(One’s level of piety, whether devotional or practical, depends much on knowledge being either learned or misconceived. In these analyses we have made mention, occasionally, of books that either help or hinder the grand object of piety. It seems natural, consequently, to supplement the analyses, now and again, with correlating book reports.)
GABOURY’S CRITICAL BOOK REPORT
John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (1678; Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 221 pp.
Good, solid food for the soul. That is what you get. This is a Puritan work by a Nonconformist (to the Church of England) who strove to unite Presbyterians and Congregationalists. The book reflects that balance: Flavel is loyal to Scripture, loving to his brethren. But his love is not that flabby love that gives only the positive side of Providence. No. Flavel scares you to stiff obedience by unfolding the negative side too. There is an anecdote borrowed from Foxe about Nightingale, who "fell out of the pulpit and broke his neck, while he was abusing that Scripture (1 John 1. 10)" (p. 38.) True stories of Providence become farther between as you read on. For this reason things are livelier at the start than near the finish. But where the anecdotes drop, the exposition picks up, and all through there is balanced instruction for the good of each one.
There are many new lessons to take in here. This book should be read slowly and thoughtfully, with pencil and ruler in hand to mark the epigrams to be rehearsed and obeyed. About contentment we read, "O what would the damned say if they were but put into your condition once more! What! and yet fret against God because everything else does not suit your desires!" (p. 136.) About leaning on your own understanding, "Nothing is more plausible, nothing more dangerous" (p. 142.) On true love to God, "Every man loves the mercies of God, but a saint loves the God of his mercies" (p. 146.) About the Christians' inheritance, "All things are ours upon no other title but our being His" (p. 161.) Of our need of adversity, "The earth does not need more chastening frosts and mellowing snows than our hearts do nipping providences" (p. 209.)
Because he ministered to a seafaring people: in Dartmouth, England, by the English Channel, there are well ordered meditations to bring before the worshipers the roiling sea and the faith that ought to walk upon it. Makes me want to read The Seaman’s Companion, in which Flavel works up a favorite passage of mine from Psalm 107. Copious appeal to Scripture, then Scripture's appeal to the congregation—this is a Puritan mark, ubiquitous in The Mystery of Providence. Whatever your circumstance or station in life, Flavel weds a Providence to it. No one is left untouched. And what skill to be able to repeat the word Providence that often without irritating!
Michael Boland tells us, in the Publisher's Introduction, that an aged farmer was converted by the memory of a sermon preached by John Flavel eighty-five years before! This gives us some idea of John Flavel’s preaching power, strong enough to leave a lasting and effectual impression. Read, and hear something of Flavel's anointed preaching yourself. Whether you live by the sea or not, this sermon will have you reaching for the “Preserver.”
Content: A (He has you searching Scriptures to confirm Providences.)
Style: A (Moments of obscurity are rare, and no need for a dictionary.)
Tone: A (His many pretty word pictures are not just for show.)
Grading Table: A: a keeper: reread it; promote it; share it.
B: an average book: let it go
C: read only if you have to.