Essay on Berridge's "Christian World Unmasked"


JOHN BERRIDGE the author of this book, was, along with some others of his day, the salt of the Church of England, and an instrument in God's hand of working revivals of religion within her pale, worthy of record with those that his cornpeers Whitefield and Wesley wrought without her. He was born in 1716, but not born again till he had entered the ministry. His studies were carried on at Cambridge, where he gave early proof of his native energy, and that what he did, as was said by an old woman of Dr. Chalmers, he did with all his heart. At that seat of learning, where he gained the honours and emoluments of a Fellowship, he passed for many years fifteen hours a day in hard study, ranging over all the fields of knowledge, and a strengthening by such vigorous exercise faculties of no ordinary power. Clare College at length presented him to the charge of Everton in Bedfordshire, where he laboured as few men have done, till his death, in 1793. In a short but most graphic sketch of our author, Dr. Hamilton of London thus relates the very quiet but remarkable way in which the Holy Spirit brought him to a saving knowledge of the truth: "His success was small - so small that he began to suspect his mode was wrong. After prayer for light, it was one day borne in upon his mind - Cease from thine own works,only believe; and, consulting his concordance, he was surprised to see how many columns were required for the words Faith and Believe. Through this quaint inlet he found his way into the knowledge of the Gospel, and the consequent love of the Saviour; and though hampered with academic standing, and past the prime of life, he did not hesitate for a moment to reverse his former preaching, and the efficiency of the cross was soon seen in his altered parish."
Nor were his labours confined to his parish now. He was not content with his own preserve. Not the man to stand by and see others beyond the parochial boundary perishing for lack, of knowledge, he flung himself, heart and soul, into the very thick of the movement then being made by Lady Huntingdon, Venn, Grimshawe, Wesley, Whitefield, and others, to awaken England from its sleep of death; and never but on one occasion did he allow consequences, personal, pecuniary, or ecclesiastical, to turn him a hairbreadth from the path of duty. We record it as an example of how God may ordain strength out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, and by the weak things of the .church confound the strong: "One day, dining the period of his itinerancy, he had occasion to pass through a town where he had often met the scoffs and taunts of the ungodly; but instead of riding through the main street, he turned through a bye-way to avoid the profane people who were in the streets. Here he was met by a pig-driver, who immediately addressed him,and said - "You, cowardly John Berridge, you are ashamed of your Master, and therefore you skulk along here to avoid the cross". This incident, he said, was of incalculable benefit to him; it spoke with effect to his heart, and he became more and more determined not to be moved in bold confession of Christ. That solitary occasion which found Berridge skulking down a bye lane to escape the insolence of the mob, but stands as a foil to the bravery with i which he faced his bishop, armed with all the powers of the church to crush him. Fortunately Berridge has left this scene painted by his own hand : - Soon after I began to preach the Gospel at Everton (says Mr. Berridge) the churches in the neighbourhood were deserted, and mine so overcrowded, that the squire, who did not like strangers, he said, and hated to be incommoded, joined with the offended parsons, and soon after, a complaint having been made against me, I was summoned before the bishop. ‘Well, Berridge (said his lordship), did I institute you to Eaton or Potten? Why do you go preaching out of your own parish? ‘My lord (said I), I make no claim to the livings of those parishes. ‘T is true I was once at Eaton, and, finding a few poor people assembled, I admonished them to repent of their sins, and to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of their souls. At that very moment, my lord, there were five or six clergymen out of their own parishes, and enjoying themselves on the Eaton bowling-green. ‘I tell you (retorted his lordship), that if. you continue preaching where you have no right, you will very likely be sent to Huntingdon gaol. ‘I have no more regard, my lord, for a gaol than other folks (rejoined I), but I had rather go there with agood conscience, than be at liberty without one. His lordship looked very hard at me. ‘Poor fellow! (said he), you are beside yourself, and in a few months you will either be better or worse. ‘Then, my lord (said I), you may make yourself quite happy in this business; for if I should be better, you suppose I shall desist of my own accord, and if worse, you need not send me to Huntingdon gaol, for I shall be better accommodated in Bedlam. His lordship then pathetically entreated me, as one who had been and wished to continue my friend, not to embitter the remaining portion of his days by any squabbles with my brother clergymen, but to go home to my parish, and so long as I kept within it I should be at liberty to do what I liked there. ‘As to your conscience (said his lordship), you know that preaching out of your parish is contrary to the canons of the Church. ‘There is one canon, my lord (said I), which I dare not disobey, and that says, Go preach the Goepel to EVERY CREATURE."
It is worthy of notice that God raised up friends in unexpected quarters to shield this faithful servant. The great Lord Chatham came from the helm of the nation to stand between him and ruin; while the Lord Chancellor of England also was moved by Lady Huntingdon to leave the Woolsack and come to the rescue of the Vicar of Everton. In allusion to that circumstance, Grimshawe thus pithily and pathetically writes: "May the Lord eternally bless that dear, good, honourable Lady Huntingdon, who would defend a persecuted minister of Christ to the last gown on her back, and the last shilling in her pocket."
For the trials and opposition which Berridge had to meet from many quarters, he had an ample recompense in the extraordinary success with which God blessed his ministry both in his parish and beyond it. He suffered much and he laboured hard; putting most men to shame. For no less than four and twenty years he preached on an average ten or twelve sermons, and travelled a hundred miles per week. There were indeed giants on the earth in those days. He did not labour in vain in the Lord. Shining a star of the first magnitude in the constellation of England, he was held in the highest esteem and the warmest affection by the worthies of his day. Whitefield pronounced him to be an angel of the church. Venn, defending him from opprobrium, says, that he was "as familiar with the learned languages as with his mother tongue;" and that he could be under no temptation to court respect by itinerant preaching, for he merited and enjoyed that in a high degree among all ranks of the literary professors at the University. Wesley pronounces on him this high eulogium: "Mr. Berridge appears to be one of the most simple as well as most sensible men of all whom it pleased God to employ in reviving primitive Christianity. I designed to have spent but one night with him; but Mr. Gilbert's mistake (who sent him word I would be at Everton on Friday) obliged me to stay there another day, or multitudes of people would have been disappointed. They come now twelve or fourteen miles to hear him; and very few come in vain. His word is with power: he speaks as plain and home as John Nelson, but with all the propriety of Mr. Romaine and the tenderness of Mr. Hervey." But the noblest testimony and best reward which Berridge received was seen in the eager, moved, and melted thousands who crowded to hear him preach, and many of whom now shine as jewels in one of the brightest crowns that is worn in heaven. An eye-witness describes the church at Everton as crowded with persons from all the country round, "the windows being filled within and without, and even the outside of the pulpit to the very top, so that Mr. Berridge seemed almost stifled." At Stafleford, Grandchester, at Driflow, Orwell, and indeed wherever he went, he was a centre round which thousands and tens of thousands gathered. All eyes fixed on him, the tears rolling over their cheeks, and many, unable to keep down the swell of their emotions, crying out, "Lord what shall we do to be saved?" Even when nearly worn out by his gigantic labours and ardent spirit, he rose on one occasion to preach at Harlston, dejected and depressed, saying - " I am now so weak, I must leave off field-preaching;" yet there, the usual effects accompanying the word, he delivered himself with amazing energy to three thousand people. And so, from Everton as his centre, the truth radiated out to London and all the provinces round about. He sounded the Gospel abroad over all the country, and in many instances, revivals, like those of Kilsyth and Cambuslang in Scotland, distinguished, and blessed, and crowned his ministry.
Not that Berridge neglected his own parish, or had occasion to say, "they made me keeper of vineyards, and mine own vineyard have I not kept." In proof of this, and as illustrating the wit and eccentricity in which he indulged when the pen was in his hand, we may insert a letter of his to his friend and coadjutor, Lady Huntingdon. She had asked him to supply some of her chapels. His reply, in which he alludes to a minister of the name of Dyer, who with some sectaries had been sowing dissension and their peculiar views among his people, as well as among her ladyship's followers, will be found in the following letter : - " As to myself (he says), I am now determined not to quit my charge again in a hurry. Never do I leave my bees, though for a short space only, but at my return I find them either casting and colting, or fighting and robbing each other; not gathering honey from every flower in God's garden, but filling the air with their buzzings, and darting out the venom of their little hearts in their fiery stings. Nay, so inflamed they often are - and a mighty little thing disturbs them - that three months tinkling afterwards with a warming-pan will scarce hive them at last, and make them settle to work again. They are now in a mighty ferment, occasioned by the sounding brass of a Welch DYER,* who has done me the same kind office at Everton that he has done my friend at Tottenham. ‘Tis pity he should have the charge of anything but wasps; these he might allure into the treacle pot and step in before them himself, but he will never fill a hive with honey."
In illustration of his powers as a Barnabas, we insert the following letter written to the same lady on the death of her daughter. Although marked indeed by Berridge's peculiarities, it is full of lofty thought, and pregnant with consolalion : - ~ My Lady - I received your letter from Brighthelmstone, and hope you will soon learn to bless your Redeemer for snatching away your daughter so speedily. Methinks I see great mercy in the suddenness of her removal, and when your bowels have done yearning for her you will see it too. 0! what is she snatched from? Why, truly, from the plague of an evil heart, a wicked world, and a crafty devil - snatched from all such bitter grief as now overwhelms you - snatched from every thing that might wound her ear, afflict her eye, or pain her heart. And what is she snatched to? To a land of everlasting peace, where the voice of the turtle is ever heard, where every inhabitant can say, ‘I am no more sick! no more whim in the head, no more plague in the heart, but all full of love and full of praise; ever seeing with enraptured eyes, ever blessing with adoring hearts, that dear Lamb who has washed them in his blood, and has now made them kings and priests unto God for ever and ever. Amen. Oh, madam! What would you have? Is it not better singing in heaven, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, &c. than crying at Oathall, ‘0 wretched woman that I am? Is it not better for her to go before, than to stay after you? and then to be lamenting, ‘Ah my mother! as you now lament, ‘Ah my daughter! Is it not better to have your Selina taken to heaven, than to have your heart divided between Christ and Selina? If she was a silver idol before, might she not prove a golden one afterwards? She is gone to pay a most blessed visit, and will see you again by and by, never to part more. Had she crossed the sea and gone to Ireland, you could have borne it; but now she is gone to heaven ‘tis almost intolerable. Wonderful strange Love this. Such behaviour in others would not surprise me, but I could almost beat you for it; and I am sure Selina would beat you too, if she was called back but one moment from heaven, to gratify your fond desires. I cannot soothe you, and I must not flatter you. I am glad the dear creature is gone to heaven before you. Lament, if . you please; but glory, glory, glory be to God, says JOHN BERRIDGE."
We cannot throw together these fragments of Berridge's life and character without mentioning, that in addition to his own labours, which have had no counterpart in our day save in the lives of James Haldane and some few such men, he employed many other labourers in the same field. He hired barns, he paid preachers, and on these and works of charity, he expended the whole proceeds of his vicarage and Fellowship, the price of his family plate, and the whole of a large patrimonial fortune. He kept nothing back - he did nothing by halves - although sometimes indeed he brought himself thereby into difficulties, which however, were borne without repining, and from which, like a bee that finds honey even in bitter flowers, he drew good lessons as the following extract proves "Friday, July 7. - I have become acquainted with the Rev. Mr. R - of Wakefield, and find him a sensible, pious, and experienced man. He was long intimate with Mr. Berridge of Everton, whom he represents as a deeply devoted, spiritual, and humble man; possessing a vein of great natural humour, but of very serious manners. He gave in fact all his goods to feed the poor; and at one period, after a long illness, was in actual distress, not knowing where to turn for support. Whilst musing on his state, he heard a rap at the door - the postman was immediately announced with a letter, on which was charged a shilling. Mr. Berridge had not a shilling to pay for it, and would not take; but requested the postman to take it back to the office, as he said he never wished to have any thing in his house that was not paid for; but the postman said he would call on the morrow, and insisted on leaving it. When he opened it, he found to his great surprise a bank- note for thirty pounds from John Thornton. ‘Who, said he, ‘can doubt after this the existence of a particular Providence? " if our author did not always, in correspondence or conversation, restrain the over-flowings of his humour, he never kept back his money in the cause of Christ; if he said some odd, he never said mean, and he always did noble things; and offeiuing himself - to God a living sacrifice on the altar of our faith, and with himself all that he had, he went through the world and lived in the church of which he was one of the best ministers ,and brightest ornaments, realizing the lofty wish of Brainerd : - " 0! that I were a flaming fire in the service of my God!"
So much for the author. As to the book itself we may remark, that
The "Christian World Unmasked" is a work which none but John Berridge could have written - the work of an extraordinary man; like a child who is the living image of his father, it proclaims its parentage. Here, as elsewhere, he preserves his own character; he always did so, whether he penned letters to noble ladies, or addressed a congregation of ten thousand peasants, or stood before the dignitaries of the church like a lion at bay, trampling the canon-law beneath his feet, and claiming on the strength of a higher authority his right to preach the gospel to every creature. The book which we introduce anew to the public, has survived the test of years - - and still stands towering above things of inferior growth like a cedar of Lebanon. Its subject is all important; in doctrine it is sound to the core; it glows with fervent piety; it exhibits a most skilful and unsparing dissection of the dead professor; while its style is so remarkable that he who could preach as Berridge has written, would hold any congregation by the ears. No doubt a very fastidious taste- may find expressions here and there to jar on its delicate nerves, which some may think it were better to have smoothed and softened. We once witnessed a scene which reconciles us to leaving these as Berridge left them, and assures us that, with the great mass of readers, these spots, if such they be, will be Lost like those of the sun, in a blaze of Light. Seated in the front pew of a side gallery, where we had a commanding view of the audience, it was our privilege on the occasion alluded to, to hear no common preacher. His grammar was uncommonly bad; not seldom he violated the simplest idioms of our language; and no pronunciation certainly could be more uncouth than his - yet the congregation hung upon the speaker's lips. Every eye was fixed upon him; and, apparently insensible to the existence of any defect, they sat enchained by a piety which beamed in his looks, and often moulded his tones into the finest oratory; and they looked perfect delight as ever and anon from the depths of his sanctified genius there rose thoughts so heavenly and sublime, as to appear amid the darkness of his reasoning like rockets blazing up to heaven, bursting in the upper skies and descending on earth in a shower of fire-balls.
Our author, as the work will prove, was in many respects a very different man from the preacher I have described. Berridge laid the hand of a giant on his subject. He brought to his discourse the reasoning powers of a strong intellect, and added the accomplishments of a great scholar to the piety of a Christian and the pathos of an orator; and indeed we are inclined to think that naturally as it came to him, that occasionally out-of-the-way style of exhibiting truth, which might offend a very fastidious taste, rather helped than hindered the grand object for which he prayed and preached. He could not help doing what Richard Cecil did of design on one occasion, when he found that although he had brought a carefully prepared and polished sermon to the pulpit, his audience refused him their attention. That great preacher flung it at once aside, and after a protracted pause, astonished the still and wondering assembly by crying aloud "A man was hanged at Tyburn this morning" - Now all were awake. With that nail he fixed every ear to the pulpit, and starting from the scaffold he struck out on a path altogether new, and delivered to unflagging attention a sermon. of extraordinary power. We do not love Berridge the less, but rather the more for his peculiarities - not -that we would have any man imitate them - for as even beauty becomes ridiculous when a jackdaw has dressed itself in peacock's feathers, an aping of others is always offensive. Their peculiarities are like a suit of clothes which hang not well on any but the man who was measured for them; not to say that the misfortune of imitators often lies in this, that in copying the lisp, the burr, the shrug, the broad accent, the ungainly and ungraceful attitude, they forget that their idol is not great by these, but in spite of them. If striking peculiarities of thought and expression however, be originalities - things not borrowed but born, as they were in Berridge - then, with God's blessing, they prove not weakness but strength, as was seen in the thousands who crowded to hear him preach, and the multitudes who fell before his bow, which, like that of Ulysses, none but himself could bend.
For while to its inhabitants heaven's beauties are ever new, and familiarity breeds no indifference in them, how often is that its effect in our present imperfect state? It is with spiritual objects as with the most attractive or sublime scenes of nature. The glowing sunrise, the gleaming river, the sea roused by the storm into majesty, summer walking the earth decked in a robe of flowers, the brow of night sparkling with its countless gems - many regard these with the eyes . of a brute; they stir no thought; they excite no reflection; nor call forth such exclamation as the Psalmist's - " How manifold are thy works, Lord God Almighty - in wisdom thou hast made them all !" Even so, the surpassing glories of the Gospel, the cross of Calvary, the crown of heaven, are lost on eyes which have become familiar with them from the cradle and a mother's knee; and to the terrors of the law men grow as insensible as the inhabitants of the tropics to the play of lightnings, or the tenant of a cottage within the spray of Niagara to the roar of its thousand thunders. These, although they may shake the air, and stun the ears of strangers, are unheeded or unheard by him. If among many striking, Berridge says some strange things; if always original, he is occasionally odd; if in this book there are a few instances of the picturesque approaching the grotesque, the reader will readily excuse these for the sake of the noble piety with which the book is pervaded, the golden truths that lie imbedded in its pages, and a style and manner pre- eminently calculated to rouse the dullest attention, and break through that indifference with which familiarity encrusts the most solemn and momentous subjects. Infinitely better such a book, than faultless dulness, unobjectionable common-places, an essay from press or pulpit which is bare of beauties as of blemishes, and in which, if men find no faults, they feel, as sleepers prove, none of the interest that carries the reader over the pages of the "Christian World Unmasked."
T. G. EDINBURGH, November 1852.

* Rev. G. Dyer, Lecturer of St. George the Martyr

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