A Victorian Dissenter: Robert Govett and the Doctrine of Millennial Reward. By David E. Seip. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018. 253 pp. Paper, $32.00.
As the subtitle states, A Victorian Dissenter (AVD) is about Robert Govett (1813–1901), who lived in England during the Victorian Age. He was a dispensational dissenter against the Church of England. In addition, he supported many Free Grace ideas. AVD is well researched and discusses in detail the theological and cultural environment in which Govett ministered.
Govett was a prolific writer and the long time pastor (57 years) of Surrey Road Chapel in Norwich, England. He authored numerous books and tracts and often contributed to the many theological journals in print in his day. Though his views were widely discussed, he had only a small following and these views placed him on the margin of Victorian religious life (p. 2).
AVD relies heavily on the original writings of Govett. He was an interesting figure. Many of his day disagreed with his theological views. But at the same time, many of those who opposed him respected him for his tenacity in studying the Scriptures and his logical argumentation. Spurgeon, who was not Free Grace, had a strong admiration for him (p. 8).
AVD concentrates on two theological issues that marked the life of Govett. The first was infant baptism. Govett was, in his early adult life, a clergy in the Church of England. He came from a long line of such men. However, he broke with the Church over the issue of infant baptism. The second issue was eschatological reward. He felt that the way a Christian lives does not indicate whether that Christian was truly saved. Instead, it would impact certain rewards in the world to come (p. 9).
While most readers of JOTGES will agree with these statements, Govett held to some views of rewards with which most Free Grace people would disagree. Unfaithful believers will miss the Rapture and be excluded from the millennial kingdom (p. 11). Seip says that Govett originated the idea of such a “partial rapture” (v. 3).
AVD does not deal much with Govett’s presentation of the gospel. As such, it is unclear. Seip does not quote from him but says that Govett believed that unbelievers are to “repent and turn from their wicked way and to leave their associations with the worldly” (p. 10). It is difficult to determine if Govett felt these things were necessary to receive eternal life or if this was something believers were to do after coming to faith. In the same light, Seip says that Govett taught that “restoration” was through repentance and a “surrender of selfrighteousness.” However, Govett also said that the unbeliever needs to only, “First believe, then be baptized—rejoice then in your salvation” (p. 155). In a direct quote from Govett, he says that the only requirement for salvation is “faith and repentance” (p. 115). However, in this quote, there is no explanation of what repentance means.
D. M. Panton, a disciple of Govett, said that his mentor taught that eternal life was given by faith and that works resulted in rewards (p. 156). Seip adds that in his first tract, Govett said that eternal salvation came by faith apart from works of any kind (p. 165). In addition, Govett clearly taught that repentance was an activity that believers should be engaged in (p. 178).
Seip points out that Govett was a premillennialist and that premillennialism was the dominant position in the early church (p. 20). Govett devoted much of his writing promoting a coming millennial kingdom even though it was a minority view in his day.
Govett impacted some writers who came after him that Free Grace readers will occasionally encounter. These included G. H. Lang, Panton, and Watchman Nee.
Seip does an outstanding job of explaining the social and historical background of the theological climate in which Govett lived. For example, the rebirth of millennial thought did not just happen in Govett’s lifetime. A number of Scottish and English Reformed theologians spoke of it in the 17th century. But this thought arose even in the 16th century, soon after the Reformation began (p. 46). Eventually, this would lead to premillennial prophetic conferences in England and Ireland (p. 47). In this context, Seip discusses the contributions of men like J. N. Darby and Edward Irving. Darby was a major leader in the Plymouth Brethren movement. Govett agreed with certain aspects of Darby’s teachings but disagreed with others.
On the historical and scientific side, Govett ministered in a time of religious doubt. Darwin’s theory of evolution shook the faith of many. It was also the time of German higher criticism’s attack on the Scriptures (pp. 59-62). In the midst of this environment, Govett devoted himself to the study and explanation of the Scriptures.
This study led Govett to the conclusion that the NT taught two “salvations.” One is by faith and the believer obtains it at the moment of belief. The other is a future salvation that depends upon works and will result in rewards (p. 68).
Seip points out that Victorian England had an “obsession” with the topic of eschatology (p. 94). Govett was a key player in the publications of his day in the discussion of these topics. However, his view of a partial Rapture eventually led to a decline in his reputation as a respected Biblical scholar. In addition, he also came to the conclusion that the Church of England as an entity was unscriptural, not just its view on infant baptism. Many of his day thought this was going too far. He was also eclipsed by the popularity of Darby’s eschatological framework (pp. 96-98).
Govett also went against other popular views concerning the last days. The Historicists of his day said that the Pope was the Antichrist in Revelation. Govett disagreed and said that the vast majority of Revelation was still in the future (pp. 101-108). As such, the Antichrist would come upon the scene later.
Even though it is not discussed in length, Govett taught that believers who are not raptured and miss the millennial kingdom will be punished for those 1000 years. This punishment will include being hurt by the second death in the lake of fire (p. 158). As a result, some accused Govett of promoting a kind of purgatory (pp. 167, 182).
Clearly, Govett was a man who was willing to pay a price for what he believed the Scriptures taught. The readers of JOTGES will no doubt admire him for his diligence. At the same time, they will question some of his views concerning the Rapture and millennial kingdom. Another such teaching was his view that even though water baptism did not contribute to one’s eternal salvation, one had to be baptized in order to be a part of the Rapture and the millennial kingdom (p. 125).
After his death, his writings became basically unknown. His views were rejected, and the teachings of the dispensationalism of Darby, the Scofield Reference Bible, and Dallas Theological Seminary, won the theological debate in dispensational thought (pp. 202-205). Today, however, Schoettle Publishing Company publishes his books as well as those who shared his views.
People often wonder about the historical background of Free Grace theology. This well-researched book gives part of that history. Govett, like Free Grace writers today, knew what it was like to go against the theological grain and tradition. Seip has done an outstanding job of explaining his teachings and the context in which they arose. The reader can draw many modern day parallels. I highly recommend this book.
Kenneth W. Yates
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society