Reviewed by Paul Sanchez
Peter J. Morden is Vice Principal of Spurgeon’s College in London, England, where he also teaches church history and spirituality. The Life and Thought of Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) is Morden’s second major work on Andrew Fuller. He published his first work, Offering Christ to the World: Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) and the Revival of Eighteenth Century Particular Baptist Life, in 2004. This second work represents a more developed grasp of Fuller, for instance in discerning his theological influences. Morden aims to present Fuller in his rightful complexity and with greater attention to the “inner” Fuller. He says, “This biography aims to uncover something of the personal, private Andrew Fuller so that a clearer picture of the real man can be seen. He emerges as a far more complex person than has sometimes been supposed” (1).
The year 2015 was the bicentennial of Fuller’s death in 1815. It only seemed right that someone would produce a full-length biography to commemorate the occasion. Morden proves to be worthy of the task. In addition to the two major published works noted above, Morden says that he has written on Fuller for more than twenty years (xix). Indeed, the depth of his analysis, the level of insight he offers, and the knowledge of both the primary and secondary literature reveals a mature scholar with mastery of his subject.
Morden rightly describes the importance of Andrew Fuller as he says, “Fuller is, then, by any standards a figure of great importance, one whose story relates to a number of crucial shifts in Christian theology, Christian mission and world history” (3). Fuller’s contribution to Christian theology, to world missions, and in the renewal of the English Particular Baptist denomination in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was remarkable. However, only recently have scholars directed noteworthy attention to Fuller. Morden traces the historiography well (3-8). However, he exposes the gap that has existed for a full-length scholarly biography in recent decades. Morden seeks to fill the gap this current work (7-8).
The Life and Thought of Andrew Fuller is a theological biography. As a work of intellectual history, Morden considers how theology impacted every area of Fuller’s multifaceted life, as well as how his life affected his theology. He does this brilliantly. He arranges the book thematically rather than chronologically, which suites his purposes well, allowing for more focused assessment of the major dimensions of Fuller’s theology and ministry (8).
Morden draws together his narrative by arguing that Fuller became an evangelical. When Fuller entered the ministry he was already a Baptist and a Calvinist, and these remained consistent throughout his life. But Fuller’s ministry career became a journey toward and into evangelicalism. Morden states that Fuller’s convictions were “remoulded by the flow of evangelicalism” (202). Morden sees this in Fuller’s theology and the pursuit of the practical outworking of this theology evidenced in his evangelistic preaching, his spirituality, and his service as secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society. Morden utilizes the Bebbington quadrilateral for his definition of evangelical as well as the broader historical context of early evangelicalism, arising out the awakenings of eighteenth century Great Britain and America. Morden makes a compelling case, demonstrating that Fuller embraced crucicentrism, conversionism, but especially activism and biblicism. Morden likewise places Fuller in his historical context of the transatlantic evangelical revival of the eighteenth century. He demonstrates the considerable influence that Jonathan Edwards, and secondarily the New Divinity theologians, had on Fuller, as well as the close friendships that Fuller held with fellow Particular Baptist ministers in England.
Morden rightly argues that the early forces of Fuller’s life decisively shaped his theology and ministry. He was born into a family of Dissenters. Morden describes Fuller’s Dissenting pedigree as a rich heritage. Although he means to produce a theological biography, Morden gives significant attention to the sociological background of his subject. Fuller’s family was well-rooted in a rural region of England, he received a meager education, and as a young man Fuller had little interest in religion. With his family he attended Soham Baptist Church, which was representative of the Hyper-Calvinist tradition, as were many Particular Baptist churches by Fuller’s time. Morden rightly shows that Fuller’s rearing in and later tension with what he later called “false Calvinism” was “vitally important to Fuller’s unfolding story” (16). Morden well demonstrates how entrenched Hyper-Calvinism was, even particularly in Fuller’s region of Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. Morden shows the central roles that John Brine and especially John Gill played in establishing Hyper-Calvinism in the churches, including in Fuller’s own Soham Baptist Church, where John Eve, the church’s pastor, embraced the anti-evangelistic scheme. Not surprisingly, the Particular Baptists were in decline in the mid-eighteenth century. Morden makes a compelling case that the decline was numerical and spiritual, and that the leading cause of decline was Hyper-Calvinism. The evangelical revival was occurring simultaneously, but Fuller’s church, like most other Particular Baptist churches, did not embrace the new emphases of George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers. Morden rightly points to Fuller’s path to conversion as a central experience which influenced his theology and ministry. Recorded in letters written years after the events, Fuller agonized over his spiritual state. According to the Hyper-Calvinist scheme, Fuller believed he was at the mercy of finding a passive ‘warrant’ to trust that he might be among the elect and under the operations of grace. Without this he could not approach God and plead for mercy. After years of frustration, eventually against the inherited scheme, he called out to Christ for mercy and found peace and assurance before God. Morden rightly places Fuller’s conversion narrative as an established genre in his context and recognizes that the record actually proceeded many years after the events. He rightly concludes that Fuller was making a point: by then, as an evangelical, he hoped to spare others of the frustration that he had faced. This demonstrates both the role that his background had in forming his theology but also the change that his evangelicalism represented as one compares with the early Fuller. A controversy occurred at Soham which planted a seed of doubt about the Hyper-Calvinist system and also led to his entrance into ministry, as the church’s pastor resigned. Morden rightly concludes, “His context and early experiences formed the seed bed out of which his future ministry would grow” (37).
Morden rightly characterizes Fuller’s early years in ministry as a gradual embracing of evangelicalism. He became evangelical. His influences were diverse, but the movement toward evangelicalism was sure and steady. By default he began his ministry with a Hyper-Calvinist orientation, but his doubts steadily grew. Morden highlights the significance of Fuller’s theological shift. The humble size and geographical location of Fuller’s first pastorate allowed him extensive time to study and as he did his doubts toward Hyper-Calvinism mounted. In December of 1779 he began making appeals to the unconverted in his preaching. Morden rightly emphasizes the striking shift this represented, as well as the tension that developed in the church as a result. However, breaking from Hyper-Calvinism proved to be difficult, illustrated by Fuller’s half-hearted witness to his dying father in early 1781. Fuller faced financial hardship and mounting tension in the Soham congregation, which eventually, but with early regret, led him to a church in Kettering where he served for the rest of his life.
Morden showcases Fuller’s Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation as the crowning of his move to evangelical Calvinism. Fuller did consider other perspectives carefully, especially that which had been his own, but he contended that Hyper-Calvinism gave misplaced attention to the ‘warrant of faith,’ which “effectively made someone’s subjective feelings that God was at work in their lives the focal point of faith” (48). Fuller countered that the Scriptures placed the focus on Christ and the gospel itself and one’s responsibility to believe. Morden says, “Fuller averred that no one need hold back from coming to Christ because they lacked an ‘inner persuasion’ that God was at work in their lives. The gospel itself was all the ‘warrant’ that was needed” (49-50). Morden rightly summarizes the points of Fuller’s new theology as the duty of all to believe in the gospel and the duty of ministers to offer the gospel freely to all (50).
Morden highlights five reasons for Fuller’s change in theology, beyond his background. He rightly emphasizes Fuller’s biblicism first and foremost. Fuller resolved to follow the Bible. Even as he read other works, reasoned carefully, and debated with others, he held the Bible uniquely above everything else. Morden says, “My own conviction is that Fuller’s biblicism was thoroughgoing and central to him” (53). Fuller was also influenced by Puritan authors. He realized the distance that existed between his theology and theirs, such as that of John Bunyan and John Owen. He eventually saw his own error in light of their works. Morden admits a change in his evaluation of the extent of Puritan influence on Fuller. Since his previous work, Offering Christ to the World, Morden recognizes a greater influence than previously allowed. Similarly, he previously allowed little influence by John Calvin on Fuller’s thought. Here, he still does not regard Calvin as especially formative, but recognizes at least a modest influence on Fuller. Morden argues that Fuller’s associational network of likeminded pastors also influenced his thinking. However, I am inclined to see a greater influence here than Morden allows. Morden is compelling in his assessment of Jonathan Edwards and the transatlantic evangelical network, as he terms it, as the greatest influence on Fuller’s thinking, second only to the Bible. Edwards’s Freedom of the Will alone was pivotal to Fuller’s theology, for instance for Fuller’s distinction between natural and moral inability. Through these influences, and the ongoing primacy of the Bible, Fuller fully embraced an evangelical theology.
As he moves into the Kettering years, Morden argues that Fuller was an avowed biblicist but refined his thinking through theological debate. Much of that debate related to his Gospel Worthy. Morden is perceptive to show that Fuller demonstrated the traits of a man of the enlightenment in the course of these debates. He evidenced civility in debate, the spirit of free enquiry, and a confidence in reason. The period when he came to Kettering began a very practical orientation in his theology also. Unlike his time in Soham his ministry extended beyond his local church as did his social engagement. Morden says, “he found his wider ministry encouraging and invigorating, especially when he was able to combine preaching and meeting with friends” (76). Fuller published Gospel Worthy in late 1784. Morden shows Fuller’s foresight, expecting to receive extensive criticism because of this work, which he did. Fuller received criticism from two sides—Hyper-Calvinists and Arminians. William Button challenged Fuller’s idea that everyone had a duty to put their faith in Christ. Morden says that Button “struggled to follow Fuller’s line of reasoning” (83). Button attacked Fuller’s invitational preaching as a slippery slope to Arminianism. Morden seems to be correct that Fuller was not shaken by this challenge, but responded by primarily restating his argument. He pointed to Scripture as the authority and cautioned against setting up Gill and Brine as standards of orthodoxy. Arminians likewise challenged him but seemed to offer more thoughtful responses than had the Hyper-Calvinists. Fuller held his ground in responding to challenges posed by the General Baptist Dan Taylor. Morden rightly points out that the atonement became a key consideration in the debate. Taylor argued that a free offer of the gospel had to extend from a universal provision in the atonement. Morden says, “Fuller did not now feel as sure of the arguments he had put forward in the Gospel Worthy. He considered Taylor’s points carefully and evidently he felt the force of them” (89). In the end, Fuller modified his stance. He claimed that the atonement contained a sufficient worth for all of the world but it would be effective only for the elect. He continued insisting that the design of the atonement was particular. Morden is right to point out that Fuller demonstrated his willingness to adjust his thinking with the ‘evidence,’ which lends to Morden’s aim to place Fuller in his enlightenment context. Similarly, he proves that Fuller had a “commitment to distinguish between principles and personalities and the overall tone of the debate were alike informed by a tolerant, enlightened spirit” (93).
Morden depicts the years 1782-1792 as a period of contrasts. Fuller established himself as a respected pastor-theologian and contributed to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society, but this was also when Fuller struggled with deep depression and personal loss. In this part of Morden’s work he psychoanalyzes Fuller. He seeks to reveal Fuller in the context of his family bereavement as he lost his daughter, his wife, and eventually his son. Fuller suffered with bouts of illness as a result of the stress. Morden says, “It appears that on many occasions his mental stress was so great it manifested itself in physical illness, with Fuller experiencing chest pains, fevers, and vomiting” (104). Morden gives both perceptive insight and analysis, but also enters into speculation. For instance, he argues that the dreadful tone that Fuller revealed in his diary might not present the full picture, since Fuller’s spirituality emphasized this practice of deep self-analysis of his ‘dark night of the soul,’ rather than a more balanced or objective record. However when Morden considers the forces behind Fuller’s depression his case becomes more difficult to prove. An historian should be cautious to assume that he can understand a subject better than the figure himself as well as those closest to him. Still, Morden offers fascinating insights, such as his argument that Fuller’s last remnant of Hyper-Calvinism was his spirituality which he struggled to cast off (108). Morden blames this faulty spirituality for the depths of the spiritual depression with which he diagnoses him. Morden concludes that Fuller’s service to the Baptist Missionary Society became a leading cause to stabilize him. Morden’s arguments here are difficult to prove but they do offer insightful possibilities.
Morden makes a persuasive case that Fuller was one of the premier evangelical theologians of his day. As an evangelical, Fuller looked to the Bible as his final authority and was determined that his theology be useful and focused on the Christian mission. He was widely recognized as a theologian of the highest worth. Morden distinctly emphasizes Fuller’s role in the Baptist Mission Society. He says, “The formation of the BMS was a watershed moment in Fuller’s life and ministry. In his role as secretary he gave himself unstintingly to the work of the Society and, although he continued as a local church pastor, it is arguable that the BMS increasingly came to dominate his ministry (124). However, even as he gave himself to the missions society, he continued in theological debate, and most notably with Abraham Booth. Booth carried their debate into a more personal realm than previous authors. Morden depicts Booth as much attacking Fuller the man as Fuller’s ideas. As with Dan Taylor, the heart of the debate was the atonement. Morden correctly argues that this debate forced Fuller to more clearly define his theology of the atonement. Fuller was a careful theologian. He retained the language of imputation, but said that the imputation of guilt from man to Christ and of righteousness from Christ to the believer was ‘figurative’ rather than ‘real.’ Similarly, Christ suffered the punishment of sin, but was not actually punished himself. Morden says, “Booth and Fuller were both Calvinists with an avowed commitment to the divine decrees and both believed the death of Christ was the fulcrum of God’s saving work. They were unable, however, to agree on the ‘mechanism’ of atonement—how Christ’s death actually ‘worked’ to save sinners” (135). Booth called Fuller’s position a departure from their inherited Particular Baptist tradition. Morden well addresses the secondary literature on the issue of whether or not Fuller departed from the penal substitution view of the atonement. Morden acknowledges the novelty of Fuller’s position, but stops short of concluding that Fuller contradicted penal substitution. He makes a reasonable case that Fuller’s metaphorical view of imputation and substitution does not absolve penal substitution. Morden summarizes his point saying, “Fuller made statements which do not conform to a strict understanding of penal substitution, but he did not abandon penal substitution because statements that corresponded with that understanding of the atonement continued to take their place in his writings” (138). Morden seems to reach for any means to save Fuller from evangelical heterodoxy. However, another possibility is that Fuller simply failed to reconcile tension in his own thinking. Morden rightly notes that the association of alternate perspectives on the atonement with the New Divinity theologians only added to the controversy. However, Morden demonstrates that Fuller did not read them uncritically. When they devolved into views that Fuller believed contradicted the Scriptures, he challenged them. His biblicism held.
Morden righty argues that Fuller was primarily driven by a concern for the extension of Christ’s kingdom. Whether preaching, engaging in theological debate, or traveling as BMS secretary, Fuller labored for the cause of the gospel. Morden says, “The theme that binds these different strands of his life and ministry together is evangelism. In each of the different dimensions of his life, his overriding concern was to work for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom” (150). Fuller worse many hats, but he did not lose sight of his local ministry and the preaching of the Word. Morton persuasively argues that Fuller’s role as secretary was pivotal for the society’s success. This was true not only in traveling and raising funds, but even defending the right of the missionaries to continue at their stations against powerful interference.
Morden concludes that through struggle and toil, Fuller reached his characteristic evangelical Calvinism, yet still as a Particular Baptist, and there he lived out its implications as BMS secretary and gospel preacher until his death. Morden uses Fuller’s relationship with Samuel Pearce to shed light on Fuller’s evangelical spirituality, which closely paralleled Pearce’s. When Pearce died tragically, Fuller published his memoirs which reveal a deep spirituality and which Morden means to liken to Fuller’s. Fuller was a more complex and tragic person than was Pearce, but both men shared core gospel commitments that were unshakable, even to death.
Morden handles his task well. To produce a theological biography of a figure as prolific and as widely involved as Fuller was, in approximately two hundred pages, is an impressive task. He manages to explore deeply the key areas of concern, for instance Fuller’s theological formulation and debates, but also successfully places him in his context. Morden rightly shows the great complexity of Fuller, more than others have emphasized. He shows this in the diversity of Fuller’s ministry, but especially the complexity of his theology. Morden well handles the secondary literature, for instance when he analyzes Fuller’s domestic life (103). In general, his work in both the primary—published and unpublished—and secondary sources is impressive. Morden has a pro-Fuller bias. He admits his partiality, but is also right in noting that no historian is thoroughly impartial (1). He reads Fuller fairly and is even handed in his analyses. His central thesis is compelling. However, the reader might be left asking the “so what” question. I found myself pondering what explanatory power his argument offers. The key contribution seems to be Morton’s demonstration of the greater complexity of Fuller than others have recognized or at least emphasized.
The book is a worthy contribution to the growing area of Fuller studies and fills the gap that has existed for a full-length scholarly biography. It is especially valuable in light of Morden’s keen analysis and theological insight. Despite some weaknesses, I highly recommend it to scholars who specialize in early evangelicalism, Baptists, and perhaps even the English Enlightenment. Pastors will also benefit, especially because of Morden’s emphasis on Fuller’s theology as applied and fed by gospel mission
Paul Sanchez is a PhD candidate in church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is Lead Elder and Preaching Pastor at Emaus Church in San Jose, CA. You can follow him on twitter @paulsanchez408 and follow his preaching ministry at www.emauschurch.com
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The Life and Thought of Andrew Fuller (1754-1815)