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Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict
ON THE AGE OF EXCITEMENTS
QUIET CONDITION OF THE BAPTISTS GENERALLY. AGITATIONS ABOUT FREEMASONRY AND SOUTHERN SLAVERY. THE TROUBLES WHICH FOLLOWED. THE DIVISION OF CHURCHES. THE REMOVALS OF MINISTERS. THE NAME OF STAYSHORT APPLIED TO MANY.
THIRTY YEARS AGO the Baptist denomination, as a general thing, throughout the country, was free from the numerous and disastrous excitements which soon arose in many places, and which in some extensive regions, by the altercations and divisions they occasioned, essentially hindered the prosperity of the society, which was then, in numerical strength, ahead of all the great communities in the land so far as church membership was concerned. For a long course of years prior to the period now under consideration, extensive revivals of religion had prevailed amongst our people in almost all parts of the country where Baptists were found; the cause of missions was rapidly gaining ground among us; the same may be said of the interests of education in all their departments; and a disposition was very apparent among an increasing number of our influential men, both ministers and laymen, to arouse and concentrate the energies of our growing and wide-spread community in
favor of benevolent and evangelical efforts at home and abroad. Such was the state of things among the American Baptists about one third of a century since. But a sad reverse of this pleasing picture was at hand, and the painful scenes in which many of our ministers became very deeply involved spread their baneful influence far and wide.
Freemasonry, and southern slavery, soon became the subjects of the greatest interest among the contending parties, and, as a natural consequence, respecting these new matters of excitement in their then present shape, the most ardent altercations arose among the combatants in this new warfare on Baptist ground, which involved questions, about which, our churches had never legislated, nor adopted any rules of discipline. New laws of course had to be made by these churches before they could proceed in dealing with their members under the complaints which were preferred against them by their accusing brethren. This caused no little embarrassment at first, with the more thinking class of men, but as the excitement became more intense, law or nolaw, majorities ruled, and proscription was fully inaugurated in many locations.
Up to this date, the members of Baptist churches were not molested in their religious standing on account of their connection with the mystic order; and multitudes of the most staunch defenders of the Baptist
faith found themselves all at once in an embarrassing dilemma in consequence of the new church laws, which they never subscribed, and against which they entered a solemn protest. In some cases, this kind of reasoning caused a stay of proceedings against the obnoxious members, but where the new reformers were determined on victory, and had majorities on their side, no arguments were of any avail. Wily statesmen who had ambitious schemes ahead, not unfrequently stimulated our church reformers in their undertakings, and thus, by a combination of influences, political and religious, between outside agitators, and inside managers, many of our hitherto strong and harmonious churches, mostly in the northern States, were shaken to their center on mere matters of opinion, pro and con, respecting the character of a professedly secret institution, and were crippled for long succeeding years in their harmony and prosperity.
In this new Baptist reform, many strong men, and not a few who could not properly be placed in this class, were engaged, with a zeal which they had never before manifested against any of the evils of the land, real or imaginary. The details of the strifes and commotions which followed this modern warfare against a fraternity of very high antiquity, I shall not attempt to repeat.
The disputes among our people about slavery, in an earnest manner, were nearly contemporary with those just referred to. These disputes also, in the outset, were respecting a system, with the evils of which they had but little knowledge, only by report; and as in the business of masonry, new questions came up on the subject of church discipline. Heretofore, ministers and members of the great Baptist family, North and South, had freely exchanged pulpits, and united together in all their religious exercises at home and abroad. But now, strong efforts were made by many northern men to restrain the freedom which had thus far been exercised, and the operation of these efforts, in the end, led the southern brethren to go off by themselves. The details of the long struggle here referred to, at present I shall entirely omit. The formation of a new convention, which combines all the doings of the Baptists in the southern States, for benevolent objects generally, I shall briefly describe in its proper place, and under a separate head. It is not my intention, however, in any of my reminiscences of Baptist affairs, at the North or South, to identify myself with either of the parties, or to denounce or defend the men on either side, but to present the facts as they appeared to me at the time.
It so happened that about the time that the agitations above alluded to were at their height, I found it
necessary to take a journey through all the southern States in pursuit of historical information for my late work on the history of the denomination, when I found a material change from former years in the feelings of our brethren in those regions towards the institution in question, and in their conversations respecting it. Formerly they were accustomed to use the language of apology for a system which they could neither regulate nor abolish, but which they would be very glad to be rid of, if this could be done in a legal and peaceable manner; while now, they defended it on scriptural grounds. And when I inquired of one of our prominent ministers in the city of R , the reason of this change, he discoursed to me on the subject in the following manner: "Formerly, we viewed ourselves on a level with our brethren in the free States, but the language and resolutions which for a long time have been coming down to us from the North, place us in the background. Indeed, if we remain as we are, if these brethren mean all they say, we are not fit to be ranked among gospel ministers or real Christians. And as we were not disposed to renounce all our professions at once, we set about a new course of study, and made new and more thorough examinations of the Bible, to find where we stood; and soon we were surprised to discover from the sacred word how easily we can defend our cause, from
the practice of the early Christians, among whom we believe slavery most certainly existed." This mode of reasoning, I have found, is now pretty generally adopted by the ministers and the people of all parties in the slave-holding States; so that instead of pleading for toleration and forbearance from their opposing brethren, they now stand on the defensive with much decision; and some of the ministers of our own order, as well as those of others, have become champions in defense of a system which, by multitudes in the free States, is most intensely opposed; and as the unpleasant feelings between the parties were daily increasing in strength and severity, as was painfully apparent at the great meetings in which they attempted to work together, and with a gloomy prospect for the future, I was glad when the line of demarcation was peaceably drawn between the North and South, for the sake of peace on both sides, and for other reasons which I shall assign in the chapter on the Southern Baptist Convention.
Since the separation, thus briefly described, took place, the two wings of the great Baptist community in this country have each pursued their own way, without any clashing with each other; and have done much more in the support of missions at home and abroad, and other objects of benevolence, than they could have done had they continued in one body.
The southern Baptists never had much disputing about masonry, and none about slavery among themselves, but matters were very different at the North, where, in the exciting times now had in view, multitudes who stood aloof from all matters of controversy, were in continual fears for the safety of their hitherto quiet spiritual homes, on account of divisions, which they could neither hinder nor heal.
The disputes respecting Freemasonry and Slavery stood foremost in the order of time, as they did in point of importance, in the minds of the most active promoters of these agitations. With them, all other evils in the Baptist ranks were of minor importance, and in support of their opinions on these subjects all available arguments and measures were by them resorted to. Ministers in cases not a few became lecturers and agents, and leaving their pastoral stations, they traversed the country far and wide, in pursuit of their new vocations. These men were joined by many of the secular class, whose preferences were not very well settled on religious opinions of any kind; and soon Baptist pulpits, which had hitherto been devoted exclusively to the preaching of the gospel, were freely opened to a promiscuous company of declaimers of all castes and creeds, by whom the objects principally aimed at were of a politico-benevolent character. Such was the opinion of many outside observers.
The Baptist lecturers, however, preferred to labor for the cause of religion and humanity only.
Out of these agitations, as an unavoidable consequence, arose confusion and division in many of our churches; and in others, where no rupture took place, coldness and deadness ensued, and an estrangement of feeling among most intimate friends.
At associations, conventions and other large gatherings within the range of these troublesome discussions, there were men always ready to introduce resolutions in favor of their anti-isms of various kinds, the agitation of which, in many cases, it was difficult to avoid, with the free principles of the Baptists, and with their notions of equal rights when met in public assemblies. The consumption of time on these extra matters, which was needful for legitimate objects, was an evil often complained of, but the bad blood which was engendered between contending parties was a greater evil still.
For a long time previous to the peculiar age now under review, the old-fashioned longevity of Baptist pastorships was getting more and more out of fashion, every year; and now these relations, in many cases, were so much narrowed down, that a multitude of our ministers could truly say on this subject,
"A span is all that we can boast,
A year or two of time."
And each of these migratory shepherds, on retiring from their transitory stations, could say, "Few and evil have been the days of my pilgrimage, with an uncomfortable, discordant, and inefficient people."
A writer in the Christian Watchman and Reflector, in Boston, not long since gave a good description of a minister, under the significant cognomen of Mr. Stay-short, who, in consequence of the ardor with which he entered into every agitation afloat, was constantly on the move. He would resolve, on his entrance into each new place, that he would avoid his former mistakes and let all agitations alone, but such was the constitution of his mind, and so large was his bump of combativeness, that none of his prudential resolves were of any avail. So strong in his mind were the convictions of duty, and so fully did he believe that without his aid, the truth would suffer, and the interests of justice and humanity would be trampled under foot, that he must speak out, hit or miss, and come what would, he must contend earnestly for the truth. And soon away he would go to some new location.
This meddling with all new excitements which arose in such quick succession about these times, while it unseated many who had heretofore devoted their whole attention to the gospel ministry with reputation and success, served to diffuse a spirit of discord and contention into many churches, who, up to
this period, had been distinguished for concord and quietness.
The family of Stayshorts in the pastoral line has been greatly augmented in our denomination since the age of excitements commenced. Men who will plunge into controversies on any subjects ought to be making arrangements for a change of location without much delay, and especially if on the matters of dispute, the people of their charge are divided in their opinions and pursuits.
The Staylong preachers, as a general thing, are noncommittal in the midst of all the contests here referred to. When it comes to the question of truth and duty, as gospel ministers, the ease is very different, but even here the mild spirit of the gospel should be cultivated in preference to that of acrimony and contempt. A minister whose mind is deeply imbued with the Spirit, and who is wholly devoted to his divine calling, will easily avoid the evils in which his combative and inconsiderate brethren too often become involved.
In this free country, and with our free principles, all must be left to their own choice, and the minister who attempts to interpose and influence on, any side, either in political or any other contests, which may agitate the minds of the people, will see his mistake often when it is too late.
In addition to the injurious influence on the Baptist cause, from the agitations which I have thus briefly described, its former tranquillity was much disturbed, and its prosperity was very seriously retarded by the continued hostility of the anti-mission party, which was spreading its paralyzing principles far and wide, and which erected barriers at every point against the progress of all the benevolent and reforming operations of modern times.
The Campbellites or Reformers, in the southern and western States, thirty years ago and onward, were in the full tide of success, and were making proselytes from the Baptists with great rapidity. Not unfrequently ministers and whole churches espoused the cause of the zealous Reformers, and churches not a few, which made strenuous efforts to maintain their ground, were in the end essentially enfeebled or wholly destroyed.
The Campbellites are intensely Baptistical, so far as the baptismal service is concerned.
The Millerites, or Adventists, about this time, and at a still later period, made inroads on our ranks much more extensively than many have supposed. Mr. Miller, himself, was a plain Baptist minister in the earlier part of his life, and as immersion was the standing rule of his party, the Baptists could carry
with them their old favorite practice when they rallied around their new and popular leader.
On the whole, the decade now under review may be properly denominated the iron age of the American Baptists. Revivals of religion, like angels visits, in most parts of the country were few and far between, and it may be truly said the dearth was sore in the land.
Such is a brief account of the depopulating measures and influences which our extended community had to encounter during most of this decade, and of the inroads which by them, were made upon our ranks.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 171-182. -- jrd]
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