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.