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Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict
THE MANNER OF SETTLING MINISTERS IN FORMER TIMES, AND OF SUPPORTING THEM. IMPERFECT SUPPORT OF THEM. REVIVALS. NEW MEASURES.
IN this business all sorts of methods have been pursued by the Baptists, but, as a general thing, I am sorry to say, they have been deficient in system, and still more in the liberality of their doings in favor of their spiritual guides. In a few of our churches the pastors had an adequate support, and the pastoral relation was more permanent than at the present time, since it was more disreputable then, than now, for ministers of the first class to make removals, unless for very obvious reasons, and especially if they listened to a louder call, in the business of support, to use the language then very often employed. But in old times, and in all succeeding ones, a very large proportion of our ministers in the whole country, and especially in the more newly-settled and remote regions, have been obliged to look out for themselves, having had but a scanty assistance from the people they served; and as to their settlement or induction into their pastoral stations, it has often been very informal and indefinite.
But wherever any regular agreement had been made, it was by the year. It was often customary then for people annually to hire ministers for their pulpits, as they did their laboring men on their farms. Have you hired your minister for the coming year, and what is the price? was the language which might often be heard among many of our economical brethren, especially in New England.
But there was a large class of our ministers, in my early day, who worked on from year to year without any agreement whatever, either as to time or compensation, and in some cases, they did more for their people in pecuniary matters than was done for them. The property which enabled these men to pursue this generous course, in some instances came to them by inheritance, but for the most part they acquired it by their own industry and energy while in the ministry, or before they entered it. It was no uncommon thing then for ministers to be engaged in farming and other secular pursuits, like other men. Pastors of this description were, of course, less liable to change their pastoral relations than those who depended on their congregations for support. They were men of but a moderate share of education; but demands on this score were less urgent than now; but few complained of them on this account, and after all their disadvantages, they gathered large and stable churches, were
respected by their own people, and not a few of other communions, and were very useful men in their day and generation.
Many men who had a partial support, under yearly engagements, often retained their pastorship, many years, notwithstanding the precarious tenure by which they were held. The annual voting of the people was rather a matter of form than otherwise, but there were serious evils attending it, with pastors, whose attachment to their flocks was strong and endearing. If any controlling deacons, or other disaffected members, were seeking for means to stir up opposition to them, on any account, and to crowd them off, by curtailing their support, they had very favorable opportunities in these annual doings. A minister of my acquaintance, towards the close of a tong pastorship, was accustomed to observe, he dreaded the May storms, as that was the month in which his settlement was made.
This yearly operation was a bad system at best, and it was often made worse by the careless manner in which it was conducted. Not unfrequently the year would run out before any thing was said or done about a new engagement, and all this time the minister was in suspense as to his future course, and to add to his trouble, more or less of his scanty salary was unpaid. In this dilemma, the credit system must
be resorted to, and after all, he might be compelled to change his location, or at least, be left without a re-appointment, in the midst of debts which he felt in duty bound to discharge, no one could tell how, as what was due him, if paid at all, came slowly, and often with a heavy discount.
In these times many of our churches, especially in country regions, were greatly deficient in their financial arrangements, in all that pertained to their religious concerns. They had men of fiscal talent, who calculated well in their own secular affairs, and met their engagements promptly; while they gave up the business of providing for the support of their spiritual guides to incompetent and neglectful hands, and threw off all responsibility in the matter, after making liberal contributions themselves. If subscriptions thus poorly attended to fell short at the end of the year, as it often happened, I have known instances of the men who held the papers counting up the amount of donations to the minister and his family, to help through with their tardy operations.
At the period now under review, the subscription system was generally adopted, wherever any systematic efforts were made in the business of ministerial support. Indeed, in all former years, and also at the present time, this way of performing this business, with very few exceptions, throughout the whole range
of our denomination, has been pursued. It is a laborious, and generally, an unequal method of raising funds, and very often it is difficult to find suitable men for the service, and they retire from it as soon as possible. In my early day, in some parts of the northern States, mostly, however, in New England, the assessment plan was adopted in a voluntary manner, according to the acknowledged or reputed ability of the members. In some cases, churcheshad funds or farms which were devoted to the support of their ministers, wholly or in part, and the rest was made up by subscription. As to pew rents, I found nothing of the kind among the Baptists in my early researches into their history, except in the few churches then in Boston. The idea of paying any thing for seats in their meeting houses had not then entered the minds of our people, or of scarcely any other, much less did they think it practicable to support, not only the minister, but to pay all the expenses of a church establishment in this way.
But to return to the subscription system. The evils and embarrassments attending it, among unwilling members, were often by no means small. Those who had the business in charge would often meet with a decided veto from brethren of the hyper-careful class. Their language was, "I believe in a free gospel, and do not want to make a show of my name on the paper,
nor to bind myself beforehand. If I feel like handing out any thing to the elder, I will do it and done with it, and not let my right hand know what my left doeth. But it must be a free gift, and in my own time and way. Hireling ministers I don't like at all." In a few instances such impracticable members were dealt with for covetousness, but as a general thing the churches let them slide.
There was another class of members in former times, and possibly some of them are still to be found in some of our churches, who were equally the slaves of mammon; they were entirely outspoken in their opposition to ministerial support, and on this subject they each reasoned in the following manner: "I want ministers to go by the Spirit, and deal out what is handed down to them immediately from above. It takes them no longer to go to meeting and preach, than it does for me to go and hear them, so we will balance the account and call it even."
To the discredit of some of our old churches, men of ample means, who manifested such a penurious and withholding disposition, and who employed such offensive language when called upon to perform a plain and bounden duty, were too often retained in their fellowship.
Many poor ministers in the times now under consideration, suffered greatly in their feelings, not only
from the parsimony of their people, but also from the reluctant manner in which their scanty livings were dealt out to them. I distinctly recollect an account given me by one of these men, of the lectures which were often given him by one of his deacons, on the great importance of economy among ministers and their families in their mode of living. This deacon was a model of a man in the saving line, as many Baptist deacons have been. He being treasurer of the church, the funds which were collected at irregular intervals all passed through his hands, and whenever he dealt them out to the elder, his complaints of the cost of supporting ministers, and of the hard and difficult times among the parishioners, were not altogether unlike those made at tithing time, as described by Cowper.
It is not improbable that portions of our ministers throughout the wide range of our denomination still experience some of the trials above referred to.
On Religious Revivals in former Times
As far back as my recollection and researches extend, these seasons, for the most part, were like angel visits, few and far between. From Backus, and others, I learn that during the great religious movement, under the labors of Whitfield, Tennant, Finley, and others, usually denominated the New
Light Stir, a few old Baptist churches participated in that extraordinary work, which, however, prevailed mostly among the Pedobaptists.
In the early part of the present century, and up to the age of the excitements, which, as I have already stated, had a paralyzing influence on the better feelings of Christians, conversions and additions among our people, were in many cases of the most exhilarating and encouraging nature.
This golden age of our denomination lasted about a quarter of a century, and the increase of our communicants was often a matter of astonishment to our people at home, and our friends abroad. During all this time scarcely any of the new measures of more modern times were adopted. In some locations, where the Methodists were numerous, and their customs prevailed, rising for prayers began to be practiced to a limited extent. But, as a general thing, the old way of conducting meetings, whether in seasons of revivals or declensions, was pursued, and all attempts to produce a high state of feeling among the people were carefully avoided. Depth of feeling was the main thing desired by our most efficient men, whether in the pulpit or the conference room. They also made much dependence on the silent workings of the divine Spirit on the hearts of the people.
On these agencies the Baptists made much more dependence than on multitudinous gatherings and bodily exercises.
At length protracted meetings began to be much talked of far and near, and so many reports were circulated concerning the wonderful effects of them, that by many they were thought to be the very thing for promoting religious revivals. For some time four days was the amount of time allotted them, but soon these meetings began to overrun this time, and the original term was exchanged for meetings of days without any limit as to their number.
In connection with these meetings came along a new sort of preachers, who went into the business of conducting them by new rules of their own. In process of time the Baptists became a good deal engaged in these peculiar gatherings, and many of them seemed much pleased with them. The revival ministers, as they were called, soon became very popular; they were sent for from far and near, and in many cases very large additions were made to our churches under their ministrations.
But, in some cases, the old ministers and churches demurred, and were unwilling to have these new men, with their new notions, introduced among them. They were jealous of these wonder-working ministers in this business, and of a new machinery in the work
of conversion. It was always customary with our old pastors to have other ministers to assist them in times of unusual attention to religion, but they never gave up the helm of the ship to new pilots for the sake of more rapid speed. Wherever this experiment was made, with rare exceptions, it worked badly, and many a good and well-settled pastor was, by its operation, either crowded out of his place, or else made uncomfortable in it, in consequence of the introduction of the new measures above alluded to, and the indiscretions of revival preachers.
To see converts coming into a church by wholesale was a pleasing idea to many members; and although they had been well satisfied with their pastor heretofore, yet now, they began to think that the new man who had been so active and successful in gathering in new members would do much more for them than they could expect from the one in office; that he would soon fill their ranks, repair their meeting house or build a new one, pay off their church debt, and place them in circumstances as flourishing as those of their neighbors.
But another class of members had fearful forebodings for the future, under the ministry of the new man. They had rather continue their old way of doing business than to place a mere revivalist in the pastoral office, and make the radical changes
in their operations, which he and his ardent admirers considered of so much importance. Hence arose discussions at first; next, disputations; and in the end, not unfrequently, painful and injurious divisions.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 194-204. -- jrd]
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