I’m reading Peter Morden’s Offering Christ to the World: Andrew Fuller and the Revival of Eighteenth Century Particular Baptist Life. May not sound tremendously interesting until you understand that Fuller was the British theologian that most directly undergirded the movement resulting in William Carey traveling to India. Indeed, Fuller was arguably the key figure in creating, sustaining, and defending the missionary society that sent and supported Carey (the “Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen”!).
At any rate, a pamphlet with “intemperate” language about Islam had been inadequately vetted by Carey and his colleagues before it went to press and began to be distributed in India. The reaction alarmed British traders, who feared for their pecuniary interests. One particular writer, Thomas Twining (tea aficionados will rightly recognize the last name!) produced a pamphlet protesting the activities of the British missionaries in India, arguing that their efforts actually contradicted the “mild and tolerant spirit of Christianity.”
In response, Fuller produced an apology for the efforts of Carey and his colleagues, and his argument needs to be heard today in the face of forced “tolerance” of intolerable positions. Fuller argued that “toleration was a legal permission not only to enjoy your own principles unmolested, but to make use of all the fair means of persuasion to recommend them to others” (Morden 144). Morden rightly avers that Fuller “turned the tables” on Twining, arguing that it was actually Twining that was demonstrating intolerance by insisting on a non-proselyting stance by the missionaries.
What struck me about this incident — which happened just over 200 years ago! — is how it resonates with the redefinition of “tolerance” in our own age and culture. Elsewhere in his apology (which was addressed to the chairman of the East India trading company, hence the “sir” of direct address), Fuller notes,
I have observed with pain, sir, [in recent] years, a notion of toleration, entertained even by some who would be thought its firmest advocates, which tends not only to abridge, but to subvert it. They have no objection to Christians of any denomination enjoying their own opinions, and, it may be, their own worship; but they must not be allowed to make proselytes. . . . Sir, I need not say to you that this is not toleration, but persecution.
Perhaps we have moved even a bit further in adjusting “tolerance” to the spirit of the age: Fuller noted that it was considered by men such as Twining to be acceptable for Christians to hold their own opinions, so long as they eschewed proselytization. In our own day, even the right to hold one’s own opinions seems to be under attack — or at least the right to air them openly.
(See further on this general topic, D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance. Fuller’s apology is formally titled “An Apology for the Late Christian Missions to India.”)