Richard Sibbes was born in 1577 at Tostock, Suffolk, in the Puritan county of old England. He was baptized in the parish church in Thurston, and went to school there. As a child, he loved books. His father, Paul Sibbes, a hardworking wheelwright and, according to Zachary Catlin, a contemporary biographer of Sibbes, was “a good, sound-hearted Christian,” but became irritated with his son’s interest in books. He tried to cure his son of book-buying by offering him wheelwright tools, but the boy was not dissuaded. With the support of others, Sibbes was admitted to St. John’s College in Cambridge at the age of eighteen. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1599, a fellowship in 1601, and a Master of Arts degree in 1602. In 1603, he was converted under the preaching of Paul Baynes, whom Sibbes called his “father in the gospel.” Baynes, remembered most for his commentary on Ephesians, succeeded William Perkins at the Church of St. Andrews in Cambridge.
Sibbes was ordained to the ministry in the Church of England in Norwich in 1608. He was chosen as one of the college preachers in 1609 and earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1610. From 1611 to 1616, he served as lecturer at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge. His preaching awakened Cambridge from the spiritual indifference into which it had fallen after the death of Perkins. A gallery had to be built to accommodate visitors in the church.
Soon after his appointment, Sibbes received the Doctor of Divinity degree at Cambridge. He became known as “the heavenly Doctor,” due to his godly preaching and heavenly manner of life. Izaac Walton wrote of Sibbes: Of this blest man, let this just praise be given: Heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.
In 1633, King Charles I offered Sibbes the charge of Holy Trinity, Cambridge. Sibbes continued to serve as preacher at Gray’s Inn, master of St. Catharine’s Hall, and vicar of Holy Trinity until his death in 1635. Sibbes never married, but he established an astonishing network of friendships that included godly ministers, noted lawyers, and parliamentary leaders of the early Stuart era. “Godly friends are walking sermons,” he said.
Sibbes was a gentle man who avoided the controversies of his day as much as possible. “Fractions breed fractions,” he insisted. His battles with Archbishop Laud, Roman Catholics, and Arminians were exceptions. He also remained close friends with many pastors and leaders who wanted more radical reform than he did for the Church of England. Sibbes was an inspiration to many. He influenced Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, and Independency, the three dominant parties of the church in England at that time.
He was a pastor of pastors, and lived a life of moderation. “Where most holiness is, there is most moderation, where it may be without prejudice of piety to God and the good of others,” he wrote. Sibbes wrote, “To preach is to woo…. The main scope of all [preaching] is, to allure us to the entertainment of Christ’s mild, safe, wise, victorious government.” Sibbes’s last sermons, preached a week before his death, were on John 14:2, “In my Father’s house are many mansions…. I go to prepare a place for you.”
When asked in his final days how his soul was faring, Sibbes replied, “I should do God much wrong if I should not say, very well.” Sibbes began his will and testament, dictated on July 4, 1635, the day before his death, with “I commend and bequeath my soul into the hands of my gracious Savior, who hath redeemed it with his most precious blood, and appears now in heaven to receive it.” William Gouge preached Sibbes’s funeral sermon. (Excerpt from Meet the Puritans by Dr. Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson).