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Rev. John Mason Peck, D. D.
By Joseph C. Maple

His religious activity in Missouri (1817-1858)

      A biography of Missouri Baptists would be incomplete if the name of J. M. Peck should be left out. Though his home, for the most of his life in the central portion of our great country, was in the State of Illinois, yet, not only for a time was he a resident of Missouri, but he continued, to the end of his life, to be an integral factor in all religious and educational affairs on the west as well as upon the east side of the great river.

      Two things deprived Missouri Baptists of the most valuable records of the early periods of our history in this State. One was a fire in the Peck home that destroyed most of his great collection of early records and his carefully preserved library of printed documents. The other was the reckless destruction of his journals, by a thoughtless custodian of the Mercantile Library of St. Louis, who, thinking they were worthless, burned them.

      John M. Peck was the son of Asa and Hannah

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Peck. He was born on a farm in Litchfield South Farms, Connecticut, on the 31st day of October, 1789. His father was a man of infirm health, and able to do but a small portion of the work upon the unproductive farm. And so the boy from his fourteenth year was compelled to earn the most of the living for the family. He did attend the public school for a few months each winter, but the remainder of the year was devoted to the hard manual labor of a farmer boy in days when there was no labor-saving machinery for the cultivation of the soil.

     His ancestors were Congregationalists. They were earnest and practical Christians. Their children were carefully educated in all the teachings of that denomination and in every possible way were made familiar with their understanding of the Bible. The principles of morality were woven into every fiber of the brain. They learned to think, as well as to act, in harmony with the principles of the Decalogue.

     Sarah Paine, providentially destined to become his wife, grew to womanhood in the home of her grand parents upon a neighboring farm. Both she and J. M. became Christians in early life, and when she twenty years and four months old, and he nine younger, they were united in marriage on the 8th day of May, 1809.

     In the spring of 1811 Mr. Peck moved with his family, consisting of a wife and one child, from South Connecticut, into the town of Windham, Greene County, New York. The immediate location of the new home was called Big Hollow, a settlement of seven families, his making the eighth. The heads of these families were, as he says, Congregational

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Puritans. There was in the locality a small log building, which was occasionally occupied as a school house and on Sabbath by a religious meeting, conducted by Deacon Hitchcock, the patriarch of the little settlement. Mr. Peck joined in these religious exercises, reading at times a printed sermon, "and if the sermon was short, speaking some words of his own, extempore."

     A careful and prayerful study of the New Testament resulted in both of the young people becoming Baptists. Dr. Peck wrote of this period of his life:

"Learning that the Baptist church of New Durham held meetings monthly in a school house, some five miles north of our residence, and over the mountains by a winding path, the writer might have been seen with his wife and babe about thirteen months old, wending his way up the side of a steep mountain, on a beautiful Sabbath morning the 10th day of August."
     The following September the same couple again climbed the mountain range on their way to the place where the church would assemble. "This time they carried a small bundle of light clothing." After a most careful and searching examination by the pastor, with questions by other members of the church, on "points of doctrine and experience," they were received, and "every person in the congregation walked half a mile to a clear beautiful mountain stream, of sufficient depth, hid away in a romantic dell, where the two candidates put on the Lord Jesus Christ and made oath of allegiance to the King of Zion in the scriptural form of administration." From the beginning of his acquaintance with the membership of this church, Mr. Peck says he seldom held a conversation with any of the members that they did not ask him,
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"Don't you think you ought to preach the gospel?" He also writes, "It was a fact known only to the writer that from the first hour that he indulged a hope of pardoning mercy, this subject lay with weight upon his mind, which at times was fearfully oppressive." The Holy Spirit moved upon the mind and heart of both Mr. Peck and the membership of the church in putting him into the ministry. It was not long after his baptism that he was called upon to relate to the assembled membership the exercises of his mind as to his duty to preach the gospel. The church then voted him a license to preach, and he preached the next day. It was necessary that he should cultivate the soil for support for himself and family, but he was constantly preaching from the date that the church authorized him to "improve his gift."

     A short time after this he visited his old home in Connecticut. Here he had been from his youth a member of the Congregational church. He had failed to inform them of his change of views and of his union with another fraternity. He was called upon, therefore, to stand trial for a violation of covenant vows with them. They stated to him that "what they had against him was neither scandal, nor heresy, nor even his renouncing their sentiments and joining the Baptists; but for leaving them before giving them a hearing - thus virtually excluding them without giving them an opportunity to defend themselves and if they could, to reclaim him." Being regularly arraigned before the church, he offered his defense. He admitted that it was his duty to try to reform them and to make all proper efforts for reclaiming them from what he regarded as their error in reference to baptism. "But according to the rules of the gospel he must reform

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himself, by being baptized, and then endeavor to reform them, which he was willing to attempt, both by precept and example; by scripture argument and the alluring act itself - the best of all arguments. It is to the credit of all parties in this affair that no harsh words are recorded as passing between them; yet the separation was final. He could not return to them and they could not see their way clear to follow the example he had given them.


     He had been called to the pastorate of the church at Catskill. It was by no means a strong church, and he served as school teacher in order to support his family. His services in preaching were abundant. In private houses and at any other places where the people could assemble, he preached, and from the very beginning showed marked ability. At the end of the first year's residence and service with them, his ordination was called for, and on June 13, 1813, he was ordained by a council called for that purpose. The names of six ministers are mentioned as composing this council, namely, Rev. Harvey Jenks, and Elders Stewart, Streeter, Mack, Hervey, and Pettit. "The next Sabbath he baptized several candidates and administered the Lord's Supper, and within a week officiated at his first marriage," of which he wrote the form he adopted, and mentioned that the fee paid him was one dollar.


     It was about this time, June, 1813, that the first news of the change of views of Judson and Rice was
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received by the American Baptists. This event stirred the Baptists churches in our home land as no other event had done up to that period. It was the call from God to awake and begin the world-wide mission that the World's Conqueror had given to His followers. In the mind of no other person did this fact produce a stronger or more lasting impression than it did in that of John M. Peck. He was now about 24 years of age. He had formed habits of study. The books within his reach were eagerly read and remembered. He also studied men and their needs, and soon became inspired with the idea that the field for gospel preaching was the whole world, and that he dare not limit his exertions to the narrow region of his own immediate neighborhood. He saw that in some way each Christian could touch cords that would vibrate to the ends of the earth, and that each saved soul must exert himself to the utmost of his strength to save the lost of all nations. He soon realized that his lack of qualifications and his family ties made it impossible for him to go to the foreign field.

     In the year 1814 he gave up his work at Catskill and became the pastor at Armenia, in Dutchess County, New York. Here he formed the acquaintance of Daniel H. Barnes, principal of Dutchess Academy in Poughkeepsie, under whose instruction he began the Study of Greek. Mr. Peck used great industry in his new field of labor. That he accomplished as much as any one else could have accomplished, is very evident. While living among his new parishioners he attended the Warwick Association, and met Rev. Luther Rice, "who with characteristic ardor was posting from one association to another, fanning the flame of missionary seal." In this meeting two kindred spirits were

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brought into contact. Peck was ready to drink in the message Rice had brought; so that when after a few years Rice saw the importance of planting a mission in the Louisiana Territory, Peck, who had already thought of this as a prospective field for gospel missions, was prepared to look, even with longings of heart, to that as his life work. About this period of time, by what the men of the world would say was accidental, but by that which the "children of the Kingdom" know is providential, a correspondence was opened between John M. Peck and James E. Welch. These two men were born the same year. Welch began life in Kentucky, near where the city of Lexington now stands, February 28, 1789; while Peck was born in Connecticut on the 31st day of October, the same year.

     Early in the year of 1816 Mr. Peck wrote to Dr. Staughton, of Philadelphia, who was then conducting a school for those who desired preparation for the ministry. In this letter he says: "By communication with Brother Rice" - Rev. Luther Rice - "I learn that it is in contemplation to establish a mission in the Missouri Territory. On this subject I found in my own mind such a correspondence of feeling and sentiment, that I could not forbear opening my mind to him. Ever since I have thought upon the subject of missions, I have had my eye upon the people west of the Mississippi, particularly the Indian nations, and have wondered why no attempts were made to send the gospel to them." The result of this correspondence was that he became a student in the school there conducted by Dr. Staughton. Here, after a time, he was joined by James E. Welch.

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Knowing that it was the purpose of Peck and Welch to devote their lives to mission work on the frontier of our rapidly settling country, Dr. Staughton arranged for them that in addition to their regular studies in Theology they should attend lectures in the medical schools. Thus early did this great and good man see the importance of missionaries having ability to meet the needs of the human bodies as well as to minister to the spiritual welfare of those among whom they labored.

     On the 7th day of May, 1817, the Triennial Convention of Baptists met in Philadelphia. At this meeting the constitution of the convention was so changed that "with the foreign field certain portions of our own country" were included "under the denomination Domestic Missions." In his record of this meeting, Mr. Peck adds: "This secures the great object of a Western mission." It will be seen from this record that the oft-repeated statement that J. M. Peck and J. E. Welch were sent to Missouri "as foreign missionaries" is not correct.

     After the convention had finished its business and adjourned, the new board met to plan the work for the next three years. The two men, Peck and Welch, made application for appointment to the Western Mission. Dr. Rufus Babcock, to whose life of Peck I am inebted for the facts in this sketch, says that Peck "presented a written document fully explaining his views and feelings, offering himself as a candidate for appointment in the Western Mission."


     The records made by Mr. Peck lay open to the reader his inmost thoughts. He had set his heart upon this Western Mission. He says after he had placed
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his application before the board: "I retired to rest, but slept little, on account of the agitation of my mind on the painful suspense under which I labored with regard to the mission." The next morning he writes, "The long agony is over." He and Mr. Welch were appointed to go west and establish a mission at St. Louis, Missouri. The board had appropriated one thousand dollars to defray the expense of the missionaries and their families to St. Louis and for the support of the mission. Mr. Peck went at once to his old home in Connecticut and began preparation for the long journey. It became necessary for him to attend a number of meetings, where he made effective pleadings for the missionaries in all lands.

     The separation from his parents was most pathetic. The invalid father was overwhelmed with grief at parting with his only son. The mother was more courageous, and said, "If the Lord hath need of him - only son as he is, and we are growing old - let His holy will be done." And on the 25th day of July, 1817, a little one horse wagon, containing J. M. Peck, his wife and their three children, started from Litchfield, Connecticut, for the long journey of twelve hundred miles to the frontier village of St. Louis. The way was long and the method of traveling a slow one.

     Passing over the many delays and severe trials encountered, it is enough for this brief sketch to say that on the first day of December, 1817, they arrived at their destination. Mr. Welch and wife were there before the arrival of his colleague. But Mr. Peck was quite seriously ill. He was suffering from a severe cold and intermittent fever. They found a single room on the corner of Myrtle and Main Streets as the

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only possible shelter. Here for two months he remained unable to leave his bed most of the time.

     The reception awaiting these resolute missionaries was far removed from that which awaited the Apostle Peter, when he went to Caesarea to preach the gospel for the first time to the Gentiles. The Apostle found an assembly awaiting him and was greeted with the cheering words, "Now therefore we are all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God." But these men knew why they had come and to whom they must look for success. There was no thought of discouragement. Here there were people who needed the gospel and they were here for the one purpose, to preach the gospel of salvation to the lost.

     After Mr. Peck had recovered his health there was no delay in beginning his part of the work. Mr. Welch had not been idle. He had "engaged a room in the rear of a store, about fourteen by sixteen feet, for school purposes, for $14.00 per month." It seems strange to us in this twentieth century, with the great system of public schools - and these schools free to all of school age - that less than one hundred years ago, the first work of missionaries in St. Louis was to provide for a school where the simplest rudiments of an education could be imparted. The two comrades - Peck and Welch - were as earnest in their advocacy of the public schools, and Sunday Schools, as they were in preaching the gospel.

      In 1823, when Joshua Barton was killed in a duel in St. Louis, Mr. Peck preached a sermon upon the torrid custom of settling grievances by murder. His list was, "Your hands are full of blood." Isaiah 1:15. The Sermon was preached in the house of worship of

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the First Baptist Church, which stood on the corner of Third and Market Streets. In his record of this event, he says the house "was crowded by all classes, amongst whom I discovered Hon. David Barton, then a Senator in Congress, whose lamented brother was one of the victims, and the late Rev. Samuel Mitchel, whose eldest son was another. I had taken the precaution to write every word of my discourse. I did my utmost to hold up the practice of dueling to the abhorrence of all right minded men, as a crime of no small magnitude against God, against man, against society." It required a large amount of moral courage in that day and among the people then living in the "wild Western city," to take such a stand. But John M. Peck was a man who seemed never to have a thought of his personal safety. He was wholly absorbed in doing just what he thought was right, and there was a total absence of any consideration of self-interest or personal popularity.

      It seems worth while to the writer of this outline of the life of this great missionary, to mention the care and accuracy with which he records the beginning of the work of the Presbyterians in Missouri. He mentions that in the summer of 1813, "the late Rev. Dr. Blackburn, of Tennessee, made a visit to this remote village (St. Louis), and preached to an audience of respectable numbers. This was the first gospel sermon ever preached in the town, for I never call the addresses of Romanists gospel preaching." But if we follow his faithful and kind references to all those who labored for the moral and religious upbuilding of the early residents on both sides of the great river, we shall be carried far afield from our purpose to present a mere outline of the work of him of whom we write.

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     Mr. Peck had found that there were "seven Baptist churches associated" in the southeast corner of Missouri. These churches had organized the Bethel Association, and were doing all they could to evangelize the scattered dwellers in this wide wilderness. This was both a surprise and a great joy to the one who had come for the purpose of giving his life to this new country. He was soon in direct communication with these workers. He attended the first meeting of the Bethel Association that he possibly could. When he visited Bethel church in 1818, he received for missions $31.37, "the largest missionary offering, up to that time, ever made west of the Mississippi River." He describes minutely the various forms of opposition met from those who, having failed to inform themselves of the purposes of the missionaries, and yielding to their own ignorant prejudices, fought with a tenacity worthy of a better purpose, all efforts to send the gospel of Christ to those who were perishing for the want of a knowledge of the Way of Life. These early advocates of the world-wide mission of the churches may not have been wise on all occasions, as to their methods, but as their position was scriptural and their zeal all-conquering, they could not, therefore, be always politic in their approach to their opponents. Their work certainly did establish, beyond all possible doubt, the fact that they were right; and though we may now, that the victory is won, see some of their mistakes, yet we have abundant reason to thank our Great Master for sending these men upon this wide field at the very time such labor was needed.


     We know that from the very beginning of their work in the Mississippi Valley, both Peck and Welch
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sought to encourage schools of all grades for the education of the masses. But the purpose to found a college for the education of men for the ministry was ever uppermost in the mind of Mr. Peck. At an early day his attention was directed to St. Charles, Missouri, as the place for such an institution. Here he found a man, whose name he withholds, giving only his initials, with whom he co-operated in establishing a school. He writes: "During the first week in March, 1819, it was decided that a new mission station should be established at St. Charles, a seminary planted there, and that I should take charge of that station and that my colleague (Mr. Welch) should maintain the post at St. Louis."

     Having changed his residence to St. Charles he engaged with the nameless helper in the new school enterprise. But it was not a success. Sickness invaded his home, and his eldest child, a most promising boy, was removed by death, and his wife, for a time, was seriously ill. Another location for the proposed seminary must be found. At the suggestion of a friend he visited Upper Alton, Illinois. His account of this visit is very amusing to those who know what a beautiful college town Upper Alton now is and has been for more than half a century. Having passed through the city of Alton, then the mere beginning of a town, he made his way to the present site of Upper Alton. "It was cloudy and dark, but on emerging from the forest, we found on every side the appearance of camp fires. Log heaps, piles of brush, old stumps, and other combustible materials, were glowing with heat and spreading illumination over the plateau. Inquiry was made for a tavern or boarding house, and we were directed to a long, low, ill-looking log house.

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It was about forty feet in length and probably sixteen feet wide, the door way for entrance at the west end, and the dining room, as it seemed to be used for eating purposes, was the first room entered. The table was supported by forks driven in the ground, on which rough, newly sawed boards, extended perhaps twenty feet An old cloth, filthy like the rest of the establishment, covered a portion of the table. A supply of dirty dishes indicated that several boarders might have had a late supper. * * * On inquiring for the landlord, a shock head, begrimed features, and soiled garments that appeared to belong to a 'human' came in. The first thing was to find a stable and feed for a wearied horse." Having secured for his horse some food and a very muddy place in which to stand for the night, he left this undesirable hostelry and found the home of Dr. Erastus Brown, whom he had known in St. Louis. Here he met a most cordial welcome, though it was long after nightfall when he asked for a shelter for the night. "In the morning, after an early breakfast, in company with my friend, Dr. B., I made an exploration of the town, was introduced to several citizens, and learned all that was necessary, of Upper Alton at that time, as a site for a seminary of learning. There were on the spot between forty and fifty families living in log cabins, shanties, covered wagons, and camps. Probably not less than twenty families were destitute of houses, but were getting material and getting up shelters with industry and enterprise."

     On the 19th day of July, 1820, the two missionaries were notified that the Board of Missions at Philadelphia had decided to withdraw further aid to the "Western Mission." Mr. Peck was requested to

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go to Fort Wayne, "near the northwest corner of Ohio," and join Rev. Mr. McCoy in his work among the Indians. That this action of the Board was a great disappointment to Mr. Peck, was evident, but he made no bitter complaint, yet decided not to leave the field of his present operations, and expressed a wish to remain in close touch with the Board, but would ask for no support from that source. In March, 1822, he was appointed to the Western Mission by the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society, and from this source there came to him and his family some financial aid.

     He was moved to Rock Springs, Illinois, and, with some aid from local friends, secured a half section of unimproved land, upon which he made his home to the end of his earthly life. Here he established the Rock Springs Seminary. This school, of which he was the founder and principal, was, after some years, moved to Upper Alton and became Shurtleff College. The village of Upper Alton had greatly improved since his first visit. It was now a thriving little town, with an upright and intelligent population. It was, in almost every respect, an ideal location for a college. Rev. Hubbell Loomis, from Connecticut, had established a seminary here and was conducting a first class school. He was a Baptist minister of wide culture and was abundantly endowed for the head of such an enterprise.

     Mr. Peck had made frequent journeys to the Eastern States, and was always pleading for the establishment of an institution where the higher education should be within reach of the youth of the Mississippi Valley. On one of his visits to Boston, he met a physician, named Shurtleff, who gave him

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$10,000 to endow a college that should be under the control of Baptists. In due time the charter of the school was so changed that it was named for the donor of this fund. In that day a gift of $10,000 was regarded as a princely donation, and entitled the giver to great honor. When the name of J. M. Peck is honored as the founder of Shurtleff College, due credit should be given to Rev. Hubbell Loomis. He lived in Upper Alton until the end of his long life, and ever cherished the college with genuine affection. He was permitted to attain to the great age of 97 years, and to the last day loved the school, its teachers and its pupils. He had one son, Prof. Elias Loomis, who was the author of a full course in Mathematics that was a standard text book in most American colleges, for many years.

     But here I find I must cease to follow the checkered career of John Mason Peck. His great attainments were recognized by Harvard, and that institution gave him the merited degree of Doctor of Divinity. He prepared and published a Gazetteer of Illinois. He edited a religious periodical. He wrote for almost all the Baptist papers of the land. He was Corresponding Secretary of the American Baptist Publication Society. He was one of the founders of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. While at home he was constantly preaching and lecturing at all places within his reach. But his parish extended from the western borders of Missouri to the Atlantic Ocean, aad from the Lakes to the Gulf. In Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington City, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, St. Louis and all intervening cities he was a welcome visitor and a constant helper. He had collected with great care all printed documents that gave

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light upon the progress of the Western Country. The minutes of Baptist Associations and State Conventions were most carefully treasured and cataloged. He had also made a collection of geological and mineralogical specimens from all places that he had visited. These, too, were carefully labeled as to the locality whence they came. But the destruction of his home by fire caused the loss of nearly all of this most valuable material. Of this sad event he writes:
"But an important branch of my labor for more than thirty years is wholly lost. My collection of files of papers, periodicals and other pamphlets, amounting to several thousand volumes, mostly unbound, but carefully filed, and my mineralogical collection from every part of the country where I have traveled, thoroughly arranged and labeled, together with much other matter, which I had intended for some public institution to be preserved for generations to come - these can never be replaced. Well, it seems to me to be providential. I have done what I could, and failed. I am afraid my materials are so destroyed that I cannot obtain means to prepare my projected work on the Moral Progress of the Great Central Valley of the Western World. I can only say, the will of the Lord be done."
     Dr. Peck continued to make long journeys, always advocating, at every place, the extension of the Kingdom of Christ. His wife died at their home at Rock Springs, in November, 1856. This was the most heart-rending of all the afflictions that had befallen him. The light and joy of his home life was gone. But with true Christian courage, and that submission that had characterized his whole life, he stood firmly fixed in the faith that the Lord doeth all things well.
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     On the 15th day of March, 1858, he, too, fell asleep at his home in Illinois. His body was first laid in a grove near Rock Springs, but about a month later, at the earnest solicitation of his many friends in St. Louis, it was taken to Bellefontaine Cemetery, near that city.

     John Mason Peck was in very many respects a most worthy man. His industry was gigantic. He seemed never to grow weary. The greater the work involved in any undertaking, the greater was the charm of it to him. He never spared himself. His journeys sometimes compelled an absence from home for from six to nine months. And on these tours he would preach and lecture, often three or four times each day. That he wore his body out before he had reached his sixty-ninth year, is no surprise to any who know that our humanity cannot endure beyond certain limits. He was more nearly a living, walking encyclopedia of facts and dates upon all matters relating to the development of the great central valley of our country, than any one who ever traveled over its wide domain. He seemed never to forget any thing he saw or heard. But the one purpose of his life was to give the healing of the gospel of the Lord Jesus to the people. He mingled with all classes; was at home in the log cabin or in the city mansion; could adapt himself to the company of all classes. But under no possible circumstances did he hesitate to proclaim the fact of his belief in the Christian religion, or to defend the faith when necessary. He was fearless; had no care for his own ease or comfort; he lived wholly for others. And as centuries pass by Ms labor will be more valued and his character better appreciated. John Mason Peck was both a great and

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a good man. Let us of this day cherish his memory.

     Dr. Peck was a great writer. He committed to paper almost everything he saw and all that came to him by his constant contact with people that he believed to be reliable. One of his intimate friends told me once that, in the extensive journeys he made over the prairies of Illinois, he often stopped at noon and let his horse feed upon the grass while he would lie prone upon the sward, and there, unprotected by any shade, write by the hour, so that no facts might escape him. The writer once heard him say that the speech, attributed to Patrick Henry in defense of several Baptist preachers who were on trial before a Virginia judge, charged with the crime of preaching the gospel, was composed by himself. When asked how that was, he said, in substance, that Xenophon and other ancient historians composed the speeches of their heroes, and so he imitated them by making the address of Patrick Henry.

     In Saint Paul's Cathedral in London is a tablet in memory of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect and builder. On this is written, "If you seek his monument look around." Rev. Rufus Babcock closes his admirable memoirs of Dr. J. M. Peck by quoting these words. And the monument to Dr. Peck is seen in the great system of public schools, the many colleges, the vast number of churches, and the intelligent and Christian citizenship of the Mississippi Valley. This was his parish, and to every instrumentality that would promote the culture and build up a high sense of moral integrity, and make every house a Christian home, he consecrated his life.


[From Joseph C. Maple and R. P. Rider, editors, Missouri Baptist Biography, 1912, pp. 24-42. The book is from the St. Louis Public Library. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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