A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Ben Rogers
J. C. Ryle first introduced me to John Berridge of Everton in The Christian Leaders of the Last Century. This work consists of a series of biographical sketches that present the life, character, and ministry of the leaders of the Great Awakening. A few of the names, such as George Whitefield and John Wesley, will be familiar to nearly all students of church history, but the rest, like Berridge, are relatively unknown. Ryle’s introduction to Berridge’s life and ministry grabbed my attention immediately.
Of all the English evangelists of the eighteenth century, this good man was undeniably the most quaint and eccentric. Without controversy, he was a very odd person, a comet rather than a planet, a man who must be put in a class by himself, a minister who said and did things which nobody else could say or do. But the eccentricities of the Vicar of Everton are probably better known than his graces. With all his peculiarities, he was a man of rare gifts, and deeply taught by the Holy Ghost. Above all, he was a mighty instrument for good in the orbit in which he moved. Few preachers, perhaps, a hundred years ago, were more honoured by God and more useful to souls than the eccentric John Berridge.
I was immediately intrigued, and I suspect I am not alone. For those wanting to become more acquainted with the eccentric vicar of Everton, The Letters of John Berridge of Everton, edited and annotated by Nigel R. Pibworth is a must-have. It is also an important primary resource for those interested in: 1) evangelical spirituality, especially in its earlier forms; 2) the history of the evangelical revival in England; 3) Berridge’s correspondence with important evangelical leaders, both clerical and lay; 4) evangelicalism in the Church of England, more generally.
The work opens with an outstanding introduction. Pibworth discusses the academic and popular neglect of Berridge and its causes. Berridge’s irregular churchmanship is one such cause, and the Letters that follow provide valuable insight into the gospel-logic of evangelical “irregularity.” Pibworth also provides a short account of Berridge’s life, which helps place the Letters in context. Those interested in a book-length life of Berridge should consult Pibworth’s The Gospel Pedlar: The Story of John Berridge and the Eighteenth-Century Revival. There is also a short introduction to eighteenth-century letter-writing and Berridge’s own epistolary style.
The Letters are arranged chronologically and divided into five parts.
Part I – 1755-1767: Years of difficulty.
Part II – 1768-1775: The revival years.
Part III – 1776-1785: The later years.
Part IV – 1786-1793: The “old worn-out servant.”
Part V – Undated or wrongly dated letters.
They are fairly short in length, typically one to three pages, replete with copious footnotes. It is here that Pibworth shines as an editor. These footnotes provide helpful introductions to the recipients of the letters, as well as important historical and geographical details needed to grasp the significance of the contents. They were obviously written with great care and painstaking detail. Though the footnotes slow the pace of reading, they undoubtedly enrich the work.
The recipients themselves deserve comment. Berridge corresponded with a remarkably large and diverse group of people. Some of his correspondents were the leading lights of the evangelical revival, such as George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Selina Countess of Huntingdon. Others were important second-generation evangelicals who helped popularize evangelical theology within the Church of England, including John Newton, Charles Simeon, William Wilberforce, and John Thornton. Still, others were grieving widows, discouraged ministers, and troubled parishioners.
In addition to tracing the flow of Berridge’s life and ministry, the Letters contain a number of recurring themes that will be of interest to many readers. His letters of pastoral counsel are particularly insightful. Although he responds to a wide variety of pastoral questions, doubts about assurance and encouragement for the bereaved are two of the most common. To one assurance-doubter, a Mr. J.S., Berrdige writes:
If J.S. is laden with the guilt and filth of sin, finding them to be a heaven burden, and is coming on seeking to Christ alone for deliverance, then rest, blessed rest, heavenly rest, is promised to J.S. from Jesus Christ, and J.S. may say with thankfulness, repentance is mine, faith is mine; and rejoicing in faith, should say, further, with David, “Rest will be mine, over Edom and Philistia will I triumph (262).”
And to a grieving widow, he writes:
. . . Jesus has called your husband away to espouse you the closer to himself. No more care, or prayer, is wanted for your deceased friend. Henceforth let your thoughts and desires centre in Jesus. He is worthy, call upon him, lean upon him, live upon him, and glory in him, make him your all (274).
Berridge writes a great deal about suffering – his own and others – and its usefulness. To Mr. Samuel Wilks he notes, “Afflictions, in the hand of the Spirit, are of excellent use; therefore be not afraid of them (238).” To an unnamed friend he describes suffering as “furnace work,” which God uses as “the means appointed to work patience (258).” To Mrs. Elizabeth Hillier he confesses that “Afflictions have been to me some of my greatest mercies (296).” And to the Rev. Samuel Lucas he writes:
No lasting gain do I get but in a furnace. Comforts of every kind . . . make me either light or lofty, and swell me, though unperceivably, with self-sufficiency. Indeed, so much dross, native and acquired, is found in my heart, that I have constant need of a furnace; and Jesus has selected a suitable furnace for me, not a hot and hasty one, which seems likely to harden and consume me, but one with a gentle and lingering heat, which melts my heart gradually, and lets out some of its dross. Though I cannot love a furnace, not bask in it like a salamander, yet the longer I live, the more I see of its need and its use. A believer seldom walks steadily and ornamentally, unless he is well furnaced (294-95).
A number of the Letters are evangelistic in nature. His correspondence indicates that he was especially concerned about his nephew, John Berridge. On May 30, 1780, he wrote.
Dear John, you will find as well as others, care and troubles enough in the world; and after a few years must be removed from it forever. Oh, think seriously of that other world which is eternal, and read the good word of God daily, and pray earnestly for the grace of Christ, and for the guidance of his Spirit. Now is your spiritual seed-time; now is the day of salvation (298).
Berridge’s catholic spirit and churchmanship are important themes in the Letters as well. Berridge ministered in an age of intense denominational strife, but his love for all true Christians and all faithful gospel-ministers is evident. He confessed to Lady Huntingdon, “I regard neither high church, nor low church, nor any church, but the Church of Christ, which is not built with hands, nor circumscribed within peculiar walls, nor confined to a singular denomination.” Even so, he was a committed evangelical churchman. “I cordially approve the doctrines and liturgy of the Church of England, and have cause to bless God for a church-house to preach in, and a church revenue to live upon (269).”
Finally, Berridge’s devotion to Christ may be the most impressive theme of the Letters, and his Christo-centric piety abounds. Though John Wesley and Berridge were once friends, their relationship cooled after Berridge rejected Wesley’s doctrine of perfection and embraced Calvinism. In 1768, Berridge wrote to Wesley to renew their relationship:
I see no reason why we should keep at a distance, whilst we continue servants of the same Master…Though my hand has been mute, my heart is kindly affected towards you. I trust we agree in essentials, and therefore should leave each other at rest with his circumstantials. I am weary of all disputes, and desire to know nothing but Jesus; to love him, trust him and serve him; to choose and find him my only portion. I would have him my meat, my drink, my clothing, my sun, my shield, my Lord, my God, my All. Amen (133).
He sounds a similar note in the last letter of the work. To Joshua Symonds, Berridge writes:
I have lost my reputation for thirty years, ever since I went to preach out of doors, and have neither hope nor wish to retrieve it…Opinions of me are various; some call me an Independent, some a Baptist, some an Arminian. Indeed, sir, I am nothing, and Jesus, precious Jesus, is my all (432).
The Letters of John Berridge of Everton is remarkably important work. It is an important historical resource in its own right, and it manages to be practically useful as well. Those interested in the history of the evangelical revival in England – and one of its great personalities – will undoubtedly welcome its arrival, as will those who simply want to learn more about the vicar of Everton and his singular spirituality.
Buy the books
THE LETTERS OF JOHN BERRIDGE OF EVERTON: A SINGULAR SPIRITUALITY, by John Berridge