On November 23, 1697 nearly six years before Jonathan Edwards was born in Colonial America, John Gill was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire, in the country of England. He mastered the Latin classics and studied Greek by the time he was eleven years of age. Later, at the age of twelve he heard pastor William Wallace preaching a sermon from the Old Testament, “And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou” (Genesis 3:9)? The sermon made an impact on the young lad and at the age of eighteen he made a public profession of faith.
Gill went on to serve as an assistant and in 1719 became the pastor of the Strict Baptist Church in Horsleydown, Southwark for over fifty years. In 1757 the congregation needed more space and moved to Carter Lane, St. Olave’s street, Southwark. This church had been pastored by Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), and would later become the New Park Street Chapel followed by the Metropolitan Tabernacle, with a pastor by the name of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Much like Edwards, Gill also produced voluminous writings with his Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, and Expositions on the Old and New Testaments. He wrote against infant baptism as being “A Part and Pillar of Popery,” and has also been accused of being a “Hyper-Calvinist.” However, credible Baptist historians such as Tom Nettles have argued against this accusation. Furthermore, Gill’s written evidence to uphold the Great Commission is documented in his New Testament Commentary series. He would end up living longer than Edwards by more than thirteen years and died on October 14, 1771.
On July 7, 1752 Jonathan Edwards wrote a letter to his Scottish friend, Rev. John Erskine and mentions John Gill by name along with one of Gill’s sermons from 1750, “The Watchman’s Answer to the Question, What of the Night” (Isaiah 21:11-12), (Claghorn, 1998, Letters and Personal Writings, 16:489)? Years later on February 11, 1757 Edwards mentioned Gill again in a letter to the Rev. Thomas Foxcroft. This was not as friendly a notation as the first letter because Edwards exchanged some thoughts with Foxcroft regarding “Gill’s book against infant baptism.” Edwards also mentioned that “Mr. Clark” was “to write an answer; but how small a matter was that (Gill's Book), in comparison of the error now broached, and so boldly maintained, with an open challenge to the ministers of the country to maintain the contrary doctrine if they can” (Claghorn, 1998, 16:695)?
Although Edwards acknowledged Gill’s opposing Baptist views on infant baptism, he does not vociferously appear to use strong polemics against Gill but rather skips to what he perceives as more important matters regarding those who deny “the divinity of our Savior.” Additionally, he expresses that he will “be glad that Mr. Bellamy’s late sermon, which I think is well done, to defend the great doctrine of justification by Christ’s righteousness (which has been especially impugned by Dr. [Jonathan] Mayhew) might be reprinted in Boston” (Claghorn, 1998 16:695).
Could Edwards’s seeming dispassion communicate a loss of interest in the Congregational Church’s mode of baptism? Was he shrugging off Gill’s defense of immersion and moving on to his more passionate topics regarding the Divinity of Christ and Justification? He had certainly “rocked the boat” with New England Congregationalists during the early 1750’s regarding a valid profession of faith for Church membership. Consequently, following his Stockbridge ministry, Edwards would finally end up accepting the position of President at the Presbyterian College of New Jersey.
Although Edwards obviously never became a Baptist, he always revealed deep passion for sound soteriology. He certainly must have wrestled with his views on baptism during the “Communion Controversy” and after his dismissal in Northampton. If Edwards had lived many years beyond 1758, would he have grappled more with the issue of baptism? It is a question that is intriguing but the answer will never be known. However, One certainty can be drawn from these two Transatlantic Contemporaries. John Gill and Jonathan Edwards were both redeemers of time in their service for the Kingdom of God. Their lives and voluminous works speak to that fact and both of them continue to be widely read even into the twenty-first century.~TKE~