Monday, March 14, 2011

The Book That Could Not Be Killed

In 1660, Puritan Richard Alleine sought a license to publish a treatise on experimental piety called Vindiciae Pietatis: or, A Vindication of Godliness, in the Greatest Strictness and Spirituality of It, From the Imputations of Folly and Fancy. Together with Several Directions for the Attaining and Maintaining of a Godly Life. The license was refused by Gilbert Sheldon (who later went on to convene the 1661 Savoy Conference and, in 1663, became the Archbishop of Canterbury) but Alleine went ahead and had the work published anyway under the name "R.A." The king's printer, Roger Norton, apprehended a significant quantity of books from the press and aimed to destroy them by fire in the royal kitchen. However, after perusing the work, he was struck by its piety, and decided to pay for the copies, "for a trifle," and resold them at his own shop. This act got him in trouble with the king's council, and he was forced to confess his fault and send the books back to the kitchen to be bisked, or inked over for the purpose of lighting fires. Sometimes bisked copies of the work are found, but most of the original press run was destroyed. However, that is not the end of the story.

The book was re-issued with subsequent additions, including part two, The Godly Man's Portion and Sanctuary, in 1663; part three, Heaven Opened, The Riches of God's Covenant, in 1666 (published as a separate work in 1665); and part four, The World Conquered by the Faithful Christian, in 1668. Part two was republished by EEBO in 2010. Part three includes two chapters written by Joseph Alleine (Richard's nephew and son-in-law), and was republished by Soli Deo Gloria Publications in 2000, and also by EEBO in 2010. Part four was republished by SDG in 1995. It became an instant Puritan devotional classic that has profoundly affected many.

It is said that Vindiciae Pietatis "did much to mend this bad world." Edmund Calamy the Historian gives an account of the book's history and its impact on one reader.

Edmund Calamy, The Nonconformist' Memorial (Samuel Palmer, ed.), Vol. 3, p. 168:

His books entitled Vindiciae Pietatis, tho' manifestly tending to promote true piety, could not be licensed, but they were greedily bought up and read by sober people and have been very instrumental to reform the world. They were so saleable, that the King's bookseller caused a great part of the impression to be seized, because unlicensed, and sent to the King's kitchen, from whence he bought them for a trifle, bound them up, and sold them in his own shop. This was at length complained of: and he was forced to beg pardon upon his knees at the council-table, and send them back again to the King's kitchen to be bisk'd, i.e. to be rubbed over with an inky brush. § The following remarkable anecdote concerning this work was related by Mr. John Thomas, the late aged and worthy minister at the Pithay meeting in Bristol. He knew a man in Yorkshire who stole this book from a sale near Colne in Lancashire, and was converted by reading it. After which he brought it back to the owner, Mr. T. Sawley, with penitence, and with thankfulness to God, who had over-ruled his theft to the salvation of his soul. Communicated by Dr. Ryland, who received it from Mr. Thomas.

John Wesley, who published extracts from Vindiciae Pietatis in his Christian Library, borrowed from it to institute in 1755 the Methodist practice of Covenant Renewal services. In 1780, he published a pamphlet with directions on how to renew the covenant which included Alleine's words exactly. The covenant renewal liturgy, as it has come to be known, became associated with an annual New Year's Day service rather than the modern weekly covenant renewal liturgy that occurs in some Reformed circles today.

One day, perhaps, the entire work will be republished. It is a treasure that is worth uncovering, and has much to teach us today. Though royal censors tried to destroy Vindiciae Pietatis and the experimental religion it represented, they could kill neither. You can't keep a good man, or a good book, down.

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