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Benjamin Beddome and the Bible

February 2017 | by Michael Haykin

John Newton (1725–1807), the well-known eighteenth-century evangelical leader, had the opportunity to meet and hear many leading evangelicals of his day.

It is intriguing, therefore, to read some remarks that he penned in his diary on 7 August 1776, after he had heard Benjamin Beddome (1717–1795) preach at the ordination of John Sutcliff (1752–1814), the close friend of William Carey (1761–1834), in Olney, Buckinghamshire.

Newton’s diary

Beddome’s text was Zechariah 11:12, the verse cited in Matthew’s Gospel with regard to the money Judas Iscariot received for the betrayal of Christ. ‘He is an admirable preacher’, Newton observed after hearing the sermon, ‘simple, savoury, weighty’.

This was not the first time Newton had heard Beddome preach. The Anglican evangelical had heard him the previous year, on 2 Corinthians 1:24. Of that occasion Newton later recorded, ‘It was an excellent discourse indeed, and the Lord was pleased to give me some softenings and relentings of heart’. From one who often heard the greatest preacher of the day, George Whitefield (1714–1770), this is high praise indeed.

Yet, like a number of other eminent eighteenth-century Baptists, Beddome is known by few evangelicals today. By contrast, he was prominent in the memory of the transatlantic Baptist community until the end of the Victorian era.

This raises the question as to why he has been so neglected by modern Baptists. Possibly it is because until the start of the twentieth century a goodly number of his hymns were still being sung. But now they have largely fallen into obscurity, and with them interest in their author.

Bourton-on-the-Water

Bourton-on-the-Water, where Beddome pastored for 55 years, lies in the Cotswolds, one of the most beautiful regions of England. Known Baptist witness in the village dates from 1655. But between then and the coming of Beddome to Bourton in 1740, the Baptists seem to have made relatively little progress.

In fact, Beddome would later describe this situation before his coming as one in which Bourton’s Baptists had been ‘for a long time … unsettled and divided’. With this arrival, though, this long period of uncertainty for the Baptist cause there was at an end.

Beddome was the son of a Baptist minister named John Beddome, pastor of the Pithay Baptist Church in Bristol for much of his life, and Rachel Brandon, a wealthy heiress and descendant of Charles Brandon, first Duke of Suffolk and brother-in-law to Henry VIII.

The elder Beddome was said to be ‘remarkable for his spiritual, winning discourse, especially to young converts and enquirers’. John Beddome’s preaching was obviously an important influence on his son.

Beddome was led to consider pastoral ministry soon after his conversion in August 1737. He spent a couple of years in theological training in Bristol, and then further time at a school called the Fund Academy, in Tenter Alley, Moorfields, London.

Beddome first visited Bourton in spring 1740. Over the next three years, he laboured with great success in Bourton’s Baptist church, as well as among the Baptists of Warwick. Significant for the shape of his future ministry was a local revival that took place under his ministry in the early months of 1741. Around 40 individuals were converted.

Revival

Eventually, in 1743, Bourton extended an invitation to Beddome to become what they called their ‘preaching elder’. Readily acceding to their request, he was ordained in September that year.

When Benjamin Beddome became the pastor of this congregation, it consisted of about 80 members spread out in villages and hamlets around Bourton, places such as Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter, Stow-on-the-Wold, Upper Swell and Lower Swell, and Moreton-in-Marsh.

Some lived as far away as Hook Norton, more than 14 miles to the north-east. This was then a considerable distance to travel to worship, especially as many Cotswolds roads were nearly impassable when wet.

These early years of Beddome’s ministry saw great numerical growth in the church’s membership. Between 1740 and 1745 the church received 73 new members. By 1764, Beddome reckoned that 176 had been received into the church since he had first come to it in 1740.

Describing the state of the church members in 1750, Beddome could declare, ‘My labours have been, and are still, in a measure, blest unto them, above a hundred having been added since my first coming amongst them’.

The last 30 years of his ministry, though, actually saw decline in church membership. Between 1765 and 1795, 53 new members were added by conversion and baptism. But, in this same period, 105 members died, 12 were dismissed to other Baptist works and two excluded. Thus, by 1795, the year that Beddome died, the church had 123 on the membership roll, 60 less than in 1764.

Catechisms

Beddome was thoroughly convinced that vital Christianity is a matter of both heart and head. And, like fellow Baptists of his day, he found the use of a catechism helpful in matching head knowledge to heartfelt faith. Indeed, it is noteworthy that ‘one considerable instrument’ of Beddome’s success at Bourton during the 1740s was his use of catechetical instruction.

Catechisms had been central to the Baptist movement from its origins in the 1630s. The most widely-used catechism among the Baptists was commissioned by a national meeting of the denomination in June 1693. Although a pastor by the name of William Collins (d.1702) was asked to draw it up, many would later know it as Keach’s Catechism, and it would appear that the prolific Baptist author Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) was mainly responsible for it. Formerly called The Baptist Catechism, it was primarily a Baptist revision of the Presbyterian Shorter Catechism (1648).

During the early years of his ministry, Beddome used The Baptist Catechism widely, but clearly felt that its questions and answers needed to be supplemented. He thus composed what was printed in 1752 as A scriptural exposition of the Baptist Catechism by way of question and answer, which basically reproduced the wording and substance of the catechism drawn up by Keach, but added various sub-questions and answers.

The Scriptural exposition proved fairly popular. There were two editions during Beddome’s lifetime, the second of which was widely used at the Bristol Baptist Academy, the sole British Baptist seminary for much of the eighteenth century.

The Word of God

Something of its flavour can be seen in his treatment of the question, ‘What is the Word of God?’ He begins by citing the answer of Keach’s Catechism: ‘The holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God, and the only certain rule of faith and obedience’.

Beddome then asks various questions about this statement and provides Scripture verses by way of answers. For example, here is part of his treatment of God’s Word as ‘the only certain rule of obedience and faith’:

‘Is the Word of God a rule? Yes. It is a light to our feet, and a lamp to our path, Ps. 119:105. Do we need such a rule? Yes. For we all like sheep have gone astray, Isa. 53:6. Is the word of God a sufficient rule? Yes. The law of the Lord is perfect, Ps. 19:7. Is it a plain rule? Yes. The words of his mouth are all plain to him that understandeth, Prov. 8:8, 9. Is it an extensive rule? Yes. The commandment is exceeding broad, Ps. 119:96. Is it an abiding rule? Yes. The word of the Lord endureth for ever, 1 Pet. 1:23. And is it the only rule? Yes. For if any man shall add to these things, God will add to him the plagues written in this book, Rev. 22:18.

‘Are not unwritten traditions a rule? No. Ye have made the commandment of God of none effect by your traditions, Matt. 15:6. Is the authority of the church a rule? No. For our faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, 1 Cor. 2:5. Are the sentiments of great men a rule? No. The prophet and the priest have erred, Isa. 28:7. Is the light of nature a sufficient rule? No. For it is said of those that were guided by it, The way of peace they have not known, Rom. 3:17. Is the light within a certain rule? No. The way of man is not in himself, Jer. 10:23.’

An extract like this well demonstrates that, for Beddome as for other eighteenth century evangelicals, the Word of God was central to faith and piety. And, understandably, this foundational role of the Scriptures was reaffirmed week by week in preaching.

Preaching the Word

From the mid-1770s on, Beddome began to suffer from gout and experience tremendous difficulty in walking. Eventually, he had to be carried to church and preach to his congregation seated.

Despite his physical infirmities, though, he simply refused to give up preaching. At the heart of this refusal lay a deeply held conviction about the vital importance of preaching. Like the eighteenth-century Calvinistic Baptists in general, Beddome believed it was through preaching to the mind that God appealed to the hearts and wills of human beings.

He brings this out clearly in a sermon that he preached on 2 Corinthians 5:11, ‘Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men’. Beddome was convinced that the word ‘persuade’ lay at the heart of preaching.

Since men and women are ‘endowed with reason and understanding’, they are ‘capable of being persuaded’ and reasoned with. Thus, we find the apostle Paul reasoning ‘with the Jews out of the Scriptures’, that is, laying before them ‘the evidences of truth’ and endeavouring to ‘remove their prejudices against it by solid argument’.

Consequently, a ‘minister is not to address himself to the passions, but to the understanding of his hearers’. Beddome, of course, did not disapprove of emotions. Sermons must be delivered, he argued, with ‘warmth of affection, earnestness of expression, and unwearied assiduity’. As such, they will undoubtedly kindle the affections of the hearers.

But, it must be recognised that emotion is also quite fickle, and can ‘quickly vanish away, and leave no permanent effect’. It simply cannot form the foundation of a Christian lifestyle, let alone serve as the basis for believers’ ‘life together’.

Beddome never lost sight of the fact that it is the Spirit who alone can empower the words of the preacher and make them efficacious to the winning of the lost and the building up of God’s people. In his words: ‘Ministers lift up their voice, and God makes bare his arm; ministers persuade, and God enables, nay, constrains, men to comply … Ministers stand at the door and knock; the Spirit comes with his key, and opens the door’.

Coda

At the time of Beddome’s death in 1795, almost his sole publication was his Scriptural exposition.But, in the years that followed, a good number of his sermons were published, as was a volume of 830 hymns.

It is noteworthy that close to 100 of these hymns were still appearing in hymnals at the end of the nineteenth century. Among them is the one whose first stanza begins ‘Father of mercies, bow thine ear’. It is a prayer for those called to preach God’s Word.

Its third stanza is written out of Beddome’s own personal experience and is a fitting conclusion to this study of a faithful pastor:

‘Teach them to sow the precious seed,

Teach them Thy chosen flock to feed;

Teach them immortal souls to gain,

Souls that will well reward their pain.’

Michael A. G. Haykin is professor of church history and biblical spirituality, and director of the Andrew Fuller Centre for Baptist Studies, at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.