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Book Review – To Honour God: The Spirituality of Oliver Cromwell

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Few figures in history cause such heated debate as Oliver Cromwell. The Cromwell Association says rightly that “since his death as Lord Protector in 1658, Cromwell’s life, ambitions, motives and actions have been the subject of scholarly investigation and intense, often vitriolic, debate. Whatever position is taken on Cromwell, ‘Chief of Men’ or ‘Brave Bad Man’, his importance as a key figure in one of the most troubled periods of British history is unassailable.” Within the church there has also been debate about Cromwell as believers try to discern if Cromwell was a great Christian figure or one who merely operated under the guise of Christian ideals. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes of Cromwell “That great period during Cromwell’s Protectorate…was one of the most amazing epochs in the whole history of [England]. To me it was certainly one of the most glorious…Oliver Cromwell is a man whom we do not honour as we should.” One of the oldest volumes in my library is one entitled simply Cromwell that was written by the great church historian J.H. Merle D’Aubigne in the first half of the nineteenth century. D’Aubigne says that the object of his work is “the rectification of the common opinion with regard to Cromwell’s religious character.” The way D’Aubigne proposed to rectify the common opinion of Cromwell’s religious character is much the same as Michael Haykin has done in the contemporary volume To Honour God: The Spirituality of Oliver Cromwell – he has allowed Cromwell’s words to speak for themselves. As D’Aubigne says, “it is not we who ought, in this day, to justify the great Protector; he should justify himself; and fortunately authentic and authoritative testimony is not wanting for this purpose.”

To Honour God: The Spirituality of Oliver Cromwell is primarily a collection of Cromwell’s letters, excerpts from his speeches, and even deathbed utterances. There is a brief introduction to Cromwell, but apart from that, the rest of the volume is dedicated to Cromwell’s words. Haykin provides some brief commentary and explanation for each of Cromwell’s writings, but only as much as is necessary to provide historical context, Biblical references, or explanation of words that are no longer in use.

Here is a sample of what you will find in this volume. This is a letter “For my very loving Brother, Richard Maijor, Esquire.”

Dear Brother,

…I hope you give my son good counsel; I believe he needs it. He is in the dangerous time of his age, and it’s a very vain world. O, how good it is to close with Christ betimes; there is nothing else worth the looking after. I beseech you call upon him. I hope you will discharge my duty and your own love; you see how I am employed. I need pity. I know what I feel. Great place and business in the world is not worth the looking after; I should have no comfort in mine but that my hope is in the Lord’s presence. I have not sought these things; truly I have been called unto them by the Lord, and therefore am not without some assurance that he will enable his poor worm and weak servant to do his will, and to fulfil my generation. In this I beg your prayers.

Here is another brief excerpt from the close of a letter of encouragement and admonition addressed to his son Harry. “If the Lord did not sustain me, I were undone; but I have, and I shall live, to the good pleasure of his grace. I find mercy at need. The God of all glory keep you.” Another of my favorite letters was one he penned to his wife in which he affirmed that he prays for her and their children daily, and seeks her prayers on his behalf.

Having read this book and having understood the words penned by Cromwell, it would be difficult to conclude anything other than that this man was a believer – a man who, in Puritan fashion, understood his own depravity, but took great comfort in God’s grace. I realize, too, that there is far more to Cromwell than what is presented in these pages. He was a man as corrupted by sin as any of us, and faced with far greater temptations and responsibilities than most. D’Aubigne cautions that “in studying the life of Cromwell, the reader will undoubtedly have frequent reason to bear in mind the saying of Holy Scripture, In many things we offend all.” However, Cromwell deserves to be understood in the light of his dedication to the Lord, for as Lloyd-Jones has said, perhaps he is a man “whom we do not honour as we should.” I will close with more of the words of D’Aubigne, who says that after having examined the evidence “we are compelled, unless we shut our eyes to the truth, to change our opinion of him, and to acknowledge that the character hitherto attached to this great man is one of the grossest falsehoods in all history.”

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