Robert Govett, (Staines, Middlesex, 14 February 1813 – Norwich, Norfolk, 20 February 1901) was a famous British theologian, and a successful independent pastor of Surrey Chapel, Norwich, Norfolk, England. His father, Robert Govett Sr., Vicar of Staines, died in 1854. His maternal grandfather was William Romaine (1714–95), the famous eighteenth-century pastor and evangelist, and the author of "The Life, Walk and Triumph of Faith". Govett never married because he wanted to use all his time for the ministry.
He wrote many books and brochures. His most well-known book is The Apocalypse: Expounded by Scripture (1861–65), which he wrote under the pen name Matheethees, which is Greek for 'disciple'. Professor Wilbur M. Smith said about this book: "One of the profoundest expositions of the book of Revelation that I know of is the work of Robert Govett. My own opinion is that he brings to his interpretation a more thorough knowledge of the Scriptures in their bearing on the last book of the Bible than any other writer of his generation."
Early life and education
Govett matriculated at Worcester College (University of Oxford) on 20 October 1830. Govett was 17 when he matriculated, which was not uncommon, because in those days many students matriculated already at the age of 14 or 15. Robert Govett received his BA in 1834, became a fellow of Worcester in 1836 (until 1844), and received his MA in 1837. The MA degree required no further studies or exams. The MA degree was only given seven years after matriculation, and that is still the case today at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin. Most other universities still require extra studies and exams. This does not mean of course that the MA degree from Oxbridge and Dublin has less value then the MA degree from other universities. In 1837 he was ordained into the Church of England.
The beginning of his ministry
After Govett was installed as Vicar in the Anglican Church, he started his first curacy in Bexley, Kent. His second curacy was St. Stephens, Norwich, Norfolk (1841). The members of his church loved the way he preached (vigorously and clearly), and many of the elite in Norwich and its surroundings were attracted to his congregation. Govett was known for his analytical powers. As Dr. Cyril J. Barber (The Minister's Library) put it: "Few men could equal Govett for originality of thought. He also possessed a well-ordered, disciplined mind. He could trace a theme through Scripture with unerring logic."
Govett was of the opinion that the Scriptures should always be open to a fresh scrutiny, based upon new light that might have been received and, because of this, as the years passed, he became independent of many of the denominational views that he had previously adhered to. In particular, having witnessed a full immersion baptism at St. Mary's Baptist Chapel, he became convinced of the Scriptural integrity of full immersion baptism, and also of the error of infant sprinkling. A few days later he himself was baptized at St. Mary's by the Rev. William Brock. Thus it was that in 1844 his licence as Curate of St Stephens was revoked by the Bishop of Norwich when Govett informed him that he could no longer conduct with a clear conscience the service of infant baptism, although it was not until 1878 that Govett formally left the Church of England. Having left his position within the Church of England, he did not immediately know how he would sustain himself. His family was not at all happy with his decision, and he was also ostracized by many who held to the more traditional teachings of the Church of England. But he was willing to pay the cost.
Govett then started an independent work, known as Bazaar Chapel, at the Victoria Rooms in Norwich, where he pastored a growing number of people. As to assembly life, Govett was influenced by the Plymouth Brethren, but he remained the sole leader of the church. He liked the writings of J.N. Darby and other Brethren, but he kept his independent attitude towards Scripture exegesis. He went his own way and was very able to defend his insights.
Govett wrote many tracts on baptism and these were much approved by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who was also appreciative of other materials that Govett published. Spurgeon once said about Govett: "Mr. Govett wrote a hundred years before his time, and the day will come when his works will be treasured as sifted gold." Govett became increasingly taken up with eschatology, and he was of the opinion that before the Great Tribulation there would be a selective or partial rapture, and that only the raptured saints (the firstfruits) are worthy to reign with Christ during the Millennium. He seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to present a clear view of the judgment seat of Christ and its purpose in relation to the Millennial Kingdom. Thus, it is a point of emphasis throughout most of his writings. Through Scripture, he clearly delineates between eternal life, the free gift that God gives to those who accept the payment His Son made, and the prize, the reward of the Millennial Reign, which one can attain to by producing the good works or fruits that emanate from a walk of faith. The latter of the two is held out to all the saints by the Almighty, but it is only given to those who have submitted to the work of the Holy Spirit toward personal sanctification.
There are two characteristics within his writings that are predominant: One was his ability to take the multi-facets of the types, shadows, and symbols of the Word and overlay them so as to compare them against each other – an approach he used to confirm whether his understanding of them was in line with the reasons and purpose God had given them. For instance, if the underlying symbolism conflicted with what appeared to be the literal meaning of a portion of Scripture, he would set about to resolve the conflict. Thus, his writings are rich in the types and shadows of the Old Testament, which he felt must be learned if one is to expect a proper understanding of their fulfillment in the New Testament. The other, is the ability he developed to enter into the prophetic sense of the Word.
Govett and Spurgeon
There is a letter to Mr. Govett from Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the influential 19th-century Baptist preacher (see Norfolk Record Office under reference number FC 76/59 - collection of pastoral letters). Mr. Spurgeon writes from Clapham on 20 October 1860, and requests some of Govett's tracts on baptism, 'to disseminate a great truth which is far too much kept in the background'. On the bottem corner of his letter is a note that reads: 'I am informed that you wisely eschew the Title of Rev. - hence my addressing you as Mr.' There are further letters from Spurgeon, the last dating from 1886.
It is interesting to note that through marriage, a link was established between the Govett and Spurgeon families. Robert Govett had a sister Eva (thought to be much younger than him) and towards the end of the 19th century she married a theologian, dr. William Spurgeon, who was a nephew of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
The later years
In 1854 Govet opened Surrey Chapel, Norwich, which had room for 1500 people. He stayed on as pastor until his death on 20 February 1901. When he died the church had about 200 members. D.M. Panton was his successor. Well-known members of his congregation were Evan Hopkins and Margaret Barber. Welsh evangelist Jessie Penn-Lewis — co-worker of Welsh Revivalist Evan Roberts — knew Robert Govett too. Margaret Barber became known as the spiritual mentor of Watchman Nee.
List of selected writings
- Calvinism by Calvin, being the substance of discourses delivered by Calvin and the other ministers of Geneva on the Doctrines of Grace. With an introductary essay by the Rev. R. Govett, Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Somers Town, St. Pancras (1840) Public Domain
- Isaiah unfulfilled, being an exposition of the prophet, with new version and notes. To which are added two dissertations, one on the 'Sons of God' and 'Giants' of Genesis VI, and the other a comparative estimate of the Hebrew and Greek texts (1841) Public Domain
- The Prophecy on Olivet or Matthew 24–25 Expounded (1846)
- The Saints' Rapture to the Presence of the Lord Jesus (1852)
- Entrance into the Kingdom or Reward according to Works (1853) Second series (1855) Public Domain
- The Jews, the Gentiles, and the Church of God in the Gospel of Matthew (1869) Public Domain
- Eternal Suffering of the Wicked and Hades (1871) Public Domain
- How to Interpret the Apocalypse (1879) Public Domain
- The Apocalypse: Expounded by Scripture (1861–65)
- English derived from Hebrew (1868) Public Domain
- The Kingdom of God Future (1870)
- Christ's Resurrection and Ours - or I Corinthians IV Expounded (1876) Public Domain
- Moses or Christ? Being the Argument of the Epistle to the Galatians (1879)
- Tracts on the Kingdom (1880)
- Exposition of the Gospel of St John (1881)
- Christ superior to Angels, Moses and Aaron: A Comment on the Epistle to the Hebrews (1884)
- The New Jerusalem Our Eternal Home (1884)
- The Three Eatings (1888)
- What is the Church? The Argument of Ephesians (1889)
- The Sermon on the Mount Expounded (1934)
- The Twofoldness of Divine Truth (undated)
- Poole-Connor, E J: "Evangelical Unity" (The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, London 1941), page 152-155.
- Dalby, W J: 'Memoir of Robert Govett MA' [appended to a republication of Govett's 'Galatians'] August 1930.
- Surrey Chapel - 'Book of Remembrance, 1854-1954' [a Centenary History] (1954).
- Clark, R E D: 'Robert Govett', "The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church" (Paternoster Press, London 1974), page 426.
- Codling, Rosamunde: '150 Years at Surrey Chapel, Norwich, 1854-2004: The Anniversary of the opening of the first Surrey Chapel building' (2004).
- The works of Robert Govett, all published by Schoettle Publishing.
- See p. 546 of the online version of Joseph Foster's, Alumni Oxonienses: the Members of the University of Oxford, 1715–1886: Their Parentage, Birthplace, and Year of Birth, with a Record of Their Degrees, p. 546. This book is still available through Amazon.