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EMINENT CHRISTIANS: 5. ANDREW FULLER

Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), an indefatigable and fearless Baptist theologian and minister, was an outstanding figure with qualities that make him one of the most attractive figures in Christian history. Many in his day and after could echo the words of his very close friend William Carey (1761-1834), “I loved him.” In fact, Charles Haddon Spurgeon once described Fuller as “the greatest theologian” of his century.

He was converted in November 1769 and baptized the following April. He subsequently joined the Soham church where his family went. Over the course of the next few years, it became very evident to the church that Fuller possessed definite ministerial gifts. Fuller, who was self-taught when it came to theology and who had been preaching in the church for a couple of years, was formally inducted as pastor on 3 May 1775. The church consisted of forty-seven members and met for worship in a rented barn.

Fuller’s pastorate at Soham, which lasted until 1782 when he moved to pastor the Baptist work in Kettering, Northamptonshire, was a decisive period for the shaping of Fuller’s theological outlook. It was during these seven years that Fuller began a lifelong study of the works of the New England divine Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), his chief theological mentor after the Scriptures. It was also in this period of time that he made the acquaintance of Robert Hall, Sr (1728-1791), John Ryland, Jr (1753-1825) and John Sutcliff (1752-1814), who would later become his closest ministerial friends and colleagues.

Battling High Calvinism

Finally, it was during his pastorate at Soham that Fuller decisively rejected High Calvinism (a.k.a. Hyper-Calvinism) and drew up a defence of his own theological position in The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, though the first edition of this book was not published until 1785. Two editions of the work were published in Fuller’s lifetime. The first edition, published in Northampton in 1785, was subtitled The Obligations of Men Fully to Credit, and Cordially to Approve, Whatever God Makes Known, Wherein is Considered the Nature of Faith in Christ, and the Duty of Those where the Gospel Comes in that Matter. The second edition, which appeared in 1801, was more simply subtitled The Duty of Sinners to Believe in Jesus Christ, a subtitle which well expressed the overall theme of the book.

There were a few substantial differences between this first edition and the second edition (1801), which Fuller freely admitted and which primarily related to the doctrine of particular redemption. The work’s major theme remained unaltered, however: “faith in Christ is the duty of all men who hear, or have opportunity to hear, the gospel.” This epoch-making book sought to be faithful to the central emphases of historic Calvinism while at the same time attempting to leave preachers with no alternative but to drive home to their hearers the universal obligations of repentance and faith.

With regard to Fuller’s own ministry, the book was a key factor in determining the shape of that ministry in the years to come. For instance, it led directly to Fuller’s whole-hearted involvement in the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society in October 1792 and the subsequent sending of the Society’s most famous missionary, William Carey (1761-1834), to India in 1793.

Fuller also served as secretary of this society until his death in 1815. The work of the mission consumed an enormous amount of Fuller’s time as he regularly toured the country, representing the mission and raising funds. On average he was away from home three months of the year. Between 1798 and 1813, moreover, he made five lengthy trips to Scotland for the mission as well as undertaking journeys to Wales and Ireland (1804). He also carried on an extensive correspondence on the mission’s behalf.

Other areas of controversy

Fuller also engaged in other vital areas of theological debate. In 1793 he issued an extensive refutation of the Socinianism of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)—The Calvinistic and Socinian Systems examined and Compared, as to their Moral Tendency. Due to the vigorous campaigning of Priestley, Socinianism, which denied the Trinity and the deity of Christ, had become the leading form of heterodoxy within English Dissent in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Fuller’s rebuttal of Socinianism well displays the Christocentric nature of eighteenth-century Evangelical thought. Fuller ably showed that the early Church made the divine dignity and glory of Christ’s person “their darling theme.”

In 1800 Fuller published The Gospel Its Own Witness, the definitive eighteenth-century Baptist response to Deism, in particular that of the popularizer Thomas Paine (1737-1809). This work was one of the most popular of Fuller’s books, going through three editions by 1802 and being reprinted a number of times in the next thirty years. William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who admired Fuller as a theologian and who once graphically described him as “the very picture of a blacksmith,” considered it to be the most important of all of Fuller’s writings. The work has two parts. In the first, Fuller compares and contrasts the moral effects of Christianity with those of Deism. The second part of the book aims to demonstrate the divine origin of Christianity from the general consistency of the Scriptures.

Responding to eighteenth-century easy believism

Yet another vital controversy in which Fuller engaged was that with the Sandemanians, the followers of Robert Sandeman (1718-1771), who distinguished themselves from other eighteenth-century Evangelicals by a predominantly intellectualist view of faith. They became known for their cardinal theological tenet that saving faith is “bare belief of the bare truth.” In a genuine desire to exalt the utter freeness of God’s salvation, Sandeman had sought to remove any vestige of human reasoning, willing or desiring in the matter of saving faith.

In his Strictures on Sandemanianism (1810) Fuller makes a couple of telling points. First, if faith does concern only the mind, then there would be no way to distinguish genuine Christianity from nominal Christianity. A nominal Christian mentally assents to the truths of Christianity, but those truths do not grip the heart and re-orient his or her affections. Then, knowledge of Christ is a distinct type of knowledge. Knowing him, for instance, involves far more than knowing certain things about him, such as the fact of his virgin birth or the details of his crucifixion. It involves a desire for fellowship with him and a delight in his presence.

The shape of his pastoral ministry

But Fuller was far more than an apologist and mission secretary. Alongside his apologetic works, Fuller exercised a significant pastoral ministry at Kettering. During his thirty-three years at Kettering, from 1782 to 1815, the membership of the church more than doubled (from 88 to 174) and the number of “hearers” was often over a thousand, necessitating several additions to the church building. Perusal of his vast correspondence—today housed in the Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, the University of Oxford—reveals that Fuller was first and foremost a pastor. And though he did not always succeed, he constantly sought to ensure that his many other responsibilities did not encroach upon those related to the pastorate.

Two examples well display his pastoral heart. After Fuller died, there was found among his possessions a small book entitled “Families who attend at the Meeting, August, 1788.” In it he wrote: “A Review of these may assist me in praying and preaching.” Then, among his letters there is one dated 8 February 1812, which was written to a wayward member of his flock. In it Fuller lays bare his pastor’s heart when he writes: “When a parent loses…a child nothing but the recovery of that child can heal the wound. If he could have many other children, that would not do it… Thus it is with me towards you. Nothing but your return to God and the Church can heal the wound.”

Final days

Fuller had remarkable stores of physical and mental energy that allowed him to accomplish all that he did. But it was not without cost to his body. What he called a “paralytic stroke” in 1793 left him rarely free of severe headaches for the rest of his life. And in his last fifteen years he was rarely well. Taken seriously ill in September 1814, his health began to seriously decline. By the spring of the following year he was dying. He preached for the last time at Kettering on 2 April 1815 and died 7 May. He was 62.His funeral was attended by an immense crowd which one estimate put at 2,000 persons.

At Fuller’s request, his old friend, John Ryland, preached the funeral sermon. Based on Romans 8:10, it included a brief account of Fuller’s final days and the following declaration made by Fuller in his last letter to Ryland. “I have preached and written much against the abuse of the doctrine of grace,” Fuller wrote, “but that doctrine is all my salvation and all my desire. I have no other hope than from salvation by mere sovereign, efficacious grace through the atonement of my Lord and Saviour.”

I have never seen anyone dedicate a blog entry to anyone else, as we dedicate books to friends and colleagues. But there is always a first! So I would like to dedicate this entry on one of my favourite theologians to my mother, Theresa Veronica O’Gorman Haykin (1933-1976), who went to be with our Lord Jesus thirty years ago today. Praise the Lord for what Fuller calls “mere sovereign, efficacious grace” that saved her from hell.