Early Baptists of Philadelphia, 1877
by David Spencer
DISSENSIONS.—RULING ELDERS.—THE FIFTH STREET GRAVEYARD.—MONTGOMERY CHURCH ORGANIZED.—WM. THOMAS.—TUNKERS IN GERMANTOWN.
FEBRUARY 14th, 1711, there was another welcome arrival on our shores—Rev. Abel Morgan. He was born in Wales in 1673. At the age of nineteen he began to preach the gospel, and in 1696 he was ordained. Highly esteemed by his church, it was a great trial to part with him for America. His voyage was a tedious and trying one. He was eleven weeks on the Atlantic Ocean, and twenty-two weeks in the vessel, as it was compelled to seek harbor twice before reaching its destination. On the journey his little boy died, and also his beloved wife. Their bodies were both committed to the deep. He was called to take the leading care of the church at Pennypack, which he accepted, and preached alternately there and in Philadelphia. He was a brother to Enoch Morgan, the third pastor of Welsh Tract, and a half brother to Benjamin Griffith, of Montgomery.
In the settlement of Philadelphia, there were persons of different nationalities and of every variety of temperament and opinion. It was not surprising, therefore, to find in church life, as we have already seen, much that was heterodox as well as much that was true. The church in Philadelphia was not to be exempt in this variety of opinion, as we learn from Morgan Edwards. He says:—
This church experienced a painful division in 1711, occasioned by the turbulent spirit of an Irish preacher, who was among them, along with Mr. Burrows. His name was Thomas Selby. When he had formed a party, he shut Mr. Burrows and his friends out of the meeting-house, who, henceforth, met at Mr. Burrows’ house, in Chestnut street. This was the situation of affairs when Mr. Abel Morgan arrived in 1711. But his presence soon healed the breach, and obliged Shelby to quit the town, which he did in 1713, and went to Carolina, and there he died, the same year, but not before he had occasioned much disturbance.
The Mr. Burrows referred to in the above was a Rev. John Burrows. He was a native of Taunton, in England, where he was ordained. In 1713 he became pastor of the Baptist Church of Middletown, New Jersey, where he maintained a successful ministry through a long life, and where he died in a good old age.
At the meeting of the Association in 1812, the disturbance caused by Thomas Selby was brought up and referred to a committee for adjustment, to which arrangement both parties consented. After a careful and thorough examination of all the facts, the committee reported as follows:—
With respect to the difference between the members and others, some time belonging to the Baptist church at Philadelphia, as it hath been laid before us, persons chosen by both sides, they having referred the whole of their difference to our determination; we, doing what in us lies for the glory of God, and the peace of the whole church, in regard of the transactions past, and what may be best for the future, for the interest of the gospel, upon due consideration of what hath been laid before us, as followeth, viz.: We do find the way and manner of dealing and proceeding with each other hath been from the rule of the gospel, and unbecoming Christians in many respects, and in some too shameful here to enumerate the particulars.
And first, we judge it expedient in point of justice, that Mr. Thomas Selby be paid the money subscribed to him by the members of this church, and be discharged from any further service in the work of the ministry; he being a person, in our judgment, not likely for the promotion of the gospel in these parts of the country; and, considering his miscarriages, we judge he may not be allowed to communion.
And secondly, as to the members of this congregation, we do apprehend the best way is, that each part offended do freely forgive each other all personal and other offences that may have arisen on this occasion, and that they be buried in oblivion; and that those who shall for future mention or stir up any of the former differences so as to tend to contention, shall be deemed disorderly persons, and be dealt with as such.
And thirdly, that those that exempted themselves from their communion on this account, except as above, be allowed to take their places orderly without contention, and such as refuse to be deemed disorderly persons.
Signed—Timothy Brooks, Thomas Shepherd, Thomas Abbott, John Drake, Nicolas Jonson, Dickason Shepherd, Job Shepherd, James Bollen, Samuel Jones, John Hart, John Bray.
Let it be noted, say the Century Minutes of the Association, that the said Thomas Selby, though he and his party referred as above said, yet he appeared afterwards very outrageous while he stayed in the province, and some of his adherents joined to other denominations, and never returned to seek their place in the church, and the church did accordingly exclude them. But the greatest part took their places personally.
From the year 1712 to the year 1720, though the churches maintained a yearly Association, yet there are no minutes of said meetings. Probably, during those years there was nothing of special importance brought before the Philadelphia Association. In the meantime several clergymen of our denomination, from different parts of Great Britain, were constantly arriving in Philadelphia. These located in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, and did good service in the work of the Lord.
Among the early Baptist churches in this vicinity, for many years, was the office of Ruling Elders. The record book of the Pennypack Church, under date of June 19th, 1715, says: “A proposal was made for having Ruling Elders in the church; left to consideration till next Quarterly Meeting.” That they had such officers down to 1763, is proven in the subsequent Minutes of the church.
In 1718, Richard Sparks, carpenter, who owned a lot of ground at the southeast corner of Market and Fifth streets, made the following devise of a lot for a burial ground for Seventh-Day Baptists:—
I do hereby devise one hundred feet of the back end of my lot on the south side of High street, in Philadelphia, for a burying place for the use of the people or society called the Seventh-Day Baptists, forever, in which said piece of ground I desire to be buried, my wife having the use of it during her natural life.
It is probable this one hundred feet, being on Fifth;. street, was used for burial purposes. There yet remains a very small part of this lot, which is walled in on Fifth street between the two wings of the Eastern Market House. Inside this enclosure, concealed from the street, is a marble tablet, with the following inscription:—
This monument erected A.D. 1829, by the Trustees of the First Congregation of Seventh-Day Baptists, residing in the township of Hopewell, in the county of Cumberland, West New Jersey, and the Trustees of the Seventh-Day Baptist Church of Christ, in Piscataway, East New Jersey, to perpetuate the memory of Richard Sparks, who, in his testament and last will, gave and devised this lot for a burying ground for the use of the Society of Seventh- Day Baptists, and was himself interred therein, A.D. 1716, agreeably to his request in said will, with several other ancestors and relatives of members of the said societies, who were laid within twenty-five feet of the north end of the same.
A number of names follow this inscription, being those of the persons who erected the tablet.
The County of Montgomery, in Pennsylvania, was not formed until 1789; up to that time it was a part of Philadelphia County: the Montgomery Baptist Church, therefore, belongs to this history up to the separate organization of the county in which it is located. The first Baptist settlers in Montgomery were John Evans and Sarah his wife. They were members of a Baptist Church in Wales, and came here in 1710. The next year John James and Elizabeth his wife, from the same Principality, joined them. They were visited by Rev. Abel Morgan occasionally, who preached the word to all who came to hear, at the house of Mr. Evans. God’s blessing attended these visits, and Mr. Morgan was permitted to baptize several persons. They were at length advised either to unite with the church at Pennypack, or else establish one in their own neighborhood. Not being familiar with the English language, and that church so distant, they concluded it was best they should organize one by themselves. Mr. Morgan approved this step, and on June l0th, 1719, they were constituted as a distinct Baptist Church, with nine or ten members. Revs. Abel Morgan and Samuel Jones were present to assist and direct in the work. The following is the interesting account of the proceedings as given in the Century Minutes of the Philadelphia Association:—
MONTGOMERY BAPTIST CHURCH.
The first part of the day was spent in fasting and prayer, with a sermon preached by Mr. Morgan, suitable to the occasion. Being asked whether they were desirous and freely willing to settle together as a church of Jesus Christ, they all answered in the affirmative; and being asked whether they were acquainted with one another’s principles, and satisfied with one another’s graces and conversation, it was also answered in the affirmative; and then for a demonstration of their giving themselves up, severally and jointly to the Lord, as a people of God and a church of Jesus Christ, they all lifted up their right hand. Then were they directed to take one another by the hand, in token of their union, declaring at the same time that as they had given themselves to God, so they did give themselves also to one another by the will of God, (2 Corinthians 8:5), to be a church according to the gospel; to worship God and to maintain the doctrines of the gospel, according to their ability, and to edify one another. Then were they pronounced and declared to be a church of Jesus Christ; a right hand of fellowship was given to them as a sister church, with exhortations and instructions suitable to the station and relation they now stood in; and the whole was finished with solemn prayer to God for a blessing on the work of the day.
Mr. Morgan visited them from time to time, and administered the ordinances among them. Elisha Thomas, of Welsh Tract, and other ministering brethren also preached to them as they had opportunity. All the early ministers of our denomination in this vicinity were eminently missionary in their character, hence, like the primitive disciples, they went everywhere preaching the word. William Thomas and John James, members at Montgomery, by the constant exercise of their Gifts, gave evidence of ability to preach the word, and were thus occupied frequently. The history of Mr. Thomas is of interest, and is thus given by the late Rev. Joseph Mathias, of Hilltown, whose praise is in all the older churches of this region:—
He arrived in this country about 1712, being entirely destitute of all worldly means, and in debt for all the expenses of the passage of himself and family; notwithstanding, when he left his native place, he was possessed of ample means to plant himself in circumstances of affluence in his new location. This calamity befell him in consequence of a most flagrant act of misconduct on the part of the commander of the vessel, in which his property was shipped, who sailed before the time set for him to come on board. He took passage on credit as early as possible, but on his arrival he had the mortification to find the captain had absconded, and all was lost; and to add to his grief and vexation, he identified his goods and clothes, etc., in the possession of new owners, which could never be recovered.
But being a man of energy, robust in person, and of great decision of character, he at once applied himself to industrious efforts, as many others in similar circumstances have done, and in process of time became a man of large possessions in lands in different places. He built a meeting-house at his own expense, in which, for a number of years, he officiated in the ministry, and now, with many of his family, reposes in his own graveyard in Hilltown, where a suitable monument is erected to his memory.
I must record here the arrival in this city of another branch of the Baptist family. In the fall of the year 1719, about twenty families of the Tunkers, from Germany landed in Philadelphia, some of whom settled in Germantown. Morgan Edwards says of them, that they—
Are commonly called Tunkers, to distinguish them from the Mennonists, for both are styled Baptists. They are called Tunkers in derision, which is as much as “sops,” from tunken, to put a morsel in sauce; but as the term signifies dippers, they may rest content with their nickname. They are also called Tumblers, from the manner in which they perform baptism, which is by putting the person head-forward under water (while kneeling), so as to resemble the motion of the body in the act of tumbling.
There being no minutes extant of the Philadelphia Association for this decade, save for one year, the materials for historical purposes are very meagre. Yet, from contemporary history we are assured that the Baptists of this city were not unmindful of, nor disinterested in the important events transpiring about them. They rejoiced in the extension of Christ’s kingdom in the regions beyond, in the organization, in 1715, of the first Baptist Church in Delaware county—at Brandywine. With others of this city, they mourned the death of William Penn, which took place at Rushcomb, England, July 30th, 1718. For. the founder of Pennsylvania they ever had a profound regard, and to the last were among his loyal friends.
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