November 5, 1605, was one of the most terrifying days in English history. On that day a group of embittered Roman Catholics decided to blow up the Parliament buildings and kill the king and his royal family. The conspiracy was foiled and the instigators were promptly seized and executed. Each year the English recalled this event on Guy Fawkes Day named after a leader of the plotters.
It so happened that Thomas Shepard was born on this same day, November 5, 1605. Of course, as a baby he could not recall the significance of the day, but his family would never let him forget it. His father, jolted by the terrible news, gave Thomas his given name patterned after the biblical “Doubting Thomas.” Shepard later explained his father’s reasoning in his Autobiography: “because he says I would hardly believe that euer any such wickedness should be attempted by men agaynst so religious & good Parlament.”
Thomas Shepard was reared in a Puritan home. The Puritans sought to reform or “purify” the Church of England from within according to biblical precepts. Queen Elizabeth I and Kings James I and King Charles I pursued what they considered to be “a middle way” between the Roman Catholics and Puritans. The “middle way” or so-called “Elizabethan Settlement” was based upon the use of the Book of Common Prayer in worship and many traditions of the Medieval Church. Both Roman Catholics and Puritans were persecuted by the leaders of the Church of England.
Shepard’s father, an industrious grocer, became disillusioned with the preaching at Towcester in Northamptonshire and decided to move his family to Bambury in Oxfordshire to sit under a “stirring ministry,” that is one led by an authentic Puritan minister.
After his parents died Shepard was fortunate when one of his older brothers, John, asked him to come live in his house. John helped Thomas to prepare for college.
On February 10, 1619-20 Shepard entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. During his stay at the college Shepard had a conversion experience largely due to the powerful preaching of Lawrence Chaderton and John Preston, masters of the college successively. Shepard graduated with a B. A. in 1623 and a M.A. in 1627.
Upon graduation Shepard searched for a position, but his life was anything but tranquil. The Puritans instituted what they called “lectures” for ministers trained in the Word and ready to preach, when the local priest was willing or absent, to provide a message for spiritually hungry people.
Standing in the way of this Puritan plan was William Laud, the Bishop of London. He was determined to suppress the Puritan “lectures” as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. Laud was a formidable figure and young Shepard was undoubtedly intimidated by him with his limited ecclesiastical experience. During the reigns of King James I and King Charles I the Puritan movement expanded but it was threatened continually by Bishop Laud and other leaders in the Church of England.
In time, Shepard received word of a “lecture” at Earles Colne and he was called to this position. Bishop Laud heard of Shepard’s call and he decided to silence the young preacher. Shepard was ordered to appear before the bishop. After inquiring about Shepard’s background the bishop blasted him with a reprimand. Bishop Laud was blunt: “I charge you that you neither Preach, Read, Marry, Bury, or exercise any Ministerial Function in any Part of my Diocese; for if you do, and I hear of it, I’ll be upon your back and follow you wherever you go, in any Part of the Kingdom, and everlastingly disenable you.”
These were not idle words because Bishop Laud’s “long arm” could reach to the most distant parts of England. Laud’s violent temper was known by his friends and feared by his foes. He had the reputation of not being able to control his temper even in ecclesiastical courts. Shaken by this meeting with the vengeful Bishop Laud on that day Shepard recorded in his Autobiography, “he [Laud] looked as though blood would have gushed out of his face.” The atmosphere must have been electric.
Shepard fled northward from Earles Colne to Buttercrambe in Yorkshire where he received a call to preach as a chaplain in a gentleman’s home. Once again, Shepard showed exceptional preaching power. One of his converts was Margaret Tooteville, a young lady-in-waiting of the house. In 1632 he proceeded to marry her.
Shepard and his bride then decided to move to Northumberland. They settled in a town called Hedden, about five miles from Newcastle. Shepard’s preaching continued to be well-received, but Thomas Morton, the Bishop of Durham, having been warned by Bishop Laud of Shepard’s presence in his jurisdiction, told Shepard he would not permit him to preach in his diocese. In 1633 Margaret bore a son. They gave him the name “Thomas.” Margaret suffered immensely during child birth because of an unskilled midwife. Shepard, by now, was wondering if he would ever escape Bishop Laud’s wrath.
About this time Shepard began to consider seriously a “Call to New England.” He listed eight pressing reasons for doing so:
1. He saw no call in England.
2. Many of his friends wanted him to go.
3. He saw the Lord departing from England when Mr. Hooker and Mr. Cotton were gone.
4. He saw the evil of ceremonies and mixed communion.
5. He desired the fruits of all God’s ordinance which he could not enjoy in England.
6. His wife desired that he move to New England.
7. He could see no reason for staying in England to suffer: “now the Lord had opened a door to escape.”
8. The Lord showed him the glory of those liberties in New England.
The resolve having been made, Shepard preached a farewell sermon at Newcastle, and then he and his wife and young son left on a ship loaded with coal for Ipswich. The couple planned to leave for New England in 1634, but they were delayed and winter was fast approaching. The ship’s captain made a valiant effort to make a start but a storm forced him to seek harbor at Yarmouth. On the Sabbath day, boats came to take the passengers ashore. Shepard felt they acted hastily and should have spent the day praising the Lord; nevertheless, he, his wife and small son left in the first boat. Tragedy struck his family as the boat sailed for the shore. Suddenly, young Thomas became desperately ill with nausea. Despite the frantic efforts and assistance of friends after a fortnight’s sickness the child died and was buried at Yarmouth. During the winter’s stay at Yarmouth Margaret was pregnant again, and they named their second son, “Thomas” also.
Finally, on August 10, 1635 Shepard and his family and other close friends sailed from England lamenting at the departure from their native land. Their troubles did not cease, however, because on the voyage they encountered more severe storms. Margaret contracted a cold that developed into consumption, a condition that contributed to her early death. The ship reached the shores of the New World on October 2, 1635 and the next day they disembarked at Boston, rejoicing in God’s goodness.
Shepard and his company arrived just as Thomas Hooker and his congregation were leaving for Connecticut. Therefore, Shepard and his group moved into the houses vacated by the Hooker people. The place where they settled was called Newtown; later, it was re-named Cambridge in honor of the university where most of the Puritans had studied in England. Also, it was an appropriate name for the location of Harvard College in the same town.
Shepard’s ministry in Massachusetts Bay Colony was manifold. He gathered a strong congregation at Cambridge. He also became the main pastor to the students at Harvard College. Soon, he was involved in the so-called “Antinomian Controversy.” Anne Hutchinson, who followed her favorite pastor, John Cotton, to the New World divided ministers into two categories — preachers of “grace” and preachers of “good works.” In her judgment, Cotton was one of the former ones, but many she heard in the Bay Colony favored “good works.”
This particular controversy was part of a larger theological division pitting Arminianism against Calvinism. The former position contended that God’s love was intended for all people, whereas the latter position argued that God’s love extended just to the “elect” whom God had chosen. Shepard had been aware of this issue back in England. Bishop Laud and most Anglicans favored the Arminian position; the Puritans adhered to Calvinism.
In the Bay Colony politics was mixed with theology. John Wheelwright, Mrs. Hutchinson’s brother-in-law and Sir Henry Vane who had recently been appointed governor, supported Anne. As it turned out, when Mrs. Hutchinson was banished from the colony Vane, who supported her, lost the governor position to John Winthrop. The Bay Colony ministers asked Shepard to counsel with Mrs. Hutchinson in her home. In the course of these conversations he learned that she was receiving “private revelations” apart from the Bible, something unacceptable to true Puritans. When he shared this information with a later council they condemned Hutchinson, and she was expelled from the colony.
Shepard also was busy supporting the mission work of John Eliot among the Indians of the Bay Colony through his writings. In fact, Shepard’s prolific writing ministry not only influenced many people in his own day but it reached others in successive generations. Jonathan Edwards, the intellectual leader of the eighteenth century Great Awakening, extensively quoted Shepard, especially in his popular book, Religious Affections.
Finally, Shepard had a sense of freedom in responding to his “Call to New England.” He was now at liberty to preach the Gospel according to the Puritan tradition without the dread of Bishop Laud hounding him wherever he went. Shepard’s books continued to be published well into the Nineteenth Century, and are still widely available today.
1 Shepard, Thomas. “The Autobiography of Thomas Shepard.” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, XXVII, Transactions, 1927-1930. (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1931), 357
2 Ibid., 369
3 Ibid., 369
4 Ibid., 375
5 Ibid., 385