Founders Journal

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Richard Fuller, Pt. 1 -- A Biographical Sketch

Don Whitney

Historical Context

What first attracted me to Richard Fuller was the unusual and evident blessing of God upon his pastoral ministry during the War Between the States. In 1847 Fuller left his native South Carolina to become pastor of the Seventh Baptist Church in Baltimore. Before and during the war, Maryland was divided in its sympathies. In the presidential election of 1860, it was the Southern candidate, John Breckinridge, who carried the state, not Abraham Lincoln. The first Union soldiers on their way to Washington were mobbed in Richard Fuller's city. Maryland might have seceded had not Governor Thomas Hicks established martial law and called on Federal troops to help maintain order. Consequently, it did stay in the Union.

Now imagine pastoring not only when there is a War Between the States of your country, but also when your own state is divided over that war. Worse than that, imagine pastoring a church in which some of the members have sons fighting in one army, and others have sons fighting in the opposing army.

Consider what it must have been like in mid-September, 1862, on the first Sunday after the Battle of Antietam. At Sharpsburg, less than 60 miles from Seventh Baptist Church, more than 28,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in one of the bloodiest days of the war. Half of the dead wore blue, half of them wore gray. Imagine walking into the pulpit on that Lord's Day and having a congregation looking at you, many of them feverishly wondering if a notice was on its way informing them that their son had been killed. Imagine the task of preaching to and pastoring the people that Sunday when they are glancing across the aisle and wondering if that man's son had killed their son that week, and if not, will he kill him next week.

That's what Richard Fuller did. That was his task Sunday after Sunday through thirteen tense years before the war, and then week after bloody week during those agonizing and anxious years of the war itself.

But the most amazing thing of all is that during more than two decades when the entire nation was torn asunder, and especially during those four years when every emotion in the hearts of parents and wives and sisters and sons and daughters tempted them to harbor bitterness and a divisive spirit, the fellowship of Seventh Baptist Church in Baltimore, under the preaching of Richard Fuller, not only failed to divide, it actually grew, from 87 members to an astonishing 1,200!

There is much we can learn from the life and preaching of a man like that.

Early Life and Student Days

He was born in April, 1804, in the town of Beaufort, which is near the coast at the southern tip of South Carolina. Richard was the ninth of the ten children given to Thomas and Elizabeth Fuller, and all ultimately gave evidence of salvation. His father was converted only the year before Richard was born, but he developed a Godly heritage into his family. For example, the third child, Harriet, "lived so constantly in prayer, that, in the preparation of her body for burial they found her knees to have become hardened from habitual kneeling, as tradition reports that the knees of the beloved John were callous like those of the camel."[1]

Fuller grew into an athletic man. He loved the outdoors -- he was a hunter, a fisherman, and an excellent horseman. He reveled in the opportunities he had to be on the ocean, whether it was crossing the Atlantic to Europe or sailing up the eastern seaboard. Throughout his life he loved walking, which was his daily exercise.

He enrolled at Harvard in 1820 at the age of 16, which was considered an unusually young age for acceptance even then. Despite his age, Fuller became one of the best students in his class. One of the evidences of his scholarship was his ability to take part in a dialogue in Greek at the beginning of his junior year. But at the end of that semester he developed what was described as a hemorrhage of the lungs. It was apparently a case of tuberculosis and it affected him the rest of his life. He was forced to leave school, but he stayed in Massachusetts, spending a year recuperating at Northampton, the town made famous by Jonathan Edwards.

There in the winter of 1823 he first experienced what Edwards would have called the first awakenings of the soul. He wrote about it to Dr. W. B. Sprague, author of a well-known volume on revival, saying his mind "awoke from its oblivious sleep."[2] It would be some nine years later before Fuller was converted, but the Holy Spirit continued to manifest occasional evidences of His convicting power. One such occurrence happened after Fuller had returned home to South Carolina. He was lying on a couch in his mother's room when one of the family members saw him "convulsed with weeping." When asked if he was hurting he replied, "No, I am overpowered with a sense of the goodness of God to me."[3] Would to God that we would see more such work of the Holy Spirit in our day!

Although able to attend Harvard for only two and a half years, his academic standing with the faculty was so high that they voted, in an unusual action, to give him a degree with the class of 1824. He was not, however, an unbalanced intellectual, too serious for fun. After his death, one friend wrote, "I went with Dr. Fuller to his old room at Harvard, which he had not visited since he left college. He was, as he always was, 'grave and gay,' -- sad as he recounted old memories, and then bright and cheerful as he told of his college-scrapes. 'See!' said he: 'there are the very shot-holes where I used to sit and amuse myself with a pistol at the mice as they ran across the room.'"[4]

Of his days back in Beaufort, Fuller's biographer, nephew J. H. Cuthbert, says of him, "He was always a gentleman, easy in manner, ready in wit, brilliant in conversation. In dress he was scrupulously neat. He loved horseback-exercise as much as Napoleon did, and was an excellent rider. . . . With these advantages and equipments, it is not surprising to learn that young Fuller was a great favorite with the (fairer) sex. One of his sisters reported some little maneuvers of his, which his biographer must record, -- how Richard would get her to ask some girls to spend the evening, when, dressing himself with great neatness and care, he would stroll out, and, after the party had assembled, stroll in and surprise them with an easy, nonchalant air, as if it were all a matter of moonshine; a little light skirmishing, as to which let him that is without sin cast the first stone."[5]

Through self-study, Fuller was admitted to the bar at age 21. He established his own practice and was quite a successful attorney. He married his wife Charlotte in August, 1831, when he was 27. They would have three daughters. He loved his girls dearly, and their love for him testifies to his faithfulness to his responsibilities as a father. On his deathbed, his youngest daughter Florence, now grown, said to him, "My darling father, I will die for you." Fuller said, "No, my child, live for me and for Jesus."[6]

Conversion

A few years before his conversion Fuller had been called by a Baptist minister named Benjamin Scriven to come to his bedside as he lay dying. Scriven pleaded with the young lawyer to come to Christ, and Fuller was deeply moved. He made a profession of faith and joined the Episcopal Church, the most influential church in Beaufort. After a study of the subject he became convinced that New Testament baptism was by immersion, so he was baptized in a river by the Episcopal rector. A day or two after his immersion, a fellow townsman said to him, "So, Fuller, I see you are a kind of mongrel Baptist." In a reaction quickly regretted, Beaufort's newest church member knocked the man senseless with one punch. This created, as Cuthbert says, "no little stir in the quiet little town."[7]

But in October, 1831, shortly after his marriage, Fuller experienced genuine conversion and its fruit -- a changed life. During that year and the next, revival swept through the Carolinas and Georgia. Cuthbert described it as "a work of great power, that moved whole communities 'as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind'."[8] In the midst of that movement of God, an evangelist named Daniel Baker came to Beaufort. According to Fuller's biography, "When Mr. Baker came to town, it was the same extraordinary influence. . . . The whole town was a holy place. The meetings were held alternately in the Episcopal and Baptist churches. . . . The work was remarkable, not only in the number and soundness of the conversions, but in its triumphs among the higher classes of society. Men of talent, culture, and wealth were brought to Christ."[9] One of those men was the successful attorney, Richard Fuller.

In the family Bible, Fuller wrote this account of his conversion: "R. Fuller, 'born again' Thursday, 26th October, 1831. I had from childhood (long before I attached any definite meaning to the words) prayed to God for this change,--for a new heart. During a severe fit of illness (in the year 1827, I think) I felt what I now believe to have been the working of God's Holy Spirit; and, for a while after convalescence, I took pleasure in the service of the dear Redeemer. I also made a profession of religion. The work, however, if begun, was imperfect. The world soon re-asserted and resumed its control. My life for years was now spent amidst vanity and folly and sin. Pride and evil passions prevailed. Nay, in my heart I attempted to vindicate them; though I felt the folly and guilt of such pleas, even when reason would seem to have approved them. All this while my 'goodness' was like Ephraim's. I felt satisfied I had never experienced that change without which a man cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. For this I prayed without ceasing. Glory to God! I found at last what I sought, and was filled with a joy which I can never express, -- 'unspeakable, and full of glory.' Creation seemed full of God. The trees, the leaves, the earth, the sky, all things seemed to utter his praises. For days I could neither eat nor sleep. I lived upon the love of God shed abroad in my heart, and the name of Jesus shed light and fragrance over every thing. These ecstatic feelings have now passed away (they would have rendered me unfit to live in such a world); but I am still filled with the peace of God, which 'passes all understanding.' This change (the new birth) I felt under no excitement, but while on my knees in the company of many gathered for prayer. I knelt down trembling, but in a moment was so melted and filled with wonderful emotions, that I did little more than sob and weep. When I arose, I was hardly conscious of what had passed. My heart and soul were running over with love and joy and praise. I make this record, in hopes, when I am gone, it may cause a serious thought in those who read it."[10]

Pastorate at Beaufort

Afterwards, Fuller quickly came to the conviction that baptism was not only by immersion, but that it was for believers. So he presented himself for baptism in the Baptist church and announced his sense of call into the Gospel ministry. He was ordained quickly, within a year. Later that same year, 1832, he was called as pastor of the Beaufort Baptist Church where he labored for fifteen years.

The church flourished during Fuller's ministry there and a large, new building was erected. He soon developed a reputation as one of the most influential preachers in the southeast. Young men preparing for ministry surrounded him and were trained by him. But the two best-known events during his ministry in South Carolina were written debates involving Catholicism and slavery.

In 1839 Fuller, who had visited Rome three years earlier, responded to a letter in the Charleston Courier by Catholic Bishop John England. This inaugurated a newspaper debate over some claims of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Their letters to each other were read in many newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. But even while the controversy raged, both men were able to maintain a friendship on matters outside the debate. And when England died shortly thereafter, The Catholic Mirror of Baltimore noted how Fuller came to Charleston to view the body.

Debate on Slavery

Unfortunately, the event for which Fuller is remembered most today is his newspaper debate in the mid-1840's with fellow-Baptist Francis Wayland over the subject of slavery in the Scriptures. The debate was published in the book Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution. Like George Whitefield, Richard Fuller was a slaveowner. In this public discussion between friends, Fuller argued -- and Wayland conceded -- that the Bible nowhere prohibits slavery. Wayland was surely right, however, in asserting that there are principles in the New Testament which necessitate the extinction of the practice.

As misguided as some of this thinking was, however, Fuller's heart was always in the right place. Surely not even a slaveowner in Scripture could be named who was kinder to those slaves in his household than was Richard Fuller. Many of his slaves were inherited, and he was much loved by all of them. In one of the letters of the debate he offered to free his slaves to Wayland or any other reader who could give him "bond and security" that their condition would be improved, but no one took up his offer. Furthermore, there are some other facts that are never mentioned in this connection. According to Thomas Armitage's History of the Baptists, when Fuller became pastor of the Baptist church in Beaufort its condition was described as "feeble. But under his faithful care it increased to about 200 white persons and 2400 colored."[11] Shortly after he entered into the pastorate of that church he wrote to a friend, "I had resolved, when first called to the ministry, to confine my labors wholly to our colored population. I was prevented by the hand of God."[12] Most remarkable of all, throughout his entire fifteen-year ministry in Beaufort he never accepted the salary offered to him, devoting all of it when allowed to do so, for what he called "the spiritual instruction of the slaves."[13]

Pastorates in Baltimore

In 1847 Fuller accepted the pastorate of the Seventh Baptist Church in Baltimore. He accepted the call on the condition that the church buy another piece of property and begin construction on a new building before he came. This they did and the church thrived, as mentioned earlier, throughout those turbulent years before and during the War. In 1871 Fuller led the church to build a building in the northwest part of Baltimore for the establishment of a new mission, the Eutaw Place Baptist Church. As soon as the building was dedicated the new group extended a call to Fuller to be their pastor. So he left the 1,200 member Seventh Baptist Church after twenty-four years and was one of the 131 charter members of the new fellowship. At the end of his final five years of ministry, the church had a total of 452 members.

He preached his last sermon at Eutaw Place on September 24, 1876. He had endured for some time what he called a fire in his shoulder which would probably be diagnosed today as cancer. In his last weeks one growth was removed but another lump quickly appeared. On the morning of October 20, Richard Fuller entered the Celestial City of his God. His last words were, "Who'll preach Jesus?"[14]

[Go to Part 2]

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