The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘John Rogers of Dedham

Fetching fire from Dedham

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Dedham signKelvedonStambourneColchesterLavenhamDedham ∙ Maldon

Dedham is in the heart of ‘Constable country’ but, much as I have enjoyed Constable’s work, it was yet another preacher who carried us to Dedham.

This time it was the esteemed John Rogers, known as “Roaring Rogers,” although I discovered that the celebrated divine Matthew Newcomen, who preached several times before the House of Commons at Westminster, had also been a minister of the gospel to the church.

John Rogers was born in Essex about 1572.  He was a related to the preacher Richard Rogers of Wethersfield who provided for his education at Cambridge.  On his arrival at Cambridge the godless John twice sold his books and wasted the proceeds.  Richard Rogers would have abandoned him at this point, but for the intervention of his wife.  He therefore invested a third time in the young man, and this coincided with God’s work of grace in John Roger’s heart.  The books were therefore properly employed, and Rogers became a credit to his college and a model of holiness.  Richard Rogers later said, “I will never despair of any man, for John Roger’s sake.”  In 1592 John Rogers became vicar of Honingham, Norfolk, and in 1603 succeeded Lawrence Fairclough as vicar of Haverhill, Suffolk.

John Rogers (Dedham)

In 1605 he was translated to Dedham where he became the lecturer (not the vicar).  This important distinction probably arose from distrust of or incompetence among the clergy when people desired faithful preaching.  Private enterprise entered the arena, and some communities employed a lecturer alongside the vicar.  This was Rogers’ office, and the practice continued until 1918, when the two roles of vicar and lecturer were combined.  Rogers was required to deliver two lectures weekly: one at 8.00am on a Tuesday (before the market started at 9.00am) and one on Sunday afternoon.

Dedham pulpit

For over thirty years Rogers discharged his duty faithfully, having a reputation as “one of the most awakening preachers of the age.”  His gift lay in his distinctive delivery of the sound and careful sermons which he prepared, and so well-known did Rogers and his preaching become that godly people used to say to one another, “Let us go to Dedham to fetch fire.”  Cotton Mather reports a saying of Ralph Brownrig that Rogers would “do more good with his wild notes that we with our set music.”

Dedham church exterior

People would travel the 60 miles from Cambridge on horseback just for the privilege of hearing Rogers speak God’s truth.  When he preached the church building would be crowded, with those who could not enter thronging outside.  In fine weather he preached from the top of the North Porch to a congregation of over 1000 people.  This was no flash in the pan.  At the west end of the church spacious galleries were erected which spanned the whole breadth of the nave and the aisles up to the second pier.  Looking up now, the visitor can still see initials cut out upon the backs of the pillars (some sort of holy graffiti?).  The galleries themselves were removed in the restoration work of 1862.

Dedham church interior

Rogers’ life was not without troubles.  His lecture was supressed from 1629 till 1631, on the ground of his nonconformity.  His subsequent compliance was not strict.  Giles Firmin, one of his converts, “never saw him wear a surplice,” and he only occasionally used the prayer-book, and then repeated portions of it from memory.

Several well-known anecdotes capture something of the fervency and fire of Rogers the preacher, his self-forgetful earnestness in the pulpit.  Thomas Goodwin, himself to become a renowned preacher and scholar, went to hear Rogers preach before he was converted, not imagining that anyone would be able to touch his conscience.  Goodwin reported his experience to John Howe, who recorded it in this way:

He told me that being himself, in the time of his youth, a student at Cambridge, and having heard much of Mr. Rogers of Dedham, in Essex, purposely he took a journey from Cambridge to Dedham to hear him preach on his lecture day.  And in that sermon he falls into an expostulation with the people about their neglect of the Bible [I am afraid it is more neglected in our days]; he personates God to the people, telling them, “Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible; you have slighted it; it lies in such and such houses all covered with dust and cobwebs.  You care not to look into it.  Do you use my Bible so?  Well, you shall have my Bible no longer.”  And he takes up the Bible from his cushion, and seemed as if he were going away with it, and carrying it from them; but immediately turns again and personates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, “Lord, whatsoever thou cost to us, take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible.”  And then he personates God again to the people: “Say you so?  Well, I will try you a little longer; and here is my Bible for you, I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more, whether you will value it more, whether you will observe it more, whether you will practice it more, and live more according to it.”  But by these actions [as the Doctor told me] he put all the congregation into so strange a posture that he never saw any congregation in his life.  The place was a mere Bochim, the people generally [as it were] deluged with their own tears; and he told me that he himself when he got out, and was to take horse again to be gone, was fain to hang a quarter of an hour upon the neck of his horse weeping, before he had power to mount, so strange an impression was there upon him, and generally upon the people, upon having been thus expostulated with for the neglect of the Bible.

While that was not the time of Goodwin’s conversion, it is evident that his thoughts of hardheartedness did not stand the test of Roger’s Spirit-empowered preaching.  Another eye witness of John Rogers’ ministry was John Angier, who was under Rogers’ supervision for a period while he completed his preparation for the ministry.  Angier recalled how a sense of the greatness of eternal issues would at times overcome the crowded church at Dedham; on one such occasion Rogers took hold of the supports of the canopy over the pulpit with both hands “roaring hideously to represent the torments of the damned.”  At another time when Rogers was taking a wedding service he preached on the necessity of the wedding garment: “God made the word so effectual that the marriage solemnity was turned into bitter mourning, so that the ministers who were at the marriage were employed in comforting or advising those whose consciences had been awakened by that sermon.”

Rogers died on 18 October 1636.  Hundreds flocked to the funeral service, at which John Knowles preached.  That substantial gallery was so overladen with people that it almost collapsed.  According to an eye-witness, it pleased God to honour that good man with a miracle at his death, because no one was injured.

Dedham - Rogers' grave

He was buried in the churchyard at Dedham, outside the north chancel wall.  His gravestone is almost obliterated, and – when I visited – was propping up the scaffolding being employed in external repairs.  One would hope that the memory of John Rogers would contribute something far more substantial to the support of the church.  Inside the building is a monument, an engraved portrait, showing  a worn man dressed in nightcap, ruff, and with a full beard.  The Latin inscription includes these words:

True-hearted worshipper of God
No Boanerges more courageously
Gave forth his thunder, and no Barnabas
The word of consolation sweetlier.

Dedham - Rogers' monument

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 19 June 2009 at 11:46

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