John Gill, D.D., was born at Kettering, Northamptonshire, England, Nov. 23, 1697. His father, Edward Gill, was a Baptist in the membership of a union church composed of Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists, in which, beside a Pedobaptist pastor, Mr. William Wallis, a Baptist was a teaching elder, with authority to immerse adults. As Isaac Backus found this system a cause of controversy and strife in New England, so it proved in Kettering, and Edward Gill, William Wallis, and their friends found it necessary to withdraw and form a Particular Baptist church. Edward Gill was elected one of the deacons. To the end of his life he obtained a good report for "grace, piety, and holy conversation."
His son John early showed uncommon talents, and quickly surpassed those of his own age, and many much older, in acquiring knowledge. Before he was eleven years of age, under the instruction of an Episcopal clergyman, who had charge of the grammar-school of which he was a pupil, he had read the principal Latin classics, and had made such progress in Greek that he became an object of wonder and admiration to several ministers who were familiar with his attainments. The bookseller's shop in the town was only open on the market-day, and by the favor of the proprietor John Gill was continually found there on that day consulting various authors. This remarkable studiousness attended him throughout life. His teacher commenced the practice of requiring the children of Dissenters to attend prayers in the Episcopal church on week-days along with the youths that belonged to the Church of England. The law probably gave him authority to exhibit his mean bigotry in this way. But Dissenting parents properly resented this pious effort of the clerical teacher, and withdrew their children from his care. Deprived of an instructor, he studied with even increased industry, and soon became a proficient in logic, rhetoric, natural and moral philosophy, and Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In Latin he read the hoarded treasures of ancient and modern divinity until he was conversant with all the great writers of Western Christendom.
When he was about twelve years of age, a sermon preached by Mr. Wallis, his father's pastor, on the words, "And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?" made a solemn impression upon his mind; his sins and the wrath of God alarmed him; and for some time he was in the deepest distress. But the Saviour drew near and showed him his wounds and dying throes, and everlasting love, and by grace he was enabled to trust him, and to find liberty and justification. On the 1st of November, 1716, he was baptized in a neighboring river, and received into the fellowship of the church of Kettering.
Almost immediately after, by the advice or friends, he began to preach, first at Higham Ferrers, and afterwards at Kettering. The Lord blessed these ministrations to the conversion of a considerable number of persons, and high hopes were cherished about the future usefulness of Mr. Gill.
He was elected pastor of the church at Horsleydown, Southwark, London, and ordained to the gospel ministry in its meeting-house March 22, 1720. Of this church the celebrated Benjamin Keach had been pastor, whose son Elias founded, the oldest church now existing in Pennsylvania, the mother of all the Baptist churches in Philadelphia. Difficulties which met him on entering upon his pastoral life in London soon disappeared, his meeting-house was thronged with people, conversions were numerous, and for over fifty-one years he was a power in London, and a religious authority all over Great Britain and America.
In comparatively early life he began to collect Hebrew works, the two Talmuds, the Targums, and everything bearing on the Old Testament and its times, and it is within bounds to say that no man in the eighteenth century was as well versed in the literature and customs of the ancient Jews as John Gill. He has sometimes been called the Dr. John Lightfoot of the Baptists. This compliment, in the estimation of some persons, flatters Dr. Lightfoot more than Dr. Gill, great an authority as Dr. Lightfoot undoubtedly was on all questions of Hebrew learning. In 1748, Dr. Gill received his diploma of Doctor of Divinity from Aberdeen, in which his attainments are described "as extraordinary proficiency in sacred literature, the Oriental tongues, and Jewish antiquities."
His "Dissertation Concerning the Antiquity of the Hebrew Language, Letters, Vowel Points, and Accents," has been described as "a masterly effort, of profound research, which would have shown Dr. Gill to have been a prodigy of reading and literature had he never published a syllable on any other subject."
His "Body of Divinity," published in 1769, is a work without which no theological library is complete. His grand old doctrines of grace, taken unadulterated from the Divine fountain, presented in the phraseology and with the illustrations of an intellectual giant, and commended by a wealth of sanctified Biblical learning only once in several ages permitted to mortals, sweep all opposition before them, and leave no place for the blighted harvests, the seed of which was planted by James Arminius in modern times. In this work eternal and personal election to a holy life, particular redemption from all guilt, resistless grace in regeneration, final preservation from sin and the Wicked one, till the believer enters paradise, and the other doctrines of the Christian system, are expounded and defended by one of the greatest teachers in Israel ever called to the work of instruction by the Spirit of Jehovah.
Dr. Gill's commentary is the most valuable exposition of the Old and New Testaments ever published. In codices of the Scriptures, recently discovered, there are some more authoritative readings than those known in Gill's day; and light has been cast upon the inspired records by explorations in the East, lately undertaken, and still in progress. But except in these features, Gill's commentary has the largest amount of valuable information ever presented to Christians, in the form of "Annotations on the Bible." The work was republished in Philadelphia by a Presbyterian elder in 1811; and in Ireland by an Episcopal clergyman some years ago. His other writings are numerous and of great merit. His works are still in demand at large prices on both sides of the Atlantic.
He was among the first contributors to Rhode Island College, now Brown University; and in his will he bequeathed a complete set of his works and fifty-two folio volumes of the fathers to that Institution. Dr. Manning stated at the time that "this was by far the greatest donation the little library of the college had as yet received." The works are still in the library at Providence.
Dr. Gill died in possession of perfect consciousness, and in the full enjoyment of the Saviour's love, Oct. 14, 1771. His death occasioned great sorrow, especially among the friends of truth throughout this country and Great Britain, and many funeral sermons were preached to commemorate his great worth.
Dr. Gill was of middle stature, neither tall nor short, he was well proportioned, a little inclined to corpulency, his countenance was fresh and healthful, and he enjoyed a serene cheerfulness which continued with him almost to the last.
He was one of the purest men that ever lived; the sovereign grace for which he so nobly waged war was his own refuge and strength, and it gave him a life-long victory over all outward and internal evils.
He was a man of great humility, though flattered by large numbers. He could honestly say, "By the grace of God I am what I am;" he felt the truth of this apostolic experience, and glorified sovereign grace.
He knew more of the Bible than anyone with whose writings we are acquainted. "Dr. Gill," says John Ryland, "leads into an ocean of divinity by a system of doctrinal and practical religion, and by a judicious and learned exposition of the Old and New Testaments."
The profound and pious Episcopalian, Toplady, who was frequently at a week-night lecture of Dr. Gill's, the author of the hymn, --
"Rock of Ages, shelter me, Let me hide myself In thee."
says of the doctor, "So far as the doctrines or the gospel are concerned, Gill never besieged an error which he did not force from its strongholds; nor did he ever encounter an adversary to truth whom he did not baffle and subdue. His doctrinal and practical writings will live and be admired, and be a standing blessing to posterity, when their opposers are forgotten, or only remembered by the refutations he has given them. While true religion and sound learning have a single friend remaining in the British Empire, the works and name of Gill will be precious and revered."
[From William Cathcart, editor, The Baptist Encyclopedia, 1881; rpt. 1988, pp. 452-4. - jrd]
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