A Biographical Sketch of Richard Fuller
By Dr. Tom Nettles
Richard Fuller served as the third president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Elected to two terms in 1859 and 1861 because highly respected as a Baptist of the South, Fuller also demonstrated great catholicity of spirit and desire for unity among brethren. Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopaedia describes Fuller’s trans-denominational character in these terms:
No pastor in the denomination was more highly esteemed by the representative men of other churches than he, and none was more frequently urged to lend the influence of his name and counsel to those larger and more comprehensive benevolent organizations which embraced within their scope great communities and groups of churches.
This catholic spirit most likely arose from his early exposure to men and ideas in other denominations. He was reared in the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, but received his earliest education in the school of one of the most celebrated Baptist preachers of his day, W. T. Brantley, Sr. Brantley excelled in classical scholarship and enjoyed great renown for unusual eloquence in oratory. Fuller absorbed substantial commitment to both of these aspects of intellectual life from his early teacher.
In 1820, at 16 years of age, Fuller entered Harvard University and while there gained remarkable esteem for his obvious aptitude as well as his great accomplishments. Unable to finish with his class because of an apparent case of tuberculosis, he, nevertheless, was awarded a diploma in recognition of his excellent academic record.
Having entered upon a profession of law, Fuller was arrested at the beginning of a promising career by the call of God into the ministry. Coincident with his call to preach was his conviction that the Baptist denomination reflected New Testament Christianity more nearly than any group to which he had been exposed. He first served as pastor of Beaufort Baptist Church in South Carolina. After fifteen years there, be became pastor of the Seventh Baptist Church in Baltimore. This church increased in membership from 87 to about 1,200 by the year 1867. In 1871 the membership completed a new building to house a mission church of which Fuller, himself, became pastor. The Eutaw Place Baptist Church, the name of the new body, had Fuller as its pastor from 1871 until his death in 1876.
As a man who loved peace and unity, he found his life straddling the most divisive period in the history of the United States. Even during the emotional debates of the day, Fuller stands forth as a man of the most enlightened and genuine Christian character. His debate with Francis Wayland over the institution of slavery, eventually published in a book entitled Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution, constitutes a rare exception to the abusiveness of the literature at this time. Fuller’s antagonist, Francis Wayland, describes the style of Fuller in these words:
This argument you have enforced with great copiousness of learning, and with all the advantages of an eloquence which I admire, but which I have no power to initiate. It moves me strongly every time I read it, but I must say it does not convince me. [Robert A. Baker, A Baptist Sourcebook (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1966), p. 102]
In another portion of Wayland’s response to Fuller, Wayland referred to the Christian spirit which had dominated their exchange of letters. This again reflects the character of both Wayland and Fuller.
If I have any manner been able to avoid the errors into which many have fallen who have treated on this subject, I ascribe it mainly to the influence of your example, and to the unfeigned esteem which I entertain for your character, as a gentleman and a scholar, a clergyman and a Christian. Or rather, if we have been enabled without bitterness to express our views to each other on a subject which is so liable to arouse the worst passions of our fallen nature, let us ascribe it all to that love of God shed abroad in our hearts, which teaches us to treat as a brother every disciple of our common Lord, through the may embrace opinions in many respects differing from our own (Ibid., p. 105).
Not only was Fuller amicable in debate of such a volatile issue, but he worked diligently to maintain unity within the American Baptist Home Mission Society. In 1841 he introduced a resolution to exclude debate on the subject of slavery from the proceedings of the society. Part of the resolution read, “that to introduce the subjects of slavery or anti-slavery into this body, is in direct contravention of the whole letter and purpose of the said Constitution, and is, moreover, a most unnecessary agitation of topics with which this society has no concern, over which it has no control, and as to which its operation should not be fettered, not its deliberations disturbed, . . .” (Ibid., p. 97)
During the same year, 1841, Fuller preached a sermon entitled The Cross before the General Missionary Convention at its tenth triennial session in Baltimore. A most moving and eloquent statement of the power of the Cross to melt the hearts of men, the sermon plead for unity among brethren. Near the end of the sermon, in discussing the constraining power of the love of God as revealed in the Cross, Fuller cries:
And I–I exclaim, with equal confidence, who, what, shall separate us from each other, united as we are by this love? What shall separate us? Shall persecution? No, that will only bind us closer. Shall the feuds by which in this world society is torn, and even members of the same family armed and exasperated against each other–sectional jealousies and political rancor, and party malignity? No, the cross which lifted the Saviour from the earth lifts us high above these petty tumults and distractions. What then?–what shall separate us? Internal strife, intestine dissention [sic]? God forbid. No, my brethren, I am persuaded better things of you. No, never, never, never; it cannot be. No, by our common toils and sufferings Baptists: by the venerable men who sang together over the cradle of this convention–those whose reverend forms I still see lingering fondly here–and those who this night, it is no presumption to believe, are beholding us with ineffable concern even from their thrones in glory: by the blood which cements us, and the new commandment written into that blood: by the memory and love of Him who hath bound us together with ties indissoluble and eternal, and who is now in our midst shewing his wounds, his hands, his feet, his side, his head, and saying “as I have loved you even so ought ye to “love one another.” by [sic] all the glorious recollections of the past, and by all the more glorious anticipations of the future–this must not, will not, shall not, cannot be.
God willed otherwise, and yet Fuller carried on admirably within the Southern Baptist life. In 1859 he became president of the Southern Baptist Convention and was one of the main champions of its continued separate existence, even after the Civil War.
The sermon reprinted in this volume is an extended exposition of the relationship between the predestining purpose of God set forth in his eternal decrees and the absolute responsibility of man in all of his actions. The system that denies predestination, Fuller concludes, “solves no difficulty, it stultifies our reason, it is practical atheism, and it contradicts the express assertions of the Bible.” On the other hand, Fuller reminds the reader that “it is manifest that every call, every threat, every expostulation, every exhortation in the Bible supposes that man is a free agent. These categories shock and bewilder us, but Fuller seeks to carry us to the Word of God itself, from which he affirms, “He understands fully his decrees; he also comprehends man’s free agency; and he declares, as we have seen, that all our speculations are wrong; that both these doctrines are true; and, of course, that there is no discrepancy between them.”
The doctrinal section then gives way to, and indeed is concentrated within an extended applicatory section. Fuller calls upon all to trust in God who decrees his own will; yea, we certainly must pursue him with all our might, for we will all be held accountable for our own sins and will stand before the sovereign God in judgment. In an elevated and melancholy stain he forces a question into the ears of his hearers that demands the most solemn and sobering answer from all men: “What, my beloved friend, what can you expect from such deliberate, unrelenting opposition to the Sovereign of the Universe? What must be the issue of such an unequal, disastrous, desperate conflict?” It is a question which we must all face periodically and certainly must pose to all who hear us preach.