In 1705, when Petto was around 80, the bookseller John Dunton produced an eccentric book that included “the Lives and Characters of More Than a Thousand Contemporary Divines, and Other Persons of Literary Eminence”. Of Petto he says that his venerable age deserves great honour from all that know him, for
... his hoary head is found in the way of righteousness. His free discourse runs back to the ages past, and recovers events out of memory, and then preventeth them by flying forwards to future things; and, by comparing one with the other, can give a verdict well near prophetical. The Dissenters of Sudbury call him their Oracle; and, considering his great age and experience, I do not know where they can find a better.1
Attention has recently been drawn to Petto by an American pastor and theologian called Michael Brown.2 Brown gives three reasons for his study, which he undertook at Westminster Theological Seminary West in California.
First, Petto's relative obscurity. He has received, unfairly Brown would argue, scant attention in the world of scholarship, especially with regard to his important work on covenant theology. Brown also argues that Petto is an example of someone who shows more direct continuity from Calvin to later covenant theologians, a continuity hotly denied by some who claim (in Paul Helm's words) that
... whereas Calvin’s presentation … was warm, exuberant and thoroughly evangelical, his ... followers presented what was introspective and legalistic. Sometimes it is held that the later Calvinists distorted ... Calvin … other times the ... more serious claim is made, that the Puritans, supposedly followers of Calvin, were actually opposed to the teaching of Calvin in its central emphases.3
Brown also believes Petto's work makes a useful contribution to ongoing debates regarding the Mosaic covenant, its relation to works and grace and whether it is a republication of an earlier covenant or not.
What Brown does in his short book is to give a brief overview of Petto's life then look at his understanding of the covenants and that of his contemporaries before analysing Petto's view of the Mosaic covenant more thoroughly and drawing out some of the implications of this view.
It is not known who Petto's parents were or where or when he was born, though it must have been some time around 1624. His early life coincided, therefore, with the tumultuous reign of Charles I, which lasted from 1625 until his beheading in January, 1649. Married to a Roman Catholic Princess, Charles worked hand in glove with William Laud (1573-1645) to oppose the Puritans at every step of the way.
Despite the religious turmoil of the times, Petto attended Cambridge University to study for the ministry. He enrolled in Katharine Hall, or St Catharine’s College as it became, as a “sizar” (a student granted a ration of food and lodging for free due to financial need) and graduated BA in 1647. No date is known for his Master's degree which he probably gained, though some Puritans did refuse to go further in the system. St Catharine’s was a centre for theological study. Petto would have studied under Ralph Brownrigg (1592-1659) and William Spurstowe (1605–1666), both Westminster Divines and Calvinists. This Calvinistic influence is seen in Petto's writings which favorably quote Calvin, Sibbes, Owen, William Bridge, Samuel Bolton and the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism as well as the Church Fathers and Mediaeval writers. The great John Owen (1616-1683) wrote the foreword to his work on the covenants. Petto held Owen in the very highest regard.
Petto was ordained in 1648 and became rector on the Norfolk border at St Cross (also known as Sancroft or Sancroft St George) in the South Elmham deanery, Suffolk. It seems that he was married soon afterward, eventually having five children with his first wife Mary, who died in 1655. Despite being a widower with five children his work increased rather than diminished. He often preached in neighbouring Homersfield (or St Mary) and, in 1657, he was appointed an assistant to the Suffolk commission of Triers and Objectors established by Cromwell. This body examined ministers and candidates for the ministry and their qualifications. Beginning as rector on an annual salary of £36 this went up to £50 in May 1658. (At the time an agricultural labourer would only be earning about £10 a year).4
Petto was an Independent or Non-Separating Congregationalist holding to the modified form of the Westminster Confession that appeared in 1658, the Savoy Declaration.5 Unusually for the time he accepted lay ministry and wrote The preacher sent in support of it. His co-authiors were John Martin (1596-1659) of Edgefield, Norfolk and Frederick Woodall (d 1681) of Woodbridge, Suffolk. The book, which itself sought to respond to previous published works on the subject, was answered by John Collinges (1623-1690) of Norwich and Matthew Poole (1624-1679). Petto and Woodall came back at them with a further reply in the following year, 1659, seeking to answer the objections.6
With the return of Charles II in 1660, Petto was soon ejected from his living and by 1669 was ministering in Wortwell-cum-Alburgh, South Norfolk and in nearby Denton. There are also reports of his preaching to a large congregation in Gillingham, Norfolk. In 1672, he was officially licensed as a Congregational minister under Charles II's Act of Indulgence, being registered to preach in his own house and that of John Westgate at Redenhall or Harleston in the same area.
Petto began his longest tenure as a minister in 1674, when he became the minister of a congregation in the Puritan stronghold of Sudbury, Suffolk. The congregation, one of seven congregations formed in Suffolk between 1640 and 1660, was called All Saints’ and Petto ministered there until his death. It was an independent congregation that met in a barn belonging to a man called Robert Sewell. Petto was known to some as “the preacher in the barn”.7 The congregation filled a need in the town, which had not had a regular minister for some time.
Petto corresponded with Increase Mather (1639-1723) in New England to whom he sent books by Owen, Goodwin and others. These letters reveal that he woud make regular trips to London to buy books among other things. On Auguist 31, 1677, in a letter to Increase Mather, he talks of running around London looking for a prodigal daughter determined to run away overseas. He calls it “the greatest trial I ever met with”. Apparently by the following May all was well but it was no easy time. In another letter to Mather he pleads “O beg that she and all my children may return to God through Jesus Christ ... Some of them the Lord hath owned and I, and I long to see Christ formed in all of them.”8
Evidence suggests that Petto was a highly esteemed minister among the dissenters and he was frequently in demand as a preacher at ordinations, funerals and on other occasions. In 1700, he preached the funeral sermon of Squire Samuel Baker (c 1644-1700) of Wattisfield, Suffolk, a person of notable influence. In June 1701 he preached “a very weighty sermon” at the ordination of John Beart (d 1717) in Bury St Edmund's.9 From 1707, then over 80 years of age, Petto was assisted by is son-in-law, Josias Maultby, who was made co-pastor. Maultby continued to serve the congregation until 1719, when he emigrated to Rotterdam. His death came in 1711. He was buried in the churchyard on September 21 of that year.
In addition to being an Independent minister, Petto was also a well-respected theologian. His first work The voice of the Spirit was on pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit) and with its appendix (Roses from Sharon, or Sweet Experiences reached out by Christ to some of his beloved ones in this wilderness which was a record of his relationship with Christ, using the language of the Song of Songs) it dealt primarily with the doctrine of assurance of salvation and the Spirit’s work of sealing. Following the thought of Perkins, Preston, Sibbes, Goodwin and Baxter, Petto believed that the sealing of the Spirit was a separate act from the indwelling of the Spirit. The sealing of the Spirit granted to individual believers the confidence that God was their Father and that they were truly converted. Later in life Petto seems to have shifted in his view and like John Owen began to see that sealing and indwelling were more closely related, and that both were given to believers at the beginning of the Christian life.10
While at Sudbury he wrote two catechisms, A Short Scriptural Catechism for Little Children and A Large Scriptural Catechism. The catechism answers were quotations of various biblical passages and were designed to encourage memorisation of the Bible. At some point after the death of his first wife Mary he had, in what sounds like an excellent example of balance, married Martha, who was the mother of a further seven children in addition to the five he already had. They lived at the vacant All Saints manse but some local people were unhappy about this and made efforts to have Petto prosecuted for nonconformity. These efforts, however, were unsuccessful.
Petto seems to have had some ties to the Fifth Monarchy movement, though it is not clear how close these were. This is the group that looked for some sort of theocracy in line with the fifth kingdom mentioned in Nebuchadezzar's dream in the Book of Daniel, where four kingdoms are represented and a fifth, which is the kingdom of Christ. It was expected that this fifth kingdom would be established by political means around the year 1666. Petto's fellow author Frederick Woodall was associated with this group as was John Manning (d 1694) with whom Petto published Six Several Treatises of John Tillinghast n 1657. John Tillinghast (1604-1655) was a leading member of the Fifth Monarchy movement. Petto also published another nine of Tillinghast's sermons in 1658 with Manning and his neighbour at Syleham, Samuel Habergham (1626-1665).
As busy as he no doubt was in his ministry at Sudbury, Petto found time to reflect on subjects other than theology. In 1699 a short extract from a letter of his written the previous November was published in the Royal Society journal Philosophical Transactions concerning parhelia, the phenomenon of mock suns or “sundogs” visible at certain times on either side of the sun. His interest in astronomy also comes out at certain points in his correspondence with Mather. He also wrote works on infant baptism (against the General Baptist Thomas Grantham, 1633-1692), the Book of Revelation (in which he argued that the period of the Antichrist was 1050-1716) and witchcraft too (1693) but his greatest theological influence came through his highly regarded book on covenant theology. In this work Petto skilfully navigated and addressed the many contemporary debates concerning covenant theology, showing an exceptional, detailed understanding of the subject. He explored the relationship of the Mosaic covenant with the covenant of grace, making an important connection between the covenants and the Protestant doctrine of justification.
The book was republished in 200711 and it may give you an idea of the contents if I say that he begins by looking at the idea of covenant first and “the distribution of the Covenant into that of works and of grace”. He then argues for the oneness of the covenant with Jesus Christ and us, expounding on Christ as the sum of the covenant in Chapter 3 and “the date of Covenant Mercies” in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 draws some general inferences from the whole. He then describes the old and new covenants and in Chapter 7 writes of the nature of the covenant at Mount Sinai, considering whether it has ceased or is continuing, in Chapter 8. Chapter 9 is “of the good that was in the Sinai Covenant” and Chapter 10 on the differences between the Old and New Covenant, stressing the excellency of the new over the old. Chapter 11 is on “the time of first coming into Covenant” and Chapter 12 on “evidences of interest in the New Covenant”. Finally come chapters on “the use of Absolute Promises” and of conditional ones.
It is widely agreed that Calvin was the forerunner of covenant and federal theology. His contemporary reformers and the reformed theologians who followed them developed his ideas and, while remaining within the bounds of received orthodoxy, developed a diversity of opinions with regard to the details of the theology. Brown says that Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus, John Ball, David Dickson, Edmund Calamy, Anthony Burgess, Ames, Rutherford and Turretin all took the view that “the works principle” in the Mosaic covenant “pertained only to the outward, legal administration and 'accidents' of the covenant of grace as expressed in the Mosaic economy”. Others took the view that a republication of the covenant of works as distinct from the covenant of grace was made at Sinai. This was the view of men such as Caspar Olevianus, Robert Rollock, Amandus Polanus, Johannes Wollebius, William Strong, James Ussher, Perkins, Sibbes and Owen. The third way was taken by men such Samuel Bolton, who saw the Mosaic covenant as another type of covenant, neither of works nor grace.
Petto's contribution was to see the Mosaic covenant as being a covenant of works for Christ that he fulfilled in order to bring in the covenant of grace. Brown argues that although, like others, Petto uses different language to Calvin, he maintains the view that there is one way of salvation throughout.
1 John Dunton, The errors of John Dunton etc, 764
2 Michael Brown, Samuel Petto (c 1624-1711): A Portrait Of A Puritan Pastor Theologian
3 Paul Helm, “Calvin and the Covenant: Unity and Discontinuity”, Evangelical Quarterly 55 (April 1983) 65-81
4 Gregory Clark The Long march of history: Farm Laborers wages in England 1208-1850 See here www.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/gclark/papers/long_march_of_history.pdf (accessed November 29 2013)
5 See here http://www.creeds.net/congregational/savoy/
6 See here for the series of books http://www.worldcat.org/search?q=petto+woodal&qt=notfound_page&search=Search
7 William Walter Hodson, The Meeting House and the Manse, Or, The Story of the Independents of Sudbury 55
8 Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections 38 341-350
9 Thomas John Hosken, History of Congregationalism and memorials of the churches of our order in Suffolk 145
10 Joel Beeke, Mark Jones Puritan Theology
11 Samuel Petto, The mystery of the covenant of grace