Monday, January 20, 2014

Edification and imitation

Isaac Ambrose, a 17th century Presbyterian priest who died 350 years ago today, was a great believer in the value of keeping a diary in order to improve one’s religious life. In one of his most important books, Prima, he argues the case for diary writing, and gives examples from his own diary.

Isaac, the son of Richard Ambrose, vicar of Ormskirk, Lancashire, was born in 1604, and studied for the priesthood at Brasenose College, Oxford. Through the influence of William Russell, Earl of Bedford, he became one of the King’s itinerant preachers in Lancashire, and then, thanks to Lady Margaret Hoghton, became vicar of Preston. Years later, he delivered a celebrated sermon at her funeral. He is said to have played a prominent part in the establishment of presbyterianism in Lancashire during the 1640s. He died on 23 January 1664. A little more biographical information can be found in Gary Brady’s Ambrose blog, A Puritan’s Mind website, and at Wikipedia.

During his life, Ambrose wrote widely on religious matters. In Prima; The First Things, in Reference to the Middle and Last Things he suggested Christians should keep a spiritual diary, and included extracts of his own. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (login required) suggests it is a pity that so little of Ambrose’s diary has survived. Prima is freely available at Internet Archive.

Here is most of the relevant section in Prima.

‘To this purpose we read of many Ancients that were accustomed to keep Diaries or Day-books of their actions, and out of them to take an Account of their Lives: Such a Register (of God’s Dealings towards him, and of his Dealings toward God in main Things) the Lord put into a poor Creature’s Heart to keep in the Year 1641, ever since which Time he hath continued it, and once a Year purposes (by God’s Grace) to examine himself by it; the Use and End of it, is this:

1. Hereby he observes something of God to his Soul, and of his Soul to God. 2. Upon Occasion he pours out his Soul to God in Prayer accordingly, and either is humbled or thankful. 3. He considers how it is with him in respect of Time past, and if he hath profited in Grace, to find out the Means whereby he hath profited, that he may make more constant Use of such Means; or wherein he hath decayed, to observe by what Temptation he was overcome, that his former Errors may make him more wary for the future.

Besides many other Uses, as of his own Experience and Evidences, which he may, by the Lord’s Help, gather out of this Diary. [. . .]

It may be expected, that I give some Example hereof, wherein if I might any way advance Christ or benefit his Church, tho I lay in the Dust, I should willingly publish and subscribe the daily Register of a poor unworthy Servant of Christ, indeed one of the meanest of his Master’s Family, for some Space of Time: As thus,’

13 May 1651
‘I retired my self to a solitary and silent Place to practice, especially the secret Duties of a Christian. My Ground is that Cant. vii. 11. 12. “Come my beloved, let us go forth into the fields. etc. there will I give thee my loves.” The Bridegroom of our Souls, said Bernard, is faithful, and more frequently visites his Bride in solitary places.’

14 May 1651
‘In a pleasant Wood, and sweet Walks in it, the Lord moved and enabled me to begin the Exercise of secret Duties: and after the prolegomena, or Duties in general, I fell on that Duty of watchfulness: The Lord then gave me to observe my former Negligence, and to make some Resolutions. I found the Lord sweet to me in the Conclusion of the Duty. Allelujah.’

15 May 1651
‘I fell on the duty of Self-trial, and in the Morning confessed my Sins before and since Conversion, wherein the Lord sweetly melted my Heart. In the Evening I perused my Diary for the last Year, wherein are many Passages of Mercies from God, and Troubles for sin, etc.’

16 May 1651
‘In the Morning I went thro’ the Duty of experiences, and felt some Stirrings of God’s Spirit in my Soul. In the evening I fell on the Duty of Evidences, when I acted Faith, and found my Evidences clear. Oh how sweet was my God!’

17 May 1651
‘This Day in the morning I meditated on the Love of Christ, wherein Christ appeared, and melted my Heart in many sweet Passages. In the Evening I meditated on Eternity, wherein the Lord both melted, and cheered, and warmed, and refreshed my soul. Surely the Touches of God’s Spirit are as sensible as any outward Touches. Allelujah.’

19 May 1651
‘In the former part of this Day, I exercised the Life of Faith, when the Lord strengthened me to act Faith on several Promises, both temporal, spiritual, and eternal. I had then sweet, refreshing, and encouraging Impressions on my Soul against all the fearful, sinful, and doubtful Dreams I had the Night or two before dreamed. In the Evening I considered the duty of Prayer, observed some Workings of God’s Spirit in my perusing the Rules, and afterwards in the Practice of this Duty. Blessed be God!’

‘I had proceeded in this Diary, but that I doubt whether the Knowledge of many such Particulars may not prove offensive either to the weak or wilful. And I would not willingly occasion any Matter of Offence to those that are within or without the Church. Thus much, only for Edification, and Imitation, I have written. And tho with David I declare what God hath done for my Soul, [. . .] yet with Paul, I ever desire to correct my self; I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’

The Diary Junction

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