March 17: Birth of Thomas Boston (1676)

An Heart Exercised Unto Godliness


p style=”text-align: justify;”>Thomas Boston [1676-1732]The life of Thomas Boston could be considered a walking medical study. Frequently depressed both in life and ministry, in his autobiography he wrote of his recurring miseries, his dry spells, his sense of unworthiness and dullness even in the act of preaching, or while praying in his study. At one point in his life, all his teeth fell out gradually one by one.  Try speaking or preaching with that condition! His wife even joined him in suffering from a chronic illness of body and mind. Maybe it was something in the water!

Throw in two small congregations which, when he first went to them, were unresponsive to the ministry of the Word, whether publicly or privately. The manse in one congregation was in such bad shape that his family couldn’t stay there. In the other church, for a while they lived in a stable and even had one of their infants born there.

Thomas Boston was born this day March 17, in 1676, in Duns, Scotland, with Thomas being the youngest of seven children. His parents, John and Alison Boston, were Covenanters and his father was a strong supporter of Presbyterianism, even for a time being fined and imprisoned for his proclamation of the Gospel. Thomas would keep him company in one jail.  Despite his parent’s vibrant testimony, Thomas went through religious motions only.  It was only later under the preaching of the Rev. Henry Erskine, father of two sons who became ministers, that the Spirit brought him to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Thomas would says, “it pleased the Lord to awaken me under exercise about my soul’s state.”

He attended Edinburgh University at age 15 and met his future wife Katherine (sometimes spelled with a “C”) while there. Licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Chimside, he proposed to Katherine, and she accepted. Two  years later, he received a call from the Parish of Simprim. Accepting that call and entering into the ministry of that pulpit, he was faithful in home visitation, catechizing and engaging in pastoral care twice week. During these same years five children were born into his family.

It was in one of the homes of his Simprim congregation that Boston discovered a book on the shelf entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher. He read it and brought it to the established church. It afterwards became the basis for what is known as “the Marrow Controversy”.

In 1707, he moved with his wife and family to Ettrick, Scotland, where for the next twenty-five years, he ministered in the pulpit and homes of the congregation there. Especially did he wield the pen in writing a book still available today, often known simply as The Fourfold State [the full title is Human Nature in its Fourfold State: Of Primitive Integrity, Entire Depravity, Begun Recovery, and Consummate Happiness or Misery. Another five children were born into his family during his years at Ettrick, though in all, six of his children would die before reaching adulthood. When he himself died in 1732, he left behind his widow and four children.


p style=”text-align: justify;”>Words to Live By: 
Thomas Boston [1676-1732]Thomas Boston is a great example to the subscribers of This Day in Presbyterian History who are pastors. Their trials are often the same ones he suffered. Like Boston, these men faithfully minister each week, lovingly being the pastor in the pulpits and among the congregations given to their care, but often with great resistance and little encouragement. Those in the pew need to remember two Scriptural commands: First, that of 1 Thessalonians 5;12, 13, which says “But we request of you brethren, that you appreciated those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem very highly in love because of their work.  Live in peace with one another.” And second, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13;17)

Image sources: 
1. Above right, the most commonly seen portrait of the Rev. Thomas Boston, being the frontispiece portrait in A General Account of My Life, by Thomas Boston, A.M., Minister at Simprin, 1699-1707 and at Ettrick, 1707-1732. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908.
2. Above left, a less frequently seen portrait (and you can see why!) of Rev. Boston. This is the frontispiece portrait published in the volume Memoirs of the Life, Times, and Writings of Thomas Boston, of Ettrick. Glasgow: John M’Neilage, 1899.  

Boston’s Favorite Text:
“Thou, which hast shewed me great and sore troubles, shalt quicken me again, and shalt bring me up again from the depths of the earth. Thou shalt increase my greatness, and comfort me on every side.”—Psalm 71:20-21.

  1. Phil Pockras’s avatar

    First, the “Words to Live By” was moving and so true. Thank you, Mr. Myers.

    Second, Mr. Boston has been one of my heroes for many, many years. I was urged, as a young minister, by one of my mentors to get the newly-reprinted complete works of Boston even if I had to sell my shirt, literally. I got them (in 1980) and have always been grateful for the advice.

    Mr. Boston was one of the foremost Hebrew linguists of his day — not in a university in Britain or continental Europe, but starting out in little Simprin and ripening as a scholar in Ettrick.

    He had much moral courage. He defied Queen Anne’s government on ungodly oaths and infringements upon the rights of Zion’s only King and Head. He went after powerful men in the Kirk who were, in the seventeen-oughts, already moving away from Reformed or even Christian orthodoxy. He pretty much defied the General Assembly when it attacked and banned the teaching of precious Gospel truths in the “Marrow” controversy.

    Oh. On the Rev. Henry Erskine — famous father of famous sons. Mr. H. Erskine was a Covenanter minister imprisoned on the Bass Rock for some years for his faithful preaching. When not there, he and his family were reduced to deep poverty and near starvation due to governmental persecution. One of his famous sons many years later remembered his father playing his battered guitar to try to distract the children from their hungry bellies. The famous sons? The Revs. Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, after whom Erskine College and Seminary of the ARPC are named. Ebenezer, with three others, formed the Associate Presbytery, seceding from the Kirk in 1733 over its tyranny in forcing unworthy men into congregations as their “pastors”, as well as doctrinal deviations. Ralph joined shortly afterward. The Associate Presbyterians, or “Seceders” were very similar in most ways to the Reformed Presbyterians, or “Covenanters”, and so many in each church in America thought it best to unite. That came about in 1782 to form the ARP. Some APs and RPs stayed out. This is why there is usn’s in the RPCNA. The Associate Presbyterian story is a long one of splits and mergers. In America, anyway, its descendants are found in the ARP, in the RPCNA, and in the PCUSA.

    A few little corrections, if I may. Mr. Boston was ordained by the Presbytery of Chirnside, not Chimside. An “r” followed by an “n” does often look like an “m”! Second, Mr. Boston’s was first installed at Simprin, with a final “n”, not Simprim.


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