Early Baptists of Philadelphia, 1877
by David Spencer
REV. CURTIS GILBERT.—CHESTNUT HILL.—REV. THOMAS AINGER.—DEATH OF PRESIDENT MANNING.—SUNDAY SCHOOL SOCIETY.—REGULATION OF YOUTH.—DESTITUTE ORPHANS.—NOTIFICATION OF MEMBERS RECEIVED.—SUPPRESSION OF PLAYS.—RECOMMENDATION OR DISMISSION.—JOSEPH KEEN.—HOME MISSIONS.—DEATH OF MORGAN EDWARDS.—REV. WILLIAM WHITE ORDAINED.—YELLOW FEVER.—REV. THOMAS USTICK.—A SECOND CHURCH.—ASSOCIATION CHARTERED.—CHURCHES DROPPED.—CHAINS ACROSS THE STREET.—DEATH OF GEORGE WASHINGTON.—REV. THOMAS FLEESON AT ROXBOROUGH.—A FORWARD MOVEMENT.—A FEEBLE FOLK.—MISSIONARY EFFORTS.
ON Monday, the 9th day of January, 1791, Curtis Gilbert was ordained to the work of the Gospel Ministry, and entered at once upon the pastoral care of the church at Roxborough. The sermon was delivered by Rev. Thomas Ustick, and Rev. Samuel Jones, D. D., propounded the usual questions and gave the charge. He was a young man of much promise, but his life was short, for he died April 22nd, 1792. He was buried in the rear of where the old Meeting House stood. The marble headstone which marks his grave contains the following:—
REV. CURTIS GILBERT.
The first ordained Minister in
this Church, who departed this life,
April 22nd, A. D., 1792,
In yonder house I spent my breath,
And now lie sleeping here in death,
These lips shall wake and then declare
Amen to truths, delivered there.
The nearest Baptist Church to Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, was the one at Roxborough, therefore the few Baptists residing in that vicinity attended said church, and occasionally enjoyed visits from the minister who preached there. The first known record of a sermon at Chestnut Hill, by a Baptist Minister is found in the Minutes of the Roxborough Church. At the business meeting held on Saturday, April 23rd, 1791, Rev. Thomas Ainger was present, and “it was requested that he would preach at Chestnut Hill tomorrow.” He complied with this request. This good man was for many years pastor of the First Baptist Church, Wilmington, Del., and at the side of its ancient meeting-house his remains repose, he having died in that city of yellow fever. The inscription on the marble slab which covers his grave reads as follows:—
THE REV. THOMAS AINGER,
who departed this life, September 10th, 1797.
In the 43rd year of his age.
Come all ye good and pious, hither come,
And drop the tear of sorrow on his tomb,
Deplore your loss, Ah! no, those tears refrain,
For know your loss is his immortal gain.
The Baptist denomination and the cause of liberal education in this country met with a great loss in 1791, in the sudden death of Rev. James Manning, D. D., of Providence, R. I. This occurred on Friday, July 29th. He was then in the fifty-third year of his age, having been President of Rhode Island College for twenty-seven years. The news of his death cast a heavy gloom over the Baptists in Philadelphia, where he was loved and honored as a great and good man. How he was revered here is attested from the fact that the largest space allotted in the Minutes of our Association for the first hundred years, in referring to a deceased minister, is given to Dr. Manning. After recording, with gratitude, “the goodness and grace of God the year past,” the introduction to the circular letter for 1791 states:—
But our joys abate while we reflect on the heavy tidings so generally mentioned in your letters, of the death of our highly esteemed and dearly beloved Brother, Dr. Manning, who, engaged in the dearest interests of religion, of science, and the prosperity of his country, fell from the zenith “of his glory and usefulness. In the general loss we sustain an important part. No longer shall we enjoy his able counsels, his divine and persuasive eloquence, nor his personal friendship. But while we trust he fell to rise to higher, to celestial glories and joys unspeakable, resignation becomes us. May the Lord sanctify to the churches and ministers of Christ, the awful stroke; enable us to feel, and faithfully discharge, the duties devolving on us, and imitate his example.
In 1791, Christians in Philadelphia had their attention specially turned to the Sunday-school work, and in that year the “First Day or Sunday-school Society” was formed in this city. It was composed of different religious denominations. That the Baptist church took a deep interest in this movement is evidenced not only from the names associated with it, but also because of the following incident, found in their minutes under date of January 4, 1791.
Bro. Shaw presented a number of pamphlets entitled, “An Exhortation to the Religious Education of Children,” the printing of which amounted to one pound ten shillings; the church resolved that the Clerk draw an order on the Treasurer for the sum, to be paid out of the afternoon’s collection.
From indications in the minutes, this church took the greatest interest in the moral and religious welfare of the young, so that we are of the opinion that the church was practically engaged in Sunday-school work much earlier than 1815, the date given as the time of the organization of the Bible school.
As early as November, 1792, the church on Second Street appointed a committee for the “regulation of the youth connected with the congregation.” From this sprang in the latter part of 1795, a society in said church, “with the laudable view of educating and assisting the destitute orphans that should become members of this society, either by their own act, or that of their parents, guardians, friends, as well as for the establishing a Register of the Births and Deaths therein.” This society continued till 1812, when its limits were enlarged, as we shall see hereafter. In the inauguration of other movements at this time, which have since become a part of our denomination’s life and practice, this church filled a conspicuous place. The origin of a custom now universally recognized among Baptist Churches may be traced back to a query presented by this church to the Association in 1794, which is as follows: “Would it not be advisable for the churches in this connection to make it their invariable practice to transmit a return of the reception of persons by letter, to the churches by whom they were dismissed?” This question was determined in the affirmative, and now as a general thing all letters of dismission from one church to another contain this phrase or one similar:—“When (he or she) shall have been received by you, of which you will please notify us, said (brother or sister) will be considered as dismissed from us.”
While the church was so active in these directions, it is not surprising to find her not only maintaining strict discipline amongst her own members, but also endeavouring to suppress the immoralities of the theatre. December 2, 1793, it was, “on motion, resolved unanimously, that there be a committee appointed to confer with committees from other religious societies for the suppression of plays.” The committee consisted of Rev. Thomas Ustick, Rev. William Rogers, D. D., Benjamin Shaw, John McLeod, George Ingels, Heath Norbury and Joseph Keen. These brethren reported the next month, “that they met with committees appointed from the following societies, viz.: the Scotch Presbyterians, the Third Presbyterian Church, and the Methodists, who joined with them in their effort.”
One name given in the above committee is deserving of special mention; that of Joseph Keen. An examination of the Minutes of the First Church gives a remarkably favorable impression of him, as a man of marked Christian character, devoted to all the interests of the church, and a worthy sire of a noble family, still identified with the denomination in this city.
The practice now prevalent of making a distinction between letters of dismission and those simply of recommendation, owes its origin to a question from this same church, in 1795. This is the query:—“Whether it might not, at this time, considering the frequency of emigration, be advisable for this Association to insert in their minutes a request to the trans-Atlantic churches that they would be particular in their letters of recommendation and dismission of members, to specify whether they intend merely to recommend or dismiss; together with the principles and practice of the church so dismissing.” An affirmative decision was given to this.
How much these movements had to do with the present education and missionary societies of our denomination cannot now be estimated, but certainly no unimportant part.
We come now to record the death of Rev. Morgan Edwards, which occurred January 28, 1795. Justice has never been done to the memory of this remarkable man. If to any one is really due the projection and establishment of Brown University more than to any other, Morgan Edwards is that man. As a denomination we are indebted to him for his collection of materials for early Baptist history in this country, which are now invaluable. Unfortunately for him, he became addicted to the inebriating cup, necessitating the church to resort to discipline a few years before his death, but this only continued for about four years, when he sought restoration, which was cordially granted, and up to the day of his death he lived Christ, as well as professed Him. To err is human, to forgive is divine. The greatest have sometimes fallen, but wonderful grace often saves them, nevertheless. His efforts in the Philadelphia Association, from his first entrance into it, in 1761, are manifest in the improved state and value of the minutes, and in the inauguration of various important enterprises, on to 1794, when he was present for the last time, and then “the business of the second day was opened with prayer,” say the minutes, “by Bro. Morgan Edwards.” In the afternoon of that day the same records state, “Minutes of this Association, from the beginning thereof to the year 1793, inclusive, bound together, ‘were presented to the Association by Bro. Morgan Edwards. The unanimous thanks of the Association were directed to be given him for his present.”
Agreeably to his own desire he was buried in the aisle of the meeting-house on Second street, where many of his family, and others also had been buried. Upon the removal of the dead from this locality, he was interred in the beautiful lot belonging to the First Baptist Church, in Mount Moriah Cemetery.
Shortly after the death of Morgan Edwards, William White was ordained in Roxborough to the work of the ministry. This was April 2nd. He was baptized in Philadelphia, March 5, 1787, and was dismissed to Roxborough, April 8, 1791, by which church he was licensed September 21, 1793. After his ordination he became pastor of the church at New Britain, Pa., where he remained for nine years.
On several occasions during this decade the yellow fever raged terribly in this city, so that the churches were materially interfered with, and the Association for four years met at a distance from the place.
We are inclined to the belief that the health of Rev. Thomas Ustick, pastor in Second street, was not very robust, as, in the latter part of the last decade, Rev. Dr. Rogers and others preached for him considerably, and he was partially laid aside from active work. In 1797, also, his church tried to secure other ministers to preach on Sunday evening. The church, however, was attached to him, and there is not in the minutes during all these years the first intimation of anything but confidence and affection. While the yellow fever raged here, Mr. Ustick was indefatigable in his efforts among the suffering. Sprague, in his Annals of the Baptist Pulpit, says:—
The inhabitants were flying, panic-stricken, in every direction; one of. Mr. Ustick’s friends, a highly respected gentlemen in Bucks county, requested him and his family to occupy a house in the country which he had made ready for their use; but, as his eldest daughter was, about that time, attacked by the disease, and as he could not feel willing to a separation of the family under such circumstances, he concluded to remain at his post and keep them with him, trusting to God’s preserving care and goodness. During that time of peril and dismay he devoted himself, without any regard to his own safety, to the sick and dying, the great and good Dr. Rush being his companion in labour and in sorrow; and both himself and his family were mercifully spared, though several of his children were violently attacked by the disease.
In the minutes of the church at Philadelphia, for February 6, 1796, is this record:—
A letter was presented in behalf of a people who style themselves the Second Baptist Church, in Church Alley, requesting the use of our meeting-house for evening preaching.
An answer to this was postponed till the next meeting, when the request was not complied with. There is a reference to this church again on the 8th of July. The origin and subsequent history off this party is a mystery. It certainly is not the church formerly called Northern Liberty, constituted October 29, 1769. That ceased to exist during the war, as we learn from the following minute of the Pennypack Church, under date of April 5, 1783:—
Received Elizabeth English, she being a member of the quondam Second Church of Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Baptist Association was chartered January 24, 1797. A committee to attend to this business was appointed in 1791. The trustees under this charter were to be the senior deacon and ministers of each church in the Association. The first meeting of this body was held in the morning of October 5, 1797. Rev. Samuel Jones, D. D., was elected President, George Ingeles, Treasurer, and Rev. William Rogers, D. D., Secretary.
In 1797 a resolution was adopted in the Association, which inaugurated a custom that still prevails. It was as follows:—
Resolved, That those churches which omit sending a messenger, or letter, to this Association for three years successively, shall be dropped from our Minutes, and considered as excluded.
In 1798, a law was passed authorizing churches in this city to place chains across the street in front of their respective places of worship, so as not to be interrupted during the service of the Lord’s day, by the noise of passing vehicles. The Baptist Church with others put this law into practice, as the following Minute of May 7th, 1798, indicates:—
On motion, Resolved; that our brethren Ingels, Davis and Cox, be a committee, to carry the law lately passed, to put chains across the streets to prevent carriages passing in time of public worship, into execution.
The eighteenth century was not to close without the occurrence of an event that cast a gloom over the whole United States. This was the death, on December 14th, 1799, of George Washington, that noble man, of whom its has been said, “God left him childless in order that a nation might call him father.” The mark of respect shown by the First Baptist Church to his memory, by the draping of their meeting-house in deep mourning, tells of the hold he had on the hearts of his countrymen. At the beginning of the year, January 19th, which marked the death of this great man, the Rev. Howard Malcom, D. D., since so celebrated in the missionary, educational and historical work of American Baptists, was born in this city. Rev. Thomas Fleeson, on April 26th, 1800, became a member of the Roxborough Church, and the stated supply of its pulpit for nearly a quarter of a century. He was originally connected with the church in Philadelphia, having been baptized by Rev. William Rogers, D.D., in 1774. He was licensed to preach January 9th, 1775.
About the time of his settlement in Roxborough, he lost his sight, and was thereafter known as “the blind preacher.”
This city was now beginning to grow more rapidly, and the idea of extension began to take possession of the Baptists. A movement was inaugurated May 5th, 1800, towards securing a lot in what was then called the Northern Liberties, suitable for a graveyard, and to erect a meetinghouse upon. The Baptist denomination, however, was still a feeble folk, numerically, as in the entire city and county they numbered only three churches with an aggregate membership of two-hundred and seventy-one.
It will be germain here to note other movements of the church in consonance with the aggressive spirit already indicated. We quote from the Association minutes for 1800:—
A query having been received from the church at Philadelphia on the subject,
Resolved, That it be particularly urged on our churches that, as stewards of God, and influenced by a strong desire to spread the cause of our blessed Redeemer, they endeavour to raise, as early as possible, and to maintain a fund for the assistance of such ministers as may be called to destitute churches, or otherwise publish the gospel in their connection, and as there are flattering prospects at the church at Manahawkin, which has been recently visited with much success, they earnestly entreat that some collections be immediately forwarded to Bro. Rogers for the desirable purpose of affording them ministerial aid.
Whereas, The church of Philadelphia have presented a query on the propriety of forming a plan for establishing a missionary society, this Association, taking the matter into consideration, think it would be most advisable to invite the general committee of Virginia and different Associations on the continent, to unite with us in laying a plan for forming a missionary society and establishing a fund for its support, and for employing missionaries among the natives of our continent.
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