CHAPTER 1 – Early Days
ANDREW FULLER was born in the little village of Wicken, in Cambridgeshire, about eight miles from the town of Ely. His parents, Robert and Philippa Fuller, occupied a small farm, which they and their ancestors had tilled since the days of the Stuarts. They had but three children, of whom Andrew was the youngest. The other two kept to the occupation of their youth, and though they have not inherited the fame of their youngest brother, their names are remembered as associated with much usefulness and devotion to the cause of Christ.
If a "noble ancestry" be any advantage to those who can claim the inheritance, then, bearing in mind Andrew Fuller’s work in the world, he was not born without this advantage. In the days of Charles the Second, the woods of Cambridgeshire were the refuge and the sanctuary of many of the faithful. Two of the ejected ministers, Holcroft and Oddy, preached in their solitudes to the scattered brethren, and avoiding the larger towns, planted churches in the little villages, more hidden from the world. From one of them, it is said, an ancestor of Robert’s received the "words of eternal life." Like the freedom for which they struggled, their simple piety was handed down from "sire to son," and for two or three centuries, in the quiet homestead at Wicken, the same generation had served the "God of their fathers."
The early life of great men always brings into more or less prominence those scenes and events which have influenced their training. We follow Robert Hall into the graveyard with his nurse, learning his first lessons from the tombstones, or lying on the grass between the graves on a hot summer day, surrounded by his books, studying Edwards on "The Will," while yet under nine years of age, and conversing with the "metaphysical tailor" with startling and premature eagerness. These circumstances in the early history of Andrew Fuller are of the simplest kind. The village school and chapel-house, the group around the blazing village forge, the annual feast, shunned so stedfastly in after days, are the only things left in the memory after reading it. Though there was no such surprising development of genius as in his great contemporary, there seems to have been a presence and power about him even then. He tells us afterwards, when he settled at Soham (to which place he removed when he was six years of age), that he scarcely expected "to be much respected by the inhabitants," since he had been among them from a child; but he had not much to complain of, and this was partly owing to the prevalence of an opinion of him when he was at school, that "he was more learned than his master;" "an opinion," he says, "which I am certain was far from being true; but it indicated a partiality in my favour which was of some use in leading people to hear the word." The picture helping us, we can easily understand how the flavour of a little learning in young Fuller would carry more weight to the rustic judges than the wider culture of the Soham schoolmaster.
His early habits and occupation continually remind us of John Bunyan’s life at Elstow. The reader will remember how section twelve of the "Grace Abounding" opens up Bunyan’s boyhood; and how among the list of mercies recorded in his youth, are such deliverances as "falling into a creek of the sea and hardly escaping drowning;" "falling out of a boat in the Bedford river, yet mercifully escaping;" "stunning an adder and plucking out her sting;" yet by God’s mercy preserved from bringing himself to an end by his desperateness.
In like manner Andrew Fuller tells us that, "being of an athletic frame and of a daring spirit, I was often engaged in such exercises and exploits as might have issued in death, if the good hand of God had not preserved me. I also frequently engaged in games of hazard, which, though not to any great amount, were very bewitching to me, and tended greatly to corrupt my mind."
While leading this bold, lawless life, he was guilty of "lying, cursing, and swearing." Like Bunyan, however, he left those habits off, long before he had any conscious interest in spiritual truth. There was a certain rough sense of true honour, not inconsistent with such a bold, free course, that made him cast away these things. He left off swearing, at ten years of age, because it was "an effort to appear manly without the reality;" and lying, some years afterwards, " except in pressing cases," because it was a "mean vice."
The first awakenings of his soul were in singular harmony with its workings in after days. When he was about fourteen years of age, "there was nothing," he tells us, "in the preaching upon which I attended, adapted to awaken my conscience, as the minister had seldom anything to say except to believers, and what believing was I neither knew nor was I greatly concerned to know." " I remember about this time," he adds further, "as I was walking alone, I put to myself this question, What is faith? There is much made of it, – what is it? I could not tell, but satisfied myself in thinking it was not of immediate concern, but that I should know as I grew older." That was the solemn question, which, to the profit and consolation of so many, he answered in later days – and it was the inquiry which, through the grace of God, led onwards to his conversion.
John Bunyan began his spiritual experiences by dreams of eternal things, and dreamed on until he was lost in the long unbroken vision of the "Pilgrim’s Progress" from the "City of Destruction" to the eternal gates. Andrew Fuller commenced them by a solemn and soul-searching inquiry into those problems with which he grappled afterwards with the full power of his manhood.
In this fourteenth year of his age, there came into his hands the book already mentioned, Bunyan’s "Grace Abounding," together with the "Pilgrim’s Progress," and Ralph Erskine’s "Gospel Sonnets." "These," he says, "I read, and as I read, I wept. Indeed, I was almost overcome with weeping, so interesting did the doctrine of eternal salvation appear to me." If he had not told us that the former of these books had "come into his hands," we should have assuredly surmised it. Not that there is anything like copying in his Diary, but there are indications of a very tender communion with the spirit of the great dreamer.
No biographer of Andrew Fuller would be pardoned who omitted the accounts which he gives of his spiritual exercises, before he sought the fellowship of the church. There is a rich vein of enlightened judgment, a depth and tenderness of feeling, and a hallowed humility in these self-communings, which it would be hard indeed to read without profit. Closely following the reflections just described, he continues: "One morning about the year 1767" (that would be when he was about thirteen years of age), "as I was walking alone, I began to think seriously what would become of my poor soul, and was deeply affected in thinking of my condition. I felt that I was the slave of sin, and that it had such power over me that it was in vain for me to think of extricating myself from its thraldom. Till now, I did not know but that I could repent at any time; but now I perceived that my heart was wicked, and that it was not in me to turn to God, or to break off my sins by righteousness. I saw that if God would forgive me all the past, and offer me the kingdom of heaven on condition of my giving up my wicked pursuits, I should not accept it. This conviction was accompanied with deep depression of heart. I walked sorrowfully along, repeating these words, ‘Iniquity will be my ruin! Iniquity will be my ruin!’ While poring over my unhappy case, those words of the apostle suddenly occurred to my mind: ‘Sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace.’ Now the suggestion of a text of Scripture to the mind, ‘especially if it came with power, was generally considered by the religious people with whom I occasionally associated, as a promise coming immediately from God. I therefore so understood it, and thought that God had thus revealed to me that I was in a state of salvation, and, therefore, that iniquity should not, as I had feared, be my ruin. The effect was, I was overcome with joy and transport. I shed, I suppose, thousands of tears, as I walked along, and seemed to feel myself, as it were, in a new world. It appeared to me that I hated my sins, and was resolved to forsake them. Thinking on my wicked courses, I remember using those words of Paul: ‘Shall I continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid!’ I felt, or seemed to feel, the greatest indignation at the thought. But strange as it may appear, though my face that morning was, I believe, swollen with weeping, yet before night all was gone and forgotten, and before night I had returned to my former vices with as eager a gust as ever. Nor do I remember that for more than half-a-year afterwards I had any serious thoughts about the salvation of my soul."
Two years more of this hard strife, the spirit and flesh in warfare, but the flesh left conqueror; convictions seemed to deepen, and yet strangely deeper draughts of sin were taken all the while; at every fresh season of emotion the heart was submitted to the inexorable test of its being willing to leave the sins that pierced it, and was as often found wanting.
At length, in the autumn of 1769, he continues: "My convictions revisited me, and brought on such a concern about my everlasting welfare, as issued, I trust, in real conversion. It was my common, practice, after the business of the day was over, to get into bad company in the evening, and when there, I indulged in sin without restraint. But after persisting in this course for some time, I began to be very uneasy, particularly in a morning when I first awoke. It was almost as common for me to be seized with keen remorse at this hour as it was to go into vain company in the evening. At first, I began to make vows of reformation, and this for the moment would afford a little ease; but, as the temptations returned, my vows were of no account. It was an enlightened conscience only that was on the side of God; my heart was still averse to everything that was spiritual or holy. For several weeks I went on in this way, vowing and breaking my vows, reflecting on myself for my evil conduct, and yet continually repeating it.
"It was not, however, as heretofore; my convictions followed me up closely. I could not, as formerly, forget these things, and was, therefore, a poor, miserable creature; like a drunkard, who carouses in the evening, but mopes about the next day like one half dead.
"One morning, I think in November, 1769, I walked out by myself with an unusual load of guilt upon my conscience. The remembrance of my sin, not only on the past evening, but for a long time back, – the breach of my vows, and the shocking termination of my former hopes and affections, all uniting together, formed a burden which I knew not how to bear. The reproaches of a guilty conscience seemed like the gnawing worm of hell. I thought surely that must be an earnest of hell itself. The fire and brimstone of the bottomless pit seemed to burn within my bosom. I do not write in the language of exaggeration. I now know that the sense which I then had of the evil of sin and the wrath of God was very far short of the truth; but yet it seemed more than I was able to sustain. In reflecting upon my broken vows, I saw that there was no truth in me. I felt that, if God were to forgive all my past sins, I should again destroy my soul, and that in a day’s time. I never before knew what it was to feel myself an odious, lost sinner, standing in need of both pardon and purification. Yet, though I needed these blessings, it seemed presumption to ask for them after what I had done. What have I done? What must I do? These were my inquiries perhaps ten times over. Indeed, I knew not what to do. I durst not promise amendment, for I saw that such promises were self-deception. To hope for forgiveness in the course that I was in was the height of presumption; and to think of Christ, after having so basely abused His grace, seemed too much. So I had no refuge. At one moment I thought of giving myself up to despair. ‘I may,’ said I within myself, ‘even return and take my fill of sin. I can but be lost.’ This thought made me shudder at myself: my heart revolted. What, thought I, give up Christ, and hope, and heaven! Those lines of Ralph Erskine’s then occurred to my mind –
‘But say, if all the gusts and grains of love be spent, –
Say farewell Christ, and welcome lusts.
Stop, stop! I melt, I faint.’ "
There is an air of loneliness about these reflections, full of sadness, revealing what bitter strife any poor soul had to go through, in those days, who felt himself an outcast from his God. No word of encouragement, no ray of hope, from friend or minister, to lead him to the infinite love of the Father in Christ. True it is that in such sore travail the soul must be the more with its God; but how full of help are the "wise and winning" words of a friend who has trodden the same lonely track! There was, however, no such friend at hand: and perhaps the victory was greater, and the sense of rest sweeter, when they came, since none but unseen ministers had helped him in the struggle. That he felt this himself is clear from the manner in which he describes the happy days of peace and freedom which followed, and from an incident which he relates of his running miles to overtake a poor thresher, who came to the village meeting, though when he was with him he had nothing to say. Sometimes he would visit him in the barn, and try to make him talk, making up his lost time afterwards by threshing for him an hour or two.
"I was not then aware," he says, " that any poor sinner had a warrant to believe in Christ for the salvation of his soul, but supposed there must be some kind of qualification to entitle him to do it; yet I was aware I had no qualification. On a review of my resolution at that time, it seems to resemble that of Esther, who went into the king’s presence contrary to the law, and at the hazard of her life. Like her, I seemed reduced to extremities, impelled by dire necessity to run all hazards, even though I should perish in the attempt. Yet it was not altogether from a dread of wrath that I fled to this refuge; for I well remember that I felt something attracting in the Saviour. I must, I will – yes, I will trust my soul, my sinful, lost soul, in His hands. If I perish, I perish. However it was, I was determined to cast myself upon Christ, thinking, peradventure, He would save my soul; and, if not, I could but be lost. In this way I continued above an hour, weeping and supplicating mercy for the Saviour’s sake (my soul hath it still in remembrance, and is humbled in me); and as the eye of the mind was more and more fixed upon Him, my guilt and fears were gradually and insensibly removed.
"I now found rest for my troubled soul; and I reckon that I should have found it sooner if I had not entertained the notion of my having no warrant to come to Christ without some previous qualification. This notion was a bar that kept me back for a time, though through Divine drawings I was enabled to overleap it. As near as I can remember in the early part of these exercises, when I subscribed to the justice of God in my condemnation, and thought of the Saviour of sinners, I had then relinquished every false confidence, believed my help to be only in Him, and approved of salvation by grace alone through His death; and if at that time I had known that any poor sinner might warrantably have trusted in Him for salvation, I conceive I should have done so, and have found rest to my soul sooner than I did. I mention this, because it may be the case with others, who may be kept in darkness and despondency by erroneous views of the Gospel much longer than I was.
"I think also I did repent of my sins in the early part of these exercises, and before I thought that Christ would accept and save my soul. I conceive that justifying God in my condemnation, and approving the way of salvation by Jesus Christ, necessarily included it; but yet I did not think at the time that this was repentance, or anything truly good. Indeed, I thought nothing about the exercises of my own mind, but merely of my guilty and lost condition, and whether there were any hope of escape for me. But, having found rest for my soul in the cross of Christ, I was now conscious of my being the subject of repentance, faith, and love. When I thought of my past life, I abhorred myself, and repented as in dust and ashes; and when I thought of the Gospel way of salvation, I drank it in, as cold water is imbibed by a thirsty soul. My heart felt one with Christ, and dead to every other object around me. I had thought I had found the joys of salvation heretofore; but now I knew I had found them, and was conscious that I had ‘passed from death unto life.’ Yet even now my mind was not so engaged in reflecting upon my own feelings as upon the objects which occasioned them.
"From this time, my former wicked courses were forsaken. I had no manner of desire after them. They lost their influence upon me. To those evils, a glance at which before would have set my passions in a flame, I now felt no inclination. ‘My soul,’ said I, with joy and triumph, ‘is as a weaned child!’ I now knew experimentally what it was to be dead to the world by the cross of Christ, and to feel an habitual determination to devote my future life to God my Saviour, and from this time considered the vows of God as upon me."
Most characteristically, in reviewing these "early exercises" of mind, he draws a distinction between respect and love in his intercourse with good men. "I never knew the time," he says, "when I did not respect good men; but I did not always love them for Christ’s sake."
In the March of 1770 he witnessed with solemn interest the baptism of two young persons on profession of their faith, and about a month afterwards was himself baptized, "being then just turned sixteen years of age." Most interesting is it to mark how, one after another, the practices of the church engaged his earnest and sustained attention, always leading to some action, yet always action slowly taken. Truly are the words illustrated in his history – " He that believeth shall not make haste." Yet it cannot be said that he either lost time or missed opportunities. His decisions, slowly taken, though they led to wider and greater ones, were never reversed; and perhaps it would be difficult to find one serious step in his life that he wished to retrace.
Soon after he had joined the "company of the faithful," he had troubles from two sources – his old habits and the scorn of old companions. The Shrovetide shouts, and the merry sound of the village athletes, night after night on the summer evenings, struggling for victory, reached his quiet home, and "threw him into agitations" which made him "very unhappy." His strong muscles yearned for a throw in the village ring; and even in after life, when in the agonies of diviner struggles, he could scarcely resist mentally measuring his strength with any stout and comely figure that seemed worthy to enter the lists with him. The religious teaching of that day, and, indeed, the grave and solemn character of his own reflections, utterly forbid, even to one so young, the thought of recreation without vice. All such things were included in that "world" with which the inheritor of the kingdom of heaven was to have no communion. As the spring-time came round, bringing the feasts and holidays, he was wont to go away to a neighbouring village to see some Christian, friends, "returning when all was over." Thus, he says, by this step I was delivered from those mental participations in folly which had given me so much uneasiness; and these "seasons of temptation" became to me "times of refreshing from the Lord." Yet so strong were these yearnings, that he had to continue this practice for several years before he felt safe from the temptation.
The other trouble he refers to in words never to be forgotten for their calm strength and tender beauty. Of help they may be to the young, and full of refreshment to those who have borne the "burden and heat of the day;" shewing, as they do, how that One presence by which we hold the shield for the first dart, still shelters us when the "much tribulation" rains its "fire and hail" upon the heavy-laden pilgrim. "Within a day or two," he says, " after I had been baptized, as I was riding through the fields, I met a company of young men. One of them, especially, on my having passed them, called after me in very abusive language, and cursed me for having been ‘dipped.’ My heart instantly rose in a way of resentment; but, though the fire burned, I held my peace; for before I uttered a word, I was checked with this passage, which occurred to my mind: ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation.’ I wept and entreated the Lord to pardon me; feeling quite willing to bear the ridicule of the wicked, and to go even through great tribulation if, at last, I might but enter the kingdom. In this tender frame of mind I rode some miles, thinking of the temptations I might have to encounter. Amongst others, I was aware of the danger of being drawn into any acquaintance with the other sex which might prove injurious to my spiritual welfare. While poring over these things, and fearful of falling into the snares of youth, I was led to think of that passage: ‘In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.’ This made me weep for joy; and for forty-five years I have scarcely entered on any serious engagement without thinking of these words, and entreating the Divine direction. I have been twice married, and twice settled as the pastor of a church; which were some of the leading ways in which I had to acknowledge the Lord, and in each, when over, I could say: ‘My ways have I declared, and Thou heardest me.’ "
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