Andrew Fuller (1754–1815), an indefatigable and fearless Baptist theologian and minister, was an outstanding theologian, 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 close friend William Carey (1761–1834), ‘I loved him’.
The importance of his theological achievements was noted both during and after his life. The College of New Jersey (1798) and Yale (1805) awarded him a DD, both of which he declined to accept. C. H. Spurgeon (1834–1892) described Fuller in the 1880s as ‘the greatest theologian’ of his century and A. H. Newman (1852–1933), the Southern Baptist historian, said that ‘his influence on American Baptists’ was ‘incalculable’.
Without a doubt, he was the greatest theologian of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century transatlantic Baptist community.
His significance as a theologian lies chiefly in his demolition of a number of theological errors of the eighteenth century, some of them spawned by the Enlightenment thinking that attacked vital areas of the Christian faith.
This book’s significance for Baptists, and for the evangelical movement as a whole, cannot be underestimated. It not only freed Baptist to engage in missions, but it also formed the mainspring behind the formation and early development of the Baptist Missionary Society — the first foreign missionary society created by the Evangelical Revival of the last half of the eighteenth century, and the missionary society under whose auspices William Carey went to India. There was, first of all, his world-changing response to hypercalvinism, which had paralysed many English Baptist congregations. This response, The gospel worthy of all acceptation (1785; 2nd ed. 1801), was based on an extensive reading of the works of the New England divine Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), his chief theological mentor, after the Scriptures.
Very soon, other missionary societies were established, and a new era in missions had begun as the Christian faith was increasingly spread outside of the West, to the regions of Africa and Asia.
Carey was most visible at the fountainhead of this movement. Fuller’s theology, or Fullerism as it came to be known in the nineteenth century, was not so visible, but it was utterly vital to the genesis of the modern missionary movement.
Fuller the apologist
In 1793 Fuller issued an extensive refutation of the Socinianism (Unitarianism) of Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), entitled The Calvinistic and Socinian systems examined and compared, as to their moral tendency.
Fuller’s rebuttal of Socinianism well displays the Christocentric nature of eighteenth-century evangelical thought. Fuller ably showed that the apostolic church made the divine dignity and glory of Christ’s person ‘their darling theme’.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-speaking Dissent in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
In 1800 Fuller published The gospel its own witness, the definitive eighteenth-century Baptist response to Deism, in particular to that of the populariser 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 30 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 aims to demonstrate the divine origin of Christianity from the general consistency of the Scriptures.
Yet another vital controversy in which Fuller engaged was that with the Sandemanians, the followers of Robert Sandeman (1718–71), 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 religious 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.
Pastor of love
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 33 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 1000, necessitating several additions to the church building.
Perusal of his vast correspondence — today housed in the Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford University — reveals that Fuller was first and foremost a pastor. Fuller published two series of his expository sermons, one on Genesis (1806) and one on Revelation (1815), as well as a good number of sermons and evangelistic tracts that decisively demonstrate his pastor’s heart.
One other of Fuller’s literary works deserves mention. His Memoirs of the Rev. Samuel Pearce (1800) recount the life of his close friend, Samuel Pearce (1766–1799) of Birmingham. In some ways modelled after Jonathan Edwards’ life of David Brainerd, it recounted the life of one whom Fuller regarded as a model of evangelical spirituality.
Through the medium of Fuller’s book, which went through a host of editions on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the nineteenth century, Pearce’s extraordinary love for Christ — which led to his being labelled the ‘seraphic Pearce’ by contemporaries — and his zeal for missions had a powerful impact on his generation, and that following.
In this life of his friend Pearce, we get a distinct insight into the heart of Fuller’s life and thought, that which motivated all of his writing and preaching, his apologetics and activism: love for the Lord Jesus. And it is this which makes his work still a rich source of theology and piety for the church today.
See also ‘Selections from the works of Andrew Fuller‘
Dr Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality and Director of the Andrew Fuller Centre for Baptist Studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.