FIVE DECADES, OR PERIODS OF TEN YEARS EACH. — MY TRAVELS AND EXTENSIVE ACQUAINTANCE WITH BAPTIST MINISTERS IN EARLY TIMES. — SUMMARY VIEW OF THE BAPTISTS ABOUT 1800. — NO PERIODICALS. — OLD BAPTIST MAGAZINE. — MITE SOCIETIES. — BUT FEW EDUCATED MINISTERS. — RISE OF BENEVOLENT INSTITUTIONS.
THIS work is arranged in five decades, and is the result of my own observations from the early part of this century to the present time.
The following reminiscences were undertaken as an episode in the severe historical studies in which I had then (1856) been steadily and closely engaged about eight years, and while I was waiting for some works to come out, and come over, which were needful for the completion of my Compendium of Ecclesiastical History.
As I have outlived most of my contemporaries, and have had considerable knowledge of Baptist affairs for the last half century, and having a desire, moreover, of recording whatever facts, with which I have been familiar, which were not found in my historical work, and which may be useful to our future historians — all
these considerations have induced me to prepare the subsequent sketches.
My Own Times was the title which at first occurred to me as suitable to affix to this work, but as I did not design to enter into the details of events which have come under my observation so fully as the publications thus named have generally done, nor say so much of my own doings as has been said by the authors of the works here referred to, but merely to carry on my narratives by the use of the first person, I finally, on mature deliberation, decided on the above appellation for my diffusive memoirs.
There was a time when I claimed to be personally acquainted with more ministers of our order, to have traveled more extensively among the Baptists in this country, to have enjoyed the hospitality of more Baptist families, and to be more familiar with all the concerns of all classes of Baptists, than any man then living. But when Mr. Rice, and after him other agents, engaged in their extensive explorations in favor of missions and other objects of Christian benevolence, I stood in the background for a long course of years. Subsequently, however, when I reengaged in collecting materials for Baptist history, with post office facilities for extending my information, together with more expeditious modes of traveling, and an increased number of correspondents, I in part regained my former
position in the knowledge of our denominational affairs.
But for a number of years past, my old system of traveling and corresponding has been mostly laid aside, and I have been losing in the acquisition of that kind of knowledge which was formerly my main pursuit. Books of different kinds, ancient and modern, Catholic and Protestant, in number not a few, on the affairs of the whole of Christendom, in all ages and countries, of all churches, sects and parties, great or small, of all creeds and opinions, have been my principal companions, and the objects of my research, in a number of the best libraries of this region, both public and private.
As the work in which I am about to engage, embraces about fifty years, I propose to arrange my notes and discussions, which will have respect principally to my own experience and observations, under five divisions of about ten years each, and thus to speak of the events which happened, or the state of things which existed during each succeeding decade. As my narratives and comments will be summary and diffusive, I shall endeavor to pass on in my details by easy transitions, without referring to dates, only in general terms.
My main object in these memoirs being to record such minor matters as could not well be incorporated
in my late historical publication consistently with the brevity of my plan for that work, I shall say but little respecting the doings of the Baptists previous to the commencement of the present century, when I went over to them from the Church of England, which, at that time, hung in colonial dependence on the ordaining power at home.
But for the sake of exhibiting comparative views hereafter of the growth of the Baptists in this country, I will give at this point a few of the statistics of the denomination toward the close of the last century.
According to Asplund's Register, the whole membership of Baptists of all sects, in 1790, including all the unassociated churches, was about sixty-five thousand, a much less number at that time, in all North America, than is now found in each of the States of New York, Virginia, Georgia and Kentucky.
From Backus and others we learn that in those times there was an unusual declension in religion throughout the country, which continued for a number of years. Among my epistolary documents I find a letter from Morgan J. Rhees, a Baptist minister from Wales, addressed to Dr. Furman of Charleston, South Carolina, in which reference is had to the low state of religion in all the northern States, in 1795. "The only revival I know of this year, has been in New Hampshire," was his summary and
gloomy account. This Mr. Rhees was then on an exploring expedition in the middle States, in favor of a colony of his countrymen, who finally settled at a place they named Beulah, in the mountainous parts of Pennsylvania.
Under these circumstances, the progress of the Baptists was so slow that in the opening of the nineteenth century their whole number was but about eighty thousand, and as yet there were no seceding parties in the country. Then, about one fourth of all the Baptists in America were in Virginia; Massachusetts and North Carolina had about eight thousand each, while the State of New York, which now reports almost ninety thousand members, had then, but a little over five thousand. In all the other States the number was still less. At the time here had in view, no churches of our order were reported in any part of the Canadas, but a few in Nova Scotia, and none west of the Mississippi river; and in the vast region west of the Ohio river, then called the North-western Territory, in which have since arisen the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and other States and Territories, the whole membership of our order was less than two thousand. Now, counting only the associated class, the number amounts to over a hundred thousand.
In a little more than ten years from the last-mentioned date, our communicants amounted to about
two hundred thousand, and at present, including the British provinces in America and the West India islands, the number may be set down at about a million, reckoning all who bear the Baptist name. And if we add to the sum those who are Baptists in fact, although not so in name, the grand total foots up over one million and a quarter.
The reader must bear in mind that, in all Baptist statistics, only actual church members are counted, while some other societies reckon their whole population.
Fifty years ago, or about that period, when I was taking a survey of the state of our denomination, with a view to the historical researches which I have since pursued, I found the society in what was then considered a very prosperous condition, and their number was rapidly increasing. For a few years then past, the very extensive revivals of religion, which had prevailed in most of the United States, then seventeen in number, had caused changes in the tone and efforts of our people, and in the enlargement of their boundaries very grateful to the whole community. The general aspect of its affairs was the subject of common remark and devout congratulation. The wonderful accounts of these revivals, which had been communicated from one region to another by letters of private correspondence, by the minutes of associations, and by
the aid of a few pamphlets which had been issued for the purpose, led the long-despised and persecuted Baptists to thank God and take courage. Indeed, in the language of commercial men, the state of things among them on the whole was satisfactory, and probably at no period since have they been favored with such a rapid increase in their churches; seen in their members more fully developed the genuine spirit of the gospel; been so well united in faith and practice throughout the whole country, north and south, east and west; and been so free from jars and schisms, ites and isms, the apples of discord and the bones of contention.
The severe conflict of our brethren in Virginia, with the whole Church establishment, had long since subsided, and they were no longer subjected to legal restraint and disabilities; and the "according-to-law" system of New England, with which the obnoxious Baptists had, in many cases and places, been exceedingly annoyed from early times, was nearly extinct, and all were left at liberty to attend what meetings and hear and support what ministers they chose.
Fifty years ago, the number of educated ministers of the Baptist faith was very small, and the means of education, so far as our people were concerned, were on a very limited scale. Brown University, then called Rhode Island College, with only one building,
was the only collegiate establishment under the Baptist name, in the whole country. A few private academies were, or had been, in operation, where classical studies were pursued; and among these institutions, that established by Elder Williams at Wrentham, Massachusetts, at an early day, was the most important in New England. Here, a large number of our young men, who were candidates for the ministry, were fitted for college, as were also a considerable number who engaged in other pursuits. As this then famous school was but a few miles from Pawtucket, I often visited it while the aged teacher was engaged in his classical teachings.
A few education societies had been formed in those early times for the purpose of affording pecuniary aid to theological students who here and there appeared among us, and it is not a little interesting to trace the progress of some of these feeble beginnings to a seminary growth, and, in the end, to collegiate maturity.
Should any one inquire of the missionary cause among the American Baptists, fifty years ago, the account is soon rendered, and the total amount of their doings up to that time may be thus stated: a few small societies for domestic missions had been established in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and a few other places, by the aid of which, missionaries were sent out, under
to destitute regions. The society in Boston was the oldest and most efficient of these bodies; and there, and I think elsewhere, female mite societies were among the principal contributors to these small organizations. In a few cases these efforts were directed toward the moral and spiritual benefit of the aborigines of our country. Elder Rooker, who was the first missionary of the Charleston society, was sent to labor among the remnantof the Catawba Indians in South Carolina. About the same time, the New York society sent Elder Elkanah Holmes on a mission among the Six Nations, so called, on the northern frontier of the State. This confederacy of Mohawks, Oneidas, and other Indian tribes, has ever since received missionary aid from the brethren of this State.
The Boston society went on a broad scale, and sent out missionaries to destitute regions in a number of the northern States, and also over the line into the Canadas and Nova Scotia. Stillman, Smith, Baldwin, Gano, Grafton, and other active ministers of that age, were among the principal founders and promoters of this northern institution for missions.
As yet, at no point did the leaders of our missionary enterprise appear to entertain the idea of having their missionaries, who were generally engaged only for a few weeks or months at a time, stop long in any
one place. But to travel and preach, to search out the scattered sheep in the wilderness, to afford them transient opportunities of the means of grace, and of ministerial visitations, were the objects chiefly aimed at in all these early and benevolent undertakings. All the missionary societies above referred to, expended not far from thirty thousand dollars in the course of about ten years. This was then considered a noble effort, for the whole denomination, in the cause of missions. And beside this, a number of associations made annual collections for missionary purposes, which were expended under their own direction.
A number of our oldest State conventions grew out of the early societies for domestic missions.
The tract cause was still more in its infancy than that of missions, if its existence had now commenced, although our Boston brethren made early movements in this line, as some of the old untrimmed and rough-looking documents of this sort published by them, give evidence. "Give me the little book," I well remember was the familiar language of Dr. Baldwin in an association, at an early day, while recommending these minor publications, which were then beginning to circulate among our people.
The Bible cause, in the modern sense of the term, was not engaged in by any religious community in this country at the period now under review. The
British and Foreign Bible Society was formed in 1804, and it was twelve years later before the old American institution arose, with which a portion of our people became identified.
Sunday Schools and Bible classes, and all the other institutions of modern times, for objects of Christian benevolence and moral reform, which are now in such successful operation with us, and other communities in the land, were wholly unknown in my early day. And as to the Baptist periodicals, nothing of the kind then existed, but the old Missionary Magazine, and the minutes of associations. These were the only means of circulating information on Baptist affairs in a printed form, from one end of the country to the other. The idea of a religious newspaper was then nowhere entertained, nor did any one think of going to the secular press with articles of a religious cast. The old magazine, which I have always nourished with great affection from its origin, and have gathered up all the old numbers I could find, for future use, was begun in Boston in 1803, and became the organ of the old domestic missionary society, lately named. It was published quarterly for twelve years; after that it was issued monthly. The first four volumes, called the old series, are now very scarce, and difficult to be obtained. I had nearly completed a second set of this work, which I designed to present
to some literary institution, when I, gave my old friend and coadjutor, Peck of Illinois, the offer to select from it all that was needful to repair his loss by fire, a few years since, with the mutual understanding that the work should finally be deposited in the library of Shurtliff College, Illinois, a favorite institution of this its early patron and friend. But still a large portion of the set is left, with an abundant supply of almost all numbers of the work, which I would be glad to put into the hands of any one who will carry out my original design, and he may select the place of deposit.
Dr. Baldwin, the projector of this now venerable pioneer in the periodical line, among the American Baptists, was for many years the life and soul of the concern, and I well remember the pigeon hole in his study, as he called it, from which once in three months he drew out the communications and selections which had been accumulating for his next number.
As our brethren of that age had never known any greater facilities for spreading information among the people, or for promoting evangelical and benevolent designs, and had but faint hopes of any great improvements for the future, they seemed well satisfied with what now seems an intolerable state of privation.
The modes of traveling, also, in those days, how
slow, laborious and costly compared with the present time.
When I look back I can hardly realize the changes which have taken place in our denomination, in my day, in the means of intelligence and benevolence. It seems almost incredible that a society which so lately was so slow to engage in any new enterprise, and was so jealous of any collegiate training for its ministers, should at this early period have so many colleges and kindred institutions spread over the land; that such a flood of periodicals of different kinds should so soon be added to the old magazine; that so much should have been done by this people in the home and foreign mission departments, in the Bible cause, in the publication of Baptist literature, in Sunday Schools and Bible classes, and in kindred labors of various kinds; and all since I first began to collect the scanty and scattered materials for their history.
But, in the absence of the facilities of more modern times, at the period now had in view, our brethren performed a great amount of labor, under all their disadvantages, and amidst all the hindrances with which they were surrounded. Then each man did his own work, and the whole body depended less on agents and substitutes than at the present time.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 15-27. — jrd]