The Westminster divine Stanley Gower (bap. 1600?-1660) wrote an attestation for John Owen, for his essay The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. This fact alone should “whet our appetite” to know more of this presbyterian minister, one who was esteemed to be a “puritan divine of considerable eminence” by William H. Goold, the editor of The Works of John Owen. Gower’s life and ministry appears to have been one of growing stature and influence throughout what was a turbulent timeframe. This was seventeenth century England.
Early Days and Preparation (1600–1629)
His entering into University life as a scholar at Trinity College, Dublin in 1621 led him to graduating with a BA in 1625. His simultaneous association with the famed James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh was hardly insignificant. Ussher showed a keen interest in Gower’s progress and he oversaw his ordination in 1627 and installed him as his chaplain. Ussher’s anti-Arminian principles are well documented and upon his appointment as archbishop in 1626 he surrounded himself with advisors of a similar persuasion.
Ussher’s theological mentoring and role as a future sponsor clearly set Gower upon a puritan trajectory from which he never deviated. The seeds for Anglican ministry with presbyterian tendencies, Calvinistic convictions and simplicity in public worship were undoubtedly confirmed in Gower’s mind by Ussher. Prior to Gower’s encounter with Ussher, he had already written the Irish Articles of Religion (1615) when he was professor of divinity at Trinity College, Dublin. “It is widely recognised” according to Robert Letham that Ussher “had a strong influence on the Westminster assembly through the Irish Articles”.
Hill Top Chapel, Sheffield (1630-34/5)
The Hill Top Chapel still stands today in Attercliffe, Sheffield, with the inscription over one of the doors dating the completion at 1629. Joseph Hunter’s History of Hallamshire records that “in the yeare of our Lord God 1629 certaine of the chiefe of the inhabitants being by God’s providence mett togeather, they had a conference about building a chappell”. The opening sermon was the 10th October 1630, and “being the Sabbath-day, divine service was read and two godly sermons preached by the Revd Mr Thomas Toller, vicar of Sheffield” from Jeremiah 7:8-9. This was followed by a collection for the poor.
Stanley Gower was “elected an assistant minister in the church at Sheffield; and in 1630 he was nominated to the curacy of the newly-erected chapel at Attercliffe”. He served there from 1630–35 and therefore he was the founding minister of this new work. There would undoubtedly have been strong puritan sympathies in Sheffield for them to consider calling a disciple of Ussher and most likely he would have provided a prized reference for any new ordinand. However, in the providence of God we should summarise that this was a season of preparation for Gower; he was a Westminster theological divine “in the making”.
Brampton-Bryan and Herefordshire (1635-43)
Stanley and his wife Sarah must have found the Herefordshire countryside refreshing from the moment they arrived. It is apparent from historical records and letters that Gower demonstrated clear principles for public worship, Christian ministry and presbyterian church government at this time. The building blocks for these elements were firmly fixed before he became a member of the Westminster assembly; Robert and Brilliana Harley (his patrons) were just as arduous as Gower in working for church reform. Gower was a non-conformist who repudiated all of Archbishop Laud’s moves regarding episcopacy, worship and preaching.
The non-conformity of Gower was not hidden from the state authorities and in 1637 (maybe 1638) a range of charges were made against him. Eales comments of this document in the state papers which charged him with wide-ranging practices and that Gower’s actions were “long standing non-conformist practices”. Gower had been shaped, moulded, and strengthened under the patronage of the Harley’s and the exercise of his reformed ministry had flourished. He was chosen with John Green of Herefordshire as one of two representatives to the assembly of divines in London, and he moved there in autumn of 1643.
The Westminster Assembly (1643-48)
While Gower is not famous to us today, there is every indication that he was a very well respected and prominent minister at the time. During his time in London “he was appointed as preacher in the staunchly presbyterian parish of St Martin Ludgate and was invited to preach before the houses of parliament on several occasions”. The work of an Assembly member was to be extremely busy for Gower, as it was for many, combining parish ministry with long week days of theological debate and discussion. Chad Van Dixhoorn states: “Of the three main tasks of parliament’s assembly, the first two were revolutionary in nature: ‘setling ... the government and liturgy’ of the church ‘as shall be most agreeable to the Word of God’ ”. Van Dixhoorn clarifies that the “third task of the synod was stated with sharp difference in tone. The assembly was to ‘vindicate’ and ‘clear’ the church’s doctrine”. Gower’s work was set, along with 119 other divines.
Gower was specifically involved in the examination of ministerial candidates and he was an assembly member throughout the time that oversaw production of all the Westminster documents. He was actively involved in the Catechism committee: There were eleven sub-committees appointed to work on the Ten Commandments and Mr Profitt and Mr Gower laid out the general rules for expounding the 3rd Commandment.
Holy Trinity, Dorchester, Dorset (1649-60)
Gower had been called to a place, one which Underdown described as the “the most ‘puritan’ place in England”. In this season of ministry Gower enjoyed a measure of stability, as much as those times probably allowed, and he could lead the people of God to worship in an acceptable manner before God. In Dorchester, the “familiar liturgy had gone. Instead of Common Prayer, Gower ... used the presbyterian service book, the Directory”.
Additionally, the eleven years of stable ministry afforded Gower the opportunity to publish and three works are certainly worthy of mention. These are his preface to the posthumous publication of James Ussher’s Eighteen Sermons Preached in Oxford, 1640: Of Conversion unto God, Of Redemption and Justification by Christ (published in 1659): His preface to Davids Psalms in Metre: Agreeable to the Hebrew by Rev. John White (published in 1655): and last but no means least, his preface to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (published in 1650).