Foundations: No.65 Autumn 2013

Evangelical Spirituality in Eighteenth-Century Dissent: Philip Doddridge and John Gill

Spirituality is very much on the agenda of evangelical Christians today. Yet there is great confusion about what true spirituality is or should be. The means by which true spirituality may be achieved is controversial. Is it primarily a mystical experience, impossible to define, hard to obtain, difficult to lay down rules by which to attain it? Or is it a matter of pursuing certain clear, albeit challenging, disciplines of prayer, Bible reading and other daily habits of life? Is true spirituality something that comes upon an individual, beyond his control and outside his expectations, or is it something that may be actively sought, step by step? And where do we find authoritative answers to questions such as these? The issues are vital for anyone who believes, as any biblically-minded Christian surely does, that life in Christ involves regular communion with, and experience of, the triune God. This article examines the thought and practice of two Englishmen from the eighteenth century, Philip Doddridge and John Gill, in order to help identify more clearly the nature of biblical spirituality and the means of achieving it.


In early October, 1751, Philip Doddridge was travelling by ship to Lisbon in Portugal. He was a dying man. The previous December, he had travelled from his hometown of Northampton to St Albans, a journey of about 45 miles. He had gone there to preach the funeral sermon of his lifelong friend and mentor, Samuel Clark, who had pastored an Independent congregation in St Albans for many years. On his journey, Doddridge caught a chill, which he proved unable to shake off through the rest of that winter. Despite the efforts and suggestions of medical advisers and friends, the illness clung to him and, as a last resort, he was persuaded to leave England and sail south, to Portugal, in the hope that the warmer climate there would help him to recover. It was not to be. Lisbon in October can be as wet as Britain is at any time of year and so it proved. The linen on the bed he slept in was damp and, despite his wife’s best efforts, Doddridge could not get warm. Philip Doddridge died there on 26 October 1751, aged 49.

Just after landing in Lisbon, Doddridge had written to his assistant at the church that he pastored in Northampton: “I chearfully submit myself to GOD. If I desire Life may be restored, it is chiefly, that it may be employed in serving Christ… I hope I have done my Duty, and the Lord do, as seemeth good in his Sight.” [1]  In that short extract, we see some of the principal elements of the spirituality of this man, who was for twenty years the pastor of a large, Independent congregation in the market town of Northampton and the principal tutor of a flourishing Dissenting academy there, an institution which, over that period, prepared around 120 men for pastoral ministry in Dissenting congregations in England and elsewhere. As I hope to show, Doddridge’s spirituality consisted in a very strong sense of duty to Christ, to serve Christ in whatever way he commanded, coupled with an equally strong sense of the privilege and joy which such service involved. These elements can be summarised in the phrase that appears in the letter which I have just quoted: “I chearfully submit myself to GOD”.

Twenty years later, John Gill was dying, not on a ship but, appropriately, in his study. His first biographer, John Rippon, states in his memoir of the great man, that it was in his study that he was “seized for death”, though it is not clear whether he meant by this that Gill died actually in that room or elsewhere in the house. Like Doddridge, Gill had written a letter to a fellow-minister shortly before his demise, which again expresses the essence of Gill’s spirituality:

I depend wholly and alone upon the free, sovereign, eternal, unchangeable, love of God, the firm and everlasting covenant of grace, and my interest in the Persons of the Trinity, for my whole salvation; and not upon any righteousness of my own; nor on any thing in me, or done by me under the influences of the Holy Spirit… but upon… the free grace of God, and the blessings of grace streaming to me through the blood and righteousness of Christ, as the ground of my hope. These are… what I can live and die by[2] 

And die by them he did, at the age of 73, with the words of Isaac Watts on his lips:

He rais’d me from the deeps of sin, –
The gates of gaping hell;
And fix’d my standing more secure
Than ’twas before I fell.

A very strong doctrinal emphasis, coupled with a strong sense of his interest in the finished work of Christ on his behalf, evident both in the letter just quoted and in the verse of that hymn, characterise the spirituality of John Gill. Again, the words just quoted, “These [that is, these great truths] arewhat I can live and die by”, sum up in a phrase Gill’s piety.

Doddridge and Gill

Who were these two men? Philip Doddridge began his ministry in Northampton in 1730. He was a convinced Dissenter, congregationalist and paedo-baptist. He described himself as a “moderate” Calvinist. Though sure in his own convictions, he was broad in his sympathies, ready to form friendships with Christians who did not see eye-to-eye with him on every point. While he held the great reformed confessions of the previous century in high regard, he opposed the imposition of creeds and confessions on a man as a test of his faith. The greatest threat to evangelical Christianity he saw as coming from Roman Catholicism and from the Deists. Doddridge did not have a great deal of time for high Calvinists, who held strongly to distinctively Calvinist doctrines such as election, the irresistible nature of grace and the effects of sin upon the human mind and will. Some high Calvinists also felt a reluctance to a free and universal offer of the gospel to unbelievers. Doddridge’s suspicion of such men tended to be reciprocated – he was accused of Arminianism by some who disliked the free and open way in which he urged sinners to repent and believe in Christ.

John Gill was born a few years earlier than Doddridge, in 1697, and lived quite a few years longer, dying (as stated above) in 1771, at the age of 73. Gill ministered for over 50 years to a Baptist congregation meeting in Horselydown in Southwark. He was an adherent of a strong Calvinistic theology which tended on some points to high Calvinism: he taught eternal justification and was opposed to the idea of gospel “offers”, though he did believe that the gospel should be preached to all and that all who truly repented of their sin and trusted in Christ would be saved. Like Doddridge, he had contacts outside his immediate circle, counting the Anglicans Augustus Toplady and James Hervey amongst his friends. Unlike Doddridge, though, Gill would not have dreamt of extending his friendship to men whom he considered to be moving in an Arminian or Arian direction in their theology. It is perhaps not so surprising that the two men do not appear to have had dealings with one another.

Despite that, their views on the nature of true spirituality have a number of important common features, of which the following are significant. 

Points of agreement

(i) the importance of the heart

Firstly, true spirituality begins in the heart. Both Doddridge and Gill, as evangelicals, held that true spirituality was a matter, first and foremost, of the heart. This, of course, was the Puritan view; the foundation of true piety did not lie in outward activities of any kind. The fundamental matter, in the Puritan view, concerned the heart. John Downame (1571-1652) put it in this way: “The Lord, above all other parts, requireth the heart, as being the first mover and chiefe agent in this little world of man, which ordreth and disposeth of all the rest.” [3]  The heart was the central matter and concern. Philip Doddridge agreed: “Religion, in its most general View, is such a Sense of God on the Soul, and such a Conviction of our Obligations to him, and of our Dependance upon him, as shall engage us to make it our great Care, to conduct ourselves in a Manner which we have reason to believe will be pleasing to Him.” [4]  Hypocrites may exhibit an outward piety but, like the Pharisees who devour widows’ houses, it is for them no more than what Doddridge calls a “grave Mask”. [5]  The Pharisees are the paradigmatic exemplars of the folly of a mere outward form in religion: “How little do the most specious Pretences of Piety signify, if they are not animated by the Heart, and confirmed by the Life!” [6] 

John Gill’s treatise, Practical Divinity, which follows his two volumes of Doctrinal Divinity, takes for its subject the worship of God, which for Gill is the essence of true godliness and spirituality. True worship, he held, is, first of all, inward: “Internal worship requires our first attention,” he says, “it being of the greatest moment and importance; external worship profits little in comparison of that;… yea vain is such worship where the heart is far removed from God.” [7]  So, perhaps unsurprisingly, we find that both men agreed that true spirituality begins in the heart and that without the heart, all that is left of religion is hypocrisy.

(ii) the need to be born again 

The second point of commonality between the two men is that true spirituality is possible only for the regenerate. Doddridge was very strong on this point, with good reason. The early eighteenth century in England was the age of the moralists – preachers who believed that men could be persuaded, merely by the reasonableness of the Christian religion, to act in accordance with its moral precepts. One of the most popular sermons of the day was that of John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury under William III. His text was 1 John 5:3, “And his commandments are not grievous”. The sermon has three points: “1. That the Laws of God are reasonable… 2. That we are not destitute of sufficient power and ability for the performance of them. And 3. That we have the greatest encouragements to this purpose.” [8]  There is no hint here that man is incapable of obeying God without a prior supernatural work of God in his life.

Doddridge’s approach, as well as Gill’s, was quite different. Doddridge’s view of human nature in its natural condition was bleak: “All our Soul is infeebled, and all our Nature corrupted”, so that we find it is impossible “to attempt a Reformation of our corrupt Habits and exorbitant Passions”. [9]  In 1742, Doddridge published a series of ten sermons which he had recently preached at his church in Northampton, on the subject of regeneration. He sought in these sermons to show “how absolutely impossible it is, that any Unregenerate Man should… see the Kingdom of GOD”. [10]  Regeneration, then, for Doddridge, was essential for true spirituality. Gill was of the same view: true worship of God is possible only for those who have a right knowledge of God, who have a living faith in God, who are themselves spiritual and godly. [11]  For those who have not experienced this change, brought about through regeneration, true worship, and so true spirituality, is impossible.

(iii) mind and heart

Thirdly, both men held that true spirituality involved intellectual and emotional elements, that mind and heart were together engaged in true piety. In his classic work, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, Doddridge brings out each of these elements in turn: true religion, he says, involves a renewed mind, with “new Apprehensions of Things” and “a practical Judgment different from what you formerly” had; it also involves new affections, “a Principle in your Heart, which tends to” God, leading to “a reverential Fear, and a supream Love… for His incomparable Excellencies, an Affection to Him as the Highest Good”. [12] 

According to Gill, true godliness may be called a “gracious disposition of the mind God-ward”; it is “the inward devotion of the mind”. [13]  But, again, the affections must also be deeply involved:

[believers’] affections are set upon [Christ], and they love him cordially and sincerely; their desires are after him, and to the remembrance of his name; they pant after more communion with him, and the manifestations of his love unto them;… they taste that the Lord is gracious; his word and the doctrines of it; his fruit and the blessings of his grace are sweet to their taste, these are savoury things which their souls love. [14] 

Spirituality, then, involved both mind and heart.

­(iv) grace in living

Fourthly, each man held that true godliness was evidenced by a gracious life. In his Rise and Progress, Doddridge devotes a chapter to expounding the temper of the true Christian, who is one who gives evidence of Spirit-influenced graces in his life: humility, a dependence upon God, repentance and a sense of sin, a purity of soul, generosity to the poor, one who guards against indulgence in the things of this world, contentment, patience, and so on. [15]  Similarly, Gill held that “Godliness… is an assemblage of graces of the Spirit of God in the hearts of his people, in the exercise of which experimental religion, or internal worship lies”. [16]  It involves the knowledge of God, repentance towards God, fear of God, faith and trust in him, “the hope of good things from him”, love to him, joy in him, humility, self-denial, patience, submission and resignation to his will, thankfulness, “with every other grace necessary to the worship of God, and which belongs to experimental religion and godliness”. [17] 

(v) personal devotion

Fifthly, both men believed that true godliness expressed itself in acts of devotion to God: private prayer and Bible reading and also family worship. In his Discourse on Prayer, preached in 1732 to a young men’s prayer meeting in his church, Gill gives a detailed exposition of the various elements of which prayer should consist. [18]  He recommends that prayer should begin with the praise of God, move on to an acknowledgement of our unworthiness and confession of sin, be followed by prayer for pardon and a fresh view of God’s grace, continue with petition and thanksgiving, as well as prayer to be kept from evil, and end with doxology and a hearty “Amen”. [19]  Elsewhere, Gill warns that believers can become sluggish in prayer and then they need to stir themselves up to it: “It becomes christians to bestir, awake, and arouse themselves… from their spiritual stupor and lethargy, at least, to implore the spirit and grace of God to enable them so to do.” [20] 

In a similar way, Doddridge, in the Rise and Progress, reproduces a letter which he had written several years previously to a young man who had died shortly after receiving the letter. It was designed to encourage him in a life of true Christian devotion. In the letter, Doddridge urges prayer as the first activity of the day: “It should certainly be our Care, to lift up our Hearts to GOD, as soon as we wake, and while we are rising.” Like Gill, he then gives detailed directions as to the subject matter of the “secret Devotions of the Morning” – for those who have sufficient time in the morning, Doddridge recommends praise, prayerful consideration of the day ahead and meditation on a few verses of Scripture, closing with a psalm or hymn. [21] 

Private devotions, then, form an important part of these men’s view of true spirituality.

(vi) the Lord’s Supper

There is a sixth and final element which, in the minds of both men, is vital for true godliness. This centres on the Lord’s Supper. Both Gill and Doddridge held this ordinance in the highest esteem. Both of course held that, in the bread and wine, there is no actual transformation of substance into the body and blood of Christ, but that the elements are there to remind the believer of Christ’s death on his behalf. However, neither man was purely memorialist in his view of the Lord’s Supper. Commenting on the apostle Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Doddridge urged his readers to “attend this blessed Institution; endeavouring by the lively Exercise of Faith and Love, to discern, and in a spiritual Sense, to feed upon, the Lord’s Body.” [22]  The Lord’s Supper was, in Doddridge’s view, “a Seal of that Covenant which was ratified by his [sc. Christ’s] Blood”, [23]  and as such to be very highly valued by the Christian as an aid to piety. It was, moreover, at the Lord’s Table that “we have Communion in the Body, and the Blood of Christ, and partaking of his Table and of his Cup, we converse with Christ, and join ourselves to Him as his People”. [24] 

The Puritans had been of the same opinion. John Preston (1587–1628), Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, opened his three sermons on the Lord’s Supper with a statement of the immense significance of this ordinance:

Of all the actions wherein wee are conversant throughout the whole Tract of life, none are of so great consequence as those wherein we have to doe with the Mightie God of Heaven and Earth: And among all those, none so weightie, as that wherein we draw nearest to him, as we doe in this holy Sacrament of the Lords Supper. [25] 

Again, Preston affirms,

This Sacrament is nothing else, but the Seale of the Gospell of the New Covenant; and it is indeed nothing else, but a visible Gospell;… the same thing which the Gospell preacheth to the eare, that same the Sacrament preacheth to the eye… the Gospell presents it to us under audible words, and the Sacrament presents it to us under visible signes: this is all the difference. [26] 

Gill considered that at the Lord’s Supper it is the body and blood of Christ, “on which believers being encouraged by Christ’s presence, and assisted by his spirit, feed plentifully, and he sits there and delights himself in viewing the graces of his own spirit in exercise; thus at this table they are both mutually feasted and delighted”. [27]  The bread is to be eaten, discerning the Lord’s body – by faith, the believing communicant partakes of the body of Christ:

to eat of this bread spiritually, is no other than the communion of the body of Christ, or an having fellowship with him, while feeding on it, and an appropriation and enjoyment of spiritual blessings in him: as bread taken into the mouth and chewed, is received into the stomach, and digested there, and becomes incorporated into the very substance of a man, and by which he is nourished and refreshed; so Christ being received and fed upon by faith, believers are one body and spirit with him, have union to him and communion with him; there is a mutual indwelling of Christ and them, they are one bread. And having spiritual appetites, hungering and thirsting after Christ, they feed upon him, and grow up in him. [28] 

So much, then, for the areas of agreement. These six fundamental elements of true spirituality were professed and taught by both Philip Doddridge and John Gill: true spirituality begins in the heart, requires regeneration, involves both mind and heart, expresses itself in spiritual graces in the life, as well as in practical acts of devotion, and leads to a high view of the Lord’s Supper. We will turn now to consider areas of difference and contrast between the two men.

Points of difference

(i) detailed guidance 

Firstly, Doddridge was far readier than Gill to give detailed advice on the content and pattern of private devotions and on the practical working out of a life of piety. The description of the content of private prayer, referred to earlier, is somewhat unusual for Gill and it is noticeable that he deliberately stops short of prescribing the times or frequency of private acts of devotion: he warns that “no stress is [to be] laid on the punctual performance of [devotional] duty at… precise times, and [it] is not made the term and condition of our acceptance with God, and of our standing in his favour, which would be to reduce us to the covenant of works, ensnare our souls, and bring us into a state of bondage”. [29] 

Philip Doddridge, by contrast, was far more ready to provide detailed prescriptions in matters of devotion and spirituality. Where Gill was anxious to avoid a false spirituality which consisted only of outward duties, Doddridge was concerned that a lack of outward activity would result in a quenching of true piety. In the letter to his young friend, already referred to, Doddridge follows his advice about early morning devotions with comments on the different kinds of pious activity which may make up the believer’s day: further times of devotion at various points in the day, the maintenance of appropriate godly attitudes in “worldly Business” or in “Seasons of Diversion”, the careful observation “of Providences”, watchfulness against temptation, a constant dependence on divine grace, a guarding of one’s behaviour both in solitude and in company and finally prescriptions for evening devotions at the close of the day and the “Sentiments, with which we should lie down, and compose ourselves to Sleep”. [30] 

In these pieces of advice, Doddridge’s idea of everyday piety differs little from that of the Puritans of the previous century. They too had been keen on detailed descriptions of helpful devotional practices. One of the most often reprinted works of Puritan piety in the seventeenth century was The Practise of Pietie by Lewis Bayly (c. 1575–1631), Bishop of Bangor from 1615. [31]  Bayly’s work gives detailed instruction for private morning devotions (prayer and Bible reading), the conduct of daily life (including thoughts, words and actions), evening devotions; family prayers (morning and evening), the right use of the Sabbath (morning and evening), fasting, feasting, the Lord’s Supper, conduct during sickness and dying. Similar advice can be found in the Seven Treatises of Richard Rogers (1551-1618), a work which went through several editions in the first half of the seventeenth century as well as appearing in an abridged version, The Practice of Christianitie, in 1618, itself republished a number of times. [32]  These works, and others like them, set down in detail how the godly Christian man or woman was to conduct himself or herself throughout the course of a normal day. For the seventeenth-century Puritan, as for Doddridge, spirituality was intensely practical and Christians benefited, in their view, from detailed advice as to exactly when and how to perform their duties of devotion. It was an approach which Gill evidently viewed with some suspicion, for fear that it would lead to legalism or hypocrisy.

(ii) public worship 

A second area of difference concerns the emphasis which Gill gave to the church of Jesus Christ as the place particularly appointed by God for the blessing of his people. Gill placed high value upon private and family devotions, but he considered the public worship of the church to be the highest expression of true spirituality. “The Lord loves the private worship of his saints”, he told his hearers in a sermon on Psalm 87:3, “their closet and family devotion; yet he prefers public worship and ordinances to them, where he is more openly worshipped, and by more; and which makes more for his manifestative glory”. [33]  It is noteworthy that his volume entitled Practical Divinity is in effect a treatise on the church, covering its constitution, government and discipline, as well as the duties of the members and church officers, the ordinances, the preaching and the hearing of the Word, prayer and singing.

Christ’s love for his church and, by way of reaction and response, the church’s love to Christ, lay at the centre of Gill’s view of true spirituality. This, naturally, is the theme of his well-known Exposition of the Book of Solomon’s Song, first published in 1728. He writes: “Though Christ gives the first discoveries of love on his part; yet when the church is espoused unto him, it highly becomes her to shew an affectionate regard unto him, and strong desire after his company.” [34]  He continues, a little later, “his love [that is, Christ’s love for the church] must be preferable to all others… Nothing is so valuable as the love of Christ”. [35]  This theme runs through the entire exposition and one could quote many excerpts to similar effect.

Doddridge, of course, also believed in the importance of the church and her public worship. However, he was a strong advocate of the value of daily household, or family, worship, and this, comparatively speaking, is where he placed his emphasis. Towards the end of his life, Doddridge published a pamphlet on the subject, A Plain and Serious Address to the Master of a Family on the Important Subject of Family Religion, in which he addressed his desire to his readers that they “would honour and acknowledge GOD in your Families, by calling them together every Day, to hear some part of his Word read to them, and to offer, for a few Minutes at least, your united Confessions, Prayers, and Praises to him”. [36]  He devoted a considerable portion of his writing life to the production of a mammoth, six-volume commentary and paraphrase, with technical notes, on the entire New Testament. While this does not quite rival Gill’s achievement of a verse-by-verse commentary on the entire Bible, it is significant that Doddridge’s stated aim in publishing his Family Expositor was to help heads of household lead family devotions.

In this, Doddridge differed little from his Puritan forebears, who were equally keen to encourage Christians to engage regularly in family worship, which they saw as foundational to true spirituality, both in individuals and also in society at large. William Gouge (1575–1653), minister at St Ann Blackfriars, London, wrote at length on the subject of family duties: “The spirituall good of children, and that in their childhood, is to be procured by parents as well as their temporall. Wherefore Parents must traine up their children in true piety.” The parent is the family minister: “That which a Minister is to doe for matter of instruction in the Church, a parent must do at home.” [37]  This he is to do by regular teaching, catechising and correction. The family is the basic unit of society, a microcosm of the community which is the nation. So, argued the minister at Dry Drayton, Richard Greenham (c. 1540–1594), “if there be no practise at home, if fathers of families use not doctrine and discipline in their houses… they may, but most unjustly… complaine that their children are corrupted abroade, whereas indeede they were before, and still are corrupted at home”. [38] 

For Doddridge, as with the Puritans, the family was the basic, foun-dational unit of society and so it was vital that the worship of God in the family be constantly encouraged and assisted. For Gill, by contrast, although family worship was important, the focal point where the Lord’s people were to experience his blessing was primarily in the gathered congregation of the Lord’s chosen people.

(iii) doctrine

The third point of difference between the two men concerns the link between spirituality and doctrine. In order to learn how to walk in Christ’s ways, Gill believed that Christians need to seek out faithful gospel ministry. Those who desire to be fed by Christ should, he said, “seek after a gospel ministry, and sit under it; for a church in gospel order, and give up themselves unto it, to walk with the saints in all the ordinances, and commands of Christ”. [39]  For Gill, there is no tension or disjunction between love for Christ and love for his truth. The one flows from the other. They “hold fast the faithful word, as they have been taught, whose souls having been nourished up in the words of faith, and of good doctrine, and established therein, cannot be moved from thence, but will earnestly contend, and strive together for the faith once delivered to the saints”. This applies to their worship as well – it is regulated exclusively by God’s word: they follow God’s word as their rule in worship, “and not the authorities, customs, and inventions of men;… [T]hey desire that whatsoever they do, more especially in divine worship, might be done in faith, from a principle of love to God, and according to his word and will”. [40] 

In his exposition of the Song of Songs, perhaps the highest point of Gill’s published works on the subject of spirituality, Gill often emphasises points of doctrine, particularly the central doctrines of justification by faith, penal substitutionary atonement, predestination, election and the perseverance of the saints. Commenting on Songs 2:3 – the bride sitting in the shadow of her beloved – Gill speaks of Christ and his righteousness as the believer’s shadow

which protect souls from the heat of his father’s wrath; he, by making atonement for sin and satisfaction to divine justice, hath delivered his own people from the wrath to come, and will eternally skreen [sic] them from it; for though showers of divine wrath will fall on Christless sinners, yet those that are under this shadow of Christ’s righteousness, shall not have one drop of it fall on them, for being justified by his blood, they shall be saved from wrath through him. [41]  

Gill thus effortlessly ties together the doctrines of the atonement and of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, on the one hand, and the believer’s felt experience of the blessings of salvation in Christ.

True spirituality in Gill’s view, then, is marked by a love for God’s word and it is founded in a firm grasp of true Christian doctrine:

The soul is in good health and in a prosperous condition, when there is an appetite for the word; when it hungers and thirsts after righteousness; when it desires the sincere milk of the word; when it finds it, and eats it by faith; when the word is mixed with faith upon hearing, and it is taken in and digested by it; as also when a soul has a comfortable view by faith of the forgiveness of its sins through the blood of Christ. [42] 

Doddridge also appreciated the vital importance of doctrine. Much of the course which he taught to ministers in training at his academy in Northampton consisted of theology and doctrine. He held to the great evangelical doctrines of the gospel and he preached them. Yet it is noticeable that there is not generally in Doddridge the strong link which we find in Gill, between doctrine and spirituality. Moreover, the truths which Doddridge preached most often were the more general gospel truths: the need for conversion and regeneration, the reality and danger of sin, the need for a man to consider his eternal destiny and his need to repent and put his faith in Christ. By contrast, the more particular truths in which Gill took so much delight, and which so often formed the bedrock of his spirituality – justification by faith alone, election, Christ’s special love for his church – played relatively little part in Doddridge’s ministry. This difference of approach is, I believe, symptomatic of a deep-seated division in their respective understandings of the nature of spirituality. The very truths which, in Gill’s thinking, buttress and undergird true spirituality tend to be, in Doddridge’s mind, an occasion for division between Christians. They should therefore, in Doddridge’s view, be downplayed in preaching.

This tendency can be seen most clearly in the attitude of the two men to the doctrine of the Trinity. John Gill saw clearly the absolute importance of upholding the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, in all its aspects, at a time when it was under sustained attack from a variety of directions – the doctrine was being denied by some while others, who claimed to be gospel men, were nibbling away at the edges of this fundamental Christian doctrine. Gill, seeing the need, wrote robustly in defence of the traditional, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Doddridge, by contrast, did not appear to see the danger. Though himself orthodox in his writings for a general readership, he failed in his lectures to his students to distinguish clearly between views which are orthodox and those which fall short of that standard. He ends his lectures on the subject with these words: “Considering the excellent character of many of the persons above-mentioned, whose opinions were most widely different, we may assure ourselves, that many things asserted on the one side and on the other relating to the trinity, are not fundamental in religion.” [43]  Doddridge, sadly, here demonstrates that he had not grasped, as Gill clearly did, the dangers inherent in the various less-than-orthodox trinitarian views which were in circulation at that time. As the eighteenth century progressed, these dangers became all the more apparent, as congregation after congregation slid into Arianism, Socinianism or outright Unitarianism. As has been often remarked, this is not a phenomenon that affected the Particular Baptists, no doubt in no small part due to the work of John Gill in his robust defence of orthodoxy.

Doddridge, then, played down doctrinal differences in order to avoid what he believed to be unnecessary division between Christians, which he saw as harmful to true spirituality. For Gill, by contrast, the defence of biblical doctrine was an essential prerequisite to the safeguarding of biblical godliness, even if it led to contention and division between believers. Moreover, for Gill, doctrine was no arid, intellectualist affair, but something which was to affect the heart deeply and form the foundation of true, affectionate, warm spirituality.

(iv) the affections

The fourth and final point of difference between the spiritualities of Doddridge and Gill concerns the place of the affections in religion. As has been shown, religion was, for both men, a matter of the heart just as much as the head. The published works of Doddridge are replete with expressions of love and warmth to Jesus Christ and of joy in knowing and serving him, as well as of the affection which is to exist between fellow-believers. Yet it is here that Gill excels. This, of course, is the great theme of his Exposition of the Song of Solomon. The church’s great desire for communion with Christ, he writes, commenting on the words “draw me” in chapter 1 verse 4,

shews that high value and esteem she had for communion with Christ, which makes her so earnestly importune that blessing, and use such pressing and repeated instances for the enjoyment of it; this was the one thing she earnestly desired, and sought for, yea, preferred to all other enjoyments. [44] 

Gill wrote of

those chambers of intimate communion and fellowship, which Christ sometimes brings his people into, and of which they are exceeding desirous: This inestimable blessing Christ frequently grants to his people in his ordinances; for he don’t always suffer them to stand without, in the outer courts, but sometimes takes them into his inner chambers, where he discloses the secrets of his heart unto them, gives evident intimations of his love, and fills their souls with divine consolation.

The results of communion like this, he says, are: “Gladness and rejoycing in Christ… a remembrance of his love”. Again speaking of the shade of the beloved, he writes: “She sat here with delight, and indeed it could not be otherways, when its shade was so agreeable, and the fruit so sweet; this pleasure and delight of her’s arose from the enjoyment of Christ’s presence… from the discoveries of his love to her soul, which is better than life, and all the comforts of it, and in the exercise of faith upon him; in the actings of which grace, the soul is filled with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” [45] 

The intimacy of communion which the believer may enjoy with Christ is a constant theme with Gill, belying the image of dreary theological drudgery with which he is sometimes associated. He uses the highest language to attempt to communicate to his hearers and readers the delights of the believer’s intimate fellowship with Christ and experience of his love. There is nothing really like this in Doddridge. Doddridge is very warm, affectionate and moving, but he does not rise to the heights which we find in John Gill.


Drawing together these threads, therefore, it has been shown how these two men, so different in many aspects of their theology and churchmanship, nevertheless shared many common ideas about true spirituality. There were also important differences between them: in the degree to which they were prepared to prescribe the believer’s daily expressions of spirituality, in their respective emphases upon family worship and the public worship of the church, in the view they held of the place of doctrine in relation to spirituality and in the kind of language which they used to speak of the believer’s communion with Christ. Many of the chief aspects of the spiritualities of both men can be traced back to Puritan thinking and practice, as has been demonstrated. Puritan theology and practice was undoubtedly the major heritage of both men and the fount from which, subject to the Bible, they drew their main ideas about spirituality. However, it does seem that both men departed somewhat from that heritage, though in different directions.

Doddridge, it is suggested, failed to hold sufficiently tightly to the prime importance which the Puritans placed upon doctrine and theology. He loose-ned the close link which they maintained between a person’s doctrinal beliefs and his experience of God. He failed to see the need to defend found-ational doctrines, such as the Trinity, and in that area and others sought to give Christian love and fellowship a higher place in his thinking, teaching and practice than biblical doctrine. As a result, Doddridge, no doubt unwittingly, played some part in the doctrinal downgrade which so sadly mars the experience of much of eighteenth-century English Dissent.

Gill, by contrast, fortified the link between doctrine and piety, defending orthodoxy in key areas such as the Trinity and basing his understanding of true spirituality firmly in a clear grasp of biblical doctrine. In this, he followed clearly in Puritan footsteps. Yet it would seem that his high Calvinism may have made him overly-suspicious of the Puritan practice, exemplified by Doddridge, of being specific and detailed about the duties and devotional practices which they advised believers to adopt. More significantly, perhaps, it would seem that Gill’s focus on ecclesiology and his tendency to a more enclosed spirituality – emphasising the preciousness of communion between Christ and his church, but perhaps becoming overly inward-looking as a result – together with his reluctance to press faith upon sinners as their immediate duty, combined to blunt the influence of his ministry on the outside world. Doddridge was always outward-looking – that was his temp-erament, apart from anything else. If one had the choice of an evening’s company with either man, there is little question as to who would give the better entertainment!

More seriously, Doddridge’s writings are full of appeals to his readers to consider their state before God and to think most seriously about their eternal destiny. He constantly appeals to men, women and children to turn from their sin and put their faith in Jesus Christ. Though Gill is clearly zealous for the preaching of the gospel to all, as well as for conversions, one misses the sharp evangelistic thrust which is so present in Doddridge’s work. The Puritans had brought and held together these various elements – a strong doctrinal emphasis to underpin their spirituality, together with a strong outward-looking evangelistic thrust. Whilst both Gill and Doddridge maintained many of the foundational elements of Puritan spirituality, in these particular areas – the place of doctrine, on the one hand, and an outward-looking evangelistic emphasis, on the other – English Dissent in the early and mid-eighteenth century saw significant downgrade, with serious consequences for spiritual health and well-being.


In our own day, we see, even within Christian and evangelical circles, a strong tide of anti-doctrinalism, which wants to be spiritual without being theological. We also face the constant battle against ghettoism – the temptation, in the face of all the antagonism and apathy of an unbelieving world, to turn inwards and simply delight ourselves in the love of Christ for his people, losing the evangelistic thrust that should accompany all true godliness. In my view, we would benefit vastly from a return, in our own day, to a biblical spirituality, as taught and practised by the Puritans, combining the common elements which we have seen in these two great men, Doddridge and Gill, but with the corrective which I believe each brings to the other’s view of true godliness. A spirituality which is grounded firmly in biblical doctrine, which delights from the heart in intimate communion with Christ – both in private and in congregational worship, including and perhaps especially at the Lord’s Supper – and which is outward-looking and evangelistic in its attitude to the world of unbelief is surely the heritage of our seventeenth-century forefathers. May we, by the grace of God, see a resurgence of this true spirituality in our day.