The “coffee-man in Southwark”—James Jones | Michael Haykin

by | May 10, 2022 | Church History



The frequenting of cafes and coffee shops by many modern-day students to study, converse, and plug into the internet is actually tapping into a much older phenomenon that goes back to the late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century coffeehouses of England. Unlike taverns, coffeehouses came to be recognized, as historian Brian Cowan has noted in his excellent study The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffehouse (2005), as serious centers for learning. In fact, in one case at least, that of James Jones of Southwark, a coffeehouse was used as a headquarters for church-planting.

Before Benjamin Keach came to London in 1668 and became the leading figure among the Southwark Baptists on the south side of the Thames River—Keach was pastor of the congregation that many years later worshiped at the Metropolitan Tabernacle— James Jones was the major Particular Baptist pastor in this area of the capital. Jones had been trained as a tailor, but later Baptist tradition knew him as the “coffee-man in Southwark.” He was so named due to his ownership of a coffeehouse in the parish of St. Olave, Southwark, from which he sought to lead his congregation and plant others. At the height of his ministry in the 1670s and 1680s he had, it appears, at least three different locales where he met with fellow believers for worship and the preaching of the Word.


Imprisoned for worship

This was a difficult era, however, for any who sought to be involved in churches apart from the Church of England. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660—after the tumult of the British civil wars and the republican government of the 1650s—had seen the enacting of a body of legislation known now as the Clarendon Code. It led to serious persecution of those who dissented from the state church, many of whom ended up paying substantial fines or experiencing life-threatening imprisonment. The final years of Charles II’s reign in the 1680s witnessed an intensification of the persecution of these Dissenters. During this period nearly 4,000 London Dissenters were arrested or convicted for being present at what the state regarded as illegal religious meetings. A group of thuggish informers known as the Hilton gang terrorized London Dissenters, spying on their worship services, reporting them to the authorities, participating in their prosecution, and seizing their property if they could.

Among those arrested in 1682 was James Jones. His crime was participation in illegal worship and for not attending worship in the state church. Jones’ arrest and subsequent imprisonment seems to have been a key event that led to a flurry of literary activity in which he published a series of small tracts in defence of religious liberty, including The Grand Case of Subjection to the Higher Powers, in Matters of Religion Resolved (1684), Nonconformity Not Inconsistent with Loyalty (1684), and A Plea for Liberty of Conscience (1684).


Pleading for religious liberty

In these works Jones argued that he and other Dissenters could not conform to the Church of England because they failed to find such a national, state church in the New Testament. What they did find were “congregational churches” under the rule of “pastors, elders, and overseers.” Moreover, state compulsion in the matter of religion fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the Christian Faith because the “conformity [compelled] is to man and not to God” and is a “ready way to make men hypocrites.” It is noteworthy that Jones did not bear ill-will against those genuine Christians who conformed to the Anglican state church. As Jones put it, “the Protestant Dissenters have a great veneration and high esteem of many both of the nobility, gentry, clergy, and common people of the Church of England, who live sober lives and walk conscientiously in civil and religious matters.”

The Glorious Revolution of 1688/1689, when the Roman Catholic monarch James II was replaced by the Protestants William III and Mary II, brought a genuine measure of religious freedom. It would appear, though, that Jones did not live to see it. His coffeehouse, however, continued to be used in the 1690s as a meeting–place for Baptist leaders. Here pastors like Benjamin Keach, Hercules Collins, and Joseph Stennett enjoyed fellowship as well as mutual encouragement and support in the oversight of their London Baptist congregations.

And thus, coffee played a providential role in the dissemination of gospel truth in late seventeenth-century Britain!

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