J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

The Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago online

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How hardly shall resident Fellows of colleges enter the kiDgdjo.ni,
of God ! It was a miracle of grace that he was not cast away for
ever, and did not sink beneath the waters, never to rise again.


In the year 1749 it pleased God to awaken his conscience
once more, and to revive within him his old religious im-
pressions. In that year, after eleven years of apparent idleness,
he began to feel a desire to do something as a clergyman, and
accepted the curacy of Stapleford, near Cambridge. At this
period, it will be remembered, he was thirty-three years old, and
thus had lost no less than ten valuable years of time.

Berridge entered on his duties as curate of Stapleford with
great zeal, and a sincere desire to do good, and served his
church regularly from college for no less than six years. He
took great pains with his parishioners, and pressed upon them
very earnestly the importance of sanctification, but without pro-
ducing the slightest effect on their lives. His preaching, even
at this time, was striking, plain, and attractive. His life was
moral, upright, and correct. His diligence as a pastor was
undeniable. Yet his ministry, throughout these six years, was
entirely without fruit, to his own great annoyance and mortifica-
tion. The fact was, that up to this time he was utterly ignorant
of the gospel. He did not really know what message he had
to deliver to his hearers. He knew nothing aright of Christ
crucified, of justification by faith in his blood, of salvation by
grace, of the complete present forgiveness of all who believe,
and of the absolute necessity of coming to Christ as our Saviour,
as the very first step towards heaven. At present these blessed
truths were hidden from the Fellow of Clare College, and he
could tell his people nothing about them. No wonder that he
did no good ! If he wounded, he could not heal. If he pulled
down, he could not build up. If he showed his flock that they
were wrong, he had no idea what could set them right. In
short, his Christianity was like a solar system without the sun,
and of course did no good to his congregation. There can be
no doubt that he learned lessons as curate of Stapleford which
he remembered to the last day of his life. He learned the
thorough uselessness of a ministry, however zealous, in which


Christ has not his rightful office, and faith has not its rightful
place. But we may well believe that the clever and accom-
plished Fellow of Clare learned his lesson with much humiliation
and with many bitter tears.

In the year 1755 Berridge was presented by his college to
the vicarage of Everton, in Bedfordshire. He took up his
residence at once on his living, and never moved again till he
was called away to a better world, after holding his cure for no
less than thirty-eight years. It was at this place that his eyes
were opened to the whole truth as it is in Jesus, and the whole
tone of his ministry was changed. It was here that he first
found out the enormous mistakes of which he had been guiltv
as a teacher of others, and began to preach in a scriptural
manner the real gospel of Christ. The circumstances under
which this change took place are so well described by his bio-
grapher Whittingham, that I think it best to give the account in
his own words.

" At Everton," he says, " Mr. Berridge at first pressed sanctifi-
cation and regeneration on his hearers as strenuously as he had
at Stapleford, but with as little success. Nor was it to be
wondered at, as his preaching rather tended to make them trust
in themselves as righteous, than to depend on Christ for the
remission of sins. Having continued for two years in this
unsuccessful mode of preaching, and his desire to do good con-
tinually increasing, he began to be discouraged. A doubt arose
in his mind whether he was riglit himself, and preached as he
ought to do. This suggestion he rejected for some time with
disdain, supposing the advantages of education, which he had
improved to a high degree, could not have left him ignorant of
the best mode of instructing his people. This happened about
Christmas 1757. But not being able to repel these secret mis-
givings, his mind was brought into a state of embarrassment
and distress to which hitherto he had been a stranger. How-
ever, this had the happy effect of making him cry mightily to


God for direction. The constant language of his heart was
this — '■ Lord, if I am right, keep me so ; if I am not right, make
me so, and lead me to the knowledge of the, truth as it is in
Jesus.' — After the incessant repetition of this child-like prayer,
it is no wonder that God should lend a gracious ear, and return
him an answer, which he did almost two days after. As he sat
one morning musing on a text of Scripture, the following words
seemed to dart into his mind like a voice from heaven — ' Cease
from thine own works ; only believe.' At once the scales
seemed to fall from his eyes, and he perceived the application.
He saw the rock on which he had been splitting for many years,
by endeavouring to blend the Law and the Gospel, and to
unite Christ's righteousness with his own. Immediately he
began to think on the words 'faith' and 'believe,' and looking
into his Concordance,* found them very frequently used. This
surprised him so much, that he instantly resolved to preach
Jesus Christ and salvation by faith. He therefore composed
several sermons of this description, and addressed his hearers
in a manner very unusual, and far more pointed than before.

" God very soon began to bless this new style of ministry.
After Ire had preached in this strain two or three Sabbaths, and
was wondering whether he was yet right, as he had perceived
no better effect from them than from his former discourses, one
of his parishioners came to inquire for him. Being introduced,
he said, 'Well, Sarah, what is the matter?' — 'Matter!' she
replied ; ' why, I don't know what is the matter. Those new
sermons ! I find we are all to be lost now. I can neither
eat, drink, nor sleep. I don't know what is to become of me.'
The same week came two or three more on a like errand. It
is easy to conceive what relief these visits must have afforded
his mind in a state of anxiety and suspense. So confirmed was
he thereby in the persuasion that his late impressions were from
God, that he determined in future to know nothing but Jesus
Christ and him crucified. He was deeply humbled that he


. should have spent so many years of his hfe to no better purpose
than to confirm his hearers in their ignorance. He therefore
immediately burned all his old sermons, and shed tears of joy
over their destruction. This circumstance aroused the neigh-
bourhood. His church soon became crowded with hearers, and
God gave testimony to the word of his grace in the frequent
conviction and conversion of sinners."

In describing this period of his life, Berridge says himself, in
a letter to a friend 1 " I preached up sanctification by the works
of the law very earnestly for six years in Stapleford, and never
brought one soul to Christ. I did the same at Everton for two
years, without any success at all. But as soon as I preached
Jesus Christ, and faith in his blood, then believers were added
to the Church continually ; then people flocked from all parts
to hear the glorious sound of the gospel ; some coming six
miles, others eight, and others ten. And what is the reason
why my ministry was not blessed, when I preached up salvation
partly by faith and partly by works ? It is because this doctrine
is not of God, and because he will prosper no ministers but such,
as preach salvation in his own appointed way ; namely, by faith
in Jesus Christ."

I pity the man who can read such an account as this without
interest. If ever there was a case in which we can see clearly
the hand of the Holy Spirit, it was this case of John Berridge.
Here is a clergyman in the prime of bodily and mental vigour,
suddenly changed from being a preacher of morality into a
preacher of Christ's gospel. He is not a mere boy, but a man
of forty-two years of age, well read, of acknowledged literary
attainments, and the very reverse of a fool. He is not per-
suaded and influenced by any living person, and seems to have
no earthly friend or adviser. Yet all of a sudden he begins to
preach the very same doctrine as Whitefield, Wesley, Grimshaw,
Romaine, and Rowlands, and with the same effects. One
account alone can be given of the whole aftair. It was the

a95) ] 5


finger of God. Flesh and blood did not reveal the truth to
Berridge, but our Father who is in heaven. Well would it be
for the churches if there were more cases like his !

Once enlightened by the Holy Ghost and brought into the
liberty of God's children, John Berridge made rapid advances
both in preaching and practice. He ^vas not a man to do any-
thing by halves, whether converted or unconverted ; and as
soon as he was converted he threw himself with constitutional
energy into his Master's service, with all his might, and soul,
and strength. The learned Fellow of Clare soon ceased to
preach written sermons, having discovered, by a providential
accident, that he possessed the happy gift of preaching without
book. His next step was to commence preaching outside his
own parish, all over the district in which he lived, like a
missionary. This he began on June 22, 1758. One of the
first-fruits of this itinerant aggression was a clergyman named
Hicks, rector of Wrestlingworth, near Everton, who afterwards
became a very useful man, and a faithful labourer in Christ's
vineyard. His third and crowning step was to commence
preaching out of doors. This he began doing on May 14, 1759,
and describes it himself in a letter quoted by Whittingham : —
" On Monday week, Mr. Hicks accompanied me to Meldred.
On the way we called at a farm-house. After dinner, I went
into the yard, and seeing nearly a. hundred and fifty people, I
called for a table, and preached for the first time in the open
air. We then went to Meldred, where I preached in a field to
about four thousand people. In the morning, at five, Mr.
Hicks preached in the same field to about a thousand. Here
the presence of the Lord was wonderfully among us ; and I
trust, beside many that were slightly wounded, nearly thirty
received heart-felt conviction."

Berridge had now climbed to the top of the tree as an evan-
gelist. He preached the })ure gospel ; he preached extempore;
he preached anywhere and everywhere where he could get


hearers ; he preached, hke his Master, in the open air, if need
required. We cannot therefore wonder that he was soon pub-
Hcly known as a fellow-labourer with Whitefield, Weslev, Grim-
shaw, and Romaine, and, as a popular preacher, little inferior
to any of these great men. His life from this time forth, with
little intermission, for more than thirty years, was spent in
preaching the gospel. To this work he gave himself wholly.
In season and out of season, out of doors or in doors, in
churches or in barns, in streets or in fields, in his parish or out
of his parish, the old Fellow of Clare College was constantly
teUing the story of the Cross, and exhorting sinners to repent,
believe, and be saved. He became acquainted with Lady
Huntingdon, John Thornton, John Wesley, Fletcher, John
Newton, and other eminent Christians of his day, and kept up
friendly intercourse with them. He went to London some-
times in the winter, and preached occasionally in the well-
known Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road. But, as a gene-
ral rule, he seldom went far from his own district, and rarely
went into society. He found enough, and more than enough,
to do in meeting the spiritual wants of congregations within
that district, and seldom went to regions beyond.

The extent of his labours was prodigious. He used to preach
in every part of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Hunting-
donshire, and in many parts of Hertfordsliire, Essex, and
Suffolk.* He would often preach twelve times, and ride a
hundred miles in a week. Nor was he content with preaching.
He watched carefully over those who were aroused by his ser-
mons, and provided lay evangelists to look after them when he
left them. Some of these evangelists appear to have been
nothing but humble labouring men, for whose maintenance he
had to provide out of his own pocket. But expenses like these

* It is a singular fact that I can find no record of Berridgc ever having visited Xottiiig-
hamshire, or preached in his own county. I can only suppose that his relatives did not
syiiipathize with him, and gave him no encouragement to come among them.


lie cheerfully defrayed out of his own purse as long as he had
a shilling to spare, counting it an honour to spend his income
in furthering Christ's gospel. When he had nothing of his own
to give, he would ask help of the well-known John Thornton,
the London merchant ; and to the honour of that good man he
never seems to have asked in vain.

The spiritual effects that were produced by his preaching
were immense. In fact, a singular blessing appears to have
attended his ministry from the very moment that he began to
preach the gospel. When we find that he was the means of
awakening no less than four thousand persons in one single
year, we may have some little idea of the good that he did in
his district by his thirty years' preaching. In calculations like
these, allowance must always be made for a vast amount of
exaggeration, and for an equally vast amount of excitement and
false profession. Still, after every reasonable deduction has
been made, there is no just ground for doubting that Berridge
was the means of doing good to thousands of souls. Wherever
he went he produced some impression. Some were reclaimed
from sin, some were awakened and convinced, and some were
thoroughly converted to God. If this is not doing good, there
is no such thing as doing good in the world. Spiritual work
done in rural parishes is, perhaps, less "seen of men" than any
work within the province of the Christian ministry. The work
that Berridge did among farmers and labourers had few to pro-
claim and chronicle it. But I strongly suspect the last day will
prove that he was a man who seldom preached in vain. How
{<t\^ there are of whom this can be said !

It is undeniable that at certain periods of Berridge's ministry
very curious physical effects w^ere produced on those who were
aroused by his preaching. Some of his hearers cried out aloud
hysterically, some were thrown into strong convulsions, and
some fell into a kind of trance or catalepsy, which lasted a long
time. These physical effects were carefully noticed by Jolm


Wesley and others who witnessed them, and certainly tended to
bring discredit on the gospel, and to prejudice worldly people.
But it is only fair to Berridge to say, that he never encouraged
these demonstrations, and certainly did not regard them as a
necessary mark of conversion. That such phenomena will
sometimes appear in cases of strong religious excitement —
that they are peculiarly catching and infectious, especially
among young women — that even the most scientific medical
men are greatly puzzled to explain them, — all these are facts
which have been thoroughly established within the last twenty
years during the Irish revival. To attempt to depreciate Ber-
ridge's usefulness because of these things, is simply ridiculous.
Whatever the faults of the vicar of Everton were, he certainly
does not seem to have favoured fanaticism. That he was per-
plexed by the physical demonstrations I have described, and
at first attached more value to them than they deserved, is the
utmost that can be said against him on the subject. But, after
all, the same may be said of many calm and sober-minded wit-
nesses who saw the Ulster revival in 1858. In short, the whole
subject, like demoniacal possession, is a very deep and mys-
terious one, and there we must be content to leave it. But a
minister ought certainly not to be put down as a fanatic because
people go into convulsions under his preaching

It is needless to tell any Christian that Berridge was fiercely
persecuted by the world throughout the whole period of his
ministry. No name was too bad to be given to him. No
means v.-ere left untried by his enemies to stop him in his useful
career. Foremost, of course, among his persecutors were the
unconverted clergy of Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, and Cam-
bridgeshire, who, like the dog in the manger, would neither do
good themselves nor let any one else do it for them. But,
singularly enough, no weapon forged against the vicar of Everton
seemed to prosper. Like Grimshaw at Haworth, there was an
invisible wall of protection around him, wliich his bitterest foes


could not pull down. Irregular as his proceedings undoubtedly
were, offensive as tbey necessarily must have been to the idle,
worldly clergymen who lived near him, they appeared unable
to lay hold upon him and shut his mouth, from one end of his
ministry to the other. From some extraordinary cause which
we cannot now explain, the itinerant evangelist of Everton was
never stopped by his persecutors for a single day ! So true is
the Word of God : " When a man's ways please the Lord, he
maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him."

One special interposition of God in order to protect Berridge
from his enemies was so remarkable that it deserves particular
notice. It derives a peculiar interest from the fact that the
record of it has been handed down in the good man's own
words. He says : —

" Soon after I began to preach the gospel of Christ at Ever-
ton, the church was filled from the villages around us, and the
neighbouring clergy felt themselves hurt at their clmrches being
deserted. A person of my own parish, too, was much offended.
He did not like to see so many strangers, and be so incom-
moded. Between them both, it was resolved, if possible, to
turn me out of my living. For this purpose, they complained
of me to the bishop of the diocese, that I had preached out of
my parish. I was soon after sent for by ,the bishop ; I did not
much like my errand, but I went. When I arrived, the bishop
accosted me in a very abrupt manner : ' Well, Berridge, they
tell me you go about preaching out of your own parish. Did I

institute you to the livings of A y, or E n, or P n T

— ' No, my lord,' said I ; ' neither do I claim any of these
livings. The clergymen enjoy them undisturbed by me.' —
' Well, but you go and preach there, which you have no right

to do !' — ' It is true, my lord, I was one day at E n, and

there were a few poor people assembled together, and I admon-
ished them to repent of their sins, and to believe in the Lord
Jesus Christ for the salvation of their souls ; and I remember


seeing five or six clergymen that day, my lord, all out of their

own parishes upon E n bowling-green.' — ' Poh ! ' said his

lordship ; ' I tell you, you have no right to preach out of your
own parish ; and if you do not desist from it, you will ver)'-
likely be sent to Huntingdon gaol.' — ' As to that, my lord,' said
I, ' I have no greater liking to Huntingdon gaol than other
people ; but I had rather go thither with a good conscience,
than live at my liberty without one.' — Here his lordship looked
very hard at me, and very gravely assured me ' that I was be-
side myself, and that in a few months' time I should either be
better or worse.' — ' Then,' said I, ' my lord, you may make your-
self quite happy in this business ; for if I should be better, you
suppose I should desist from this practice of my own accord ; and
if worse, you need not send me to Huntingdon gaol, as I shall be
provided with an accommodation in Bedlam.' — His lordship
now changed his mode of attack. Instead of threatening, he
began to entreat. ' Berridge,' said he, ' you know I have long
been your friend, and I wish to be so still. I am continually
teazed with the complaints of the clergymen around you. Only
assure me that you will keep to your own parish ; you may do
as you please there. I have but little time to Hve ; do not
bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.' — At this
instant two gentlemen were announced, who desired to speak
with his lordship. * Berridge,' said he, ' go to your inn, and
come again at such an hour, and dine with me.' — I went, and,
on entering a private room, fell immediately upon my knees.
I could bear threatening, but knew not how to withstand en-
treaty, especially the entreaty of a respectable old man.

" At the appointed time I returned. At dinner I was treated
with great respect. The two gentlemen also dined with us. I
found they had been informed who I was, as they sometimes
cast their eyes towards me, in some such manner as one would
glance at a monster. After dinner his lordship took me into
the garden. ' Well, Berridge,' said he, ' have you considered of


my request %' — ' I have, my lord/ said I, ' and have been upon
my knees concerning it.' — ' Well, and will you promise me that
you will preach no more out of your own parish?' — ' It would
afford me great pleasure,' said I, ' to comply with your lordship's
request, if I could do it with a good conscience. I am satisfied
the Lord has blessed my labours of this kind, and I dare not
desist.' — ' A good conscience !' said his lordship ; ' do you not
know that it is contrary to the canons of the Church V — ' There
is one canon, my lord,' I replied, * which says, " Go preach the
gospel to every creature." ' — ' But why should you wish to inter-
fere with the charge of other men % One man cannot preach
the gospel to all the world.' — ' If they would preach the gospel
themselves,' said I, ' there would be no need for my preaching
it to their people ; but, as they do not, I cannot desist' — His
lordship then parted with me in some displeasure. I returned
home not knowing what would befall me, but thankful to God
that I had preserved a conscience void of offence.

" I took no measures for my own preservation ; but Divine
Providence worked for me in a way I never expected. When
I was at Clare Hall I was particularly acquainted with a certain
Fellow of that college, and we were both on terms of intimacy
with Mr. Pitt, the late Lord Chatham, who was at that time also
at the university. This Fellow of Clare Hall, when I began to
preach the gospel, became my enemy, and did me some injury.
At length, however, when he heard that I was likely to come
into trouble, and to be turned out of my living at Everton, his
heart relented. He began to think within himself, ' We shall
ruin this poor fellow among us.' This was just about the time
that I was sent for by the bishop. Of his pwn accord he writes
a letter to Mr. Pitt, saying nothing about my Methodism, but
to this effect : — ' Our old friend Berridge has got a living in
Bedfordshire, and I am told there is one of his neighbours who
gives him a great deal of trouble, has accused him to the bishop,
and, it is said, will turn him out of his living. I wish you would


contrive to stop his proceedings.' Mr. Pitt was then a young
man, and, not desiring to apply himself to the bishop, spoke to
a certain nobleman about it to whom the bishop was indebted
for his promotion. This nobleman made it his business, within a
few days, to see the bishop, who was then in London. ' My lord,'
he said, ' I am informed you have a very honest fellow named
Berridge in your diocese, and that he has been ill-treated by a
litigious neighbour. I hear he has accused him to your lord-
ship, and wishes to turn him out of his living. You would
oblige me, my lord, if you would take no notice of this person,
and not suffer the honest man to be interrupted.' — The bishop
was astonished, and could not imagine in what manner things
could thus have got round. It would not do, however, to ob-
ject ; he was obliged to bow compliance, and so I continued
ever after uninterrupted in my sphere of action."

Great as Berridge's labours were, they do not appear to have
materially affected his bodily health. He seems to have pos-
sessed one of those iron constitutions, which nothing but old
age can quite break down. He lived to be seventy-seven; and
though in his latter years a feeble old man, and very solitary,

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 19 of 36)