One key concern of late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Puritanism was a desire to recapture biblical piety in all its Christological and pneumatological (Spirit-Filled) glory. Even as the movement waned in the Last quarter of the seventeenth century, this passion drove the Puritan mind and heart. In fact, during this period of decline, the English Puritans made what Michael Watts has deemed “a major contribution” to Christian devotion by introducing hymns into public worship. After the Bible, hymns have arguably been the chief shaper of Christian thought and piety over the past three hundred years.
One of the earliest hymnals was from a Seventh Day Baptist: Joseph Stennett’s (1663–1713) Hymns In Commemoration Of the Sufferings of Our Blessed Saviour Jesus Christ, Compos’d For the Celebration of his Holy Supper. First published in 1697, it was twice enlarged in new editions in 1705 and 1709. Stennett was one of the most prominent and respected pastors of his day. Even an Anglican prelate once said that were Stennett to relinquish his Baptist convictions and join the established church, no post would be beyond his merit.
Stennett received a superb education at Wallingford Grammar School in Berkshire, England, where he attained fluency in French and Italian and proficiency in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Converted at a young age, and having an early desire to be a theologian like his father, Edward, Joseph extensively studied the writings of the church fathers and other significant theological literature. His education enabled him to serve as a tutor in London, where he moved in 1685. There he joined Pinners’ Hall Seventh Day Baptist Church in autumn 1686. Two years later, the church asked Stennett to preach “every Sabbath when they had not assistance from any other church.” He was ordained on March 4, 1690.
His hymnal reveals that Stennett’s thinking about the Lord’s Supper was, generally speaking, fully in line with the Puritan tradition enshrined in the Westminster Confession. While Stennett called the bread and wine “kind Memorials,” “proper Symbols,” and “Figures,” he was also convinced of the presence of the risen Christ, who, by His “free Spirit,” makes His table a place of spiritual nourishment. In particular, the Lord’s Supper gives believers a fresh, powerful reminder that Christ’s death has sufficiently atoned for all their sin:
O Prince of Peace, bless thou this Board
With those sweet Smiles which Angels cheer;
O give us Peace; and tell us, Lord,
We’re pardoned, and accepted here.
Experiencing God’s loving forgiveness at the Lord’s Table because of Christ’s atoning death should overwhelm believers with wonder and lead to ardent rededication to Christ:
Thou art All Love, my dearest Lord,
Thou art All Lovely too:
Thy Love I at thy Table taste,
Thy Loveliness I view.
Thy Divine Beauty, vail’d with Flesh,
Thy Enemies despise;
Thy mangled Body they did disdain,
And turn from Thee their Eyes.
But thou more Lovely art to me
For all that thou hast borne;
Each Cloud sets off thy Lustre more,
Thee all thy Scars adorn.
Thy Garments tincturd with thy Blood,
The best and noblest Dye,
Out-shine the Robes that Princes wear;
Thy Thorns their Gems out-vie.
That I may be All Love to Thee,
And Lovely like Thee too,
O cleanse me with thy Precious Blood,
And me thy Beauty show.
My former Vows I now renew:
O Lord, as thou art Mine;
I freely give my Heart to Thee,
For ever I’ll be Thine.
At His table, believers not only taste afresh the love of Christ, but they also see the beauty of their Savior: “Thy Loveliness I view.” While the beauty of Christ is tied to His cross-work of love for sinners, it cannot be simply identified with this. Christ acts in love towards sinners because He is a person of “Divine Beauty” with a “sweet and Reverend Face.” This loveliness is veiled to His enemies, who despise His person. His friends, though, not only see the Lord’s beauty at the Lord’s Table, but they long to share in it. Hence, Stennett prays in the fifth stanza that he would be cleansed with Christ’s precious blood so that he might be lovely like Christ. May this indeed be our experience when we come to the Table of the Lord.