John Berridge was born 300 years ago this month. The article below is edited from C. H. Spurgeon’s interesting and entertaining book Eccentric preachers.
John Berridge, the Vicar of Everton, was commended by John Wesley as one of the most simple as well as most sensible of all whom it pleased God to employ in reviving primitive Christianity.
He was a man of remarkable learning, being as familiar in the learned languages as in his mother tongue, and well instructed in theology, logic, mathematics and metaphysics: he was not, therefore, eccentric because he was ignorant. He possessed a strength of understanding, quickness of perception, depth of penetration, and brilliancy of fancy beyond most men, while a vein of innocent humour ran through all his public and private discourses.
His biographer tells us that this softened what some might call the austerity of religion, and rendered his company pleasant to people of a less serious habit; and yet he adds, ‘It is very singular that it never overcame his own gravity; he remained serious himself while others were convulsed with laughter’.
Before he was converted he preached mere morality, but, after he was called by the Holy Spirit, he was zealous for the doctrines of sovereign grace and preached the gospel in the clearest possible manner.
In his ministry he was diligence itself, journeying through the counties of Cambridge, Bedford, Hertford and Huntingdon continually, preaching upon an average from ten to twelve sermons a week, and riding from place to place on horseback.
He wrote to a friend: ‘I fear my weekly circuits would not suit a London or a Bath divine, nor any tender evangelist that is environed with prunello [woollen cloth]. Long rides and miry roads in sharp weather. Cold houses to sit in, with very moderate fuel, and three or four children roaring or rocking about you! Coarse food and meagre liquor; lumpy beds to lie on and too short for the feet; and stiff blankets like boards for a covering.
‘Rise at five in the morning to preach; at seven breakfast on tea that smells very sickly; at eight mount a horse, with boots never cleaned, and then ride home, praising God for all mercies’.
A complaint was lodged against him, and the bishop sent for him and reproved him for preaching ‘at all hours and on all days’.
‘My lord’, said he, modestly, ‘I preach only at two seasons’.
‘Which are they, Mr Berridge?’
‘In season and out of season, my lord’.
The revival which resulted from his efforts was remarkable for depth and continuance, and for the personal persecution which it brought upon the good man. The clergy and gentry made common cause with the lowest mob against him.
‘The old devil’ was the only name by which he was distinguished for between twenty and thirty years, but none of these things moved him.
Crowds waited upon him wherever he journeyed, and his own church was crammed, we had almost said up to the ceiling, for we have heard of men clambering up and sitting upon the cross-beams of the roof, while the windows were filled within and without, and even the outside of the pulpit, to the very top so that Mr Berridge seemed almost stifled.
There is no wonder that the people thronged him, for his style was so intensely earnest, homely and simple that every ploughman was glad to hear the gospel preached in a tongue which he could understand and with an earnestness which he could not resist.
His discourses were not after a set fashion and were frequently well nigh impromptu. Mr Berridge says that sometimes on entering the pulpit he found himself unable to exercise his thoughts on his subject, and felt himself to be ‘like a barber’s block with a wig on’, but his hearers did not think so, for they were excited to a passionate fervour by his words.
On one occasion, while mounting the stairs of the pulpit at Tottenham Court Road, his memory seemed to fail him, and he commenced his sermon by saying, ‘I set out to this place tonight with a sack well filled with well-baked wheaten bread, which I hoped to set before you, but the bottom came out of the sack as I walked upstairs, and I have nothing left for you but five barley loaves and a few small fishes. You will have those loaves hot from the oven; may they be food convenient for your souls’.
His voice was loud, but perfectly under command; ten or fifteen thousand persons frequently composed his congregation in the open air, and he was well heard by all. People came to hear him from a distance of twenty miles and were at Everton by seven o’clock in the morning, having set out from home soon after midnight.
In the early years of his ministry he was the witness of strange scenes, when the revival took the same form as it did a few years ago in certain parts of the north of Ireland, and was accompanied by physical manifestations.
The phenomena then presented were very remarkable, but we must confess that we have no faith in their spiritual character, and are sorry to hear of their occurrence. After a while the shoutings and contortions came to an end and the work proceeded steadily and after the usual fashion.
Amid all the excitement Berridge never lost his head or became a fanatic, neither was he exalted above measure, but remained one of the humblest and most genuine of men.
There is no doubt that his style was very remarkable and entirely his own. In one of his letters he writes: ‘I have been recruiting for Mr Venn at Godmanchester, a very populous and wicked town near Huntingdon, and met with a patient hearing from a numerous audience.
‘I hope he also will consecrate a few barns and preach in them to fill up his fold at Yelling; and sure there is a cause when souls are perishing for lack of knowledge. Must salvation give place to a fanciful decency, and sinners go flocking to hell through our dread of irregularity? While irregularity in its worst shape traverses the kingdom with impunity, should not irregularity in its best shape pass without censure?
‘I told my brother he need not fear being slandered for sheep-stealing, while he only whistles the sheep to a better pasture and meddles neither with the flesh nor the fleece; and I am sure he cannot sink much lower in credit, for he has lost his character right honestly by preaching the gospel without mincing it.
‘The scoffing world makes no other distinction between us than between Satan and Beelzebub; we have both got tufted horns and cloven feet, only I am thought the more impudent devil of the two’. Little cared Berridge if the wicked world treated him as it did his Master, he only longed to save those who loved to revile him…
The effect which the sight of Berridge produced upon the very sober mind of Andrew Fuller is well worth mentioning. He says: ‘I greatly admired that divine savour, which all along mingled itself with Mr Berridge’s facetiousness and sufficiently chastened it.
‘His conversation tended to produce a frequent but guileless smile, accompanied with a tear of pleasure. His love to Christ appears to be intense. The visit left a strong and lasting impression on my heart of the beauty of holiness, of holiness almost matured’.
When I remember that there is credible information that, in the space of about twelve months, some four thousand souls were brought to Christ by his preaching, and that in the region wherein he laboured, his name is still mentioned as that of a great saint, I feel that there was nothing about the eccentricity of Berridge of which he needed to be ashamed.
Mr Hill, whom Berridge calls ‘dear Rowley’ [Rowland Hill], was hard at work for his Master when the old vicar was going off the stage, and well did he carry out the old man’s advice: ‘Study not to be a fine preacher: Jerichos are blown down with rams’ horns. Look simply unto Jesus for preaching food, and what is wanted will be given, and what is given will be blest, whether it be a barley or a wheaten loaf, a crust or a crumb.
‘Your mouth will be a flowing stream or a fountain sealed, according as your heart is. Avoid all controversy in preaching, talking or writing; preach nothing down but the devil, and nothing up but Jesus Christ’.
We have continued talking about eccentric men, but we have not yet decided what it is which makes a man eccentric. Let us now come to the point. Some ministers have been reckoned eccentric simply and only because they have been natural.
They have been themselves, and not copies of others: what was in them they have not restrained, but have given full play to all their powers.