Baptists and Calvinism: A Brief Reply to Dr. Garrett

In a recent series of articles on Baptists and Calvinism, Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr., has produced a good overview of some of the key issues that Baptists have faced regarding Calvinism over the centuries of their existence. I deeply appreciated the irenicism of the articles, the passion for missions and the finely nuanced scholarship. Dr. Garrett correctly points that “Baptists have not been in total agreement on these issues.”[1] Nor have Baptist historians always been in agreement about how to interpret Calvinism in Baptist life. I was especially intrigued by some of Dr. Garrett’s remarks regarding eighteenth-century English Baptist life. The bane of Hyper-Calvinism He argues first of all that Hyper-Calvinism was the bane of missions in certain quarters of English Baptist life in the eighteenth century. In his words:

“When the learned John Gill in London was teaching the tenets of Dort and some of the teachings of Hyper-Calvinism, the Particular Baptists were in a deplorable state of spiritual decline and apathy. It took a casting off of Hyper-Calvinism and an overhauling of Dortian Calvinism to bring Particular Baptists into the Evangelical Revival and to the point of leading the modern Protestant missionary movement. Moreover it has been the evangelical or missionary form of Calvinism that in the providence of God through William Carey and Andrew Fuller and Charles Haddon Spurgeon and John Leadley Dagg propelled Baptists from a tiny minority sect to a major Christian denomination. Hence the teachings of Dort do matter inasmuch as there are effects of such teachings.”[2] Now, it is important to realize that in the eighteenth century Gill’s teaching was not uniform throughout the English Baptist denomination. There was the vital Calvinistic Baptist tradition associated with the Bristol Baptist Academy, for instance, that preserved a rich balance between the sovereignty of God and evangelism. The Academy produced remarkable Evangelical Calvinists like the younger Andrew Gifford (1700-1784), who supported George Whitefield, Benjamin Francis (1734-1799), an indefatigable evangelist, and Benjamin Beddome (1717-1795), who knew revival in the town where his ministry was centred, Bourton-on-the-Water. Moreover, while there is little doubt that there was decline among many Baptist quarters in England during this period—especially seen in London, Yorkshire, the East Anglian counties of Norfolk and Suffolk and the area covered by the Northamptonshire Association—to fix the blame chiefly on Gill and his “Dortian Calvinism” is an over-simplification.[3] Russell E. Richey, for instance, points out that there were ongoing legal restrictions, which effectively confined Baptist preaching to the meeting house.[4] Deryck W. Lovegrove, on the other hand, locates the real problem of Baptists during this period in the matter of their isolation. “The very strength of independency,” he notes, “the internal cohesion of the gathered church, became its weakness as geographical remoteness conspired with autonomy and lack of common purpose to foster numerical decline.”[5] And Isabel Rivers sees a loss of identity as a key factor in the decline of the Baptists. Speaking about the dissenters in general, she states: “The experience of…persecution and heroic leadership must have given a sense of identity and commitment to the nonconformists not shared by the succeeding generations of dissenters.”[6] In short, the decline of the Baptists during the early and mid-eighteenth century cannot be easily attributed to simply one cause.[7] As the studies of Richey, Lovegrove and Rivers indicate, there were a variety of factors at work: political and sociological, as well as theological. Recent historiographical approaches demand that we consider not simply the realm of ideas in analyzing denominational history but also the social and political climate. Yet, Garrett is not wrong to point out that there was decline. Andrew Fuller, who, as Garrett notes, was instrumental in the revitalization of the Baptists in the final decades of the century, summed up this situation of decline in his own inimitable style when he declared: “Had matters gone on but for a few years, the Baptists would have become a perfect dunghill in society.”[8] But, it is vital for Baptist historians to ask this: is Fuller here speaking in strict statistical terms of every nook and cranny of the denomination, or making a more general observation? One of the myths in Baptist history has been to take Fuller’s words as totally applicable to the entire denomination in England.

Was Andrew Fuller a Calvinist? Then, in a later article, “How prominent Baptists stack up: Have leading Baptist theologians affirmed teachings of Dortian Calvinism?”, Garrett makes the following comment about Andrew Fuller’s own commitment to Calvinism: according to Garrett, Fuller “strongly advocated repentance and faith as duties,” but he “supported only two of Dortian Calvinism’s five points[,] limited atonement and irresistible grace.”[9] These remarks are very curious and have no basis in Fuller’s works. Fuller was a five-point Calvinist through and through. Yes, he did argue, against Hyper-Calvinism, that repentance and faith were duties. Hyper-Calvinists had argued that sinners are unable to do anything spiritually good, and thus are under no obligation to exercise faith in Christ. They supported their argument by reference to such texts as John 6:44 (“No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him”) and 1 Corinthians 2:14 (“the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned”). The inability of which these passages speak, Fuller contended in response, is a moral inability, which is rooted in the sinful disposition of the heart. Men and women refuse to come to Christ because of their aversion to him. They fail to understand the gospel and the things of the Spirit because they lack the means by which such matters are understood, namely, the presence of the indwelling Spirit. And they lack the Spirit because their hearts are closed to God. These verses are not speaking of a physical inability—such as insanity or mental deficiency—which excuses its subject of blame.[10] In making this distinction between physical and moral inability, which Fuller derived from Jonathan Edwards, Fuller was seeking to affirm a scriptural paradox: sinful men and women are utterly powerless to turn to God except through the regenerative work of God’s Holy Spirit, yet this powerlessness is the result of their own sinful hearts.[11] In other words, Fuller takes seriously the Scriptures’ affirmation of the total/radical depravity of the human heart. This led Fuller to address the role of the Spirit’s work in conversion. Hyper-Calvinists argued that if repentance and faith are ascribed by the Scriptures to the work of the Spirit, then “they cannot be duties required of sinners.” As Fuller points out, though, the force of this objection is dependent upon the supposition that “we do not stand in need of the Holy Spirit to enable us to comply with our duty.” What is amazing about this supposition is that Arminianism assumes the same. For the Arminian, because faith is commanded of sinners by God, then they must be able to believe without the irresistible drawing of the Spirit. Similarly, the Hyper-Calvinist reasons that since faith is wrought by the Spirit it cannot be an act of obedience. The truth of the matter, however, is that “we need the influence of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do our duty” and that “repentance and faith, therefore, may be duties, notwithstanding their being the gifts of God.”[12] Fuller thus affirmed the biblical via media on this issue. In his confession of faith that he made when he was inducted into his second pastoral charge, at Kettering in 1783, Fuller maintained that he believed in “the doctrine of eternal personal election and predestination” and that “those who are effectually called of God never fall away so as to perish everlastingly, but persevere in holiness till they arrive at endless happiness.”[13] It is a Baptist urban myth that Fuller abandoned his Calvinistic heritage. He affirmed it to the end of his earthly life.

Distinct proof of this can be found when Fuller came to die in 1815, in a last letter to his close friend, John Ryland, Jr. (1753-1825), in which he affirmed his belief in the perseverance of the saints. After quoting a portion of 2 Timothy 1:12, Fuller went on to say:

“I am a poor, guilty creature; but Christ is an almighty Saviour. I have preached and written much against the abuse of the doctrine of grace; but that doctrine is all my salvation and all my desire. I have no other hope, than from salvation by mere sovereign, efficacious grace, through the atonement of my Lord and Saviour. With this hope, I can go into eternity with composure.”[14]

What I love about Andrew Fuller is this wholehearted commitment to the doctrines of grace and his passion for missions. He did not compromise either. And in so doing, he proved to be a safe guide for Baptists today.

[1] James Leo Garrett, Jr., “A question facing Baptist churches: Does Dortian Calvinism really matter?”, The Alabama Baptist (Thursday, August 2, 2007) (; accessed august 6, 2007).

[2] Garrett, Jr., “A question facing Baptist churches.”

[3] Deryck W. Lovegrove, Established Church, Sectarian People. Itineracy and the transformation of English Dissent, 1780-1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 7; B.R. White, “Reviews: H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four centuries of Baptist witness”, The Baptist Quarterly, 32 (1987-1988), 256.

[4] “Effects of Toleration on Eighteenth-Century Dissent”, The Journal of Religious History, 8 (1974-1975), 350-363. There were exceptions, of course. Between 1688 and 1705 William Mitchel and David Crosley (1669-1744) evangelized towns and villages throughout east Lancashire and West Yorkshire from their base at Rossendale. For further details, see W.E. Blomfield, “Yorkshire Baptist Churches in the 17th and 18th Centuries” in The Baptists of Yorkshire (2nd ed.; Bradford/London; Wm. Byles & Sons Ltd./London: Kingsgate Press, 1912), 73-88; Ian Sellers, ed., Our Heritage. The Baptists of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire (Leeds: The Yorkshire Baptist Association/The Lancashire and Cheshire Baptist Association, 1987), 10-11.

[5] Established Church, Sectarian People, 7.

[6] Reason, Grace, and Sentiment. A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660-1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), I, 169.

[7] Barrie R. White, Letter to the author, May 6, 1991.

[8] Cited Simon Valentine, “A wrestler who fought the Devil”, Baptist Times, 7297 (March 1, 1990), 6.

[9] James Leo Garrett, Jr., “How prominent Baptists stack up: Have leading Baptist theologians affirmed teachings of Dortian Calvinism?”, The Alabama Baptist (Thursday, August 2, 2007) (

[10] The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation in The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, revised Joseph Belcher (1845 ed.; repr. Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 2:376-379.

[11] James E. Tull, Shapers of Baptist Thought (1972 ed.; repr. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1984), 90.

[12] Works, 2:379-380.

[13] Confession of Faith VIII and XIV in Michael A.G. Haykin, ed., The Armies of the Lamb: The spirituality of Andrew Fuller (Dundas, Ontario: Joshua Press, 2001), 276, 279.

[14] Cited John Ryland, The Work of Faith, the Labour of Love, and the Patience of Hope Illustrated; in the Life and Death of the Reverend Andrew Fuller (London: Button & Son, 1816), 544-546.