John Gill (1697 – 1771)

 

by John Rippon, from The Life and Writings of the Rev. John Gill, D.D., 1838

Dr John Gill (1697 - 1771)The subject of this Memoir was born at Kettering, in Northamptonshire, Nov. 23, 1697, of amiable and serious parents, Edward Gill, and Elizabeth his wife whose maiden name was Walker. By the indulgent providence of God, they were equally delivered from the snares of poverty and of affluence. “Beneath the dome, above the hut”, by peaceful industry, and genuine religion, they spent their days, a blessing to the pious circle which Heaven had assigned them. The father, Mr. Edward Gill, first became a member of the Dissenting congregation in that place, consisting then of Presbyterians, Independents, and Baptists. Besides their pastor, they had a teaching elder of the Baptist denomination, Mr. William Wallis, who was the administrator of baptism, by immersion, to such adult persons among them as desired it. But, at length, the Baptists having been rendered uncomfortable in their communion, by some particular persons, they were obliged to separate, with Mr. William Wallis, their teacher, and soon formed themselves into a distinct church of the Particular Baptist denomination 1, over which the Rev. Andrew Fuller is now, and for many years has been, pastor. Mr. Edward Gill was one of their number, and, indue time 2, was chosen to the office of deacon among them; and, to the very last, obtained a good report for his “grace, his piety, and holy conversation.”

His young son, with the dawn of reason, discovered a fine capacity for instruction; and being soon out of the reach of common teachers, he was very early sent to the grammar school, in the town, which he attended with uncommon diligence, and unwearied application; quickly surpassing those of his own age, and others who were considerably his seniors. Here he continued till he was about eleven years old. During this time, notwithstanding the tedious manner in which grammatical knowledge was then conveyed, besides going through the common school books, he mastered the principal Latin classics, and made such a proficiency in the Greek, as obtained for him marks of distinction from several of the neighbouring clergy, who condescended, occasionally, to examine and encourage his progress, when they met him at a bookseller’s shop in the town, which he constantly attended on market days, when only it was opened. Here he so regularly attended, “for the sake of consulting different authors, that it became an usual asseveration with the people of the neighbourhood, when speaking of anything which they considered certain, it is as sure, said they, as that John Gill is in the bookseller’s shop.” And, as the same studious disposition attended him through life, so did nearly the same remark,–those who knew him usually employing this mode of affirmation, “as surely as Dr. Gill is in his study.”

His leaving the grammar school, so early in life, is attributed to an impropitious accident–the master of it insisted that the children of Dissenters, as well as others, should go with him to church, on weekdays, at the hours of prayer. The parents, considering this as an imposition, removed their children from under his care, and our young friend was among the number. Affluent families placed their children at a distance to finish their education, but this, not being as convenient to his parents, proved a discouraging circumstance. Various methods, however, were devised by his friends, but all proved fruitless. Ministers also, of different denominations, endeavoured to place him under the patronage of one or other of the Funds in London, that he might enjoy the additional advantages, which the most liberal Dissenters provide for the education of young men in their seminaries of learning, who are considered, by competent judges, as persons of real piety, and of promising talents for the work of the ministry. With this view, specimens of his attainments were sent to the proper persons in town, who replied, that he was too young, at present, to be admitted on their foundations; and that should he continue, which was a very supposable thing, to make such rapid advances in his studies, he would pass through the common circle of learning, quite in his juvenile days, before it was usual to employ young persons in the sacred service of the sanctuary.

Yet, with all the obstructions thrown in the way of his becoming a scholar, such was his thirst for learning, he not only retained the knowledge of the Latin and of the Greek he had acquired, but incessantly improved himself in both. At length he studied logic, rhetoric, as also natural and moral philosophy. He likewise learned Hebrew, without any living assistance, by the help of Buxtorf’s Grammar and Lexicon. With these only he surmounted the chief difficulties of that language, and could soon read Hebrew with great ease and pleasure. In this language he always took particular delight. He was next improving his mind by reading Latin authors in the various branches of literature, and particularly some of those systems of divinity, by the foreign professors, of which he afterwards made so liberal an use, and which give such a distinction to various of his publications . . .

Yet, though he had arrived at some degree of satisfaction in his mind, concerning the safety of his eternal state, he did not make a public profession of religion until he was almost nineteen years of age. This delay, at first, was occasioned by a consideration of his youth, and the solemnity of making a profession; and, afterwards, by finding that the eyes of the church were upon him to call him to the ministerial work, as soon as convenient, should he become a member of it. To this they were the more inclined, as their pastor, at that time, was greatly taken up in his temporal occupations, and much needed ministerial assistance . . .

During Mr. Gill’s stay at Higham Ferrers, he frequently preached to the church at Kettering; and, the circumstances of its pastor requiring assistance, Mr. Gill, soon after his marriage, wholly removed thither. Here his ministry, from the beginning, had been blessed, not only to the comfort but to the conversion of many, who long continued the seals of his ministry . . .

Accordingly, as soon as the pastors of the churches, who had been invited to be present on the occasion, came in, the Rev. Mr. John Skepp, author of that valuable book, entitled “Divine Energy”, proposed several questions to the church; which were answered by Mr. Thomas Crosby, a deacon, afterwards author of “The History of the Baptists”; who stated, in the course of what he said, that on the day which had previously been appointed by the church to proceed to the election of a pastor, “Mr. Gill was chosen by a `very great’ majority.” The Rev. Messrs. Matthews and Ridgeway now prayed, when the Rev. Mr. Noble desired the members of the church to recognise their choice of Mr. Gill to the pastoral office. This done, he requested Mr. Gill to confirm his acceptance of the call; which he did with a full and solemn declaration . . .

Mr. Gill’s `preaching had been very acceptable from the beginning,’ and his `auditory became so numerous, that the place of worship, though a large one, could hardly contain them.’ And now being settled, `his people were very zealous in manifesting their affections towards him, and, to the utmost of their abilities, raised him a suitable maintenance.’ . . .

When Mr. Gill, in 1719, settled in London, he became more intimately acquainted than before, with that worthy minister of the Gospel, Mr. John Skepp, pastor of the Baptist church at Cripplegate, London, and author of “The Divine Energy”: the second edition of which book his friend Gill revised, and divided the work into chapters, with contents, for the more easy reading and better understanding it; prefixing a recommendatory preface to it, the memory of that excellent man being dear to him. This gentleman, though he had not a liberal education, yet, after he came into the ministry, through great diligence and industry, acquired a large acquaintance with the languages in which the Scriptures were originally written; and especially with the Hebrew language; in which he took immense pains, under the tuition of a Jew, and dipped into the Rabbinical Hebrew and writings pretty deeply. As Mr. Gill had previously taken great delight in the Hebrew, his conversation with this worthy minister rekindled a flame of fervent desire to obtain a more extensive knowledge of it; and especially of Rabbinical learning, which he then had but little acquaintance with, and scarcely any notion of its utility. But he now began to perceive its importance, and saw it more fully afterwards. This gentleman dying a year or two after, Mr. Gill purchased most of his Hebrew and Rabbinical books; and now went to work with great eagerness, reading them, and many others, which he afterwards obtained of a Jewish Rabbi with whom he became acquainted. He plainly saw, that as the New Testament was written by men who had all of them been Jews, and who, notwithstanding their being inspired, must needs retain and use many of the idioms of their language, and allude to rites, ceremonies, and customs peculiar to that people; so the writings of the Jews, especially the more ancient ones, who lived nearest the times of the apostles, could not but be of use for the better understanding the phraseology of the New Testament, and the rites and customs to which it frequently alludes. With this settled opinion, he set about reading their Targums, the Misnah, the Talmuds, the Rabbot, their ancient Commentaries, the book of Zohar, and whatever else, of this kind, he could obtain. And in a course of between twenty and thirty years’ acquaintance with this class of writings, he collected together a large number of learned observations. Having also, in this time, gone through certain books of the Old Testament, and almost the whole of the New Testament, by way of Exposition, in the course of his ministry, in a method which will be explained hereafter; he put all the expository, critical, and illustrative parts together, and in the year 1745 issued proposals for publishing his Exposition of the whole New Testament, in three volumes, folio. The work meeting due encouragement, it was put to press the same year, and was finished, the first volume in 1746, the second in 1747, and the third in 1748 . . .

In 1752, he published his pamphlet on “The Doctrine of the Saints’ final Perseverance”, in answer to one called “Serious Thoughts upon the Perseverance of the Saints”; written, as it afterwards appeared, by Mr. John Wesley: who, in another pamphlet, first shifted the controversy, from Perseverance, to Predestination; entitling his piece, “Predestination calmly considered”, and then chiefly `harangued on reprobation, which he thought would best serve his purpose.’ To this the Doctor returned an answer the same year, and to the exceptions Mr. Wesley had made to part of his treatise on Perseverance, respecting certain passages of Scripture employed in the controversy. It is very observable in it how `he wanders to free will and irresistible grace, being sometimes for free will, sometimes for free grace; sometimes for resistible and sometimes for irresistible grace.’ Yet `owning,’ Dr. Gill says, `that he had no understanding of the covenant of grace.’ But the Doctor having stated and defended the doctrine of predestination largely from Scripture, next refers Mr. Wesley to the articles of his own church, particularly the seventh, part of which when abridged runs thus: `Predestination to life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby, before the foundations of the world were laid, he hath constantly decreed by his counsel, secret to us, to deliver from curse and condemnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour.’ And having made this reference, he solemnly adds, `This is an article agreeable to the Scripture, an article of his own church, an article which he, as a true son of the church, has treacherously departed from, and an article which Mr. Wesley must have subscribed and sworn to; an article which will therefore stare him in the face, as long as subscriptions and oaths stand for anything.’ But Mr. Wesley, through the whole, did not so much as attempt `to refute anyone argument’ advanced by the Doctor in vindication of the certain perseverance of the saints in holiness to eternal felicity . . .

But that he went into real Antinomianism, either doctrinal or practical, must be peremptorily denied, in the most unqualified terms. Neale, in his “History of the Puritans”, says, that `he was certainly a learned and religious person, modest and humble in his behaviour, fervent and laborious in his ministerial work, and exact in his morals.’ This testimony is sufficient and honourable respecting his Conduct; and, as for his Doctrine, his Sermons speak for themselves. This is the language of one of them. Writing of Christ’s mystical members, he says, `The law continues till the whole body of Christ be made complete, by an actual subsistence of every member in him. Now this seed will not be wholly complete till the consummation of all things.’ But if it be objected that the apostle saith, “Ye are not under the law, but under grace”, he adds, `I answer, that in respect of the rules of righteousness, or the matter of obedience, we are under the law still, or else we are lawless, to live every man as seems good in his own eyes, which I know no true Christian dares so much as think.’ On another Scripture he thus writes: `Men commonly dream of a strange kind of Gospel which never came into God’s mind; that, seeing Christ hath died, they may live as they list, letting themselves loose to all impiety, and yet go to heaven. Certainly, had God opened such a gap to let in such an inundation of impiety, he could never have justly complained of the deluge of it, that overflows the world. Far be it from the holy God, whose purity abhors it, to allow such licentiousness to men. It is true, indeed, that Christ justifies the ungodly, that is, he finds them ungodly when he imputes his righteousness to them; but he doth not leave them ungodly after he hath justified, them, but teacheth them to deny ungodliness. He that denies not ungodliness, him will Christ deny before his Father which is in heaven.’ Also in his Sermon, on “The Revelation of Grace no Encouragement to Sin”; referring to such who are taxed with saying, that their sins are laid upon Christ, that they are believers, and therefore may live in sin, he replies `If there be any such, let me deal plainly with them. For my part I must account them the greatest monsters upon the face of the earth, the greatest enemies to the church that ever were; and I say of such disturbers of the consciences of God’s people, that they are carnal, sensual, devilish. They are the greatest enemies to the free grace of God, the greatest hinderers of the course of it. I dare be bold to say, open drunkards, harlots, and murderers, that profess not the Gospel of Christ, come infinitely short of these in abomination–and if there be any such here, let me tell them, their faith is no better than that of devils, for they believe and tremble; and that Christ will have heavier reckoning with such, when they come to judgment, than with any other under heaven besides.’ Where, in all the regions of practical theology, can be found more explicit, more solemn, and more practical ideas than these? But he took the evangelical road in order to enforce duty, and his reigning principle in preaching seems to be this, which we give in his own words, that “revealing the grace of God is the best way in the world to take men off from sin”. To those remarks it may be necessary only to subjoin; that it will not be easy to find in the whole English language, among the best evangelical and practical writers, any sermons, which, for solidity of matter, precision of ideas, and `the circumnavigation of the subject’ equal, not to say excel, the substance of his four Discourses, in one hundred pages, entitled, “Free Grace the Teacher of good Works”. These should be read before Dr. Crisp is called an Antinomian. But if they are read and understood, and this opprobrious term is yet applied to their author, the charge of Antinomianism may then be fairly brought; but, in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, it will righteously apply, not to Dr. Crisp, but to the man who has audacity enough to sin against the law of God and man, by bearing false witness against his neighbour . .

Towards the close of his life, as it appears, when the Doctor had narrowly watched the Trinitarian controversy, and long stood in its defence, he seems to have put his finishing hand to a piece which must have cost him immense pains. It is published in the posthumous edition of his Sermons and Tracts, vol ii. p. 534, and is styled, “A Dissertation concerning the Eternal Sonship of Christ” . . .

The doctrine of A TRINITY OF PERSONS IN THE UNITY OF THE DIVINE ESSENCE; or, of three distinct divine Persons in one God, he considered to be as truly the “fundamental” article of “revealed” religion, as the Unity of God is the foundation of what is called “natural” religion. In stating and defending it, he was decidedly against the many strange representations and comparisons which have been introduced into this subject, some of them to its great disadvantage. But he certainly had “precise ideas” of this sublime mystery; and as he advanced in his discussion of the doctrine of three Persons in the unity of the divine essence he defined his terms . . .

Dr. Gill universally defended the doctrine of the Trinity, or of a threefold personality in God; but he apprehended that its very foundation is the proper Sonship, or filiation of Christ–the doctrine to which the last tract mentioned above entirely relates; and a doctrine, without the admission of which, he is confident a Trinity of Persons in God cannot be defended. Thus he writes: `It is easy to observe, that the distinction of Persons in the Deity depends on the generation of the Son. Take away that which would destroy the relation between the first and second Persons, and the distinction drops. And that this distinction is natural, or by necessity of nature, is evident, because had it been only arbitrary, or of choice and will, it might not have been at all, or have been otherwise than it is–and then he that is called the Father might have been called the Son, and he that is called the Son might have been called the Father. This has so pressed those who are of a contrary mind as to oblige them to own it might have so happened, had it been agreeable to the will of God.’ That is, if we understand them, that the divine Being, who is necessarily what he is, might never have existed as he does; and that if he had not, God would never have been known as Father, Son, and Spirit, only as God. This seems to be a legitimate conclusion from their sentiments, whether they perceive and admit it or not . . .

In 1769, he published “A Body of Doctrinal Divinity”, in two volumes, quarto. This work contains the substance of what he delivered from the pulpit to the people under his care, through the space of more than five years. There are but few, if any, theological publications, in the English language, of more deserved repute than these 1091 pages. Here is the Doctor’s whole creed. Here his very heart appears, while he states, maintains, and defends, the Truth as it is in Jesus. His meaning cannot be mistaken. Like the sun, he transmits his own rays with him wherever he goes, and is himself seen in the light which he dispenses. He has his system; and, without a system, he would have considered himself little other than a sceptic; and this Form of sound words, according to divine direction, he held fast in the exercise of faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. He was sensible that systematical divinity had become very unpopular, and says, `Formulas and articles of faith, creeds, confessions, catechisms, and summaries of divine truths, are greatly decried in our age; and yet, what art or science soever but has been reduced to a system? physic, metaphysic, logic, rhetoric, &c. Philosophy in general has had its several systems: not to take notice of the various sects and systems of philosophy in ancient times; in the last age, the Cartesian system of philosophy greatly obtained, as the Newtonian system now does. Astronomy in particular has been considered as a system; sometimes called the system of the universe, and sometimes the solar, or planetary system. In short, medicine, jurisprudence or law, and every art and science, are reduced to a system or body; which is no other than an assemblage or composition of the several doctrines or parts of a science. And why should Divinity, the most noble science, be without a system? Accordingly we find that Christian writers, in ancient times, attempted something of this nature; as the several formulas of faith, symbols or creeds, made in the first three or four centuries of Christianity; the Stromata of Clemens of Alexandria; the four books of Principles, by Origen; with many others that followed. And even those who now cry out against systems, confessions, and creeds, their predecessors had those of their own; Arius had his creed; and the Socinians have their catechism, the Racovian catechism; and the Remonstrants have published their confession of faith; not to mention the several bodies of divinity, published by Episcopius, Limborch, Curcellaeus, and others.’. . .

But labour and literature, abstractedly considered, are not intended to constitute the highest style of man; and as they form not his only excellence, our attention is recalled to the other walks of life, which Providence had assigned him, in each of which he appears to advantage.

He was a genuine dissenter from the Established Religion, as appears by his whole life, and by his little piece, entitled, “The Dissenters’ Reasons for separating from the Church of England”. But as a Dissenter, he considered himself under signal obligations always to discover his love to the Hanoverian succession–no one was a heartier friend to the present family on the throne than John Gill. The “Amor Patriae” roused his best feelings; and in his prayers you might feel the love of his country. It swelled his bosom in his earlier career, and continued with him to the very last of life. Had pride been made for man, with towering ambition we should have introduced part of one of his sections under this article, which he wrote in the time of the great Rebellion; and the page bears his own date at the foot of it, December 2, 1745. Writing on Psalm 25:3, “Let them be ashamed which transgress without cause”; or, as he reads it, “act treacherously without cause”, as King David’s subjects did; he adds, `Such are those who are now risen up against our rightful Sovereign King George; a parcel of perfidious, treacherous wretches; some of them who were in the last rebellion, and obtained his father’s pardon; others that partook yearly of his royal bounty, for the instruction of their children, and all have enjoyed the blessings of his mild and gentle Government; and therefore are without cause his enemies.’ This is the heart of a genuine Dissenter–here is the true patriotism–and manifested at a time, when tribes of the national hierarchy had been tacking from one side to another, entirely as it suited their interest. This was the Dissenting minister and pastor of Garter-lane; and as was the shepherd so were his flock.

As a minister, in his early days few persons were more animated than himself; and he gave himself wholly to divine things. His constant studies prepared him for his public work, rendering it easy to himself, and beneficial to his people . . .

The Doctor not only watched over his people, `with great affliction, fidelity, and love;’ but he watched his pulpit also. He would not, if he knew it, admit anyone to preach for him, who was either cold-hearted to the doctrine of the Trinity; or who denied the divine filiation of the Son of God; or who objected to conclude his prayers with the usual doxology to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as three equal Persons in the one Jehovah. Sabellians, Arians, and Socinians, he considered as in perfect opposition to the Gospel, and as real enemies of the cross of Christ. They dared not ask him to preach, nor could he, in conscience, permit them to officiate for him. He conceived that, by this uniformity of conduct, he adorned the pastoral office.

At Church meetings he was admired; one while for his gentleness and fidelity; and another while for his self-possession and wisdom. And when it was necessary for him to magnify his office (and no one knew better how to do it), he discovered himself to be both the servant of Christ, and the servant of the church for his sake . . .

During the two last years of his life, he was seldom capable of preaching more than once on a Lord’s Day. This affected the attendance in the congregation. The juvenile part of the audience first attended in other assemblies, and afterwards joined them. Hence it became matter of conversation, whether, on the whole, it might not be desirable to procure constant assistance for the Doctor in his ministerial work . . .

When young his voice was pretty loud, but as he advanced in years it was much lower. In the last part of his ministry it became very feeble, but he was generally heard by his audience, and his own people perfectly understood him. And what had abated in the energy of his manner was compensated by the solidity of his matter, and the devotional spirit with which he delivered it.

The Doctor’s person was of the middle stature, neither tall nor short, well proportioned, a little inclined to corpulency; his countenance was fresh and healthful, expressive of vigour of mind, and of a serene cheerfulness, which continued with him almost to the last.

He now gave his Body of Divinity to the world, which was the last thing he ever expected to publish . . .

His decline increasing daily, he could not appear in the pulpit, and proceed in his delightful work. Notwithstanding, he continued to be employed in his study, till within two or three weeks of his decease, and always appeared calm, serene, and cheerful. He received the warning of his dissolution, being seized for death in his study. BUT HIS FAITH WAS UNSHAKEN, AND HIS HOPE FIRM TO THE LAST.

To his dear relative, the Rev. Mr. John Gill of St. Albans 3, he thus expressed himself: `I depend wholly and alone upon the free, sovereign, eternal, unchangeable, love of God, the firm and everlasting covenant of grace, and my interest in the Persons of the Trinity, for my whole salvation; and not upon any righteousness of my own; nor on anything in me, or done by me under the influences of the Holy Spirit;’ and then, as confirming what he had said, `not upon any services of mine, which I have been assisted to perform for the good of the church,’ do I depend, `but upon my interest in the Persons of the Trinity; the free grace of God, and the blessings of grace streaming to me through the blood and righteousness of Christ, as the ground of my hope. These are no new things to me, but what I have been long acquainted with; what I can live and die by. I apprehend I shall not be long here, but this you may tell to any of my friends.’ . . .

Thus he gloriously terminated his mortal career, without a sigh or groan, on the 14th day of October 1771, at about eleven o’clock in the forenoon, at his house in Camberwell, Surrey, aged seventy-three years, ten months, and ten days.

His removal was deeply felt. It spread a solemn gloom over the church in which he had honourably presided more than fifty-one years. They immediately assembled to consult on the best method of showing the last token of respect to their departed, venerable, pastor . . .

After his decease, most of his printed Sermons and Tracts were collected together and published in three volumes quarto.

We terminate this imperfect Memoir with the subsequent, brilliant, paragraphs; furnishing what we flatter ourselves will be considered one of the first pieces of Biography that has ever appeared in the English language. We are indebted for it to the pen of that elegant and forcible writer, the Rev. Augustus Montague Toplady, A. B. written July 29, 1772 . . .

His Doctrinal and Practical Writings will live, and be admired, and be a standing blessing to posterity, when their opposers are forgotten, or only remembered by the refutations he has given them. While true Religion, and sound Learning, have a single friend remaining in the British Empire, the Works and Name of Gill will be precious and revered.

May the readers of this inadequate sketch, together with him, who (though of a very different denomination from the Doctor) pays this last and unexaggerated tribute of justice to the honoured memory of so excellent a person, participate, on earth, and everlastingly celebrate in heaven, that sovereign grace, which its departed Champion so largely experienced–to which he was so distinguished an ornament–and of which he was so able a defender!

His works are: his Exposition of the Old and New Testament, nine volumes, folio; Exposition of the Canticles; The Cause of God and Truth, each one volume, quarto; Body of Divinity, three volumes, quarto; and Sermons and Tracts, published after his death, in three volumes, quarto.

1.    As Mr. Gill’s father, and himself, were of this denomination, it may be necessary for some persons to learn what is meant by a Particular Baptist. The Rev. Mr. Benjamin Stinton, who projected a plan of the Baptist History, and who was Mr. Gill’s predecessor in the pastoral office, will inform us: “There have been two parties among the Antipaedobaptists in England, ever since the beginning of the Reformation; those who have followed the Calvinistic scheme of doctrines, from the principal point therein, “personal election”, have been termed Particular Baptists; and these who have professed the Arminian or Remonstrants’ tenets, have also from the chief of their doctrines, universal redemption, been called General Baptists.” –Rev. Mr. Stinton’s Manuscript, written in 1714.

In harmony with the above, but more at length, is the definition which is given in the Rules and Orders of the Particular Baptist Fund in London–it is as follows: “By Particular Baptists are intended those that have been solemnly immersed in water, upon a personal confession of faith; and who profess the doctrines of three divine Persons in the Godhead– eternal and personal election–original sin– particular redemption–efficacious grace in regeneration and sanctification –free justification, by the imputed righteousness of Christ– and the final perseverance of the saints–according to the Confession of Faith that was published [it should be re-published] in London, by the Calvinistic Baptists, in the year 1689.”

2.    Written in 1800. 3.    This worthy minister, nephew of the Doctor, died at St. Albans, March 8, 1809, aged 79 years.


Share
 Posted by at 7:37 am