George Burder – Founder of the Religious Tract Society

By Roger Carswell - Celebrity status is temporary.  Time races on, life is congested, and we soon forget.  Of course, some towering figures of the past adorn our history books but most slip down the list of must-know people and events, and are forgotten.  Consequently, although we are aware of some of the greats of 18th century Christian history, many others are no longer etched on our memories.

The Great Revival of the 18th century left behind it a glow and energy that had been unknown for centuries. One of those who kept alive the sacred flame was the very kind George Burder.  He seems always to have been at work, taking little rest but, though not brilliant, was earnest in his evangelistic preaching.  His books ‘Village Sermons’, ‘Cottage Sermons’, ‘Sea Sermons’ and ‘Sermons to the Aged’ contained effective gospel messages which were then preached throughout the UK and America; he was a pioneer of Sunday Schools and missionary enterprise, but it is his role as the founder of the Religious Tract Society in which I am particularly interested.

George Burder was born on June 5, 1752 to Puritan parents who worshipped in the Fetter Lane Independent Church in London.  His mother, who had been converted through George Whitefield, died and was buried in Bunhill Fields when George was but a child.  On his 10th birthday his father talked to him very earnestly urging him to seek the Lord.  He went to his room where for the first time he poured out his soul in heartfelt prayer.  “Surely, I was born of God at that time,” he later reflected.

Leaving school he was apprenticed to an engraver and began to meet artists and actors, whilst beginning to become lax about the things of God.  But he had some miraculous escapes from death, kept listening to the gospel and the preached word and, in his early twenties, met with Fletcher of Madeley who spoke with him about spiritual things which became the turning point in his life.  At the age of 24 he preached his first sermon at a week-day gathering in a farmhouse kitchen.  But soon the fame of this young evangelist was spreading, crowds gathered, so he was soon preaching in the open air.

Itinerant preaching

Within a few months he began to use his pen to spread the gospel.  His first book, ‘Memoirs of Children Eminently Religious’, which was Bunyan-esque in portraying Christian truth, was popular and influential for the next 75 years. Burder took every opportunity to preach the gospel; once when hailed by prisoners being transported by boat, he clambered on board and preached to them about repentance.  On this occasion the captain was delighted with the sermon, but many times Burder was attacked: a drummer being hired beating directly in front of the evangelist; cows and dogs being set on him even having a hedgehog thrown at him which excoriated his skin with spines.  Rejected by the clergy, he felt he had come to reach sinners with the gospel. Commenting on one incident he said, “The parson departed to mend his gate, and I mounted the chair hoping to mend the people!” As he travelled he preached. 

Pastoral work

He pastored churches first in Ulverston, then for 20 years in Coventry and later in London.  His pastoral ministry was unremitting, but he always itinerated in the areas where he ministered, each year travelling 2,500 miles and preaching over 250 times.  He would visit condemned prisoners and go with them on the cart to the gallows, preaching both to them and to the watching crowds.  He hired a hall in Coventry in a place where there was no witness for Friday evening ‘Mission Hall’ services, as well as preaching at ‘Bible readings’ in private houses.

Religious Tract Society

Through all this, he continued writing. Tracts were distributed to every house in Lancaster, and hundreds of thousands used throughout England and Scotland.  On 9&10 May 1799, recognising the need for simple tracts which straightforwardly explained the gospel, George Burder and others with the London Missionary Society formed the Religious Tract Society.  Within the first year 34 different tracts had been produced and 200,000 copies sold.  It was the beginning of a growing and influential work that continued to the 1930s.  Most of their publications were small, but they did publish Young’s Analytical Concordance as well!

Burder was happily married to Sarah for 42 years and, though saddened by several bereavements of children, two sons became gospel ministers.  At the induction of one he said, “Remember Jesus Christ.  Remember Him as your Saviour that you may love Him; as your Master, that you may serve Him; as your Theme, that you may preach Him; and as your Example, that you may imitate Him.  If you thus remember Him, He will remember you.” 

As an old man, through a painful disorder in his face, he lost his sight, but continued to preach each week.  On 29 May, 1832, aged 80, he died and is buried beside his wife and children in Bunhill Fields in London.

BiographyRoger Carswell