Who is Joseph Alleine?

Tim Brister —  December 3, 2008 — 7 Comments

[Reformation Heritage Books has graciously provided this biographical and reprint essay on the life and works of Richard Baxter. You can find this information and others in the book, Meet the Puritans.]

Joseph Alleine (1634-1668)

Born at Devizes, Wiltshire, early in 1634, Joseph Alleine loved and served the Lord from childhood. A contemporary witness identified 1645 as the year of Alleine’s “setting forth in the Christian race.” From eleven years of age onward, “the whole course of his youth was an even-spun thread of godly conversation.” When his elder brother Edward, a clergyman, died, Joseph begged that he might be educated to take Edward’s place in the ministry of the church. He entered Oxford at age sixteen and sat at the feet of such great divines as John Owen and Thomas Goodwin.

Alleine began his studies at Lincoln College in 1649. Two years later, he became a scholar of Corpus Christi College, where the faculty was, in general, more thoroughly Puritan than at Lincoln. Alleine studied long hours, often depriving himself of sleep and food. He graduated from Oxford in 1653 with a Bachelor of Arts degree and became a tutor and chaplain of Corpus Christi. He also devoted much time to preaching to prisoners in the county jail, visiting the sick, and ministering to the poor.

In 1655, Alleine accepted the invitation of George Newton, vicar of St. Mary Magdalene Church, Taunton, Somerset, to become Newton’s assistant. Taunton, a wool-manufacturing city of some 20,000, was a Puritan stronghold. Shortly after moving to Taunton, Alleine married his cousin, Theodosia Alleine, whose father, Richard Alleine, was minister of Batcombe, Somerset (see below). She was an active woman who feared God deeply. Early in their marriage, she ran a home school of about fifty scholars, half of them boarders. She would later serve as her husband’s biographer after his death.

Alleine rose early, devoting the time between four and eight o’clock in the morning to the exercises of private worship. His wife recalled that he “would be much troubled if he heard smiths or other craftsmen at work at their trades, before he was at communion with God: saying to me often, ‘How this noise shames me! Doth not my Master deserve more than theirs?’”

His ministry in Taunton as preacher and pastor was very fruitful. Richard Baxter recalled Alleine’s “great ministerial skillfulness in the public explication and application of the Scriptures-so melting, so convincing, so powerful.” Alleine was also an excellent teacher, devoting much time to instructing his people, using the Shorter Catechism. He was a passionate evangelist. One contemporary wrote, “He was infinitely and insatiably greedy of the conversion of souls, wherein he had no small success.”

Ejected for nonconformity in 1662, Alleine took the opportunity to increase his public  labors, believing that his remaining time was short. He preached on average one or two sermons every day for nine months until he was arrested and cast into the Ilchester prison. The night before, Alleine had preached and prayed with his people for three hours and had declared, “Glory be to God that hath accounted me worthy to suffer for His gospel!”

Alleine’s prison cell became his pulpit as he continued to preach to his people through the prison bars. He also wrote numerous pastoral letters and theological articles. Released on May 20, 1664, after about a year in prison, he resumed his forbidden ministry until arrested again on July 10, 1665 for holding a conventicle. Once more released from prison, his remaining time was “full of troubles and persecutions nobly borne.” He returned to Taunton in February, 1668, where he became very ill. Nine months later, at age thirty-four, weary from hard work and suffering, Alleine died in full assurance of faith, praising God and saying, “Christ is mine, and I am His-His by covenant.”

The Act of Conformity (RE; 47 pages; n.d.)

This small, polemical tract is bound with RE Publications’ edition of Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted. It is not included in the list of Alleine’s works compiled by Charles Stanford in 1861. No one is certain that it was written by Alleine, though its style is similar to that of his other works. The work is an in-depth examination of the Oath of Allegiance passed on August 24, 1662, and whether or not a nonconformist minister could conscientiously subscribe to it. The Act of Conformity offers an emphatic “No,” saying, “Taking this oath will encourage Parliament (when they shall see how glibly and smoothly we swallow every pill) to think themselves either infallible in imposing, or us as ductile, flexible and sequatious souls” (p. 45).

An Alarm to the Unconverted (BTT; 148 pages; 1995)

This evangelical classic was first printed in 1671 (subtitle: A Serious Treatise on Conversion), when 20,000 copies were sold, and subsequently reprinted in 1675 as A Sure Guide to Heaven, which was the title given to the latest BTT editions. It is a powerful manual on conversion and the call of the gospel, as the chapter titles reveal: Mistakes about Conversion; The Nature of Conversion; The Necessity of Conversion; The Marks of the Unconverted; The Miseries of the Unconverted; Directions to the Unconverted; The Motives to Conversion.

Alleine’s model of Puritan evangelism is well suited to correct today’s distortions of the gospel. For example, he shows us that dividing the offices and benefits of Christ is not a new idea. The true convert is willing to receive Christ, both as Savior from sin and as Lord of one’s life. He asserts:

All of Christ is accepted by the sincere convert. He loves not only the wages but the work of Christ, not only the benefits but the burden of Christ. He is willing not only to tread out the corn, but to draw under the yoke. He takes up the commands of Christ, yea, the cross of Christ. The unsound convert takes Christ by halves. He is all for the salvation of Christ, but he is not for sanctification. He is for the privileges, but does not appropriate the person of Christ. He divides the offices and benefits of Christ. This is an error in the foundation. Whoever loves life, let him beware here. It is an undoing mistake, of which you have often been warned, and yet none is more common (p. 45).

This book, reprinted some five hundred times and the most famous of Alleine’s nineteen treatises, has been used for the conversion of many souls. It greatly influenced the evangelistic approach of famous preachers such as George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon. Despite a smattering of statements that may be misconstrued as promoting human ability in salvation, Alleine’s classic remains a golden example of evangelistic preaching and a spur to personal evangelism.

The Life and Letters of Joseph Alleine (RHB, 332 pages, 2003)

A definitive biography of Alleine has yet to be written. The longest sustained seventeenth century narrative was written by his wife, Theodosia, following his ejection and imprisonment after the passing of the Act of Uniformity in 1662. In 1672, four years after his death and a year after the first printing of Alarm to the Unconverted, Alleine’s Christian Letters, Full of Spiritual Instructions was printed in London. The following year, fragments of biographical information and personal reminiscences were brought together by his widow and Richard Baxter and were printed with his letters. That volume was reprinted with corrections in 1677 as The Life and Death of that Excellent Minister of Christ Mr. Joseph Alleine (London: Nevil Simmons).

Additional printings of the 1677 volume with minor additions or deletions took place in 1806, published by J. Gemmill; in 1829, by the American Sunday School Union; and in 1840, by Robert Carter in New York. The RHB reprint of 2003 includes the Carter edition, plus two letters from the Gemmill edition and three letters from Alleine’s Remains. Thus, for the first time, all forty-nine of Alleine’s extant letters are printed in one volume. An appendix contains George Newton’s Sermon Preached at the Funeral of Mr. Joseph Alleine (London: Nevil Simmons, 1677).

Charles Stanford’s biography, Joseph Alleine: His Companions and Times, appeared in 1861. Though Charles Spurgeon called it an “admirable biography,” it, too, is incomplete, no doubt partly due to the paucity of details of Alleine’s life. Although Alleine’s Life and Letters suffers somewhat from not being a sustained narrative, it has the advantage of having been written by Alleine’s contemporaries. Allowing for some repetition and hagiographical tendencies, these pages display the portrait of a minister who had a large heart for God and for the precious souls of those who sat under his ministry.

In this book, Richard Baxter wrote chapter 1 of Alleine’s biography. Richard Alleine, his father-in-law, wrote chapter 3. Other chapters were written by his senior colleague, George Newton (chap. 4), his widow (chap. 6), and his close friend and ministerial colleague, Richard Fairclough (chap. 9). The remaining chapters were written by several close friends who preferred to remain anonymous.

Valuable as the account of Alleine’s life by his contemporaries is, his letters which form the second half of the book are of greater worth. While the narrative of his life gives us an account of his outward circumstances, his letters reveal the secret springs of his heart, exhibiting the fervor of an evangelist, the heart of a pastor, and the patience of a sufferer for Jesus Christ. Many of these letters were written from prison to parishioners in Taunton when he was no longer able to minister the Word of God to them in person. With their emphasis on Christ and true godliness, these letters breathe the atmosphere of heaven itself. Here is a passage expressing his love for his people in Taunton:

You are a people much upon my heart, whose welfare is the matter of my continual prayers, care, and study. And oh that I knew how to do you good! How it pities me to think how so many of you should remain in your sins, after so many and so long endeavors to convert you and bring you in! Once more, oh beloved, once more hear the call of the Most High God unto you. The prison preaches to you the same doctrine that the pulpit did. Hear, O people, hear; the Lord of life and glory offers you all mercy, and peace, and blessedness. Oh, why should you die? Whosoever will, let him take of the waters of life freely. My soul yearns for you. Ah, that I did but know what arguments to use with you; who shall choose my words for me that I may prevail with sinners not to reject their own mercy? How shall I get within them? How shall I reach them? Oh, that I did but know the words that would pierce them! That I could but get between their sins and them (pp. 150-51).

Truly, as Iain Murray writes, “Never did the evangel of Jesus Christ burn more fervently in any English heart!”

When the Scottish missionary Alexander Duff (1806-78) read this book, he was deeply impressed by Alleine’s rich variety of gifts and graces, mature judgment, fervent devotion, and pervasive seriousness. Duff wrote: “What inextinguishable zeal! What unquenchable thirstings after the conversion of lost sinners! What unslumbering watchfulness in warning and edifying saints! What profound humility and self-abasement in the sight of God! What patience and forbearance, what meekness and generosity, what affability and moderation!  What triumphant faith-what tranquil, yet rapturous joy!” No wonder John Wesley called Alleine “the English Rutherford.”

In a day when the desire for personal happiness and self-esteem have replaced the biblical mandate for holiness of life, a reading of Alleine’s life and letters can be a real tonic to the soul.

The Precious Promises of the Gospel (SDG; 40 pages; 2000)

This booklet is extracted from Richard Alleine’s Heaven Opened. It is one of the two chapters written by Joseph Alleine. Impersonating God in addressing His people, Alleine provides us with a moving declaration of the loving, merciful heart of the Triune God, revealed in the promises of Scripture, which are woven into nearly every sentence.

Other Puritan Profiles in the 08PRC:

* Who Is Richard Baxter? (November)
* Who Is William Guthrie? (October)
* Who Is Sameul Bolton? (September)
* Who Is William Bridge? (July)
* Who Is John Bunyan? (May)
* Who Is Jeremiah Burroughs? (April)
* Who Is Thomas Watson? (March)
* Who Is John Flavel? (February)
* Who Is Richard Sibbes? (January)

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7 responses to Who is Joseph Alleine?

  1. Timmy,

    First, let me say thank you for your organizing this reading schedule. I have been blessed and challenged each and every month as I have daily read from these Puritan divines.

    I have been delinquent in posting from my reading, but I hope to have both a conclusion to Baxter’s “Reformed Pastor” as well as some introductory thoughts on Alleine’s book later this evening or tomorrow. I have been blasting through “Sure Guide to Heaven”, it is so rich and devotional, and need to slow down and post some comments on it.

  2. Timmy,

    Have you ever read any of Samuel Bolton’s stuff? One word: Awesome!

  3. BTW,

    Our church staff read thru “The Reformed Pastor” a few years ago and we’re still recovering. Talk about a blood bath! :-)

    Praise God for faithful, biblical challenges from men of God.

  4. Timmy–Thanks for a great year of reading! I stumbled and faltered along the way but have been greatly blessed by what I did manage to read.

    Tom: May y’all (and me) NEVER recover from reading “The Reformed Pastor” :)

    “Brethren, I desire to deal closely with my own heart and yours. I beseech you consider whether it will save us to speak well of the grace of humility while we possess it not, or to speak against the sin of pride while we indulge in it?”

  5. Reminded of “The Mystery of Providence” as we enter December. I hadn’t bought a copy of “A Sure Guide to Heaven” but did pick up a battered copy of Alarm to the Unconverted in the back of a bookshop for a few pence.

    Thanks to God’s providence I can join in this month’s reading. Praise God!

  6. My bad….I re-read the list and see Bolton’s name on there! Don’t you just love brain-deadness?

    Ed,

    Amen!

  7. Timmy,

    Having watched the Paul Washer message you posted and after reading the first chapter of “A Sure Guide to Heaven”, I can’t help but draw amazing corellations between the two. It’s a long story, but essentially I’m new to reformed theology and have only understood the essentials of it and Calvinism for a little more than a year.

    Frankly, I think its a miracle anyone in our country is saved. It makes me want to scream! If it weren’t for the Grace of God drawing us to himself no one could understand the Gospel message and its implications. In our materialistic, post-modern culture not only do we have to believe a message that to the unregenerate appears ridiculous, but through the Holy Spirit led theological study of the Word we have to debunk the very American style Christianity that surrounds us.

    For years, I leaned on an early profession of faith and a sense of sincerity even though it was in direct contradiction to elements of my life and understanding. Until recently I couldn’t reconcile my uneasiness between what the bible seemed to be saying and what I was witnessing in my life and around me by other Christians. Why wasn’t I able to lay some of my sins aside? Why couldn’t I maintain my Christianity?

    God help me. And praise God. I’m still stripping away the old paradigm, but I’m absolutely comfortable giving God all the glory. I understand better that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. I understand better the need to live a life of repentance and to take captive every thought and lay it at the cross. I’m one of the comfortable American Christians that needed evalgelized and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I just thank God that He didn’t give up on me and instead helped me through the haze.

    Timmy, that you for this forum. I’ve enjoyed the Reading Challenge this year. I can’t claim to have read all of them, but I’ve read enough to know that I’ll probably read them on and off for the rest of my life. God Bless you and may God bless the furtherance of His Gospel.

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