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Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict
[This decade embraces all the remaining facts yet to be noticed, from about 1840 to the present time; and in discoursing upon them, I shall occasionally find it necessary to pass rapidly in different directions over the whole fifty years now under review.]
CHANGES IN MEETING-HOUSE FIXINGS AND COMFORTS. — CHANGES IN CHURCH MUSIC. — ORGANS. — TITLES OF MINISTERS. — MY EFFORTS FOR MINISTERIAL EDUCATION. — WITH OTHERS.
IN my early travels among our people I never saw any thing like a stove or a furnace in their houses of worship. In a few instances, in small houses, there might be seen chimneys with fire-places in them, at one end, and sometimes both. Foot stoves, for the use of females, were a very common article.
When we consider what poor buildings were then in use by most of our churches; that many of them were placed in remote and bleak situations, far from the homes of many of the people; that they were often reached by rough and rugged ways, and when arrived at were so cheerless and uncomfortable, it seems a wonder now that so many attended them.
Thus far I have had respect to country regions, and to houses of an inferior class; but in the cities and larger towns, where church edifices were well finished, scarcely any thing was done to make their inside conveniences and accommodations to correspond with those which the worshipers enjoyed at their homes.
Carpets and cushions were then but little known; and for a whole house to be fitted up in modern style, was never thought of in our most costly churches. Here and there you might see a few pews of the meeting-going aristocracy done off in a different manner from the rest, and as each one consulted his own taste, the colors of the fittings were sometimes as various as those of Joseph’s coat, and presented a grotesque appearance for a Christian sanctuary.
In the construction of the pews in the best of our houses, in my early day, the old high-back, square system generally prevailed, and as standing in prayer time was then the uniform custom, in some cases the seats were so fitted that they might be lifted up to accommodate the worshipers in this position; and when they were let down with care, all went on very well, but when this letting down was done in a hurry, as it often was by children and others, there was aclattering throughout the house which would startle those who were not accustomed to the sound.
I can hardly realize that I have lived to witness the great and beneficial changes to which I have thus briefly referred, and that at this early day I should see such strong indications of a still more rapid extension of this needful reform.
The Changes in Church Music, so called, among the Baptists, duirng the Period which these Reminiscences Embrace.
In my earliest intercourse among this people congregational singing generally prevailed among them. In a few churches in the northern regions, mostly, however, in New England, gallery choirs took the lead in this part of worship; but nowhere then was there what would now be called a scientific performance of this service, but the nearest approaches to it were found in a few Baptist congregations at the North, where it often happened that the leaders and many of the members of the choirs were not members of the churches for whose benefit they sang. This was sometimes a matter of grief to some of the old members, which, however, was generally borne without any open murmurs.
Through all the country parts of the South and West, in my earliest explorations of those regions, the old-fashioned way of lining out the psalm or hymn, as the singing went on, was very common, as it was also in many parts of the middle and northern States.
As this reading of the lines was often performed by the deacons of the churches, who stood under or in front of the pulpits, the term deaconing was sometimes applied to the service.
In many congregations the old pitch pipe was seen in the hands of the leader of the singing, and by degrees small instruments of music were introduced into the singing galleries, where extra efforts were made among the performers, and finally the bass viol, then the me plus ultra, the perfection of instrumental music, became a permanent fixture in a portion of our congregations. Strong prejudices, however, for a time existed in the minds of many of our old members against the “big fiddle,” as the bass viol was called, and indeed against all kinds of musical instruments, and church difficulties often arose on this account. But by degrees these prejudices subsided as the people became more and more interested in the performances of their singing choirs, and as their congregations were augmented by the new attractions in their religious worship.
The Introduction of the Organ among the Baptists
This instrument, which from time immemorial has been associated with cathedral pomp and prelatical power, and has always been the peculiar favorite of great national churches, at length found its way into Baptist sanctuaries, and the first one ever employed by the denomination in this country, and probably in any other, might have been seen standing in the singing gallery of the old Baptist meeting house in Pawtucket,
about forty years ago, where I then officiated as pastor; and in process of time, this dernier resort in church music was adopted by many of our societies which had formerly been distinguished for their primitive and conventicle plainness. The changes which have been experienced in the feelings of a large portion of our people has often surprised me. Staunch old Baptists in former times would as soon have tolerated the Pope of Rome in their pulpits as an organ in their galleries, and yet the instrument has gradually found its way among them, and their successors in church management, with nothing like the jars and difficulties which arose of old concerning the bass viol and smaller instruments of music.
The circumstances attending the innovation in question among my people, which was rather pleasing than offensive to the whole concern, may be thus related: As yet there was no other house of worship in the place, and our choir of singers were making vigorous efforts in behalf of their department, in connection with the Mozart Society, which for many years occupied an important position in the singing line, and frequently had concerts of a very popular character, which were always held in our house of worship. In aid of these performances a small organ was obtained by a joint-stock company, which, in the end, became a permanent fixture of the house. This
clever little concern, still alive in another congregation, took the place of all the inferior cymbals on which our singers hitherto depended for instrumental aid, and by degrees became a favorite with all the people however much some of them had previously been biassed against any artificial aid in the melody of the sanctuary, and indeed, to the attractions of the gallery, rather than the pulpit, some people slyly ascribed the full houses which we generally enjoyed.
This change in Baptist policy happened in a suburban branch of the old Roger Williams church, at a distance of four miles from its center, a number of years before any movement was made by the mother body in the organ business.
I have already stated that at the time above referred to, the house in which I officiated was the only one in Pawtucket, or its vicinity, where are at present accommodations more or less splendid for churchgoing people of many different creeds. And I would furthermore state that for a number of years pasty there have existed within my old parish bounds, six good houses ofworship for Baptists, in all of which the instruments so indispensable for modern singers are found. One of this number is of the Freewill order, but this community a few years since, following in the wake of their brethren of a more stringent creed, placed an organ in their own singing gallery.
How far this modern organ fever will extend among our people, and whether it will on the whole work a re-formation or de-formation in their singing service, time will more fully develop. The original purpose of our small instrument was to assist the old-fashioned gallery choir, and to gather it in full strength around it, and so long as the musical concern in question is thus employed, we may reasonably expect it will be viewed with favor by spiritual worshipers, but whenever it shall assume an overwhelming influence, and only a few artistic performers be retained in the singers’ seats, to be directed by men who take but little interest in any of the services of the sanctuary, except what pertains to their professional duty, then a machine, harmless in itself, will be looked upon with disfavor if not with disgust by the more pious portion of our assemblies.
Concerning the Titles applied to Baptist Ministers at different Times
From my earliest recollections, and from the most ancient records of the denomination in this country, all ministers who had received ordination were termed elders. This title, with our people, has respect to office rather than age, and of course they fed no embarrassment in applying it to the youngest of their ministers. Men of twenty or fourscore, with them,
are equally entitled to be ranked among their elders. This scriptural term, against which none of the usual objections which many are disposed to make against high-sounding titles can be urged, is still employed by a large majority of the American Baptists through the whole country, and I am often sorry to see such a decline in the use of it among our people. The attachment of old staunch Baptists to this familiar and favorite designation of their spiritual guides, especially among the sisterhood, who often applied it, in their free discourse, to ministers of other denominations, has been referred to in chapter twelve of these reminiscences, and as elder and presbyter are synonymous terms, and as, moreover, presbyters constitute one of the three orders of episcopacy, our old-fashioned members did not make a great mistake in this business, so far as Episcopalians are concerned.
The term Reverend, now in such common use among our people and all other parties, was generally very offensive to Baptists of the old school, and was seldom employed by them in common conversation, in letter inscriptions, or in any other way. >Holy and reverend is his name, as a designation of the Divine Being, was a passage often quoted by objectors to giving reverence to men. Tothe Deity alone, said they, reverence belongs. At the period now under review, so generally was this objectionable title
avoided by our people, that when they saw it affixed to the names of ministers in the public prints, on letters, etc., they concluded that they of course must belong to some other denomination, besides their own.
The few Doctors amongst us in early times, whenever spoken of by the people at large, and especially the plainer sort, were ranked with the eldership; by those who were more observant of the courtesies of life, the titles of these men were applied to them on proper occasions; but even by the more courteous class, there was not so much parade about diplomas at all times, and in all records as at the present day; nor did we then hear so many censorious comments on the titles now under consideration, as have been published for a few years past. The cases were so few as to attract but little attention, and as a general thing, the title was conferred on men of a good deal of notoriety in the Baptist ministry.
The term bishop, in preference to those I have named, was strenuously recommended by some of our ministers a few years since, and in some instances, the minutes of associations and other documents were made out on this plan. The men who proposed this new ministerial nomenclature for our use, plead the native signification of the word which is translated bishop, and that we are justly entitled to it as a proper designation for the overseers of our churches.
But the proposal did not meet with general acceptance, nor did the few who began the innovation long continue it.
While this experiment was being made, ministers of humble pretensions were sometimes not a little surprised to find themselves in the public prints, and on letters addressed to them, suddenly translated to episcopal honors, without a previous election or consecration.
In these times, postmasters and their assistants were often embarrassed in their vocation. "What can this mean?" a mail clerk would say, while preparing to make up a mail. "There must be some mistake in this direction. I have heard of a Baptist minister of such a name in that place, and have often done up letters for him; but I never knew before that the man was a bishop." The clerk at the other end was in a similar dilemma, and when the owner took the letter from the orate, all joined in a hearty laugh at its singular superscription.At the period above referred to, I was in the midst of my preparations for the publication of my late edition of Baptist history, and as the titles of our ministers are so few, I would have been glad if that of bishop had been added to their number, for then I should have found more ample scope for circumlocution in my narratives. Then I could have spoken of
the episcopal order, of the bench of bishops, of bishoprics, etc., when alluding to the persons and functions of our preachers and pastors. But as I was fully satisfied that this new plan would prove a failure, I never departed from our old rule in designating our ministers.
Although there is no question in my mind, that in primitive times bishops and presbyters, or even elders, stood on a level in the gospel ministry as to power and influence; yet an a distinction in these offices has been made from time immemorial, by the consent of the greatest part of Christendom, I do not think it advisable for our community, in this late age of the world, to interfere in this arrangement. As mankind in general have been so long accustomed to associate with the term bishop, the idea of a superior order of the ministry, it seems improper for the Baptists, who have hitherto been loud in condemning the application of all high-sounding titles to their spiritual guides, to attempt the change here had in view.
Informal and unconsecrated bishops are already found amongst us in sufficient numbers, for all practicable purposes in the operation of our simple machinery in church management, without augmenting the list by any conventional rules.
The term pastor has been recommended as a general title for all our ministers, which will do very well
at home for pastors, indeed; but the old name of eider is the preferable cognomen after all. It is the freest from objections of any other; it is good for all times and places; and I have a fall belief that it will be retained as long as possible by all our plain and scriptural people.
My Efforts for the Promotion of Ministerial Education in my early and more active Days.
As I well knew from painful experience what it was to struggle with pecuniary embarrassments in preparing for, and in pursuing a course of collegiate studies, with a view to the ministry, I naturally sympathized with those who had to encounter similar trials and difficulties, and stood ready at all times to afford them all the assistance in my power. In a few eases I took young men of the class now under consideration into my study, tuition free, and I sought for them pecuniary aid, after the beneficiary system had obtained some efficiency among our people, which system, in my early day, had hardly commenced operations to any considerable extent. Some of the young men who were thus patronized by me, intended to pursue a college course, while others did not settheir aim so high. These engaged only in those English studies which would enable them, in a more acceptable manner, to perform ministerial labors, a thing
quite common at that time a number of these men, in both departments, acted well their parts in after times.
In addition to my doings of this kind on my own premises, in aid of my junior brethren, as I was located on the then great thoroughfare through the country, and was, moreover, somewhat known as the friend and promoter of ministerial education, I was often applied to by those who were making their early efforts in this business for advice and direction how to proceed. In that day it was a lonesome look for young men without funds or able relatives who were disposed to aid them. "Where shall we find a place to study?" and "How shall we be supported?" were questions not easy to be answered by many poor young men of those times, who in the end surmounted all the difficulties in their way, and arose to usefulness or eminence.
As yet there was but little system among us in the business of ministerial education, and the beneficiary system was in its infancy. We had but one college, and as for theological schools, we had none, even for a partial course.
One of the young men above alluded to is now at the head of one of our most flourishing and distinguished literary institutions, Another, somewhat his senior, for many years occupied an important pastoral
station in a neighboring State. They, with others of less eminence in our ranks, have kindly informed me of my efforts to aid them by proper directions, a long time after all remembrance of the events had passed from my mind.
A little more than forty years ago, an education society was formed in the old Warren Association, expressly for the purpose of meeting the wants of our rising ministry. This society was very small at first, but it soon became quite useful as a center of operations within our associational bounds. The movement towards it was made at the instance of Mr. Winchell, then pastor of the first Baptist church in Boston. In the minutes of the ancient body just named, for 1816, I find the following list of officers of this then young educational concern, namely, D. Benedict, secretary; S. S. Nelson, treasurer; J. Going, J. M. Winchell, W. Gammell, A. Fisher, D. Curtis, B. Bates and S. Glover, executive committee. This institution still lives within the bounds of the association in which it originated, and Dr. Caswell of Brown University, who for a long time has been its secretary, is its chief manager. Abiel Fisher, David Curtis and the writer are the only officers of this society, as it was originally constituted, who are now alive.
At the period above alluded to, the most active
promoters of ministerial education were our ministers of the younger class. To them our fathers in the ministry gave up the management of this business, so far as its more active duties were concerned. At the same time, they most heartily encouraged the very needful undertaking, at an early stage of which our committee met serious embarrassments, not only for the want of funds, but also for the want of confidence in some who applied to us for recognition and assistance. And after all our care and caution, we made a few mistakes as to the men we received and patronized. Difficulties of a similar character, I believe, were experienced by other societies in selecting subjects for this then new method of helping forward candidates for the ministry.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 279-293. -- jrd]
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