Reading primary sources is vital for historical scholarship. Historians cannot rely solely upon secondary sources, no matter how good, to come to historical decisions. Far too frequently, for example, the Baptist autodidact John Gill (1697–1771) has been depicted as the leading cause for Baptist decline in the mid-eighteenth century.
Due to the far-reaching influence of his voluminous pen, his denial of the free offer of the Gospel has been interpreted in the standard historiographical narrative as having such enormous impact that an entire denomination refused or forgot to evangelize for a good number of decades in the eighteenth century. But this is a “thin” reading of the evidence; the truth of the matter is far more complex.
A “thicker” interpretation takes into account other factors—political, geographical and socio-cultural—that led to eighteenth-century Baptist decline. Yes, in the opinion of this author, Gill was cold on the free offer. But far from being the quintessential bad guy of the eighteenth-century Baptist community, Gill’s ardent defence of Nicene Trinitarianism was critical in preserving his fellow Particular Baptists from the heresy of Socinianism, the fastest-growing form of heterodoxy in that era. Again, the historical data indicates a complexity that needs recognition.
Moreover, numerous readers were eager to read Gill in the eighteenth century. Free-offer advocates like William Williams Pantycelyn and Augustus M. Toplady considered Gill one of the finest systematic theologians of that day. And subscription lists, appended to the front matter of Gill’s books, reveal other appreciative readers. Some publications of Gill’s day were printed by subscription, and when the work appeared, the lists of the subscribers were appended to the book as a way of publicly recognizing their help in bringing the item to print.
Thus, when Gill’s A Collection of Sermons and Tracts was issued in two volumes in 1773 by the London printer George Keith, there were five pages of subscribers in the first volume. In many ways, it is a who’s who of Gill’s Particular Baptist world, many of whom did not share Gill’s views about the free offer. But they obviously appreciated Gill’s preaching to pay for one of these two-volume sets in advance.
Among the subscribers there is one man who was a notable advocate of the denial of the free offer, William Augustus Clarke. At the time of his subscription to this two-volume set, he had just begun pastoring a congregation in Red Cross Street, London. In his autobiography, published thirteen years later in 1786, he openly indicated his complete “disapprobabtion of the sentiments of Mr. Andrew Fuller” on the free offer. Clarke bought six sets of Gill’s sermons. Another Londoner on the subscribers’ list, Benjamin Wallin, was “a particularly intense critic of the Evangelical Revival” (R. Philip Roberts).
But three other London Particular Baptists—Abraham Booth, Andrew Gifford, Jr., and Samuel Stennett—would not have agreed with Gill’s anti-free-offer stance. Yet another Londoner was John Reynolds, who had been converted under Benjamin Beddome but who succeeded John Brine (more explicit than Gill in his rejection of the free offer) as the pastor of the Curriers’ Hall congregation and whose ordination sermon was preached by Gill. It is not clear where Reynolds stood regarding evangelism. He bought six sets of the volumes.
Four Yorkshiremen on the list—William Crabtree, James Hartley, John Fawcett, and John Oulton—were all converted under the ministry of Anglican Evangelicals (either George Whitefield or William Grinshaw) and, in the case of Fawcett and Oulton, definitely not Gillites. From the Midlands, we have the eccentric John Ryland, Sr., who paradoxically agreed with Gill on the free offer and is famous for his rebuke of William Carey’s missionality, but who loved George Whitefield’s preaching. He took his son, John Ryland, Jr., to hear Whitefield in London on more than one occasion.
The younger Ryland—who baptized Carey and became one of his closest friends and who helped create the narrative of Gill’s anti-free-offer stance hampering Particular Baptist growth—also bought a set of the volumes. Other free-offer men from the Midlands and the South of England include Richard Hopper of Nottingham, Hugh and Caleb Evans (Hugh, the principal of Bristol Baptist Academy, bought six sets), Henry Phillips of Salisbury (a product of the Welsh Revival), and Philip Gibbs of Plymouth (converted under George Whitefield).
Many of those who bought the sets were lay people, both men and women, whose full identities have been lost to history. But one that stood out to this writer was the schoolmaster Jeffery Whitaker (1703–1775) of Bratton, Wiltshire, whose diaries for 1739–1741 were published in 1988.
At the time of his death, the Salisbury and Winchester Journal described him as “a real Christian and zealous prompter of genuine Christianity,” and “a great lover of learning and learned men.” He would have recognized in Gill a truly learned divine—and we would be wise to do so as well, even if we disagree on Gill’s take on the free offer.