THOMAS FULLER, an eminent historian and divine of the church of England in the 17th century, was the son of the parish-minister of Aldwinkle, in Northamptonshire, in which village he was born about the year 1608. He received the elements of instruction under the paternal roof, but at a very early age was sent to Queen's college, Cambridge, of which his maternal uncle, Dr. Davenant, was master, and where he pursued his studies with such vigour and success that he took the degree of A.B. in 1624, and that of A.M. in 1628. During his residence in Queen's college he stood candidate for a vacant fellowship, being urged thereto by the desire of the whole house, but upon its being ascertained that there existed a statute against the admission of two fellows from Northamptonshire, he instantly withdrew his claim to the vacant preferment, though assured that the strict terms of the statute would be dispensed with in his case, choosing rather that his private interests should suffer, than that any invasion should be perpetuated on the laws and privileges of the college. Soon after — the author of his Life, printed at Oxford in 1662, informs us — "his great sufficiencies (being now about twenty-three years of age), tendered him a prebendary of Salisbury, and at the same time a fellowship in Sydney college. He had been previously chosen minister of St Bennet's parish, in the town of Cambridge, in which church he 'offered the first fruits of his ministerial functions.'" The same year in which he obtained his prebend and fellowship was distinguished by the commencement of his career as an author in the publication of a poem entitled David's Heinous Sin, Heartie Repentance, and Heavie Punishment, a piece now little known.
On being ordained priest, he was presented to the rectory of Broad Windsor, in Dorsetshire, where he exercised his ministerial functions with great diligence and acceptance. In 1635, he proceeded B.D., and soon after, entered into the married state with a young lady, who was early removed from him by death. It was during his recess at his country rectory that he began to complete several of his works, the plans of which had been sketched, and foundations laid by him whilst at the university. His Historie of the Holy Wars first appeared in folio, in 1640, but its dedication to the hon. Edward Montagu and Sir John Powlett is dated the 6th of March, 1688. Shortly after the publication of this work, which became immediately popular, "growing weary of the narrow limits of a country-parish, and uneasy at the unsettled state of public affairs," he removed to London; an additional reason for this step probably was the desire of readier access to books and learned men — "walking and standing libraries," as he quaintly talks of — than a country situation afforded him. In the metropolis "he preached with great applause in the most eminent pulpits, especially in the Inns of Court, and was speedily chosen lecturer in the Savoy, the duties of which office he discharged with prodigious success." The concourse of hearers which flocked to him was so great that — to use the language of his just biographer — "his own cure were in a sense excommunicated from the church, unless their timeous diligence kept pace with their devotions. He had in his narrow chapel, two audiences — one without the pale, the other within — the windows of that little church and the sextonry so crowded as if bees had swarmed to his mellifluous discourse." He was chosen a member of the convocation at Westminster, which met in Henry the Seventh's chapel in 1640, and was one of the select committee appointed to draw up new canons for the better government of the church.
Fuller was never a warm partisan; yet it could not be said of him that he "was so supple that he brake not a joint in all the alterations of the times." During the troublous period embraced by the reign of Charles I. and the commonwealth, he adhered firmly to the royal cause; his efforts to serve it, both in public and private, were earnest and unremitting, and drew upon him the obloquy and disaster which naturally attach to a defeated party in the high struggle for political ascendancy. After the king had quitted London, previously to the commencement of hostilities against his parliament, Fuller, on the anniversary of his majesty's inauguration, in 1642, preached at Westminster Abbey, from the text, "Yea, let them take all, so that my lord, the king, return in peace," — 2 Sam. xix. 30. This sermon having been published, gave great offence to the popular leaders of the day, and brought the preacher into some danger. About this period he completed and published The Holy State, in one volume folio. This is generally regarded as one of the best, if not the best in every respect of his numerous works. The Profane State is to be classed along with it; both being a series of moral portraits illustrated occasionally by biographical sketches. The idea of these works, it has been suggested, was probably taken from Causines's Holy Court: we should think it more probable that the Characterisms of Virtues and Vices, by Bishop Hall, gave the hint. During the ferment and conflict of the civil war, he prosecuted his studies as he had opportunity. In 1643, he joined the king at Oxford, and he afterwards attended Sir Ralph Hopton as his army-chaplain. After the battle at Cheriton-down, in March, 1644, we find our chaplain at Basing House, where he so animated the garrison to a vigorous defence of that place, that Sir William Waller was obliged to raise the siege with considerable loss. On Hopton's retreat into Cornwall, Fuller took refuge in Exeter, where he preached regularly to the citizens, and was appointed chaplain to the infant-princess, Henrietta Maria, who was born in that city in 1643. On the surrender of Exeter to the parliamentary forces, in April, 1646, he removed again to London, and was chosen lecturer, first at St. Clement's Lane, Lombard Street, and afterwards at St. Bride's.
About 1648, he was presented by the earl of Carlisle to the living of Waltham in Essex. Two years after, he published a geographical account of the Holy Land, which he entitled, A Pisgah sight of Palestine, and the Confines thereof, in folio, with maps and views; and in 1650 appeared his Abel Redivivus, a collection of lives of eminent martyrs, saints, and confessors. After having lived about twelve years a widower, he married again, making choice of one of the sisters of Viscount Baltinglasse for his new helpmate; but he still found time and means to pursue his multiform studies, and gratify his taste for authorship. In 1656 he published his Church History, at London, in folio. The whole title of this work is, The Church History of Britain from the birth of Jesus Christ, until the year 1648. Endeavoured by Thomas Fuller. This performance was severely animadverted on by Dr. Peter Heylin in his Examen Historicum, which appeared about three years after. It is also treated with quite too much asperity of censure by Archbishop Nicolson, who complains of its being "so interlaced with pun and quibble, that it looks as if the man had designed to ridicule the annals of our church into fable and romance." To Heylin Fuller replied with much ingenuity and candour. In 1658, the living of Crauford, in Middlesex, was bestowed upon him, and he removed thither. On the Restoration, he received his prebend in the cathedral of Salisbury, and was appointed extraordinary chaplain to his majesty besides being created D.D. at Cambridge by royal mandamus. He would have been further rewarded with a bishopric, had it not been prevented by his death, which happened on the 16th of August, 1661. He was interred in the chancel of Crauford church; above two hundred of his clerical brethren accompanied his remains to the grave, and Dr. Hardy, dean of Rochester, preached his funeral sermon. His principal work, entitled, The Worthies of England, was published the year after his death. In it Fuller has given a diffuse and rather minute account of the remarkable men and things in each of the several shires of England and Wales; it contains not a little of serious trifling, but is a valuable repository of curious facts, and abounds with pithy sayings and amusing anecdotes.
The following able estimate of Fuller and his writings appeared in the Christian Examiner, an American periodical: "Fuller was regarded as an extraordinary man by his contemporaries; and the judgment has been and will be confirmed, the more he is known. That he had his share in the literary faults of his age, is not to be disputed, and they who will judge his writings by no standard but such as is applied at the present day, will doubtless find much to be offended with. But it would be gross injustice to deny his claim to great and distinguishing excellence. He possessed a capacious and vigorous mind — filled even to overflowing with the knowledge to be gained from books and men — strong in its native powers, and kept bright by habits of keen and astute observation. His astonishing power of memory was, perhaps never surpassed by that of any individual. His learning, large and various as its stores were, appears never to have overlaid his intellect but to have been used, if not always necessarily, yet aptly and for purposes truly connected with the matter in hand, and not in that tasteless and diffuse manner which marked the compositions of not a few of his contemporaries. As a reasoner, in the restricted sense of the word, he is not distinguished. His excellence consisted rather in that practical and sagacious turn of mind which arrives at valuable results, without going through the process of premises and inferences, and which spreads out the fruits of its meditations in sage and amusing remarks on life and on the springs of human character and passions. We know not where we should find a richer fund of this sort of entertaining wisdom, than is to be had in many of his pages.
"The quality which is usually thought to stand out in most striking relief in Fuller's works is his untiring humour. This was indeed the ruling passion of his soul. He could say nothing without saying it, if possible, quaintly and facetiously. It seems to have been a lesson of self-denial which he never learned, to pass by a jocose turn of thought or expression, and leave it unused. If there were two ways of stating a sentiment or giving a description, the one literal and grave, the other witty and allusive, he was pretty sure to choose the latter. Yet, this quality, Fuller, though he surpassed some others, was far from being alone. We are accustomed to consider the divines of two centuries ago as grave, dignified, and stern men, whose countenances never relaxed into a smile, and who wrote and thought, as they are imagined to have lived and walked, only in the old-fashioned clerical stateliness. Yet the fact is, that many of them indulged in a vein of humour, and sometimes broad humour too, in their preaching and writings, which would be altogether startling to the men of these degenerate days. We wonder what an audience would think now, were they to hear such gibes and jests as were not unfrequently uttered from English pulpits, in the reigns of Elizabeth, James, the first and second Charles, and even at an earlier period. Who ever has read Latimer's sermons must remember that he relates many a mirthful anecdote in them, and sometimes with the prefatory remark, that he is about to tell 'a merry toy.' The sermons of John Hales of Eton are not wanting in strokes of facetiousness which might be deemed free enough for the pleasantry of familiar conversation. The raillery and wit of Eachard would not fail in comparison with those of Swift; and the unsparing sarcasms, and coarse but pungent ridicule of South, are well known to all who have looked into his strange but valuable discourses, which are the productions of a strong mind, given up to the impulse of a feeling at least equally strong. But the facetious qualities of Fuller, abundant as they were to a fault, were always good natured and free from asperity, the spontaneous glee of a mind that had an irresistible propensity to disport itself in this sort of pastime. It was not sharp enough to answer to his own description of the wit of Erasmus, who, he says, 'was a badger in his jeers; when he did bite he would make his teeth meet.' Calamy, in his life of Howe, having mentioned the services which Howe rendered to several of the royalists and episcopalians, when they were brought before the Tryers, appointed in Cromwell's time to test their qualifications for the exercise of the ministry, relates the following characteristical anecdote of Fuller: — Among the rest that applied to him for advice upon that occasion, the celebrated Dr. Thomas Fuller, who is well known by his punning writings, was one. That gentleman, who was generally upon the merry pin, being to take his turn before these Tryers, of whom he had a very formidable notion, thus accosted Mr. Howe, when he applied to him for advice: — 'Sir,' said he, 'you may observe I am a pretty corpulent man, and I am to go through a passage that is very strait: I beg you would be so kind as to give me a shove, and help me through.' He freely gave him his advice, and he promised to follow it; and when he appeared before them, and they proposed to him the usual question — Whether he had ever had any experience of a work of grace upon his heart, — he gave this in for answer, that he could appeal to the Searcher of hearts that he made conscience of his very thoughts; with which answer they were satisfied, as indeed well they might. One cannot but suspect that the Tryers were too glad to be well-rid, at any rate, of a man like Fuller, not to grant him a dispensation on easy terms."
A new edition of Fuller's Worthies, with his life prefixed, appeared in 1810, in two vols. 4to. His Holy and Profane States were republished in America, in 1831. A portrait of Fuller, by Loggan, is prefixed to the folio edition of his Worthies, and also to his Pisgah Sight.