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Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict
THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION FORMED. — THE CAUSES WHICH LED TO THIS MEASURE. — NEW METHODS OF CONDUCTING ASSOCIATIONS. — COMMENTS ON THE AGENCY SYSTEM.
IN 1845 a new body was organized under the name of the Southern Baptist Convention. Thus the great body of the American Baptists, following the course of the Methodists and the Presbyterians in this country, drew the line of demarkation between the northern and the southern States, so far as their missionary and other benevolent operations, and their former free intercourse, were concerned. This separation was very quietly effected, and up to this time I have not heard of any collisions between the two wings of the denomination, which agree in all matters, except the lawfulness of southern slavery.
While I for myself regretted the cause of the rise of this new institution, yet I approved of its formation for various reasons, aside from the different views of the parties, which I may thus state:
1. That the people within the bounds of the new body would be likely to do much more for the support of all benevolent objects under the management
of their own men, whose names were familiar to them, than they had hitherto accomplished. Indeed, my arguments on this subject were akin to those which I employed in favor of a new Bible Society under Baptist rule.
2. There would be a great saving of cost and labor in attending the business meetings, and the delegates to them would be greatly increased, if they were held on their own ground. During the thirty-one years in which the North and the South cooperated together in the old Convention, but few delegates ever came from the South, and it never met but once south of the city of Washington, which was in Richmond, Virginia, in 1832. At this meeting, Drs. Cox and Hoby attended, as delegates from the Baptist Missionary Union of England.
3. There is considerable difference in the habits of the people in the two sections of country, and as each portion of them are well pleased with their own ways, they are more likely to enjoy themselves better in meeting by themselves.
4. I foresaw that the troubles between the North and the South were likely to increase, and by being in separate organizations the collisions would be avoided, which might occur if they continued to act together.
I attended the first anniversary of the Southern
Convention in Richmond, Virginia, where all things were managed with much harmony and decorum, and no reference was had in any of their doings to the difficulties which led them to form a separate body.
This Convention meets once in two years, and although it is confined to southern ground, in the broad sense of that term, still its field of operation is very extensive. A Western Convention will probably need to be formed at no distant day.
My general theory as to our institutions of all kinds is against multiplying them without plain and sufficient reasons, which in this case, as I have above stated, very obviously appeared.
And now as our denomination, like other great communities, has its grand divisions for the North and the South, I would disapprove of any new large organization, were it not that the great and growing West, where our people are gaining rapidly in numbers, in energy, enterprise and influence, may justly claim to have a general institution of their own.
A short time before the Southern Convention was formed I traversed the whole line of the Atlantic States, as far as Penfield in Georgia, the seat of Mercer University and of Baptist operations and influence in that State. Deacon H. Lincoln of Boston was my companion in travel. My objects were wholly historical, as I was then collecting materials for my late
edition of the History of the Baptists; while Deacon L., then the treasurer of the foreign mission cause, had two objects in view, namely, the augmentation of the funds of his department, and the adjustment of a difficulty which had arisen between some of the southern members and the board of missions at Boston, in consequence of the non-appointment of one of their men to a missionary station. There had been a good deal of correspondence on the matter, but it was thought best for the treasurer to use his personal influence on the ground. For this purpose a meeting was appointed at the house of the late Rev. B. M. Sanders, a man of great influence at the time with the southern Baptists. I and a few others, by the request of the parties, were present. And here for eight long hours we listened to the earnest but decorous discussions between the representatives of the North and the South; the main topic of discourse being respecting the non-appointment of the man in question. This discussion occupied two sessions, one of five hours, the other of three. The question before these two men at first view seemed of but little account; yet it was plain to be seen that the union of the great Baptist family was in jeopardy. The treasurer of the body, which he represented, went to the extent of his instructions and his own kind feelings in his concessions, and I supposed at the time that that small apple
of discord would be laid aside for the future; but from the observations which I made inthis journey, and from the uneasiness which was everywhere apparent at the South, with the opinions which were then strongly prevailing at the North respecting slavery in the abstract, and the holding of slaves under any circumstances, I became fully convinced that the wonted union and harmony of our people in the two sections of the country, in their benevolent efforts, as a general thing, could not long be maintained. And as a peaceable separation in such cases, like that which was made by Abraham and Lot, is always preferable to the one which is forced upon disagreeing parties, when our southern brethren soon after concluded quietly to withdraw from the old Convention, with which they had been identified from its beginning, and form one by themselves, I was prepared to approve of the measure, the wisdom of which soon became very apparent.
At the first anniversary of this Convention in Richmond, Virginia, to which I have already referred, Dr. R. Babcock appeared in behalf of the American and Foreign Bible Society, with a proposition for the southern brethren to still patronise the institution which he represented; but instead of this they preferred to have a Bible department in their general body.
On the Manner of Conducting Baptist Associations at this Time — The Reading of the Letters — Other Matters Press upon Them — Their Interest is Diminished.
When I first began to attend these yearly meetings, they were conducted with great simplicity, and were very interesting to all who were identified with them, and to many who repaired to them as spectators of their doings. In that early age, and for a long time ajar, these institutions, which are peculiar ¢o the Baptists, were wholly devoted to religious exercises and the care of the churches of which they were composed. A little before my early day, the few associations in New England had much to do in devising plans for the relief of their brethren in some sections of the country from the oppressive laws of the dominant party, in which plans the old Philadelphia Association sometimes united, and made contributions in aid of their brethren in this region.
The moderators and clerks in former times held their stations many years in succession. When the body had got good men for these stations, they would hold on to them, and find their benefit in so doing; but at length the rotation system was introduced, as more conformable to the Baptist notions of republican principles. This change, however, was not always for the better as to business operations, since the new men were often far inferior to their predecessors
in all that pertains to the duties of presiding officers. How often have I been pained to witness the dragging along of the plain business of an association, under the leading of a man who was wholly unaccustomed to such a position, and who had but little tact or talent for the station in which the rule of rotation had placed him. Some men have a natural aptness for business of this kind, which experience greatly improves. They learn when to let debates go on, and when to check them and prepare them for a close, and in a manner so skillful and unassuming, that all is managed to the satisfaction of the debating members, and to the relief of the whole company. On the other hand, an inexperienced and unskillful man, who himself needs a prompter at every step, and who is wanting in the judgment and decision needful for such a place, will suffer protraction and delay on subjects of minor importance, and will lead many to wish that a more energetic mart was in the moderator's seat.
According to the modern rules of some associations, the moderator must be changed every year, and if all the members were equally well qualified for the office, this system of rotation would not be liable to the objections to which it is now most obviously exposed. The custom of putting men of the lay brotherhood into the moderator's chair by our associations, has
hitherto been practiced but to a very limited extent, and that in small bodies where there is a deficiency of ministers qualified for such a service. In our great conventional meetings, this class of our members are often preferred for these stations, and I see no reason why they should not be sometimes called upon to preside in our associations.
On the Letters from the Churches, and the Manner in which they are Read.
As Baptist associations are but annual gatherings for the benefit of the churches, without any power of discipline or legislation, on the character of the letters sent in, and the manner of reading them before the people, depends much of the interest and enjoyment of these interviews; and the great fault of the letters generally is, that they are either too long or too short; and the reading part is too often very imperfectly done. All compliments and courtesies in this business should be dismissed, and the best men for the service should be employed. This rule, I think, was more strictly adhered to in former times than at present. The old Warren Association, in my early day, while the churches in Boston and vicinity were connected with it, was a model body of this kind, so far as my experience was concerned, in the whole routine of associational doings.
In more modern times it is becoming somewhat common in some associations for the pastors to read the letters from their own churches. This does very well if these pastors are good readers, but if they are dull and monotonous, and arenot distinctly heard, the people will wish that some more vivacious men had the letters in hand.
Other Matters often press upon Associations to the Hindrance of their appropriate Business.
Before the rise of modern benevolent institutions our associations were at full liberty to attend to their own proper work without any interference from any quarter, but as soon as agents began to visit them from different directions, and for different objects, a great change very soon took place, These new visitors, often in considerable numbers, came to these annual assemblies full of zeal in the speaking line, and sought to he heard in favor of their various objects. Mr. Rice was the pioneer in this business, and such was the native eloquence of the man, together with the novelty of his theme and the ardor of his pleadings, that his addresses for a while excited an unusual interest among the people. But in the course of a few years the visits of even this man became less welcome, and as new societies arose and new agents were sent abroad some associations were burdened
with their number and importunity. As a remedy for this evil, in some cases, they would limit them to small portions of time, while in others they were excluded altogether. This latter course, however, was not often pursued. In process of time this numerous and ardent class of men adopted a different plan, in the older States at least, and made the applications to the churches individually with much less complaining and with much better results.
At an early period of our benevolent operations serious complaints began to be made of the undue cost of agents for the collection of funds to sustain them, and I have seen some rather alarming figuring in this business, which ought to have aroused the Baptist public to devise some remedy for this most palpable evil. But it has remained from year to year without much comment, only on the complaining side.
In view of this whole matter the two following statements, to my mind, are undeniably true: First, that the getting up of our benevolent institutions has been in advance of public opinion, which has had to be aroused in their favor after they were formed, and for the most part by the special pleadings of agents under pay and special instructions. This, for about forty years past, has been an up-hill, a laborious, and costly work. Second, if these institutions are kept
alive and in motion this state of things must continue until the churches learn to go alone, or, in other words, until these churches, from which the funds must come, of their own free will do the work which hitherto, as a general thing, hired, and often unwelcome agents have performed. I propose to say more on this subject hereafter.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 217-227. -- jrd]
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