Baptist History Homepage

Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict

First Decade

Chapter 4


FIFTY YEARS AGO it was as unconstitutional and unusual for ministers of our order to preach by note as it was for the old Scotch Seceders and many others; but extempore speaking was the almost universal practice. There was no established rule on the subject, but so decided and strong were the prejudices of the people against written discourses, that very few of our ministers ever presumed to use them. If at any time they saw fit to prepare written sermons, to relieve themselves and the people from embarrassment, they would announce the fact beforehand, as the following account will show: In 1807, one hundred years from the forming of the Philadelphia Association, the late Dr. Samuel Jones, by appointment, preached a century sermon before that body. This performance, the venerable preacher introduced by saying, "I have had it on my mind that it would be proper for me before I proceed, to confess openly, that I am not going to preach, but to read. * * * I
[p. 56]
must, however, observe that I think reading is admissible on particular occasions, especially such as the present, when the chief of what is to be said, is to be historical. * * * After saying this much, I need not be at any pains to conceal my notes. I had some thoughts of committing the whole to memory, but I did not like it very well, * * * by pretending to do what I did not. * * * I will now enter on the subject before us — 'Enlarge the place of thy tent,' etc."

Dr. Jones, in his remarks thus quoted, probably had more respect to popular prejudices than his own feelings; but from these remarks, especially those which have respect to concealing his notes, we may see the embarrassments under which ministers then labored, in this region, who wished to make use of any written preparations in their pulpit services. Many amusing accounts in the concealing operation might be given.

The notions of our people in Boston and vicinity were not so rigid in this business; still but few of our preachers, in all this part of our country, made any display of papers in the pulpit. If they employed any it was done with such care and dexterity as not to be generally observed.

Dr. Stillman had the reputation of preaching by note, but of doing it with such facility as to appear to speak in an extempore manner. A number of the
[p. 57]
pulpit preparations of this eminent divine are before me, which are rather ample skeletons than full discourses of common length.

With very few exceptions, in my early day, our most distinguished preachers pursued the extempore mode. After hearing Dr. Furman of Charleston, South Carolina, in his own pulpit, I find it entered in my journal, "he is a very correct extempore speaker."

A large majority of Baptist preachers in early times had no inclination to offend the people with written sermons, had they been capable of producing them, but as a new generation came up, with more education, a change gradually took place, not always for the better, however, in the vicar of many of the old members, in whose minds a broad distinction was still kept up between reading and preaching.

The Scotch system of writing and committing to memory, as Dr. Jones was inclined to do, was never practiced to any great extent among our ministers. When the new race, with permission, or without it, had surmounted the old extemporaneous barriers which had stood in the way of their predecessors, they found it more convenient to trust to their eyes than their memories, and as Baptists are more tolerant in this business than the Covenanters, the reading of sermons has become about as common with
[p. 58]
Baptists as Pedobaptists in many parts of the country. And what is a little singular, while many of our ministers are going into the practice with increasing expedition, many in old dynasties are going out of it as fast as possible.

On the Habits of our Ministers — Their Support — Circumstances — Trials — Faithfullness.
Fifty years ago, the ministers of our order were generally a hardy and active set of men. Then we never heard of a very prevalent disease of modern times, nor was it common to go on distant voyages for the restoration of health. Instead of this, they often sallied out on horseback into remote and destitute regions, as evangelical pioneers. This was done in many cases by ministers under pastoral engagements, who, after spending a few weeks or months in such services, would return to their pastoral stations.

How it happened that the ministers of that age, who were exposed to so many hardships and privations, who so often preached in log cabins and in other pent-up places, or in the open air, should have so much better organs of speaking, stronger lungs and firmer constitutions, than their successors, whose labors are so much less severe, and who are so much better cared for, I could never fully understand.

In my early experience among the Baptists, the
[p. 59]
spirit of preaching was very prevalent; and licensed or local preachers, who did not look forward to anypastoral charge, were so numerous in some of our old associations, that they out-numbered the ordained class.

It was very common with our old-fashioned preachers to open a door, as they called it, for others to speak; and the local preachers, and even the lay brotherhood, were included in invitations of this kind. This practice is still continued in many places.

At the period now alluded to, it was a very uncommon thing for any of our ministers to give up preaching or relinquish pastoral stations for the want of support. Instead of that, they would devise some way to support themselves and keep on their work; and what may seem a little singular, I have always found our ministers of property among the self-supporting class, rather than with those who have been well cared for by their people.

On the Ways in which Ministers Sustained Themselves and Families
A considerable number of our preachers in this age were physicians, some kept school, others followed trades, or were engaged in mercantile pursuits of different kinds; but by far the greatest part of them, throughout the whole range of our country,
[p. 60]
were literally farmer preachers; and in my extensive travels among them, I was somewhat disappointed in finding such a large portion of these laborious men, in their spiritual vocations, in such comfortable circumstances as to their worldly concerns. And not a few of them were wealthy compared with the citizens around them. Lands were cheap and were easily obtained, in a new and uncultivated state, and were paid for by degrees; and when a minister had commenced a settlement, his brethren and friends would join in log-rolling, and soon a farm would be secured for the family, by whom, for the most part, it was cultivated and cared for, while the head of it was engaged in evangelical labors in a wide circuit in his new location.

The early settlers in the western country went principally from the southern Atlantic States, in search of a more productive soil, and the advantages which new countries afford to the primitive occupants. Many Baptist ministers were found, among the swarm of emigrants who thus sallied over the mountains in pursuit of western homes, who had no certain places in view. In some eases, churches were formed by emigrating parties before they set out on their western tour, and ministers and people would travel and locate together. Such a body on the road, might be styled the church in the wilderness.
[p. 61]
To illustrate the vagueness of pastoral relations in the new settlements, I will mention that I found instances of ministers locating in desirable places, without any respect to a church, although they intended to continue their ministerial labors. As preachers then and there made no dependence on the people for support, their first object was to provide a home for their families, like other men; and when this was accomplished, their next business was to collect together the scattered sheep in the wilderness, organize them into churches, get up log meeting houses, and set in motion religious operations with as much regularity as a new country life would afford. Although the western regions, which were settled principally by emigrants from Virginia and the Carolinas, are here referred to, yet it is a well-known fact that half a century since most of our ministers, everywhere, were under the necessity of laboring and planning for their own support, and that the Baptists generally were more parsimonious in their doings in this line, than almost any other party in the country.

"The Lord keep thee humble, and we’ll keep thee poor," was then the doctrine of the South, according to Dr. Furman. "They loved the gospel, and they loved its ministers, but the sound of money drove all the good feelings from their heart," according to J. Leland.
[p. 62]
But still these same people were generous at their homes, so far as hospitality was concerned. In this business there was no stint nor reluctance.

The great mass of our ministers then had no settled income for their services, and where moderate sums were pledged, in too many cases they were slowly paid, if paid at all. Under these circumstances, the zeal and assiduity of so many laborious men is the wonder of the present age. Their perseverance in their ministerial work, in the midst of so much ingratitude and neglect on the part of the numerous churches which they planted, and the poverty and privations which they endured through the whole of their ministry, are matters of high commendation and grateful remembrance.

In that early age we seldom heard of any one retiring from a pastorship into ministerial inactivity, on account of the parsimony of the people; and very few non-preaching elders were then to be found.

In all the new countries in which our churches were planted, before the rise of any societies of sufficient means to support stationary ministers, the scar-city of ministers was so great that it was necessary for each one to divide his time among a number of churches. The support of the men was not the main thing, as in this business but little was attempted by the people, or expected by the hardy, self-denying
[p. 63]
gospel pioneers. The grand difficulty was, the men were not to be found, and out of this state of things arose the monthly system, so called, which began from necessity, but which has been thus far continued from choice, from neglect, or from some other cause, in most of our churches in the South and West. The attendance of a pastor once a month is all that is expected, and for a minister to have four churches under his care is a sure indication of his popularity. His name appears in the minutes of the association against the churches which claim him as their pastor. Where this system prevails, one of my churches, instead of my church, is the common language of minsters.

Thirty-day Baptists is a term which some have applied to those who thus manage their pastoral concerns.

In the cities and larger towns, through all the regions where the monthly system is still kept up, our churches generally have pastors in the usual manner, who have but one pulpit, and one congregation to care for; but in all the country parts of these regions, it was, and probably now is a thing of rare occurrence to find a minister every Sabbath in the same pulpit. If there has been a change from the monthly to the weekly system, it must have been made since I ceased traveling in the South and West. When I was last in Kentucky I found the late Dr. Noel the only Baptist minister in the whole State, where the
[p. 64]
denomination was very numerous, as it has been for half a century past, who had a support from the people he served, and this came from two churches, one in the city of Frankfort, the capital, the other at the Great Crossings, a few miles distant. To these two bodies he preached every alternate Sabbath.

A Brief Account of a Monthly Pastor
On my first visit to Georgia, I found the late Jesse Mercer the pastor of four substantial Baptist churches, each of which Were able to give him a comfortable support. At this time, and during a subsequent visit to this efficient coadjutor in my historical pursuits, I went the rounds of his quadruple engagements in the pastoral line. As the churches had the communion monthly, the pastor, of course, administered the service weekly, and consequently was, himself, a weekly communicanist.

Saturday, with all monthly meeting churches, is the day for church meetings for all kinds of business, secular and devotional; and Mr. Mercer delivered discourses at the houses of the members who were remote from the central point, while going to and returning from it; and as these four churches were for the most part contiguous to each other, a portion of the members would be found at the second station on the succeeding Sabbath, and so on for the whole of the circuit.
[p. 65]
One small item in this fourfold pastorship yet remains to be named: as there are fifty-two Sabbaths in the year, and Mr. Mercer's four churches claimed but forty-eight, the four days' overplus, once in three months, he gave to a feeble body, outside of the circle of his usual labors.

And after all the close figuring of this combination of able churches, for the pastoral care of a very worthy and laborious man, so limited were their contributions for his support, that he found it needful to have the care of a farm and other secular concerns at home.

The above account affords a sample of the manner in which monthly pastorships were conducted at the time here referred to. In many cases, however, able ministers had a less number of churches under their care.

The reader may infer from the foregoing account that the churches in the regions of this monthly system are without ministers or meetings three fourths of the time. But this is not always, and, perhaps we may say, not generally the case. Other ministers of less notoriety on the ground, or those of the itinerating class from other parts, often preach in the places left vacant by the stationed pastors.

Voting supplies for the churches which were destitute of all pastoral aid, was an important item in the
[p. 66]
doings of our old associations. This method was pursued, before any arose, for the promotion of missionary labors of the most limited and temporary kind. This practice prevailed mostly in the northern States.

Fifty years ago there were but little more than thirty Baptist ministers in all the country who had been through a course of collegiate training, and but eight on whom the title of D. D. had been conferred. Manning, Foster and Smith had died before that time.

On the Permanency of Pastoral Relations
In all times our ministers of a certain class have often changed their locations, or, as the phrase is, have been on wheels; but, on the whole, there has unquestionably been a great increase in the frequency of ministerial removals, during the last half century.

In the cities and principal towns, in my early day, the pastors of our churches, generally, were retained in office till old age; and in many other locations, in all the States, there was a large class of pastors who lived and died in the places of their early settlement. If they were not eminent, or attractive as preachers, and if a portion, or even a majority of their congregations, would have preferred other men, a change could not then be so easily effected as now. Many of these men lived on their own foundations; they had always supported themselves, and on the
[p. 67]
score of living were wholly independent of their people, who, from their neglectful and parsimonious habits, would have found it very difficult to raise a support for a new man.

This difficulty often occurred when the old incumbent ceased from his labors, or voluntarily resigned his charge.

The causes of ministerial removals and changes, a half a century since, were not so numerous or pressing as they have been for many years pass. Then the vehement spirit of numerical gain in the churches, and the restless desire for available ministers for the augmentation of congregations, had hardly begun to show itself. The old staid churches had more respect to the sound and certain teachings of their ministers than to any thing merely captivating in their discourses. Again, the numerous excitements of modern times, about matters foreign to the work of ministers of the gospel, in which not a few of our more modern pastors have been involved, and by means of which many have been run off the track, were unknown in my early intercourse with the Baptists. Once more: the influence of restless deacons to effect pastoral changes was then but feeble compared with later years. It was, indeed, felt more or less in some few churches, but it was afterwards greatly increased, and many an embarrassed pastor has been obliged to
[p. 68]
succumb to its controlling sway. Finally, a scanty income was not always a sufficient reason for a ministerial change, in the public mind, or in that of the minister himself, but often he would hold on, year after year, under the most embarrassing circumstances, rather than leave his flock in a pastorless condition.

In those days, while church members were generally quite poor, and as many of them, had come from the Pedobaptists of different parties, they were exposed to opposition and reproach of a painful nature; and on these accounts there was a very strong sympathy and affection on the part of the pastor towards these poor and despised people, and a reluctance to leave them without an under shepherd, was stronger than is now felt by many ministers in their sudden changes.

[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 55-68. -- jrd]

Go to the Next Chapter
Return to American Baptist Histories
Return to HOME Page