The following is a summary of chapter from Theologians of the Baptist Tradition. The numbers listed in parentheses reflect the corresponding page numbers in this volume from which the preceding material originated.
The chapter on Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition was written by the President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Phil Roberts. Roberts haspreviously written on the time period during which Fuller ministered in his Continuity and Change: London Calvinistic Baptists and the Evangelical Revival 1760-1820. Roberts has divided his chapter on Fuller into three major sections. The first is an explanation of Fuller’s life. The middle section is an exposition of Fuller’s theology. The last section is Roberts’ own evaluation of Fuller’s life and theology. In the following pages of this summary the same basic outline will be followed.
Explanation of Fuller’s Life
Words from an anonymous ode to the life and ministry of Andrew Fuller titled “Carmen Flebile” are used by Roberts to begin this chapter. These words state of Fuller:
Lowly his birth,
And though his manners rough – his aspect stern –
Th’ observing eye must soon a DIAMOND discern!
These words refer to the man who Roberts calls “the man who exercised the single greatest theological influence on English Particular Baptists in their pilgrimage to becoming a missionary people” (34). Those are high words of praise for one so “lowly” born. Who then was this Andrew Fuller?
Fuller was born on February 5, 1754 in the village of Wicken in Cambridgeshire, England (35). He was born into a family of dissenters, namely Baptists. Fuller was born in a time which proved to be pivotal both politically and theologically. Politically, Fuller was born into an England which was about to become a world empire. Theologically, and more importantly for our purposes, Fuller was born during a time when the Particular Baptists of England were strongly influenced by what is known as hyper or high Calvinism (35).
Hyper-Calvinism is a term used to refer not to those who merely believe in the five points of Calvinism, but for those who additionally reject the public and promiscuous proclamation of the gospel. Though the period of revival known as the Great Awakening had heavily influenced both England and America, most Particular Baptists had remained uninfluenced. Baptists of this day viewed themselves as the only true Reformers who sought to completely order their churches by the New Testament alone. They had not, however, yet embraced the Great Commission as their own personal mandate. In these days of evangelistic laxity, God raised up the right man for the right time: Andrew Fuller.
Fuller’s own personal testimony was the story of his times in miniature. He was himself raised in a high Calvinistic background. He once wrote that his pastor’s preaching “was not adapted to awaken my conscience” for he rarely said anything to unbelievers (35). These early experiences by Fuller led to his later questions regarding the sinners duty to believe in Christ. According to the high Calvinists, a “warrant” or evidence of election was necessary before the opportunity to believe the gospel could be set before any sinner. This teaching led Fuller to languish for many years without confidence to approach Christ for mercy. Although Fuller read both John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and many other works which told of Christ’s sufficiency to save, he still lacked confidence that he had the right to believe on Christ (36). He sadly describes his condition as “like a man drowning, looking every way for help” (36).
Eventually, Fuller found what he was seeking for so desperately in the Word of God. Both the divine warnings and promises drove Fuller to faith in Christ. His faith was expressed in this words: “I must – I will trust . . . my sinful . . . soul in his hands. In this way I continued above an hour, weeping and supplicating mercy for Saviour’s sake; . . . my guilt and fears were gradually . . . removed” (36). In 1770, Fuller was baptized and became a member of the local Baptist church in Soham (36). He became that same church’s pastor in May 1775 (36). However, even at this stage of Fuller’s life, he was still influenced by the high Calvinism of his youth and di not dare to “address an invitation to the unconverted to come to Jesus” (36). But in 1781 all this changed. Upon reading the Bible, Bunyan again and having fellowship with pastors John Sutcliff of Olney and Robert Hall of Arnesby (who introduced him to the writings of Jonathan Edwards), Fuller’s mind was finally changed. That same year Fuller wrote a book that would be published four years later and would become the theological foundation for the modern missionary movement. The title of the book nearly says it all: The Gospel of Christ Worthy of All Acceptation: or 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. It is commonly known simply as The Gospel of Christ Worthy of All Acceptation and it strongly called for the promiscuous proclamation of the gospel to all peoples (36)
Interestingly, Fuller’s first book was attacked both by the high Calvinists and the Arminians leading to a series of response and counter-responses in the years ahead. But Fuller’s commitment to these truths did not waver. His commitment to evangelism and world missions was shown not only in his writings but in his actions. One of his life’s greatest works was the organization, management and support of the Baptist Missionary Society (36). This society was formed in order to send and support missionaries to the peoples of the world. Fuller was elected the first secretary of the society and kept that position until his death in 1815 (37).
In addition to Fuller’s role in the spread of world missions, he also continued to pastor. He served two churches during the course of his ministry: his home church at Soham from 1775 to 1782 and a congregation at Kettering from 1782 until his death in 1815 (37). The Kettering church never had more than 150 members during Fuller’s ministry there, but as many as 1,000 people came to hear Fuller preach during the early 1800’s. His preaching was characterized by “warmth” and “holy zeal” (37). He was also well known for his “forceful evangelistic appeals” which were “a personal exhortation to belief and trust in Christ” (37).
Fuller was awarded two Doctor of Divinity degrees during his lifetime by the College of New Jersey (1798) and Yale University (1805) respectively. The first was refused and the latter was accepted but never used the title (37). Andrew Fuller died of tuberculosis on May 7, 1815.
Exposition of Fuller’s Theology
Roberts begins the second section of his chapter of Andrew Fuller by again quoting from the ode written upon the occasion of his death, “Carmen Flebile”.
Unmov’d by clamor, unseduc’d to wrong
Fuller the truth maintain’d;
Resolv’d, in consciousness of right, to stand –
By fear and lure ungain’d!
The phrase “Fuller the truth maintain’d; Resolv’d, in consciousness of right, to stand” well summarizes Fuller’s defense of the truth of the gospel in his day. He like “every Baptist theologian of his day and earlier . . . developed his theology as an active pastor” (37). Fuller’s writings, therefore, were the result of his own preaching and the experience of his congregation. He was not a systematic theologian like John Gill, but rather a polemical theologian who courageously defended the truth.
Fuller’s polemical writings began with The Gospel of Worthy of All Acceptation in which he argued that it is the responsibility of all sinners to believe the gospel and the responsibility of all believers to proclaim the gospel to sinners. This was in opposition to the high Calvinists of Fuller’s day who had taken John Gill’s doctrine of eternal justification and used it as an excuse to not openly invite all men to believe the gospel. Instead, one should wait upon evidence of election in individuals before telling them to believe in Christ. Though his was Fuller’s own background, he came to see the reasoning of the high Calvinists to be in contradiction to Scripture through his friendships with Robert Hall, John Ryland Jr., William Carey and John Sutcliff, as well as the writings of Jonathan Edwards. All these influences combined to make Fuller a champion of evangelical Calvinism through his work in The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. As a result of this work, evangelical Calvinism in Baptist and Congregational settings became known as “Fullerism” (38). Fuller’s first work was challenged in print by both Arminians and high Calvinists. Fuller responded in turn to each in writing as well. Thus we see Fuller’s role as a defender of the truth in this first published writing.
Fuller also defended the true gospel against a group known as the Sandemanians who argued that “saving faith is the simple intellectual acceptance of the revelation of the gospel” (41). This was in opposition to Fuller’s teaching that saving faith also included trust and resulted in a life of continued obedience to Christ ( 41). The culmination of Fuller’s response to Sandemanianism was his 1810 work titled Strictures on Sandemanianism, In Twelve Letters to a Friend (42). This is another example of Fuller as a polemicist for the true gospel.
Likewise, Fuller’s stance on the exclusivity of Christ for salvation led to more controversy with the universalist, William Vidler. Fuller responded to Vidler’s God’s Love to His Creatures Asserted and Vindicated with a series of letters published in the Evangelical Magazine and the Universalist’s Miscellany that were published together as Letters to Mr. Vidler, on the Doctrine of Universal Salvation in 1802 (43). All of these apologetic works by Fuller caused him to viewed “as an important apologist not just for Calvinism . . . but for the gospel in broader and more evangelical terms (44).
In addition to the soteriological issues which Fuller addressed in his writings, he also was concerned with the order and discipline of the local church. His work titled The Discipline of the Primitive Churches Illustrated and Enforced argued for believer’s baptism and closed communion. This view influenced the Baptist Missionary Society and each missionary was required to practice closed communion (45).
Evaluation of Fuller’s Life and Theology
The main work of Andrew Fuller was in the area of soteriology with its practical applications in evangelism and missions. In this arena Fuller stood against both the “antimissionary, unbalanced hyper-Calvinism” on one hand and “a mechanical, rationalistic Sandemanianism” on the other. The success of his life’s work is seen in that “the vast majority of English and American Baptists, including those who would constitute the Southern Baptist Convention (1845)” typified Fuller’s evangelical Calvinism. Fuller’s The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation formed the theological foundation for the modern missionary movement (46). Also, as a result of Fuller’s ministry, the two leading Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic, Charles Spurgeon and James P. Boyce, were both adherents of “Fullerism” or evangelical Calvinism instead of “Gillite.” (46). Fuller’s impact on the modern missionary movement and emphasis on world evangelism cannot be overestimated.