John Berridge was born in Kingston, Nottinghamshire, England, on March 1, 1716, the eldest son of a wealthy farmer and grazier.
Berridge’s father wanted him to learn to run to farm, but the boy was much more inclined to his studies and so the father sent him to Cambridge to prepare for ministry.
It was not until his early teens that he had an encounter with the things of God. When he was coming home from school one day a boy invited young Berridge into his house “that he might read to him out of the Bible”. The seed was sown, although for nearly 30 years the devil snatched it away or covered it with thorns.
Having been raised in a Christian home Berridge learned to pray and hold faith in God, but during his studies he “lost much of his early religious impressions” and almost entirely gave up “secret prayer for ten years”.
During those wasted years, Berridge had excelled as a scholar at Clare Hall, Cambridge and entered the Church of England ministry as curate to the parish of Stapleford, near Cambridge in 1749. Not until he was in his second parish, at Everton, at the age of 42, did he come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus. When he did, his preaching came alive. “As soon as I preached Jesus Christ and faith in His blood, then believers were added to the church continually; then people flocked from all parts to hear the glorious sound of the Gospel …”
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Not only did the Vicar of Everton preach to his own people, but he often rode 100 miles and preached 12 times a week … which brought him into conflict with the bishop, who told him that it was against ‘the canons of the church’. “My lord,” replied Berridge, “I only preach in two seasons.” “Which are they, Mr Berridge?” “In season, and out of season, my lord.”
Berridge remained the Vicar of Everton until his death, totally 37 years in that pulpit. Yet his wider ministry is captured by one historian describing “Berridge preaching from a horse-block at Potton, mingling smiles and tears, and the quaintest humour with the deepest pathos”.
Berridge sympathized with and aided the Methodist revival. John Wesley esteemed Berridge highly and looked on his as a co-worker. Berridge is alluded to often in Wesley’s writings.
It is true that Berridge used many a quaint saying in his pulpit ministry, causing some to label him ‘a buffoon’; and it is true that strange physical effects were often evidenced under his preaching. Loud cries and convulsions and trance-like states would sometimes occur among his listeners. But he never encouraged these demonstrations. And as for his quaint sayings, he acknowledged that ‘he was born with a fool’s cap on, and a fool’s cap was not so easily put off as a night cap.’ This remark was clearly one of self-deprecation since he was an excellent scholar.
As Bishop Ryle comments, “Better a thousand times for men to smile and be converted than to look stiff and grave and sleepy in their pews, and remain dead in trespasses and sins.”
Berridge never married and in 1785 he published a volume of hymns titled Zion’s Songs. Of the three hundred and forty-two hymns he composed very few remain in use. His ‘wedding hymn’, “Since Jesus Freely Did Appear“, which is a prayer in song for the divine blessing on the bridal couple, is one of the few that can be found in hymn books today.
Many of Berridge’s hymns were first published in the Gospel Magazine, under the pseudonym “Old Everton“. His biographer says that the hymns were written during Berridge’s “long and trying illness”, although the nature of the physical condition is not explained.
Berridge’s hymns and preaching reflect the abject worthlessness of man and the supreme blessing of Christ’s salvation. His hymns give us such lines as: “Self-condemned and abhorred, How shall I approach the Lord”; and “I drop my vile heart in the dust.”
John Berridge died at Everton on 22 January, 1793.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com