In recent years the English Puritans have been making a comeback. Pastors and theological students, in America and elsewhere, have been looking to their writings for inspiration and guidance. Names like John Owen, Richard Baxter, Thomas Goodwin, Richard Sibbes, John Bunyan, Samuel Rutherford,and Matthew Henry are exceedingly well known. Their books adorn my bookshelves and the shelves of many of today’s church leaders. What’s more, their appeal bridges both the Calvinism-Arminianism and the charismatic-cessationist gaps. Preachers of all stripes benefit from the wisdom of these men of years past.
Many of the Puritans have had a long history of well-written biographies. But some of the Puritans are known today by little more than their writings. One such Puritan preacher is Jeremiah Burroughs. His name may be familiar to some—he is perhaps best known for his attempts to encourage a unity of spirit in the Puritan party between the Presbyterian-leaning majority and the Congregationalists and other non-conformists. He was a preacher extraordinaire in his time and was invited to be one of the few Congregationalists admitted to the Westminster Assembly of Divines, which gave us the well-known and widely respected Westminster Confession of Faith. But in the centuries after Jeremiah Burroughs’ ministry, no full-length biography of the man had ever been written.
That misfortune has been remedied through the efforts of Phillip L. Simpson, an avid researcher of all things Jeremiah Burroughs and webmaster of the Jeremiah Burroughs Homepage website. His recently published work, A Life of Gospel Peace: A Biography of Jeremiah Burroughs (Reformation Heritage, 2011), makes a fine contribution to the study of the English Puritans in general, even as it introduces us to the largely forgotten man, Jeremiah Burroughs.
Jeremiah Burroughs—the man
We don’t know an awful lot about Burroughs, we don’t know when he was married and what exactly his home life was like. But everything we do know about him is pieced together admirably by Simpson. We follow Burroughs from his childhood home to his days as a college student at Cambridge, influenced by Puritanism and traveling far and wide to sit at the feet of well-known Puritan preachers such as John Cotton, John Wilson and John Rogers. Burroughs’ closest friends at that time are also well-known Puritans in their own right: Thomas Goodwin, William Bridge, and Sydrach Simpson. Burroughs was also influenced by the well-known Thomas Hooker during his time at Cambridge.
From there, Burroughs took teaching and preaching posts which eventually got him in trouble with the Anglican authorities of the day. His opportunities to preach became severely limited and he eventually took refuge in Holland. There he was involved in a Congregationalist church and had many opportunities to preach. But when the tides of religious freedom turned, and the English Civil War saw the Puritan parliament squaring off against the Anglican monarchy, Burroughs took the opportunity to return to his beloved England.
He soon was preaching at three different churches a week, and being asked to preach before parliament. And then his services were required in the Westminster Assembly. He worked tirelessly, preaching and teaching, and turning his lectures into a number of important and widely read books. Then at the age of 47, the humble and widely respected minister died.
As Simpson details the life of Jeremiah Burroughs, he adds all the fascinating details such as Burroughs’ thoughts on church government and eschatology, his run-ins with Anglican authorities and harsh critics, his escapades in Holland, and the inner workings of the Westminster Assembly. And as Simpson walks us through Burrough’s life chronologically, he pauses to discuss the sermons and books that were written by Burroughs at each step in his life. Simpson’s expertise shines through as he summarizes and excerpts Burroughs’ works, and it seems that he must have read them all.
Jeremiah Burroughs’ writings
In reading this biography, then, you also sample many of Burrough’s writings, which are often excerpted at some length. Burroughs proves to be focused on God’s glory and has a warm style that majors on God’s grace and the glories of Christ:
In all your conversation with God, have an eye to Christ; look unto God, the infinite, glorious First Being of all things, but do it through Christ, the Mediator…. Then God is rendered sweet and amiable, lovely to the soul, like a friend that the soul can be familiar with, when He is looked upon through Jesus Christ. (pg. 151)
God the Father is infinitely satisfied in Christ. Surely if Christ is an object sufficient for the satisfaction of the Father, much more, then, is He an object sufficient for the satisfaction of any soul. (pg. 206)
Pastors and church leaders will benefit from Burroughs’ life and example—his emphasis on prayer and the manner of his dealings with various church controversies and personal criticisms. They will also benefit the excepts shared from Burroughs’ Irenicum to the Lovers of Truth and Peace, which was my favorite section of this book. In this book, Burroughs aimed to encourage the church of his day to desist from ugly divisions and to instead work for peace. Simpson points out that Richard Baxter once said, “I entreat those that would escape the sin of schism, to read the foresaid treatises of peacemakers [including] Jeremy Burroughs’s Irenicum” (pg. 255). With my background in strict fundamentalism, I found his thoughts on this subject most pertinent, and I can’t help but share a few of these excerpts with our readers.
Many men are of such spirits as they love to be altogether busied about their brethren’s differences. Their discourses, their pens, and all their ways are about these, and that not to heal them but rather to widen them. (pg. 257)
We must profess truth when the truths are necessary to salvation, and when my forbearance in them may endanger the salvation of any. [Yet he criticized the] rigidness of the judgments of some… who think all differences in religion that cannot be quelled by argument must be quelled by violence. (pg. 260)
If I must err, considering what our condition is here in this world, I will rather err by too much gentleness and mildness than by too much rigor and severity. (pg. 261)
Shall every jealous, suspicious conceit, every little difference, be enough to separate us, and that almost irreconcilably? Have we the Spirit of Christ in us? Is the same mind in us that was in Jesus Christ? (pg. 261)
Let us account those [to be] brethren in whom we see godliness, and carry ourselves towards them accordingly, even though they will not so account us. Let us not be too ready to cut off association with our brethren. (pg. 262)
Oh, that God would set the beauty and glory of peace, friendship, and love before us! That this precious pearl, union, might be highly valued by us! Let us all study peace, seek peace, follow peace, pursue peace, and the God of peace be with us. (pg. 263)
Simpson reflects on Burroughs’ death and legacy as follows:
Burroughs once said that peace was dearer to him than his own life. Time has shown that, though he did not live long, his cry for peace among brothers in Christ continues to resonate to this day. What could be more needful in this age than to adopt his attitude of graciously submitting to whatever circumstance our heavenly Father brings us? (pg. 295)
Surely such a man is worth getting to know. And you will find no better book to become acquainted with Jeremiah Burroughs than Phillip Simpson’s excellent biography. I highly recommend it.
Author Info: Phillip L. Simpson and his wife, Sara, live in Huntington, WV, along with their two children, Zack and Molly. Phillip developed and maintains the Jeremiah Burroughs Homepage website, a site dedicated to collecting resources by and about Jeremiah Burroughs. He is a lay teacher and member of Crew Church in Huntington. Simpson graduated from Marshall University and Eastern Kentucky University, and is employed as an occupational therapist, helping people with dizziness and balance disorders. He also serves on the West Virginia Board of Occupational Therapy.
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