John Berridge – The Heaviest Afflictions on this Side of Hell
John Berridge, Vicar of Everton, was a leading 18th century evangelical and a passionate open-air preacher who travelled all over East Anglia. Some historians claim that had he lived in London, he would have been one of the most famous preachers that ever lived. Instead he simply became known as “the countryside pedlar of the Gospel”.
Born in 1716, he was the son of a wealthy grazier in Nottinghamshire. He spent much of his childhood living with an aunt who looked after him while he attended a nearby school.
The school failed to give him any religious teaching, but he used to visit a school-friend at home who would passionately read the Bible to him.
Young John Berridge was too polite to show his deep dislike, and he continued to listen respectfully whenever his friend read to him.
At fourteen, he returned home. His father hoped that he would one day inherit the family farm and continue to run it in the time-honoured manner.
To his father’s great regret, he showed no aptitude whatever for farming. Instead he developed an interest in spiritual matters. After several years his father despaired of teaching him the trade and in 1734 sent him to study theology at Clare College, Cambridge.
John Berridge found both the academic and social life at university highly stimulating. As well as reading theology, he studied logic, mathematics, and metaphysics. He built up a wide circle of friends, graduated with honours and in 1742 became a Fellow of the College.
However his wide-ranging interests brought him into contact with diverse ideas and theories which distracted him from studying the Bible.
Even so he was ordained in 1745, but still felt no wish to take up parish duties until 1749 when he became curate at Stapleford near Cambridge. Despite his enthusiastic sermons which advocated a life of good works, he had little success.
In 1755 he became Vicar of Everton, near Sandy, but still his preaching failed to have any effective results.
Later that year, as John Berridge was meditating on the Bible, he discovered that trying to earn salvation by good deeds alone was mere vanity and pride. Instead he began to recognise the idea of “justification by faith” — that salvation required an act of sovereign grace by God.
This discovery transformed his whole life. He lost no time in making up for the years he had wasted. He abandoned and burnt all his previous sermons and began to preach salvation by “faith” rather than “works”.
The effects were amazing: “Some of his hearers cried out aloud hysterically, some were thrown into strong convulsions, and some fell into a kind of trance or catalepsy, which lasted a long time.”
John Berridge’s ministry and outreach had a new authority. Within a few months people in the large congregations that gathered to hear him were regularly converted.
By 1758 he would ride on horseback far and wide across the whole of Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire and the surrounding counties. He went wherever people could be found. He preached up to twelve open-air sermons and travelled over 100 miles each week.
Compelled by a desire to spread the good news of salvation, the indefatigable John Berridge became a leading evangelical in the same vein as the 18th century revivalists, such as the Wesley brothers, Daniel Rowlands and other Methodists.
Like them, he angered the clergy in whose parishes he preached, and the Bishop of Ely, Matthias Mawson, threatened to dispossess him unless he put a stop to his itinerant preaching. But the bishop backed down when William Pitt the elder, a friend from his Cambridge days, intervened.
Unlike some Methodists, he resisted marriage, and wrote that there was “no trap so mischievous to the field-preacher as wedlock; and it is laid for him at every hedge corner.”
Although John Berridge was not as well renowned for his preaching as George Whitefield and John Wesley, he played a vital part in the eighteenth century revival, as his contemporaries recognised.
Henry Venn, who accompanied Berridge on preaching tours, said in 1776 that he had “the largest congregations that were ever known …. and greatly was his word owned of the Lord.”
George Whitfield, who invited him to preach regularly at his chapel in Tottenham Court Road, London, described him as “a burning and shining light”.
After a successful ministry of more than thirty years, both his sight and hearing began to fail. He died at the age of seventy-seven. Thousands of people attended his funeral.
At his own request John Berridge was buried on the north-east side of Everton churchyard as “a means of consecrating it”. This piece of ground had previously been reserved for those who had come to a dishonourable end.