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.

Samuel Medley Finds His Harbour

This is the day that … Samuel Medley was born in Hertfordshire, England, in 1738.

By the age of 14 he was apprenticed to an oilman in London, but disliking this work, at the age of 17, he became a midshipman in the Royal Navy. Despite a godly heritage, young Samuel Medley now descended into the quagmire of sin.

But during naval action between England and France in 1759 he received a severe leg wound. “I am afraid,” said the surgeon, “that amputation is the only thing that will save your life. I can tell tomorrow morning.” As he lay there, wounded, his mind turned to spiritual things. We are told that he spent the night “in prayers and penitence”, and next morning the surgeon held up his hands in amazement at what he called “a miracle”.

But alas, before long, Samuel Medley was back to his sinful ways.

It was three years later, back in London, that his pious grandfather, William Tonge, read him a sermon by Dr Isaac Watts on Isaiah 42:6-7. Samuel’s thoughts were turned to the things of eternity. He was soundly converted, and it is believed that it was to commemorate this experience that he penned his first hymn:
Awake, my soul, in joyful lays,

To sing thy great Redeemer’s praise;
He justly claims a song from thee;
His loving kindness, oh, how free.

He saw us ruined in the Fall,
Yet loved us notwithstanding all.
He saved us from our lost estate;
His loving kindness, oh, how great.

Samuel Medley joined the Particular Baptist Church, married, taught school for four years, and then became pastor of a Baptist Church in Liverpool, where he stayed for the next 27 years. His ministry there “was one of remarkable and increasing popularity and soon a much larger building had to be erected” (Christian Hymn Writers, by E. Houghton, page 138). He was “especially successful in reaching sailors.”

Among his 150 hymns we still find in our hymnals such favourites as:

I know that my Redeemer lives –
What comfort this assurance gives …

and

Oh, could I speak the matchless worth,
Oh, could I sound the glories forth
Which in my Saviour shine …

Shortly before he died, 17 July, 1799, he remarked, “I am now a poor, shattered barque about to gain the blissful harbour.”

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.

Andrew Fuller

This is the day that … Andrew Fuller died, in 1815.

The son of an English Baptist farmer, and a “powerful wrestler in his youth”, Fuller was to become the greatest original theologian among 18th century Baptists” (Dictionary of the Christian Church, page 395).

At the age of 14 he came into “rest for my troubled soul”.  He tells us, in his own account of that conversion, how the example of Esther inspired him to approach the Saviour.

“I was not then aware that any poor sinner had a warrant to believe in Christ for the salvation of his soul”.  But just as Esther entered the king’s presence unbidden and under sentence of death, so Fuller tells us:  “like her I seemed … impelled by dire necessity to run all hazards, even though I should perish in the attempt …”

Wonderfully converted, and self-taught, Fuller became a Baptist minister, first at Soham (1775) and later at Kettering (1783).

He found himself involved in controversy with hyper-Calvinists (Fuller can be described as an evangelical Calvinist), Universalists, and with Arminians.

He was a profound influence upon William Carey, indeed it was Fuller’s snuff box that was used for the first offering of the newly formed Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Heathen (the first of the great foreign missionary societies in the United Kingdom).

His book, The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptance (1785), was a milestone in creating an evangelistic and missionary spirit in the non-conformist churches of the UK.

He died at the age of 61, listening to his congregation singing in the meeting-house adjoining his home.  Bedridden, he turned to Sarah, his daughter:  “I wish I had strength,” he said. 

“To do what, father?” Sarah asked.

“To worship”- and with that he joined the ransomed above … and did worship!  (Men Who Were Earnest, page 301).