Dr Philip Doddridge’s dates (1702-51) provide us with two contiguous anniversaries: the 250th anniversary of his death falls this year (26 October) and the tercentenary of his birth next year (26 June).
But why should we hold a celebration at all? With regard to worship, the first reason is obvious. The hymnbooks of many denominations suggest that Doddridge’s name will not easily be forgotten.
Hark the glad sound and O happy day still find a place in our worship. The new hymn book Praise! includes several examples of his work (albeit rather mangled).
Yet Doddridge’s hymns form just a fraction of his vast literary output and an even smaller part of his many and creative activities.
The hymns were written to reinforce and apply the sermon, and were given out, line by line, after it had been preached. This reminds us that Doddridge was primarily a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a calling which he considered ‘the most desirable employment in the world’.
To earlier generations, Doddridge’s various activities as pastor, evangelist, academy tutor, author, philanthropist and patriot won him many admirers.
The editors of the centenary edition of his complete Works (1802) claimed that Doddridge ‘ranks with the brightest ornaments of the British nation, and of the Christian Church’.
Praise was also international. After reading some of the Dutch translations of Doddridge’s sermons, Wilhelmus Peiffers, a pastor of the Reformed Church at Amsterdam, declared to the printer: ‘Herewith I gratefully return you the work of Dr Doddridge, concerning the New Birth, Salvation by Grace, &c which I have read more than once with such uncommon pleasure, that I long to see all that excellent author has published. I did not know him by name; but from this incomparable masterpiece, in which the oratory of the ancients seems to be revived, he appears to be a very great man’.
Let us now take a brief look at the life and labours of this great British Christian.
From the time of his settlement in Northampton in December 1729, to his death in October 1751, Philip Doddridge served the cause of Christ with intense energy and total dedication.
As Charles Stanford wrote in 1880, he ‘seemed to live so many lives at a time’. In addition to being the pastor of Castle Hill Independent Church, he was principal tutor of what was to become the most famous of all the Protestant Dissenting Academies.
This dual role of pastor and tutor involved Doddridge in a wide range of interests and pursuits. As a tutor, he became an apologist, philosopher and man of science, besides being a theologian training young men for the ministry.
What Doddridge managed to accomplish in twenty-two busy years was directed by a single preoccupation. In the words of Dr Geoffrey Nuttall, evangelism was ‘the thread on which his multi-coloured life was strung. It was for this above all that he wrote, preached, corresponded and educated his students in the Academy’.
Doddridge lived at a time when rationalism was gnawing at the roots of Christianity. Fierce theological controversy was commonplace; it was no easy thing for a young minister to be certain which opinion best reflected ‘the mind of God in the Scriptures’.
It was a day of extremes and, with Richard Baxter before him, Doddridge believed that the Bible demanded a ‘middle way’. That meant avoiding the antinomian fatalism of much High Calvinism on one hand, and the legalistic humanism of Arian-Arminianism on the other.
Doddridge was, in his own words, a ‘Baxterian Calvinist’. Agreeing with Baxter’s theological eclecticism, Doddridge was also deeply concerned with Protestant unity.
He did all he could to root out bigotry and sectarianism. Being a friend to all who ‘loved the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity and truth’, he had fraternal relations with Dissenters and Churchmen alike.
In his academy lectures, we see how rigorous was the intellectual training Doddridge provided for his students. He examined competing views fairly and was impatient with any dogmatic theological system which failed to observe the balanced content of biblical truth. Scripture was to be the only ultimate authority.
He was concerned that self-evident truth should mould his students’ minds.
Doddridge’s essentially conservative outlook is best seen in his magnum opus, The Family Expositor, and his Dissertation on the Inspiration of the New Testament.
In acquainting his students with philosophy and scientific questions, Doddridge wanted them to be thoughtful preachers who would be able to say why as well as what they believed.
He believed Christianity was capable of rational defence. Concerned with apologetics, Doddridge’s reply to Henry Dodwell’s Christianity not founded on argument was his most ambitious intellectual piece of writing. In this work he demonstrated that faith and reason are friends not enemies.
Of equal importance to Doddridge was the practical impact of the gospel. He was no armchair theologian. As co-founder of the Northampton Infirmary, and promoter of a Charity School in the town, Doddridge demonstrated the power of Christian example.
His patriotic activity in connection with the invasion of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ in 1745 reveals his sense of social responsibility. At this time of national crisis, Doddridge was the first civilian to take action, urging men of his congregation to join the Northampton militia, an initiative which influenced the invaders to turn back at Derby.
Nowhere is Doddridge’s commitment to evangelism more clearly seen than in the welcome he extended to the infant Methodist movement. His friendship with George Whitefield, John Wesley and others, was typical of his spirit.
While older Dissenters, including Isaac Watts, viewed the revival with cool and suspicious detachment, Doddridge was ready to perceive the hand of God at work.
He rejoiced that God had raised up such men in an ungodly age. The new Dissent turned to the old for guidance. Whitefield asked Doddridge to revise his Journal, and John Wesley consulted him for a reading list for his preachers.
Doddridge’s lasting contribution to the revival was his most popular book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745). It was to the reading of this book that William Wilberforce traced his own spiritual awakening.
As with Mozart in another context, Doddridge’s life was cut short. At the age of 49, he died of consumption (TB) and was buried in Lisbon, where he had been sent by his congregation in the hope of restoring his health.
One cannot but be amazed at the consistent Christian dedication of a life all too brief. With continuing relevance to the 21st century, his life and example have bequeathed a rich and lasting legacy to the churches.
However, despite the legacy of Doddridge’s fervent Trinitarian evangelicalism, the clouds of controversy have never lifted from this gifted and gracious man of God.
Indeed, few Christian leaders have been more misrepresented than Philip Doddridge, and that by errors ranging from the comical to the almost criminal!
Described as ‘the ‘champion howler of the century’, one writer in 1926 related Dr Doddridge’s ‘execution’, confusing him with a disreputable Dr Dodd who was hanged about twenty years after Doddridge died!
But his reputation has repeatedly suffered in less bizarre, and thus more damaging, ways. One example is unjustified neglect. He deserved better from J. C. Ryle, for example, who confined himself to Anglicans in his Christian Leaders of the Last Century (1885).
Furthermore, Doddridge has frequently been exploited by ecumenical liberals who conveniently disregard his unambiguous Protestant convictions. While Doddridge’s life-long priority was clearly the spread of the gospel and the salvation of souls, the tercentenary essays of 1951, Philip Doddridge (1702-51): His contribution to English Religion, presented a different picture on its dust jacket. The impression given was that Doddridge was chiefly ‘tireless in the cause of Christian Unity’.
In his Philosophy and the Christian Faith (1969), Colin Brown lamented that ‘no one in the Evangelical Revival sought to work out the philosophical implications of their faith’. Yet Doddridge, the Christian intellectual and biblical theologian, did grapple with philosophical issues at the interface between Reformation and Enlightenment thought.
Ignorance became insult in The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (1978) which suggests that several alleged heresies of Doddridge ‘are probably due to lack of necessary mental equipment to articulate his thoughts clearly’!
While he rejects these allegations (notably Arianism or Unitarianism), Professor Donald Macleod has recently complained that Doddridge’s radical appeal to Sola Scriptura against subscription to man-made confessions, although ‘honest’, is utterly ‘simplistic’.
Failing to assess Doddridge’s theology correctly, Macleod describes Doddridge’s theological posture as ‘inept’ (see ‘God or god? Arianism, Ancient and Modern’ in The Evangelical Quarterly, 68.2, 1996).
Even more at odds with the facts, Dr George Ella asserts that Doddridge’s Calvinism was ‘higher’ than Dr John Gill’s (see The Banner of Sovereign Grace, 6.7, 1998)!