Baptist History Homepage
Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict
THE OLD TRIENNIAL CONVENTION ASSUMES THE NAME OF THE BAPTIST MISSIONARY UNION. — DIVERSITIES BETWEEN THE TWO BODIES. — SOME OBJECTIONABLE THINGS. — TOO LITTLE FREEDOM FOR SPEAKERS. — TOO LITTLE TIME. — TOO MANY YOUNG SPEAKERS TAKE THE FLOOR TOO OFTEN. — TOO LONG.
ONE year after the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, or in 1846, the old Triennial Convention, after existing thirty-two years in its original form, was transformed into a yearly meeting under the appellation of the
Baptist Missionary Union
This was a time of uncommon trial and difficulty with the Baptists in some of the northern States, principally on account of the agitations among themselves on the subject, which had formerly been the foundation of the main controversy between the North and the South, and which, in the end, led the southern wing to go off by itself.
There were indeed other matters of dispute which often came up in our great convocations, which were not confined to any section of the country, among which were some parts of the old constitution, which
had long been strongly opposed, and strong men on different sides made platform speeches at times not altogether agreeable, I might say extremely disagreeable in their bearings, to the mass of the members, who were not very zealous on either side, and whose great desire was to see the cause of missions go on with harmony and success. This cause, then, as formerly, lay near the heart of all our people who had imbibed the spirit of missions, and they were distressed to see the hindrances which were thrown into its way. They had not hitherto paid so much attention to the reading of the constitution, or the doings at the rooms, as to the interesting accounts which came to them often from the foreign fields. An unusually large assembly had convened, and in the then trying state of things, what shall be done so as to adjust existing difficulties, save the body from disruption, and enable it to go on with its wonted harmony and prosperity, were important questions on many minds. In this state of suspense the plan of the Missionary Union was presented to the embarrassed Convention, and without much discussion, as a matter of relief, the thing was very cordially adopted, and thus became the basis of future operations in the promotion of the work of foreign missions. As faulty as the document was, I hailed its adoption as an auspicious event at that time of danger and alarm. Instead
of wishing for any delay I was glad the business moved on so rapidly; instead of desiring any hazardous attempts at amendments at that perilous period I felt more like having a Te Deum sung by the great and agitated assembly for a providential deliverance, for I felt then as I do now, that any parts of the constitution, which, in their practical operations, might be found to disagree with Baptist principles and usages might be rectified at some future time.
On the Differences between the Old and the New Constitutions.
Under the old dispensation it was required of all members and delegates that one hundred dollars per annum should be paid into the treasury of the body, by themselves or friends, to entitle them to a seat. In the new order of things no additional payments are required, but one hundred dollars makes a person a member for life.
None but members in good standing in some Baptist church could belong to the Convention, but in the Union there is no such requisition, but people of all creeds and forms, of all nations and religions, are equally eligible to membership.
The members of the old Convention could participate in all the transactions of the body at its public meetings and vote on all subjects, but in the Union
none but managers can vote. This business, according to the eighth article of the new constitution, is thus arranged:
"All members of the Union may attend the meetings of the Board of Managers and deliberate on all questions, but members of the Board only shall vote."
Thus to the Board of Managers is entrusted all the legislation of the Missionary Union, consisting now of many thousand life members. The number of this Board is seventy-five, twenty-five of whom go out of orate, and an equal number are appointed every year. The retiring members are eligible to reappointment.
The life members have the right to vote in the choice of managers, but in no other ease. These managers appoint all the officers of the Board, together with an Executive Committee of nine. This Committee has power "to designate by the advice of the Board the places where missions shall be attempted, and to establish and superintend the same, to appoint, instruct and direct all the missionaries of the Board," etc.
The power conferred on this Committee of nine, but more especially the stretch of this power, as their opponents have alleged, in certain cases, has been the occasion of a great amount of trouble for a number of years past, and now (1857) threatens greatly to
mar the harmony of the Union, if not to rend it asunder, if a remedy is not speedily applied.
As the anniversary of the Missionary Union is not far ahead, when it is probable the causes of the troubles just alluded to will be investigated, I shall defer any comments on this subject and on those peculiar traits of character in the constitution of the American Baptist Missionary Union, which many contend are contrary to the primordial principles of the Baptists, and ought therefore to be amended or expunged.
The meeting here referred to was held in Boston. Here it was that Dr. Peck and Mr. Kincaid had a long public discussion as to the management of missionary affairs, at the close of which a conciliatory resolution was adopted by the Union, with great unanimity, which took middle ground between the rooms and the complaining missionaries. This measure, it was expected by many, would lead to an adjustment of existing difficulties. This expectation, however, was but partially realized, as was too plainly shown by the unpleasant state of things in the body at the next anniversary in Philadelphia, in 1858.
On some objectionable Things in the Construction of the Old Missionary Convention, and in the Manner of Conducting its Meetings.
The whole business of foreign missions came somewhat
suddenly upon the Baptist denomination; the ministers of any public spirit entered into the thing with a commendable zeal, but as the mass of the people were rather slow in coming into the measure, how to raise the needful funds was at first an embarrassing question. A direct appeal to them would most likely have been a failure; some other plan must therefore be devised, and this led on to the money qualification for membership, which worked very well at first, except with the poor churches and ministers; and in that direction there often appeared some very hard cases, where men who were much better qualified for a seat in the Convention than many who appeared there, were excluded by the money rule. Some of this class of men had friends in the more wealthy churches, who would think of them and have them returned as members on the strength of the contributions in their own churches, but many able men in counsel, and who would have been glad of a seat with their brethren with whom they had been accustomed to act in all other meetings, were not thus favored; and of course they either staid at home, or else were registered as visitors merely, all for the want of one hundred dollars per annum.
The close figuring to ascertain this point, between the committees on memberships and those who wished to secure seats for their friends, often partook too
much of the nature of commercial transactions for religious assemblies.
Direct appointment of delegates by the churches, the seat of power, according to all Baptist rules and under a much modified tariff, was strongly urged for a long time by many of the warmest friends of the foreign mission cause.
There was often too little Time allotted for the Business of the Convention, even if no extra Matters had been allowed to enter into its Discussions.
This fault was more apparent after the rise of additional institutions for benevolent objects, and especially after, by mutual agreement, they all met at the same place. Then there was often a scramble amongst them for their due proportion of the time, and as the foreign cause was generally considered of primary importance, the minor institutions would sometimes complain of too much of a curtailment of their opportunities for doing their own business. As yet, the idea of separate meetings in different places was not entertained. When this plan was adopted, although the business of our societies for benevolent objects was more simplified, and each party was at liberty to protract its sessions at pleasure, yet even then, the hurry of business on the one hand, and the itch for speaking on the other, especially on the part of a
class of young orators, often led to results which I most deeply deplored. I speak now particularly of the sessions of the old Convention while it embraced the whole country.
How often have I been pained and mortified with the want of any recognition or respect towards many modest and retiring members, who had made unusual efforts to attend the tri-yearly meetings of this great convocation. I have witnessed many eases where men of this description had traveled a thousand miles or more, not in the easy way in which, journeys are now performed, on purpose to attend these meetings, of whom no notice whatever was taken by the body, except to enroll their names. At home they occupied important stations of influence and usefulness, and were distinguished for superior information concerning their own localities at least; but now they were entirely overlooked. They were placed on no committees, no services were assigned to them, nor was any door opened for them through whole sessions to make the most limited communications to the body, on any subjects whatever.
This neglect was not intentional on the part of the managers of these meetings, but it resulted from the imperfect arrangements of the business, the compound motion under which the body moved, but mostly from the pressure of hosts of speakers, all anxious
for their turns on the platform, some as agents fordifferent concerns, but most of them to display their logic and learning, which was not always particularly edifying to the delegates in question. Often have I feared that they would retire from the scene so much disgusted and disheartened that they would relax their efforts in their distant homes in favor of an institution in whose public celebrations they had so little identity or enjoyment.
On one of these occasions I remember to have had a conversation with a member of the great Presbyterian Assembly, which was then in session near by. I learned from this man, that this people, with all their formality, outdid the Baptists in their courtesy towards their delegates of all grades, by setting apart a time for free conversations, when all had liberty to speak on matters of special interest in their own localities. But nothing of this nature ever appeared to be thought of by our people; but on they went, session after session, with the dry details of business, which was often diversified with scrambles for their turns among the different speakers, who for the most part were of the semper paratus, always ready, class of men. Mr. Speaker, I have the floor, Mr. Speaker, I rise to a point of order, were sounds which in quick succession came from the ardent debaters. Age and experience often remained quiescent, while confident
inexperience held the platform, and sometimes to the dissatisfaction of many of the assembly; but there was no remedy, as the custom was, and we must sit it out with as much patience as we could muster. While the fathers of my younger days watched over the doings of our important convocations, counsel was sometimes sought of the elder, retiring members. This thing, however, I have seldom witnessed in later years, in any of our great meetings of any kind.
In the earlier operations of our old Missionary Convention some distinguished men were selected to preach on one or two evenings of the session. This custom, in the course of time, was superseded by the appointment of four of the strongest men the committee of arrangements could select, to make addresses in succession. Intimations were given to these men in advance, of the probability of their being called upon, and they would come with huge preparations for the occasion. But unfortunately, the first speaker would sometimes occupy half the time allotted for all four; the second speaker must of necessity curtail his speech, and so of the next, and as for the last man, what chance was there for him, while the clock was striking ten and the people on the move?
Thus unequal in its operations was this quadruple arrangement; and thus did the first speaker encroach on the time of the others, when this custom was in
vogue; out still, for any one to speak besides the favored four, would have been considered quite out of order. I remember on one occasion, I think it was in Baltimore, when all things were ready for the services of the evening tocommence, and each speaker was stationed at his corner of the platform, all at once old Father Fry started up with a burst of impromptu eloquence, as the spirit of speaking gave him utterance, much to the satisfaction of all the people, who had collected from all parts of the country, and were anxious to listen to some animated discourse pertaining to the business of the meeting. This sudden movement was the occasion of no little embarrassment to the men whose business it was to guard the rails of the platform, and who were just ready to introduce the first speaker. They suddenly interposed their decided veto. Go on, go on, sounded loudly from many voices. "It will not do," said the guardians of the well-arranged system; "the speakers for the evening are all engaged, and are now ready to proceed; we can not suffer any others to speak." Go on, go on, again sounded through the house, and the good old Christian Israelite, by standing firm to his post, although in an unconstitutional manner, soon got off the most animated and edifying address of the evening.
This perfection of planning, as many supposed it
to be at the time, for stirring up the people in the foreign mission cause, did not always work to entire satisfaction; and it soon settled down into the quintessence of dullness, from the extra efforts of the speakers to exhibit a world of learning on one privileged occasion, and from their indulging in abstract reasonings which had no exhilarating influence on the minds of the people.
In none of our great meetings of any kind have I observed so much of the absence of the social principle and the want of recognition in an official manner of so large a portion of worthy members, as in the old triennial Convention, whose delegates, for a long time, were not remarkably numerous.
Some of the causes of the omission of the usual sociability of the Baptists, in all their intercourse with each other, have already been pointed out, and to these I may add the secular principles of doing the business of our great meetings, which were quite strictly adhered to. There was something new to our people in their whole operation; and, besides this, there was always a large company of new men among the delegates, mostly of the younger class, who were so confident of their superior powers in speaking and setting matters right in all difficult cases, that they could not wait for the slower movements of their elder, and less ardent, and less confident brethren.
The members of the Missionary Union, at an early period, became so numerous that it was impracticable for any special attention to be paid to them individually by the managers of its meetings; and as none of them have any privilege of voting, unless they occupy some official station, they have fewer inducements to participate in any of the debates which may arise in the body.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 228-240. -- jrd]
Go to the Next Chapter
Return to American Baptist Histories
Return to HOME Page