THE loss of its pastor is always a serious matter to a Baptist church, not only because it is deprived of the services of a well-tried and faithful guide, but because in the process of selecting a successor some of the worst points of human nature are too apt to come to the front. All may unite in the former pastor, but where will they find another rallying point? So many men, so many minds. All are not prepared to forego their own predilections, some are ready to be litigious, and a few seize the opportunity to thrust themselves into undue prominence. If they would all wait upon the Lord for his guidance, and consent to follow it when they have obtained it, the matter would move smoothly; but, alas, it is not always so. In the present instance there came before the church an excellent young man, whose after life proved that he was well qualified for the pastorate, but either he was too young, being only twenty or one-andtwenty years of age, or there were certain points in his manner which were not pleasing to the older friends, and therefore he was earnestly opposed.
The deacons, with the exception of Mr. Thomas Crosby, schoolmaster, and son-in-.law of Keach, were resolved that this young man, who was no other than JOHN GILL from Kettering, should not become the pastor. He found, however, warm and numerous supporters, and when the question came to a vote, his admirers claimed the majority, and in all probability their claim was correct, for the other party declined a scrutiny of the votes, and also raised the question of the women’s voting, declaring, what was no doubt true, that apart from the female vote John Gill was in the minority.
The end of the difference was that about half the church withdrew from the chapel in Goat Yard, and met in Mr. Crosby’s schoolroom, claiming to be the old church, while another portion remained in the chapel, and also maintained that they were the original church. The question is now of small consequence, if it ever had any importance, for the company who rejected Gill, after selecting an excellent preacher, and prospering for many years, met with a chequered experience, and at length ceased to exist. In all probability the division promoted the growth of the cause of Christ, and whatever unhappy circumstances malted it for awhile, both parties acted conscientiously, and in a very short time were perfectly reconciled to each other. Mr. Gill’s people did not long worship in Crosby’s school-room, but as the other friends were moving out and erecting another meeting-house in Unicorn Yard, they came back to the old building in Goat Yard, and found themselves very much at home. Crosby, however, quarreled with the pastor and left him, and with some others of his own family went to the other community in Unicorn Yard. We suspect that Mr. Gill had preached a little too dogmatically for the schoolmaster, and proved himself to be a more thoroughgoing Calvinist, and a more rigid doctrinalist than the brother-in-law of Stinton quite approved. It was not very wonderful that he should turn against the man of his choice, for it has happened times without number, that men who are warm partisans are apt to become fierce opponents when their man does not prove to be subservient, and will not be moulded at their will. The friend is apt to assume the airs of a patron, and talk about ingratitude, but with men like John Gill this would newer succeed.
As Dr. Gill’s ministry extended over no less a period than fifty-one years, reaching from 1720 to 1771, and as he proved himself to be a true master in Israel, we shall need more than the usual space in which to describe him.
His entire ministry was crowned with more than ordinary success, and he was by far the greatest scholar the church had yet chosen, but he cannot be regarded as so great a soul-winner as Keach had been, neither was the church at any time so numerous under his ministry as under that of Keach.
His method of address to sinners, in which for many years a large class of preachers followed him, was not likely to be largely useful. He cramped himself, and was therefore straitened where there was no scriptural reason for being so. He does not appear to have had the public spirit of Stinton, though he had a far larger share of influence in the churches, and was indeed a sort of archbishop over a certain section. The ordination discourses and funeral sermons which he preached must have amounted to a very large number: it seemed as if no Particular Baptist minister could be properly inducted or interred without Dr. Gill’s officiating. We shall, however, be more likely to give our readers an idea of this truly great man if we set forth such details of his life as we can gather.
John ,Gill was born at Kettering, in Northamptonshire, November 23, 1697. His father, 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 persons among them as desired it; but at length the baptized believers halving been rendered uncomfortable in their communion, by some particular persons, they were obliged to separate, with Mr. William Wallis, their teacher, and formed themselves into a distinct church of the Particular Baptist denomination. Among the number was Mr. Edward Gill, who in due time was chosen to the office of deacon among them.
Young John Gill, with the dawn of reason, discovered a fine capacity for learning; 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 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 neighboring clergy, who were good enough 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 the usual asseveration with the people of the neighborhood, when speaking of anything 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.”
As the precocious talents of young Gill were also attended with early piety, he was baptized and received into the church in Kettering in his nineteenth year, and, at the request of the church, very soon began to preach among them. This led to his removing to Higham Ferrers, a small borough town in Northamptonshire, where he lived near a minister of learning who helped him in his studies. His name appears at this time upon the books of the Baptist Fund as receiving £16 during his twentieth and twenty-first years.
Little did the church in Goat’s Yard know when it subscribed to the fund, that one of its future eminent pastors would be an early recipient of its bounty. At Higham Ferrers Gill married, but did not long continue in the place, returning to reside in Kettering.
A person who was present when John Gill preached his very first sermon at Kettering, also heard him deliver his last in London, more than fifty years after. After his death she joined the church over which he had presided, relating, at some length, a truly interesting experience, which gave universal pleasure to all who heard it. Her name was Mary Bailey, and it is to be hoped that none will imitate her by postponing the confession of their faith in Jesus for so long a time. She lived half a century in disobedience to her Lord, and even when she avowed his name it must have caused her deep regret that she had lingered so long in neglect of the Redeemer’s ordinance.
In the beginning of the year 1719, the church at Horsleydown invited him to preach with a view to the pastorate. As we have already seen, there was a determined opposition to him in about one half of the church. The matter was referred to the club of ministers meeting at the Hanover Coffee-house, and they gave the absurd advice that the two parties should each hear their own man turn about till they could agree. Common sense came to the rescue, and this sort of religious duel never came off. The friends with far greater wisdom divided. John Gill’s friends secured the old meeting-house for the term of forty years, and he was ordained March 22, 1720.
Little did the friends dream what sort of man they had thus chosen to be their teacher; but had they known it they would have rejoiced that a man of such vast erudition, such indefatigable industry, such sound judgment, and such sterling honesty, had come among them. He was to be more mighty with his pen than Keach, and to make a deeper impression upon his age, though perhaps with the tongue he was less powerful than his eminent predecessor. Early in his ministry he had to take up the cudgels for Baptist views against a Paedobaptist preacher of Rowel, near Kettering, and he did so in a manner worthy of that eulogium which Toplady passed upon him in reference to other controversies, when he compared him to Marlborough, and declared that he never fought a battle without winning it.
Mr. Gill, being settled in London, became more intimately acquainted with that worthy minister of the gospel, Mr. John Skepp, pastor of the Baptist church at Cripplegate. This gentleman, though he had not a liberal education, yet, after he came into the ministry, through great diligence acquired a large acquaintance with the Hebrew tongue. 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. Mr. Skepp dying a year or two after, Mr. Gill purchased most of his Hebrew works, the Baptist Fund making him a grant of £17 10s. for this purpose. Having obtained the books, he went to work with great eagerness, reading the Targums and ancient commentaries, and in a course of between twenty and thirty years’ acquaintance with these writings he collected 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 Expositon, in the course of his ministry, he put all the expository, critical, and illustrative parts together, and in the year 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. Towards the close of the publication of this work, in 1748, Mr. Gill received a diploma from Marischal College, Aberdeen, creating him Doctor in Divinity on account of his knowledge of the Scriptures, of the Oriental languages and of Jewish antiquities. When his deacons in London congratulated him on the respect which had been shown him, he thanked them, pleasantly adding, I neither thought it, nor bought it, nor sought it.
The ministry of Mr. Gill being acceptable not only to his own people but to many persons of different denominations, several gentlemen proposed among themselves to set up a week-day lecture, that they might trove an opportunity of hearing him. Accordingly they formed themselves into a society, and agreed to have a lecture on Wednesday evenings, in Great Eastcheap, and set on foot a subscription to support it. Upon their invitation Mr. Gill undertook the lectureship. He opened it in the year 1729, with a discourse or two on Psalm 71:16, “I will go in the strength of the Lord God: I will make mention of thy righteousness, even of thine only.” Through divine grace he was enabled to abide by this resolution to the edification of many, preaching in Great Eastcheap for more than twenty-six years, and only relinquished the lecture when the infirmities of years were telling upon him, and he felt a great desire to give all his time to the completion of his great expository works.
If it be inquired how he distributed his time, and whether he indulged himself in any relaxation, we are able to reply. When the doctor was asked by Mr. Ryland how it was that he had performed such vast labors, he answered, it was not done by very early rising, nor by sitting up late — the latter he was confident must be injurious to any student, and not helpful.
The truth is, he rose as soon as it was light in the winter, and usually before six in the summer, in the last part of his life not quite so early. He breakfasted constantly in his study, and always on chocolate, but came down with his family to dinner, and carved for them. Through the latter years of his life he seldom went into his study after tea, unless about an hour in summer, but sat below reading some book, or correcting his sheets as they were issuing from the press, and with some of these he had care enough, partly caused by his own indistinct autography, for at last he wrote a very small and illegible hand, and partly by the inattention or incompetency of the compositors, from whom we are certain he has been under the necessity of getting six or seven revises of a sheet, especially of such sheets as contained learned quotations. (Alas! in all ages, compositors and authors have been a mutual plague! We have no doubt that in Gill’s case the workmen were more sinned against than sinning: if his writing was small and illegible, who wonders that compositors blundered?)
He was never distinguished for the length or frequency of his pastoral visits, and in this he is not an example. Yet probably his time was more profitable to the church of God in the study than it could have been had he spent it in going from door to door.
It was his practice, once a week, to meet his ministering brethren at the accustomed coffee-house, where a sort of ministers’ club assembled, or else to spend a friendly hour with them under the hospitable roof of Thomas Watson, Esq., an honored member of the Baptist church then meeting near Cripplegate. That gentleman kept an open table on Tuesdays for the dissenting ministers of the three denominations. The doctor generally met with them, took his part cheerfully in conversation, and maintained it on their return home, whether they came back on foot or by the boat.
As a pastor he presided over the flock with dignity and affection. In the course of his ministry he had some weak, some unworthy, and some very wicked persons to deal with. To the feeble of the flock he was an affectionate friend and father. He readily bore with their weaknesses, failings, and infirmities, and particularly when he saw they were sincerely on the Lord’s side. A godly woman visited him one day, in great trouble, about the singing; for the clerk, in about three years, had introduced two new tunes. Not that he was a famous singer, or able to conduct a great variety of song, but he did his best. The young people were, pleased with the new tunes; but the good woman could not bear the innovation. The Doctor, after patiently listening, asked her whether she understood singing? No, she said. “What! can’t you sing?” No, she was no singer, nor her aged father before her. And though they had had about a hundred years between them to learn the Old Hundredth tune, they could not sing it, nor any other tune. The doctor did not hurt her feelings by telling her that people who did not understand singing were the last who should complain; but he meekly said, “Sister, what tunes should you like us to sing?” “Why, Sir,” she replied, “I should very much like David’s tunes.” “Well,” said he, “if you will get David’s tunes for us, we can then try to sing them.” Such weak good people may be found among all denominations of Christians.
Dr. Gill was sometimes accosted by rude people, even in his own congregation. A cynical old man, who we would charitably hope was a little touched in the head, had taken an antipathy against some of his minister’s tenets, oftener than once had grinned contempt at him from the gallery. Then. he tried another method of annoyance, and would meet him at the foot of the pulpit-stairs, and ask, “Is this preaching?” repeating his question, “Is this preaching?” The insolence at first met with no answer from the preacher, but, it seems, he determined not to be often treated in this manner. Not long after, the said churl, planting himself again in the same position, expressed his contempt somewhat louder. “Is this the great Doctor Gill?” The Doctor, immediately, addressed him with the full strength of his voice, and looking him in the face, and pointing him to the pulpit, said, “Go up and do better — go up and do better.” This was answering a fool according to his folly; and the reply afforded gratification to all who heard it..
All the stories told of Dr. Gill are somewhat grim. He could not come down to the level of men and women of the common order so far as to be jocose, and when he attempted to do so, he looked like Hercules with the distaff, or Goliath threading a needle. When he verged upon the humorous the jokes were ponderous and overwhelming, burying his adversary as well as crushing him. It is said that a garrulous dame once called upon him to find fault with the excessive length of his white bands. “Well, well,” said the doctor, “what do you think is the right length? Take them and make them as long or as short as you like.” The lady expressed her delight; she was sure that her clear pastor would grant her request, and therefore she had brought her scissors with her and would do the trimming at once.
Accordingly snip, snip, and the thing was done and the bibs returned. “Now,” said the Doctor, “my good sister, you must do me a good turn also.” “Yes, that I will, Doctor. What can it be?” “Well — you have something about you which is a deal too long, and causes me no end of trouble, and I should like to see it shorter.” “Indeed, dear sir, I will not hesitate,” said the dame, “what is it, here are the scissors, use them as you please.” “Come then,” said the pastor, “good sister, put out your tongue.” We have often pictured him sitting in the old chair which is preserved in our vestry, and thus quietly rebuking the gossip.
The comparative asperity of his manner was probably the result of his secluded habits and also of that sturdy firmness of mind which in other directions revealed itself so admirably. When he was once warned that the publication of a certain book would lose him many supporters and reduce his income, he did not hesitate for a moment, but replied, “Do not tell me of losing. I value nothing in comparison with Gospel truth. I am not afraid to be poor.” He had, however, a warm heart beneath his stern exterior, and was full of tenderness, especially in the domestic circle. We read that he went down to Kettering every year to spend a few days with his mother, so long as she lived, and when the news of her death reached him he laid down his pipe and never smoked again. His old country friends were always welcome at his house, and in their society he would seem to have unbent far more than one would have expected. With Mr. Clayton, of Steventon, and other plain men, he would he much at home, and they made very free with him. When this friend once came to London the doctor said, “Brother Clayton, what have you been about? They tell me that you have been expounding the Revelations. A man who enters upon that work should first have some acquaintance with history, the prophecies in general, and many other things!” “Why, doctor,” said Mr. Clayton, “I did as well as I could, and you can’t do any better.” Such simplicity tickled the doctor amazingly, and it was commonly said that he laughed more heartily that part of the year when Mr. Clayton was in town than he did all the year besides.
In the year 1752 Dr. Gill had a very memorable escape from being killed in his study. On March the 15th, in the morning, there was a violent hurricane, which much damaged many houses both in London and Westminster. Soon after he had left his study, to go to preach, a stack of chimneys fell through the roof into his study, breaking his writing table to pieces, and must have killed him had the fall happened a little sooner.
Seriously noticing this remarkable preservation to a friend who had some time before repeated a saying of Dr. Halley, the great astronomer, “That great study prolonged a man’s life; by keeping him out of harm’s way “; he said, “What becomes of Dr. Halley’s words now, since a man may come to danger and harm in his own closet, as well as on the highway, if not protected by the special care of God’s providence?” In 1757, the church under his care erected a new meeting-house for him in Carter Lane, St. Olave’s Street, near London Bridge, Southwark; which he opened October 9, preaching two sermons on Exodus 20:24. These he afterwards printed, entitling them “Attendance in places of religious worship, where the Divine name is recorded, encouraged.” In one of these discourses is this paragraph : — “ As we have now opened a new place of worship, we enter upon it, recording the name of the Lord, by preaching the doctrines of the grace of God, and of free and full salvation by Jesus Christ; and by the administration of gospel ordinances, as they have been delivered to us. What doctrines may be taught in this place, after I am gone, is not for me to know; but, as for my own part, I am at a point I am determined, and have been long ago, what to make the subject of my ministry. It is now upwards of forty years since I entered into the arduous work, and the first sermon I ever preached was from those words of the apostle: ‘For I am determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.’ Through the grace of God, I have been enabled, in some good measure, to abide by the same resolution hitherto, as many of you here are my witnesses; and I hope, through Divine assistance, I ever shall, as long as I am in this tabernacle, and engaged in such a work. I am not afraid of the reproaches of men; I have been\par INURED TO THESE,FROM MY YOUTH UPWARDS; none of these things move me.” Our view of Carter Lane Chapel will not fascinate the reader; we have had to take it from a model in the possession of a former member of the church. We trust the building was not so ugly as our drawing.
In the Doctor’s later years the congregations were sparse and the membership seriously declined. He was himself only able to preach once on the Sabbath, and living in a rural retreat in Camberwell, he could do but little in the way of overseeing the church. It was thought desirable that some younger minister should be found to act as co-pastor. To this the Doctor gave a very decided answer in the negative, asserting “that Christ gives pastors is certain, but that he gives co-pastors is not so certain.” He even went the length of comparing a church with a co-pastor to a woman who should marry another man while her first husband lived, and call him a co-husband. In view of the many disagreements and unhappinesses resulting from co-pastorships, we feel half inclined to admire the Doctor’s refusal; and remembering what sort of man he was, we question if a copastor would have worked happily with him, but his arguments against the proposition were preposterous, and in our own instance, in the selfsame church, two brothers have worked together for years with the utmost harmony, and nothing has occurred to make us fear that the position of affairs is displeasing to the great Head of the church. Great men are not always wise. However, by his stern repudiation of any division of his authority the old gentleman held the reins of power till the age of seventyfour, although the young people gradually dropped off and the church barely numbered 150 members.
The intense admiration and love of his flock is evinced by the letter sent to him in reply to his refusal to have an assistant. They defer at once to this judgment, and declare that they never wished to do more than consult him with the utmost deference, and then they conclude by saying, “We greatly fear that you apprehend an abatement in our affection toward you. That we are not conscious of, we think it impossible that our love should be easily removed from him who has instrumentally been made so useful to our souls; but we trust our hearts are knit as the heart of one man toward you, as the servant of Christ, and as our father in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Another grieving circumstance is, that if the church is willing, you seem inclined to resign your office as pastor. This expression is extremely alarming to us, and is what can by no means find a place in our thoughts, it being our fixed desire and continual prayer, that you may live and die in that endeared relation. We say with united voice, How can a father give up his children, or affectionate children their father? Dear Sir, we beseech you not to cast us off, but bear us upon your heart and spiritual affections all your days, and let us be remembered to God through your prayers, and who knows but the Lord may visit us again and make us to break forth on the right hand and on the left?” This was signed by all the brethren.
In a few weeks the venerable divine became too feeble for pulpit service and confined himself to his study and the writing-desk, and by-and-by found that he must lie down to rest, for his day’s work was done. He died as he had lived, in a calm, quiet manner, resting on that rich sovereign grace which it had been his joy to preach. To his dear relative, the Rev.
John Gill, of St. Albans, 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 upon anything done in me, or done by me, under the influences of the Holy Spirit.”
Nearly in the same words he expressed himself to others. To one he said, “I have nothing to make me uneasy,” and then repeated the following lines from Dr. Watts, in honor of the adored Redeemer : — “He raised me from the deeps of sin, The gates of gaping hell, And fix’d my standing more secure, Than ‘twas before I fell.” The last words he was heard to speak were, “0 my Father, my Father”! He died at Camberwell, October 14, 1771, and was buried in Bunhill Fields.
His eyesight had been preserved to him so that he could read small print by candle-light even to the last, and he never used glasses. His was a mind and frame of singular vigor, and he died before failing sight, either mental or physical, rendered him unfit for service: in this as highly favored as he had been in most other respects. He was one of the most learned men that the Baptist denomination has ever produced. His great work, “The Exposition of the Old and New Testament,” is still held in the highest esteem even by those whose sentiments widely differ from the author’s. His “Body of Divinity” is also a masterly condensation of doctrinal and practical theology, and his “Cause of God and Truth” is highly esteemed by many.
The system of theology with which many identify his name has chilled many churches to their very soul, for it has led them to omit the free invitations of the gospel, and to deny that it is the duty of sinners to believe in Jesus: but for this Dr. Gill must not be altogether held responsible, for a candid reader of his commentary will soon perceive in it expressions altogether out of accord with such a narrow system; and it is well known that when he was dealing with practical godliness he was so bold in his utterances that the devotees of Hyper-Calvinism could not endure him. “Well, Sir,” said one of these, “if I had not been told that it was the great Dr. Gill who preached, I should hare said I had heard an Arminian.”
The reader may perhaps like to look at Gill’s pulpit. It has for years been used by the young men of the Pastors College when preaching before their fellow-students. Ought they not to be sound?