How David Benedict Came to Write His Baptist History
From the Preface of the 1813 edition
I CAN hardly inform the reader how I came to engage in this work. According to the best of my recollection, I first conceived the design of the laborious task I have since pursued, in the summer of 1802, and in a short time I found myself travelling in Kentucky, Georgia, and the other States, asking questions, searching records, and collecting materials. From this time, the history of the Baptists, both at home and abroad, became the subject of my interested attention. For between seven and eight years from this period, I was so much engaged in classical and professional studies, that I did but little more towards perfecting my plan, than read what books I could find, which, in any manner related to it, collect pamphlets, minutes of Associations, etc. and inquire of all, who, I thought, could give me any of the information I wanted. I soon became convinced, that if ever I pursued the undertaking to any considerable extent, I must travel for it; and accordingly in the autumn of 1809, I set out on a journey, in which I was gone almost nine months. I went into Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and then crossed over into the southern States, and explored the Carolinas and Georgia, first in the back regions, and then along the seacoast, and returned through Virginia, Maryland, and so on. I next went eastward beyond the Penobscot river in the District of Maine. After that I went into the northern parts of the State of New York, and in the course of about thirteen months, traveled about five thousand miles. Since then I have traveled between one and two thousand miles in different parts of New England on the business of this history. Most of these journeys have been performed on horse back and alone. And I consider it a peculiar favor of Divine Providence, that amidst all my excursions in some of the most rugged and dreary parts of the country, I have been preserved from every kind of accident and harm.
Notwithstanding I was often lodged and refreshed by hospitable brethren and friends, yet my journeys were unavoidably attended with expenses, which I was not well able to bear; and, indeed, I know not what I should have done, had it not been, that a number of churches and individuals made me very liberal contributions for the purpose of aiding my undertaking.
In these journeys, besides collecting many materials, I formed a very extensive acquaintance, and engaged correspondents in every part of the country, many of whom have contributed largely towards the accomplishment of this work. Still there were many parts of this extensive continent, which I had not visited, and many materials yet remained to be collected. In the close of the year 1810, I printed a Circular Address, etc. stating the progress I had made, and the materials I yet wanted, and distributed three hundred of them in places I had not visited. And besides these, I have written between five and six hundred letters to solicit information of various kinds.
In the summer of 1811, I was brought low by debility and disease; for about four months, my studies were almost wholly suspended; but a gracious God was pleased to renew my strength, and I have since enjoyed, for me, an unusual portion of health.
Soon after I began to arrange my materials, I found the need of someone to copy after me for the press, and to lend other assistance’s, which a second person might perform. And I soon had the happiness to obtain Mr. George H. Hough, of New Hampshire, a young ministering brother, acquainted with printing, whose assistance has facilitated my work, and taken off my hands the whole laborious task of transcribing it for the press, which, on account of my numerous quotations, I found absolutely necessary to be done.
I did not, at first contemplate anything more at present, than the history of the American Baptists. I had, however, designed, at some future period, to compose a General History of the Baptists in other countries; but learning that Mr. Ivimey, a Baptist minister in London, was engaged in writing the History of the English Baptists, and concluding that his work would, in a great measure, if not wholly, supersede the necessity of any further exertions of mine, I resolved to throw together in one view, with as much precision as possible, a general account of all who have maintained the peculiar sentiments of the Baptists, in foreign countries and ancient times. And as I must, in order to do this, travel an extensive round of ecclesiastical affairs, and refer to many characters and events, which might not be fully understood by all my readers, I concluded, at a late period, to
give, in the first place, A Summary view of Ecclesiastical History, and then A Miniature History of Baptism, from the Apostolic age to the present time. This work, scanty and imperfect as it may appear, has been collected from many hundred sources; the field of inquiry has been wide, and I have endeavored to explore it with faithfulness and care.
The history of the American Baptists abounds with incidents of a common kind, but it furnishes very few of those events which give pomp and splendor to the historic page. I therefore found it necessary to descend into minute details, to write much journal-wise, and, indeed, in any form, by which might preserve from oblivion facts, which I thought worthy of being transmitted to posterity, and which might at the same time be edifying to the present generation.
Many of the events described are of the most familiar kind; an attempt to elevate them by the flowers of diction, would be preposterous in itself, and disgusting to the reader. I expect most of my readers will be a plain people, unaccustomed to the trappings of art, and to the labor of deciphering learned figures and distant similitudes. But while I have dispensed with the decorations of style, I have endeavored to regard an observation, which Cowper has made in some of his prose writings: “Perspicuity is half the battle; for if the sense is not so plain as to stare you in the face, but few people will take the pains to poke for it.”
I have found it somewhat difficult to determine how to manage the business to my own satisfaction, respecting the histories of individual churches. There are now in all the Associations upwards of two thousand; to have given a detailed account of the origin, progress, and present circumstances of everyone, would have made the work too voluminous and costly, and the narratives would have been so similar, that there would have been too great a sameness in them, to make them generally interesting. To have given the histories of no churches, in their individual capacities, would have made the work too general, and many interesting narratives and anecdotes must have been omitted. There remained, therefore, no alternative, but to give the particular history of some churches, and to omit that of many others. I suggested something on this subject in my Proposals, and there stated, that my intention was to take particular notice of those churches which are the most distinguished for
age, for numbers, for prosperity, or adversity, for being mother establishments, or for their local situation. Upon these principles I have proceeded in my selection of churches for particular notice. But after all my care, it is possible I may have been partial and injudicious. And as every one is fond of reading something about himself and his own people, it is also possible I may be blamed where I ought not to be. I should have been glad to have said more of some churches and neighborhoods than I have done; I have written a multitude of letters which have not been answered, and therefore shall acquit myself of blame in these cases.
When I began this work, I had not determined what plan to pursue respecting biographical accounts. But I soon found that it would be impracticable, and in the judgment of my most enlightened brethren, improper to say much of the living. I took many accounts while travelling, and many have been communicated by others, which must be omitted; but they shall be preserved with care, and will be of use to some future historian. Some of my fathers and brethren have rested from their labors since this work was begun, and others may, and all of us must soon follow them.
I observed at first, that I hardly knew how I came to engage in this undertaking, and I now can say, I hardly know how, with my feeble health and scanty resources, I have carried it through. The cordial approbation, which my brethren have so generally manifested towards my design, has been a powerful stimulus to perseverance: and I have had the happiness of believing that I have been employed in the path of duty, and that God, in his providence, has prospered my labors. And if no other person should receive any advantage from this publication, my labor will not be lost; for the pleasure and profit, which it has afforded me, are more than sufficient to compensate all the labor and anxiety it has cost. But I cannot but flatter myself, that the accounts of the wonderful displays of the grace of God, which are here imperfectly related, will be read with pleasure by many, in the present and in future generations.
My desire has been, to record on the page of history, important events, which were fast sinking into oblivion; to arrange in one view those which were already recorded, and to place the history of the American Baptists
on such a foundation, that it may easily be continued by the future historian.
I have found it difficult in many cases, to fix the date of events, which have been taken from the enfeebled memories of the aged, or from documents in part obliterated, and throughout indefinite and obscure. Cases have not infrequently occurred, where aged people could not perfectly agree among themselves respecting things which transpired in their youth. Correspondents have communicated accounts, which did not always agree with each other. Young men have stated things according to tradition, and old men according to their remembrance. In these ways difficulties have arisen, which I have labored hard to solve, by writing many letters, and by every other means within my reach. And I cannot but feel a degree of confidence, that no great mistakes will be found in my statements. But as this history will be exposed to the observation of thousands, who have been eye-witnesses of the scenes it describes, if any essential errors should be discovered, I shall esteem it a favor to be informed of them, and they shall be corrected with cheerfulness and care.
Pawtucket, near Providence, Rhode Island, April 16, 1813.
[From A General History of the Baptists, pp. 4-8. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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