John Hales Turns Arminian

John Hales was born in Bath, UK, on April 19, 1584. He was educated at Cambridge, and became a Greek lecturer before becoming a leading Church of England theologian, “one of the best Greek scholars of his day” … and a thorough going Calvinist. So much so, he was invited to share in the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), a gathering of Reformed (Calvinistic) theologians who opposed the Remonstrants (or Arminians … those who opposed some of Calvin’s distinctive teachings).

The differences were vigorously debated, and the Arminians were condemned as teachers of heretical doctrine.

But John Hales weighed the debate carefully in his mind. Had Christ accomplished salvation by His death only for the elect – or did He provide salvation for all mankind … if they chose to believe in Him?

And he who had come to the Synod a convinced Calvinist changed his mind – “as he says in one of his own vivid phrases, ‘I bade John Calvin goodnight‘.” (Arminianism. by A. Harrison, page 90).

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John Hales returned to England and was made Prebendary of Windsor by Archbishop Laud.  But when he refused to acknowledge the Commonwealth “he was deprived of his living, fell into poverty and had to sell his library!” (Dictionary of Literary Biographies, page 298).

Hales had spent his time among his books and in the company of literary men, among whom he was highly reputed for his common sense, his erudition and his genial charity. He was called “one of the clearest heads and best-prepared breasts in Christendom.” For all that he also loved solitude and was content to be one of those who possessed their souls in peace.

Hales was disturbed by the spirit of controversy which prevailed in his day. He saw that theological dispute was not the calling of the church. He dreamed of a common liturgy which omitted all the things about which men differed and argued.

While Hales’ writings are clear he was always reluctant to put pen to paper until it was necessary to do so. He did not believe that men should write indiscriminately, but purposefully and in great moderation.

John Hales died in Eton on May 19, 1656.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

Find hundreds of succinct Church History posts at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/topics/ministry/church-history

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.

John Cairns the Presbyterian

This is the day that …John Cairns was ordained in the United Presbyterian Church – one of the three branches of Presbyterianism that existed in Scotland in 1845.

Born on 23 August, 1818, John Cairns was to become “their outstanding leader” – 33 years ministering at Berwick-on-Tweed, and then serving many years as principal of their theological college and professor of systematic theology and apologetics at the United Presbyterian Divinity Hall in Edinburgh.

It was not learned until after his death that he had received an invitation, at the age of 40, to the principalship of Edinburgh University, and had turned it down.

Alexander Gammie, in his Preachers I Have Heard, tells of Principal Cairns’ pulpit style: “His arms seem to give him the most trouble. It was all utterly ungainly. It would have been enough to wreck the pulpit popularity of most men. But in his case it was quite otherwise. People would have walked miles just to hear John Cairns say: ‘Let us pray …’” (page 58). “His transparent goodness, his simplicity of character, his forgetfulness of self, shone through every utterance. He was a saint who was unconscious of his saintliness …” (page 59).

And in The Christian Portrait Gallery we read: “He was an orator, and swayed his hearers with the passion and pathos of his words! He was fond of illustrations, and used similes never beyond the comprehension of the illiterate, but instinct with a fire that set the blood tingling through the veins” (page 52).

All of this was combined with a massive intellect.

Near the end of his ministry he exclaimed: “I have now preached for 43 years and I have been a professor of theology for more than 20, and I find every year how much grander the gospel of the grace of God becomes, and how much deeper, vaster and more unsearchable the riches of Christ, which it is the function of theology to explore …” (Fathers of the Kirk, by R. Wright, page 213).

Principal John Cairns died in 1892 at the age of 74.

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.

Calvinism is Born

This is the day that … John Calvin was born in 1509, in Noyon, France.

He was to become the outstanding theologian of the Protestant Reformation … although not all Protestants would agree with some of his doctrines. But it must be confessed that many a giant of Christian history acknowledges the impact of Calvinism upon his life. Knox, Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and James Packer are names that immediately spring to mind. “The longer I live,” wrote Spurgeon, “the clearer does it appear that John Calvin’s system (of theology) is the nearest to perfection.”

Calvin was one of the few reformers who were not an ex-priest. He studied law in France – had a “sudden conversion” in his early 20’s, and in 1536 published the first edition of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion. This volume has been described as among the “world’s 10 most influential works”.

From 1541 until his death (on 27 May, 1564), Calvin dominated the social and religious life of Geneva … despite the fact that he held no government position, nor was an actual citizen until 1559.

From the pulpit of St Peter’s Cathedral he preached his way through book after book of Holy Writ, lecturing to theological students and preaching five times a week. Taken down by a stenographer, these messages have found their way into print. There is a commentary on every book of the Bible – except Revelation! For example, Calvin preached 200 consecutive sermons on the book of Deuteronomy – published by Banner of Truth in a 1,300 page facsimile edition of the 1583 original.

It was said by his friend, Beza, that when Calvin preached “every word weighed a pound”.

Harsh discipline was meted out (at least, by today’s standards) to law-breakers, a system of education was devised, a prosperous trade in cloth and velvet was established with other countries, even a sewerage system was introduced that made Geneva “one of the cleanest cities in Europe” (Who’s Who in Christian History, page 131).

And his Institutes grew from six chapters to 79.

W. Stanford Reid writes that Calvin became “the dominant figure of the Protestant Reformation in the middle of the (16th) century” (John Calvin – His Influence in the Western World) – an assessment surely none would question.

When he died in 1564 he was buried in a common cemetery without a headstone, according to his wishes. His gravesite is unknown to this day (Christian History magazine, Volume 5/4).

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).