‘18th Century’ Category

“A Lovely Proportion in Divine Truth”

April 23rd, 2015 Posted in 18th Century, 19th Century, Andrew Fuller, Baptist Life & Thought, Church History, Eminent Christians, Great Quotes

By Evan D. Burns

Andrew Fuller was gifted at engaging in theological controversy.  Near the end of his “Reply to Philanthropos” in Section IV, “On the Death of Christ,” Fuller discloses his heart for engaging in controversy.  He exemplifies how to contend for truth with conviction without being contentious:

As I did not engage in controversy from any love I had to the thing itself, so I have no mind to continue in it any further than some good end may be answered by it….  There is a point in all controversies beyond which they are unprofitable and tedious. When we have stated the body of an argument, and attempted an answer to the main objections, the most profitable part of the work is done….

A reflection or two shall conclude the whole. However firmly any of the parties engaged in this controversy may be persuaded of the goodness of his cause, let us all beware of idolizing a sentiment. This is a temptation to which controversialists are particularly liable. There is a lovely proportion in Divine truth; if one part of it be insisted on to the neglect of another, the beauty of the whole is defaced; and the ill effects of such a partial distribution will be visible in the spirit, if not in the conduct, of those who admire it.

Further, Whatever difficulties there may be in finding out truth, and whatever mistakes may attend any of us in this controversy, (as it is very probable we are each mistaken in some things,) yet, let us remember, truth itself is of the greatest importance. It is very common for persons, when they find a subject much disputed, especially if it is by those whom they account good men, immediately to conclude that it must be a subject of but little consequence, a mere matter of speculation. Upon such persons religious controversies have a very ill effect; for finding a difficulty attending the coming at the truth, and at the same time a disposition to neglect it and to pursue other things, they readily avail themselves of what appears to them a plausible excuse, lay aside the inquiry, and sit down and indulge a spirit of scepticism. True it is that such variety of opinions ought to make us very diffident of ourselves, and teach us to exercise a Christian forbearance towards those who differ from us. It should teach us to know and feel what an inspired apostle acknowledged, that here we see but in part, and are, at best, but in a state of childhood. But if all disputed subjects are to be reckoned matters of mere speculation, we shall have nothing of any real use left in religion.[1]

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[1]Andrew Gunton Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, Volume 2: Controversial Publications, ed. Joseph Belcher (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 510-11.

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Evan Burns (Ph.D. candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, and he lives in Southeast Asia with his wife and twin sons. They are missionaries with Training Leaders International. He also works as the Director of the M.A. in Global Leadership program at Western Seminary.

Book Review: 30 Days of Devotions: From the Sermons of Andrew Fuller ed. Joshua C. Breland

April 19th, 2015 Posted in 18th Century, 19th Century, Andrew Fuller, Baptist Life & Thought, Biblical Spirituality, Books, Church History, Eminent Christians

30 Days of Devotions: From the Sermons of Andrew Fuller, ed. Joshua C. Breland (Wake Forest, NC: Evangelical Heritage Press, 2015), [iv]+57 pages.

30 Days of DevotionsRecently doing some work on the fourth-century theologian Athanasius, I used a database to search for articles on him and came up with some 1400 separate items in a few seconds. I thought I would do a similar search for Andrew Fuller, my favorite theologian, and came up with considerably less: about sixty. All of this is to simply say that although a renaissance of Fuller studies is underway—to quote fellow Fuller scholar Nathan Finn—things are still very much in their infancy. Understandably, it was with great joy that I came across a reference to this new Fuller item by Joshua Breland, who is a grad student at our sister seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The title accurately reflects the book’s contents. The book is divided into a month of readings from the sermonic corpus of Fuller. Heading each selection is simply the number of the day, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on.  There is no reading for the 31st day of such months as January, March, etc. At the end of each reading the sermon from which it is drawn is indicated by a reference to the sermon by Roman numeral. For example, the reading for the 10th day of the month comes from “Sermon XI.” To find out which sermon this is, one has to turn to the back of the book, where ninety-two of Fuller’s sermons are listed by title and biblical text upon which they are based. Curiously, though, there is no indication from which edition Breland has drawn his selections. It appears to be the three-volume Sprinkle edition (a 1988 reprint of an 1845 edition), which contains the exact same listing of sermons in the first volume.

As with any book of selections like this, there is a certain degree of personal eclecticism evident. Breland’s choices are not exactly the ones I would have chosen—and I am sure, the same would be true vice versa. What he has chosen, though, is a good cross-section of Fullerism: from reflections on the nature of justification (the reading for the 4th day of the month, p.5–7) to the vital necessity of love (the reading for the 10th day of the month, p.15–17). And as is typical with Fuller’s works, there is the Puritan characteristic of making pithy statements that continue to resonate in the reader’s mind long after he/she has put the book down. For example, at the very close of the reading for the 17th day, Fuller sums up what he has been saying thus: “The union of genuine orthodoxy and affection constitutes true religion” (p.28)—so true.

One thing I missed are footnotes to biblical texts cited and a footnote for the occasional personal reference. For instance, in the selection for the 25th day, Fuller refers to an observation by “dear Pearce” about the cross (p.42). He is, of course, referring to his close friend Samuel Pearce (1766–1799), whose memoirs he had written. But the reader new to Fuller would have no idea who he is talking about. The introduction is a brief, but adequate, introduction to Fuller and his ministry. Though, even a Fullerite as ardent as myself was surprised by the statement that Fuller was “perhaps the greatest model of a pastor-theologian the world has ever seen” (p.iii). These quibbles aside, I was thrilled to see this devotional from the sermons of a man from whom I have learned so much.

Michael A.G. Haykin
Professor of Church History
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

To download the review as PDF, click here. To see other book reviews, visit here.

Andrew Fuller on the Doctrine of Election and Gospel Preaching

April 10th, 2015 Posted in 18th Century, 19th Century, Andrew Fuller, Baptist Life & Thought, Eminent Christians, Great Quotes, Theology

By David E. Prince

Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) wholeheartedly affirmed the sovereignty of God and the biblical doctrine of election. He also wholeheartedly affirmed the obligation to preach the gospel to all men and persuade all men to turn to Christ by faith. According to Fuller, the sovereign creator God is best glorified by the urgent and promiscuous proclamation of the gospel to all men. Fuller was a theologian, and an apologist, but he was foremost a pastor and his treatment of the relationship between election and gospel preaching is as helpful as I have ever read.

Below, under the first heading I have excerpted a Fuller article, “Connections of the Doctrine of Election in the Scriptures,” in which he offers a positive affirmation of the biblical doctrine of election. The subsequent headings are excerpts from Fuller’s, Gospel its Own Witness, where he explains what he sees as the abuse of the doctrine of election in preaching and his recommendations for a biblical, Christ-centered approach to the relationship between election and gospel preaching. I have added the headings and updated a few spellings.

Election Declares the Source of Salvation is Mere Grace

[Election] is introduced to declare the source of salvation to be mere grace, or undeserved favor, and to cut off all hopes of acceptance with God by works of any kind.—In this connection we find it in Rom. 11:5, 6, “Even so then, at this present time also, there is a remnant according to the election of grace; and if by grace, then is it no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace: but if it be of works, then is it no more grace; otherwise work is no more work.” All compromise is here forever excluded, and the cause of salvation decidedly and fully ascribed to electing grace.

With this end the doctrine requires to be preached to saints and sinners. To the former, that they may be at no loss to what they shall ascribe their conversion and salvation, but may know and own with the apostle that it is by the grace of God they are what they are; to the latter, that they may be warned against relying upon their own righteousness, and taught that the only hope of life which remains for them is in repairing as lost and perishing sinners to the Savior, casting themselves at the feet of sovereign mercy.1

Love as Exemplified in Scripture

Love as exemplified in the Scriptures, though it can never be willing to be lost, (for that were contrary to its nature, which ever tends to a union with its object,) yet bears an invariable regard to the holy name or character of God. “How excellent is thy name in all the earth!”—“O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.”—“Let them that love thy name say continually, The Lord be magnified.”—“Blessed be his glorious name for ever and ever; and let the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and amen.”

God’s Love is Not Mere Favoritism

But love, as exemplified in the patrons of this system, is mere favoritism. God having as they conceive made them his favorites, he becomes on that account, and that only, a favorite with them. Nor does it appear to have any thing to do with goodwill to men as men. The religion of the apostles was full of benevolence. Knowing the terrors of the Lord, they persuaded men, and even besought them to be reconciled to God.

Preach Christ to Sinners as Freely as if No Doctrine of Election Existed

They had no hope of sinners complying with these persuasions of their own accord, any more than the prophet had in his address to the dry bones of the house of Israel; nor of one more being saved than they who were called according to the Divine purpose; but they considered election as the rule of God’s conduct—not theirs. They wrote and preached Christ to sinners as freely as if no such doctrine existed. “These things are written,” said they, “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that believing ye might have life through his name.”

Pray for the Lost as Fellow Sinners and Not as Reprobates

Jesus wept over the most wicked city in the world; and Paul, after all that he had said of the doctrine of election in the ninth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, protested that “his heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel was that they might be saved.” He did not pray for them as reprobates, but as fellow sinners, and whose salvation while they were in the land of the living was to him an object of hope.2

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1 Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, p. 808). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.

2 Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Controversial Publications. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 2, p. 737-738). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.

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David E. Prince is the Pastor of Preaching and Vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, KY. Check out his personal blog at Prince on Preaching.

A Good Friday Meditation from Andrew Fuller (via David Prince)

April 3rd, 2015 Posted in 18th Century, 19th Century, Andrew Fuller, Baptist Life & Thought, Church History, Eminent Christians

David Prince, pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., is a faithful reader of Andrew Fuller and regularly posts excerpts from his reading at his personal website: Prince on Preaching. This week, Pastor Prince has posted excerpts from a sermon by Andrew Fuller on “Being made conformable unto his death” from Philippians 3:10.

Prince begins by excerpting the following paragraph from the sermon.

The death of Christ is a subject of so much importance in Christianity as to be essential to it. Without this, the sacrifices and prophecies of the Old Testament would be nearly void of meaning, and the other great facts recorded in the New Testament divested of importance. It is not so much a member of the body of Christian doctrine as the life-blood that runs through the whole of it.

To read the post in its entirety, see here.

 

Samuel Pearce’s Religion of the Cross

April 2nd, 2015 Posted in 18th Century, Andrew Fuller, Baptist Life & Thought, Biblical Spirituality, Books, Church History, Eminent Christians, Great Quotes

By Evan D. Burns

In Andrew Fuller’s (1754-1815) memoir of his late friend, Samuel Pearce (1766-1799), he described Pearce as a man smitten with the cross of Christ.  As we reflect upon the cross and resurrection this week, let us follow Pearce’s example and seek to be more amazed at the love of God in the cross of Christ.  Describing Pearce’s crucientric piety, Fuller said thus:

Christ crucified was his darling theme, from first to last. This was the subject on which he dwelt at the outset of his ministry among the Coleford colliers, when “he could scarcely speak for weeping, nor they hear for interrupting sighs and sobs.” This was the burden of the song, when addressing the more polished and crowded audiences at Birmingham, London, and Dublin; this was the grand motive exhibited in sermons for the promotion of public charities; and this was the rock on which he rested all his hopes, in the prospect of death. . . . “Blessed be his dear name,” says he, under his last affliction, “who shed his blood for me. He helps me to rejoice at times with joy unspeakable. Now I see the value of the religion of the cross. It is a religion for a dying sinner. It is all the most guilty and the most wretched can desire. Yes, I taste its sweetness, and enjoy its fulness, with all the gloom of a dying bed before me; and far rather would I be the poor emaciated and emaciating creature that I am, than be an emperor with every earthly good about him, but without a God.”[1]

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[1]Andrew Gunton Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, Volume 3: Expositions—Miscellaneous, ed. Joseph Belcher (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 430-31.

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Evan D. Burns (Ph.D. Candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, and he lives in Southeast Asia with his wife and twin sons.  They are missionaries with Training Leaders International.

New Book: Baptists and War: Essays on Baptists and Military Conflict, 1640s-1990s

March 19th, 2015 Posted in 17th Century, 18th Century, 19th Century, 20th Century, 21st Century, Baptist Life & Thought, Books, Church History

9781625646743Just released from Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, a collection of essays on Baptists and War. These papers, which were originally delivered at the 2011 annual conference of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, were compiled and edited by Gordon L. Heath and Michael A.G. Haykin. The book is available for purchase now from the publisher and on Amazon. For a PDF flyer with all the book details see here.

Description from Publisher:

While Baptists through the years have been certain that “war is hell,” they have not always been able to agree on how to respond to it. This book traces much of this troubled relationship from the days of Baptist origins with close ties to pacifist Anabaptists to the responses of Baptists in America to the war in Vietnam. Essays also include discussions of the English Baptist Andrew Fuller’s response to the threat of Napoleon, how Baptists in America dealt with the War of 1812, the support of Canadian Baptists for Britain’s war in Sudan and Abyssinia in the 1880s, the decisive effect of the First World War on Canada’s T. T. Shields, the response of Australian Baptists to the Second World War, and how Russian Baptists dealt with the Cold War. These chapters provide important analyses of Baptist reactions to one of society’s most intractable problems.

Endorsements:

“Conflict challenges the Christian conscience, fostering divergent responses. Hence Baptists have commonly sought peace, sometimes to the extent of condemning war outright, but equally they have often believed that justice required the taking up of arms, even with enthusiasm. The detailed and penetrating international studies contained in this book illuminate contrasting attitudes over the centuries, showing how war has put Baptists to the test, spiritually as well as materially.”
–David Bebbington, Professor of History, University of Stirling, Stirling, Scotland,
UK

“Baptists have had a varied approach to war from the Pietist/Reformed tensions of four hundred years ago to the reactions to the Vietnam War. This work explores the theme in different time periods and, using a number of individuals as case studies, opens the past so the reader can reflect on the present. The volume is an important contribution to both Baptist studies and the Christian approach to war and peace.”
–Robert Wilson, Professor of Church History, Acadia Divinity College, Wolfville, Canada

 

“A God Glorious in Holiness”

March 5th, 2015 Posted in 18th Century, 19th Century, Andrew Fuller, Baptist Life & Thought, Church History, Eminent Christians, Great Quotes

By Evan D. Burns

Andrew Fuller perceptively distinguished God’s moral perfections as the ground for his holiness.  All of God’s attributes of greatness and power would not be as attractive without his goodness and equity.  Fuller argued that Deism was defective because it did not acknowledge the holiness and moral perfection of God.  He then identified the religion of the Old Testament as worshiping a God full of love and truth.  Israel’s worship was to be morally distinct from the lewd and decadent worship of the pagan nations because Israel’s God was morally perfect.  And in that apologetic context, he explained thus:

There are certain perfections which all who acknowledge a God agree in attributing to him; such are those of wisdom, power, immutability, &c.  These, by Christian divines, are usually termed his natural perfections. There are others which no less evidently belong to Deity, such as goodness, justice, veracity, &c., all which may be expressed in one word—holiness; and these are usually termed his moral perfections. Both natural and moral attributes tend to display the glory of the Divine character, but especially the latter. Wisdom and power, in the Supreme Being, render him a proper object of admiration; but justice, veracity, and goodness attract our love. No being is beloved for his greatness, but for his goodness. Moral excellence is the highest glory of any intelligent being, created or uncreated. Without this, wisdom would be subtlety, power tyranny, and immutability the same thing as being unchangeably wicked. We account it the glory of revelation that, while it displays the natural perfections of God in a way superior to any thing that has been called religion, it exhibits his moral excellence in a manner peculiar to itself. [1]


[1] Andrew Gunton Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, Volume 2: Controversial Publications, ed. Joseph Belcher (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 9.

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Evan D. Burns (Ph.D. Candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, and he lives in Southeast Asia with his wife and twin sons.  They are missionaries with Training Leaders International.

An Unsung, but Influential Sermon in the Rise of the Modern Missionary Movement

March 3rd, 2015 Posted in 18th Century, Andrew Fuller, Baptist Life & Thought, Church History, Missions

By Steve Weaver

On April 27, 1791, Andrew Fuller preached a message at a Minister’s Meeting at Clipstone. The title of the message was “Instances, Evil, and Tendency of Delay, in the Concerns of Religion.” The text was Haggai 1:2, “Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, This people say, The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built.” In the sermon, Fuller pleaded with his fellow ministers not to delay in regard to the work of missions and to use means for the spread of the gospel among the nations. It was a bold sermon. Not only was William Carey in attendance, but so too were many of those, as Andrew Gunton Fuller tells us, “who had refused — some of them not in the kindest manner — to listen to his proposal.” [1] Fuller said in part,

Instead of waiting for the removal of difficulties, we ought, in many cases, to consider them as purposely laid in our way, in order to try the sincerity of our religion. He who had all power in heaven and earth could not only have sent forth his apostles into all the world, but have so ordered it that all the world should treat them with kindness, and aid them in their mission; but, instead of that, he told them to lay their accounts with persecution and the loss of all things. This was no doubt to try their sincerity; and the difficulties laid in our way are equally designed to try ours.

Let it be considered whether it is not owing to this principle that so few and so feeble efforts have been made for the propagation of the gospel in the world. When the Lord Jesus commissioned his apostles, he commanded them to go and teach “all nations,” to preach the gospel to “every creature;” and that notwithstanding the difficulties and oppositions that would lie in the way. The apostles executed their commission with assiduity and fidelity; but, since their days, we seem to sit down half contented that the greater part of the world should still remain in ignorance and idolatry. Some noble efforts have indeed been made; but they are small in number, when compared with the magnitude of the object. And why is it so? Are the souls of men of less value than heretofore? No. Is Christianity less true or less important than in former ages? This will not be pretended. Are there no opportunities for societies, or individuals, in Christian nations, to convey the gospel to the heathen? This cannot be pleaded so long as opportunities are found to trade with them, yea, and (what is a disgrace to the name of Christians) to buy them, and sell them, and treat them with worse than savage barbarity? We have opportunities in abundance the improvement of navigation, and the maritime and commercial turn of this country, furnish us with these; and it deserves to be considered whether this is not a circumstance that renders it a duty peculiarly binding on us.

The truth is, if I am not mistaken, we wait for we know not what; we seem to think “the time is not come, the time for the Spirit to be poured down from on high.” We pray for the conversion and salvation of the world, and yet neglect the ordinary means by which those ends have been used to be accomplished. It pleased God, heretofore, by the foolishness of preaching, to save them that believed; and there is reason to think it will still please God to work by that distinguished means. Ought we not then at least to try by some means to convey more of the good news of salvation to the world around us than has hitherto been conveyed? The encouragement to the heathen is still in force, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved: but how shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach except they be sent?” [2]

Fuller’s son records that the “impression produced by the sermon was most deep; it is said that the ministers were scarcely able to speak to each other at its close, and they so far committed themselves as to request Mr. Carey to publish his “thoughts.” [3] The next spring, Carey preached his famous sermon at Nottingham based on Isaiah 54:2-3 calling on ministers to “expect great things from God” and “attempt great things for God.” In 1792, he also published his “thoughts”—An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (PDF). On October 2, 1792, in the home of Mrs. Beeby Wallis, the Particular Baptist Society for Propogating the Gospel Among the Heathen was launched.

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[1] Andrew Gunton Fuller, Andrew Fuller. Men Worth Remembering (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1882), 103.
[2] Andrew Gunton Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc., ed. Joseph Belcher, vol. 1 (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 147–148.
[3] Fuller, Andrew Fuller, 104.

*This post originally appeared on the author’s personal blog on March 1, 2015.

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Steve Weaver serves as a research assistant to the director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and a fellow of the Center. He also serves as senior pastor of Farmdale Baptist Church in Frankfort, KY. Steve and his wife Gretta have six children between the ages of 4 and 15. You can read more from Steve at his personal website: Thoughts of a Pastor-Historian.

A Circle of Friends: Reflections on a Letter from Fuller to Carey

February 25th, 2015 Posted in 18th Century, Andrew Fuller, Church History, Eminent Christians, Missions, William Carey

By Steve Weaver

I love a letter from Andrew Fuller to William Carey contained in Andrew Gunton Fuller’s 1882 biography of his father.[1] It illustrates beautifully the love and collegiality of the circle of friends among whom the modern missionary movement was birthed. In the letter, Fuller indicates that he had been visiting with John Sutcliff, Baptist pastor in Olney, “on missionary concerns” when a letter from Carey (dated October 10, 1798) had arrived, or as he put it, “while I was there, in bolted Carey!” Fuller’s response to the missionary includes updates on all the major characters associated with the early days of the Baptist Missionary Society. Carey, the Society’s first missionary, was the recipient of the letter and Fuller, the secretary of the Society from its beginning until his death in 1815, was the author. Fuller knew that Carey would want to know about the welfare of their mutual friends—John Ryland, Jr. (1753–1825), John Sutcliff (1752–1814), and Samuel Pearce (1766–1799).

The fruits of Brother Ryland’s labours at Bristol appear to good purpose, not only in a number of spiritual young men in the Academy, but in so charming a group of missionaries as are now going. Brother Sutcliffe has baptized nine lately. He is appointed to supply you with books, and I doubt not but he will magnify his office. Pearce is a wonderful Christian; he preached here last autumn like an apostle, from Psalm xc. 16, 17. Hall, who preached after him, was dismayed at the thought of following him; not so much at an idea of inequality of talents, but of spirit and unction. But whether we shall ever hear him again, God only knows.

There is also a reference to Robert Hall, the younger (1764-1831), the esteemed preacher and son of Robert Hall, the elder (1728–1791). The reference to Hall, who was well-known as a great orator, is striking. When scheduled to preach after Pearce, who Fuller calls simply “a wonderful Christian,” Hall feared to follow Pearce due to the latter’s “spirit and unction.” This letter was likely written in late 1798 or early 1799. Pearce would die within the year on October 10, 1799. His obvious declining health was the reason Fuller added, “But whether we shall ever hear him again, God only knows.”

[1]Andrew Gunton Fuller, Andrew Fuller. Men Worth Remembering (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1882), 150-151.

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Steve Weaver serves as a research assistant to the director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and a fellow of the Center. He also serves as senior pastor of Farmdale Baptist Church in Frankfort, KY. Steve and his wife Gretta have six children between the ages of 4 and 15. You can read more from Steve at his personal website: Thoughts of a Pastor-Historian.

“Belle: an 18th-century triumph of humanity”: A Review of Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne

February 23rd, 2015 Posted in 18th Century, Books, Historians

By Michael A.G. Haykin

“Belle: an 18th-century triumph of humanity”

A review of Paula Byrne, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice (New York: Harper, 2014), xii+283 pages.

belleA painting now hanging in Scone Palace near Perth in Scotland, once entitled in 1904 as “Lady Elizabeth Finch-Hatton with a Negress Attendant,” provides biographer Paula Byrne with the impetus for recounting the extraordinary story of Dido Belle (1761­–1804), the illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an African slave. Unlike the vast majority of children so conceived, Dido enjoyed privilege and wealth as she was raised by her great-uncle, William Murray (1705­–1793), the first Baron of Mansfield, one of the most eminent jurists of the eighteenth century. Building upon a previous historical piece that identified the black girl in the painting as Dido and a handful of literary texts that relate to her life, Byrne skillfully interweaves the little that we know about Dido with the life of her father, Sir John Lindsay, and the lives of Lord and Lady Mansfield, her adoptive parents. Lord Mansfield was an ardent foe of the slave trade, and Byrne reckons that his love for his adopted daughter was instrumental in convincing him of the evils of slavery and the slave trade.

Mansfield’s ruling in the case of James Somerset in 1772, a slave who had run away from his master in England, been recaptured and sold to a slave trader bound for the West Indies, proved to be a key milestone in the fight against the slave trade by eighteenth-century abolitionists. Mansfield ruled in favour of Somerset’s freedom, and many viewed the ruling as having made slavery illegal on English soil. From there, the logic was obvious: if slavery were wrong in England, how could it be morally right for the English to have slaves abroad? This is the very question, in fact, asked by Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which, in an appendix, Byrne shows has links to the story of Dido and Lord Mansfield. Byrne knows Austen particularly well, having written two major studies on the English author, one of which, Jane Austen and the Theatre, has been described by historian and biographer Paul Johnson as “the best book on Austen I have ever read.”

Byrne is a consummate researcher and has well researched the historical background of slavery, its accompanying moral degradation, and its tentacles throughout the English economy, especially through the massive consumption of sugar. She rightly notes that the deepest roots of the abolitionist movement were among the Quakers, who by 1760 were disciplining members who participated in the slave trade, and Evangelicals like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. In fact, it was arguments based upon principles derived from the Bible that eventually did most to rouse anti-slavery feeling in the British Isles.

While this book is largely a search for the biography of Dido, Lord Mansfield also comes across as a remarkable figure. He was able to rise above the racism endemic in eighteenth-century English society and social mores, and both in his home and in the courtroom do what was good, right and just. A movie version of book, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Dido) and Tom Wilkinson (as Lord Mansfield), was released here in the US last May.

Michael A.G. Haykin
Professor of Church History
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

To download the review as PDF, click here. To see other book reviews, visit here.