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Andrew Fuller

Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) was an indefatigable and fearless Baptist theologian and minister, an outstanding figure with qualities that make him one of the most attractive figures in Baptist history. Many in his day and after could echo the words of his very close friend William Carey (1761–1834), ‘I loved him.’ Near the beginning of the funeral sermon that John Ryland, Jr (1753–1825) preached for Andrew Fuller in 1815, Fuller was described as ‘perhaps the most judicious and able theological writer that ever belonged to our [i.e. the Calvinistic Baptist] denomination’, while Charles Haddon Spurgeon once described Fuller as ‘the greatest theologian’ of his century.

Fuller was born on 6 February 1754, at Wicken, Cambridgeshire. His parents, Robert Fuller (1723–1781) and Philippa Gunton (1726–1816), rented and worked a succession of dairy farms. When Fuller was seven years of age, his parents moved to the village of Soham, about two and a half miles from Wicken. Once settled in Soham, they joined themselves to the Particular Baptist work in the village. John Eve (d. 1782), a sieve-maker by trade, was from 1752 the pastor of this small church. In the late 1760s Fuller began to experience strong conviction of sin, which issued in his conversion in November 1769. He was baptized in April 1770 and 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 left the church in 1771 for another pastorate. Fuller, who was self-taught in 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. The year following his induction as pastor he married his first wife, Sarah Gardiner (d. 1792), who was also a member of the Soham church. The couple had eleven children, of which eight died in infancy or in early childhood.

Fuller’s pastorate at Soham, which lasted until 1782 when he moved to pastor the Baptist church in Kettering, Northamptonshire, was a decisive period for the shaping of his theological outlook. It was during his time there that he decisively rejected High Calvinism (i.e., an emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation to an extent which denied the free offer of the gospel and seriously hampered effective evangelism. Fuller said that his predecessor ‘had little or nothing to say to the unconverted.’). He 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. The second edition, which appeared in 1801, was subtitled The Duty of Sinners to Believe in Jesus Christ, a subtitle which well expressed the overall theme of the book. The work’s major theme was: ‘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. The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation 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 first 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. Fuller’s commitment to the Baptist Missionary Society was rooted not only in his missionary theology but also in his deep friendship with William Carey. Fuller later compared the sending of Carey to India as the lowering of him into a deep gold mine. Fuller and his close friends, John Ryland, Jr (1753–1825) and John Sutcliff (1752–1814), had pledged themselves to ‘hold the ropes’ as long as Carey lived.

The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation also involved Fuller in much unwanted controversy. He found himself under attack from both High Calvinist and General (i.e. Arminian) Baptists. He also engaged in other areas of intense theological debate, for example in refuting the Socinianism of Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), in providing the definitive eighteenth-century Baptist response to Deism with The Gospel Its Own Witness, and in engaging with the Sandemanians, the followers of Robert Sandeman (1718–71), who took a predominantly intellectualist view of faith (Strictures on Sandemanianism).

But Fuller was far more than an apologist and mission secretary. He exercised a significant pastoral ministry at Kettering. During his thirty-three years there, 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 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. When his second wife, Ann Coles (1763–1825), whom Fuller had married in 1794, once told her husband that he allowed himself no time for recreation, Fuller answered, ‘O no: all my recreation is a change of work.’

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.’

[Adapted from ‘Andrew Fuller: Life and Legacy’ by Michael A G Haykin, which essay forms an introduction to The Works of Andrew Fuller, published by Trust.]