JOHN RIPPON, D.D.
THE mighty commentator having been followed to his grave by his attached church and a great company of ministers and Christian people, among whom he had been regarded as a great man and a prince in Israel, his church began to look around for a successor. This time as in the case of Dr. ,Gill there was trouble in store, for there was division of opinion.
Some, no doubt, as true Gillites, looked only for a solid divine, sound in doctrine, who would supply the older saints with spiritual food, while another partly had an eye to the growth of the church, and to the securing to the flock the younger members of their families. They were agreed that they would write to Bristol for a probationer, and Mr. John Rippon was sent to them. He was a youth of some twenty summers, of a vivacious temperament, quick and bold. The older members judged him to be too young, and too flighty; they even accused him of having gone up the pulpit stairs two steps at a time on some occasion when he was hurried, — a grave offense for which the condemnation could hardly be too severe. He was only a young man, and came from an academy, and this alone was enough to make the sounder and older members afraid of him. He preached for a lengthened time on probation, and finally some forty persons withdrew because they could not agree with the enthusiastic vote by which the majority of the people elected him.
John Rippon modestly expressed his wonder that even more had not been dissatisfied, and his surprise that so large a number were agreed to call him to the pastorate. In the spirit of forbearance and brotherly love he proposed that, as these friends were seceding for conscience sake, and intended to form themselves into another church, they should be lovingly dismissed with prayer and God-speed, and that, as a token of fraternal love, they should be assisted to build a meeting-house for their own convenience, and the sum of £300 should be voted to them when their church was formed and their meeting-house erected. The promise was redeemed, and Mr. Rippon took part in the ordination service of the first minister. This was well done. Such a course was sure to secure the blessing of God. The church in Dean Street thus became another offshoot from the parent stem, and with varying conditions it remains to this day as the church in Trinity Street, Borough. It is somewhat remarkable as illustrating the perversity of human judgment that the seceding friends who objected to Rippon’s youth: elected for their pastor Mr. William Button who was younger still, being only nineteen years of age. His father, however, was a deacon under Dr. Gill, and therefore no doubt the worthy youth was regarded with all the more tenderness; nor did he disappoint the hopes of his friends, for he labored on for more than forty years with the utmost acceptance. The friends who remained with young John Rippon had no reason to regret their choice: the tide of prosperity set in and continued for half a century, and the church again came to the front in denominational affairs. The chapel in Carter Lane was enlarged, and various agencies and societies set in motion; there was, in fact, a real revival of religion in the church, though it was of that quiet style which became a Baptist church of the straiter sort.
Rippon was rather clever than profound; his talents were far inferior to those of Gill, but he had more tact, and so turned his gifts to the greatest possible account. He said many smart and witty things, and his preaching was always lively, affectionate, and impressive. He was popular in the best sense of the term, — beloved at home, respected abroad, and useful everywhere. Many souls were won to Jesus by his teaching, and out of these a remarkable number became themselves ministers of the gospel. The church-book abounds with records of brethren preaching before the church, as the custom was in those days.
In order to provide the denomination with information as to its own affairs, he projected the “Baptist Register,” and edited it for several years. Its general tone and spirit have been well brought out in a sketch by Mr. Goadby in his “Bye-paths of Baptist History.” “At first sight the contents of the Register do not promise modern readers very dainty fare; but on a further and more careful examination, especially in the long foot-notes given in some of the volumes, one discovers many toothsome morsels. A few of these we now give. It will be seen, that while Dr. Rippon and his friends were animated by the very laudable desire of presenting an accurate account of the Baptist denomination during the latter half of the last century, they often indulged in the freest and quaintest criticisms on ministers who were then living. “Of Willingham, Cambs, we are told, ‘The god man (John Rootham, the minister) has been much tried with an asthmatical complaint and other disorders, so that he seldom enjoys a day’s health. But he has a considerable congregation, and about forty members.’ Nicholas Gillard, the pastor of Collumpton, Devon, ‘is eighty. His people say that his path is like that of the just, shining more and more unto the perfect day.’ David Sprague, the minister of Tiverton, enjoys a singularly robust constitution. ‘He says that preaching fourteen or fifteen sermons a week strengthens his body, and invigorates his soul.’ It is reported of John Ripport, sen., of Upoltery, ‘ that he is a man of the sweetest temper; and that good judges say he preaches better and better.’ The minister .of Coventry, John Butterworth, we learn, ‘went to London to collect money in payment of the debt on the meeting-house, and bore the fatigue as well as could be expected.’ “There are two or three curious morsels from Yorkshire. The first relates to the minister at Bradford. ‘The aged father Crabtree is now getting feeble, and sometimes sits down once or twice in the course of his sermon; but great savor attends his prayers and all his discourses, and he preaches with as much zeal and animation as ever.’ The second refers to Mr. James Shuttleworth, of Coerling Hill. We are told, with the most charming frankness, that this minister ‘is a man of weak constitution, with a little wife and ten children, many of them very small!’ A friend also writes of Mr. William Hague, the minister of Scarborough: ‘ Our beloved pastor is advancing in years, and almost blind. He is a zealous, faithful laborer in this corner of Christ’s vineyard. He has a wife and three children at home. His last year’s salary amounted to £30, which is the most we ever raised him.’ “Of the other ministers who are singled out for special remark, two instances must suffice. The Rev. W. Clarke, of Exeter , is spoken of as a man remarkable for prudence and sweetness of temper. Surely Mr. Clarke’s modesty must have suffered some shock when his virtues were thus paraded before the whole denomination. But the most singular comment is on the Rev. Thomas Mabbott, of Biggleswade, Beds. ‘As a preacher he was much too loud and too long, a habit rarely attended with such desirable effects as ministers are ready to expect; but it is ruinous to themselves, and often creates a disgust in the minds of even a serious audience, and mars the whole service.’ Poor Mr. Mabbott! he had gone to his rest before this public lecturing on his defects could produce either pain or profit. “There are two items about deacons that are sufficiently quaint to merit quoting. One refers to Mr. John Hall, a deacon of the church at Hamsterly, Devon. ‘He was a man never taken by surprise. However adverse any dispensation, he never said more than, “It might have been worse.” It was long remembered of him that when he had a crop of wheat so shaken by the wind that there was scarcely a grain of it left in the ear, upon taking hold of some, he said to the reapers, “We’ll, it might have been worse. Here is good straw left for which we ought to be thankful!”’ Verily, Mr. Hall was an exceptional farmer, to say the very least. The other is recorded of Mr. Davey, a deacon of Chard. ‘He had,’ so we are told, with imperturbable gravity, ‘nine children; and at, or near the birth of each child he was favored with an additional cow to his worldly substance; so that he had as many cows as children, and no more!’ “The man who could pen these quaint and curious details was not destitute of humor; and one cannot but regret that only four volumes of the Register appeared. We have thereby lost many side glimpses, and some sad ones also, of the Baptist ministers and people of the close of the Eighteenth Century.”
Dr. Rippon also occupied himself with preparing a history of the worthies who lie buried in Bunhill Fields, and a number of subscribers’ names were received, but the work never reached the press. Rippon was a busy man, and though neither a scholar nor an original thinker, his pen was seldom idle and himself never.
He wilt be best known as having prepared the first really good selection of hymns for dissenting congregations. Although a Baptist collection it was extensively used with Dr. Watts’ among both classes of Congregationalists.
This work was an estate to its author, and he is said to have been more than sufficiently eager to push its sale. One thing we know, his presents of nicely bound copies must have been pretty frequent, for we have seen several greatly prized by their aged owners, who have showed them to us, with the remark, “the dear old doctor gave me that himself’.”
The happy eccentricity of the doctor’s character may be illustrated by a little incident in connection with royalty. He was deputed to read an address from the dissenters to George III., congratulating him upon recovery from sickness. The doctor read on with his usual dear utterance, till coming to a passage in which there was special reference to the goodness of God, he paused and said, “Please, your majesty, we will read that again,” and then proceeded with his usual cool dignity to repeat the sentence with emphasis. No other man in the deputation would have thought of doing such a thing, but from Rippon it came so naturally that no one censured him, or if they did it would have had no effect upon him. He was asked why he did not attend more denominational meetings and take the lead, “Why,” said he, “I see the Dover coach go by my house every morning, and I notice that the leaders get most lashed.” A somewhat inglorious argument for keeping in the rear.
In his later days Rippon was evidently in very comfortable circumstances, for we have often heard mention of his carriage and pair, or rather “glass coach and two horses.” His congregation was one of the wealthiest within the pale of nonconformity, and always ready to aid the various societies which sprang up, especially the Baptist Foreign Mission, and a certain Baptist Itinerant Society, which we suppose to have represented the Baptist Home Mission. The Pastor occupied no mean position in the church, but ruled with dignity and discretion — perhaps rifled a little too much. “How is it, Doctor, that your church is always so peaceful?” said a much-tried brother minister. “Well, friend,” said Rippon, “you see, we don’t call a church-meeting to consult about buying a new broom every time we want one, and we don’t entreat every noisy member to make a speech about the price of the soap the floors are scrubbed with.” In many of our smaller churches a want of common sense is very manifest in the management, and trouble is invited by the foolish methods of procedure, Dr. Rippon once said he had some of the best people in His Majesty’s dominions in his church, and he used to add with a nod — “ and some of the worst.” Some of the latter class seem to have got into office at one time, for they were evidently a hindrance rather than a help to the good man, though from his independent mode of doing things, the hindrance did not much affect him. As well as we can remember the story of his founding the almshouses and schools in 1803, it runs as follows: The Doctor urges upon the deacons the necessity of such institutions; they do not see the urgency thereof; he pleads again, but like the deaf adder they are not to be charmed, charm he never so wisely. “The expense will be enormous, and the money cannot be raised,” this was the unceasing croak of the prudent officers. At length the Pastor says, “The money can be raised, and shall be.
Why, if I don’t go out next Monday and collect £500 before the evening meeting, I’ll drop the proposal; but while I am sure the people will take up the matter heartily I will not be held back by you.” Disputes in this case were urged in very plain language, but with no degree of bitterness, for the parties knew each other, and had too much mutual respect to make their relationships in the church depend upon a point of difference. All were agreed to put the Doctor to the test, and challenged him to produce the £500 next Monday, or cease to importune about almshouses. The worthy slow-coaches were up to time on the appointed evening, and the Doctor soon arrived. “Well, brethren,” said he, “I have succeeded in collecting £300 — that, is most encouraging, is it not?” “But,” said two or three of them at once in a hurry, “you said you would get £500 or drop the matter, and we mean to keep you to your word.” “By all means,” said he,” and I mean to keep my word, too, for there is £800 which the friends gave me almost without asking, and the rest is nearly all promised.” The prudent officials were token aback, but recovering themselves, they expressed their great, pleasure, and would be ready to meet the pastor at any time and arrange for the expending of the funds. “No, no, my brethren,” said the Doctor, “I shall not need your services. You have opposed me all along, and now I have done the work without you, you want to have your say in it to hinder me still; but neither you nor any other deacons shall plague a minister about this business. So, brethren, you can attend to something else.” Accordingly, the old trust deed of the almshouses had a clause to the effect, that the pastor shall elect the pensioners, “no deacon interfering.” The present minister had great pleasure in inducing the Charity Commissioners to expunge this clause, and give the pastor and deacons unitedly the power to select the objects of the charity.
Dr. Rippon continued in the pastorate from 1773 to 1836, a period of years. He outlived his usefulness, and it was a wonderful instance of divine care over the church that the old gentleman did not do it serious injury. He retained the will to govern after the capacity was gone, and he held his power over the pulpit though unable to occupy it to profit. Supplies who came to preach for him were not always allowed to officiate, and when they did, the old minister’s remarks from his pew were frequently more quaint than agreeable. It is not an unqualified blessing to live to be 85.
During the last few monthsMR.CHARLES ROOM, with the Doctor’s full approbation, acted as his assistant, but he resigned upon the decease of Dr. Rippon. He left with the esteem and good wishes of the church, and afterwards exercised a useful ministry at Portsea.
In 1830, six years before Dr. Rippon’s death, the old sanctuary in Carter Lane was closed to be pulled down for making the approaches to the present London Bridge. Due compensation was given, but a chapel could not be built in a day, and, therefore, for three years the church was without a home and had to be indebted to the hospitality of other congregations.
After so long a time for choice, the good deacons ought to have pitched upon a better site for the new edifice; but it is not hardly judging them when we say that they could not have discovered a worse position. If they had taken thirty years to look about them with the design of burying the church alive they could not have succeeded better. New Park Street is a lowlying sort of lane close to the bank of the river Thames, near the enormous breweries of Messrs. Barclay and Perkins, the vinegar factories of Mr. Potts, and several large boiler works. The nearest way to it from the City was over Southwark bridge, with a toll to pay. No cabs could be had within about half-a-mile of the place, and the region was dim, dirty, and destitute, and frequently flooded by the river at high tides. Here, however, the, new chapel must be built because the ground was a cheap freehold, and the authorities were destitute of enterprise, and would not spend a penny more than the amount in hand. That God in infinite mercy forbade the extinction of the church is no mitigation of the shortsightedness which thrust a respectable community of Christians into an out-of-the-way position, far more suitable for a tallow-melter’s than a meeting-house. The chapel, however, was a neat, handsome, commodious, well-built edifice, and was regarded as one of the best Baptist chapels in London.
Dr. Rippon was present at the opening of the new house in 1838, but it was very evident that, having now found a place to meet in, the next step must be, to find a minister to preside over the congregation. This was no easy task, for the old gentleman, though still revered and loved, was difficult to manage in such matters. Happily, however, the deacons were supremely judicious, and having kept the interest out of all rash expenditure they also preserved it from all hasty action, and tided over affairs till the worn-out pastor passed away to his rest, and with due funereal honors was laid in that Campo Santa of Nonconformists — the cemetery of Bunhill Fields, of which it had been his ambition to become the historian and chronicler.
There are still some in the church who cherish his memory with affectionate and well-deserved reverence, and there are thousands in heaven who were led first to love the Savior by his earnest exhortations.
He quarried fresh stones, and built up the church. He moulded its thought and directed its energies. Without being great he was exceedingly useful, and the period in which he was one of the judges of our Israel was one of great prosperity in spiritual things. It was a good sixty-three years, and with the previous pastorate of Dr. Gill, enabled the church to say that during one hundred and seventeen years they had been presided over by two ministers only. Those who are given to Change were not numerous in the community. Short pastorates are good when ministers are feeble, but it is a great blessing when the saints are so edified that all are content, and the ministry is so owned of God that vacancies are filled up even before they are felt: in such a case change would wantonly imperil the hope of continued prosperity, and would therefore be criminal. 59