The Forgotten Missional Theologian

Andrew Fuller (1754–1815), a fearless Baptist theologian and minister, was one of the outstanding theologians of the eighteenth-century transatlantic world.

The importance of his theological achievements was noted both during and after his life. The College of New Jersey (1798) and Yale (1805) awarded him a doctorate, both of which he declined to accept. His close friend John Ryland, Jr. described him as “perhaps the most judicious and able theological writer that ever belonged to our denomination.”[1] Succeeding generations have confirmed Ryland’s estimation of his friend. Charles Spurgeon, for instance, once described Fuller as the “greatest theologian” of his century, while A.C. Underwood, a Baptist historian of this past century, said of Fuller—in a statement that clearly echoes Ryland’s estimation—that “he was the soundest and most creatively useful theologian the Particular Baptists have ever had.”[2]

Fuller was born in Wicken, a small agricultural village in Cambridgeshire, England. His parents, Robert Fuller and Philippa Gunton, were farmers who rented a succession of dairy farms. In 1761 his parents moved a short distance to Soham, where he and his family began to regularly attend the local Baptist church, and where Fuller was converted in November 1769. After being baptized the following spring, he became a member of the Soham church. In 1774 Fuller was called to the pastorate of this work.

Fuller’s time as pastor of the Soham church was a decisive period for the shaping of Fuller’s theological perspective. He stayed until 1782 when he became the pastor of the Baptist congregation at Kettering in Northamptonshire where he ministered until his death in 1815.

Missional Theologian

His significance as a theologian lies chiefly in his demolition of a number of theological errors of the eighteenth century—some of them spawned by Enlightenment thinking—that attacked vital areas of the Christian faith. There was, first of all, his world-changing response to hyper-Calvinism, which had paralyzed many English Baptist congregations.

This response, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1785; 2nd ed. 1801), was based on an extensive reading of the works of the New England divine Jonathan Edwards, his chief theological mentor after the Scriptures. Its significance for Baptists, and for the evangelical movement as a whole, cannot be underestimated. It not only freed Baptists to engage in missions, but it also formed the mainspring behind the formation and early development of the Baptist Missionary Society, the first foreign missionary society created by the Evangelical Revival of the last half of the eighteenth century and the missionary society under whose auspices William Carey went to India.

Very soon, other missionary societies were established, and a new era in missions had begun as the Christian faith was increasingly spread outside of the West to the regions of Africa and Asia. Carey was most visible at the fountainhead of this movement. Fuller’s theology—or Fullerism as it came to be known in the nineteenth century—was not so visible, but it was utterly vital to the genesis of the modern missionary movement.

“Fuller’s theology . . . was not so visible, but it was utterly vital to the genesis of the modern missionary movement.”

When the Baptist Missionary Society was formed in 1792, at its heart was a circle of friends, among them Andrew Fuller, William, Carey, John Sutcliff, and John Ryland. And one of the images that kept coming to their minds was that of a deep mine. As Andrew Fuller later recalled in a letter to Christopher Anderson, a Scottish friend,

Our undertaking to India really appeared at its beginning to me somewhat like a few men, who were deliberating about the importance of penetrating a deep mine, which had never before been explored. We had no one to guide us; and whilst we were thus deliberating, Carey, as it were, said, “Well, I will go down, if you will hold the rope.” But, before he descended, he, as it seemed to me, took an oath from each of us at the mouth of the pit, to this effect that “whilst we lived, we should never let go the rope.”[3]

And, by God’s grace and because of their love for Carey, they never did let go of the rope.

Peter Toon stated a number of years ago that “Fuller’s example and thought are a constant inspiration” for the church.[4] When it comes to Fuller’s missionary passion and the energy he poured into supporting Carey’s endeavors in India, Toon’s statement still rings true.

Michael A. G. Haykin is a professor of church history and biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[1] The Indwelling and Righteousness of Christ no Security against Corporeal Death, but the Source of Spiritual and Eternal Life (London, 1815), 2–3.

[2] The Spurgeon remark is taken from Gilbert Laws, Andrew Fuller: Pastor, Theologian, Ropeholder (London: Carey Press, 1942), 127; A. C. Underwood, A History of the English Baptists (London: The Baptist Union Publication Dept. [Kingsgate Press], 1947), 166.

[3] S. Pearce Carey, William Carey, 8th ed. (London: Carey Press, 1934), 118.

[4] Peter Toon, “Fuller, Andrew” in J. D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, ed., Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 262.