Answering My Great Question about “The Great Question Answered”

By Nathan A. Finn

You may or may not know that Andrew Fuller wrote a wildly popular gospel tract titled The Great Question Answered. It was republished numerous times by multiple publishers and remained enormously popular in both Britain and the USA into the mid-nineteenth century. It is available in volume three of the “Sprinkle Edition” of The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller (pp. 540–549). The tract is also available on several websites on the internet, but be careful not to confuse it with the pro-slavery treatise by James Sloan, which was published in 1857 and is also widely available online.

I am editing the volume on Strictures on Sandemanianism for the forthcoming critical edition of The Works of Andrew Fuller. Several months ago, I began trying to locate the first publication of The Great Question Answered because it briefly references the Sandemanian view of faith. I knew it was published during the decade between 1801, when Fuller included an appendix on Sandemanianism in the revised edition of The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, and before the publication of Strictures on Sandemanianism in 1810. But the tract “went viral” so quickly and was republished so often it was difficult to find the original publication. I talked to Michael Haykin about my quest, and though he did not know the answer to my query, he helped me think through ways to track down the first publication. Last week, my quest came to an end. I have found the Holy Grail. Let me tell you how it happened.

In his memoir of his father, found in volume one of the Sprinkle Edition, Andrew Gunton Fuller suggested the tract was first published in 1806 (p. 91). But I knew that could not be the case because an extensive library holdings search last fall revealed that several libraries in both England and North America owned copies of the tract from multiple publishers dating to 1805. In his book The Forgotten Heritage: The Great Lineage of Baptist Preaching (Mercer University Press, 1986), Thomas McKibben cited an edition of The Great Question Answered published in London by William Button and Sons in 1803 (p. 49). That was the earliest date I could find.

In 1818, John Ryland Jr. published a biography of his close friend Fuller titled The Work of Faith, the Labour of Love, and the Patience of Hope, illustrated; In the Life and Death of the Rev. Andrew Fuller. In the biography, Ryland provided a list of Fuller’s published works, including magazine articles. Ryland dated the initial publication of The Great Question Answered to 1803 in The Missionary Magazine (p. 133). I had previously seen one reference to the tract appearing in the “Edinburgh Missionary Magazine,” but could not find anything. Ryland was a great help because the periodical, though published in Edinburgh, was simply titled The Missionary Magazine—I had been sniffing down the wrong trail. In God’s providence, some volumes of The Missionary Magazine are available via Google Books—including the 1803 volume.

As it turns out, The Great Question Answered was indeed published first in The Missionary Magazine in two parts. Part One appeared in the February 21, 1803 issue, on pages 59–65. Part Two was published the following month in the March 21, 1803 issue, on pages 110–16. The two parts were then combined into a single tract that was likely first published in one part by William Button and Sons in London later in 1803. From there, it was first published in America in both Boston and Maine as early as 1805.

I do know a bit about the reception history after 1805, though there are many stones left to un-turn. As early as 1811, a Gaelic edition was published in Edinburgh. The Great Question Answered was included in the different collected editions of Fuller’s published works that began appearing as early as 1820. Also by 1820, The Great Question Answered was being published by the Baptist General Tract Society in England. In 1821, a certain Dr. Henderson translated the tract into Swedish and Russian and began distributing it through tract societies formed for those nations. In 1838, the tract was included in The Baptist Manual published by the American Baptist Publication Society. The American Tract Society was publishing the tract by 1850. Throughout the American Civil War, The Great Question Answered was distributed to Confederate soldiers by a publisher in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As this brief survey makes clear, The Great Question Answered was a popular gospel tract during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. During the years between 1803 and 1865, it was published on at least two different continents in at least four different languages—probably more. But the initial publication was in two parts in The Missionary Magazine in February and March of 1803. While there is still much I do not know about the reception history of this tract, my great question has been answered about The Great Question Answered. All is now right with the world.

____________________

Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC and a fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.