A Letter of Comfort to a Widower: An Example of Pastoral Care from John Berridge (1716-1793)
One of the most difficult tasks given to pastors is the care of those who are dealing with the loss of a loved one. Pastors are expected simultaneously to provide comfort to the grieving and reminders of Christian truth, all with a spirit of compassion. In the course of my dissertation reading on eighteenth and nineteenth century evangelicalism, I have read a number of letters written by evangelical ministers to people who had lost loved ones. Some of these letters come across to my modern ears as harsh and unsympathetic (perhaps they were not taken this way at that time), often rebuking the grieving for one thing or another. No doubt the intentions of these ministers were good, but their approach seemed to lack a measure of compassion and understanding.
Not all letters of this nature were quite this harsh, however. For example, I came across a letter by an English clergyman named John Berridge (1716-1793) that had been written to a man who had recently lost his wife. Though there is a mild air of rebuke in the letter, I found this to be, in the main, a moving example of how truth, comfort, and compassion can be expressed to those who are grieving. In this letter Berridge attempts to refocus his correspondent’s attention to the glorious hope Christians have of heaven by showing that, as a Christian, he has no real cause to grieve. Death for the Christian brings about a glorious change, a change that includes freedom from earth’s hardships and the blessing of being with God. Perspective is everything. Here is what he wrote:
Dear Brother, –Mr. W——– informs me of the loss of your dear wife. You once knew she was mortal; but she has now put off mortality, and is become immortal. Can this grieve you? Oh, that I was where she now is!–‘Safe landed on that peaceful shore, Where pilgrims meet to part no more.’ She was once a mourning sinner in the wilderness, but she is now a glorified saint in Zion; the Lord is become her everlasting light–the days of her mourning are ended. Does this trouble you? She was once afflicted with bodily pains and weakness, encompassed with cares, and harassed with a crowd of anxious, needless fears; but she has now arrived at her Father’s house, and Jesus has wiped away all tears from her eyes, and freed her in a moment from all pains, cares, fears, and wants. And shall this affect you? You have not lost your wife; she has only left you for a few moments–left an earthly husband to visit a heavenly Father–and expects your arrival soon, to join the hallelujah for redeeming love. Are you still weeping? Fie upon you, brother!–weeping because she is daily feasted with heavenly manna, and hourly drinking new wine in her Father’s kingdom! weeping because she is now where you would be, and long to be eternally! weeping because she is singing, and singing sweet anthems to her God and your God!–O shameful weeping! Jesus has fetched your bride triumphantly home to his kingdom, to draw your soul more ardently thither, he has broken up a cistern to bring you nearer, and keep you closer to the fountain; has caused a moment’s separation, to divorce your affections from the creature; and has torn a wedding-string from your heart, to set it a-bleeding more freely, and panting more vehemently for Jesus. Hereafter you will see how gracious the Lord has been, in calling a beloved wife home, in order to betroth the husband more effectually to himself. Remember that the house of mourning becomes and befriends a sinner; that sorrow is a safe companion for a pilgrim, who walks much astray until his heart is well broken. May all your tears flow in a heavenly channel, and every sigh waft your soul to Jesus! May the God of all consolation comfort you through life, and in death afford you a triumphant entrance into his kingdom! So prays your friend and brother in the gospel of Christ,
Everton, March 26, 1771
Source: J. C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990), 250-51.