John Sutcliff's Testimony to John Berridge
Of all the major figures of the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century, John Berridge of Everton (1716-1793) has probably been the most overlooked. Recently, however, Nigel R. Pibworth has sought to rectify this situation through a fairly lengthy biography of Berridge, which details his life, ministry and theological convictions.1What is especially striking is Pibworth's depiction of Berridge's character. Although his character is sketched with sympathy, Berridge's refreshingly honest approach to his own failings and sinfulness is in no way obscured. For instance, in a letter written near the end of his life Berridge could admit:2
If you ask my real name, it is Pride, and such an odd mysterious evil is it, I can even be proud of loathing my pride.
But running parallel to this realism was Berridge's ever-present desire to make his personal walk with God the chief priority of his life. In his own words:3
O Lord, thy Spirit's aid impart,
And fill me with devotion's fire;
Create anew my earthly heart,
And heavenly breathings there inspire!
Bid heart and flesh cry out for thee
And thou my joyful portion be!
In the course of this study, Pibworth has occasion to refer to a conversation between Berridge and a friend of John Sutcliff (1752-1814), 4 the pastor of Olney Baptist Church and a close friend of William Carey and Andrew Fuller. Apparently at some point in 1792, Sutcliff's friend rode over to Everton to enjoy an hour or two's conversation with Berridge. Berridge shared with Sutcliff's friend an account of an interview which he had had with his bishop, John Thomas, during the summer of 1758, shortly after Berridge had come to Everton. 5Thomas had sought to persuade Berridge to desist from his habit of preaching the gospel outside of the parish of Everton, arguing that such activity was against the canons of the Church of England. Berridge had refused to comply with this request, since, he had insisted, 'There is one canon ... which says, "Go preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15).' 6 Despite further discussion Bishop Thomas failed to dissuade Berridge and the Anglican evangelical had returned home uncertain of what would happen next, but glad he had remained true to God's calling in his life. Berridge then related what he considered an act of divine providence.
I took no measures for my own preservation, but Divine Providence wrought for me in a way that I never expected. When I was at Clare Hall (Cambridge), I was particularly acquainted with a fellow of that college; and we were both upon terms of intimacy with Mr. Pitt, the late lord Chatham, who was at that time also at the university. This Fellow of Clare Hall, when I began to preach the Gospel, became my enemy, and did me some injury in some ecclesiastical privileges, which beforetime I had enjoyed. At length, however, when he heard that I was likely to come into trouble, and to be turned out of my living at Everton, his heart relented. He began to think, it seems, within himself. We shall ruin this poor fellow among us. This was just about the time that I was sent for by the bishop. Of his own accord he writes a letter to Mr. Pitt, saying nothing about my methodism, but, to this effect: 'Our old friend Berridge has got a living in Bedfordshire, and, I am informed, he has a squire in his parish, that gives him a deal of trouble, has accused him to the bishop of the diocese, and, it is said, will turn him out of his living: I wish you could contrive to put a stop to these proceedings: Mr. Pitt was at that time a young man, and not choosing to apply to the bishop himself, spoke to a certain nobleman, to whom the bishop was indebted for his promotion. This nobleman within a few days made it his business to see the bishop, who was then in London. 'My Lord'; said he, 'I am informed you have a very honest fellow, one Berridge, in your diocese, and that he has been ill-treated by a litigious squire who lives in his parish. He has accused him, I am told, to your lordship, and wishes to turn him out of his living. You would oblige me, my lord, if you would take no notice of that squire, and not suffer the honest man to be interrupted in his living.' The bishop was astonished, and could not imagine in what manner things could have thus got round: It would not do, however, to object; he was obliged to bow compliance, and so I continued ever after uninterrupted in my sphere of action.7
After Berridge completed this account and the conversation was drawing to a close, Sutcliffe's friend asked if Berridge would pray with him. To this Berridge replied, 'No; you shall pray with me.' 'Well', Sutcliff's friend said, 'if I begin, perhaps you will conclude?' Berridge agreed. So, after Sutcliff's friend had prayed, Berridge 'without rising from his knees, took up his (i.e., Sutcliff's friend's) petitions; and with such sweet solemnity, such holy familiarity with God, and such ardent love to Christ, poured out his soul, that the like was seldom seen.' It made a deep impression on Sutcliff's friend, who later affirmed that he would never forget his time with Berridge.8
Pibworth notes the impact made on Sutcliff's friend, but he makes no mention of the fact, either in the text, endnotes, or bibliography, 9 that it was Sutcliff who wrote out the account of this interview and submitted it for publication to The Evangelical Magazine. Sutcliff explicitly gives as his reason for publishing the account of this interview the fact that in the previous volume of The Evangelical Magazine a brief biography of Berridge had been included, but nothing had been said about this interesting and significant event in Berridge's life.10 Obviously Sutcliff must have felt that the event, indeed the entire conversation with his friend, held the potential of spiritually benefiting the readers of The Evangelical Magazine. Pibworth, though, regards the conclusion of Berridge's story as not being entirely edifying.
A system which depended on patronage was open to abuse from all sides. It is as if the truth of God depends not on his Word but on the manipulation of politicians in London11
A Christian church disclaims all dependence on the magistrate as a magistrate, and totally denies his authority As a Baptist and Dissenter, Sutcliff certainly did not approve of the close interlacing of church and state which is in evidence in the conclusion of Berridge's story. For instance, in the Introductory Address which he gave at the ordination of Thomas Morgan in 1802, Sutcliff declared: 12
to legislate within her walls ... She interferes not with the courts of kings, nor solicits the aid of princes. She only asks to be let alone ... We dissent from that form and constitution of a church, established by the law of the land. Nor are we ashamed of the cause in which we have embarked. Our conduct is the result of reflection, of conviction, of conscience ... We claim the right, we solicit the liberty of thinking and acting for ourselves in matters of religion ... Acting under the influence of this sentiment, we find ourselves obliged to dissent from the Church of England, as by law established.
However, Sutcliff, like Berridge, was also a firm believer in divine providence. In a circular letter written on this subject in 1779 to the Baptist Churches of the Northampton Association, Sutcliff stated:13
What hand was ever lifted up against the Lord and prospered? What combination formed against the Holy One of Israel did ever succeed? Have not the powers of earth, and policy of hell been joined in vain against the Lord, and his anointed? Sometimes their united councils have been suffered to ripen ready for execution, yet, he that sitteth in the heavens and inspects the dark caverns of earth and hell, at the last moment has dashed them in pieces like a potter's vessel.(cf. Psalm 2:9)
In a footnote to this text Sutcliff urges his readers to recall the 'remarkable instance' of divine providence in the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, the remembrance of which 'ought always to be dear to every lover of protestant religion, and British liberty'.14 In view of the sort of opposition and hostility which Berridge faced in 1758 for being obedient to his Lord and the fact that, as he himself asserted, he took no measures to secure his own position, Sutcliff probably would have concurred with Berridge that God had acted providentially on his behalf. Just as God had protected the Protestant cause in Britain in 1605, so he had preserved Berridge, in 1758, for a fruitful gospel ministry in the country of Bedfordshire. However, in publishing the record of his friend's conversation, it would appear that Sutcliff wished to do more than simply reinforce his readers' belief in divine providence.
First of all, note should be taken of the fact that the words 'every creature' in Berridge's quotation of Mark 16:15 appeared as capital letters in The Evangelical Magazine. When it is recalled that only a few months earlier, in October 1792, Sutcliff had participated in the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society, the reason for the stress on these words is obvious. The responsibility to proclaim the gospel to all men had become for Sutcliff a burning reality and very precious truth.
Not long after Sutcliff's death in 1814, Robert Hall, Jr. observed with regard to his character that: 15
Few men took a deeper interest than our deceased brother in the general state of the church and the propagation of the gospel abroad. The future glory of the kingdom of Christ and the best means of promoting it were his favourite topics, and usurped a large part of his thoughts and his prayers.
Sutcliff clearly saw in Berridge a kindred spirit, whose passion for souls could serve as an excellent example for his generation.
Then, the one thing which Sutcliff explicitly states made such a deep impression on his friend was Berridge's praying. This also would have struck a responsive chord in Sutcliff. Ten years earlier, Sutcliff's reading of Jonathan Edwards' An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom on Earth had led him to propose to his fellow Baptist ministers of the Northampton Association that they institute a regular prayer-meeting designed specifically to pray for revival. In the words of the circular letter which this Association issued in June 1784, words which Sutcliff almost certainly authored, the churches in the Association were urged to pray that: 16
The Holy Spirit may be poured down on our ministers and churches, that sinners may be converted, the saints edified, the interest of religion revived, and the name of God glorified. At the same time, remember, we trust you will not confine your requests to your own societies (i.e., churches); or to your own immediate connection (i.e., denomination); let the whole interest of the Redeemer be affectionately remembered, and the spread of the gospel to the most distant parts of the habitable globe be the object of your most fervent requests.
Prayer, especially prayer for the Spirit to presence himself in power in the life of the Church, was to be a central concern for Sutcliff to the end of his life. For instance, in another circular letter drawn up for the Northampton Association, this time in 1800, he wrote: 17
Many of our hearts have been not a little revived by the intelligence of a great and gracious work of God amongst our brethren on the other side of the Atlantic. May He, with whom is the residue of the Spirit, extend these showers of blessings to our churches! Indeed, by the letters from the churches, we are not without hope that some drops have already begun to fall upon us, and which we are willing to hope may be an earnest of still greater blessings in reserve. To this end, we earnestly recommend a spirit of extraordinary prayer, both to the churches and to individuals; and this not only at our monthly prayer-meetings, but on other occasions. The Lord has promised to take away the heart of stone, and to give a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26); but for this he bath said: 'He will be enquired of by the house of Israel to do it for them' (Ezekiel 36:37).
Here Sutcliff bares his heart as he expresses his desire to see revival take place in the Baptist churches of England. But he frankly acknowledges that such a revival does not come unheralded; for fervent, unceasing prayer must inevitably precede it. Now, Berridge was a man who, in God's sovereignty, had known revival in his ministry. 18 In his account of Fuller's conversation with Berridge in The Evangelical Magazine, Sutcliff does not mention this fact; it is well known. But he does mention Berridge's praying, which, characterised as it was by 'sweet solemnity', 'holy familiarity with God' and 'ardent love to Christ', was clearly the source of Berridge's usefulness to God. Sutcliff, himself very aware of the important role prayer played in the extension of God's kingdom, would appear to be implicitly presenting Berridge's prayer-life as an example of genuine piety, which his readers would do well to follow.
In publishing the account of his friend's conversation with Berridge, Sutcliff was undoubtedly commending that 'good old man' as a model worthy of imitation. It is widely recognised that, after the Scriptures, Jonathan Edwards was the major influence on those who were instrumental in bringing revival to the Calvinistic Baptist cause in England, men such as Sutcliff, Fuller and Carey. His work, rich in scriptural truth and glowing with spiritual warmth, was a treasure house to these men. 19 But this little piece which Sutcliff drew up about Berridge is clear indication that there were other figures in the Evangelical Revival whose lives and ministries were not without impact on these Baptist leaders. As Sutcliff himself affirmed in his Introductory Address at Thomas Morgan's ordination: 20
Cheerfully we own, that the established church (i.e., the Church of England) is honoured with a noble list of worthies. Their names we love. Their memories we revere ... Numbers in that connection are zealous for truth, and are patterns of holiness. For their usefulness we pray; and in their success, in turning sinners from darkness to light, we rejoice.
Among these 'worthies', who had turned numerous 'sinners from darkness to light', Sutcliff would without a doubt have included John Berridge of Everton.