Baptist History Homepage

Robert Boyle Crawford Howell
Early Virginia and Tennessee Minister and Editor
Virginia Baptist Ministers, Third Series
By George B. Taylor

While Robert Boyle Crawford Howell was not born in Virginia, and while the larger part of his labors was done in another state, still he was closely identified with the work of Virginia Baptists. His birth took place, March 10, 1801, on his father's farm on the Neuse River, Wayne County, North Carolina, he being the fifth child of Ralph Howell and Jane Crawford. His parents and their forebears were Episcopalians, and in his earlier days, when books were scarce, the boy's library was little more than the Bible and the prayer-book. While his parents gave him religious instruction, and while the superior character of his mother inclined him to habits of thought and towards spiritual things, besides these influences there came to him convictions which he wrought out from the close study of his library of two books. Although he had never read a Baptist book, he came gradually to the conclusion that religion is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart; that it is not communicated by sacraments; that infant baptism is unsupported by Scriptures, and that the Episcopacy is unauthorized by the word of God. It was with reluctance that he came to these views, as they were contrary to his early training. After several years, during which time he passed through severe and prolonged conflicts, reading his Bible daily on his knees, and praying for light, in the autumn of 1820 he received the joy of salvation, and, on February 6, 1821, was baptized by Rev. Robert T. Daniel, pastor of the Baptist Church, in Raleigh, into the fellowship of the nearest church to his father's home, the Nanghunti Church, some fourteen miles away. While the young man did not realize it at the time, his career as a minister practically began soon after his baptism. The very next Lord's Day, being urged by the pastor of the church, Rev. John Thomas, he preached his first sermon, from the text Matthew 11:2-6, his subject being the infinite grace manifested in the gospel of Christ. In this sermon he considered: first, the confirmation of the Messiahship of Jesus by miracles; second, the benevolent character of his miracles; and, third, the certainty that those who believe in Him shall be saved. At the first business meeting of his church, after his baptism, he was licensed to preach, and in the following months he conducted various religious services at private houses, speaking to large crowds, but still it was his plan and purpose to take up the study of the law. Yet the question as to the ministry perplexed him, but he decided to hold his decision in abeyance until he went to college, getting in the mean-time all the light he could. Before he set out for Columbian College, in the fall of 1821 or the spring of 1822, "a tall, spare-made youth in homespun clothes," nearly 200 persons had professed faith in Christ, and a large church had been organized.
[p. 54]
At Columbian College (Washington City), whose president at that time was Rev. Dr. Wm. Staughton, there was a missionary society among the students, whose members went out two by two on Sunday to preach at the Preparatory School of the College, Rock Hill, the Poor House, and at churches in the city and in Alexandria. Mr. Howell became active in this work, and was also the superintendent of the college Sunday school. In July, 1826, as Mr. Howell was planning to spend some time at his home on the Neuse, he was urged by Rev. Dr. R. B. Semple, of the Board of the General Association of Virginia, to preach for a season as a missionary of the Board. Somewhat previous to this, two young preachers, J. B. Jeter and Daniel Witt, afterwards so distinguished among Virginia Baptists, had been sent by this same Board to labor in the western part of the State. Norfolk was the center of the territory assigned to Mr. Howell. He was to preach once a month to thirty churches, and one day each month at three places. He had as his fellow-laborer a young preacher of Sussex County, Thomas B. Creath. Towards the close of the year, Rev. Noah Davis gave up the pastorate of the Cumberland Street Baptist Church, Norfolk, and moved to Philadelphia. Mr. Howell was asked to supply the pulpit until a pastor could be secured. He consented, and went to work, preaching every night. Finally his plan to be a lawyer was abandoned. The church called on him to he ordained, and, counting this the voice of God, he heeded the call, and finally gave himself without further hesitation to the Gospel ministry. The Presbytery that ordained him consisted of Rev. Dr. Wm. Staughton, Rev. Dr. Samuel Wait, his teachers at Columbian, Rev. Peter Lugg, and Rev. James Mitchell, and the service took place January 7, 1827. Renewed enthusiasm marked his labors; within a short time some 200 young people had been baptized, and before the end of the year the church had called on him twice to become their pastor. The second appeal he granted. This union lasted some seven or eight years, during which time he baptized 519 persons. Not only as a preacher, but also as a pastor, he was ever at work. He was popular among all classes, his manner was hearty and attractive, his physical presence was imposing, his conversation was lively and entertaining, his face was often seen in the homes of the poor and the shops of the working men. He was a leader in his association, the Portsmouth, being first its clerk, and then, until he left Virginia, its moderator. In 1828, he was made one of the vice-presidents of the Triennial Convention, and already he was beginning, notwithstanding his many other engagements, to wield his pen, writing essays and books.

On the first Sunday of January, 1835, he preached his first sermon as pastor of the Baptist Church in Nashville. Upon his acceptance of this field, a church once strong and numerous was weak and small, the change having been wrought by the introduction of the doctrines taught by Alexander Campbell. A better day soon dawned. Before this pastorate ended Mr. Howell had baptized 392 persons, and built a meeting-house, and the feeble band that first greeted
[p. 55]
him had come to be four aggressive churches; and in this time had sent twenty-three young men out to preach. During these years in Nashville, Mr. Howell, blessed with great physical endurance, was in labors abundant. He founded The Baptist, a State denominational organ, was a leader in the establishment of the Union University, at Murfreesboro, Tenn., was a trustee of the Tennessee Institution for the Blind, was active in the discussions that finally resulted in the birth of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and was ever at work with his pen. In 1849, he became pastor of the Second Baptist Church, Richmond, Va. In this important field his activity seemed to know no limit. He took no summer vacation. The annual average additions to the church were about fifty-seven. He preached in these years 2,000 sermons, assisted in the organization of five churches, and the ordination of seven ministers of the gospel. Nor was his work confined to his own congregation. He was a trustee of Richmond College, and also of what is now the Woman's College of Richmond, a member of the Foreign Mission Board, and at four successive sessions was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1857, he began his second pastorate with the Nashville church, preaching his first sermon on July 19th. Trials assailed the church, but, nevertheless, a revival of power came, and the final outcome was progress in numbers and prosperity. The Civil War took many young men and finally the meeting-house, and before it was over Mr. Howell had suffered imprisonment. Soon after the war, when his health began to fail, he took his first vacation and visited the Neuse and Norfolk, the scenes of his youth, and his first pastorate. In January, 1867, he suffered a slight stroke of paralysis, after which his health gradually gave way until, on Sunday, April 5, 1868, just at the hour when for so many years he had stood in the pulpit to preach the gospel he loved so well, he passed to his reward.

Among the books and pamphlets he gave to the denomination and the world were the following: "Plain Things for Plain Men," "The Evils of Infant Baptism," "The Cross," "The Covenants," "Terms of Christian Communion," "The Way of Salvation," "The Deaconship," "The Early Baptists of Virginia." This last book was not published until after his death, being one of four manuscript books which he left: the others were: "The Family," "The Christology of the Pentateuch," "Memorial of the First Baptist Church, Nashville, 1820-1862." The degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred on him about 1844, by Georgetown College, Kentucky. "As a minister he was regarded as one of the ablest and most learned men in the South, and no one exercised a greater or more beneficial influence within or outside of the church. His life was unspotted, his Christian course was marked by the highest virtues. His courtesy and kindness of heart made him a universal favorite, notwithstanding the fierce theological debates in which he was often engaged. He was a thorough Baptist and always jealous of the fair fame of his
[p. 56]
denomination." Most of the facts here given, and in some cases the language, are taken from a sketch written by Mrs. Fannie D. Nelson.

[From George B. Taylor Virginia Baptist Ministers, Third Series, 1912. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

More on Robert B. C. Howell
More Baptist Biographies
Baptist History Homepage