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The Columbian Star and Christian Index
July 4, 1829

ORIGINAL SKETCHES

Character of the Early American Baptist Preachers.

Part I

The earliest teachers of religion among the Baptists of this country were men whose names will be perpetuated with lasting honors. The simplicity of their lives, the singleness of their aims and purposes, the noble integrity and independence of character which they at all times exhibited, coupled with their honest love of liberty, both civil and religious, must commend them to the unaffected regards of posterity. Their minds possessed a cast of boldness and originality well suited to the enterprise which the incidents of our early history invited; and their high devotion to the cause of their divine Master, found an ample scope for exercise amid the crude and growing elements of that society in which their lot was cast. To cherish a becoming respect for their memory, and to record their manly, unsophisticated virtues, will not be deemed incompatible with the offices and obligations of their descendants. Such an attempt will be considered the more justifiable, when it is remembered that these worthies have left behind them few monuments, other than the common denomination of that large religious body of which they were the strenuous advocates, and the successful founders. Should their memory escape that apathy of oblivion which awaits the ordinary deeds of humanity, it must be owing to the justice which the present generation awards them. Should they be destined to live in the recollection of future ages, it must be through the vigilance which the gratitude of the present age exerts, in rendering legible, as far as possible, those dim and faded notices which already hasten to obliteration.

It may not comport with the fancy of modish times to look back upon the uncouth costume, and homely style of a former period. Departed merit is often supplanted in our memory by the bolder, and even less genuine demands of present and living applicants for favor; and our approving suffrages are thus gradually withdrawn from the mighty dead, and accorded to the reiterated solicitations of living aspirants. A superstitious veneration for human names should not have a moment's place in any discreet mind. But, betwixt such a veneration, and sheer forgetfulness, there is surely an important medium; and the wisdom and the virtue which we should exercise towards our predecessors, must lie in treading in all those steps which truth and rectitude have conferred their sanction, and in the rigid avoidance of those which tend to confusion and evil work.

It should be remembered that when our earlier ministers began their intrepid course of pious teaching, this land of subsequent freedom and perfect toleration was not prepared to welcome their benevolent and self-denying efforts. Along with the first emigrants to these American colonies, there came a strong leaven of the fierce bigotry and proscriptive intolerance which still existed in the old world. The religious denominations which had obtained a prior influence, were disposed to regard the Baptists with an evil eye, and to interpose every possible hinderance to the prevalence of such a name. Opposition, not merely in the form of argument, but in the more potent and menacing logic of prisons and penalties, was arrayed against these reputed innovators. Even in those places where they were not assailed by the stern veto of force, their ministry met a thankless reception, and their persons were exposed to all the acrimony of contumelious invective. The communities to which they could obtain access, were but ill affected to the self-subduing and humbling doctrines that they every where promulgated. Besides this, the larger number in the scattered and various population of the country were either wholly uneducated, or else infected with a wild licentiousness of manners, which held out a miserable promise to the labors of Christian missionaries. To dangers and difficulties of this sort, the character and qualifications of our early ministers presented a bold and firm resistance.

FIRST. They were men of strong natura1 abilities, of that kind of mental cultivation which is chiefly practica1, of ready wit and bold delivery, and, withal, of much decision of character. They resembled officers educated upon the field of action. No time had been wasted in needless speculations and fine-spun theories. All their attainments were adapted to immediate use, and their resources were directly available in the accomplishment of important objects.-- They carried with them none of the pedantry of the schools, while their clear natural eloquence, rough with points an unpolished, fastened upon the hearts of their hearers, and wrought powerfully in their conversion. An incident in the ministry of the Rev. Edmund Botsford, related in Benedict's History, illustrates with much force the preceding remarks:

"In the parts of Georgia where Mr. Botsford labored, the inhabitants were a mixed multitude of emigrants from many different places; most of them were destitute of any form of religion, and the few who paid any regard to it were zealous churchmen and Lutherans, and violently opposed to the Baptists. In the same journey in which he fell in with Mr. Savidge, he preached at the court-house in Burk county. The assembly at first paid a decent attention; but, towards the close of the sermon, one of them bawled out, with a great oath, "The rum is come." Out he rushed; others followed; the assembly was soon left small; and, by the time Mr. Botsford got out to his horse, he had the unhappiness to find many of his hearers intoxicated and fighting. An old gentleman came up to him, took his horse by the bridle, and in his profane dialect most highly extolled both him and his discourse, swore he must drink with him, and come and preach in his neighborhood. It was now no time to reason or reprove; and as preaching was Mr. Botsford?s business, he accepted the man?s invitation, and made an appointment. His first sermon was blessed to the awakening of his wife; one of his sons also became religious, and others in the settlement, to the number of fifteen, were in short time hopefully brought to the knowledge of the truth, and the old man himself became sober and attentive to religion, although he never made a public profession of it."

An anecdote which we have heard respecting the veteran SAMUEL HARRIS, sometimes called the Apostle of Virginia, affords an additional verification of our representations. A part of a company to which he was once preaching drew off to a little distance, and began, with much disorder and noise, to interrupt and to distract the attention of those that remained. MR. HARRIS turned, and looked for a few seconds at the disorderly group, without uttering a word. Then resuming his attitude, he raised his voice, and said, loud enough to be heard by the disturbers of the worship, " Never mind those disorderly people. There are enough going to Heaven without them." It is said the disorder immediately ceased.

SECONDLY. Those master spirits who broke through the sullen asperities which frowned upon the early progress of our peculiarities as a denomination, were ardently attached to the principles of liberty. The movements of our Revolutionary struggle had, from the first, their firm countenance and strenuous co-operation. Their influence was thrown into the scale of independence, and a cool determination to abide the issue of the conflict characterised all their conduct. They had long felt justly indignant at the insolent pretensions of those religionists whom power bait rendered uncompromising; many of them had groaned in prisons, and many had endured the still harder inflictions of corporeal abuse. Thus circumstanced, they were prepared to meet with applauding assent the first propositions of those bold spirits that planned the Revolution. Religious establishments exercised with lordly domination, restrictions upon the rights of conscience, and pecuniary exactions for the support of an assuming priesthood, was a discipline well adapted to endear the sound of liberty to Baptists. Some of their most gifted men were accordingly found, either as chaplains or officers, amid the firm ranks of those who were resolved to be free. -- They appeared to possess a noble presentiment of the glorious results of their toils and darings. This American soil stood to them as the field in which their sentiments and faith were to take deep root, and where an ample increase would gladden their hearts and reward their toils. They seemed to be aware that freedom of religious inquiry should have a sufficient guaranty, that the pride of prescriptive distinctions in religion should be abolished, that an equalizing system should reduce all religious persuasions to the same level, and that every trace of sectarian favoritism should be expunged from the civil code, before they could stand upon equal ground with others in the assertion of their views. The sequel has proved that they judged rightly. We, who can dispassionately read the monuments which they assisted to erect, and who occupy the field which their hardy enterprise aided in making clear and equal, should learn to appreciate the heritage which has been bequeathed to us. Whilst we rejoice in seeing new churches founded for the extension of views endeared to us, whilst we contemplate with delightful emotions the prevalence of institutions consecrated by the example of Christ, let us not wholly forget the honored laborers through whose instrumentality we are reaping so rich a harvest.

[Taken from a microfilm copy of The Columbian Star, and Christian Index, W. T. Brantly, editor, Philadephia, July 4, 1829, pp. 1-2; from Steeley Library, Northern Kentucky University. jrd]

 
 
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