A Victorian Dissenter

Robert Govett and the Doctrine of Millennial Reward

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David E. Seip
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , April
     2018.
     264 pages.
     $32.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532618345.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In A Victorian Dissenter: Robert Govett and the Doctrine of Millennial Reward, David E. Seip provides an introduction to the life and work of Robert Govett (1813‒1901), an evangelical, nonconformist, dissenting, and dispensational clergyman in Victorian England. Seip’s recurring focus is upon Govett’s eschatological views related to the rapture, the millennial kingdom, and the reward of the believer. In addition to introducing Govett’s life and theology, Seip seeks to provide answers to why Govett has been largely forgotten and ignored in scholarship, in spite of his many theological writings and the respect and admiration that he seemed to have among his contemporaries.

Seip begins with an extensive introductory chapter, providing the reader with a basic thematic overview of the content of the book, though not in an order that corresponds directly to that of the chapter divisions. This thematic overview includes setting the backdrop of Govett’s theology to the millennial debates within the evangelical movement, the dominant role of the four main areas of eschatology (death, judgment, heaven, and hell) to Govett’s ministry, Govett’s disagreement with infant baptism, and Govett’s relationship with the non-theological print culture of the Victorian period. Seip also introduces Govett’s unique emphasis on the doctrine of reward and the relationship between the believer’s works and his participation in the millennium. Govett’s partial rapture theory recurs throughout the work and is a primary factor, Seip argues, that contributes to Govett’s disappearance in the literature.

In chapter 1, Seip introduces religious developments leading up to and framing the Victorian era of the 19th century and states the primary reason for Govett’s dissent—his persistent denial of infant baptism. Seip shows that evangelical dissent was the most natural home for millennial eschatology as views shifted from post to premillennial thinking and as popularity shifted from the historicist view of Revelation to the futurist view. In chapters 2 and 3 Seip investigates Govett’s life and writings, respectively. He introduces Govett’s doctrinal concerns, concerns which Govett made public over time, ultimately resulting in his separation from the Church of England. Though he was sometimes seen as a divisive and schismatic individual by those within the Church of England, Govett was generally respected and admired, even by those who disagreed with him from a variety of other denominations. Seip offers insight into Govett’s writings in the context of the Victorian print culture, which saw the encroachment of scientific theories upon religion and religious doubt. In this context, Govett wrote against unorthodox belief and ignorance regarding eschatology.

Govett's conception of baptism is explained in more depth in chapter 4. Seip shows the connection that Govett makes between believer’s baptism by immersion and the achievement of the temporary millennial kingdom. In chapter 5, Seip gives further insight to Govett’s partial rapture theory, which evidenced his thinking regarding the exclusion of certain believers whose works did not warrant such a reward. The scandal of Govett’s position was that he believed that not all of the church will be raptured and reign with Christ in the millennium. In chapter 6, Seip attempts to place Govett’s unique views on baptism and the doctrine of reward in context. It is here where Seip makes his compelling case for why Govett’s views did not endure, either in England or America, following his death. The result, Seip concludes, is a lack of understanding and appreciation of Govett and a dismissive attitude toward his view on the rapture, as evident particularly and ironically in contemporary dispensational works which suggest that Govett adopted his dispensational scheme from John Nelson Darby and other Brethren Assemblies’s leaders.

It is difficult to voice any negative critiques of Seip’s overall argument. Still, there are a few observations after assessing his work. While Seip seems to claim (3‒4) in the introduction to examine Govett in his context, including the political, philosophical, and scientific debates of his day, one wonders if more can be said regarding this context than is said in Seip’s work. To be fair, he does state at the end of chapter 2 that the rest of the work focuses on the religious context. Still, the reader may feel promised something early on that he does not get. Another area in which Seip could have provided a little more insight is how Govett directly combatted the assumption that infant circumcision under the law corresponds to infant baptism under the gospel. Finally, on the matter of style, there is some unnecessary repetition in the work. This small complaint is tempered by the fact that the work seems to be Seip’s academic thesis.

Despite these minor and somewhat trivial observations, Seip’s contribution to the life and work of Govett is worthy of commendation. He successfully shows that Govett should be viewed as a key player in the ongoing research of English religious dissent during the Victorian period, specifically with regard to eschatological conceptions. His treatment of Govett counters the common assumption that the Victorian period lacked complexity. Further, the work stands as a most helpful addition to ongoing studies of Victorian religious history, evangelicalism in England, millennialism, and dispensationalism. 

Seip’s presentation is cogent and the work is a joy to read. Throughout the presentation, Seip’s portrait of Govett is one of a man who has unrelenting conviction coupled with grace, kindness, and respect for those with whom he disagrees. In this way, Govett is an example for scholarly dialogue in our own day. Several times in the work Seip notes C.H. Spurgeon’s admiration of Govett, particularly Spurgeon’s statement that Govett’s work would one day “be prized as much fine gold” (210). While he recognizes that Spurgeon’s prophecy will never come to pass, Seip sets out to show the injustice of Govett being forgotten in the literature. Readers will not only affirm Seip’s success in what he sets out to do. They also will hope that more works will be produced that appreciate Govett’s contribution.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven L. James is Assistant Vice President for Academic Administration and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David E. Seip is the Senior Pastor of Chestnut Hill Baptist Church

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