There were many men who had an honorable part in the founding of the American Baptist Home Mission Society; but if one must be chosen from them who was preeminent, that one can be no other than John M. Peck. He was born in Litchfield, Conn., in 1789, was converted at the age of eighteen, and joined the Congregational church. In 1811 he removed with his wife to Windham, N. Y., and there a careful study of the Bible made him a Baptist. He was almost immediately licensed to preach, and was ordained to the ministry at Catskill in 1812.
From the first he was a missionary, his only pastorate being of not much over a year's duration, at Amenia, N. Y. Becoming acquainted with Luther Rice, when the latter was telling abroad the story of Judson and the work in India, effectually determined his bent in that direction; only it was home missions, not foreign, that appealed most strongly to him. In 1817 the Triennial Convention commissioned him as a missionary to the region west of the Mississippi, and the rest of his life was spent in that work. It was a journey of one thousand two hundred miles to an unknown country, almost as heathen as Burma and far less civilized, that he and his then took. Let us make no mistake, John M. Peck was quite as heroic as Judson or Boardman.
From his arrival at St. Louis he became the apostle of the West. His labors were incredible in extent and variety, and though he had a constitution of iron, they made an old man of him by the time he was fifty. During his first three years he had organized several churches, secured the establishment of fifty schools, introduced a system of itinerant missions, projected a college, and undertaken part of the support of Rev. Isaac McCoy, missionary to the Indians. It was bad enough
to contend with poverty, ignorance, and irreligion, but in Peck's case perils from false brethren were added to all the other perils of the wilderness. Anti-mission Baptists were strong at that time in Kentucky, and began to make their way into Missouri and Illinois - old high-and-dry Calvinists like those with whom Carey had to contend, who held that it was flying in the face of Divine Providence to plead with men to come to Jesus, and such new-fangled things as missionary societies were of the devil. To the everlasting shame of the Triennial Convention, it permitted itself to be influenced by the complaints that came to it from such sources, and in 1820, or soon after, all support was withdrawn from this Western enterprise. No appeals or remonstrances served to secure a reconsideration of the question, and Peck was compelled to look elsewhere for help. He could not think in any case of deserting the work to which God had called him - a work whose importance became more clear to him each year.
Had it not been for this unfaithfulness to its duty on the part of the Triennial Convention, this disgraceful desertion of a true and tried man, the Home Mission Society would doubtless never have been formed. Peck turned first to the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society, which made him its missionary at the munificent salary of five dollars a week - no doubt all that it had to give at the time. He resumed his work with fresh courage and was unwearied in it, traveling all over the States of Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. Then he took a brief -baptist.p not rest, but change of labor, by making a tour of the Eastern States to interest them in Western missions, returning with over one thousand dollars pledged for a seminary at Rock Spring, Ill., which forthwith began, with him as professor of theology. Then he added to his other enterprises the publication of a
newspaper, The Pioneer, in 1829. No wonder that his health quite broke down in 1831, and he was compelled to rest from his labors for a time.
Even then he was not idle - such a man could not be idle. He could think and plan, if he could not actively work. At just this time Elder Jonathan Going was sent West by the Massachusetts Baptists to look over the field and report on its needs; for three months he and Peck traveled over the new States of the West, and before they separated, so an entry in Peck's journal informs us, they had agreed on the plan of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. These two were the founders of that organization. For the practical execution of the plan, Going was the very man, and it was not more than six months after his return before the Society was an assured fact. On April 27, 1832, the new Society was formed in New York, where its headquarters have since remained. The motto selected for the Society was an assurance that no local interests should be permitted to circumscribe its sympathies or activities.
Its first work was in the Mississippi Valley. This was the far West of that day; the outposts of civilization were just beginning to push beyond that barrier of nature. Here a great battle was to be fought. The population of the Louisiana purchase was almost exclusively Roman Catholic. We can see now that the question of the supremacy of this continent, for which the Protestant Saxon race and the Catholic French race long contended, was fought out and settled on the plains of Abraham, in 1759, when Wolfe defeated Montcalm and captured the stronghold of Quebec. But this was not so clear at the time. Rome is an antagonist that does not know when she is beaten. She recognized, indeed, that she had received a severe check in the New World, but could not believe it a final defeat. She dreamed that in the valley
of the Mississippi, with the great advantage she already had, not only all her losses might be regained, but a victory might be won far surpassing her apparent defeat. And who shall say that this was all dream? As we look back it seems a not unreasonable forecast, from the realization of which only a merciful Providence saved us. The fruits of Wolfe's victory might have been lost but for the fact that just at the critical hour God raised up such missionary and evangelizing agencies as the American Baptist Home Mission Society.
During its earliest years, Elder Peck was the Home Mission Society in the West - its visible embodiment, its chief adviser, and local executive. Time and space would fail to tell of the variety and extent of his labors. He was foremost in organizing the Illinois Educational Society, in founding and endowing Alton Seminary and Shurtleff College; the churches, educational institutions, societies of all kinds, that owe their life to him - their name is legion. And he was not merely active; he was wise, far-seeing, shrewd. He made few mistakes, and his previsions of the greatness that would come to these Western communities failed only in being far short of the reality, daring as they seemed to his contemporaries, The Baptist cause in the Middle West owes what it is to-day to the work of John M. Peck more than to any other score of men that can be named.
In 1856 he died, a man worn out by his labors before his due time; for though he had reached the age of sixty-six - a good length of years for many men - his constitution should have made him good for twenty years more. But if other men have lived longer, few have lived lives more useful or that have left greater results. If we adopt Napoleon's test of greatness - what has he done? - there has been no greater man in the history of American Baptists than John M. Peck.
[From Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists, 1907. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More on John M. Peck
Baptist History Homepage