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Worthy of all acceptation

Michael Haykin of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, remembers the life of Andrew Fuller

Michael Haykin

Figure Image
Andrew Fuller

Why should we remember Andrew Fuller (1754 –1815) two centuries after his death in Kettering in the English Midlands?

Near the beginning of the funeral sermon that the Calvinistic Baptist John Ryland Jr. preached for Andrew Fuller in 1815, Ryland described Fuller as ‘perhaps the most judicious and able theological writer that ever belonged to our denomination’. Although Fuller was one of Ryland’s closest friends, his judgment is by no means a biased one.

For instance, James Davis Knowles, Professor of Pastoral Duties and Sacred Rhetoric at the Newton Theological Institution in the 1830s, observed that ‘the works of Fuller are justly entitled to rank with those of Owen and Edwards’. And Charles Haddon Spurgeon, at the close of the 19th century, described Fuller as ‘the greatest theologian’ of his century, while A.C. Underwood, a Baptist historian writing in the middle of the 20th century, was of the opinion that he was the soundest and most useful theologian that the English Calvinistic Baptists have ever had.

For what reasons did these men, in different times and places, value Fuller and his works so highly?

Fuller’s early years

The youngest son of Robert Fuller, a farmer, and Philippa Gunton, Andrew was born on 6 February, 1754 at Wicken, a small agricultural village in Cambridgeshire in East Anglia. It is noteworthy that among both his paternal and maternal ancestors were men and women who were Puritans by conviction.

His parents regularly attended the Baptist church at Soham, about two and a half miles from Wicken. The pastor of this small work was John Eve, who had been a sieve-maker before becoming the pastor of Soham Baptist Church in 1752. Eve was a High Calvinist, and, according to Fuller, he ‘had little or nothing to say to the unconverted’. Not surprisingly, Fuller later noted: ‘I…never considered myself as any way concerned in what I heard from the pulpit.’

Nevertheless, in the late 1760s Fuller began to experience strong conviction of sin, which happily issued in his conversion in the autumn of 1769. After being baptised the following spring, he joined the Soham church.

Over the course of the next few years, it became very evident to the church that Fuller possessed definite ministerial gifts. Eve had left the church in 1771 for another pastorate and Fuller, after ministering in the church for a couple of years, was formally invited to become pastor in 1775.

Refuting High Calvinism

Fuller’s pastorate at Soham, which lasted until 1782 when he moved to Kettering in Northamptonshire, was a decisive period for the shaping of Fuller’s theological outlook. For it was during these seven years that Fuller began a lifelong study of the works of the New England divine Jonathan Edwards, his chief theological mentor after the Scriptures. He also made the acquaintance of Robert Hall Sr., John Ryland Jr. and John Sutcliff, who would later become his closest friends and colleagues. And he decisively rejected High Calvinism and drew up a defence of his own theological position in The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, though this book would not be published until 1785.

This epoch-making book sought to be faithful to the central emphases of historic Calvinism while at the same time attempting to leave ‘ministers with no alternative but to impress upon their hearers the universal obligation of repentance and faith’. With regard to Fuller’s own ministry, this 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 wholehearted commitment to the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 and his role as secretary of this missionary body until his death in 1815.

Repentance and faith

On the other hand, the book involved Fuller in much unwanted controversy. Not long after the publication of The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, Fuller was assailed in print by two London High Calvinists, William Button and John Martin. In the midst of this controversy, Fuller emphasised that he had ‘a high esteem’ for Button and ‘many others of his sentiments’. He continued: ‘I do not account them as adversaries, but as brethren in Christ, as fellow labourers in the gospel; and could rejoice… to spend my days in cordial fellowship with them.’

Fuller was to describe his own theological position as ‘strict Calvinism’, differentiating it from High Calvinism, which was ‘more Calvinistic than Calvin’ and ‘bordering on Antinomianism’, and from moderate Calvinism, which was essentially the theological perspective of the Puritan Richard Baxter and which Fuller considered as ‘half Arminian’. Strict Calvinism Fuller reckoned to be ‘the system of Calvin.’

In a letter written to a Josiah Lewis in 1793, Fuller made the following distinction between High Calvinism and his own position. He was commenting on the strength of the Baptist cause in Northamptonshire in 1793. He wrote: ‘Amongst the Baptists, there are four or five churches who embrace what is called the High Calvinist Scheme, disapproving of unconverted sinners being exhorted to the performance of any thing spiritually good. But the greater part of the Baptists, while they embibe [sic] the doctrines of grace, consider them, as Calvin and all the Reformers did, as being consistent with the obligations of men to repent from sin and believe in Christ and therefore make no scruple of exhorting them to these duties.’

Fuller the pastor

The critical role played by Fuller in this controversy did not preclude his engaging in other vital areas of theological debate. In 1792 he issued an extensive refutation of Socinianism1 and in 1799 published the definitive 18th-century Baptist response to Deism2. Alongside these literary endeavours, Fuller exercised a significant pastoral ministry at Kettering. During his 33 years at Kettering, from 1782 to 1815, the membership of the church doubled and the number of ‘hearers’ grew to over 1,000, necessitating several additions to the church building.

Pastor’s spiritual life

Fuller was first and foremost a pastor and 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, written to a wayward member of his flock, of which the following is an excerpt: ‘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.’ The key to Fuller’s pastoral concern is to be found, according to Doyle L. Young, in ‘the intense attention which he gave to his own spiritual life’.

Final days and Fuller’s confidence

When Fuller died on 7 May, 1815, his funeral was attended by an immense crowd. The wife of John Keen Hall, Fuller’s successor, wrote of this event in a letter: ‘The rush of people was astonishing; it was supposed there must be 2,000 persons. The galleries were propped in several places to prevent any accident.’ At Fuller’s request, his old friend John Ryland preached the funeral sermon. Based on Romans 8.10, it included not only an insightful exposition of this Pauline text, but also a brief account of Fuller’s final days.

Noteworthy is the following declaration made by Fuller in his last letter to Ryland, which the latter read at the end of his funeral sermon: ‘I have preached and written much against the abuse of the doctrine of grace, 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. With this hope I can go into eternity with composure.’

Here we see the heart of Fuller’s theology and affections: his devotion to the sovereign God of all grace who loved sinners to the extent of giving his own Son, the Lord Jesus, to save them by the cross. It was a theology that enabled him to be a doughty defender of the gospel during his life and to face death with deep assurance of salvation.

Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History & Biblical Spirituality and director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies (www.andrewfullercenter.org)


1 The teachings of Faustus Socinus, which included a non-trinitarian Christology as well as other deviations from biblical orthodoxy

2 A belief in a distant creator God which rejects revelation and relies on reason and ‘natural law’.