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Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict

First Decade

Chapter 5


FIFTY YEARS AGO, not an agent for collecting funds for any object of benevolence or literature was to be seen in the whole Baptist field. Some pastor of an embarrassed church would occasionally sally out in different directions in search of aid for finishing his house of worship, or for clearing off its encumbrance of debts.

Long before this time, agencies and efforts, somewhat vigorous and extensive, in this country and England, had been employed in favor of Rhode Island College, then struggling for existence amidst poverty and embarrassments. In these undertakings, Dr. Smith, in this country, and Morgan Edwards, in the mother realm, acted conspicuous parts. Smith went as far south as Georgia; Edwards traversed England, Ireland, etc., and met with very good success, considering, to use his own words, "how angry the mother country was with the colonies for opposing the stamp act."

No one then dreamed of so soon seeing such an army of agents in the field, for so many different objects,
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and that the business would become a distinct vocation, of indispensable necessity, for carrying forward our benevolent plans, and for performing our denominational work.

The principal agents, in my early day, were found in our sisterhood, for collecting mites, in aid of a few small societies for the support of domestic missions, and for the promotion of ministerial education. These agents were self-supporting and unobtrusive.

A General View of Houses of Worship among the American Baptists in the Commencement of this Century
In my brief description of our church edifices, in my early acquaintance with them, I shall refer, in the first place, to those in the principal towns and cities on the Atlantic coast; next, to those of the better sort, in interior regions; and finally, to shanties and log cabins in the new settlements.

In Boston, the houses occupied by Drs. Stillman and Baldwin, when I first saw them, were commodious and in good repair, but they were barn-fashioned buildings, destitute of any architectural style or attraction.

The house in which the late Dr. Sharp officiated more than forty years, was dedicated in 1807. This building was then considered number one, of the kind, among the Massachusetts Baptists.
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The old church in Providence, Rhode Island, now an octogenarian among church buildings, was, I think, the only one then existing in this country, and perhaps in any other, for Baptists, which was planned by scientific rules. A Baptist meeting house, of such broad dimensions, with a steeple two hundred feet high, and all in so much architectural taste, was a wonder to our people far and near. I myself was not a little surprised, when I first saw this stately temple, at being informed that it was the place of meeting for our plain, old-fashioned sort of people, as I had resided mostly in a region of country where our people would not suppose there could be found any Holy Ghost in such a house as that: and where, moreover, they had been accustomed to associate steeple houses with formalism, bigotry and intolerance. The American Baptists then had no zeal for steeples — the cost of them was a hindrance, if nothing else; and our British brethren could not have them if they would, as the law of the country did not allow of them among dissenters. To this prohibition, some have thought, the Providence people meant to refer in the inscription on their first great bell, which read thus:

"For freedom of conscience the town was first planted,
Persuasion, not force, was used by the people;
This church is the oldest, and has not recanted,
Enjoying, and granting bell, temple and steeple."

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A drawing of this then superior building for Baptist worship to any in America, was sent to Dr. Rippen of London, who published it in his Annual Register more than sixty years ago.

In the whole of Connecticut, my native State, our people had no good houses of worship, anywhere. In Hartford was one of small dimensions, in New Haven none at all.

A similar account may be given of the entire State of New York, except one building in the city, belonging to the first church, then located in Gold street. This was a substantial stone edifice, then but lately erected. It bid fair to last for ages, and might have done so, but for the uptown fever among the people, who, under the ministry of the late Dr. Cone, reared their costly temple in that direction.

In Philadelphia, the famous rotunda, or round house, commonly called Dr. Staughton’s church, in Sansom street, was an object of much attention in its early day, for its size, being ninety feet in diameter, for the singularity of its form, and for the large assemblies which the eloquence of its famous pastorcollected there. Besides this, there were three good buildings of an ordinary form, for Baptist use, in this Quaker city, where, if I remember right, there were but two steeples on the church houses of any denomination. In one of these churches, Bishop White
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officiated, and the other was also of the Episcopal order.

In Baltimore, was one church for Baptists, of the first class, for that age.

In Washington city there was then but one small house for Baptist use, which was of an unattractive appearance.

The same may be said of Richmond, Virginia. This edifice, after a number of additions, has fallen into the hands of the colored people, and is the resort of a very large church of our order.

Dr. Furman's church, the only one in Charleston, South Carolina, for the Baptists, was a good, commodious building. The same may be said of those in Beaufort and Savannah.

In this hasty sketch I have included all our church edifices of the first class in this country, at the date of these reminiscences, and but few of the best of them would be considered very splendid or costly in these times. In my early day, twenty-five thousand dollars was considered a very large sum to expend on a house for religious worship. But a small portion of those referred to in the foregoing summary statements cost so much, independent of their sites, which in some cases had been occupied by former buildings.

In the second class of meeting houses, almost every grade could then be seen, from plain, well-finished
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buildings to those of a very inferior character; and many of all classes were in a state of dilapidation and neglect. The further back we go, the less we see of the credit system among the Baptists in this business, and also of seeking aid far from home. They then went according to their own means, and made the best of their humble sanctuaries.

Compound motions in meeting-house operations were considerably in vogue in former times, which did not always work well. The way this was done, different societies would unite in getting up a place of worship, to be owned in common, and to be used in turn. Such houses were of course of the omnium gatherum kind, and were very common in their use. So limited were the means of our people in those times, and so closely were they obliged to calculate in planning their meeting houses, that school rooms were sometimes fitted up in them. In other cases, you might see stores and warehouses underneath them. In the basement of one of these buildings a grocery store was in fall operation, in which, according to former custom, the ardent article constituted no small partof the trade. This gave occasion for some wag to place on the building the following lines:

"There's a spirit above and a spirit below,
A spirit of joy and a spirit of woe;
The spirit above is the spirit divine,
The spirit below is the spirit of wine."

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We will now make a few remarks on the lowest grade of Baptist meeting houses, half a century since.

In all new settlements in this country, log cabins are generally the first edition of dwellings for families, and also of sanctuaries for religious assemblies; and how many thousands of the best of meetings have been held, by multitudes of our people, in rude and unsightly structures of this kind, from the Canadas to the remotest parts of the South and West. In my early travels I saw enough of them to form some opinion of the inconveniences of new country life, and my complaint of the people in these countries, and in the older regions, too, has often been, that they were too remiss in providing more comfortable and commodious houses for religious worship, and that they kept in old and desolate buildings in some cases, and in log cabins in others, long after their early family mansions had been exchanged for those of a far superior style. In view of this neglect of our people in former times, how often have the words of the prophet, respecting the ceiled houses of the people, and the desolation of the house of God, occurred to my mind.

But after suffering greatly in their own comfort and conveniences, and by their parsimony and neglect hindered the growth of many societies and of the denomination at large, Baptist communities, in encouraging
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numbers, have aroused to new and vigorous efforts in this business; so that for a few years past the spirit of erecting new edifices for Baptist use, and repairing old ones, has much increased. Very often now, in different quarters, we hear of near undertakings in this line, and the danger at present is, that at some points they may go to the other extreme, and go as much too far in future, in splendor and profuseness, as they did of old in parsimony and plainness.

In my youthful days, the old Baptists never paid any bills for stained glass and inside adornments of their most finished religious temples.

In the times here referred to, our people were well satisfied if they could get the outside of their meeting houses well painted; this, with a good whitewashing within, was all that they asked for.

The custom of painting and papering the inside walls is of recent date, and is rapidly gaining ground, in imitation of their more stylish neighbors of other creeds.

But after all, a pure white wall, in my judgment, is the most befitting for a religious sanctuary. In the language of the poet, we may say it is,

"When unadorned, adorned the most."

[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 69-76. -- jrd]

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