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He Stayed at Home to Save the World

Andrew Fuller (1754–1815)

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

You won’t read it in the secular history books or hear it on the nightly news, but judged by almost any standard, the modern missionary movement — begun with William Carey’s departure to India in 1793 — is the most important historical development in the last two hundred years. Stephen Neill, in the conclusion to his History of Christian Missions, writes, “The cool and rational eighteenth century was hardly a promising seed-bed for Christian growth; but out of it came a greater outburst of Christian missionary enterprise than had been seen in all the centuries before” (571).

So how did it come about that the “cool and rational” eighteenth century gave birth to the greatest missionary movement in world history — a movement that continues to this day, which, if you’re willing, you can be a part of? God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his judgments are unfathomable and inscrutable (Romans 11:33).

More factors led to this great movement than any human can know. All I want to do is document one of them — just one of ten thousand things God did to unleash this great, Christ-exalting, gospel-advancing, church-expanding, evil-confronting, Satan-conquering, culture-transforming, soul-saving, hell-robbing missionary movement.

Great Gains and Losses

Andrew Fuller died on May 7, 1815, at the age of 61. He had been the pastor of the Baptist Church in Kettering (with a population of about three thousand) for 32 years. Before that, he was the pastor at Soham, and before that, he was a boy growing up on his parents’ farm and getting a simple education. He had no formal theological training but became the leading theological spokesman for the Particular (i.e., Calvinistic) Baptists in his day. He began to do occasional preaching in his home church of Soham at age 17, and when he was 21, they called him to be the pastor.

The year after he became the pastor at Soham, he married Sarah Gardiner. In the sixteen years before she died, the couple had eleven children, of whom eight died in infancy or early childhood. Sarah died two months before the Baptist Missionary Society was formed in Fuller’s home in October of 1792.

It is often this way in the ministry: the greatest gain and the greatest loss within two months. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). He did marry again. In 1794, he married Ann Coles, who outlived him by ten years.

Hold the Rope

During his forty years of pastoral ministry, Fuller tried to do more than one man can do well. He tried to raise a family, pastor a church, engage the destructive doctrinal errors of his day with endless writing, and function as the leader of the Baptist Missionary Society.

A little band of Baptist pastors, including William Carey, had formed the Baptist Missionary Society on October 2, 1792. Fuller, more than anyone else, felt the burden of what it meant that William Carey and John Thomas (and later others) left everything for India in dependence, under God, on this band of brothers. One of them, John Ryland, recorded the story where the famous rope-holder image came from. He wrote,

Our undertaking to India really appeared to me, on its commencement, to be somewhat like a few men, who were deliberating about the importance of penetrating into a deep mine, which had never before been explored. We had no one to guide us; and while we were thus deliberating, Carey, as it were, said “Well, I will go down, if you will hold the rope.” But before he went down . . . he, as it seemed to me, took an oath from each of us, at the mouth of the pit, to this effect — that “while we lived, we should never let go of the rope.” (Offering Christ to the World, 136)

Fuller served as the main promoter, thinker, fundraiser, and letter writer of the missionary society for over twenty-one years. He held that rope more firmly and with greater conscientiousness than anyone else. He traveled continuously, speaking to raise support for the mission. He wrote the regular Periodical Accounts. He supplied news to the Baptist Annual Register, the Evangelical Magazine, and the Baptist Magazine. He took the lead role in selecting new missionaries. He wrote regularly to the missionaries on the field and to people at home.

Extraordinary Suffering

Woven into all this work, making his perseverance all the more astonishing, is the extraordinary suffering, especially his losses. He lost eight children and his first wife. On July 10, 1792, he wrote, “My family afflictions have almost overwhelmed me, and what is yet before me I know not! For about a month past the affliction of my dear companion has been extremely heavy.” Then on July 25, “Oh my God, my soul is cast down within me! The afflictions of my family seemed too heavy for me. Oh, Lord, I am oppressed, undertake for me!” (The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, 1:58–59). When his wife died one month later (August 23, 1792), having lost eight of her children, Fuller wrote these lines:

The tender parent wails no more her loss,
Nor labors more beneath life’s heavy load;
The anxious soul, released from fears and woes,
Has found her home, her children, and her God. (Works, 1:59–61)

Fuller and the Hyper-Calvinists

That is the personal, pastoral, missionary context of Fuller’s engagement with the spiritual and doctrinal errors of his day. And for all his activism, it is his controversial and doctrinal writing that served the cause of world missions most.

Fuller grew up in what he called a High Calvinistic — or Hyper Calvinistic — church. He said later that the minister at the church in Soham (John Eve) had “little or nothing to say to the unconverted” (Offering Christ to the World, 27). Fuller’s greatest theological achievement was to see and defend and spread the truth that historic, biblical Calvinism fully embraced the offer of the gospel to all people without exception.

The Hyper-Calvinist reasoning went like this, in the words of Fuller:

It is absurd and cruel to require of any man what is beyond his power to perform; and as the Scriptures declare that “No man can come to Christ, except the Father draw him,” and that “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned,” it is concluded that these are things to which the sinner, while unregenerate, is under no obligation. (Works, 2:376)

“It is a kind of maxim with such persons,” Fuller said, “that ‘none can be obliged to act spiritually, but spiritual men’” (Works, 2:360). The practical conclusion that they drew was that faith in Christ is not a duty for the non-elect. It is not a duty for the unregenerate. Therefore, you never call for faith indiscriminately. You never stand before a group of people — whether in Britain or in India — and say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ!” You never exhort, plead, call, command, urge.

The effect of this rationalistic distortion of biblical Calvinism was that the churches were lifeless, the denomination of the Particular Baptists was dying, and the new mission to India was opposed.

Natural Inability and Moral Inability

In Fuller’s most famous work, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, he piles text upon text in which unbelievers are addressed with the duty to believe (Psalm 2:11–12; Isaiah 55:1–7; Jeremiah 6:16; John 5:23; 6:29; 12:36, see Works, 2:343–66. These are his final court of appeal against the High Calvinists, who use their professed logic to move from biblical premises to unbiblical conclusions.

But Fuller also finds Jonathan Edwards very helpful in answering the High Calvinist objection on another level. Remember, the objection is that “it is absurd and cruel to require of any man what is beyond his power to perform.” In other words, a man’s inability to believe removes his responsibility to believe (and our duty to command him to believe). In response to this objection, Fuller brings forward the distinction between moral inability and natural inability, a key insight that he learned from Edwards.

The distinction is this: Natural inability is owing to the lack of “rational faculties, bodily powers, or external advantages”; but moral inability is owing to the lack of inclination because of an averse will. Natural inability does in fact remove obligation. But moral inability does not, and this is the kind of inability the Bible is speaking about when it says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

In other words, it is just as impossible for you to choose to do what you have no inclination to do as it is to do what you have no physical ability to do. But the inability owing to physical hindrances excuses, while the inability owing to a rebellious will does not (Works, 2:378).

Preach, Invite, Call, Warn

The all-important conclusion from all this exegetical, doctrinal, and theological labor and controversy was the enormously practical implication for evangelism and world missions:

I believe it is the duty of every minister of Christ plainly and faithfully to preach the gospel to all who will hear it; and, as I believe the inability of men to [do] spiritual things to be wholly of the moral, and therefore of the criminal kind — and that it is their duty to love the Lord Jesus Christ, and trust in him for salvation, though they do not; I therefore believe free and solemn addresses, invitations, calls, and warnings to them, to be not only consistent, but directly adapted as means, in the hand of the Spirit of God, to bring them to Christ. I consider it as part of my duty that I could not omit without being guilty of the blood of souls. (Offering Christ to the World, 106)

Fuller’s engagement at this level of intellectual rigor, as a pastor and a family man, may seem misplaced. The price was high in his church and in his family. But the fruit for the world was incalculably great. No one else was on the horizon to strike a blow against the church-destroying, evangelism-hindering, missions-killing doctrine of High Calvinism. Fuller did it, and the theological platform was laid for the launching of the greatest missionary movement in the world.

What shall we learn from this? We should learn the vital link between the doctrinal faithfulness of the church and the cause of world missions. The main impulse of our day is in the other direction. Everywhere you turn there is pressure to believe that missions depends on not disputing about doctrine. As soon as you engage another professing Christian in controversy over some biblical issue, the cry will go up, “Stop wasting your time and be about missions.” What we learn from Fuller is that those cries are at best historically naïve and at worst a smoke screen for the uninhibited spread of error.

One crucial lesson from Andrew Fuller’s life is that the exegetical and doctrinal defense of true gospel preaching in the end did not hinder but advanced the greatest missionary movement in world history. Getting Christian experience biblically right and getting the gospel biblically right are essential for the power, perseverance, and fruitfulness of world missions.