I just completed Tom Nettles first volume on Baptist history, and I found it to be an inspiring read. It covers the time period after the Protestant Reformation from about 1600 to the 1830s and gives us surveys of a total ten key Baptist men during pivotal epoch in church history. Seven of these ministers were Reformed, and it is to them—John Spilsbury, William Kiffin, Hanserd Knollys, Benjamin Keach, John Gill, Andrew Fuller, and William Carey—that I trace my spiritual heritage, as I have after my own Bible study come to embrace the Reformed Baptist faith. Here, I want to say something from the text about each of them.
John Spilsbury: Fought for several important points of doctrine including 1) credobaptist practice. He believed that “the new covenant assumes the effectual working of the Spirit to create a believing community and employs new positive ordinances as the symbols of its character. Believers’ baptism, not infant baptism, corresponds to the nature of the new covenant,” has Jesus’ authority behind it, and was the practice of the Apostles (Nettles 114). According to Nettles, Spilsbury’s opponents thought of him as uneducated but felt compelled to compose responses to his arguments against infant baptism. One such rebuttal came from a man named Praise-God Barebone. But praise God, Barebone eventually became a Baptist himself.
Second, Spilsbury argued for confessionalism, teaching that “no church, and thus no baptism, could exist apart from submission to orthodox evangelicalism embodied in a confession of faith” (Nettles 118).
Third, he defended the compatibility of particular atonement and universal gospel preaching.
William Kiffin: Tom Nettles first word on Kiffin is that he “must be given a prominent place in the affections and appreciation of all Baptists” (129). In fact, One historian calls Kiffin the Father of the Particular [Calvinist] Baptists. Kiffin was the only signer of the 1644 London Baptist Confession of Faith who also signed the Second London Confession in July of 1689.
He also argued enthusiastically for believer baptism alone and paired up with Hanserd Knollys in debating two paedobaptists on the topic. Kiffin later found it needful to defend the practice of requiring baptism in order to take Lord’s Supper. Kiffin also helped plant Baptist churches. In disputes with Quakers and others, he proved to be fair and honest.
Hanserd Knollys: Knollys became a minister in the Anglican church in 1629, but resigned after becoming convinced that some of their practices were not biblical. He came to the conclusion that he himself had been “building his soul upon a covenant of works and was a stranger to the covenant of grace” (Nettles 148). After a struggle, he learned to embrace God’s promises of grace and was “filled with joy unspeakable and glorious” (Knollys qtd. in Nettles 149). Knollys was not yet a Baptist, but sailed for America, stayed two years, and returned to England. Exactly when he was convinced of Baptist doctrine is not certain, but it is certain that he was a decided Baptist some time after he came back to England, and from there began to defend their cause with “stable, courageous leadership” (Nettles 152). He fought against antinomianism, and signed the 1646 revision to the first London Confession, which contained greater clarity on God’s sovereign providence and particular redemption. He defended an evangelistic Calvinism. Along with William Kiffin, Knollys spearheaded the first national assembly of Particular Baptists, which took place in 1689 and there the Second London Baptist Confession was republished publically and Knollys was the first signer. Knollys wrote in defense of Baptist church government, which believes each local church to be autonomous and not subject to any higher denominational authority. He preached in his London church until he was 93.
Benjamin Keach: Keach born again at the age of fifteen. His study of Scripture led him to reject infant baptism and he joined a Baptist church. Nettles remarks that Keach “seemed never to be convinced that he had exhausted all truth, or even the capacity for understanding as much truth as possible” (163). He goes on to say that “the covenant and all its accompanying blessings are the driving force in, and give coherence to, Keach’s entire theological scheme” (Nettles 167).
Keach wrote a handful of major works on the topic of justification, defending the Reformed position and saying that “the Christian, therefore, is not to work for Life, but from Life” (Keach qtd. in Nettles 179).
He also wrote poignantly against paedobaptism and for credobaptism, with works like Pedo-Baptism disproved, and The Ax Laid to the Root, or One Blow More at the Foundation of Infant Baptism and Church Membership. No subtlety there. But he wrote many books on many topics. He wrote on what a true church is, spoke against the Church of England, noting that “true biblical discipline is, in fact, incongruous in a state church for none of the members has voluntarily committed himself” (186), and defended the singing of hymns and songs in church worship.
John Gill: Gill was a prolific writer and a exceptionally intelligent. Nettles says, “Very early in life Gill’s intellectual precocity emerged and he soon demonstrated extraordinary ability in languages, specifically Greek, Hebrew, and Latin” (197). Gill was a powerful defender of Calvinism, composing a four-part tome, The Cause of God and Truth, published between 1735 and 1738, in response to Daniel Whitby’s attack on the doctrines of grace. Gill also spoke on behalf of the prescriptive use of a confession of faith. He believed that not doing so was one cause of theological decline, the other being a neglect of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.
Gill also addressed other things such as deism and Sabellianism (the idea that God is one person who has revealed himself in three modes). Gill proved to be an effective defender of the Trinity.
He wrote a lot. He engaged many enemies with keen analysis and exposition of their logical fallacies. Nettles remarks, “Issues of biblical theology, historical theology, philosophical theology, systematic theology, practical ecclesiology, apologetics, biblical linguistics, biblical exposition, experimental religion, and issues of pastoral ministry are all dealt with clearly and cleanly” (215).
Gill’s education and sharp analytical thinking was not superfluous. When Anthony Collins composed a sophisticated attack on Christianity, “Gill’s knowledge of Jewish literature was invaluable for demonstrating the vacuity of Collins’ destructive arguments” (Nettles 240).
Andrew Fuller: Fuller was baptized in 1770 after conversion from a sinful lifestyle, then joined a Baptist church. In 1775, Fuller learned of a debate among Calvinists which was to occupy much of his effort. It revolved around the so-called “modern question” that asked whether unregenerate people were under any obligation to repent and believe, and also were preachers under obligation to call upon such people to repent and have faith. Fullers answer was a resounding Yes. He argued carefully that if God’s withholding grace were sufficient to nullify man’s responsibility, then grace was no gift, but a burden, for without it, a man was not truly guilty. Fuller’s full treatise on the subject has been touted as “the shot which provoked the army into the field of battle” (Nettles 243). It was called The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, published in 1785.
Fuller, like the others, defended Calvinism, and did so astutely. Consider the following thoughts from Fuller: Arminianism “appeared to me to ascribe the difference between one sinner and another, not to the grace of God, but to the good improvement made of grace given us in common with others.” He believed that “to suppose God to act in time without an eternal purpose in his action is to deprive him of wisdom, or to suppose a new purpose to arise is to accuse him of mutability” (Nettles 254). Therefore, we “are landed upon election” (Fuller qtd. in Nettles 254). He once proposed seven reasons why regeneration must precede our coming to Jesus.
On the other hand, he refuted hyper-Calvinism by arguing the “modern question” and also by taking a view of the atonement that sees it as not as limited to the elect in its nature, but limited to the elect by the covenantal design of God—God’s deliberate purpose to save a certain group of particular people. The first view sees the atonement more as a commercial transaction. But, says Fuller, if this were the case, it would be “inconsistent with free forgiveness of sin, and with sinners being directed to apply for mercy as supplicants, rather than as claimants” (Fuller qtd. in Nettles 256).
He also, according to Nettles, “did not ignore the broader issues of his day,” but rose up against “deists and Socinians, thoroughly mastered their writings, and fired off replies so perceptive and to-the-point that his opponents found their arguments clearly emasculated” (268). He was a faithful and caring minister, exercising church discipline with seriousness and glad to warmly receive penitent sinner back into the fold. He died in 1815.
William Carey: William Carey accomplished much for the Lord, but led a very hard life. His faithfulness is a great inspiration. After conversion, Carey was influenced positively by Robert Hall’s book, Help to Zion’s Travelers, which taught from a Particular Baptist viewpoint. This does not mean he did not thoroughly examine the argument for infant baptism. But he finally rejected that practice in favor of believer baptism alone. Carey would prove to be very gifted in linguistics, and this would aid him later in the work God had for him.
In 1792, he was part of the formation of “The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen.” Supported by this organization, he would go to India to preach the gospel. One of the first requests was for a Bengali translation of the Bible.In 1801, the Bengali New Testament was completed. It was just the beginning. “Carey was responsible for translating the Bible, or supervising and overseeing its translation, whole or in part, into thirty-six distinct languages,” says Nettles (296). Indeed, Carey became one of the most respected Sanskrit grammarians among scholars. His work in Bengali even helped improve the language. He began schools in illiterate areas, and used the Bible to teach, believing that “comprehensive education [would] prepare the students for a rich life free of superstition” (Nettles 302). He taught math, science, geography, logic, and reading. He and the missionaries he worked with thought that “sound education would reveal several untenable features of pagan religion and at the same time enhance one’s own openness to true Christian faith” (Nettles 302-3).
But things were not easy. Carey’s first wife only reluctantly agreed to move to India. There, she eventually lost her mind and gave William much aggravation, accusing him of infidelity, breaking into outbursts of anger and profanity, and threatening his life. When she died, Carey was uncertain of her salvation, though others believed her to have been saved, but afflicted with stress, fever, and mercury poisoning. Later a fire destroyed huge volumes of Carey’s work, especially in certain indigenous languages. Following this, the Society defunded his operations due to lack of converts. Carey continued to work. He fought the spreading notion that many ways existed to reach God and that exclusive religious claims were arrogant and intolerant and outdated in our pluralistic world. He died in 1834, leaving a great legacy, and was buried by Charlotte, his second wife.
As these seven portraits impress me, they do so not only as Christians, but as theological forbears, seeing that I, as a Reformed Baptist believer, have myself identified with the community of faith to which they belong. I look up to them, therefore, in a special way. You may wonder if it is right to admire mere men. It is, as long as the admiration never eclipses our worship of God. In fact, it is not only right, but healthy to have admirable heroes. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul plainly told the Corinthians to imitate him, as he imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Consider Hebrews 13:7, which tells us to “remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” God knows that sometimes, as earthly as we are, it is easier to follow the example of someone closer to home, and encouraging to know that fellow human beings can do right, even if not all the time. So choose heroes. Just make sure you don’t idealize them (or idolize them) and most importantly, make sure they’re the right heroes.