One of the problems in writing about my ancestor Richard Hall is that I do not have his Faith – Richard was a devout Baptist. I am not, and understanding what being a Baptist meant to Richard is clearly important. By the age of 16 he was attending sermons given by Dr John Gill – although it was another twenty years before he ‘gave in his experience’ and was himself baptised. Meanwhile, he collected the printed versions of many of the good doctor’s sermons, and then had them bound up into his own book entitled ‘Miscellaneous Sermons’.
Dr Gill was a charismatic figure who was either loved or despised by his listeners. A man of huge intellect and learning he dominated the Baptist movement of his time in the same way as Wesley is associated with the Methodist movement.
John Gill was born on November 23rd 1697 and, like most children of Dissenting parents, attended his local grammar school. But this was to end when he was eleven years old – his parents were unable to continue with the grammar school education and young John was left to learn Greek and Latin and to master classical literature without formal assistance.
Just think what that meant: we are all used to youngsters closeting themselves away in their room, but generally we know that they are on their computers, accessing porn or playing mindless games. Either that or they are immersed in endless and inane chatter to friends, using the latest i-phone. What they are not doing is pulling down a primer on Ancient Greek, starting at page 1 and working through to the very end, and then starting on the companion volume for Latin, Hebrew etc.! But that was what the young Master Gill did. He became a Hebrew scholar, studied logic and immersed himself in theological debates.
This brought him into contact with John Skepp, one of the foremost Hebrew scholars of his era, and in particular with his large collection of Hebrew and Rabbinical books. Far from discrediting Jews, John Gill recognized that, since the entire Old Testament was written by Jews, the only way to ‘get into their heads’ was to study Hebrew and read the leading Rabbincal books. When Skepp died Gill purchased much of his library. He took up his first ministry at Horsleydown Church at Southwark in London in 1721 – and stayed there until his death. He remained as Minister for 51 years. In 1723 he began a series of sermons – 122 in all, on the Song of Solomon. This was to establish a pattern which would last throughout his Ministry. His sermons did not make easy listening in the sense that he offered no easy options – he was a High Calvinist, vigorously orthodox on Christian basics, and he demanded the highest standard of commitment from his followers.
Dr Gill’s church at Carter Lane in Southwark just a few doors down from where Richard and his family lived. Indeed when he was still a youngster Richard donated twenty pounds to the cost of keeping the premises in repair (a not inconsiderable sum in those days). Dr Gill wrote extensively and Richard was to purchase and keep many of his works. But Dr Gill made many enemies – with his attacks on Arminianism and Unitarianism and with his refusal to ‘take the easy option’. He staunchly defended the orthodox faith, in an age when people were increasingly ‘putting God on trial’ and devaluing God while elevating the importance of Man. I have a number of his sermons – they are indeed weighty, solemn, learned ….. and incredibly boring!*
A less biased opinion is given in one of today’s Baptist websites: “To say that Dr. Gill influenced evangelical Christians in general and Baptists in particular is like saying the sun influences the daytime. He was the first Baptist to write a complete systematic theology and the first to write a verse-by-verse commentary of the entire Bible. Gill wrote so much that he was known as Dr. Voluminous”.
Richard looked to Dr Gill for spiritual guidance and was utterly lost when the great man died. It probably wasn’t helped that his successor at Carter Lane in Southwark was a 23 year old Devonshire hot-head called John Rippon, or that Rippon took a shine to Richard’s teenage daughter Patty! Richard left the Baptist movement in high dudgeon and for a while became C. of E., being appointed Church Warden of the splendid Wren-designed church of St Magnus the Martyr on the north side of the river Thames. He later resumed his Baptist ways when he moved to Bourton on the Water, and he always regarded Dr Gill as having been his mentor and guide throughout the first half of his life.
Gill died on 14th October 1771, or, as one follower remarked: “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.”
My ancestor was so moved by the loss of his mentor that he wrote a short book entitled “What I remember of Dr Gill” and had it published privately so as to be able to give copies to friends. He also maintained a habit throughout his life of taking ‘shorthand’ notes of every sermon he ever went to, and then wrote them up as a fair copy every Sunday afternoon.
*As a footnote I have at last done something with all the Baptist material – I parcelled it all up and delivered it to the Baptist College at Oxford, safe in the knowledge that it may be of interest to theological scholars who may be intrigued at the comments of a man who had a ringside seat at some of the great sermons of the Eighteenth Century. The Baptist College is happy – and I have gained an extra 24 inches of shelf space!