One of the characteristic features of the great spiritual awakening which God granted in England during the mid-eighteenth century was the compelling desire which the newly converted experienced to spread the good news of salvation far and wide. It was this burning zeal for outreach that caused George Whitefield to embark on "field" preaching wherever people could be found gathered in large numbers. The same broad vision led John Wesley to state early in his ministry, "I look upon all the world as my parish", in answer to the criticism that he had no authority to preach outside his own parish pulpit. Through the working of the Holy Spirit the burden for evangelism was felt by minister after minister as the revival spread, despite disapproval, scepticism and open opposition from many quarters including the religious, officialdom of the day. For example when John Berridge, the vicar of Everton in Bedfordshire, was ordered by the bishop to stop his itinerant preaching in 1758, his reply was ".... since gospel ministers are thinly scattered .... and neighbouring pulpits are locked up against them, then it behoves them to take advantage of fields, or barns or houses to cast abroad the gospel seed." Berridge concluded by telling the Bishop, "There is one canon .... which says, "Go preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15)" and that was what he intended to obey. Centuries earlier Peter and John, in similar circumstances, had told the Jewish religious authorities, "For we cannot but speak the things \which we have seen and heard," (Acts 4:20), and it was such boldness that was to inspire the preaching in the eighteenth century revival.
The course of events which led John Berridge to become known as "the pedlar of the Gospel" was in itself a testimony to God's faithfulness in granting enabling power to those He called to preach His Word. Berridge was the son of a wealthy farmer at Kingston in Nottingham and it was naturally expected that he would one day inherit the family farm and continue to run it in the traditional manner. Much of his childhood was spent with an aunt who was entrusted with his care while he attended a nearby school, but no particular effort was made to give him any religious instruction. One day a fellow pupil who was friendly with John invited him to his house and during the visit he read a portion of Scripture to John. Despite feeling a deep dislike for this, John was too polite to offend his friend, but his unease continued every time the Bible was read to him on subsequent visits.
At the age of fourteen John returned home and to his father's great disappointment, showed no talents whatever for farming. However, for several years his father continued to hope that John would develop an interest in the farm and settle down there, but John's thoughts were turning elsewhere. About the time he left school John had begun to be conscious of his sinfulness and his interest in spiritual matters was deepened as a result of conversations with a Christian tailor he met in Kingston. By 1734 John's father became reconciled to the fact that this son would never be a farmer and he therefore agreed to let John enter Clare College, Cambridge to study theology.
Berridge's time at university was very satisfying academically and very pleasant socially. He enjoyed studying and gained deserved success when he graduated, then attained an M.A. degree and became a Fellow of Clare College by 1742. However his wide circle of friends brought him into contact with various ideas and theories which distracted him from studying the Bible, with the consequence that he gave up private prayer for ten years. Even so Berridge was ordained in 1745, but felt no desire to take up parish duties until 1749 when his conscience caused him to accept the position of curate at Stapleford near Cambridge.
Berridge's religious views at this time were based on the belief that human merit and virtue were adequate means of achieving salvation and he applied his considerable learning to advocate a life of good works to his hearers. He continued in this formal way when he became vicar of Everton in 1755, but in neither parish did he see any effective results. Later that year as Berridge was having his daily time of Bible study and meditation, the command "Cease from thine own works, only believe" was laid upon his heart. At last he saw that striving to earn salvation by good works was sheer vanity and pride, but rather it required an act of sovereign grace by God in the soul of man. As the glorious truth of justification by faith in Christ dawned on his soul, Berridge's whole life was transformed and he lost no time in making up for the years he had wasted. He gladly burned all his previous sermons and began to preach nothing but Christ crucified, first in his own church and then throughout the neighbouring districts.
From that time on onwards Berridge's ministry was anointed with great power and with a new authority and within a few months there were frequent conversions in the large congregations which gathered to hear him preach. By 1758 Berridge was travelling throughout the whole of Bedfordshire and the surrounding counties, preaching up to twelve sermons a week in villages and farms and the open-air. As with Whitefield and Wesley he went wherever people could be found whether in large numbers or small family groups. Behind all his works for the Gospel lay the unwavering confidence that, "God has promised a reformation when His word is truly preached," and consequently his methods were plain and direct as can be gauged from the guidance he gave to younger men preparing for the ministry. To Rowland Hill he wrote, "Look simply to Jesus for preaching food: what is wanted will be given and what is given blessed. Your mouth will be a flowing stream or a fountain sealed according as your heart is. Preach nothing down but the devil and nothing up but Jesus Christ." While he advised Charles Simeon, "When you open your commission.....speak of the evil of sin in its nature, its rebellion against God.....declare man's utter helplessness to change his nature or to make his peace. Pardon and holiness must come from the Saviour."
The number of conversions amongst the people of Everton increased so steadily that it could be justly claimed that a revival of considerable proportions was taking place. Even those who went to the services with the intention of disrupting them often found themselves convicted by the preaching of the word and remained behind afterwards to ask Berridge about the way of salvation. Not all his hearers were so graciously dealt with, since Berridge often had to endure rowdy interruptions and insults, but he was never discouraged because he knew that the preaching of the Cross would always cause offence because the doctrines of grace "batter all human pride, undermine all human merit, lay the human worm in the dust and give the glory of salvation wholly unto God."
Although Berridge did not become as well known as leaders such as Whitefield and Wesley, he was a chosen instrument who was vitally involved in the real revival of the eighteenth century, as his contemporaries all recognised. Henry Venn who accompanied Berridge on preaching tours, stated in 1776 that he had "the largest congregations that were ever known .... and greatly was his word owned of the Lord." John Wesley had earlier noted that people "came now twelve or fourteen miles to hear him, and very few came in vain," while George Whitfield described Berridge as "a burning and shining light" and gladly invited him to preach at his chapel in London. Berridge however took as little notice of praise as he did of criticism, as can be seen from a letter he wrote shortly before he died, stating, "If you ask my real name, it is Pride, and such an odd mysterious evil is it, I can even be proud of loathing my pride."
Berridge's zeal for preaching left him with little time for writing and his book of hymns entitled "Zions Songs", while doctrinally sound, was marred by a style of phraseology that soon appeared dated. As a result, apart from examples such as, "To Christ for help I fly," few of his hvmns have been included in modern collections.
After a fruitful ministry of more than thirty years, Berridge's sight and hearing both began to fail, but he bore it with gracious fortitude, saying, "My ears are so dull they are not fit for converse and my eyes are so weak I can read but little and write less. Old Adam whispers in my ear (and he can make me hear with a whisper), "What will you do if you become deaf and blind?" I tell him I must think more and pray more and thank the Lord for the ears and eyes enjoyed for 70 years and for the prospect of a better pair of eyes and ears when these are gone." Even when he died Berridge sought to leave behind a testimony to be a witness to those who came after him by composing this epitaph to be inscribed on his tombstone:-
Reader art thou born again?