By Michael A.G. Haykin
A month or so before the seizure of the Bastille in 1789, an association of English Particular Baptist churches in the West Country met, as was their annual wont, for two days of worship and fellowship. This annual meeting on this occasion—June 3–4, 1789—took place at Horsley, Gloucs., where the redoubtable Benjamin Francis was the pastor. On such occasions as these, a circular letter would be drawn up by one of the pastors; then, when approved by the association messengers, it would be sent out to the churches. On this particular occasion Caleb Evans, the Principal of Bristol Baptist Academy, was asked to write the letter.
Among other comments in the letter, which was aimed at refuting especially Antinomianism, although Socinianism was also targeted, was Evans’ critique of what he called a “poisonous doctrine”: “That as God’s love to his people is from everlasting, it must have existed when they were sunk in sin and sensuality, in as high a degree, and in the same manner, as it will be when they are brought to glory” (The Elders, Ministers, and Messengers of the Several Baptist Churches [Circular Letter, Western Association, 1789], 8). Evans called this perspective—usually associated in that era with hyper-Calvinism—an “ignorant, shocking doctrine” and proceeded to refute it. Little did he know the firestorm his remarks would create.
Within the year, one of his fellow pastors in the Western Association, the minister of Chard, Samuel Rowles, attacked Evans in his Thoughts on the Love of God, which led to a reply from Evans and then a surrejoinder by Rowles. And to make things even more difficult the London minister William Huntington also entered the lists against Evans.
Reading over Evans’ circular letter just recently, it struck me that although Andrew Fuller is remembered as the great theologian of this era—David Bebbington once referred to him as a theologian of the caliber of Athanasius—he was surrounded by many capable men: such a man was Caleb Evans.
Michael A.G. Haykin is the director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He also serves as Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Haykin and his wife Alison have two grown children, Victoria and Nigel.