"A Most Blessed Exercise": Andrew Fuller and Prayer

"A Most Blessed Exercise": Andrew Fuller and Prayer

Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) wrote, “A life of faith will ever be a life of prayer.”[1] Central within the pastoral framework of the eighteenth-century Calvinistic Baptists was dependence upon the Holy Spirit and prayer as the primary means of Christian growth. Fuller’s friend, John Ryland, Jr. (1753–1825), concurred as he reflected upon his own life, “Amidst all my trials and mercies I have very great reason to lament that I have not been more constant in prayer. Of all the evils that infest me, I think a formal attendance on this duty, with too frequent neglect of it, is the worst.”[2] According to Fuller and his circle of friends, it is quite common to take for granted that simply because one is a “disciple” of Christ they are also an individual of prayer.[3] Therefore as a pastor, Fuller found it necessary to develop a biblical and theological framework of prayer as the foundation of advance in personal spirituality.

An Exposition of “The Lord’s Prayer”

Although Andrew Fuller never wrote a treatise on prayer, he did provide a lengthy exposition and commentary on “The Lord’s Prayer” in Matthew 6:9-15. He regarded “The Lord’s Prayer” as the supreme design through which Christ would not merely establish a form of prayer, but a “brief directory as to the matter and manner of it.”[4] Fuller interpreted this biblical text as Christ “putting words in their mouths,”[5] and thus saw clear pastoral implications of the teaching of Christ giving direction and instruction to believers on how to pray. Jesus offers this prayer in the presence of his disciples so that those who hear it (and later, those who read it) would not only be instructed how to pray, but according to Fuller, “to encourage Christians in their approaches to God.”[6] Always pastorally sensitive, Fuller seeks to apply each phrase of this text to his hearer as a compelling encouragement to be engaged in a life of prayer.[7]

Fuller begins his exegesis by establishing that prayer must be dependent upon the character of the one to whom we are allowed to draw near, namely, “Our Father” (Matt 6:9). The recognition of God as “Our Father” implies that sinners have become “adopted alien[s] put among the children.”[8] Those adopted into God’s family can therefore rightly approach God as their Father, but it must, as Fuller clarifies, be through a Mediator. Fully consistent with the Messianic age, Christ sets himself within the context of the prayer as the one through which the believer must come if they are to approach God as “Father.” Fuller states, “The encouragement contained in this tender appellation is inexpressible. The love, the care, the pity, which it comprehends, and the filial confidence which it inspires, must, if we are not wanting to ourselves, render prayer as a most blessed exercise.”[9]

Within the words, “Our Father, who art in heaven” (Matt 6:9) there is an immediate consciousness that worship should be the main initiative of prayer. Fuller says, “As the endearing character of a father inspires us with confidence, this must have no less a tendency to excite our reverence; and both together are necessary to acceptable worship.”[10] According to Fuller, fear and hope are mingled in prayer for “fear without hope would sink us into despair; and hope without fear would raise us to presumption; but united together, they constitute the beauty of holiness.”[11] It is not merely reverence to God that prayer warrants, but it also serves to encourage the one praying of the absolute supremacy and almighty power to which they bring their requests. Fuller distinguished prayer as the supreme doxological experience of the believer as they beheld God, not only as Father, but a Father who dwells in the glories of heaven and is therefore capable of answering his children’s requests.

Fuller observes a corporate element within the words, “forgive us” (Matt 6:12). He affirms the catholicity of these words explaining, “the prayer of faith and love will embrace in its arms brethren at the greatest distance; and not only such as are known, but such as are unknown, even the whole family of God upon earth.”[12] Fuller also sees these words as a catalyst to share the gospel with unbelievers. Prayer should not be hindered or stopped because unbelievers are present; if this were the case churches would be unable to pray or sing in their congregations. On the contrary, while not treating unbelievers different than they are, we should leave it to personal conscience whether to join in prayer or not. Just by its mere inflection Fuller believed such words may illicit conviction within the hearts of unbelievers. To illustrate this point, Fuller uses the Apostle Paul in Acts 27:35 as an example, “Paul would not have been united with the ship’s company in celebrating the Lord’s supper, but he did not scruple to take common bread, and “give thanks” on their behalf, “in the presence of them all.”

Throughout his exposition on “The Sermon on the Mount,” and specifically “The Lord’s Prayer,” Fuller expresses his ardent animosity for praying long prayers in public. He affirms this model prayer and its brevity as the supreme example of how prayer should be conducted within public contexts. Fuller likens long repetitious public prayers as being like the rants and chatters of worshippers in their practice of heathenism. He says, “Let the devotees of Baal vociferate from morning till noon; but let not the worshippers of Jehovah imitate them.”[13] Commenting on Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:7 regarding “vain repetitions,” Fuller comments, “In general, it is right to avoid long prayers, especially in the family, and in the church, which are not only wearisome to men, but offensive to God.”[14] He continues by providing a cure to all who have the propensity toward this practice, he says, “A proper sense of the majesty of the great Supreme would cure this evil.”[15]

After addressing the things of “first importance,”[16] like hallowing the name of the Lord and praying that his kingdom may come, Fuller says, “We are allowed to ask for those things which pertain to our immediate wants, both temporal and spiritual.”[17] This, in essence, is what it means to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33). Fuller outlines, “There are three petitions in respect of God’s name and cause in the world, so there are three which regard to our own immediate wants; one of which concerns those which are temporal, and the other two those which are spiritual.”[18] He then proceeds to investigate the phrases, “Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” and “led us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt 6:11-13). All three of these requests conclude with a doxology that grants great confidence to the one praying and “furnish encouragement to hope for an answer.”[19]

Throughout his exposition, Fuller carefully weaves a theme of confidence. He asserts believers who follow this pattern, as set forth in “The Lord’s Prayer,” will be fully granted what they ask. Fuller says, “Christ would not have directed us to ask for a specific object, and without any proviso, when he knew it would never be granted.”[20] “He who taught us to pray,” said Fuller, “was manifested to destroy the works of the devil and destroyed they will be. And as the grand means by which this great end will be accomplished is the preaching of the cross, we have abundance of encouragement to persevere in that arduous employment.”[21] This is the confidence with which all believers can approach God.

Fuller’s theology of prayer, as delineated through careful biblical exegesis, serves to be the motivation through which he instructs others to pray and to experience the benefits thereof. Prayer is also the spiritual life-line of the minister who is seeking the movement of the Holy Spirit within their personal growth and their corporate gatherings. Fuller dedicated himself to pray for revival among his congregants and those fellow churches of the Northamptonshire Association. This ardent dedication and confidence in prayer led inevitably to a shift within the evangelistic methodology of the English Calvinistic Baptists of the eighteenth-century.

The Prayer Call of 1784

In 1784, John Erskine (1721–1803) sent John Ryland a copy of Jonathan Edwards’s An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer, For the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth. Within this treatise, Edwards advocates the establishment of regular prayer meetings where people could come together appealing to God for an outpouring of his Spirit and “revive his work, and advance his spiritual kingdom in the world.”[22] Ryland shared this work with Fuller and friend and pastor of Olney Baptist Church, John Sutcliff (1752–1814)[23] who used Edwards’s admonition to give impetus to the ministers of the Northamptonshire Association to begin monthly prayer meetings to pray for revival among their churches. The proposal was adopted at a meeting of the Association in 1784 and a circular letter was sent to the churches of the Association imploring that prayer would result in the Holy Spirit being “poured down on our ministers and churches, that sinners may be converted, the saints edified, the interest of religion revived, and the name of God glorified.”[24] During the same meeting, Andrew Fuller, who had been asked to deliver the annual sermon, encouraged his fellow ministers, “O breathren, let us pray much for an outpouring of God’s Spirit upon our ministers and churches.”[25] Because of his reading of Edwards’s Humble Attempt, Fuller was convinced that without prayer, Christians would grow impotent in their spiritual advance.

In 1785, in a circular letter to churches of the Northamptonshire Baptist Association, Andrew Fuller ties together the need for the empowering of the Holy Spirit with the need for continual and earnest prayer:

Finally, brethren, let us not forget to intermingle prayer with all we do. Our need of God’s Holy Spirit to enable us to do any thing, and everything, truly good, should excite us to do this. Without his blessing all means are without efficacy, and every effort for revival will be in vain. Constantly and earnestly, therefore, let us approach his throne. Take all occasions especially for closet prayer. Here, if anywhere, we shall get fresh strength, and maintain a life of communion with God.[26] 

The prayer call of 1784 had been the practical result of a strong theological framework that included the most basic of biblical instruction on prayer. The fruition of this concert of prayer was widespread as the Calvinistic Baptists experienced a season of revival and unity among their churches and congregations. In 1792, the most abundant and long-lasting outcome would be the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society.[27]

Conclusion

In his exposition of “The Lord’s Supper,” Fuller explained that Christ “put words into their [the disciples] mouths,” so, “In supplicating Divine mercy, they might plead, Thus and thus our Saviour taught us to say; even he in whom thy soul delighteth: hear us for his sake!”[28] In Fuller’s theology, prayer was the central component by which one grows and matures in the faith. He concludes, “There is no intercourse with God without prayer. It is thus that we walk with God and have our conversation in heaven.”[29]

In 1814, as John Sutcliff lay dying, thirty years after his call to consecrated prayer in 1784, Andrew Fuller heard his friend say, “I wish I had prayed more.”[30] Sutcliff’s dying statement caused Fuller to begin a meditative reflection on his own life and ministry. In short, Sutcliff’s death-bed confession reveals the preeminent place prayer should have in the individual and corporate lives of all believers. Fuller spent his life working out the nuances of a biblical theology of prayer in order to apply its benefits to his own life and the lives of others.


In partnership with The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, H&E Publishing has published several reprints of the writings of Andrew Fuller. Visit their website to browse the collection and purchase these books.


            [1] Andrew Fuller, The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller with a Memoir of His Life by Andrew Gunton Fuller, 3 vols., ed. J. Belcher (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1845; repr., Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1988), 1:131.

            [2] ‘Extracts from the Diary of the Late Rev. Dr. Ryland’, The Baptist Magazine. 53 (1861), 282-283.

            [3] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:576. In his exposition on the Sermon on the Mount, Fuller comments on Jesus’ words regarding alms-giving and prayer in Mt 6:1-8, “From alms-giving our Lord proceeds to prayer, ver. 5-8. The former respected our conduct to men, the latter our approaches to God. And here also it is observable, that it is taken for granted that Christ’s disciples are praying men. What he says is not to persuade them to prayer, but to direct them in it.”

            [4] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:578.

            [5] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:578.

            [6] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:578.

            [7] Fuller outlines the text as follows: (1) The character under which we are allowed to draw near to the Lord of heaven and earth. (2) The place of the Divine residence. (3) The social principle which pervades the prayer. (4) The brevity of it. (5) The order of it. See The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:578-579.

            [8] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:578.

            [9] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:578.

            [10] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:578.

            [11] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:578.

            [12] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:579.

            [13] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:577. The full quote at length: “The contrary practice savours of heathenism. Let the devotees of Baal vociferate from morning till noon; but let not the worshippers of Jehovah imitate them. Our heavnely Father knoweth what things we need. If we require importunity in pryer, it is not because he needs to be persuaded; but that his favours may be known, accepted, and prized.”

            [14] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:577.

            [15] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:577.

            [16] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:579.

            [17] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:579.

            [18] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:580.

            [19] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:583.

            [20] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:580.

            [21] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:580.

            [22] The Works of Jonathan Edwards (1834 ed.; repr. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 2, 282.

            [23] Sutcliff republished Edwards’s, “Humble Attempt” in 1789.

            [24] A document containing the resolution adopted by the Northamptonshire Association for a call to prayer attached to John Ryland, Jr., The Nature, Evidences, and Advantages, of Humility (Circular Letter of the Northamptonshire Association, 1784), 12.

            [25] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:131.

            [26] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 3:318–324. This tract first appeared in 1785 as a circular letter of the Northamptonshire Baptist Association, which was sent out to its various member churches. See also, Michael A.G. Haykin ed., The Armies of the Lamb: The Spirituality of Andrew Fuller (Dundas, Ontario: Joshua Press, 2001), 91-109.

            [27] The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Heathen in 1792.

            [28] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:578.

            [29] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:344.

            [30] The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:344. This account was recounted by Fuller in his funeral sermon preached for John Sutcliff on June 28, 1814 entitled, “Principles and Prospects of a Servant of Christ.”

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