Reflecting on Fuller’s Letters

The following is a reflection paper that I wrote for Dr. Haykin’s Baptist History and Heritage class this past semester at TBS. It is a meditation on Armies of the Lamb, a collection of Andrew Fuller’s letters edited by Dr. Haykin.
The Particular Baptists have a spiritual heritage that is as rich as any in the Christian tradition. Although they might not have such spiritual writers in their fold as St. John of the Cross or Thomas à Kempis the Baptists are not lacking in terms of devotional literature. One collection of writings that stand out as an example of classic Christian spirituality are the letters of Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) now immortalized in Michael Haykin’s The Armies of the Lamb: The Spirituality of Andrew Fuller.[1] The following is a brief reflection upon a number of these letters and the spiritual impact that they have had on the life of this reader.
Of the various ways that Fuller’s letters have shaped my affections or changed my thoughts, three things stand out. The first is the humility that typically characterizes godly men and women, exemplified by Fuller. Not infrequently does the reader find letters of self-abasement in this collection. The second is the need for friendship in the Christian life. There can be no doubt that the accomplishments of Fuller and the men of the Baptist Missionary Society would not have been what they were had it not been for the uncommon bond of friendship between them. The third and final point noted in this paper is the great need for regular spiritual discipline. It was encouraging to see that Fuller shared in the same struggles as myself both when it came to personal devotion and the desire to become more devoted to Christ. Let us now turn to each one more specifically.

What struck me the most when reading Fuller’s letters was the humility displayed in their pages. Fuller was a theologian of tremendous insight, whose nickname “the Elephant of Kettering” fit him both in terms of physical stature and intellectual carriage. Fuller’s writings covered a vast array of controversial subjects including hyper-Calvinism, Sandemanianism, Socinianism, Unitarianism and a host of others. Alongside all of this highbrow theologizing, Fuller always maintained the proper balance between doctrine and praxis. This is evident in the energy he exerted as the secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society. Considering both his literary accomplishments and his work at bringing the gospel to “the heathen,” one could understand if he took the opportunity to proverbially pat himself on the back every now and again. But this is not the case, at least if his letters prove to be a good example.
One example of Fuller’s humility is seen in a letter to Archibald McLean (1733-1812) dated April 20, 1796. Instead of stealing moments of self-congratulation, Fuller was keen to point out his mean upbringing and lack of theological education. Having highlighted his disdain for such titles as “Doctor of Divinity,” Fuller commented on the lack of theological education amongst many of the Baptists. “As to academic education, the far greater part of our ministers have it not. Carey was a shoemaker years after he engaged in the ministry and I was a farmer.”[2] Instead of glorying in the title of “doctor,” Fuller displayed humility by pointing to his previous “common” vocation.
What characterised Fuller’s humble disposition also marked out the members of his church in Kettering. In a letter to some Scottish Baptists dated February 25, 1804, Fuller compares his church with those in Scotland. The Scotch were in constant disarray, frequently dividing “on almost every difference.” Using the Kettering church as an example, Fuller proved that such divisions could be avoided. He says, “I have been now nearly 22 years pastor of the Church at K and though we have excluded many for misconduct, there has not been a single separation, on account of such things as divide you.”
[3] This unity was possible according to Fuller because of the humility that characterised his church. When issues arose between members, Fuller says, “They are heard patiently and candidly, and frequently by conversing we come to be of one mind.” Those in the church who were of the “lesser number” on an issue submitted to the “greater number” and “they agree to forbear with each other.”[4] This could not be done without humility.
Both of these examples (more could be cited) show the necessity for Christ-like humility in both personal and community life. It was encouraging to observe Fuller’s meekness as he frequently lifted up of other Christians. Even when dealing with those who disagreed with him, he maintained a modest spirit. Such humility is desperately needed in the church today. May God grant us all the humility of Andrew Fuller.

Much could be written about the depth of friendship shared between Fuller and others of his Baptist connection. It is clearly one of the most significant legacies left by these men to the universal church. One envisions an almost tangible spirituality that hung in the air when they gathered for fellowship.
The obvious example of this kind of friendship is his writings to or about Samuel Pearce. The letter that Fuller wrote to the dying Pearce on August 30, 1799 has a subtle power to it that lingers in one’s thoughts. He writes with an apparent calmness, knowing full well that the young minister will “reach the goal before us.” Yet there are hints of great emotion underlying that calm. Fuller makes note of the May 6 meeting in Olney where he read a letter by Pearce to the gathering. Fuller claims, “I think I never witnessed so many tears at once as were shed at the…meeting.”[5] Such was the impact of Pearce on his friends.
In response to the love he had for Pearce, Fuller wanted to honour his young friend by immortalizing him in publication. Anticipating Pearce’s protestations against publishing his diaries, Fuller sought to divert him with practical wisdom. He argued that it would be of great help to Pearce’s family if the diaries were published, because they would be a source of money. This again was a display of the love and care that Fuller had for his friend.
I am thankful to God for the friends that he has blessed me with on my pilgrimage to the “eternal city.” As I read of Ryland, Carey, Pearce and Sutcliff and think of how thankful Fuller must have been for them, faces appear in my mind’s eye of those who have deeply impacted my life. What would we do if God had not given us friends? Thank God for them, and thank God for the friendship that we have with the Lord Jesus Christ whose friendship knows no bounds.

Spiritual Discipline
It can sound cliché to hear a Christian bemoan their lack of spiritual discipline. But often things become cliché because they are so regularly attested to in common experience. The constant battle of the Christian life, for every believer, is that of maintaining habitual devotion. How hard I find it to have regular, meaningful prayer. How hard I find it to be in God’s Word on a daily basis for the sake of my own soul. How hard I find it to think of Christ not merely for theological insight, but because He is a beautiful Saviour who should delight all of my thoughts. When the struggle seems almost unbearable, God steps in and provides encouragement for the fight. Fuller has proven such an encouragement for me. It is tempting to think that I am the only one who struggles with personal devotion. When I read that Fuller shared in similar struggles, my guilt began to fade being replaced with resolve to do as Fuller and strive for Christ-likeness.
An example of Fuller’s own recognition that he lacked spiritually is seen in a very honest letter. It was to Benjamin Francis, himself a noteworthy Baptist, dated July 13, 1788. Midway through the letter Fuller exclaims, “Oh that my own soul was more leavened!” and then proceeds to explain why he felt that he was “not what a servant of Christ should be.”
[6] For him, this realisation came through the experiences of preaching ordination sermons. He wrote, “I have lately preached an ordination sermon or two…in which I have endeavoured to come as home to the heart and conscience of my brethren as I knew how.” Here Fuller expresses the desire of any good preacher, to affect the heart with the preaching of the Word so that action may result. As it would happen, the heart affected and the conscience pricked was Fuller’s. “But, oh, what shame covers my face when I turn my attention inward! I am the man who am too, too guilty of many of those things which I have cautioned them to avoid.”[7] When he preached, he was confronted with his own hypocrisy in expecting obedience from his hearers for things that he himself struggled with. I too have had this experience and have wondered whether a hypocrite such as myself should ever preach God’s Word. It was very encouraging, if not relieving, to read of Fuller’s personal struggles. I can relate wholly with Fuller’s lamentation: “I find a perpetual proneness to read and study rather as a minister than as a Christian; more to find out something to say to the people than to edify my own soul.”[8] How insightful and horrible! Not only does a minister of the gospel feel such pangs of guilt, so too the seminary student. Often my readings, be they of the Bible or theology, serve only to stimulate the mind. With Fuller, I hope to make my soul the priority.
The one-time farmer offers excellent advice on how to remedy this situation in a letter to John Ryland, Jr. dated April 2, 1795. Concluding this third section, I quote him in full,
…Sin is to be overcome, not so much by maintaining a direct opposition to it, as by cultivating opposite principles. Would you kill the weeds in your garden, plant it with good seed; if the ground be well occupied, there will be less need of the labour of the hoe. If a man wished to quench fire, he might fight it with his hands till he was burnt to death; the only way is to apply an opposite element.

I have said in recent conversations that having read Fuller’s letters my appreciation for the man has deepened. Though I have long understood why Fuller has been regarded as one of the greats of Baptist history, it was not until I thoughtfully considered his letters that he became one of my favourites. This is so not least because of the three points outlined above. If I could cultivate in my life humility that truly put others before me, if I continue to be impacted because of the friends the Lord provides, and if I harvest greater personal devotion in my life, I know that I could be a powerful weapon for the glory of God. Of course, all of this can only happen by the grace of God, and so I implore Him now, as he did with Fuller, to do so with me. Whether I become the church’s greatest theologian, or whether I minister in an unknown town to a handful of people, may God be glorified by my continual conformity into the image of His Son.

[1] Michael A. G. Haykin, The Armies of the Lamb: The Spirituality of Andrew Fuller (Dundas, Ontario: Joshua Press, Inc., 2001).
[2] Armies of the Lamb, 151.
[3] Armies of the Lamb, 189-190.
[4] Armies of the Lamb, 190.
[5] Armies of the Lamb, 172.
[6] Armies of the Lamb, 112.
[7] Armies of the Lamb, 112.
[8] Armies of the Lamb, 113.
[9] Armies of the Lamb, 133.

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