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Boston, Thomas (1677-1732) (DNB00)

BOSTON, THOMAS, the elder (1677–1732), Scottish divine, was born at Danse on 17 March, and baptised on 21 March, 1676-1677. He was the youngest of seven children of John Boston and Alison Trotter (d. 1 Feb. 1691, aged 56). His grandfather, Andrew Boston, came to Danse from Ayr. His father was a presbyterian, but, after the murder of Archbishop Sharp in 1679, attended episcopal worship till 1687. He was at the grammar school under James Bullerwall from 1684 or 1685 till 1689, and then was employed for a short time in the office of Alexander Cockburn, a writer to the signet. He entered Edinburgh University 1 Dec. 1691, and took his M.A. degree 9 July 1694. He was a good scholar, and had a fine memory; he says himself that he remembered every material passage in the Roman historians, From 1690 to 1701 he studied theology under George Campbell, professor of divinity, a strong presbyterian. His whole expenses at college amounted to 10l. 14s. 7⅔d. sterling, in money; but we must remember that the Scottish student in those days received his regular supplies of simple food and clothing from home. Early in 1696 he became parish schoolmaster of Glencairn, boarding' with Boyd, the minister; but he resigned this situation, after a month's trial, on 8 Feb. 1696. He then became successively tutor in the family of Andrew Fletcher of Aberlady, and chaplain to Colonel James Bruce of Kinnet. He was licensed by the Roxburgh presbytery on 15 June 1697, preached with acceptance in the counties of Stirling and Perth (where he found his wife), was called to the parish of Simprin, Berwickshire, 11 Aug. 1699, and ordained there on 21 Sept. 1699. In Oct. 1701 he became clerk of Synod. On 24 Jun. 1707 he was called to the parish of Ettrick, in Selkirkshire, released from the charge of Simprin 6 March 1707, and admitted to that of Ettrick on 1 May 1707, the day of the legislative union between England and Scotland. In 1712 he refused the oath of abjuration. He received a call to the parish of Closebarn, but the commission of the general assembly refused on 15 Aug. 1717 to sanction his removal thither, and he remained minister of Ettrick to the end of his days. Boston was at variance with the majority of the assembly on doctrinal grounds. while visiting one of his Simprin Bock, a Scottish soldier, Boston saw and borrowed a couple of pieces of English divinity which the man had brought home with him from the Commonwealth wars. One was a treatise by Saltmarsh, for which he did not care; the other was part first of ‘The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Touching both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace,’ &c., by E. F,, 1645. The work is it series of dialogues, and largely consists of excerpts from standard writers. The author was an English puritan, and has been described as ‘an illiterate barber.’ Tanner's edition of Wood’s ‘Athenæ’ (1721) identifies him with Edward Fisher, M.A., son of Sir Edward Fisher, of Mickleton, Gloucestershire, and a gentleman commoner of Brasenose. Grub disputes the identification, on the ground that the Oxford Fisher was a royalist, who wrote ‘A Christian Caveat to the old and new Sabbatarians, or a vindication of our Gospel-Festivals,' 5th ed, 1653, 4to; and, according to the Bodleian catalogue, was author of a tract in favour of celebrating the feast of the Nativity. The book which thus accidentally came into his hands exercised a strong influence over Boston's mind, and was introduced by him to his friends. Thus began what is known as the Marrow controversy. The Auchterarder presbytery, jealous of the smallest inroads of Arminianism, had drawn up certain propositions, to which, in addition to the authorised standards of the kirk, they required all candidates for license to subscribe. Among these propositions was the following: ‘I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in covenant with God.' A candidate who had refused his subscription to the ‘Auchterarder creed,' as it was called, and had therefore not been licensed, appealed to the general assembly, which in 1717 condemned the above proposition as unsound, forbade the imposition of unauthorised subscriptions, and ordered the license to be given. Boston was one of a party who, in the pulpit and elsewhere, showed their dissatisfaction with the finding of the assembly. Hence the refusal to transport him to Closeburn. In 1718 the ‘Marrow of Modern Divinity’ was republished, with a preface (dated 3 Dec. 1717), by James Hog, minister at Carnock, near Dunfermline 14 Hay 1734), where upon the controversy waxed fiercer. In pursuance of instructions given by the assembly of 1719, the commission of assembly, early in 1720, appointed a committee for preserving purity of doctrine, which did its work by two sub-committees. One of these, which was headed by Principal James Hadow, of St. Andrews (d. 4 May 1747), extracted from the volume six so-called antinomian paradoxes on the subject of the sins of a believer. On 20 May 1720 an act of assembly was passed condemning the book, and enjoining ministers to warn their people not to read it. After a meeting in Edinburgh, attended by Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, Boston with eleven others gave in a representation and petition against the act; hence they were called the ‘twelve apostles' and the ‘Marrow-men.' The assembly, on 28 May 1722, passed (by a majority of 134 to 5) another act, somewhat modifying the previous censure of the book, but confirming the general effect of the preceding act, and directing that the ministers who had subscribed the representation against it should be rebuked by the moderator for the injurious reflections contained in their petition. Accordingly ‘the twelve apostles’ were rebuked, and a protest, drafted by Boston and offered by Kid, of Queensferry, in the name of the rest, was not received. It was, however, printed by the protesters. As might be expected, the prohibition of the reading of the ‘Marrow’ secured for it a wider and more eager perusal, To the popularity of its doctrines in a not inconsiderable section of the kirk Boston's own writings largely contributed. In 1729, in the case of Simson, divinity professor at. Glasgow, who had received the comparatively light sentence of suspension for teaching anti-trinitarian doctrine, the matter was again brought up in the assembly, but the suspension was simply confirmed. On this occasion Boston stood alone in the assembly, being the only member who expressed his dissent from its judgement. Boston's deeply religious life and exemplary parochial labours did much to recommend his theology to the people of his nation. His communions gathered a wonderful assemblage of people from all parts. His own picture of himself, in his ‘Memoirs,‘ is that of a genuine and self denying man, devoted heart and soul to the cause of the gospel as he understood it. He found time for study, especially of the Hebrew Bible. His influence is not spent; his ‘Fourtold State' is still a popular classic of the Calvinistic theology. He died at Ettrick on 20 May 1732, He had married, on 17 July 1700, Katherine, fifth daughter of Robert Brown, of Barhill, Culross, who survived him nearly five years. She bore him ten children, all of whom died young, except two sons and two daughters. His first publication seems to have been:

  1. ‘Sermon’ (Hos. ii. 19, preached 24 Aug. 1714), 1715, reprinted 1732.
He published also,
  1. ‘Reasons for refusing the Oath of Abjuration,’ 1719.
  2. ‘Human Nature in its Four-fold Estate,’ &c. Edinburgh, 1720, 8vo (often reprinted; transl. into Welsh 1767; into Gaelic 1837, reprinted 1845; edition revised by Rev. Michael Boston, the author's grandson, Falkirk, 1784, 8vo; abridged, with, title ‘Submission to the Righteousness of Christ,’ Birmingham, 1809)
  3. ‘Queries to the Friendly Adviser, to which is prefixed a Letter to a Friend, concerning the affair of the Marrow,’ &c., 1722, 8vo.
  4. ‘Notes to the Marrow of Modern Divinity,’ 1726.
  5. ‘The Mystery of Christ in the form of a Servant,’ &c. (sacrament sermon, Phil. ii. 7), Edinburgh, 1727, 8vo.

Posthumous publications and editions are:

  1. ‘A View of the Covenant of Grace,’ 1734, 8vo.
  2. ‘Thomæ Boston, ecclesiæ Atricensis apud Scotos pastoris, Tractatus Stigmologicus, Hebræo-Biblicus. Quo Accentuum Hebræorum doctrina traditur, variusque eorum, in explananda S. Scripture, usus exponitur. Cum præfatione viri reverendi & clarissimi Davidis Millii,’ Amstelædami, 1738, 4to (a handsome volume, with many copper-plates; dedicated by Boston's son, Thomas, to Sir Richard Ellys, bart.; Mill's preface is dated from Utrecht, 6 Feb. 1738; he does not endorse Boston’s view, that the Hebrew accents are of divine origin. Boston's work shows very thorough and wide scholarship; he was acquainted with French and Dutch, in addition to the tongues necessary for his purpose. He had prepared for the press ‘An Essay on the first twenty-three chapters of the Book of Genesis; in a two-fold version of the original text,’ with notes, theological and philological; in this work he showed the utility of his theory of the Hebrew accents, and made use of the elaborate system of punctuation which he had framed to represent them in English).
  3. ‘Sermons and Discourses … never before printed,’ Edin. 1753, 2 vols. 8vo.
  4. ‘Explication of the First Part of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism,’ 1755, 8vo.
  5. ‘A Collection of Sermons,’ Edin. 1772, 12mo.
  6. ‘A View of the Covenant of Works, from the Sacred Records, &c., and several Sermons,' Edin. 1772, 12mo.
  7. ‘The Distinguishing Characters of true Believers … to which is prefixed a soliloquy on the art of man-fishing,’ Edin. 1773, 12mo.
  8. ‘An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion … upon the plan of the Assembly's Shorter Catechism,' &c. Edin. 1773, 3 vols. 8vo.
  9. ‘Ten Fast Sermons,' 1773, 8vo; ‘Worm Jacob threshing the Mountains’ (sacrament sermon, Is. xli. 14, 15), Falkirk, 1775, 8vo.
  10. ‘The Christian Life delineated,' Edin. 1775, 2 vols. 12mo.
  11. ‘Sermons,' 1775, 3 vols. 8vo,
  12. ‘A View of this and the other World’ (eight sermons), Edin. 1775, 8vo.
  13. ‘Sermons on the Nature of Church Communion,’ Berwick, 1785, 12mo.
  14. ‘A Memorial concerning personal and family Fasting and Humiliation,’ Edin. 1849, 12mo. 3rd ed., pref, and app. by Alex. Moody Stuart, A.M.)
  15. ‘The Crook in the Lot,’ Glasgow, 1863, 12mo (with biographical sketch).
  16. ‘Whole Works,’ edited by Rev. Samuel McMillin, with the ‘Marrow of Modern Divinity illustrated,’ 1854, 12 vols. 8vo (several of the above collections overlap; the famous sermon on the ‘Crook in the Lot’ has often been reprinted).

[Memoirs of Boston’s Life, Times, and Writings [to Nov. 1731], divided into twelve periods, by himself Edin. 1776, 8vo (2nd ed. Edin. 1813, 8vo; abridged by G. Pritchard, 1811, 12mo); Middleton's Biographia Evangelion, 1786, iv. 251; Woods Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), iii. 407–9; Hew Scott's Fasti Eccl. Scot.; Grub's Eccl. Hist. of Scotland, 1861, iv. 52. 85; Glaire's Dict. Univ. des Sciences Ecclés. 1868, ii. 1493; McCrie, in Brit. and For. Evang. Review, Oct. 1884, p. 669.]

A. G.