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Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict
ON THE CHANGES IN BAPTIST CUSTOMS IN THE COURSE OF THE FIFTY YEARS. — IN CHURCH AFFAIRS. — ASSOCIATIONS.
UNDER this head I shall have respect principally to the moral habits of church members and the regulation of their church affairs.
1. In their strictness of church discipline.
Fifty years ago it was contrary to Baptist rules for their members to frequent such places of amusement as multitudes of them now resort to without any official censure or complaint. Our people then made a broad distinction between the church and the world, and if any of their members went over the line to the world’s side, they were at once put under church discipline. Then the Baptists sternly prohibited the practice of brother going to law with brother, under any circumstances whatever. All matters of offense, or complaints of wrong doing, must be laid before the body according to gospel rule. And if rash or inexperienced members hurried their complaints there, without taking gospel steps, as the phrase was, they were required to retrace their course and go first to the offending member. Achans in the camp were
then much dreaded, and church members were assiduously taught not to suffer sin upon a brother.
In our well regulated communities all the members of all grades, and of both sexes, felt bound to watch over each other, and become helpers in all matters of discipline; and all were held to a strict account in their moral conduct generally, and especially in their business transactions. Then we had no standing committees in our churches, either to prepare cases beforehand for their being brought into them, or to assist in keeping them out of them. Neither the aids nor the hindrances which may result from these essentially Presbyterian bodies, in the expedition of business on the one hand, or in the suppression of investigation on the other, with which a portion of our people now seem so well pleased, had anywhere been introduced among them.
2. In the manner of conducting church meetings.
In some few cases this was done with closed doors, but by far the greater part of our churches throughout the land did not adhere to this rule. Any neighbors or friends might sit and witness the transaction of church business; and in times of revivals, when many were coming into the churches, large congregations of outside people would assemble. There is a tradition that the famous Thomas Jefferson caught the idea of some things in the Constitution
of this republic while witnessing the doings of a small Baptist church in his neighborhood. As the story goes, some of the primordial principles of the great document which he afterwards penned were conceived from observing the successful movements of a little self-operating body which acknowledged no allegiance to any other power. This story has been currently reported, and on good authority, as I am inclined to believe.
3. In the mode of singing in public worship.
In a few places at the North they had singing choirs as at the present time, but congregational singing was then the prevailing mode in a great majority of Baptist congregations, and this is probably so now, taking into view the whole denomination in this country, notwithstanding all the changes which have been made in church music in the older churches, in favor of organs, and in having select companies of performers in this line, where these instruments have not been introduced. The most systematic way of conducting this service, where all the people felt free to participate in it, was, for the leader to stand down in front of the pulpit, in view of the whole congregation, who followed him according to their ability and disposition. Through the South and West ministers very often took the lead in the singing service. This was considered a matter of coarse, for such as had a
gift for it, in the absence of a leader among the members, and this practice, I presume, still prevails very extensively. In some parts of England, in olden times, keen disputes were maintained at one period, whether there should be singing at all, and by some congregations it was omitted altogether. In some of my early travels I found a remnant of this non-singing policy in this country, mostly in the interior of Rhode Island; and "are you a singing Baptist?" was a question proposed to me now and then, by those who had been educated in it. This strange omission began in persecuting times, when dissenters from the dominant church were obliged to meet in retired places, and conduct their religious services in as still a manner as possible for fear of discovery and disturbance; and, in many other cases, a practice which was at first adopted from necessity was afterwards continued from choice, and became a law among the people.
4. In the posture of prayer in public worship.
This was always standing or kneeling. Then, for any one to remain seated during this service, would have been considered extremely irreverent and the height of impropriety in men, women or children, unless they were sick or lame. Thus to do, would have been regarded as evidence of imbecility or indolence. The kneeling posture was about as common
among the Baptists as the Methodists, especially in the South and West. It was often adopted by ministers in their pulpits, or on their preaching stands; and such was theirhumility and sense of duty, that they were not deterred by any inconveniences to which they might be subjected. Many, and perhaps most places of worship, where now the kneeling practice prevails are in a neglected and slovenly condition. Thus while Baptist worshipers in one section of country, in prayer time, remain seated on soft cushions, in a much larger portion of it they kneel on hard floors, unswept for an indefinite length of time, and illy fitted for their use.
5. In their familiarly with the scriptures, and in the readiness of all classes of members, male and female, to defend their peculiar sentiments.
Fifty years ago there was a very vigorous renewal of the baptismal controversy in this country, and all the old arguments of the Pedobaptists, and the whole catalogue of bad stories against the Baptists, were circulated by their opponents with uncommon zeal and activity. This unusual excitement followed the conversion of Rev. Daniel Merrill of Maine, with most of his large church, of the Congregationalist creed, to the Baptist faith. Dr. Baldwin, of Boston, with other ministers of the order, assisted in the re-baptizing of this large Pedobaptist community,
and forming them into a Baptist church. And from this followed a watery war, in which multitudes on both sides engaged for a long course of years. The various writers on the Baptist side, as usual, took pains to show how fully their sentiments were established by the original terms in the Scriptures which pertain to this subject. Those writings were so thoroughly studied by the common people, and were so often quoted by them, that one of the ministers, in his defense of Pedobaptism, sarcastically said, "Even the Baptist women talk Greek, in disputing with me on the subject of baptism."
Although I would not undervalue the ability of multitudes of our members of this age to discuss and defend their peculiar opinions, yet it is doubtful whether the number of this class is so great now, in proportion to our population, as in former times.
6. In their modes of supporting their ministers, and in their superior doings now in that line.
In my earliest examinations into Baptist affairs, I did not find one society in the whole connection which made much dependence on pew rents for ministerial support, except in Boston. In a few cases, the remnants of pews which remained unsold were rented, and the funds thus obtained formed an item of the minister’s income. Free pews, or benches, were then the general rule. The idea of paying any thing for
seats in a Baptist meeting house, much less of having the annual rent of them defray the expense of the establishment,ministers and all, had not entered the minds of our people, and, as their meeting houses were, nothing of the kind could have been done, if they had attempted it.
In some instances, the pews in houses of the better sort had been sold and became the private property of the buyers, but subject to no tax, not even for the repairs of the building. In Boston, the Baptists, following the custom of the place from its early settlement, have from time immemorial, depended on pew rents for the support of their ministers and the payment of current expenses. This being the policy of the old dynasty, in this ancient capital, the Baptists here were exempt from the taxation, law suits, vexation and spoliations to which their brethren in many parts of this commonwealth were so often, for a long time, exposed.
Farms and funds I sometimes met with in the hands of our old societies, for the support of their ministers; but as a general thing, annual subscriptions, too often poorly paid, were the main dependence of those ministers, who looked to their people for any part of their support. Many received considerable in donations of such things as they needed for themselves and families, from their more liberal members; and the intinerating
class generally carried home more or less in funds, from collections which were made for them in their preaching excursions. But on the whole, all ministers of our order, out of the cities and principal towns, who were not on farms, or in some kind of secular employment, had but scanty fare.
At the period now alluded to, the best of livings, so to speak, among the Baptists, would but little more than supply tenements to the present incumbents. Five hundred dollars per annum, with a parsonage, sounded quite loud then for ministers of the first class who had the care of our best located and most able churches; very few of them received over that amount, except in extra donations; and I am inclined to think that not twenty such livings could be found among the American Baptists. This was the amount of Rev. William Collier’s salary, during the short time he was pastor of the first church in the city of New York, as he informed me at the time, a little more than half a century since. The old parsonage where John Gano so long resided was demolished when the new stone church in Gold street, in which Mr. Collier officiated, was erected. Whether Mr. C. had a house found for him or paid his own rent is a question I can not decide.
Mr. J, Williams had no fixed salary when I attended his ministry in that city, but depended on the collections
which were made at the close of his discourses, a thing not uncommon in those days. In all churches then, in New York and in many other places, whatever might be their financial arrangementsin other respects, boxes, plates, or some such contrivances went round to receive the oblations of the people at the close of each meeting.
In Providence, for about ten years from his settlement in the place, Dr. Gano's stipend was the sum lately named; but when his father’s old flock in New York sought to transfer him to their then new house, the dedication sermon of which he preached, his salary was made three fourths of a thousand, and so remained to the end of his ministry, in 1828.
Drs. Stillman and Baldwin, of Boston, were well cared for by their respective flocks, according to the custom of the times, but with any details on this subject I am not familiar; I remember, however, to have heard Dr. B. observe late in his life that he never had occasion to say any thing to his people respecting his support, but that they, from time to time, increased it of their own accord, which but few of our ministers could say then, or since.
As to the company of our ministers of old, compared with the present time, what shall we say on this point? If they have more callers now, then they had more stayers, bag and baggage too, with more or
less of their families and friends. Baptist people, and those who sympathized with them, in olden times were very gregarious and loved to flock together; and what places were more suitable than the houses of their ministers? These were often and very appropriately called Baptist taverns, where the guests frequently outnumbered those of the neighboring inns. In the days here referred to, in Baptist parsonages, as at the old vicarage of Wakefield, might be seen denominational kindred of all Masses and affinities to the eighteenth cousins. But hospitality was the order of the day, and the good old pastors kept open doors for guests of all descriptions. And although at times persons were quartered upon them, who had very slender claims on their hospitality, if any at all, yet there was very little complaining in such cases.
7. In the manner of conducting the business of associations.
These were the only great meetings we had in my early day, as the age of our present anniversaries was far ahead. The whole number of associations then in all America was about seventy-five, where there are now upwards of six hundred. The manner of conducting those which I attended while young was more devotional and less formal than now, in many places: and there was more preaching and exhortation, more freedom for men of less brilliant powers of speaking
to take a part in devotional exercises, and an entire absence of agents to bespeak the good will of the people in favor of their different objects. And at that early period there were none of the distracting ites and isms of later times, nor of the conflicts which they always engender, which have so oftenmarred the enjoyment of associational meetings. Then we had no periodicals except the old Missionary Magazine once in three months. The way in which our people at all distances communicated with each other as to the state of their churches and their general affairs, was by means of corresponding letters for this purpose, from one association to another. In process of time, these letters were printed in the minutes of the associations; but when I first began to attend some of the oldest bodies of this kind they appointed men on the spot to write to all with which they had agreed to correspond; the letters thus formed were sent to them in manuscript; this was a slow way, but it was the best they knew then. The next step was to prepare one letter of a general character for all corresponding associations, some of which were in distant States, and to print it in the minutes. By this method a good deal of labor was saved to the few men who were generally selected to write corresponding letters. But when periodicals began to circulate, and new and more expeditious modes of communication were
opened, this old item of associational doings was laid aside.
With the old Warren Association I became connected in the early part of this century, when its annual gatherings were so attractive to the people that large companies of males and females encountered long and laborious journeys to attend them. This body, at one time, extended from Rhode Island, where it originated, eighty years since, over all Massachusetts, except the western part, and into New Hampshire; and the places of its annual meetings were at times about one hundred miles distant from each other; but the zeal of the people led them to undertake these long journeys with cheerfulness, with their own slow conveyances, so confident were they of being repaid for all their labor. And this was done not only by delegates, but by many others. Revivals then were very frequent; the reports of these, and the revival spirit with which the body was often so deeply imbued, made its anniversaries much more attractive than they have generally been in later times. In the absence of the facilities of this age for traveling, all the attendants of these interesting convocations went with their own teams, and by a law of custom, the whole company was to be provided for by the people in the places of their meeting; and the keeping generally of from one to two hundred horses,
in time was felt as a burden in some locations, but mostly in the cities and towns, where the population was of the non-farming class. At one time, the late Oliver Starkweather, of Pawtucket, took one hundred and fifty horses to his own premises, while many were otherwise provided for. This was the golden age of Baptist associations, and whereunto the old Warren would grow, and how many churches would be able to receive it, became, at length, a serious question with many. In point of attraction there was no religious assembly like it among our people, or any other, on the ground over which it was spread, where now a large number of similar institutions exist. Among the various plans of relief from this popular pressure, which some close calculators devised, one was, to limit the number of delegates which each church should send, and that the people should not be bound to provide for any others. But wiser men decided against all restraining measures of this kind, as being not only very unsocial and ungracious, but in opposition to the true interests of the denomination; and soon all schemes of this sort were abandoned. "Let them come," was the general saying of the people. "House room for twenty-five, and heart room for a hundred," was the language of an old pastor, in a central location.
All efforts to diminish the number of attendants of
associations soon became needless, after the old plan of conducting them was exchanged for one of a less edifying character.
The first time I saw Backus, the historian, was at the thirty-seventh anniversary of the Warren Association, in 1805, in the town from which it took its name only ten miles from my residence. I well remember the grave and venerable appearance of the man so famous in Baptist history, and the conversation we had on historical affairs. But little aid, however, did I receive from him while living, as his home was upwards of twenty miles from me, and he died the next year. But after his death, by the courtesy of his family, a large amount of historical papers, of great value in my then new undertaking, was I permitted to take from the places in which they had been left, carefully arranged, by this old and industrious collector of historical facts and documents.
Thus far, the old manner of conducting associations seems to have been better than that of later years, so far as the free flow of religious feeling and the ardor of piety were concerned; but in one point of view the old times were much worse than the present — and for the change for the better, all may be thankful for the beneficial influence of the temperance reform. Then, in all places and among all people, the ardent article was freely used, and no one seemed conscious
of any thing amiss in the practice, and to have failed to have had an ample supply of the popular beverage at gatherings of all kinds, and especially at associations, would have been considered an indication of parsimony or neglect. And on the other hand, some sort of apology was deemed necessary for a non-compliance with invitations to partake of it. Great were the hazards then, of all whose proclivities were in the wrong direction in the temperance line, which the teetotal doctrine happily relieved.
As to the doings of Baptist associations, I would merely observe, that while they keep to the original design of their organization, namely, the spiritual welfare of the churches which have voluntarily united to compose them, they are always found to be harmless, interesting and useful; and no encroachment on the independence of the churches need be feared in their operations. But when they become arenas of debate, especially on matters of an extraneous character, their sessions are scenes of trial rather than enjoyment; and when, moreover, they assume a tone of dictation and control on any subjects whatever, they are rather to be dreaded than desired, and the churches composing them may well prefer an unassociated and strictly independent condition.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 77-91. -- jrd]
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