How Jeremiah Burroughs Learned Contentment

Tim Brister —  April 27, 2008 — 6 Comments

[Phil Simpson, whom I have mentioned in an earlier post, has graciously agreed to guest blog here at P&P with an article on Jeremiah Burroughs' life, and more specifically, how he learned contentment. Phil is currently writing a biography on Burroughs which hopes to be published within the year. You can find more information at his website, The Jeremiah Burroughs Homepage.]

Imagine you are listening to a sermon on Christ’s faithfulness in the darkest trials. The sermon is being preached by a young, married preacher who recently had a child. You will likely listen and benefit from the sermon. But imagine that same sermon being given by a man whose wife and only daughter were killed two years ago in an automobile accident, and whose only son has just been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Which of the two sermons is most likely to make you sit on the edge of your seat? As you can imagine, a man’s life experiences can certainly add force and weight to his message. This is the case with Jeremiah Burroughs, whose teaching on contentment is given weight by a series of trials experienced during his lifetime.

Jeremiah Burroughs was born in East Anglia, England, in 1599. After completing his MA at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1625, he was forced to leave the University because he refused to conform to unbiblical rituals, ceremonies, and superstitions which the Church of England had begun to enforce at that time. However, this did not prevent him from entering the ministry, and after serving two years as curate at All Saints Church, Stisted, he was appointed lecturer at Bury St. Edmunds in 1627. As a lecturer, he was free from the restrictions placed on the vicars of the church. He served in the same town as Edmund Calamy, and shared a town lectureship with him. His future seemed bright. His heart’s desire was to serve the Lord and his kingdom in as great a capacity as the Lord would allow.

However, his first job ended in disappointment. In 1630, he reported that “I have been nearly three and a half years with them with little success.” He further commented that the people had a “strange disposition”. To make matters worse, the congregation seemed determined to get rid of Burroughs because he spoke out against the sin of one of the town’s local officials. When a change in pay left him without any certainty of income, he was forced to take a job offered to him in Tivetshall, Norfolk. This was somewhat disappointing to him, since it was a small country church, and he felt there might be less opportunity to do good than at the larger town of Bury.

Nevertheless, in 1631 he became the vicar of Tivetshall, and served there for several years. He was even able to engage in rotating lectureships with William Bridge and William Greenhill. However, when William Laud was appointed Archbishop, all ministers in England were required to read, from their pulpits, The King’s Book of Sports, an official declaration of recreational activities in which king’s subjects were to participate on Sundays. Such “sports” included “leaping, vaulting… May-games, Whitsun-ales, and Morris-dances, and the setting up of May-poles”. Burroughs and other Puritan ministers felt this violated their convictions of the sanctity of the Sabbath. Laud then appointed bishop Matthew Wren to visit the churches in Norfolk and report any nonconformists to him. Wren was especially zealous, and also enforced his own recently-published “visitation articles” which contained 139 articles with 897 questions to be asked of ministers at these visitations! These included:

-Does he receive the sacrament kneeling himself, and administer to none but such as kneel?

-Does he wear the surplice while he is reading prayers and administering the sacrament?

-Does he in Rogation-days use the perambulation around the parish?

-Has your minister read the book of sports in his church or chapel?

-Does he use conceived (rather than written) prayers before or after the sermon?

-Are the graves dug east and west, and the bodies buried with their heads at the west?

-Do they kneel at confession, stand up at the creed, and bow at the glorious name of Jesus?

Burroughs could not in good conscience conform to such superstitions. His personal conviction was as follows: “In God’s worship, there must be nothing tendered up to God but what He has commanded. Whatsoever we meddle with in the worship of God must be what we have a warrant for out of the Word of God.”

When Wren’s chancellor showed up at Tivetshall, Burroughs refused to conform, and was subsequently suspended from the ministry in 1636. In 1637, he was formally deprived of his living, and was sheltered by the Earl of Warwick. Burroughs had hoped to serve the Lord in such a way as to do much good for His kingdom. Instead, preaching before the Earl of Warwick’s family and friends in the Earl’s home became his only opportunity for service.

To make matters worse, Burroughs was accused by another minister of justifying the Scots in their taking up arms against the king. Though the minister later recanted, officials continued with proceedings for Burroughs’ arrest. In late 1638, he sailed for Rotterdam, Holland, responding to a call from William Bridge to assist him as teacher there. This was especially difficult for Burroughs, for he left behind many friends and earthly goods. Further, he was a patriot who loved England. “We scarcely thought we should ever have seen our country again”, he said.

Burroughs’ perseverance during this downward spiral of narrowing influence and ministry opportunities is exemplary. Many of us would have thrown in the towel at Bury St. Edmunds, but Burroughs continued to serve the Lord with gladness. One reason for this is his view of contentment. Borrowing Burroughs’ own definition of contentment, he possessed that “sweet, inward, quiet gracious frame of spirit” which freely submitted to and delighted in “God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition”.

Contentment did not come to Burroughs by his simply suppressing his complaints, but rather by embracing the work of God in the very circumstance about which he might have otherwise been tempted to complain. He recognized that God was in his circumstances, and His intentions are always good: “Is God about to humble me? Is God about to break my heart, and to bring my heart down to Him? Let me join with God in this work of His…”

He further stated that it is critical to “labor to make a good interpretation of God’s ways towards you.” He understood that the providence of God was yielding God’s results through his circumstances, even if he didn’t see the end in view. He said, There is nothing that befalls you but there is a hand of God in it”. Burroughs himself bore out the truth of this statement, for how many multitudes of people have benefited from his teaching on contentment, and how much did Burroughs’ thoughts on contentment depend upon this very difficult circumstance of his fleeing from England?

However, the primary reason that Jeremiah Burroughs was able to reach a contented state during these difficult years was because God Himself was his cherished possession, which he treasured above all else. He said, “A Christian should be satisfied with what God has made the object of his faith (i.e., Christ). The object of his faith is high enough to satisfy his soul, were it capable of a thousand times more than it is. Now if you may have the object of your faith you have enough to content your soul.” He added, “If the children of God have their little taken from them, they can make up all their wants in God Himself… If anything is cut off from the stream (a godly man) knows how to go to the fountain, and makes up all there. God is his all in all.”

Sometimes difficult circumstances are a vital means used by God to direct our attention and love toward Him. Burroughs pointed out that,
Since God is contented with Himself alone, if you have Him, you may be contented with Him alone, and it may be, that is the reason why your outward comforts are taken from you, that God may be all in all to you. It may be that while you had these things they shared with God in your affection, a great part of the stream of your affection ran that way: God would have the full stream run to Him now.

In leaving England, Burroughs knew that it was important that he possess a “contentment of spirit that should be present in leaving all for the cause of God”; interestingly, he penned these words while in Holland! If Burroughs was to reach any level of effectiveness for the service of Christ in Rotterdam, he could not do so with a grumbling, complaining spirit.

Burroughs’ contentment during these extenuating circumstances paid off, for in 1641 the new Parliament allowed all ejected ministers, including Burroughs, to return to England! Almost immediately, he was appointed three large lectureships, two of which, Stepney and Cripplegate, were accounted to be England’s largest congregations.

Burroughs’ appointment to these large, wealthy congregations led to a new trial, one he called “the burden that is in a prosperous condition”. Being well-paid for these lectureships (though not sought by him), Burroughs sought to find contentment in his newfound prosperity, as well as attaining a “sanctified use” use of those things for God’s glory. In his view, it was more difficult to learn contentment when facing plenty and abundance than when in want and need. The Christian, he taught, must never allow earthly goods to possess his heart, but rather must allow such things to convey to him the goodness of Christ: “O, Lord, these comforts that You have given me in created things,” he said, “oh, they are sweet; but how sweet is Yourself! How sweet is Jesus Christ! That is the fullness of all this fullness!” Prosperity should increase humility as well: “A godly heart by his fullness grows to increase his humility; he grows sensible of his unworthiness by his fullness.” His friends later remarked that, by God’s grace, Burroughs achieved his goal of finding contentment in prosperity.

Jeremiah Burroughs had longed for usefulness in service for Christ, and did not give up during dire circumstances; as a result, he became arguably England’s most listened-to preacher. He was also given the honor of serving in the Westminster Assembly of Divines, where he worked on the catechism and confession of faith, as well as attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to obtain toleration for those convinced of a congregational form of church government.

Although he experienced other trials (not being married until about 1645, remaining childless, and especially receiving vitriolic attacks by enemies who sought to undermine his ministry through slanderous treatises written against him), his character remained so exemplary that nearly all the Puritan ministers remarked about his peaceable and godly spirit.

Burroughs died in 1646 following a fall from a horse. So loved had he become during these years in London that, following his death, it was reported that he was “a man much lamented”.

Share Button
Print Friendly