Philip Doddridge (1702-1752)
Many today think of Philip Doddridge only as the writer of ‘O happy day’, ‘Hark! The glad sound’ and a few other lesser known hymns. The many other qualities and achievements of this godly man are almost unknown.
It is well over 300 years since Philip Doddridge was born and time that his reputation was rehabilitated. Over the years he has been wrongly charged with various heresies including Arianism (Christ was not divine) and Sabellianism (God is unitary, not trinitarian).
Some, ignoring the cultural and spiritual circumstances of his day, have criticised Doddridge for being a ‘middle way’ Calvinist. Even the New International Dictionary of the Christian Church says, ‘his alleged heresies are probably due to lack of necessary mental equipment to articulate his thoughts clearly’. But Doddridge’s own writings and sermons demonstrate his orthodoxy, although his teaching methods were admittedly revolutionary for his day. As for ‘lack of necessary mental equipment’, he was one of the most intelligent minds of the eighteenth century.
To examine the life of this man of God and see what he achieved before his death at the early age of 49 is to recognise his place in the sovereign purposes of God, not long before the eighteenth-century Evangelical Awakening.
Philip Doddridge was born in 1702 and given up for dead by the midwife until a nurse noticed feeble signs of life in the baby. The last of twenty children in the family, Philip and his sister Elizabeth were the only ones to survive childhood.
Their parents were godly, so young Philip and Elizabeth were taught the Scriptures from an early age. Bible stories were illustrated in the Dutch Delft tiles that surrounded the sitting-room fireplace – and Philip’s mother took every opportunity to tell the children about them.
His paternal grandfather had been minister of Shepperton in Middlesex and among those who faced the Great Ejection in 1662. His other grandfather had to flee from Prague in 1626 to escape persecution. Philip inherited and treasured his Bible.
When he was 8, Philip’s mother died. Four years later his father died. He wrote in his diary, ‘God is an immortal father, my soul rejoiceth in him’. Doddridge had a particular concern for orphans throughout the rest of his life.
He was educated at Kingston Grammar School under Rev. Daniel Mayo, himself an ejected minister, and later under Dr Nathaniel Wood at St Albans. On 1 January 1718, aged 16 years, he confessed faith in Christ.
His guardian squandered his inheritance, so Philip was left penniless. The Duchess of Bedford offered him a home and support if he would train for the established church. This was a tremendous offer but Philip turned it down on principle. Already he was showing the devotion to his Lord that was to mark the rest of his life.
Rev. Samuel Clark, who became a great friend and confidant, secured for him a place at John Jennings’ academy at Kibworth in Leicestershire. The nonconformist academies were dissenters’ ‘universities’, each revolving around the teaching and residence of its principal. They were set up because dissenters found it difficult to enter the established universities and obtain recognised qualifications.
While at Jennings’ academy, Philip preached his first sermon at Hinckley and two people were converted. After three years training, he took his first pastorate at Kibworth. He was not yet ordained, so for some time was under the care of Rev. David Some, of Market Harborough.
At Lutterworth, on 10 April 1729, the dissenting ministers of the neighbourhood gathered together for a day of fasting and prayer for the revival of religion. Philip was greatly moved by this meeting.
Soon after, these ministers encouraged Philip Doddridge to start an academy himself (Jennings had died, so his academy had closed in 1723). Dr Isaac Watts approved the course of study that Doddridge proposed and a new academy was opened at Kibworth, but based on Jennings’ former academy.
On Christmas Eve 1729, Doddridge moved to Northampton in response to a call to be pastor of Castle Hill Church. He remained there until his death in 1751.
Doddridge was concerned to ensure his students were taught to think for themselves. He insisted on presenting all sides of an argument and encouraged his students to work out the truth for themselves from the Scriptures. This method, criticised by some, was well thought through.
His critics have charged Doddridge with being so impartial that his students never knew what he really thought himself. But he encouraged them constantly to ask his opinion of any Scripture text they did not understand. He also spent much time tutoring each of them individually.
Every objection to a wrong view had to be rooted in the Scriptures. He frequently enquired after their reading and on what texts they had been meditating. His overriding concern was that they be ‘pious and holy men’.
Lectures were wide-ranging over many subjects, not just the Bible. He taught classics, natural sciences, maths and many other subjects as well. Today we accept that there is a ‘universe of discourse’ – that all knowledge and learning is interrelated, but in Doddridge’s day most subjects were taught as completely independent units of learning. He was far-sighted enough to see that every aspect of knowledge has a relevance to the gospel.
He was the first to teach his students in English rather than Latin, even though he taught Hebrew and expected his students to be fluent with Greek. Every day, students had to take turns reading a passage from both Old and New Testaments in the original language and then translating it before the student body. (Andrew Kippis, one of his students, said that it was not unknown for some to conceal the English translation in their Greek or Hebrew text!) Doddridge would then expound the passage. In that way every student would hear much of the Bible expounded during their student days.
Doddridge was a man of many parts and interests. He was a member of the local philosophical society and gave learned papers at their meetings. He wrote a scientific paper for the Royal Society about an earthquake that took place in the Northampton area in 1750.
He followed closely the scientific discoveries and medical advances of his day. He founded the Northampton infirmary in 1744 and a charity school for children. He even helped to raise an army to defend Northampton and the Midlands from the invading Catholic Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The early part of the eighteenth century was a dark time spiritually. In many ways it was similar to the situation today. Unwanted children were not aborted, but killed at birth. There was a drink problem similar in scope to the drugs problem of today.
Society was corrupt and wickedness prevailed, but there were a few who kept gospel truth alight during these dark days. Dr Isaac Watts, an older man, was one such; Philip Doddridge was another. Doddridge never lived to see the full light of the Evangelical Awakening, but he helped to keep the fires glowing.
Philip Doddridge has frequently been criticised over his doctrine. Some have questioned his views on the Trinity and suggested he had Socinian (unitarian) tendencies. However, these criticisms are unfounded. Doddridge’s best known work, The rise and progress of religion in the soul, is full of orthodox evangelical fervour and his Family expositor was warmly recommended by Spurgeon for use in daily devotions.
Some of his students did become Socinian, but that can hardly be blamed on Doddridge. Others have argued that he promoted Richard Baxter and followed his modified Calvinism, but Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones recommended Richard Baxter many times without becoming a ‘middle way’ Calvinist!
Other criticisms have concerned Doddridge’s wide associations. But he desired true unity among all the faithful servants of God.
Even in his lifetime he was misunderstood. Dr Watts was critical of his associations with George Whitefield and Selina, Countess of Huntingdon. Yet Doddridge recognised that these were true servants of God, and, although Dr Watts might have questions about them, history has shown that Doddridge was right. In fact, Selina was greatly impressed by Doddridge’s spiritual qualities.
He was a spiritual man with a great concern for revival. One of his sermons was entitled The evil and danger of neglecting men’s souls. This was subsequently printed and almost certainly was the inspiration behind William Carey’s famous ‘call’ for a mission to the heathen, half a century later.
Doddridge rose at 5.00 am most days, for prayer and devotions, and kept detailed accounts of how he spent his time and money. He recognised that these were given to him on trust by his Lord. He was a man of prayer, devotion and dedication, who wore himself out working for his Master. We need men and women of such spirituality and devotion today.
Ian Densham, DD
A further article on Philip Doddridge by Dr Densham is on the Evangelical Library website (www.evangelical-library.org.uk/articles/detail/the-godly-dr-doddridge)