A Leather Book and Two Wings

Posted On March 14, 2017

What is there not to love about old books? Among the shelves of rare books in our library at Reformation Bible College, I found a truly rare book. It has a plain leather over boards cover. There is no label on the ribbed spine. There is, as typical with antiquarian leather, nothing on the front cover. It looks more like a journal than a book. It is, however, a book. Actually, it’s a few books in one.

The books are by Thomas Watson (1620–1686), known best for his The Body of Divinity. This little unmarked leather volume contains The Doctrine of Repentance: Useful for These Times and two short works: The Substantial Excellency of Spiritual Things and The Mystical Temple. This edition was originally published in 1668 by Thomas Parkhurst—his print and book shop was located “at the Golden Bible on London-Bridge.” The book even has an index labelled, “The Table Alphabeticall.”

Watson begins The Doctrine of Repentance with a letter to the reader. The rhetoric soars, literally. He writes:

The two great Graces essential to a saint in this life are Faith and Repentance. These are the two wings by which he flyes to Heaven.

Watson signs his prefatory letter to readers as “The Well-wisher of thy Soul’s Happiness, May 25, 1668, Thomas Watson.”

Watson likes metaphors. He’ll use a nautical one later in the book. He notes, “So in Adam we all suffered shipwreck, and Repentance is the only plank left us after shipwreck to swim to Heaven.” Not only is repentance a plank, it is, as Watson will go on to call it, a “gospel grace.”

In both content and package, this little leather volume is remarkable. It has typos. The publisher’s name is spelled incorrectly as “Parhurt” on the title pages for the two shorter works. At one place the name “Austin” appears for Augustine—a typical way for Puritans to refer to Augustine. (Why they did so is not entirely clear.) These all add to the charm of the book. In the end, however, it’s the content that matters. It’s Watson’s call to repentance that reaches up off the page and captures our attention. Repentance, after all, was the subject of the first of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.

What is there not to love about old books?

Dr. Stephen Nichols is the president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries, and a Ligonier teaching fellow.