DODDRIDGE SHOWED HOW MUCH A FRAIL MAN CAN DO IN A SHORT LIFE
[Above: Philip Doddridge, frontpiece from James Boyd’s Memoir of the Life, Character, and Writings of Philip Doddridge. New York: American Tract Society, 1860. Public domain.]
“O happy day that fixed my choice on Thee, my Savior and my God” begins Philip Doddridge’s most popular hymn. He made that happy choice early in life, thanks in part to his mother:
My mother taught me the history of the Old and New Testaments before I could read, by the assistance of some blue Dutch tiles in the chimney-place of the room where we commonly sat.
Sent to a boarding school, he continued to grow in faith. Both parents died when he was just thirteen. He wanted to become a minister but lacked resources because a family friend had lost the Doddridges’ capital in speculation.
The Duchess of Bedford offered to pay for Doddridge’s education if he would embrace Church of England doctrine, but Doddridge was firmly rooted in nonconformist views and rejected the offer. About to accept a position in a law office, he decided to pray one last time before committing himself to a legal career. In that hour Samuel Clarke, with whom he had studied earlier, took him under his wing. Doddridge preached his first public sermon when he was eighteen. He took as his text 1 Corinthians 16:22, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.” Two hearers were converted. The following year, 1723, the nineteen-year-old took leadership of a congregation.
In 1729, Doddridge accepted charge of some students. When an independent congregation in Northampton asked him to pastor their church, he said his school must come with him. The congregation agreed and Doddridge wrote to them,
Let me beseech you to remember that, by accepting your call, I have entrusted the happiness of my life into your hands. Prepare yourselves, therefore, to cover my many infirmities with the mantle of your love.
On this day, 19 March 1730, Philip Doddridge was ordained as Northampton’s minister. He pastored there the rest of his life. He was a bachelor when he took the position, although not by his choice. He had made unsuccessful overtures to two young women. To one lady he wrote
I fancy I am like Adam in Paradise; and it is my only misfortune that I want an Eve, and have none but the birds of the air and the beasts of the field for my companions.
But his third wooing succeeded and he married Mary Maris in December 1730. The pair would have nine children, but five would die in infancy.
One of those five deaths was the Doddridge’s oldest daughter, a vivacious five-year-old, in 1736. Out of the anguish of his heart he preached a sermon on “Submission to Divine Providence in the Death of Children.” Childhood deaths were common in eighteenth-century England. Many parents told him the printed version of the sermon helped them cope with their grief.
Doddridge’s most famous writing was The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745). In it he urged people to repent and pointed them to Christ. A profligate soldier in India purloined a copy from a friend, read it, and was converted. An infidel doctor who moved to Northampton read it, turned to Christ, and became Doddridge’s physician. Politician William Wilberforce believed what he read and was transformed into a famous anti-slavery champion.
Doddridge devoted so much time to writing and teaching that his church suffered. In his more than twenty years with Northampton, membership declined by a third. Nonetheless his teaching produced results that long outlived him. Of two hundred pupils he tutored, one hundred and twenty entered ministry and others became tutors, authors, or professors.
In 1750, he caught cold after preaching the funeral sermon of his former sponsor, Samuel Clarke. He attempted a cure by sailing to sunnier Portugal. However, heavy rains in Portugal caused him to decline and he died on 26 October 1751. He was just fifty. His widow wrote to their children,
Let us remember that the best respect we can pay to his memory, is to endeavor, as far as we can, to follow his example, and to cultivate those lovely qualities which rendered him so justly dear to us and so much esteemed in the world.
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Doddridge was deeply moved by contemporary hymns and wrote many himself. You can learn more in Christian History # 31, Golden Age of Hymns
For the effect of Doddridge's writing on one man, see Christian History #53 William Wilberforce and the Abolition of the Slave Trade