Most parts of the United Kingdom were affected by the great evangelical awakening of the eighteenth century. The labours of preachers such as John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield brought the gospel to ordinary folks far and wide, but there were other men too, like William Grimshaw who preached in Yorkshire, and John Berridge, known as "the pedlar of the gospel", in East Anglia. These, with many others, made a notable contribution to the work of the Lord in their day.
John Berridge was the son of a wealthy Nottinghamshire farmer. Much of his childhood was spent with an aunt who was entrusted with his care. There seems to have been little spiritual influence in his early life, but one day he was invited to the home of a fellow pupil with whom he had become friendly. While there the boy read a portion of Scripture, which John deeply disliked. However, he did not wish to offend his friend and so remained silent. His unease continued when the Bible was read on subsequent visits, but though the seed would remain dormant for many years it ultimately sprang up and bore fruit. It is precious to reflect upon the spiritual conviction of an unknown schoolboy, these many years ago, which caused him to read from the Bible to a friend. Around the time he left school John began to be conscious of his sinfulness, and an awakening interest in spiritual things was deepened by conversations he had with a Christian tailor in a nearby town.
At the age of fourteen John returned to his fathers home. He showed no talent for farming, and eventually his father accepted his sons lack of interest in his own occupation and permitted him to enter Clare College, Cambridge to study theology. The reasons behind Berridges choice of course are not known, but he enjoyed study and achieved academic success, reading in addition to theology, logic, mathematics, and metaphysics. He attained an MA degree and was made a Fellow of Clare College in 1742. He moved in a wide social circle and became influenced by ideas and philosophies which distracted him from reading or studying Scripture. In spite of this he was ordained in 1745, though at that time he felt no desire to take up any ecclesiastical responsibility. In 1749, perhaps because of an uneasy conscience, he accepted appointment as curate at Stapleford, near Cambridge. At that time he thought that human merit and virtue was adequate to obtain salvation and his lively sermons exhorted his congregations to a life of good works.
This very formal and ineffective ministry continued when he became vicar of Everton, a small village to the east of Bedford, in 1755 but later in that year Berridge reached the great turning point of his life. Daily Bible study and meditation brought him to understand that striving to merit salvation by good works was sheer vanity and pride. The conviction, "Cease from thine own works, only believe", was impressed upon his heart and he grasped the glorious and liberating truth of justification by faith. His life was transformed and a new vitality and authority infused his ministry. He began to make up for the years he had wasted and, burning all his old carefully constructed sermons, determined with himself not to know anything among his people save Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The radical change quickly became apparent to his parishioners, and soon there were frequent conversions among the increasing numbers who heard him preach.
By 1758 Berridge was riding on horseback throughout the whole of Bedfordshire and neighbouring counties, preaching up to twelve times in a week in villages, farms and in the open air. He went wherever people could be found whether in large numbers or in smaller groups. He possessed an unwavering confidence that "God has promised a reformation when His word is truly preached". Like many of his contemporaries he experienced opposition and often had to endure rowdy interruptions and insults, but was not dismayed for he knew that the preaching of the cross would cause offence. He believed that the doctrines of grace "batter all human pride, undermine all human merit, lay the human worm in the dust, and give the glory of salvation wholly unto God".
Berridges preaching beyond his own parish boundaries irritated and alarmed other clergy, but when Matthias Mawson, Bishop of Ely, threatened to dispossess him if he did not cease his itinerant preaching, Berridge boldly sent a robust reply: "Since the gospel preachers are thinly scattered and neighbouring pulpits are locked up against them, then it behoves them to take advantage of fields, or barns or houses to cast abroad the gospel seed. There is one canon which says, Go preach the gospel to every creature". Notwithstanding such opposition, Berridge remained steadfastly loyal to the Church of England. This may now seem strange to us, but Berridge, with Augustus Toplady and many others whose ministry was greatly blessed of the Lord in the salvation of many souls, viewed dissent with horror, though they acknowledged there were godly men among dissenters. They were convinced that the historic doctrines of the Church expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles were thoroughly Scriptural. Nonetheless we salute their devotedness to the Lord for they served Him well in the light they had.
Berridges preaching was plain and pithy. "I asked them if they had ever broken the law of God once in thought, word or deed? If they had, they were under the curse, for it is written, cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them. If I keep all Gods laws today this is no amends for breaking them yesterday. If I behave peaceably to my neighbour this day, it is no satisfaction for having broken his head yesterday". Later he advised younger men, "Look simply to Jesus for preaching food: what is wanted will be given, and what is given will be blessed. Your mouth will be a flowing stream or a fountain sealed according as your heart is". He was a zealous preacher and evidently an instrument of grace and power in the Lords hand.
Other noted evangelists rejoiced in the gracious work, and Berridge became highly esteemed by them. John Wesley noted that people "came now twelve or fourteen miles to hear him, and very few came in vain". Later, in 1776, the well known Henry Venn accompanied Berridge in a preaching tour and stated that he had "the largest congregations that were ever known, and greatly was his word owned of the Lord". The illustrious George Whitefield, quoting Scripture, said, "He was a burning and a shining light". Lady Huntingdon often asked him to preach in her chapels, though he was not always disposed to leave the scene of his own labours. He was not a man to be in awe, writing to the Countess, "My Lady, I cannot see my call to Brighthelmstone (the old name for Brighton); and I ought to see it for myself, not another for me I write plainly, not out of forwardness, I trust, but to save your ladyship the trouble of sending a second request, and myself the pain of returning a second denial".
His determination not to marry was cogently expressed with some humour. He wrote, "There is no trap so mischievous to the field preacher as wedlock; and it is laid for him at every hedge corner". It must be recorded that few of the other preachers of his era shared his view.
For more than thirty years Berridge laboured in the gospel with great effect, but ultimately both his sight and hearing began to fail. He died at the age of seventy-seven and was buried in the Everton churchyard. Thousands of people attended his funeral. He composed his own epitaph, a testimony inscribed upon his tombstone:
"Here lie the remains of John Berridge late vicar of Everton and an 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 February 1716
Remained ignorant of my fallen state till 1730
Lived proudly on faith and works for salvation till 1754
Admitted to Everton vicarage 1755
Fled to Jesus alone for refuge 1756
Fell asleep in Christ, 22 January, 1793."
To be continued.