On the whole, pastors in the West today minister without seeing revival on a large scale. Yet many of the role models we have adopted from history did labour in revival times: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon, among them. They have a great deal to teach us, of course. But their very success, in terms of numbers converted, can have a discouraging effect on us who minister in leaner days.
It is worth examining, therefore, the lives of men and women who lived in more ordinary times, yet served the Lord faithfully and effectively. One such person was a contemporary of Jonathan Edwards. Like Edwards, he ministered in Northampton, but this was Northampton in England, not New England. He was Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), who served for 20 years as pastor of a fairly large congregation in that town. Doddridge also ran an academy that trained men for pastoral ministry, kept up a continual flow of publications, maintained a wide correspondence, and sustained a regular itinerant preaching ministry. Although he lived during the early years of the Evangelical Revival in Britain, his own ministry was largely unaffected by it, as he was confined to existing congregations of Independents and Presbyterians. How then did he operate, and what can we learn from him? Here, briefly, are 10 lessons:
- Doddridge’s priority was his own congregation. He pastored them faithfully, preaching to them every Lord’s Day and on weekday meetings, unless he was away from town. He admitted that he did not visit them as often as he would have liked. To compensate, he divided up the congregation with his elders, so that each individual did receive regular pastoral visits from a church officer, if not from the pastor himself.
- He believed firmly in the importance of a well-ordered local church – church membership, properly appointed church officers, effective church discipline, reverent worship, a frequent Lord’s Supper, and regular biblical preaching.
- He took great care to maintain his daily devotional life, with extended periods of private prayer and Bible reading, usually two or three times each day. He kept a journal that recorded his times of devotion as well as his reading and studies. He was attentive to the confession of personal sin, to intercession for his family and congregation, to pleading with the Lord for greater usefulness in his ministry, and to adoration of his triune God. He valued the Lord’s Supper highly indeed as an essential means of grace for the believer.
- He sought to work with all who loved the Lord Jesus Christ and believed and preached the gospel, whether Church of England men, revivalists, Moravians, or otherwise. He did all he could from his side to keep up good relations, even with difficult people.
- He understood the need for thorough training for pastoral ministry. He gave himself to this task in his own academy. His students were exposed to the Latin and Greek classics, to studies in rhetoric, to philosophy, and natural sciences, as well as to the more usual elements of ministerial training: theology, ethics, church history, and pastoral and homiletic studies.
- He made sustained efforts to stir churches up to revival. He developed a ten-step plan, designed to inculcate a greater seriousness and devotion to Christ among the congregations with which he had contact in various parts of the country. Associations of ministers were formed as a result, to seek to implement the plan and encourage family worship, attendance on the Lord’s Supper, private prayer, greater familiarity with the Bible, and better training for ministerial candidates.
- He stood up for biblical truth. He did not write polemical works. When John Taylor of Norwich wrote a notorious work denying the biblical doctrine of original sin, a number of Doddridge’s contemporaries took up their pens to refute him (including Isaac Watts and Jonathan Edwards). Doddridge, instead, preached a series of sermons on regeneration, which took issue with Taylor’s thesis by expounding biblical doctrine and exhorting his hearers to true faith in Christ. He then arranged for the sermons to be published and by those means secured a wide circulation for the truth in answer to Taylor.
- He worked very hard, often rising at 5 a.m. or working beyond midnight. He calculated that, by rising and setting to work two hours earlier than he might otherwise, a man could gain an extra ten years of working life.
- As a young man training for pastoral ministry, he had given himself to hard study in order to prepare himself as best he could for the work to which God had called him. He read Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French. He was familiar with the latest philosophical and theological writings. He continued to read and to study hard throughout his ministry.
- He was a family man and a man of warm feelings. His correspondence with his wife, much of which survives, is delightful. Although he was often away, his heart was always at home and his thoughts and prayers with his family. His grief at the death of his beloved daughter Tetsy, when she was just five years old, reveals him as a man of the tenderest emotion. He was no ivory tower preacher.
Philip Doddridge was not perfect, by any means. His teaching methods have been criticized for allowing too much freedom of opinion among his students on important doctrinal issues. He was probably insufficiently discerning in the burgeoning controversy over trinitarian doctrine, which led many, later in the century, to outright unitarianism. He probably worked too hard. But like many examples of imperfect men in Scripture, God used Doddridge’s faithful labour to advance his gospel.
Robert Strivens is principal of London Theological Seminary, which helps prepare men for gospel ministry in the UK and across the world. This article was posted on The Gospel Coalition website, 16 September 2012.
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