The book details the development of English Calvinistic Baptist Churches during the period 1771-1892, from the death of John Gill to the death of C. H. Spurgeon. These two men may have pastored the same London Church, New Park Street, but they had quite different visions of what constituted a Calvinistic Baptist. Gill was a Hyper Calvinist who denied the free offer of the gospel. Spurgeon held to the evangelical Calvinism of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. The legacy of Gill ensured that Spurgeon was treated with suspicion by some Victorian Calvinistic Baptists.
The English Calvinistic Baptist movement of this period was packed with fascinating characters. Robert Oliver gives us vivid portraits of men who were giants in their time, but whose names are now little know. Benjamin Beddome (1718-1795) was an influential evangelical Calvinist, whose labours at Bourton-on-the-Water were blessed with revival. The eccentric preacher and school master John Collett Ryland (1723-92) is brought to life. Abraham Booth (1734-1806) is rescued from undeserved obscurity and revealed as one of the great Calvinistic Baptist Pastor- Theologians.
One of the most important Particular Baptist thinkers was Andrew Fuller (1754-1815). Fuller was deeply influenced by the works of Jonathan Edwards. He challenged head-on the Hyper Calvinism of his day. In 1785 he published his widely read, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. This was a a tour de force in favour of the Biblical teaching that, 'faith in Christ is the duty of all men who hear the Gospel'. Inspired by Edwards, Fuller helped to found the Particular Baptist Missionary Society. He corresponded with New England theologians Jonathan Edwards Jr, Samuel Hopkins and others. But Oliver refutes the charge that Fuller accepted their governmental theory of the atonement.
Many prominent Pastors were self-taught working class men. Some were rugged individualists such as William Gadsby and John Stevens. Others were highly educated like the former Anglican Clergyman and Fellow of Worcester College, J. C. Philpot. Magazines were published to guide and influence the Particular Baptist movement . A chapter is devoted to the analysis of some of these journals including The Gospel Herald and The Gospel Standard.
Neglect of the 1689 Baptist Confession in the period under consideration led to a number of theological aberrations among particular Baptist Pastors and people. While accepting that Christ was a divine Person within the Trinity, John Stevens denied his eternal Sonship. Stevens speculated that Jesus' human soul pre-existed from before the foundation of the world. Others taught that the elect are justified in eternity, not at the moment they come to faith. Oliver deals honestly and fairly with the controversies of the day from the perspective of his own evangelical Calvinism.
Throughout this period, arguments raged over the free offer of the gospel. Fuller was not alone in facing this challenge. Abraham Booth and others argued forcefully that God commands all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel. The Hyper Calvinists taught that as only the elect will come to faith, Christ should not be offered to all and sundry. While Hyper Calvinists did experience conversions and Church growth, their beliefs had a baleful effect on Particular Baptist life and mission. Modern day Calvinists who are strangely attracted to Hyper Calvinism should take note of this salutary lesson.
Some in the movement were influenced by the antinomianism of William Huntingdon. He preached that the law of God has no authority over the believer. John Ryland Jr and others opposed this view and held that the law is a rule of life for the godly. This debate too has resonance for the present day.
The book also examines the controversy over strict and open communion among the Calvinistic Baptists. Some like Fuller and Booth argued that only baptised believers should take the Lord's Supper while others such as John Collet Ryland agitated for a more conciliatory position that would allow convinced Paedobaptists to observe Communion in Baptist churches. The Appendix to the 1689 Confession of Faith allows Baptist Churches some liberty with regard to these matters.
The final chapter is devoted to C. H. Spurgeon. He challenged the Paticular Baptists to return to their roots in the evangelical Calvinism of the 17th Century Puritans. Spurgeon republished the 1689 Confession for the benefit of his own Church and the wider Baptist community. He fought with his Hyper Calvinistic critics who disliked his practice of offering Christ freely to all. Toward the end of his life, Spurgeon was embroiled in controversy over the downgrading of evangelical theology in the Baptist movement. In 1889 he said.
I do not look so much at what is happening today, for these things relate to eternity. For my part, I am quite willing to be eaten by dogs for the next fifty years; but the more distant future shall vindicate me. I have dealt honestly before the living God. My brother, do the same. Who knows but what thou are come to the kingdom for such a time as this. (p. 356)
Exactly 60 years later, a small group of English Baptists republished Spurgeon's edition of the 1689 Confession of Faith. There are now many Baptists Congregations in the United Kingdom that hold to the evangelical Calvinism of the old Confession.
This work is written with great clarity and care and is the products of meticulous research. The author is deeply familiar with the original sources and interacts with the secondary literature. The author brings historical honesty and shrewd theological judgement to bear on this fascinating subject. All who are interested in the history of the English Calvinistic Baptists should read this beautifully produced book. Published by The Banner of Truth Trust, 2006, 410pp.
Robert W. Oliver is a Pastor of the Old Baptist Church, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire.