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
GENERAL OBSERVATIONS ON THE PROGRESS AND CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE VIRGINIA BAPTISTS, FROM THE ABOLITION OF THE ESTABLISHED CHURCH TO THE PRESENT TIME.
The war, though very propitious to the liberty of the Baptists, had an opposite effect upon the life of religion among them. As if persecution were more favorable to vital piety than unrestrained liberty, they seem to have abated in their zeal, upon being unshackled from their manacles. This may be ascribed to several causes. Both preachers and people were so much engrossed with anxious thoughts and schemes for effecting the revolution, as well as with alternate hopes and fears for the event, it was not probable that religion should not lose some portion of its influence upon the minds of professors thus engaged. The downfall of Jeremiah Walker, and some other preachers of less note, together with the contentions arising from Waller?s defection, contributed not a little towards damping the zeal of the Baptists. Having lost some of their champions in Israel, they could not with the same boldness face their enemies. Perhaps we may add, that many did not rightly estimate the true source of liberty, nor ascribe its attainment to the proper arm. In consequence of which, God sent them liberty, and with it leanness of soul. This chill to their religious affections might have subsided with the war, or perhaps sooner, if there had not been subsequent occurrences, which tended to keep them down. The opening a free trade by peace, served as a powerful bait to entrap professors, who were in any great degree inclined to the pursuit of wealth. And nothing is more common, than for the increase of riches to produce a decrease of piety. Kentucky and the western country took off many of the preachers, who had once been exceedingly successful in the ministry.
From whatever cause, certain it is, that they suffered a very wintry season. With some few exceptions, the declension was general throughout the State. The love of many waxed cold. Some of the watchmen fell, others stumbled, and many slumbered at their posts. Iniquity greatly abounded. Associations were but thinly attended, and the business badly conducted. The long and great declension induced many to fear that the times of refreshing would never come, but that God had wholly forsaken them.
But the set time to favor Zion at length arrived; and as the declension had been general, so also was THE REVIVAL which succeeded. This work, which was very powerful and extensive, begun on the banks of James-river, in 1785, and thence spread like fire among stubble in different directions, over almost the whole State; and as it continued for several years, there were very few churches which were not visited with its salutary influence. During the progress of this revival, scenes were exhibited, somewhat extraordinary. It was not unusual to have a large proportion of the congregation prostrate on the floor, and in some instances they lost the use of their limbs. No distinct articulation could be heard, unless from those immediately by. Screams, groans, shouts and hosannas, notes of grief and joy, all at the same time, were not unfrequently heard throughout their vast assemblies. At Associations and great meetings, where there were several ministers, many of them would exercise their gifts at the same time, in different parts of the congregation; some in exhortation, some in praying for the distressed, and some in argument with opposers. At first, many of the preachers disapproved of these exercises, as being enthusiastick and extravagant. Others fanned them as fire from heaven. It is not unworthy of notice, that in those congregations, where preachers encouraged them to much extent, the work was more extensive, and greater numbers were added. It must also be admitted, that in many of those congregations, no little confusion and disorder arose, after the revival had subsided. Some have accounted for this by an old maxim: Where much good is done, much evil will also be done; where God sows many good seeds, the enemy will sow many tares. But certain it is, that many ministers, who labored earnestly to get Christians into their churches, were afterwards much perplexed to get hypocrites out.
It has been already said, that this revival commenced in the year 1785. It continued spreading, until about 1791 or 1792. Thousands were converted and baptized, besides many who joined the Methodists and Presbyterians. The Episcopalians, although much dejected by the loss of the establishment, had, nevertheless, continued their publick worship, and were attended by respectable congregations. But after this revival, their society fell fast into dissolution. This revival among the Baptists did not produce so many young preachers, as might have been expected. Mr. Leland, in his Virginia Chronicle, from which many of the foregoing remarks have been taken, makes the following observation: "In the late great additions that have been made to the churches, there are but few, who have engaged in the ministry. Whether it is because the old preachers stand in their way; or, whether it is because the people do not pray the Lord of the harvest to thrust out laborers; or, whether it is not rather a judgment of God upon the people, for neglecting those who are already in the work, not communicating to them in all good things, I cannot say."
From this revival, great changes took place among the Baptists, some for the better, and others for the worse. Their preachers were become much more correct in their manner of preaching. A great many odd tones, disgusting whoops, and awkward gestures were disused. In their matter also, they had more of sound sense and strong reasoning. Their zeal was less mixed with enthusiasm, and their piety became more rational. They were much more numerous, and of course, in the eyes of the world more respectable. Besides, they were joined by persons of much greater weight in civil society. Their congregations became more numerous than those of any other Christian sect; and in short, they might be considered, from this period, as taking the lead in matters of religion, in many places of the State. This could not but influence their manners and spirit more or less. Accordingly, a great deal of that simplicity and plainness, that rigid scrupulosity about little matters, which so happily tends to keep us at a distance from greater follies, was laid aside. Their mode of preaching also was somewhat changed. At their first entrance into the state, though not very scrupulous as to their method and language, yet they were quite correct in their views upon all subjects of primary importance. No preachers ever dealt out to their hearers the nature of experimental religion more clearly and warmly. But after they had acquired a degree of respectability in the view of the world, they departed too much from this most profitable mode of preaching, and began to harp on opinions and disputable points. To dive deep into mysterious subjects, and to make conjectures respecting unrevealed points, looked more wise, and excited more applause, than to travel on in the old track. And this tampering with matters beyond their reach, to the neglect of plain and edifying subjects, is too common at present, with many of our preachers in this region, as well as elsewhere.
About this time, some of the Virginia preachers were unhappily inclined to the Arminian scheme, and great disputation followed, and many, in opposing their errors, were driven to the borders, if not within the lines, of Antinomianism. And in the midst of these doctrinal contentions, as might be expected, practical piety was in many places, too little urged; and this evil was followed by a relaxation in the discipline of the churches. But the savor of the revival still pervaded the churches, and prevented the general prevalence of the evils which have been mentioned.
Since the close of this extraordinary revival to the present time, which is about 20 years, there has been an increase of about ten thousand Baptist communicants in Virginia; and during that period, it is supposed, that from five to seven thousand of the community have emigrated to Kentucky, and other parts of the western country.
Although many of the churches in this State are very large, wealthy, and flourishing, yet but few of them afford their pastors a competent support, and but few of their pastors confine their labors statedly to one congregation. It is not uncommon for a preacher here to have the pastoral care of two, three, and sometimes four churches, at the same time; to which he preaches and administers the Lord?s Supper once in four weeks; and we are sorry to have it to say, that this minister, besides traveling an extensive circuit, to administer to so many flocks, is obliged frequently, and indeed more generally, to procure a considerable part of his living by his own exertions and care; so negligent are the Virginia Baptists in the business of supporting their preachers.
But if a preacher here does not exercise the pastoral care of but one church, instead of preaching every Lord?s day in one place, he is at liberty to travel abroad, to visit other churches; and if he preaches and administers the communion statedly to his flock once a month, that is all he or the people of his charge consider him bound to do. Some, however, do preach every Lord?s day to the same congregation; but the cases, I believe, are not frequent. The reader must not suppose that the preachers are idle the intervening sabbaths, for they are a laborious set of men, travel much, and preach abundantly; and such is the situation of their churches, that this arrangement is not so objectionable here, as it would be in many places elsewhere. It is said, that this economical method of supplying many churches with a few ministers, and of having such long or monthly weeks, if we may so call them, originated with the rise of the Baptists in the country, when there were many churches suddenly raised up, and but a few ministers to supply them. This same custom prevails in most of the churches throughout the back parts of the Carolinas and Georgia, and also in Kentucky and the western country. It will, therefore, be more particularly noticed, and the advantages and disadvantages of it stated, in the chapter of general observations.
The Baptists in this State seem to have had but little ambition in the erection of their houses for worship, as they are generally of a very inferior kind; and it is certainly better for a church of Christ, to worship in a small and homely house, which they can call their own, than to have a costly edifice, built mostly on credit, and nobody knows when or how it is to be paid for; or even in one, the expenses of which have been mostly defrayed by people of the world, and which is generally, for that reason, under their management and control. The Baptists here, it is true, are many of them poor; but some are rich; and one would think by their appearance at home, that there are enough in every church of sufficient ability to erect for themselves more decent and commodious houses of worship, than those small, unsightly, and inconvenient things in which they now assemble. While their brethren to the north and south of them, have the largest and most flourishing churches in many of the largest cities and towns, the Virginia Baptists seem, for the most part, to have cautiously avoided all populous places; and although there are a few churches in some of the principal towns, yet they do not generally appear to have much prosperity or reputation; and one reason for this may be, that the preachers in these churches are, instead of being men of popular and commanding talents, with very few exceptions, of a directly opposite character.
The city of Richmond is remarkable for containing a respectable church, of between 5 and 600 members, most of whom are blacks; for having a neat and commodious brick meeting-house; and also for being statedly supplied by the labors of their worthy pastor, Rev. J. Courtney, to whom they grant a moderate support. Besides Mr. Courtney, there are, in the city of Richmond, a number of Baptist ministers, who preach occasionally in the city and in the country around, among whom is the Rev. Jacob Griggs, a native of England, who was educated in the Baptist Academy at Bristol, and was one of the Missionaries sent out by the Baptist Missionary Society in England, to the colony of Sierra Leone in Africa.
There has been a Baptist church in the town of Norfolk about eight years, and Baptist members much longer. But they have been cursed with an almost regular succession of impostors for a number of years; some of whom have had the pastoral care of the church, and others have only had a transient residence amongst them; and amongst the race of impostors, by whom they have been harassed and degraded, we find that notorious vagabond and deceiver, Andrew Harpending, who has committed in most of the United States, in a most shameless manner, many shameful acts of deception, intemperance, and uncleanness.
The Virginia Baptists have, from their rise, been blessed with a very respectable number of distinguished preachers; men of strong natural powers, and deep acquaintance with divine things; but very few of them, however, have been distinguished for literary acquirements. They have been a shot of bold, incessant, and successful itinerants, rather than students and scholars. The circumstances of their churches and brethren, throughout their extensive State, have always been such, that they have doubtless been much more abundantly useful in this mode of life, than they could have been in the retirement and labor of the closet. Rev. Jeremiah More, who is esteemed one of their greatest divines, in 1795, when he was 49 years old, had traveled for the purpose of preaching, and that mostly in his own State, distances sufficient to reach twice round the earth!
Though there are but a few of their preachers who can make much pretensions to learning, yet a desire for it seems to be prevailing; and it is hoped that they will soon adopt some more efficient measures for its promotion than they have hitherto done.
The Episcopalians, who once governed with such unlimited and irresistible sway, in the ecclesiastical affairs of Virginia, have become reduced to a comparatively few congregations. The Presbyterians are considerably numerous in many parts of the State. The Methodists have, within a few years past, gained much ground here, and, in some places, have increased at the expense of the Baptists, and, perhaps, in none more than in those places where they have taken the greatest pains to prevent them. This is peculiarly the case in a number of the churches in the Ketockton Association, many of whose ministers value themselves in defending the deep and mysterious points of Calvinism, and in satirizing and exploding the errors of Wesley and his disciples. But notwithstanding all their exertions, the Methodists still prevail, and the unseasonableness and dogmatical manner in which they oppose their sentiments, and defend their own, seems to hasten the flight of those who are inclined towards them. These are notorious and much to be lamented facts, and it is hoped that those preachers who are implicated in these remarks, will profit by them for the future.
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