Baptist History Homepage
Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict
ON THE POPULAR PREJUDICES AGAINST THE BAPTISTS IN FORMER TIMES. THEIR UNWISE POLICY IN SOME THINGS. BAPTIST PUBLISHERS. NO BAPTIST PRESS. OLD-FASHIONED PULPITS. MODERN PLATFORMS.
THE further back we go into antiquity, the more fully we see the prejudices against our people developed by their opponents, and the less willing they were to allow them a place in the brotherhood of Christians. Pedobaptism of all classes were down upon them for their criminal neglect of their duty towards their offspring, according to the popular sentiments of their adversaries; and the supporters of the church and state policy were equally severe against them for opposing any dictation or compulsion in the concerns of the gospel. So generally, in my early life, did the idea prevail that children should be christened, as the phrase was, especially among the Episcopalians, among whom I belonged, for their spiritual benefit, that the neglect of the rite ought not to be tolerated among Christian people. And to leave all men free to adopt their own religious creed, to hear what ministers they preferred, to attend what churches they chose, or none at all, and to act in all things concerning
religion, and in the business of ministerial support, according to their own wills all these principles and practices were then regarded as having a tendency to undermine the foundation of the Christian religion. "Poor heathen" was a term of reproach often applied to the children of Baptist parents, while "levelers of the gospel system" was the designation of all the advocates of the Baptist creed.
In the time of the severe persecutions of the old Waldenses the Catholic priests got up a story that their children were born with black throats, that they were hairy and had four rows of teeth, with one eye, and that placed in the middle of their foreheads.
In this country I never heard of any location where prejudices against this people were carried so far, but in the easy part of my ministry a very honest and candid old lady, who had never been far from her retired home, said to me in a very sober tone, "Your society are much more like other folks now than they were when I was young. Then there was a company of them in the back part of our town, and an outlandish set of people they certainly were. You yourself would say so, if you had seen them. As it was told to me, you could hardly find one among them but what was deformed in some way or other. Some of them were hair-lipped, others were blear-eyed, or hump-backed, or bow-legged, or clump-footed;
hardly any of them looked like other people. Butthey were all strong for plunging, and let their poor ignorant children run wild, and never had the seal oft he covenant put on them."
In the age here alluded to, close communion, so called, was the most available argument with the opponents of our denomination, not only with the ministers but with the whole of their lay membership. This was a theme so continually harped upon, that many members of Baptist families had a hard struggle to surmount a stumbling block so continually thrown in their way; and in some cases persons of this description were actually taken from the society of their relatives and carried over to the Pedobaptist side.
The Munster affair never failed of being held up to the public by all writers of the Pedobaptist class and many of their preachers also.
On the whole, such was the strength of public opinion against our obnoxious sect, that had its existence depended on the good will of a large class, of leading men on the other side, all their churches no doubt would have been scattered and dissolved. At that time the exchange of pulpits between the advocates and the opponents of infant baptism was a thing of very rare occurrence, except in a few of the more distinguished churches in the northern States. Indeed, the doctrine of non-intercourse, so far as ministerial
services were concerned, almost universally prevailed between Baptists and Pedobaptists.
I will here recount a few of the examples of unwise policy and objectionable customs of our brethren in times of old.
1. In the location of their houses of worship.
Then for Baptists to plant their churches in market streets, or in central and conspicuous locations, was a circumstance of rare occurrence. Instead of this, their more common practice was to fix on some remote and obscure situation. In country places, as a matter of courtesy, they would often go near to some influential family; and as their church buildings, for the most part, were neither costly nor durable, when new ones were called for, a stronger influence would be exerted in another direction; and then would come up the perplexing question about the burying ground, whether a new one should be opened, or the old one should continue in use. About a matter of this kind two old deacons had a discussion of a rather singular nature, which may be thus reported:
Deacon A. I stick to the old burying ground as my final resting place.
Deacon B. I shall go to the new ground.
Deacon A. Well, you may all go there that want to, but Ill never be buried there as long as I live.
Deacon B. Nor I neither, was the quick reply; as long
as I live I dont want to be buried anywhere. But when I am dead I am willing my friends should place me in the new ground.
In towns and villages Baptist meeting houses, for the most part, were located on their outskirts, because some brother, or friend would give the society a lot there, either as an act of benevolence or to increase the value of other land.
And not a few of our old preachers, conscious of their deficiencies as public speakers, would encourage rather than dissuade the people from fixing on such remote and obscure locations where the townsmen would not be very likely to come.
2. In licensing to preach, some who could talk very well on their own ground and within their own bounds, but were not suitable to be sent out as ministers at large.
"Liberty to improve their gifts wherever Providence shall open a door, was the usual form of licenses in times when lay and local preachers were much more numerous than now, especially in old churches, particularly in the South and West. Many of these men, while operating in domestic circles, were very useful. There their deficiencies in education and talents were easily overlooked, which was not always the case when they went out into the world.
A portion of the men under consideration, possessed
in a high degree the powers of imagination and invention, to which many modern preachers of literary training can make but small pretensions. They valued themselves on their skill in managing knotty texts. Figures and metaphors were their favorite themes, and, by some means or other, they would make all things about them plain. As for parables, they would never leave one till they made it go on all fours; and so fond were they of allegories, that you would think they had been taught in the school of Origen, that everlasting allegorizer.
These curious preachers would often astonish many of their hearers with the ingenuity of their expositions, which, for the most part, however, were as good as many which are found in the writings of some of the Fathers.
3. In their extreme caution in avoiding the faults, real or supposed, of other denominations.
Our old Baptists were so much disgusted with many things around them, that in some cases they would be too cautious in their doings, particularly in the business of ministerial support, the evils of which still remain among us. They had suffered so much in some parts of New England, and in Virginia, from taxation and legal coercion from the dominant parties, for the support of ministers, whom they had disowned, that they stood aloof from all systematic
measures in favor of their own preachers. Many of them went so far as to refuse to lend their names for the support of ministers, or for any other object. "If I have any thing to give, I will give it, and be done with it," was the laconic reply of these men to all who sought their aid.
"Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth," was a favorite passage with this kind of people.
"Yes," said one, "some members have no trouble in Following that rule, for neither hand does any thing for the support of ministers."
The clergy of the standing order, so called, were generally men of collegiate training, and as the Baptists had often been grievously oppressed for their support, ministerial education itself, by many, was lightly esteemed. This came from the incorrect reasoning of our people. But there were other things which caused a strong dislike, on their part, of the ministers of the old order, among which we may mention their sacerdotal airs the dullness of their performances their cold, and in some cases, their contemptuous treatment of all without their pale, whether Baptists or others all these things combined to produce in the minds of our old-fashioned members a settled aversion of the whole Pedobaptist concern, its priesthood, lay membership and all. And the urgent need of college
learning for ministers they decidedly denied; and this sentiment was strengthened by observing the less formal, more animated, and, to them, more edifying preaching of their own uneducated ministers.
4. In the want of a progressive spirit in forming new churches, by sending out colonies from old ones.
One church in a place was enough, according to the old Baptist policy, and seldom did a second one arise, in an entirely peaceable manner. The idea of colonizing for the general good of the denomination and the cause of religion, was but little thought of among our people in my younger years. Our old pastors were, indeed, always pleased with large churches; yet they could neverafford to part with enough of their members to form a new and strong interest near them. And strong men, who were well satisfied with their spiritual homes, never thought of leaving them for the public good. Disaffection was generally at the bottom of all the new movements now under consideration. The first examples of getting up new churches in large and growing places by colonizing, if I am not mistaken, were set by our Boston brethren, many years since.
The old fogyism, above alluded to, among our ministers and people, in former times, has often hindered the growth of the denomination in this expanding country, in which our sentiments are viewed with so
much favor now; and well would it be for us, if less of its paralyzing influences were felt in some locations at the present time. *
5. In having their churches too large, or too small.
We had a few ministers, in former years, who were famous evangelists in large districts around them. They were men of ardent piety and zeal, and many flocked to their standards; and wherever they collected converts sufficient for the purpose, they would unite them into an informal church, under the name of a branch. It was the settled policy of these successful preachers to retain all their converts under their pastoral care, however widely they were scattered around them; and the converts themselves felt in duty bound to continue their membership where they first joined, whatever changes might take place in their locations.
Dr. Shepard, of Brentwood, New Hampshire, was a famous pastor of one of the great churches now under consideration.
This good old Baptist elder, whom I visited in one of my early journeys for historical purposes, was both a preacher and a physician, and was highly esteemed
* I once said to a pastor of a large church, from which, against his wishes, a new interest was about to be formed, that if they had five acres of members, in the language of politicians at theit mass meetings, they would not be willing to spare enough for a new body, which could go alone at first.
in both capacities in a wide circuit around his residence, which he owned, and which had the appearance of the premises of a good thriving farmer. His pastoral relation was a fixed fact, as was the case with many of our farmer ministers of that age. His church might with propriety be called a bishopric, over which he presided with a mild episcopal sway, having under him a number of able preachers, who, in his absence, officiated in his room, in the different branches of his wide-spread charge. One of these preachers became a governor of the State.
Another church of this description arose near New Lebanon Springs, New York, in the latter part of the last century, under the ministry of Elder Jacob Drake. Others of a similar character might be named. These extensive churcheswere so unwieldy and so difficult to manage, that but a few of our ministers were disposed to encourage their formation or continuance.
For small churches the Baptists in this country have at all times been peculiarly distinguished, and it is probable that now, no large denomination in the land has such a large proportion of feeble and pastorless communities under the name of church organizations as are found on our lists.
Baptist Publishers and the Baptist Press
These terms, now so familiar with our people, were
but little known among them in my early acquaintance with their affairs.
Fifty years ago the publishing houses of Manning & Loring, and Lincoln & Edmonds, of Boston, were the only ones of much extent in their operations among the American Baptists. Teibout, of New York, and Dobson, of Philadelphia, were both Baptists, but their doings had not much respect to the concerns of the denomination.*
The newspaper press, half a century since, was almost wholly in the hands of men of different creeds from our own, and was altogether secular in its character. A few papers admitted notices of religious meetings and brief details of religious concerns, which, however, were not unfrequently accompanied with some sneering remarks, especially if there was any thing in the articles pertaining to the foreign mission cause, which was then exceedingly unpopular with many men of the type. The plan of sending men and money out of the country for the purpose of attempting the conversion of the heathen in foreign lands, in the view of these men was a most preposterous one, a project, as they said, not only visionary in its design, but impracticable in its nature.
* "I am of the Baptist persuasion, but not of the Baptist connection," said the then aged Dobson to me while conversing on our affiars. He was, through a long life, the pastor of a small church of Scotch people, in Philadelphia.
With a flippant editor of this class I had a newspaper war of long continuance; the proprietors of the paper being my personal friends decided that I should not be denied the use of its columns, according to the wishes of the editor. My opponent gave out that he felt in duty bound to oppose the foreign mission scheme as a waste of money, which would be much more useful at home, and that he should continue his opposition till he put it down. To this argument of my opponent I replied, that if he fully believed it was his duty to put down the cause of foreign missions, I as fully believed that he would die without performing it.
In the course of my defense of this then obnoxious undertaking, I predicted that the time would come, when the missionaries to foreign lands, who were then so lightly esteemed by many, and especially those of literary pretensions, would become literary pioneers in distant regions, in matters pertaining to the geography, the history, the languages, laws, customs, etc., of the distantcountries to which they were sent; and that literary men, instead of treating them with disrespect, would honor them as the friends of science and the promoters of useful knowledge. In my arguments in favor of my position, I observed that missionaries, an a general thing, were then, and must always be, men of intelligence, industry and enterprise; and that by
residing in remote regions hitherto wholly or but partially explored, and mingling freely with the inhabitants, would be enabled to be much more accurate in all that pertains to them than passing travelers can possibly be.
It is now about forty years since these predictions were made, and how often have I since been highly gratified in seeing them so literally fulfilled by our own men and those of other communities, and yet I am inclined to think that the contributions to general knowledge, by the aid of missionaries, in connection with their professional labors in the future, will greatly increase.
Baptist Councils in Former Times
As far back as the time of the active life of Backus, as I find from some of his old papers, he had much ’o do in assisting churches to adjust difficulties among their members. "Call a council," seems to have been the first idea in the minds of many church members in early times when troubles arose among them, which they could not easily settle; and very small affairs at times were the occasion of these meetings, which in more modern times are seldom known, the churches having learned how to manage their own affairs without troubling their neighbors with them.
* In the course of one of my early journeys for historical purposes, in a new region in a northern State, I fell in with one of the kind of councils
above described, which was called simply to adjust a difficulty which had arisen between two church members; and singularly enough these members were a husband and his wife, and more singular still, the difficulty originated in a disagreement about the management of the dairy of the farm. The woman would skim the milk too much for the good of the cheese, and this dispute ran off into other matters. Although they made me the clerk of the council, yet at this distance of time I can not report its doings; but as near as I can recollect, the meeting leaned to the husband's view, as more correct in theory and as promising a better article for market.
Councils or presbyteries, as they are termed by our brethren South and West, in former times invariably met in the morning for the examination of the candidates, and in the afternoon for the public services. In the interval a sumptuous dinner was partaken of, either at a public house or at the residence of a wealthy member. This was a wide departure from the custom of primitive times, when they fasted and prayed before they engaged in the work of ordination.
The extra efforts for style and abundance at ordination dinners, I suppose, came down to the Baptists from their Puritan ancestors, who in some cases encountered heavy expenses in the settlement of their ministers.* The evenings after ordination, by the young people were devoted to amusement.+
* Something over a century ago, in a country town not far from Boston, Massachusetts, the cost of an ordination of a Pedobaptist minister was between two and three hundred dollars. The bill for the ardent articlewas not small.
+ Ordination balls were among these amusements. On consulting a minister of that order as to the truth of these reports, he observed, that although such balls were sometimes had, yet he did not think they had been common. I never heard of any thing of the kind amongst the Baptists, and my impression is that they have seldom occured among the old order, of late years.
A very good practice has latterly been adopted by our people, in some places, namely, of having a meeting of the ordainers beforehand, to examine candidates and see if matters are all right, so as to guard against the unpleasant delays which sometimes occur on such occasions.
The installation of ministers, by which term is meant the settling again those who have been ordained, is seldom heard of among the Baptists, at the present time. Formerly, the thing was quite common among the Pedobaptists, and, in rare cases, it was practiced by our people.
If this harmless custom would help to keep ministers longer in their stations, it might be well for us to revive it.
Old-Fashioned Pulpits among the Baptists
In their construction, no uniformity was apparent, but, as a general thing, they were of small dimensions, a good deal elevated in their positions; and a sounding-board overhead, and a pulpit window, were regarded as indispensable fixtures.
Dr. Stillman's pulpit in Boston looked strange to me when I first saw it, as it had no window in common
style. On inquiry, I learned it had been closed by the Doctor's request, to avoid a current of air on his back, from a large tide-water millpond in the rear of the house. This pond was long since filled up and built over.
The pulpit in which Calvin preached, is said to have been thirty feet high. From his time, preaching stands have gradually declined in height, till they are nearly on a level with the people.
I will hero repeat a few remarks on the proper form of a pulpit, made to me lately by a young preacher, who had left the law for the ministry. "When," said he, "I used to address a jury, I wanted a clear space between us, that I might watch their eyes and their countenances, to see what effect my arguments had on their minds; and now, when I address the people, I want but a simple platform, and nothing in front of it; then, with brief in hand, or with none at all, I feel at home, as I can move about, and talk to my hearers, as lawyers do to juries."
Fifty years ago, and at a somewhat later period, I was generally sorry to hear of the conversion of ministers of distinction of other creeds, to our side; and the reason was, that they might become disappointed and discontented, and go back with evil reports of our land, and especially of the parsimony
of our people, in most cases, in the support of ministers, and in their doings generally in aid of benevolent undertakings. About that time we had some unpleasant cases of the kind to which I now allude.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 92-108. -- jrd]
Go to the Next Chapter
Return to American Baptist Histories
Return to HOME Page