Jeremiah Burroughs and the Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) was thought of highly by his Puritan contemporaries. He was well known for his powerful preaching, deep theological insight, and kind disposition to his congregants and fellow ministers of the Gospel. His resume is noteworthy; he was a member of the Westminster Assembly, a leader among the Puritan Independents, a friend to numerous Lords and Ladies. He preached at two of the largest congregations in London (at the same time), regularly preached to Parliament, and published numerous works. And his influence is not limited to the past, his reprinted sermons inspire and point readers to Christ to this day.

Behind this magisterial curriculum vitae was a man who understood the importance of peace through Spirit-enabled piety. His list of achievements is long, but his struggles were more. It was in the refining fires of trial that he wrote his most influential and enduring work, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (TRJ). To understand the life, theology, and impact of Jeremiah Burroughs one must engage with TRJ (which would not be a wasteful pursuit!) Burroughs’ teaching on contentment undergirds the Puritan understanding of sanctification because it aids believers in the pursuit of holiness through caring less about the things of the world and clinging to the all-surpassing worth of being united to Christ.

The development of Jeremiah Burroughs’ doctrine of Christian contentment did not occur in a vacuum.  His life circumstances forced him to face the issue of being content in this world. Therefore, to fairly summarize his understanding of the place of contentment in sanctification three key areas are considered in this paper: First, a biographical sketch is required to contextualize his theological development. Second,  a breakdown of his famed definition of Christian contentment will be done to show how it flows with sanctification and the Christian life. The third is an overview of his overarching argument followed by practical steps to gaining contentment in TRJ. Once these are examined, modern applications will be given in closing.

Biographical Sketch

Jeremiah Burroughs was born in 1599 in East Anglia, England. Unfortunately, little is known about his early life apart from the fact that he was the third of five children born to Francis Burroughs (the name of his wife is unknown). Not long after Burroughs’ death, Thomas Fuller wrote, with a tinge of disappointment, about the lack of credible information about Burroughs (and some of his companions), “It is our unhappiness, that in writing their story we have little save what we have collected out of the writings of pens professedly against them, and therefore the less credit is to be given thereunto” (1). Even with little information available about the particulars of Burroughs’ life, his career and key events can still be outlined. After finishing (or leaving) his studies in 1624 at Emmanuel College, Cambridge under the tutelage of Thomas Hooker, he sought work in the Church of England (2). Beeke and Pederson helpfully bracket out his ministry into four periods each of which “reveals him as a zealous and faithful pastor.” These periods were 1627-1631 at Bury St. Edmunds, 1631-1636 at Tivetshall Norfolk, 1638-1642 as a refuge preaching in the Netherlands, and 1642 -1646 preaching at both Stepney and St. Giles Cripplegate (3).  Each of these seasons of his life molded him and showed him the importance of contentment regardless of circumstances.

His first call was as a curate at the countryside All Saints Church in Essex. He was charged with teaching and regular instruction of the people. This was a humble starting place for the man who would later be referred to as a “prince of preachers” by Thomas Brooks. Not only was it a good starting role in ministry, but he also lived 16 miles away from his Emmanuel College tutor Thomas Hooker. Burroughs regularly attended Hooker’s house seminary. Burroughs would preach and teach on Sunday, and then go to spend the week with fellow ministers under Hooker’s roof (4). His time at this house seminary was vital to his ministerial development as well as his strong Puritan convictions. In this regard, Hooker truly was the most influential man in Burroughs’ life (5).

All wasn’t ideal during this time in his life, however. He took another call to Bury St. Edmunds, a larger and more influential parish, as a co-laborer with another preacher in the Church of England. He began strong. However, while he was popular and many came to hear him preach from surrounding areas, the congregation itself turned against him when he preached a sermon against the alderman (6). They began to rid themselves of him through a series of votes to deprive him of his salary and give it all to the other preacher, Henry White. He was so concerned he wrote a letter to John Cotton in New England, who suggested that Burroughs should reach out to someone closer to him and the situation (7). 

After a long period of prayer, he left graciously and began the second period of his ministry after being called by Lady Jane Bacon to serve as the rector of the church in Tivetshall. This was a smaller parish than Bury and one that afforded little influence. Burroughs accepted the call and put himself in a difficult position. As a nonconformist, he was now a rector within the church of England and responsible for the sacraments and overall well-being of the church, and he was a Puritan in a time when that was not a safe title to hold. Even more dangerous for him, he was under Bishop Matthew Wren, who was a fierce opponent to Puritanism and a staunch supporter of Archbishop William Laud. Wren targeted Burroughs and suspended him in 1636 for refusing to read from the Book of Sports and refusing to only use the written prayers, Burroughs was then deprived in 1637 (8). He then spent time living with and preaching to Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, and his family. Simpson shares a helpful excerpt from a dedication of Burroughs which shows how highly he viewed Robert Rich: 

Your honor has disapproved of superstitious, time-serving spirits; but as for the faithful ministers of the gospel, and the most sincere and godly of your country, your honor has cast much respect upon them, and has been the encourager of them. This reflects your honor, as upon God’s name and His truth, and also upon your noble family (9).

Following this period in his life, he had to flee to the Netherlands due to increased pressure from Wren under the orders of Laud. He lived there from 1638-1642. He served as a minister at the church of the great William Ames, who had passed before Burroughs arrived. It was during this time that he preached his sermon series which would later be printed as The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.

 Finally, he returned to England in 1642 and preached at two of the largest churches in the area, Stepany and St. Giles, Cripplegate. He was called to preach before both the House of Lords and the House of Commons numerous times and he was universally respected by Puritan leaders (10). It was during his service for the church as a Westminster Divine that he shined as an ecclesiastical leader. He was a part of the “Five Dissenting Brethren” alongside Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, Sidrach Simpson, and William Bridge. Even in the midst of theological debate and difficulties during the Assembly, he bridged the gap with his pastoral wisdom and gentleness. Richard Baxter famously quipped that “if all the Episcopalians had been like Archbishop Ussher, all the Presbyterians like Stephen Marshall, and all the Independents like Jeremiah Burroughs, the breaches of the church would soon have been healed.” This is not surprising because every day he left his study he passed by the Latin phrase hung on a plaque, “opinionum varietas et opinantium unitas non sunt hasustata” translated to Enlgish it read “variety of opinion and unity of opinion are not incompatible.”

Sadly, Jeremiah Burroughs would not see the completion of the Westminster Assembly. As he was heading to the Assembly on Friday, October 30 he was thrown off of his horse and severely injured his back. The minutes of the Westminster Assembly showed they didn’t know how serious he was injured as they assigned him to open the assembly in prayer the following Friday (11). He was content during the last moments of his life, and he was ready to meet the savior of his soul. As he had previously preached:

If Christ may be magnified in me, if I may be of any service for Him in any way, then I am content to live. But if it be so that He may be no more served by me here, let me die, and I shall lose nothing by that either; for that same thing you call “death,” the thing that people make such a stir about, and are so scared about, that “to die,” is nothing to me, but that which will be gain (12).

Jeremiah Burroughs died 2 weeks later on Friday, November 13, 1646. And, according to Thomas Juxon, “Jeremiah Burroughs died, a man much lamented” (13). Jeremiah Burroughs was a content man in either plenty and want. He was happy to preach to the two largest churches in London, or the family and household of the Earl of Warwick. He knew that nothing this world had to offer could match the salvation found in Christ Jesus. His life was marked by practical holiness because he was not living for this life. His understanding of contentment bled into his pursuit of holiness through the Spirit and that is seen throughout the pages of TRJ. 

Christian Contentment Defined

As stated above, Jeremiah Burroughs wrote TRJ while serving as a minister in exile in the Netherlands. Even after a series of disappointments  and trials, he was content. Simpson argues this is the case because “he treasured his Lord more than all else” (14). The treasure of being content in the Lord is clear in Burroughs’ famous definition of contentment. He wrote that “Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition” (15). 

In breaking down this definition it is clear that, first, contentment is not simply an act, but a condition of the heart. He argues that “many many sit silently, refraining from discontented expressions, yet inwardly they are bursting with discontent” and “outwordly there may be calmness and stillness, yet within amazing confusion, bitterness, disturbance and vexation” (16). One is only truly content when their soul is quiet before the Lord, anything else, to Burroughs, is vanity at best.

Second, he shows in this definition that contentment is the framework of the believer’s practice of piety. He understood that some people are naturally more agreeable than others and more content in life due to their personality and disposition. However, the key to this part of his definition is how he explains the difference between Christian contentment and natural contentment. He said that people who are naturally content are “just as content when they commit sin against God” (17). This is why Burroughs’ understanding of true contentment is bound to sanctification, for him it is all about growing in holiness and closer to the Lord. Anything else is worthless. As he wrote elsewhere, “in the midst of all outward good things David enjoyed in this world, he found his blessedness to consist in this: the pardon and forgiveness of his sins” (18). And, according to Burroughs, if one is not aware of the blessedness of the pardon of sin, they are not spiritually alive and when one is awakened to this reality contentment becomes the framework of their desires and actions (19). 

Third, Burroughs’ definition encourages the believer that when contentment is a spiritual reality and framework of living then circumstances have no bearing on contentment. Burroughs preached this series based on Philippians 4:11, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (English Standard Version). Contentment in all circumstances, for Burroughs, is the natural response to knowing the Lord. For example, he argues that Paul was able to pen this because he had “very little in the world… but yet possessing all things. So you see that a Christian has cause to take pleasure in God’s and, whatever his hand may be” (20). Jeremiah Burroughs could be content as an exile or a “prince of preachers” because having much in the world doesn’t compare to being united to Christ. For “since God is contented with himself alone, if you have him, you may be contented with him alone” (21).

Obtaining the Rare Jewel 

Contentment is rare because, according to Burroughs, there is a great mystery to it that cannot be explained apart from the Spirit. He points to the seeming contradiction that, “it may be said of one who is contented in a Christian way that he is the most contented man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world; these two together must needs be mysterious” (22). The point he makes is simple, if someone truly has Christ nothing in this world can satisfy their heart. This is the spiritual reason Burroughs was able to step away from his homeland in exile and immediately start proclaiming the good news, he couldn’t be satisfied by a position in the Church of England or prestige, but only by Christ (23).

Since the Puritans viewed personal spiritual experience and growth in holiness as the key of theological enterprise, Jeremiah Burroughs did not keep this address at the cerebral level (24). He gives numerous practical advice and practices to pursue contentment, keeping in step with Philippians 2:12 urging Christians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Three of his practical examples show how to understand the pursuit of contentment:

First, he shows that one moves toward contentment “not so much by adding to what he would have, or to what he has, not by adding more to his condition; but rather by subtracting from his desires, so as to make his desires and his circumstances even and equal” (25). It is easy to think that contentment will be obtained once the object of desire is acquired. But there is always another “want” on the horizon. If desires are unchecked then contentment will never be obtained. Robert Letham whimsically explains Sanctification as a “process of death and resurrection” (26). By the power of the Spirit and trusting work of the believer sin is being killed and the “new man” is being made more into the image of Christ. Fighting desires is the frontline battle of mortifying sin and directly plays into sanctification. If the desire level is never challenged then discontent will win the day. If discontent prevails, growth in holiness will wither. Augustine’s famed words fit in this category, “you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You” (27). Burroughs strengthens his point with a helpful analogy by pointing out that having desires above one’s circumstances is like having one leg much longer than the other. No matter what, until both legs are the same size, one cannot walk in a consistent manner. Until one consciously brings their desires down to their Divinely ordained circumstances they will not be content (28).

Next, he shows that it is not about removing burdens, but actually adding one. If one believes that their contentment will come once their affliction ends, they are falling into the same trap as one who believes possessions will bring contentment, they are just falling off a more negative ledge.  His argument is fully rounded because he shows that the way of contentment is “to add another burden, that is, to labor to load and burden your heart with your sin” (29). Living in a fallen world means there will be suffering and pain at times. While some may experience this more or less than others, it remains a fact of life. When one knows their sin, and the one against whom they have sinned, they understand the futility of living for this world alone, and that their season of affliction will eternally end once they enter into the Kingdom of God. One will not grow in holiness without knowledge of their sin. He concludes this argument by pointing out that if one hopes for their affliction to end before being content, they will likely be worse off if they enter into a state of riches. In his words, “you do not find one godly man who came out of an affliction worse than when we went into it; though for while he was shaken, yet at last he was better for an affliction” however, “many godly men, you find, have been worse for their prosperity” (30). 

After expounding on these two points in various ways, he closes his thesis on the mystery of contentment by showing that it is given to men through “the covenant God has made with him.” All of the arguments Burroughs made up to this point are hinged on the fact that God has made promises to His people and “that is the way of [their] contentment, to go to the promises, and get from the promise, that which may supply.” Conversely, “this is but a dry business to a carnal heart” (31). Since God gave Christ as the means of salvation, believers can be content in trusting the promises and Covenant of God. Without the security provided by the blood of Christ, one does not have a basis for contentment because they do not share in the promise of redemption. 

Practical Steps to Obtaining Christian Contentment

Burroughs did a phenomenal job of setting up his entire argument in the first third of the book, and then masterfully expounded on them through the rest of the work. In the final three chapters, Burroughs lays out practical ways to gain contentment. Without first showing how this is all built of the promise of God it would seem to be works-based, but one must approach this section knowing that Burroughs understood that it is only possible to do these things with a new heart empowered by the Holy Spirit to holy living (32).

His system boils down to understanding “the greatness of the mercies that we have, and the meanness of the things which we lack (33). When this is the mindset of the believer they are able to see that God is before them and with them (34), they know the abundance of His mercy (35), see the difference in their spiritual state before knowing the Lord (36), and then are able to “Labor to get [their] hearts… dead to the world” (37). It is a logically consistent system that connects with biblical examples and pastoral wisdom. This high-level theology is easy to understand and replicate, showing the homiletical brilliance of Burroughs.

These steps, according to Burroughs, when done in faith will bring about a Spirit-led change in the heart of the Christian. The world will look darker and less appealing in the shadow of the glory of God. This is the process of sanctification. One grows in holiness after being set apart for glory. It is difficult to be content in this world, but as Burroughs masterfully shows, it is possible through the power of the Spirit. With the focus on TRJ being on Philippians 4:11, one would be remiss to look at this work and think that it is all about human effort for 4:11 is followed by 4:13 which encourages the believer through showing them that “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Conclusion

Jeremiah Burroughs lived and wrote this treatise in a time far less indulgent than that of the modern West. In today’s world, most Americans can go to a supermarket and have a wider variety than King Charles I did during his reign. Not only that but with the advent of modern marketing people are bombarded with items of increasing impressiveness and use. The effect of this is it is easy to find worth and status in the possessions one owns. Because of this, it is hard to be content in today’s world. However, while the temptations are different in this time than Burroughs’, the cure is the same. True contentment is only found when one is utterly dissatisfied in this world and is united to Christ.

To understand the Puritan view of piety Jeremiah Burroughs’ TRJ must be considered because it aids believers in the pursuit of holiness through caring less about the things of the world and clinging to the all-surpassing worth of being united to Christ. This is not only helpful in historical academic pursuits. Knowing the Puritan view of holiness and piety without personal pursuit is utterly missing the point. Jeremiah Burroughs laid out a magisterial dissertation on how to grow in holiness through contentment in Christ. Even with his noteworthy resume, even though he was one of the most sought after preachers up to the point of his death, even though he preached in front of Parlament and was a leader at the Westminster assembly, even though his writings have stood the test of time and are still loved he found contentment in Christ alone. To understand the life and theology of Jeremiah Burroughs one must interact with The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, and when one encounters the biblical truth found therein they truly have found a treasure. Contentment plays a key role in sanctification, and never has there been a time in which that is more true than today.

End Notes:

1 – John Sherren Brewer and Thomas Fuller, The Church History of Britain: From the Birth of Jesus Christ Until the Year 1648 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1845), 274.

2 – Much of his time at Cambridge is unknown other than the fact that he received the standard education of other students (which is wonderfully explained in Bendall, Brooke, and Collinson History of Emmanuel College (Cambridge, 1999). It is certain that his time here deeply influenced him, especially his relationship with Thomas Hooker. This relationship was one that would shape and form him as a strong non-conformist and Puritan. Burroughs even relied on Hooker for wisdom years after he finished at Emmanuel College (See: Sargent Bush Jr., ed., The Correspondence of John Cotton (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 154.

3 – Joel Beeke and R.J Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a guide to modern reprints. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2007), 118-119

4 – Francis J. Bremer, Congregational Communion (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1994), 38.

5 – P. L. Simpson, A life of Gospel Peace: A Biography of Jeremiah Burroughs (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 22-23

6 – Ibid, 29.

7 – Ibid 33.

8 – Joel Beeke, preface, An Exposition of the Prophecy of Hosea, by Jeremiah Burroughs (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006).

9 – Jeremiah Burroughs, epistle directory to Moses His Choise, with His Eye Fixed upon Heaven: Discovering the Happy Condition of a Self-Denying Heart, Delivered in a Treatise Upon Hebrews 11:25, 26 (London: John Field 1650).

10 – Beeke and Pederson, Meet the Puritans, 119.

11 – Simpson, Jeremiah Burroughs, 281.

12 – Jeremiah Burroughs, Four Useful Discourses (London: Thomas Parkhurst, 1675), 105.

13 – Keith Lindley and David Scott, The Journal of Thomas Juxon, 1646-1647 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 140.

14 – Simpson, Jeremiah Burroughs, 82.

15 – Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 19.

16 – Ibid, 20.

17 – Ibid, 31.

18 – Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel remission, (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995),

19 – James Davison, Jeremiah Burroughs on The Blessedness of Pardoned Sin. Puritan Reformed Journal 5, no. 1 (January 2013): 59.

20 – Burroughs, The Rare Jewel, 36.

21 – Ibid, 66.

22 – Ibid, 43.

23 – Simpson, Jeremiah Burroughs, 82.

24 – Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Cambridge companion to Puritanism (John Coffey and Paul C. H. Lim, Eds. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008), 191-192

25 – Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel, 45.

26 – Robert Letham, Systematic Theology, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 737. 

27 – Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.1.

28 – Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel, 46-47

29 –  Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel, 49.

30 – Ibid, 50.

31 – Ibid, 69.

32 – James Davison works through this well when discussing Jeremiah Burroughs’ understanding of worship as only being enabled by the Lord. See: James Davison, Jeremiah Burroughs on Worship. Puritan Reformed Journal 2 (1) 2010: 228–45

33 – Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel, 207-208.

34 – Ibid, 209.

35 – Ibid, 211.

36 – Ibid, 213.

37 – Ibid, 221.

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