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Jeremiah Burroughs

Jeremiah Burroughs combined harmoniously in his own person what might be considered incompatible qualities: a fervent zeal for purity of doctrine and worship, and a peaceable spirit, which longed and laboured for Christian unity. For the first of these qualities the Puritans are renowned; in the second, they are deemed by some critics to have been deficient. A close study of the problem suggests that, as a whole, the Puritans were no more and no less concerned about the visible unity of the Church than is the Word of God. But in the case of Burroughs, certainly, we are faced with a man who, among his contemporaries and colleagues, was recognized as outstanding for his conciliatory temper and efforts. The often-quoted opinion of Richard Baxter was that if all the Episcopalians had been like Archbishop Ussher, all the Presbyterians like Stephen Marshall, and all the Independents like Jeremiah Burroughs, then the breaches of the Church would soon have been healed. Of Burroughs himself, it was said that his heart was broken by the divisions among the Puritan reformers in the 1640’s and that this contributed to his premature death at the age of forty-seven.

The life and ministry of Burroughs, though comparatively short, exemplify many of the best features of the era to which he belonged. Born in 1599, he was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Founded in 1584 on the site of an old Dominican college, Emmanuel became the greatest seminary of Puritan preachers. Through it passed Thomas Hooker, John Cotton, Thomas Shepard (all of them founding fathers in New England), as well as Stephen Marshall, William Bridge, Anthony Burgess, Thomas Brooks and Thomas Watson. It is recorded that, while still at Cambridge, Burroughs was a nonconformist and eventually he was forced to leave the university for this reason.

Jeremiah Burroughs’ ministry falls readily into three periods: (1) After leaving Cambridge, he ministered to two congregations in East Anglia, the region where the influence of Puritan principles was strongest. In his first charge, at Bury St Edmunds, Burroughs’ colleague was Edmund Calamy, who was also later to be a famous city preacher, as well as a leading writer (one of the co-authors of a tract against the episcopacy and liturgy of the Church of England) and a church leader (after the Restoration of Charles II, he refused a bishopric). In 1631 Burroughs was appointed Rector of Tivetshall, Norfolk. Although East Anglia was a Puritan stronghold, his position was soon in jeopardy as the bishops, under the over-all direction of Laud, were determined to enforce nationwide conformity. Bishop Wren of Norwich (later of Ely) was one of the most severe and bigoted members of the episcopal bench. By means of his visitation articles, he insisted on the placing of the communion table altar-wise, encouraged superstitious gestures (not countenanced by the Prayer Book) and prohibited afternoon sermons on the Lord’s day, as well as requiring all ministers to read the ‘Book of Sports’, which urged the people to engage in various recreations on the Lord’s day after attending morning worship. Several godly ministers were suspended by Wren for nonconformity or for refusing to read the ‘Book of Sports’, among them Calamy, Bridge and Burroughs himself.

(2) The Laudian regime caused not only Puritan ministers but many citizens and church members to leave England, seeking liberty to worship God according to Scripture and their consciences. Some crossed the Atlantic to found a New England. Others, like the Protestant Reformers a century before, sought haven on the Continent. In the 1630’s Holland, which had shaken off the yoke of Roman Catholic Spain, was especially hospitable to the exiles. A succession of noted divines ministered to the English congregations there. The learned Dr William Ames, formerly Professor of Theology at the University of Franeker, became teacher of the English Church at Rotterdam in 1632 (though he died the next year), and Burroughs agreed in 1637 to fulfil the same office. His course continued to run parallel to that of William Bridge who, after being forced to leave his charge at Norwich by Bishop Wren, joined Burroughs at Rotterdam as Pastor of the Church. (The Independents, like the New England Congregationalists, regarded the offices of pastor and teacher as distinct, though of course similar.)

(3) The final period, up to his death in 1646, witnessed his greatest success as a popular preacher in London and a leading reformer of the Independent persuasion. The Long Parliament, which ended many of the objectionable features of the Laudian era, invited the exiled ministers, among them Burroughs, to return to England. He came back in 1642 to play an important dual role, as a city preacher and as one of the framers of the new religious settlement. In the latter capacity, he was summoned to take his place as a member of the Westminster Assembly. Burroughs played a full part in the work of the Assembly, though he was among the small group of Independents who opposed certain features of the form of church government agreed to by the majority of the Assembly. The ‘Five Dissenting Brethren’, as the Independent leaders were called, were, however, in full doctrinal agreement with the other Puritans, and Burroughs, especially, deplored the deep division which ensued.

One of his most famous works was Irenicum or Heart-Divisions Opened, in which he pleaded for the unity of all who loved the truth, and argued that what made comparatively minor differences into causes of rigid divisions was a wrong spirit and wrong motives. His efforts to promote a united church settlement were to prove unsuccessful, though many of the leading Puritan ministers kept, like him, a true sense of proportion.

In the period of Parliament’s ascendancy, many of the ablest preachers gravitated towards London, and Burroughs was chosen to preach at Stepney and Cripplegate, described on the title-page of the first edition of The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment as ‘two of the greatest congregations in England’. At Stepney he shared the ministry with William Greenhill, famous for his Commentary on Ezekiel, so that Burroughs (who preached at 7 a.m.) was called the morning-star of Stepney, and Greenhill the evening-star.

The substance of Burroughs’ preaching is revealed in his published works, which are mainly sermons. These writings, most of which were published posthumously, were extremely popular in the seventeenth century, but they have never been collected and issued as a complete set. His grasp of doctrine, discernment into the very recesses of the human heart, comprehensive and profound knowledge of Scripture and ability to apply it, and superb gift of illustration, are all exemplified in them. Burroughs died in 1646, two weeks after a fall from his horse.

[Based upon Michael Boland’s ‘Biographical Introduction’ to Burrough’s The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, published by the Trust in the Puritan Paperbacks series. The author image is from a painting of Burroughs by Gustavus Ellinthorpe Sintzenich, by kind permission of Mansfield College, Oxford.]