Among The Baptist
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
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
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 Canada's, 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
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
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
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 temporary appointments, 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 remnant of 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 Canada's 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
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
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.