John Gill the Baptist Theologian

John Gill was born on November 23 in 1697. The place was Kettering, Northamptonshire, England.

Gill grew up in a good Christian home, where his parents, Edward and Elizabeth Gill, were God-fearing Calvinistic Baptists who had been ministered to by William Wallis; his father serving as a deacon in the Baptist work in Kettering.

Gill’s early years were spent studying in the local grammar school where he was an outstanding student and excelled in languages. At the age of 11 his school master insisted that all students attend church with him each day, as a deliberate challenge to the dissenters in the community. This was the end of Gill’s formal education but he spent his time wisely teaching himself and not only excelled in Greek and Latin but was quite adept at Hebrew by the age of nineteen, for which he was completely self taught.

John’s love for Hebrew became a life-long theme, amplified in later life by immersion in the rabbinic writings as a source of insight into the scriptures. He later wrote a worthy treatise on “The Antiquity of the Hebrew Language”. Latin and Greek likewise were mastered by this profound scholar.

John was so diligent in attending the bookseller’s shop when it was open on market days that it became a local proverb, “as sure as that John Gill is in the bookseller’s shop”. In later life Gill’s studious life prompted a revised proverb, “as sure as Dr Gill is in his study”.

Gill came to faith at the age of 12 but declined baptism (a key focus on the Baptist tradition to which he had been raised) out of respect for its seriousness, but also to protect himself from being called into Christian ministry too early. The eyes of the Kettering church were upon him as a prime candidate to assist the minister who was falling behind in his duties.

“Gill’s thirst for knowledge was insatiable”, writes one biographer – and it was no surprise that after his baptism, at the age of 19 (1716), he began to preach.

He married Elizabeth Negus in 1718 and they raised three children beyond infancy: Elizabeth, John, and Mary. In 1719 he became pastor of London’s famous Horselydown. Benjamin Keach had preceded him as pastor and in time C. H. Spurgeon would pastor this church.

For over 50 years he pastored the same congregation, and wrote voluminously. Of his Commentary on the whole Bible, Spurgeon writes: “For good, sound, massive, sober sense in commenting, who can excel Gill?” (Commenting on Commentaries, page 9). His portrait hung in Spurgeon’s vestry.

But it needs to be added that Gill was a hyper-Calvinist, so zealous to emphasise the sovereignty of God that “he denied preachers the right to offer Christ to unregenerate sinners” (Dictionary of the Christian Church, page 413).

As a Particular Baptist Gill elevated the role of predestination and so did not consider preaching to the doomed un-regenerates as a worthy exercise. General Baptists, on the other hand, appeal to the free will of all. Those who decline to celebrate Gill mostly do so over this Hyper-Calvinism emphasis.

Some see Gill as the first systematizer of a Baptist Hyper-Calvinist theology while others argue that he is not of that persuasion. Particular Baptist Churches began their decline into Hyper-Calvinism at that time as so Gill is seen as a likely influence to that trend.

Gill was keen to systematise theology even though creeds and systematic doctrines were in disrepute at that time. His stands as the first major Baptist theologian and his works retain their influence even to this day. Ed Reese comments that Dr Gill “may be the greatest scholar the Baptists ever produced” … but that would probably depend upon one’s theological leaning!

Gill wrote pamphlets in challenge of John Wesley’s publications, contending topics related to predestination, grace and free will. Gill respected Wesley’s piety and impact but saw him as shallow in theological insights, thus able to present his poorly defined arguments in good faith.

Another matter of grave importance to Gill is that of the Trinity and the true nature of the persons of the godhead. His final word on that matter was published after his death.

Gill recognised his impending death and declared his enduring trust in the Lord, with absolutely no reliance on his own efforts or achievements for merit in his salvation. Thus he gloriously terminated his mortal career, without a sigh or groan, on the 14th day of October 1771, at about eleven o’clock in the forenoon, at his house in Camberwell, Surrey, aged seventy-three years, ten months, and ten days.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Matthew Henry Gives Us His Grand Commentary

This is the day that Matthew Henry was born in a Welsh farmhouse in Shropshire, England, close to the border of England and Wales, in 1662.

His father, Philip, had been ejected from his church for refusing to ‘bow the knee’ to the king’s demands. His non-conformist views would not allow him to recognize the king as “Head of the Church” nor be compelled to use the Prayer Book. Submitting to ordination by a bishop was also anathema to him.

Along with nearly two thousand other ministers, Philip Henry had refused to submit to the Act of Uniformity, which had come into effect on 24 August 1662 and was radically opposed to all that Puritans like Henry stood for.

So young Matthew grew up in a godly home where Christian principles and conscience were adhered to – regardless of the consequences.

Matthew apparently suffered from a weak constitution during his childhood. But what he lacked in physical health he made up for in spiritual vigour. There is credible evidence that he could read the Scriptures when only three years old. His conversion took place before he turned eleven. Ion Henry’s words, one of his father’s sermons ‘melted’ him and caused him to ‘enquire after Christ’.

Taught at first by his father, an excellent educator, Matthew gained further education from nonconformist schools and at one time studied law. But he kept his focus on the ministry calling, taking occasion to preach where ever he could. The dissenters of Chester liked what they heard and invited him to be their minister.

Henry began his ministry with Presbyterian ordination on 9 May, 1687. Over the course of the next two decades his Chester congregation increased to more than 350 members. Not surprisingly, his success as a pastor caused other churches to seek him as their minister.

His first wife died in childbirth, in 1689. The following year he wed Mary Warburton – and all three children born to them died in infancy.

For 25 years he ministered at Chester. After rejecting many calls by other churches he finally chose to pastor a dissenting church in Hackney, London, so he could be closer to printers, in view of the large commentary he was composing.

Ill health plagued him. He suffered from diabetes and repeated attacks of kidney stones.

In June, 1714, while on a preaching tour of Cheshire, he was thrown from his horse and taken to the house of a nearby parson, where he died the following morning, 22 June, 1714, aged 52.

While Henry wrote a number of worthy works, his memory lives on in his monumental Commentary, The Exposition of the Old and New Testaments. Henry had begun this massive work in November 1704. By the time of his death ten years later, the project had got as far as the end of the book of Acts. It would be finished by a number of ministers after his death.

The commentary is quintessentially Puritan. It focuses on biblical spirituality and is alert to the need to glorify God in the whole of life. It is also chock-full of the terse and piquant aphorisms that the Puritans delighted to use to penetrate the hearts of their hearers and readers. Here are a few examples:
‘God’s grace can save souls without preaching, but our preaching cannot save them without God’s grace, and that grace must be sought by prayer’ (on Ezekiel 37:1-14).

‘Ministers may be serving Christ, and promoting the great ends of their ministry, by writing good letters, as well as by preaching good sermons’ (on Acts 18:7-11).

‘It is easier to build temples than to be temples to God’ (on 2 Chronicles 24:1-14).

‘The pleasures of sense are puddle-water; spiritual delights are rock water, so pure, so clear, so refreshing — rivers of pleasure’ (on Exodus 17:1-7).

‘The beauty of holiness is that which the grave, that consumes all other beauty, cannot touch, or do any damage to’ (on Psalm 49:6-14).

George Whitefield, we are told, read Henry’s commentary through four times … on his knees!

Spurgeon speaks of Matthew Henry’s Commentary as “first among the mighty” – and recommends that every minister of the gospel should read it through “once at least”.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was so moved by Henry’s comments on Leviticus 8:35 that he based one of his most famous hymns on them. Henry had written: ‘we have every one of us a charge to keep, an eternal God to glorify, an immortal soul to provide for, needful duty to be done, our generation to serve; and it must be our daily duty to keep this charge, for it is the charge of the Lord our Master, who will shortly call us to an account about it’. Gripped by this comment, Wesley sat down to write “A charge to keep I have”.

One does not have to agree with everything this great Puritan said to be blessed indeed by his Scriptural reflections.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

William Carey Missionary to India

This is the day that … William Carey was born in 1761. The place was Paulerspury, an insignificant village in the English Midlands.

His story is well known – at least, it ought to be!

Born to a family in humble circumstances, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker at the age of 14. By that time he was self-confident in his convictions, whether right or wrong. He admits, “I had a share of pride sufficient for a thousand times my knowledge….the last word was assuredly mine. I also made up in my positive assertions what was wanting in argument, and generally came off with triumph.

At the age of 18, through the witness of a fellow apprentice (who was a Dissenter), young Carey was led to think earnestly concerning spiritual matters and the condition of his own soul, and was eventually converted. It has been suggested that he actually heard John Wesley, who visited the area at this time (W. Carey, by A. Clement, page 5), though he makes no account of that in his autobiographical notes.

Thus it was he joined a Baptist Church, took to preaching, and was ordained to the Baptist ministry at the age of 26.

Six years later he presented a strong case to evangelise those in distant lands. His essay, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen, has been called “the first and still greatest missionary treatise in the English language” (W. Carey, by W. Davis, page 17).

Despite opposition – for missionary work was unthinkable to the theological climate of that day – Carey offered himself: “I’ll go down the mine,” he is reported as saying to his few supporters, “if you hold the rope”.

The result was the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society, and Carey himself went to India. Church historians often refer to him as “the father of modern missions”.

The troubles he faced are incredible to read – the destruction of his manuscripts by fire; the opposition of the East India Company; the insanity of his wife, Dorothy; the desertion of co-workers; the fire which destroyed the print shop, “inflicting most distressing loss” (W. Carey, by J. Myers, page 112); the clash with the committee back in England …

But to compensate for this is the thrilling account of the first convert, Krishna Pal, about seven years after the beginning of Carey’s missionary labours.

William Carey died after 41 years in India, without a furlough … his translation of portions or whole Scriptures into about 40 different languages and dialects, and his educational and philanthropic work, mark him as a servant of God extraordinaire!

On his deathbed we eavesdrop as he speaks to Alexander Duff: “Mr Duff … when I am gone, say nothing about Dr Carey – speak about Dr Carey’s Saviour” (W. Carey, by B. Olson, page 46). So it was, on 9 June, 1834, that “the father of modern missions” went to his eternal reward. “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

His tombstone bears the words, “A wretched, poor and helpless worm, on Thy kind arms I fall.”

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

Thomas Kelly Irish Preacher and Hymnwriter

This is the day that … Thomas Kelly was born in Ireland, in 1769.

After graduating from Dublin University he set his mind to practise law. But an evangelical conversion took place, and from henceforth his steps were directed toward the Christian ministry.

Ordained by the Church of Ireland in 1792 his strong evangelical preaching soon aroused the opposition of the Archbishop. Pulpits of the churches were closed to Thomas Kelly. So he became a Dissenter – building places of worship and preaching in independent chapels – and seeing the Lord bless his ministry with many turning to Christ.

“He was an excellent Biblical scholar and a magnetic preacher”, writes John Telford (Methodist Hymn Book Illustrated, page 169).

His able pen composed 765 hymns, several of which “rank with the finest hymns in the English language” (Dictionary of Hymnology, by Julian). These include:
The head that once was crowned with thorns
Is crowned with glory now…

And –
We sing the praise of Him who died,
Of Him who died upon the cross…

Possibly his most well-known would be :
Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious,

See the Man of Sorrows now;
From the fight returned victorious,

Every knee to Him shall bow;
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crowns become the Victor’s brow.

At the age of 85 he suffered a stroke, which resulted in his death the following year (14 May, 1855). His last words were: “The Lord is my everything” (Who Wrote Our Hymns, page 106).

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.