Puritans Who Changed the World: William Ames 1576-1633

Posted on December 4, 2008. Filed under: Church History |

Puritans Who Changed the World: William Ames 1576-1633

Overview: A Puritan exiled from England, living in Holland, who influenced Dutch and American theology greatly through his teaching, preaching, and, most of all, his writing. The Marrow of Theology was more widely read in America than Calvin or Luther.

Biography: born in 1567 at Ipswich, Suffolk, the part of East Anglia known as the place where Puritanism began. Both his merchant class father and mother died when he was young so he went to live with his uncle at Boxford, Robert Snelling. Relatives from the Snelling side of the family would help found Plymouth Colony.

  • Ames went to Cambridge, the center of Puritan scholarship, and began Christ’s College in 1594, graduating in 1598 with his Bachelor’s and in 1601 with his MA.
  • He had a dramatic conversion experience under the influence of William Perkins’ preaching and was ordained to the ministry and made a Fellow of the College.
  • King James’ edict at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 began a sharp suppression of Puritan activities at all the colleges. After a strong sermon in December of 1609, Ames was relieved of his positions.
  • In 1610, after more persecution, Ames departed for the Netherlands and academic freedom where he remained for the rest of his life. He served as Chaplain to the English forces stationed at The Hague 1611-19 and pastored a small church too.
  • During this time Ames also wrote 4 books against the Arminian Remonstrants. His skill in this debate won him the title, “Augustine of Holland”. He was a non-voting member of the Synod of Dort, 1618-19, and was the chief theologian and secretary to Johannes Bogerman, presiding officer at the Synod.
  • With the ensuing anti-Arminian atmosphere, vacancies opened in the universities and Ames was offered a professorship at Leiden University only to have the position pulled at the last minute by interference of King James of England.
  • After his first wife died not long after they were married, Ames married Joan Fletcher; they had three children. To support his wife and family Ames tutored students in his home because official employment was hindered by the English Crown. It was during this time that he developed his notes for The Marrow.
  • In 1622 Franeker University ignored the English wishes and appointed Ames as professor of theology and he was awarded the Doctor of Theology degree soon thereafter. By 1626 he was appointed Rector Magnificus, the highest academic office of the university. During his 11 years there he became known as the Learned Doctor. He still took students into his home for tutoring.
  • In 1633 Ames was moving to Rotterdam to co-pastor an English church but was also considering joining his friend, John Winthrop, in New England. These plans were cut short when Ames contracted pneumonia and died at the age of 57.
  • In 1637 Ames’ widow and children immigrated to Salem, Massachusetts and brought his library with them which was donated to Harvard College.

Impact: William Ames was the most influential theologian to affect both North America and the Netherlands in his day and for the next hundred years, but, remarkably, did not have as much impact on his native England.

  • Published in Latin in 1627 Medulla Theologiae (The Marrow of Theology) was the standard textbook for systematic theology in New England for over one hundred years. It was considered to be the best summary of Calvinistic doctrine ever written and was only replaced by Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology.
  • It is not an overstatement to say that for America’s first 250 +years (1620-1880’s) Puritanism was one of the most important intellectual elements in our culture and William Ames was the most influential of Puritans.
  • Ames’ theology was deep, precise, succinct and practical. He addresses the whole man believing that thought and life should present a unified, integrated whole.
  • Through his writings and his leadership in the Synod of Dort, Ames was the English thinker and theologian who most influenced Dutch thought in his day. His defense against the Arminians preserved the orthodox faith.
  • His book Conscience, with the Power and Cases Thereof was considered to be one of the most valuable sources on Puritan morality by the great Harvard scholar Samuel Eliot Morrison.

Application: Notice the chain of influence: a mother (whose name we know not) pointed out William Perkins as a drunk to her child, Perkins repented and then was mentored by Laurence Chaderton (whom most of us have never heard of), Perkins mentored Ames, Ames guided the Synod of Dort (from which Synod the acronym TULIP was developed) and wrote The Marrow of Theology which influenced the Mathers and all of New England, including both Harvard and Yale Colleges.

Quotes from The Marrow: “He overcame death by enduring, by making satisfaction for sin, and he overcame the devil by depriving or taking the prey out of his hands.” (XXIII The Exaltation of Christ, para.2, p.145).

“Our good works while we live here are, therefore, imperfect and impure in themselves. They are not acceptable to God, except in Christ. The works of the regenerate do not have any merit worthy of a reward obtained on the basis of justice.” (Book Two, III Good Works, para. 17-19. p.233).

“These five things belong together in divine faith: 1) a knowledge of what God testifies to; 2) a pious affection toward God which gives his testimony greatest force with us; 3) an assent given to the truth testified to, because of this affection toward God who is the witness of it; 4) a resting upon God for the receiving of what is given; and 5) the choosing or apprehension of what is made available to us in the testimony.” (V Faith, para. 12, p.241).

Resources: The Learned Doctor William Ames: Dutch Backgrounds of English and American Puritanism by Keith L. Sprunger. The University of Illinois Press: Urbana, Ill. 1972 (289pp.)

Meet the Puritans by Joel R. Beeke & Randall J. Pederson, “William Ames”. Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, MI. (p.39-51.)






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