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Discussion Forum : Revivals And Church History : William Gurnall

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Joined: 2003/6/22
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 William Gurnall

Biographical Sketch of William Gurnall

William Gurnall, author of The Christian in Complete Armour, is a man whose name seldom appears in accounts of seventeenth-century church history. Yet his enduring work on spiritual warfare has appeared in numerous editions spanning more than three hundred years, and has blessed untold thousands of Christians since its first publication.

Research reveals that he was born in November, 1616, in the coastal town of Lynn, county of Norfolk, about a hundred miles north of London. His father was first an alderman (town council member), then mayor of Lynn, a chief town of the most thoroughly Protestant district of England in the seventeenth century. The inhabitants of Norfolk and Suffolk counties were famous for their deep attachment to the doctrines of the Reformation. An excellent scholar, Gurnall was awarded a scholarship from the city of Lynn to attend Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
He began his formal training there in his 16th year, shortly after his father’s death. Having been reared to honour and reverence the Puritans as the ‘excellent of the earth,’ and then trained at an eminently puritan college, it would have been strange indeed if Gurnall had grown up without decidedly puritan opinions. Some of his contemporaries at Emmanuel College were among the most prominent puritan writers and leaders of his time.

By way of explanation, the Puritans were a large segment of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestants who sought to ‘purify’ the Church of England. They felt priestly vestments and elaborate ceremonies were unnecessary. Many of them held to a simple manner of worship, without the use of prayer books, and followed a simple form of church organization. Most Puritans believed all clergymen should be of equal rank, and that no bishop or high church official should exercise control over pastors of congregations.

At the age of 28, William Gurnall was appointed rector of the church at Lavenham, Suffolk, then a town of about 1,800 inhabitants, half of whom were his parishioners. A year later he married a minister’s daughter, Sarah Mott, who bore him ten children. Gurnall spent the rest of his life - 35 years - in this pastorate.
During much of his lifetime he apparently suffered ill health. In the early days of his ministry at Lavenham he was once summoned to preach before the House of Commons in London. None but the most eminent and gifted ministers were asked to do this - which shows the high esteem in which Gurnall was held as a preacher.
However, Gurnall begged to be excused. He stated in his letter, ‘It is a burden much too weighty for my shoulders, particularly at this time, when so many infirmities oppress me that I can scarcely, without danger to my health, remain a short time in the open air. Much less therefore could I undertake so long a journey in so winterly a season.’ (London was less than a hundred miles away.)

The years during which Gurnall served the parish at Lavenham were filled with momentous events in English history; a civil war, the beheading of King Charles I, the declaring of a protectorate under puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, then the death of Cromwell, and the restoration of the monarchy under King Charles II. But the most significant event for Gurnall was the passing of the Act of Unifonnity.
This Act, passed in 1662, required that all ministers conform to the standards of the Church of England in matters of worship, use of the Prayer Book, and ecclesiastical authority. It was the culmination of years of conflict between the Puritans and established church leaders (though there is no indication that Gurnall himself was involved in the conflict).
The result was that about two thousand Puritan ministers and teachers gave up their pastorates and other positions, were labelled Nonconformists, and subsequently suffered intolerant persecution.
Gurnall, instead of siding with his puritan colleagues, chose to remain in the Church. He signed the declaration required by the Act of Uniformity, and was ordained a priest by the evangelical Bishop Reynolds of Norwich.

Herein lies the reason so little has been written about William Gurnall in the annals of church history. Though he was undoubtedly puritan in both doctrine and practice, he did not secede with the group with which he had generally agreed - a choice not likely to make him a favourite with either of the two great religious parties into which England was divided. A neutral is never popular; each party is offended at him for not casting his weight into their scale. He was just the man to be disliked and slighted by both sides.

But he was far from neutral in spiritual matters. It was during this time of civil and religious strife and controversy that Gurnall preached to his parishioners his messages on spiritual warfare. With the help of a benefactor, Gurnall published his material in three volumes between 1655 and 1662. He dedicated the first volume to the inhabitants of Lavenham. The following is an excerpt from his foreword:

The subject of the treatise is solemn: A War between the Saint and Satan. And it is such a bloody one that the cruellest war ever fought by men will be seen as but sport and child’s play compared to this. It is a spiritual war that you shall read of; not a history of what was fought many ages past and is now over, but of a war now going on - the tragedy is present with us. And it is not taking place at the farthest end of the world; it concerns you and everyone who reads of it. The stage on which this war is fought is every man’s own soul. There are no neutrals in this war. The whole world is engaged in the quarrel, either for God against Satan, or for Satan against God.

Gurnall died on October 12. 1679, in his 63rd year of life. The fact that a sixth edition of his work was published in the year he died is enough to show that its merits were early recognized. Other theological works of the seventeenth century were famous in their day, but are now seldom read. In regard to Gurnall, everything connected with this good man, except his book, seems to have passed away. By it alone, ‘he being dead yet speaketh’ (Heb. 11:4).
The available evidence indicates that Gurnall lived and died within about 50 miles of his place of birth. He held no office other than that of rector of Lavenham, and today no trace can be found of any descendants.

William Burkitt, well-known New Testament commentator and rector of Milden, near Lavenham, delivered an address commemorating Gurnall two months after his death. He concluded his address with these words:
It will be below the merit of his person to celebrate his death by any verbal lamentations; nor can anything suit his memory but what is sacred and divine, as his writings are. May his just fame from them, and from his virtues, be precious to all succeeding ages; and when epitaphs committed to the trust of marble shall be as illegible as if they had been written in water, when all stately pyramids shall be dissolved in dust, and all the venerable monuments of antiquity shall be devoured by the corroding teeth of time, then let this short characterization describing him in his best and fullest portraiture remain of him:

Ruthanne Garlock
(with major credit to Bishop J. C. Ryle’s introduction to the 1864 edition)

Lars Widerberg

 2004/1/17 3:28Profile

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