Rev. John Berridge – the Gospel Pedlar (1716-1793)
Rev. John Berridge helped put Everton on the 18th century map. As a writer, divine and famous preacher in the Evangelical Movement he was a contemporary of John Wesley, the Methodist minister. He also played a significant role in the spread of the Non-Conformist church in Bedfordshire and surrounding counties. After a spell in Stapleford, near Cambridge, Clare College appointed him as the vicar of St. Mary's in 1755. Until he moved into the vicarage, he appointed the Rev. Jones of Bolnhurst as his supply for six months. Rev. Berridge had agreed to preach in St. Mary's on the first Sunday of every month. This allowed Rev. Jones to return to Bolnhurst, unless he could not make it due to ill health, bad weather or such. Berridge agreed to stay at the vicarage only a night or so but, according to Jones, he "came over often, stayed weeks together, sometimes longer." This was accounted for by his poor health. As a result, he stayed most of the winter and spring. This unexpected turn of events caused problems for Rev. Jones as Mrs Hall, his housekeeper, and Godwick, his servant, had to do lots of extra work when Berridge was in residence. This was work which they had not been taken on to do and for which they probably demanded extra pay. In Rev. Jones’ correspondence with the Bishop of Ely he stated that
“...I think I can truly declare that during my continuance at Everton, I discharged my duty honestly, with care, diligence and prudence, to the best of my power. I am very sure that this was the character given of me by the inhabitants and neighbourhood, as far at least as I could hear, whilst I was there.
…Had not Mr. B. raised a disturbance; acted hastily & I conceive in a very imprudent and unfriendly manner, busied himself to a degree of rashness and impertinence, to me surprising, and to others scarce inconceivable; done injury and even violence, or excited and promoted both, to private characters and every other way in his power (as I have been credibly informed) in a kind of maddish zeal, or I know what in what other style to express it, attempted to infuse very wrong suggestions into people's minds at and about Everton and elsewhere, since I left the place...“
(Dr Williams's Trust, London, Jones 39.B.24)
According to the Clare College history, Berridge suffered similar set backs in Everton to those he had experienced in Stapleford. This was until what he described as his "conversion." These set backs must have included his disagreements with Rev. Jones. One witness reported that Berridge said that he had been blind for upwards of forty years. One day, after a fortnight of considering, fasting and praying
“ he was sitting alone in his parlour, he heard on a sudden, a strong voice like a thunder uttering these words, CEASE FROM THINE OWN WORKS. From that instant he resolved to take another course and did and doth still continue it. He then destroyed all his written sermons,... took to extempore preaching, trusting entirely to the Spirit. ...introduced a monthly communion, to which great numbers of his auditors from all parts resorted. There were one Sunday, he said, about 270 Communicants. Mr J. Wesley preached there lately (upon Mr Berridge going to preach before the University of Cambridge) and had a large communion."
(Dr Williams's Trust, Jones 39.B.24)
Nigel Pibworth, in his fascinating biography of Berridge and the 18th century growth of the Methodist church, commented that, from that time, St. Mary's Church in Everton was crowded on Sundays. People came from miles around to hear the gospel preacher. The parish at the time was estimated to have a population of about 250 but, as shall be seen, Berridge's popularity attracted congregations of many thousands on weekends! Whilst it might have provided some locals with extra income from renting accommodation for the visitors, most visitors walked or rode there and back in a day.
“They would bring their meals and during the fine weather would eat in the open air. The vicarage was always available for the visitors, as was the meadow for their horses.“
Insight into Berridge's life once he had re-established himself in the parish was provided by the history of Clare College. Berridge, it was said,
"never spared himself - for twenty years after his entry to Clare he had consistently worked for some fifteen hours a day - but after his conversion his activities were often prodigious, though doubtless easier because more varied and more physical. In an itinerary that used to lead him throughout five counties, and was repeated for over twenty years, he would preach on an average ten to twelve sermons a week, and frequently ride a hundred miles. Indeed, his tall stature, robust frame, strong voice, natural wit and cheerfulness, and marked common sense combine with his habit of rural riding to make us think of him as a kind of evangelical Cobett, but much more trustworthy and equable than that certainly greater man. In the single year following his conversion he was visited "by a thousand different persons under serious impressions, many of whom found that his purse was as open as his heart though not so large." However, it was not so small neither, as Shakespeare might put it, for at home his tables were served with a cold collation for his numerous hearers, who came from far on Sabbaths, and his field and stable open for their horses. Abroad houses and barns were rented, lay-preachers maintained, and his own travelling expenses disbursed by himself. Cottagers were always gainers by his company. He invariably left a half-crown for the homely provision of the day, and during his itineraries it actually cost him five hundred pounds in this single article of expenditure."
('Clare College 1326 -1926', CUP 1928, pp.62-4)
In Fowler's 'History of Gamlingay,' there is an eye-witness account of one of Berridge's sermons on Sunday, May 25th 1758 which is loosely based on a report given to John Wesley. (Fowler, E.J. (1935), 'The History of Gamlingay,' Fowler Bros. Gamlingay, p.7) Pibworth's biography of Berridge also includes details of the same events. A Mrs and Mr Blackwell of Lewisham were staying in Everton at the vicarage and reported their experiences to John Wesley. His journal details their correspondence. Unable to attend Berridge's seven o'clock service, Mrs Blackwell reported that her husband 'observed several fainting and crying out while Mr Berridge was preaching.' At the service later that morning she
“heard many cry out, especially children, whose agonies were amazing. One of the eldest, a girl ten or twelve years old, was full in my view, in violent contortions of the body, and weeping aloud, I think incessantly during the whole service. And several much younger children were in Mr Blackwell's view, agonizing as this did.“
(Curnock, N. (1938), 'Journal of John Wesley', vol.4, London, p.321)
She describes the afternoon meeting as equally crowded. The building was packed to the extent that people were crowded around Berridge in the pulpit and the windows 'were filled within and without.' Although Berridge was unwell, his voice was for the most part distinguishable in the midst of all the outcries. She notes that there were three times more men than women and that many of the hearers had come from other towns and villages in the area. Thirty had come from thirteen miles away, having set off at two in the morning. Berridge's text was 2 Timothy 3:5: 'Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.' Mrs Blackwell writes,
'The presence of God really filled the place. And while poor sinners felt the sentence of death in their souls, what sounds of distress did I hear! The greatest number of them who cried or fell were men; but some of women, and several children, felt the power of the same almighty Spirit, and seemed just sinking into hell. This occasioned a mixture of various sounds, some shrieking, some roaring aloud. The most general was a loud breathing, like that of people half strangled and gasping for life. And indeed almost all the cries were like those of human creatures dying in bitter anguish. great numbers wept without any noise; others fell down as dead; some sinking in silence, some with extreme noise and violent agitation. I stood on the pew-seat, as did a young man in the opposite pew, an able-bodied, fresh, healthy countryman. But in a moment, while he seemed to think of nothing less, down he dropped, with a violence inconceivable. The adjoining pews seemed shook with his fall. I heard afterwards the stamping of his feet, ready to break the boards, as he lay in strong convulsions at the bottom of the pew. Among several that were struck down in the next pew was a girl who was as violently seized as him. When he fell, Blackwell and I felt our souls thrilled with a momentary dread; as when one man is killed by a cannon-ball, another often feels the wind of it. Among the children who felt the arrows of the Almighty I saw a sturdy boy, about eight years old, who roared above his fellows, and seemed in his agony, to struggle with the strength of a grown man. His face was red as scarlet; and almost all on whom God laid his hand turned either very red or almost black.'
These are the first few pages of Bernard O’Connor’s ‘Rev. John Berridge – the Vicar of Everton, Bedfordshire’. Copies can be obtained for £5.00 (excl. P&P) from St Mary’s Church warden or email@example.com
Berridge, John (1717–1793), Church of England clergyman, was born on 1 March 1717 at Kingston-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire, the eldest son of John Berridge (b. 1686), yeoman, a substantial farmer and grazier, and his wife, Sarah (née Hathwaite), of Nottingham. He received initial education in Nottingham, but, having shown himself to be inept at farming, he was sent to Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1735; he entered Clare College on 12 June as Lord Exeter scholar (1735–9) and Freeman scholar; he graduated BA in 1739 and proceeded MA in 1742. Berridge was elected an Exeter fellow of his college in 1740, and a Diggons fellow in 1743; he became a foundation fellow in 1748, and continued to reside at Clare until 1757, usually reading fifteen hours a day. He vacated his fellowship on 1 June 1764.
Berridge was well known in the university as a scholar of distinction, with an entertaining wit. He was, however, inclined to rely for salvation on a Socinian combination of good works and faith, and for at least ten years he gave up private devotions altogether. Nevertheless on 10 March 1745 he was made deacon, on the title of his fellowship, at Buckden, Huntingdonshire, by the bishop of Lincoln (Bishop Thomas), and on 9 June he was ordained priest. From 1750 to 1755 he served as curate at Stapleford, near Cambridge, riding out from college. Believing that he had had no beneficial effect, spiritual or moral, on the parishioners, he resigned. Nevertheless he soon took the college living of Everton, Bedfordshire (with Tetworth, Huntingdonshire), to which he was instituted on 1 July 1755. He continued to live in college, however, and employed John Jones (1700–1770), a liberal clergyman, as resident curate. Following domestic disagreement, Jones resigned: an episode, hitherto overlooked, which may have had an important bearing on the degree and nature of Jones's adverse comments on Berridge's character both then and later.
Not long afterwards (apparently in December 1757), while reading his Bible, Berridge had a vivid experience of spiritual rebirth, which amounted to a classic ‘evangelical’ conversion. The altered emphases of his sermons soon bore fruit locally and by 1759 Berridge was itinerating widely in surrounding villages, preaching effectively to country people in field and barn, regardless of parochial boundaries, and sometimes inducing physical convulsions among his hearers. With Berridge emphasizing justification by faith alone, not only in rural but in university sermons (1759), the master of Corpus, Dr John Green, began printing lengthy refutations (1760). Archbishop Secker required Green to desist. Bishop Thomas, however, remonstrated with Berridge; but the indirect influence of Berridge's former college friend, Thomas Pitt (later Lord Camelford), effectively deterred the bishop from further opposition.
Although tall, with a direct manner and strong voice, Berridge had suffered from an asthmatic condition since early manhood. After nine years of preaching constantly on mid-week circuits, increasingly far afield, from 1768 to 1773 he was too unwell to itinerate. Moreover he had come to believe that his Arminian understanding of the gospel was less than fully scriptural. He became a convinced Calvinist, explaining his change of view in the relatively simple language of The Christian World Unmasked (1773). John Fletcher of Madeley claimed, in his learned Fifth Check to Antinomianism, to find high Calvinist beliefs in Berridge's book, but this view was not generally accepted. Berridge's changed understanding of scripture had been marked incidentally by his appointment, on Lady Huntingdon's recommendation (1768), as chaplain to the eleventh earl of Buchan.
As the years went by congregations at Everton began to dwindle; but after an improvement in Berridge's health, and the appointment, in 1782, of a good curate, Richard Whittingham (subsequently Berridge's first biographer) the church filled again. Moreover Berridge resumed annual visits to London, where he preached to large numbers at Whitefield's Tabernacle (the customary likeness of Berridge shows him preaching from its pulpit) and elsewhere. By early 1793, however, he was once more unable to travel and, overcome at last by asthmatic illness, he died at his vicarage in Everton on 22 January. Charles Simeon of Cambridge preached a funeral sermon to large numbers, before his burial on 27 January in Everton churchyard, where a tombstone with Berridge's own striking inscription, including ‘Reader, art thou born again?’, remains.
Berridge was one of the more remarkable leaders of the evangelical revival. Not only was he among the most gifted intellectually; he was an effective teacher of the relatively uneducated, to whom he devoted his mature ministry. At the same time he was a friend of such notables as Henry Venn, John Wesley, George Whitefield, John Thornton, Lady Huntingdon, and Charles Simeon. Berridge's sense of humour, which occasionally seemed carried to excess, and his use of homely language, appealed to many hearers, not least to readers of his writings, and those who sang his hymns. He remained unmarried because he felt, after due consideration, that bachelorhood was more suitable for those called to a roving ministry. In 1759 John Wesley wrote of Berridge that he was ‘one of the most simple as well as one of the most sensible men’ (Telford, 4.58).
J. S. Reynolds
N. R. Pibworth, The gospel pedlar (1987) · S. A. Beveridge, The story of the Beveridge families of England and Scotland (1923) · T. M. Blagg and F. A. Wadsworth, eds., Abstracts of Nottinghamshire marriage licences, 2, British RS, 60 (1935) · W. J. Harrison and A. H. Lloyd, Notes on the masters, fellows, scholars and exhibitioners of Clare College, Cambridge (1953) · ‘The late Rev. John Berridge’, Evangelical Magazine, 1 (1793), 8–20 · R. Whittingham, ed., Works of the Rev. John Berridge, with memoir, 2nd edn, 1864 (1838) · C. H. E. Smyth, Simeon and church order (1940) · J. C. Ryle, The Christian leaders of the last century (1869) · M. L. Loane, Cambridge and the evangelical succession (1952) · A. S. Wood, ‘John Berridge’, Evangelical Library Bulletin, 24 (1960), 2–4 · F. W. B. Bullock, Evangelical conversion in Great Britain, 1696–1845 (1959), 95–9 · E. Walker, ‘John Berridge’, Bedfordshire Magazine, 4 (1953–4), 245–8 · The letters of the Rev. John Wesley, ed. J. Telford, 4 (1931), 58 · will, proved, archdeaconry court of Huntingdon, 29 Jan 1793
J. Ogborne, stipple, pubd 1788, BM, NPG · J. Ogborne, engraving, 1792, repro. in Ryle, Christian leaders, p. 216 · engraving, repro. in Smyth, Simeon and church order, p. 180 · engraving, repro. in Whittingham, ed., Works of the Rev. John Berridge, frontispiece · line engraving, BM, NPG; repro. in Gospel Magazine (1774)
J. S. Reynolds, ‘Berridge, John (1717–1793)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2258, accessed 19 Nov 2005]
John Berridge (1717–1793): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/2258