loved, and who had always shown the greatest kindness and affection towards her. For many years she waited and watched in hope that it would please God to grant that together they might see light in His light".
The report of Jane's illness in 1835 "was made very profitable to Frances, the Spirit of God opening her understanding and increasing in her His holy fear. At the same time, and subsequently, the clear and faithful testimony given by Mr. Bourne and other godly friends who were associated with Mr. Burrell, according to which they walked in the fear of God, was made a blessing to her".
In November, 1835, she received the following letter from Mr. Bourne, who knew of her case from her sister, who was now attending his morning readings: "How universal is the profession of religion, and how general and frivolous is that universal profession! It appears chiefly to consist of - "I think so and so", "My sentiments are these and I don't agree in this or that", without the least regard to such words as those of Psalm 66, "How terrible art Thou in Thy works (Thy work of conversion is one); through the greatness of Thy power shall Thine enemies submit themselves unto Thee".
"The Lord's eyes behold the general hypocrisy that rules in men's hearts. Though we make many enquiries after religion yet when the only true and right way is set before us, it is often manifest that in "our pride and rebellion we exalt ourselves against it. But if spiritual life is in us, our feet are not removed by the discipline He brings us into, with which He proves and tries us, as silver is tried. And then we do not cry out, "I believe the Methodists are right - the Baptists are right, or the Evangelical clergy are right", but we stand deeply convicted that we are wrong, and here we cry, "God be merciful to me a sinner!". The Lord brings us into the Gospel net, and lays "affliction upon our loins". This is passing (in some measure) through the fire of God's law and through the waters of affliction, and in the end the soul is humbled to come in God's way of saving sinners, and eventually we are made acquainted with the "wealthy place" and open our mouths to sing the high praises of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost . . . This truth has power, efficacy and light in it, by which we shall see our way, and make it manifest that we are His sheep by turning from all false ways and hearing His voice and following it".
It does not look as though Mr. Bourne ever met Frances, but he took a true interest in her case, and especially in the spiritual welfare of her sons, as they one by one arrived in London for different trainings. As early as Mr. Bourne's first visit to Pulverbach in 1838 the elder two became known to him. William seems to have actually been in the village, when he would be staying at his grandfather Gilpin's house during vacation from St. John's College, Cambridge, where he began a theological training (which he later gave up). William, then twenty-one, a very impressionable age, must have pondered deeply over the strange spectacle of two of his aunts leaving the rectory and going to a small cottage to hear a gentleman from London preach, a gentleman who was not, apparently, received in the house. Mr. Bourne alludes to this time a year or two later, when he says "I cannot forget you and the way in which we first became acquainted at Pulverbach". It makes us wonder if they met accidentally in a lane, and the startled boy found Mr. Bourne was very different from what he perhaps imagined.
During that same visit Mr. Bourne was actually penning a letter as he sat in Mrs. Morris's or Sukey's house, to the second boy, Joseph, telling him that the secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him. 'such as possess this fear," he wrote, "have always (more or less) some knowledge of what truth is, and where it is, and are not unceasingly talking about its being here and there and everywhere. You have many subtle enemies within that will argue and reason very wisely; and if your present religion be only in the flesh it will not be long before it comes to an end, and only because of the want of the fear of the Lord. You will find it an easy matter to be persuaded to go in a beaten path, which many have made smooth and even; it seems to be freer from crosses and difficulties, and is not stigmatized with bigotry and dogmatism, nor is it called narrow and limited. This is true, but the fear of the Lord will tremble at that beaten path, and call to mind what God says, "We must through much tribulation enter the kingdom"."
Joseph valued this letter and sent it to his uncle Bernard, who in returning it says, "I can give you no advice more pointed and suitable than Mr. Bourne. This fear of the Lord, if it be put into us will abide and carry us through all difficulties. It is His own gift in the Covenant - "I will put My fear in their hearts". It is encouraging to be made to desire it, for it will come if it be enquired for: as I remember Mr. Nunn says, "One thing I have observed - whatever we cultivate, grows". I beseech you do not think of waiting till you know Christ clearly before you begin to make use of Him. This is, I believe, the principal snare in which the enemy keeps you. Cherish that tender hope that Christ had a favour towards you. You never can take too much encouragement from such a hope, provided it tends to make you more earnest in seeking instead of being satisfied without going further".
Throughout the 1840's (which, incidentally were years of extensive railway construction all over England) Matilda had the pleasure of caring for Frances's sons in her house in Charles Street as they took their training - architecture and medicine in several cases. The boys went to Mr. Burrell's chapel, to Mr. Bourne's meetings when they had time, and met Mr. Nunn, Mr. Abbott and the rest. One of them leaves this loving tribute to his Aunt Matilda. "None who knew her could doubt the treasure she had in the living fear of God. It was made a blessing to others, especially so in the kind providence of God to several of her nephews from Norton-sub-Hamdon who, in coming up to London, lived with her."
Mr. Bourne's fatherly letters are collected from one and another. "God only knows," he writes, "why you are continually, with some others, on my mind and in my prayers." And another time, "I have been, and still am, so interested on your behalf that I would gladly have you comforted and instructed in such things as accompany salvation. I believe those secret cogitations and fears which you find, lead you to cast a wishful eye to the Lord, with some such words as these, "O that I knew where I might find Him! How shall I stand death and judgment without Him?". These are the trembling thoughts I had when I first began to think about religion; they were amongst the first breathings of the Spirit that led me to cry mightily to Jesus Christ."
The young men, William, Joseph, Samuel, Charles went through some deep waters. William suffered for eighteen months with a disease of the knee, which ended in amputation. Charles was so ill that his life was at one time despaired of, and one of the others came into a similar position. I have been much struck," writes Mr. Bourne to Joseph, "by the manner in which the Lord has come amongst your family, first by threatening the life of Charles and then prolonging it, and giving him some clear evidences of His love to him in Christ Jesus, and now placing another brother in such a situation as apparently to leave no hope of recovery. Your family has been peculiarly favoured with most gracious means, and with those outward necessary things which have enabled you to continue amongst the people of God. What have you all rendered to the Lord for such benefits?" (Then he reproves them like a faithful schoolmaster.) "Where has been the cause of the first declension from that which each of you has at one time or other attained to? What unspeakable means have been put into your hands for your spiritual profiting, and yet how evident the decay! I can call to mind a certain brokenness of heart and spiritual tenderness in all your inquiries after truth; but this simplicity which appeared so genuine is lost in a serious silence, which many take for genuine truth, but which I know to be nothing but spiritual decay, through the deceitfulness of sin."
And again he writes, "I can truly say I have long most earnestly desired the welfare of yourself and your brothers, but have often sorely grieved to see such a withdrawing from that cordial intercourse that ought to have subsisted. Some to whom you seem attached I do not think profitable to any of you; they might flatter, but not instruct. And I have sometimes pondered how your profession flourished under so many different means. You may over-manure ground so that it will bring forth nothing but weeds. So I have perceived you have not gained an hundred, nor sixty nor perhaps even thirty-fold by the seed that has been sown. The Lord has abundantly shown you in the case of Charles what godly simplicity means, and that going about to hear is not a real participation". The boys" enquiring minds apparently led them to go and hear different eminent preachers of the day.
"I would counsel you not to be disheartened though your prayers seem to you nothing but lip-service. Keep at it. and you will certainly find it is not lip-service but the struggling of the new man to regain the government which once it appeared to have. I also advise all my young friends, when in darkness, not to reason too much upon what is natural and what may prove spiritual. The Lord will bring that to light as the work proceeds. The devil will dispute you out of the sweetest visitations and say they are only natural; but do you rather watch the fruits. If they are attended with godly fear and humility you may be sure from whence they come". And he finishes in love - "Can you believe me a faithful friend? If you can, do not walk with me as if you have never seen me before. I have had much anxiety for you all; I have felt the weight and importance of my morning's charge at home, but you have seldom encouraged me by any communication."
Mr. Bourne was no stern mentor whom the younger generation around him had perforce meekly to echo. It is touching to meet again the pleading of the elder toward the younger in a loving letter to one of his daughters. I have often wondered when, like a tender and affectionate father I have endeavoured to speak upon what concerns your everlasting state that you have stopped me with a dead silence, which has always barred out all communication upon the subject. I labour in spirit and with many prayers night and day seeking for the welfare of you all separately and together. It is often a grief that I see so little fruit of so faithful a ministry as Mr. Burrell's both in public and in private, but God is a sovereign. When we are all separated by outward providence then we shall all show more fully the choice we make and bring into action the things in which we have been instructed".
Writing to Bernard about the Benson boys, Mr. Bourne says "It has pleased God to appoint each of us a lot peculiar to ourselves, and by it in His infinite wisdom to bring about purposes that have been perfectly hidden from us. By what slow degrees were your nephews brought to Town, and from what various outward causes, which have been unfolding to the present time: all tending to the humbling of the proud heart of the sinner. And when a measure of this has been effected, what openings and unfoldings of great mercies, both temporally and spiritually! If you have noticed, our dear friend William went through a host of afflictions and yet the profiting did not appear so clear as in the case of Charles. So the Lord looked on and waited for a fair opportunity to show him that further than he had hitherto gone he must go. These are great things to witness and are never intended merely for the individuals themselves, but also for all that see them."
When he did get an account of the Lord's loving-kindness none could be more generous in their rejoicing than Mr. Bourne. "I read your letter with many tears of thankfulness," he writes. " "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!". Where we have thought He was the furthest from us, while we were deploring our wretchedness and fearing a total separation from Him He has then showed Himself most near, and given us to understand it was Himself discovering to us our inconceivable sinfulness that we might learn the more to prize His mercy, as we read of one that loved much because much was forgiven.
"I would have you cherish most tenderly every love-token the Lord repeats, and make the most of these visits by sitting at His feet and hearkening to His voice, and begging grace to walk according to it. I would gently remind you that all God's children are called soldiers, and we are to learn to endure hardness. This is not said for nothing; for there is yet the world, the flesh and the devil to fight against as long as we live. No doubt you will often feel yourself sorely put to it to stand your ground, but while you look by faith at the invisible power of God you will abide and be fruitful. Beg for, and cherish a tender conscience, for on this there will be a fair impression of God's Word. You are now in the "banqueting house" but must not forget the banner is over you, which signifies that war is declared. I know of nothing so hard to believe as that there can be any love in this banner displayed. I have always feared that the war was to prove me to be nothing and that I should one day perish; but I have proved a thousand times twice told that nothing has been in life so fruitful and profitable as these humbling wars. In them have I found my own strength is perfect weakness, but the sufficiency that is in Jesus Christ has always in the end proved the means of a further display of His rich mercy. Peace has been restored, and all alienation and distance and shyness between the Lord and my soul removed; and you know "in His presence is fullness of joy" and all the rest is darkness."
Back at Norton, occupied with her younger children, Richard, James and the only daughter, youngest of all, Charlotte, Mrs. Benson was facing the great trial she was called on to endure for fourteen years - which was "refusing in meekness and godly fear to join in a worship which she was convinced was only an outward form, and which had become like "the worship of a strange god" to her. She had diligently sought for and endeavoured to lay hold upon any word or communication from the Lord by which to obtain help to show her husband that she could not conscientiously avoid a course painful both to him and herself. She found, however, no way of escape, and was at length enabled by the constraining grace and help of the Holy Spirit to take up this cross".
Different again from the cases of Bernard and the Pulverbach sisters, yet similar. Another village scandal begins when the rector's wife withdraws from her husband's ministry.
She herself put it thus: "I believe the Lord has for the last twelve years (from 1834 to 1846) been drawing me and teaching me more and more out of His law. He has given me many checks of conscience that our religion was not what it ought to be, for it did not bring into our souls from time to time any rich visits from the Lord Jesus Christ such as I do believe He remembers and visits His people with. Thanks be to His holy Name, He saw the piteous condition I was in (in a religion that was without trouble and with-
out food to my soul), and how I was held in bondage which I had no power to break unless His mighty hand brought me out. I am sure I cannot sufficiently praise Him that He has interfered in my behalf, and by His strong prevailing fear has thus far carried me through a path which I never could have believed it possible for me to have ventured upon: but it has been a way of great trouble to flesh and blood. After a few months [of absenting herself from Church on Sundays] I was again entangled, yet finally the Lord brought me out and with a strong hand instructed me that I could hold no confederacy. My deep and constant cry was, "O Lord, put Thy fear into my heart, Thy holy fear!".
"Trouble has come upon me in consequence, and much pain and grief to my dearest and most loving of earthly friends, and I am sure I could not persist against all his entreaties and wishes if a more powerful though secret Voice did not from time to time convince my conscience that "the fear of man bringeth a snare" and "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". Thus I have been spiritually led to entreat the Lord with many cries and tears that He will in mercy look down upon me and make me more afraid of offending Him than of losing the approbation of all the world. I find the secret reading of God's Word very precious to me, and many parts come home to my heart to enlighten and strengthen, and there does not now seem, as formerly, a something which came to obstruct God's direct communication to my soul, but I find a power of access to God in prayer".
She keenly felt a dread of the Sabbath days bringing her no good. I trembled," she writes, "to think about my absence from public worship, if the Lord's presence was not with me in private. These thoughts I found profitable, for the Lord in mercy put a very earnest cry into my heart that He would not leave me to spend a Sabbath in spiritual death and darkness." This resulted in her being able to write, "In the morning, when I felt some opposition because of the trouble I am in, the words "Hearken diligently unto Me", were whispered with a voice that could not be mistaken. The Lord has made my rough places smoother than I could expect and granted nourishment from His Word to my soul".
On her going back to the former course for a little while, she writes six months later, "I look back and remember the Lord's dealings with me and I am made to bring to trial the way in which I was helped out, and to see whether it was the Lord's doing or not - to gratify my own ease and comfort and that of my dear husband. I hoped to find the Lord's blessing in our own smooth way of going on: I earnestly prayed that it might be so, and the Lord might in judgment have suffered me to sleep on in this way, while so held in the snare that I could not see where I was, had He not in great mercy opened my eyes to see the false help which allured me from the narrow way. May the Lord forgive me! I am amazed at the difference of that secret teaching of the Holy Spirit when He applies the word to my heart. And now how shall I express what I felt when I saw my defenceless state and the great danger and perplexity of the way before me? I was, as it were, stunned, and I bitterly felt the enmity of my heart against the ways of God; and this only increased my trouble, for I ought to be exceedingly humbled. I felt compelled to absent myself again from the Church, for though my dear husband shows no opposition or enmity I feel in much awe about his public ministry. It is, however, a very tender and bitter trial to us both, and when we dwell upon it sorrow overwhelms us. But the power I have felt to cast this burden on the Lord and the drawing of my heart to seek Him with increasing earnestness is the only hope and encouragement I have that He is leading me "in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of judgment". He does also sweetly unfold His Word to me in secret, and makes it very precious and nourishing".
The gentle Frances was thus led on a most thorny path, and her diary - only a jotting every four or five months - almost always contains some such note as, "In the afternoon I was overwhelmed with the trouble my conduct occasions to my husband".
Mr. Bourne in great delicacy forbore to enter into this controversy between husband and wife, but he had written a long letter to Mrs. Benson about a year before she withdrew from the Church, from which we can take a few extracts:
"I have seen your letter to your sister Matilda, and have found it very comforting and encouraging. I know of none in a more difficult situation than yourself, having to maintain that spiritual circumspection which is spoken of in Scripture, and which is so needful for us all, because it is said the days are evil. It appears that the Lord has been long training you, and that you have not been altogether suffered to turn a deaf ear. Nothing shows the work to be real more than the very difficult places in which it pleases God oftentimes to put His people. How often have I felt from the bottom of my heart a clear perception that God will not be mocked. The sight of this has been much deeper than I can express. I have seen many suffer much inconvenience from their profession of religion who yet never had their hearts changed, and whose conversation was disgraceful. I have lived to see such make an awful end, and therefore tremble at the discoveries which are made within, and am forced to have recourse to the many visits I have had from the Lord in the past and to labour in spirit that if possible these visits may be continually repeated.
"I therefore liked your calling to mind the various seasons wherein the Lord has appeared for you. Can these things go for nothing? Surely they must have been the work of God, and I have found in the end that the Lord has owned His own work and has said, "Let no man take thy crown"."
To Bernard about this time Mr. Bourne wrote: "I wish I was capable of helping the parent of our dear young friends. The strong hand of the Lord is upon them all and there is one hard point to compass, and that is our old friend being counselled by his sons that fear God. If he makes demands contrary to the true teaching of God he may defend his own cause but he himself will in the end lament such a step with a sore lamentation. Oh may God in infinite mercy soften his heart to receive the truth and that the eyes of his understanding may be enlightened to know the hope of his calling. There is in all this work that is now going on amongst them such an evident interference of the Lord, and in some points matters arising contrary to nature, that if he cannot stoop I fear he will bring his grey hairs with sorrow to the grave.
I have often pitied those for whom I have had great natural affection because I could not with all my attempts show to their understanding what the light of life is. God has been pleased to call it a mystery and a secret hidden from all but those to whom He is pleased to reveal it. The natural man cannot discern the things of the spirit. If a man truly taught of God is firm to his point he will find the close argument will rouse the secret enmity of any religious person who thinks he is right. The mere professor does, I believe, think he possesses all essential points and that the difference is a mere quibble. Nor can he understand that what a real godly man knows is not from what he is determined to know. The natural man thinks he will agree with everything that is spoken truly, but it is the Spirit which is of God that makes us to know these divine things are really given us of God. The natural man (the Apostle insists upon it) receiveth not this truth. He cannot understand how it is and puts it down as a mere nothing but seeking to be contentious.