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'An Iron Pillar:'
The Life and Times of William Romaine

Rev. Angus Stewart

(Slightly modified from an review first published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal)


'An Iron Pillar:' The Life and Times of William Romaine
Author: Tim Shenton
Great Britain: Evangelical Press, 2004
Hardback, 463 pp.
ISBN 0 85234 562 3

In this fine biography of William Romaine, Tim Shenton takes us through the life and times of a leading eighteenth-century evangelical in the Church of England.

Born in 1714 in Hartlepool (to which town his French grandfather immigrated a few years before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes [1685]), Romaine attended the grammar school of Houghton le Spring (founded by sixteenth-century Protestant, Bernard Gilpin, "the apostle of the north" of England) and Oxford University. While at Oxford, he "studiously avoided" all connection "The Holy Club" of the Wesleys, Whitefield and others (p. 28), preferring instead the "Hutchinsonians," a high church group much given to a mystical, overly typological, philosophical reading of the Hebrew Old Testament (pp. 28-31). His assiduous Oxford studies led to Anglican orders, a reputation for scholarship and a high view of his abilities. Shenton places Romaine’s later conversion to evangelical views "between the years 1739-1749" (p. 56).

The remainder of the biography traces his largely London-based ministry, his indefatigable labours, his fierce opposition from within the Church of England, his various controversies, his books (especially the trilogy The Life of Faith, The Walk of Faith and The Triumph of Faith), his relationships with other evangelicals (including Augustus Toplady, Lady Huntingdon and William Grimshaw), and much more, until his death in 1795.

Romaine was a confessional Anglican. He even "preached a course of sermons on the Thirty-Nine Articles," which were so well received that his church wardens and members petitioned him to publish them, though he did not accede to their request (p. 238). Following Articles 23 and 36, "He would not employ lay preachers or countenance their methods; thus he stood alone for a considerable time in the Church of England" (p. 379).

Romaine was a stronger Calvinist than most of his contemporaries (pp. 14, 256), loving and preaching the truth of God’s glorious grace in Jesus Christ and writing an enthusiastic preface to Elisha Cole’s A Practical Discourse of God’s Sovereignty (p. 283). Romaine averred,

I would not be an Arminian for the world; because I am not only willing, but happy in getting more and more into Christ’s debt. They are only pensioners in heaven; they take all from him in use, and carry all back to him in praise. God teach us this heavenly lesson. Although I have learned but little, yet I would not be saved in any other way, than by sovereign grace; for only by this can I find employment in oneness with God, or happiness in God—All is grace, all is debt (p. 328; cf. pp. 59-61).

Listen to Romaine on God’s everlasting, unchangeable and unconditional covenant, from chapter 4 of his The Walk of Faith:

I will make, says their God, an everlasting covenant for them, a covenant ordered in all things and sure by the counsel and oath of the blessed Trinity, the two immutable things, in which it is impossible God should lie; the mountains shall depart and the hills shall be removed, but my kindness shall not depart from them, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord, that hath mercy on them. My covenant was made for them, and shall be made good to them. As I live, saith the Lord, I will not turn away from them to do them good. I will never change my purpose, nor alter the word that is gone out of my mouth. I mean nothing but good to them. My heart is fixed upon it. And I will not leave the event to them. They shall not have the management of my purposes, nor have any power to defeat them. My will to do them good shall not depend on their will or on their faithfulness, or on anything in themselves. I have taken all their concerns into mine own hands, and I will conduct them all to the praise of the glory of mine own grace. I will put my fear into their hearts that they shall not depart from me—they SHALL not depart from me. They are not the cause of their not departing, but I am. I have taken it upon myself. I will give them grace to walk close with me, and to fear me always. I have covenanted for all, the means as well as the end, and I will keep them by my almighty power, till they receive the end of their faith, even the salvation of their souls.

Interestingly, Romaine’s first biographer, William Cadogan, published a work, The Continuance and Constancy of the Friendship of God, as a Covenant God with his People, in London in 1795 (p. 409).

Romaine taught the truth of sovereign grace as it applies to good works:

If we do much for him, we have nothing to boast of; for he works in us both to will and to do. I am for good works as much as any of them; but I would do them to a right end, and upon a right motive; and after all, having done the best that can be done, I would not lay the weight of the least tittle of my salvation—no, not one atom of it, upon them. It all rests on Christ—he is my only foundation—he is my topstone: and all the building, laid on him, groweth up into a holy temple in the Lord. He has done all for me: he does all in me: he does all by me (p. 265).

As one would expect, John Wesley slandered Romaine as an antinomian (pp. 169, 201) and claimed that all of his writings were "brimful of Antinomianism" (p. 264). Romaine, for his part, saw Wesleyan perfectionism as a tool of Satan, working much mischief. Romaine combated it especially in Brighton where the delusion had wrought havoc (pp. 188-191). However, Shenton states that Romaine and Wesley "ministered together on a number of occasions, [though] their doctrinal differences kept them from enjoying a truly close relationship" (p. 169).

Romaine insisted strongly on the truth of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ (pp. 108-109). Shenton praises his "robust defence of justification by faith" (p. 266).

Romaine held that "preaching the gospel was the only God-ordained method of bringing sinners to Christ and the New Testament held no other view" (p. 279). He preached earnest, comforting sermons without any notes (p. 396). Those who heard him preach often remarked, "It was as though he had been in heaven, and came back to earth to tell us what was doing there" (p. 398).

This Anglican evangelical was an ardent advocate of Psalm singing (of which his favourite was Psalm 121; p. 298). Shenton summarises his position:

Romaine’s zeal for the Psalms was principally directed towards upholding and, where necessary, re-establishing biblical theology in the church. He wanted the pure Word of God read, preached and sung by Christian congregations. Nothing, in his view, should be countenanced that threatened the supremacy of Scripture. He strongly opposed hymns on the ground that they were man’s creation and not God’s, and that they lowered worship to the level of entertainment (pp. 276, 278).

Romaine saw hymn singing, according to George Ella, as a

substitute for true worship and a grave departure from the scriptural norm. Wherever there was a lack of "vital religion," he thought, people left off praying, singing the Psalms and hearing the Word, and descended into singing [Isaac] Watt’s "flights of fancy," along with other flippant pastimes. The words of man had become more important to a backsliding church than the word of God (p. 278).

Shenton’s book is full of interesting material: Romaine’s watching the famous David Garrick to improve his elocution (p. 33), his interpretation of Jephthah’s vow (his daughter was not sacrificed; pp. 44-45), his preaching being used in the conversion of the man who was to become George III’s state coachman (p. 105), his brief and highly controversial stint as Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College (he ridiculed and sought to overthrow Newton’s system; pp. 110-115), his vehement opposition to a 1753 parliamentary bill granting naturalization to the Jews in Britain (the bill was defeated; pp. 118-122), his thoughts on the American Revolution ("wrong both spiritually and politically;" pp. 284, 272), etc.

Romaine’s piety stands out very clearly from Shenton's biography: his stress upon and constancy in prayer, his careful use of time (p. 321) and his emphasis on the battle between the old man and the new man. The doctrines of grace, he declared,

… are such constant use to the children of God, that without the steadfast belief of them, they cannot go on their way rejoicing. It is from these doctrines only that settled peace can rule in the conscience, the love of God be maintained in the heart, and a conversation kept up in our walk and warfare as becometh the gospel. It is from them that all good works proceed, and that all fruits of holiness abound to the praise of the glory of the grace of God (p. 283).

Doubtless Romaine was a godly man—Shenton even refers to him as an "iron pillar" of steadfastness—from whom many lessons may be learned, but there was a grievous flaw. He stayed in the Church of England, despite its clear doctrinal departure from the truth. This is directly opposed to our Belgic Confession 28-29. This apostasy was evident to Romaine himself, especially on the many occasions when he was strongly persecuted and opposed by heretical Anglican office-bearers. He did consider leaving the Church of England (pp. 162-163). George Whitefield, commissioned to find a suitable minister for Paul’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, appealed to Romaine, who, after reflection, decided not to cross to America (pp. 194-196). Romaine did counsel John Newton not to enter the Church of England ministry, but Newton was "priested" five years later (p. 176).

Look at the Church of England now! Its evangelicals are a tiny, deeply compromised minority, and most of them are charismatics! Currently, the Church of England’s two most famous evangelical leaders are both in their eighties: J. I. Packer, who signed up to Evangelicals and Catholics Together (and whose later "clarification" does little to improve things), and John Stott, who holds to annihilationism. The next generation is going further downhill, as the leavening process continues (I Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9).

The Bishop of Durham advocates the New Perspective on Paul, attacking the gospel of the righteousness of God in Christ by faith alone and, therefore, advocating further false ecumenism with Rome. The Archbishop of Canterbury believes that God is like a nine-year-old spastic child, who communicates his inarticulate desires by grunts and moans. With this view of God and His Word, it comes as no surprise that he and many Church of England clergy approve of sodomy and homosexual "priests."

The three marks of the church are even more defaced than in Romaine’s day. Openly heretical and wicked office-bearers and members are not disciplined and are admitted to the Lord’s table, and "by this the covenant of God [is] profaned, and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation [and denomination]" (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 82). What would Romaine think of the Church of England now!