A GENERAL HISTORY OF THE BAPTIST
DENOMINATION IN AMERICA, AND OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD
By David Benedict
London: Printed by Lincoln & Edmands, No. 53, Cornhill, for the Author
A SHORT ACCOUNT OF THE GENERAL COMMITTEE IN VIRGINIA
This body succeeded the General Association, and was composed of delegates from all the Associations which could, with convenience, or were disposed to send messengers to it. But many of the Virginia Baptists were suspicious that this body would, in time, grow into something like a Synod or Dictating Council, and for that reason stood aloof from it for a time, and, indeed, those who sanctioned it, and assisted in promoting its measures, were so much afraid of horns, that they gave it scarcely any head or power. But with all its restrictions, most of which were probably necessary in order to secure the independency of the numerous churches, over whose affairs it presided, it was a very useful body, and was instrumental in tearing off, one after another, the civil and ecclesiastical shackles, by which the Baptists, and other dissenters from the Episcopal Establishment in Virginia, had been sorely galled, until an entire and equal freedom was by law established.
The General Committee was organized in 1784, and continued its operations fifteen years, viz. until 1799, when it was dissolved.
The object, which this body had in view, may be seen in the following articles, which contain the substance of their plan of government.
1. The General Committee shall be composed of delegates, sent from all the District Associations that desire to correspond with each other.
2. No Association shall be represented in the General Committee by more than four delegates.
3. The Committee thus composed, shall consider all the political grievances of the whole Baptist society in Virginia, and all references from the District Associations, respecting matters which concern the Baptist society at large.
4. No petition, memorial, or remonstrance shall be presented to the General Assembly from any Association in connection with the General Committee. All things of that kind shall originate with the General Committee.
The Virginia Baptists at this time, had got much in the spirit of sending petitions, etc. to the General Assembly; and having always met with a favorable reception, the Committee fearing that in their zeal for freedom, they would send to the General Assembly some unnecessary instrument of the kind, and thereby injure the cause which was now in such a promising way, thought proper to lay this restriction upon them for the purpose of preventing such an evil.
This Committee was much engaged, for a few years from its organization, in petitioning the General Assembly for a repeal of what was called the vestry law, and the old law which disqualified all dissenters from celebrating the rites of matrimony; but most of all, against the bill for a general assessment, etc. All these laws, which were so obnoxious to the Baptists, and which the struggling and expiring spirit of the old establishment was striving to maintain; and, indeed, every oppressive vestige of this establishment, the Committee finally had the happiness of seeing abolished.
Reuben Ford, John Williams, John Leland, and John Waller, appear to have been the most active in conducting the general affairs of the Virginia Baptists, in these times.
Jeremiah Walker, who had formerly been their secretary, their counsellor, and even their publick champion, had fallen from his elevated station, and removed to Georgia. Mr. John Leland removed from New England, and settled in Orange county, Virginia, in the year 1776: he continued about fourteen years in the State, and during the struggles for religious freedom, Mr. Leland took an active and successful part. But his exertions in this field were but a small part of his services in Virginia; for during his residence there, he traveled extensively, preached abundantly, and baptized between six and seven hundred persons.
The political grievances against which this Committee exerted their influence will be more particularly mentioned in the next chapter. The most remarkable acts which were performed by this body, besides their attention to these civil affairs, were their effecting an union with the Regular Baptists -- their proposing and making some progress towards the completion of A history of the Baptists in Virginia -- and their forming a plan, which, however, we are sorry to say has never been carried into effect, for establishing a Seminary of Learning for the advantage of the Baptists in the State.
The schism which took place among the Regular and Separate Baptists in 1766, soon after their rise in Virginia, had continued, without being completely healed, for about 20 years, although a very friendly intercourse had been occasionally kept up amongst them. But in 1787, the happy period arrived, in which all the disputes between these two bodies were compromised, buried, and forgotten. The adjustment of these disputes was conducted by the General Committee on the part of the Separates, and on that of the Regulars by delegates for the purpose from the Ketockton Association; and took place at the fourth session of the General Committee, which was held at Dover meeting-house, in Goochland county. At this meeting, delegates from six Associations of the Separates, and a number from the Ketockton, were assembled, when, pursuant to a previous appointment, the subject of the union between the Regulars and Separates was taken up, and after a brief and temperate discussion of their differences, a happy and effectual union was formed, and their party names dismissed and buried.
The objections on the part of Separates related chiefly to matters of trivial importance, such as dress, etc. and had been for some time removed, as to being a bar of communion. On the other hand, the Regulars complained, that the Separates were not sufficiently explicit in their principles, having never published or sanctioned any confession of faith; and that they kept within their communion many who were professed Arminians. [The reader must keep in mind, that this day, those were called Arminians, who held to the universal provision of the gospel, or that the atonement of Christ was general in nature.] To these things it was answered by the Separates, that a large majority of them believed as much in their confession of faith, as they did themselves, although they did not entirely approve of the practice of religious societies binding themselves too strictly by confessions of faith, seeing there was danger of their finally usurping too high a place: that if there were some among them, who leaned too much to the Arminian system, they were generally men of exemplary piety, and great usefulness in the Redeemer?s kingdom; and they conceived it better to bear with some diversity of opinion in doctrines, than to break with men, whose Christian deportment rendered them amiable in the estimation of all true lovers of genuine godliness. Indeed, that some of them had now become fathers in the gospel, who, previous to the bias which their minds had received, had borne the brunt and heat of persecution, whose labors and sufferings God had blessed, and still blessed, to the great advancement of his cause -- to exclude such as these from their communion, would be like tearing the limbs from the body.
These and such like arguments, were agitated both in publick and private, so that all minds were much mollified, before the final and successful attempt for union was made. The terms of the union were entered on the minutes in the following words, viz.
"The committee appointed to consider the terms of union with our Regular Brethren, Reported, That they conceive the manner in which the Regular Baptist confession of faith has been received by a former Association, is the ground-work for such union."
The manner of this reception was, that they should retain their liberty with regard to the construction of some of its objectionable articles. After considerable debate, as to the propriety of having any confession of faith at all, the report of the committee was received with the following explanation:
"To prevent the confession of faith from usurping a tyrannical power over the conscience of any, we do not mean, that every person is bound to the strict observance of every thing therein contained; yet that it holds forth the essential truths of the gospel, and that the doctrine of salvation by Christ, and free and unmerited grace alone, ought to be believed by every Christian, and maintained by every minister of the gospel. Upon these terms we are united, and desire hereafter, that the names Regular and Separate be buried in oblivion; and that from henceforth, we shall be known by the name of the United Baptist Churches, in Virginia."
This union took place at a time when a revival of religion had commenced which soon burst forth on the right hand and on the left, throughout the State, "and nothing," says Mr. Semple, their historian, "could be more salutary than this conjunction of dissevered brethren, and the accommodating temper of the parties by which it was effected; and they have, from that period to the present time, most fully demonstrated, that it was an union of hearts as well as parties."
In the next year after this pleasing event, there originated in this committee the first proposal for publishing A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia. A number of persons were chosen to engage in collecting materials; and the next year, a sufficient number having been collected for the purpose, Messrs. John Leland and John Williams were appointed to commence the work. The compilation of this proposed history devolved on different hands, by whom considerable progress was made, although much remained yet to be done, when it was finally and solely undertaken by the Rev. Robert B. Semple, by whom it was finished in a very acceptable manner, and presented to the publick in the year 1809.
The same year in which the first proposal for A History, etc. was made, the committee received a letter from Rev. James Manning, D. D. President of Providence College, (now Brown University) in Rhode-Island, recommending and encouraging the Baptists of Virginia to establish a Seminary of Learning, for the benefit of their growing interest. This suggestion of their learned and pious correspondent met the approbation of this board, who soon began to talk upon the subject, and who, after a few years, went so far as to form a plan, and appoint twenty-one Trustees, for the intended Seminary. But this institution, which was so much needed, and which, with suitable exertions, might have been so easily established, has hitherto only been talked of. It is hoped, however, that the day is not far distant, when something more efficient will be undertaken. The Virginia Baptists have been charged with "holding as an established maxim, that human learning is of no use." This charge they resent as slanderous and false, and, generally speaking, it doubtless is so. But for so large a community as there has been of the Baptist denomination in Virginia, for upwards of forty years, to remain so long without any literary establishment which they can call their own, gives occasion both for friends and enemies to say, that if they do not despise human learning, they have strangely neglected the means, which they so abundantly possess, of promoting it.
The General Committee having now accomplished the object for which it was organized, in 1799, was, from prudential motives, dissolved. During the period of its existence, an unreasonable jealousy, says their historian, of its exercising too much power, was often manifested both by Associations and individuals. This, added to some other causes, produced a gradual declension in the attendance of members, as well as unpleasant languor in the transaction of business. For these reasons, this body was dissolved at the date above mentioned, and was succeeded by one similar in its form, though somewhat different in its object, which was denominated
THE GENERAL MEETING OF CORRESPONDENCE.
This Meeting, like the General Committee, is formed of delegates from all the Associations which choose to promote it. It was organized in 1800, and has continued its anniversary sessions to the present time. The name of this body is sufficiently descriptive of its nature and design. Having, however, never had much business assigned it, its operations have hitherto been much circumscribed. But the advantages resulting from a general intercourse of the Associations in Virginia were so obvious, that the promoters of this Convention were willing to have a meeting on any terms which would accomplish that end.
The last account we have received from this Meeting was in 1809, when it was laudably engaged in devising plans "for the religious education of children, and the establishment of some seminary or publick school, to assist young preachers to acquire literary knowledge."
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