‘Here lie the earthly remains of John Berridge, late vicar of Everton and itinerant servant of Jesus Christ, who loved his Master and his Work, and after running on his errands many years, was called up to wait on him above. Reader, art thou born again? No salvation without new birth! I was born in sin 1716. Remained ignorant of my fallen state till 1730. Lived proudly on faith and works for salvation till 1754. Admitted to Everton Vicarage, 1752. Fled to Jesus alone for refuge, 1756. Fell asleep in Christ Jan 22nd, 1793.’
John Berridge wrote this epitaph himself, all except for the date at the end! Bishop J. C. Ryle classed Berridge with men like George Whitefield, John Wesley, William Grimshaw and Daniel Rowlands as one of the great Christian leaders of the eighteenth century. He wrote, ‘though born in obscurity, he was one of those who turned the world upside down’.
His early years
John was born in the village of Kingston Upon Soar, in Nottinghamshire, on 1 March 1716. As a schoolboy he was serious minded and received his first spiritual impressions when a school friend invited him home to read the Bible.
He left school to help with his father’s livestock business but proved unable to estimate accurately the value of an animal! Admitting failure, his father reluctantly allowed him to go to Cambridge University, where he entered Clare Hall in 1734.
For the next 15 years John went backwards spiritually. He gained a BA and MA and remained a fellow of Clare Hall. Described as ‘a studious, clever, fat and jolly don; the best company in the world’, he had friends in high places who loved to have John at their parties.
He was greatly influenced at Cambridge by the prevailing view that reason was superior to revelation, and seems to have lost his earlier religious impressions. He later testified that he hardly prayed at all for ten whole years – though he sometimes felt guilty about it.
Ordination and conversion
He was ordained in Lincoln Cathedral in March 1745. Then in 1749, when he was 33, God began to stir his heart once more. He accepted a curacy in the village of Stapleford near Cambridge and for six years laboured diligently, living a moral life and preaching the importance of sanctification, but it had no effect upon his hearers.
Reflecting on his ministry he felt ‘wounded that he could not heal’. It upset John deeply that his ministry was entirely fruitless. In the same year 1755, at the age of 40, he became vicar of the small village of Everton in Bedfordshire – where he remained till called to glory 37 years later.
John’s self-confidence was at a low ebb. The struggle with sin, his lack of joy and the absence of power in his ministry caused him to pray earnestly, ‘Lord if I am right, keep me so. If I am not right, make me so, and lead me to a knowledge of the truth, as it is in Jesus’.
Ten days later, as he was reading the Bible, words darted into his mind: ‘Cease from thine own works; only believe’. He comments, ‘Before I heard these words, my mind was in a very unusual calm; but as soon as I heard them, my soul was in a tempest directly and the tears flowed from my eyes like a torrent. The scales fell from my eyes immediately…’
Later he wrote, ‘At length, after years of fruitless struggling, I was shown the gospel method of obtaining rest, not by working but believing. A strange and foolish way it seems to nature, and so it seemed to me; but it is a most effectual way, because it is the Lord’s appointed way’.
A new ministry
After three Sundays nothing seemed to have changed – until a lady came to see him. She cried, ‘Those new sermons! I find we are all to be lost now. I can neither eat, drink, nor sleep. I don’t know what is to become of me!’ Others felt the same impressions. Within three months, seven people from Everton and 14 from elsewhere had trusted Christ as their Saviour.
John felt ashamed that he had for so long confirmed his hearers in their ignorance. Rather like the converts in Ephesus who burnt their books of magic, he burned all his old sermons!
John quickly realised that an important part of preaching Christ was convincing sinners that they needed Christ. And so he set forth the doctrine of sin loudly and clearly. He said, ‘The moral law must be preached in its utmost rigour to awaken every sort of sinners, and convince them of their lost estate. When the law is set home by the Holy Spirit, it becomes the schoolmaster … and scourges sinners unto Christ’.
Sadly, few evangelists preach much, if any, of the law today! The prevailing attitude seems to be, ‘If we’re too straight with people we risk losing them’. Let us, with Berridge, understand that people are lost and will only be rescued by seeing their need to be rescued!
Packed to the rafters
The church at Everton became crowded – some even sitting on the rafters to hear Berridge preach. Amazingly, this continued for the next 30 years.
People travelled from up to 20 miles away, setting out at midnight to arrive at 7.00am on Sunday morning, when Berridge would preach the first of four messages through the day. People were regularly convicted of their sins and brought to saving faith in Christ.
John began preaching outside his parish to reach those further afield. He discovered that he could preach extemporaneously, removing the burden of preparing a sermon word for word (as was the custom of the day).
The first fruit of his itinerant preaching was the salvation of Samuel Hicks, vicar of nearby Wrestlingworth. Until then, Hicks had been bitterly opposed, even denying the sacrament to any in his own congregation who went to hear Mr Berridge!
Hicks’ conversion was a great encouragement to John, especially as they began to work together. He was the only local minister for many years who would help him in his evangelistic work.
The next step was to preach outdoors. Berridge described the occasion in a letter: ‘Mr Hicks accompanied me to Meldred. On the way we called at a farm house. After dinner, I went into the yard and, seeing there nearly 150 people, I called for a table and preached for the first time in the open air.
‘We then went to Meldred, where I preached in a field to about 4000 people. In the morning at five, Mr Hicks preached in the same field to about 1000. Here the presence of the Lord was wonderfully among us; and I trust, beside many that were slightly wounded, nearly 39 received heart-felt conviction’.
John ministered mainly in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Suffolk, but for many years he preached in London each winter at George Whitefield’s invitation. Some historians claim that had he lived in London he would have been one of the most famous preachers ever. Instead he became known as the ‘countryside pedlar of the gospel’.
His workload was immense. He regularly preached twelve times a week, riding over 100 mile on horseback. Nor did he just preach. He appointed local believers to counsel and encourage people after he had moved on, and many churches were started as a result.
It took more than six weeks to visit all these meetings, and this he regularly did. John paid the wages of two full-time lay-preachers and supported six men who preached on Sundays. He paid to hire barns where meetings could be held and gave to the poor whenever he could.
Writing to Lady Huntingdon in 1767, John described what it meant to itinerate in the Eastern counties: ‘I fear my weekly circuit would not suit London or Bath divines. Long rides and miry roads, in sharp weather, cold houses to sit in, with very moderate fuel, and 3 or 4 children roaring or rocking about you!
‘Coarse food, lumpy beds to lie on and too short for the feet, with stiff blankets like boards for a covering. Rise at 5 in the morning to preach. At 7 breakfast on poor tea. At 8 mount a horse with boots never cleaned, and then ride home praising God for all his mercies’.
For John the ministry was all about getting out among the people with the gospel.
Finishing his race
John Berridge died in 1793 aged 76. Earlier that year Henry Venn of Yelling wrote, ‘I lately visited dear brother Berridge. His sight is very dim, his ears can scarcely hear and his faculties are fast decaying … but in this ruin of his earthly tabernacle, it is surprising to see the joy of his countenance and the lively hope with which he looks for the day of his dissolution.
‘In his prayer with my children and me, we were much affected by his commending himself to the Lord, as quite alone, not able to read or hear, or do anything. But he said, “Lord, I have thy presence and love, and that sufficeth”.’