Red Booth Notes: Philip Doddridge, a Man of Great Parts

Red BoothFor most people, the name Philip Doddridge brings no flicker of recognition. But on a time, in the eighteenth century—and for many years after his death in 1751—this British thought leader exerted a great influence for good. His life and faith were an ornament to his age.

One of his books, Religion in the Soul, became a classic text, and was a catalyst for the conversion of William Wilberforce. John Wesley sought his counsel, and Doddridge wrote many fine hymns that are often classed with those of Charles Wesley. The volumes of The Family Expositor, Doddridge’s learned biblical commentary, were prized possessions among the books of Jonathan Edwards’s personal library. Edwards quoted Doddridge as a trusted authority in his sermons.[1] Much admired as an educator, the founders of Princeton University looked to Doddridge for guidance, and wrote important letters seeking his counsel. In 1787 the future president, John Quincy Adams, wrote of how Doddridge’s writings were to be taught at Harvard.[2]

Across the Atlantic, in Britain itself, Doddridge was widely respected. No less a figure than Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer and man of letters, singled Doddridge out for special praise.

Therein lies a very fine story.

In late September 1773, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell were in the midst of their famous tour of the Hebrides in Scotland. One night, as Boswell remembered, “there was as great a storm of wind and rain as I have almost ever seen.” Confined to their lodgings for the evening, Dr. Johnson carried the day. His gift for conversation shone as brightly as the fire in the hearth.

Johnson spoke vividly of men he’d known, and writers he’d read. One of these was the orator and statesman Edmund Burke, a friend of many years. Burke was then the toast of London, and a famous author as well. Noting this, Johnson paid Burke a handsome compliment, saying that he “did not grudge Burke’s being the first man in the House of Commons, for he was the first man everywhere.”

The night, it seemed, was destined to be one of tributes, for Johnson spoke with admiration for another contemporary, Philip Doddridge, the eminent Christian divine. Doddridge, said Johnson, “was the author of one of the finest epigrams in the English language.” The epigram was a Latin phrase Doddridge had chosen for his family motto: dum vivimus, vivamus, or, “live while you live.” Johnson especially liked the way Doddridge had borrowed the phrase, as it were, from ancient Epicurean philosophy, and made it his own. Doddridge cast his paraphrase in verse, which Johnson recited:


Live, while you live, the epicure would say,

And seize the pleasures of the present day.

Live, while you live, the sacred preacher cries,

And give to God each moment as it flies.

Lord, in my views let both united be;

I live in pleasure, when I live to thee.[3]


Johnson’s praise was telling, but it was far from the only claim to fame Doddridge had in Britain, or beyond her shores. For though he died at the tragically young age of forty-nine, few men of his years led a more consequential life. Doddridge was accomplished in many fields of endeavour, some seven in all. He was biographer, educator, poet, philanthropist, pastor, religious statesman, and author.

As an innovative educator, Doddridge taught in English at a time when most academics gave lectures in Latin. He was also the founder of Northampton Academy, now part of the University of London. The academy’s fame was such that educational leaders in colonial America consulted Doddridge, among them Aaron Burr, the second president of Princeton University. Said one historian: “to Doddridge the founders of Princeton turned for guidance and assistance, and, in April 1748, Burr opened a regular correspondence which continued until Doddridge’s death in 1751.”[4]

Though Northampton Academy was a school for students who were from dissenting faith traditions, that is, they worshipped outside The Church of England, Doddridge forged important friendships with several dons at Cambridge and Oxford. Lynford Caryl, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, considered him “a man of great parts and learning.”[5] Two colleges of Aberdeen University awarded him honorary degrees.


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As a writer of religious verse, Doddridge’s gifts were prodigious. Eric Routley of Oxford University ranked him fourth among the great hymn writers of England, after Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and James Montgomery.[6] At the time of this death he had written nearly 400 hymns.[7] “Hark, the Glad Sound” is perhaps the most famous of these.

In the field of philanthropy, Doddridge was a founder of the Northampton Infirmary, now Northampton General Hospital. In 1737, he also established a charity school to clothe and teach poor children. Committed as well to the cause of biblical literacy, he proposed a society for distributing Bibles and other good books among the poor. Never a wealthy man, he frequently gave substantial portions of his income to charitable causes.

Missions were never far from Doddridge’s mind either. His plan “for the advancement of the gospel at home and abroad,” has been called as first nonconformist project of foreign missions.[8] He presented this plan to three different gatherings of ministers in 1741, and his advocacy probably stemmed from his important correspondence with the Moravian missionary pioneer Count Zinzendorf.

As a religious statesman, Doddridge is credited with having done “more than any man in the eighteenth century to obliterate old party lines, and to unite nonconformists on a common religious ground.”[9] He had cordial consultations with Thomas Herring, the Archbishop of Canterbury, about a rapprochement with nonconformists. Nothing ultimately came of this, but mutual respect endured. Doddridge also established congenial relations with George Whitefield, and this in an era when the early Methodists were widely despised in British society. Doddridge took part in services at Whitefield’s meetinghouse, though this brought a rebuke from Isaac Watts for doing so. Doddridge knew John Wesley too, and in June 1746, Wesley wrote to Doddridge, asking about a course of reading for young preachers. By return post, he received a detailed and welcome reply.

Doddridge’s daughter best described his sentiments as a religious statesman. She recalled: “The orthodoxy my father taught his children was charity.”[10] An ardent admirer of Richard Baxter, who coined the phrase: “meer Christianity,”[11] Doddridge agreed with Baxter’s commitment to it. “I think it my duty,” he wrote, “to do my part…to promote true Christianity both in the Establishment and separation.”[12]


Philip Doddridge (1861 engraving)
Philip Doddridge (1861 engraving)

Powerful words

Doddridge was an incredibly prolific author. Over a twenty-one-year period, he prepared fifty-three works for publication. Several of these passed through myriad editions under his supervision. In the late nineteenth century, biographer Charles Stanford wrote:


It would be impossible to tell the total number of editions [of Doddridge’s works] from first to last, down to the present time. But, leaving out the numerous issues of his works in whole and in part in America, also those in the French, Dutch, Danish, and Welsh languages, and not attempting to discover all published in our English provincial towns, [I] have counted two hundred and nine editions of his works, great and small, and have not yet finished counting. [One] wonders at his industry [and] popularity….Copies of his books have been circulating in hundreds of thousands.[13]


When the first volume of Doddridge’s classic biblical commentary, The Family Expositor, was published in 1736, he became one of the first who attempted to popularize a learned understanding of the Bible. Running to six volumes, twenty-one editions were published by 1880.

Remarkable as the popularity of The Family Expositor was, Doddridge is best remembered for his classic apologia, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745). Few books could boast such a pedigree. It was written at the request of Isaac Watts, and its pages breathe the spirit of the man who gave the world the timeless hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”


A literary influence


Religion in the Soul prompted many famous conversions, none more famous than that of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the British statesman who has been called “the greatest reformer in history.”[14] Thus Doddridge’s book led ultimately to many great social and political reforms of the nineteenth century. These include the abolition of the British slave trade, the passage of more humane child labour laws, support for the education of the blind and the deaf—the funding of hospitals and schools and the founding of organizations as diverse as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the National Gallery (of Art)—these reforms were the fruit of Wilberforce’s self-described “great change” or embrace of Christianity. England, and the world, would have been far different if Wilberforce had not had a life-altering encounter with Doddridge’s book.

Wilberforce revered Doddridge as a man of “great erudition,” and “deep views of religion.”[15] In later years he wrote to his daughter Elizabeth: “I understand you are reading Doddridge’s Rise and Progress. You cannot read a better book.”[16]

Religion in the Soul has been published in dozens of editions over the last 260 years. It has been translated into nine languages: French, Welsh, Gaelic, Italian, Tamil, Syriac, Dutch, German, and Danish.

In writing Religion in the Soul, Doddridge crafted a book that was a “reasoned, elegant” exposition of Christianity.[17] These words describe Doddridge himself: one of the finest, most accomplished leaders of the early evangelical movement.


An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).


[1] See page 474 of Jonathan Edwards: A Life, by George Marsden, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). See also page 490 of Sermons and Discourses, by Jonathan Edwards, ed. by W.H. Kimnach, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

[2] See page 20 of Life in a New England Town: The Diary of John Quincy Adams, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1903).

[3] All information about Samuel Johnson’s admiration for Doddridge, including Doddridge’s lines of verse, is given on page 271 of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, vol. 5, ed. by G.B. Hill, (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1887).

[4] See the article, “We Labour Under Difficulties…” by Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, originally published on page 8 of the October 8, 1954 issue of The Princeton Alumni Weekly. Dr. Wertenbaker was then Historian of the University and Edwards Professor of American History, Emeritus. During a visit to Oxford University, he discovered the Doddridge correspondence with Aaron Burr and other early educational leaders. Dr. Wertenbaker’s article is posted online at:

[5] See page 109 of Philip Doddridge, by Charles Stanford, (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1881).

[6] See Christopher Idle, “Philip Doddridge, 1702-1751,” the Evangelical Library Lecture given in London on 4 March 2002. Here Idle writes: “Erik Routley placed Doddridge at No. 4 in his table of merit. James Montgomery, who came 3rd, used these words of numbers 1, 2, & 4: ‘the piety of Watts, the ardour of Wesley, and the tenderness of Doddridge.’”

This lecture is posted online at:

[7] This tally is confirmed on page 163 of The Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 15, (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1888).

[8] Information given on page 162 of The Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 15, (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1888).

[9] See pages 160-161 of The Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 15, (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1888).

[10] See page 63 of The Correspondence and Diary of Philip Doddridge, vol. 5, (London: Colburn and Bentley, 1831).

[11] Richard Baxter, as quoted on page 24 of Richard Baxter: Puritan Man of Letters, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).

[12] See page 117 of The Works of Philip Doddridge, vol. 1, (London: Richardson, Baldwin, and Robinson, 1804).

[13] From page 159 of Philip Doddridge, by Charles Stanford, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1880).

[14] A descriptive phrase applied by Oxford scholar Dr. Os Guinness in correspondence with the author.

[15] See page 392 of A Practical View of Christianity, by William Wilberforce, (London: T. Cadell, 1798).

[16] See page 169 of The Private Papers of William Wilberforce, ed. by A.M. Wilberforce, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897).

[17] See page 34 of Wilberforce, by John Pollock, (London: John Constable, 1977).