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  • Obbie Tyler Todd

Early Baptists and Prison Reform




In 1805, Rev. Lemuel Covell arrived in Boston to meet with leaders of the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society. Covell had been sent as a missionary by the Shaftsbury Association (VT) to the Tuscarora people near Ontario, Canada. During his visit to Boston, he preached at local churches and dined with well-known Baptists like Thomas Baldwin and Samuel Stillman. On Wednesday, July 10, he also stopped with fellow Baptist minister William Collier at the newly constructed prison in Charlestown. While the concept of jail was certainly not foreign to New Englanders like Covell, what he saw that day gave him pause. Looking upon Massachusetts’s first state prison, he wrote,


The awful ideas that presented themselves to my mind, while viewing those awful vaults for the confinement of criminals, baffle all the power of language to describe. The whole work is of massy stone, laid in lime and stone, and made strong beyond conception. All the doors are composed of huge bars of iron, bolted together in the strongest manner…Methinks it might be a sufficient antidote to villainy, only to go and view those awful cells, some of them calculated for one, some for two, and some for more persons, but all of them sufficiently strong to baffle all hope of an escape when once confined in them. (Memoir, 131)


Such a harrowing place might be taken for granted today, but to behold this kind of forbidding citadel was an altogether new experience for the earliest citizens in the land of the free. In the new republic, prisons said nearly as much about the people outside the walls as they did inside. As the United States was dealing with its lawbreakers, it was also taking seriously the nature of law itself. Enlightenment principles like justice, punishment, proportion, and the public good were central to the Revolution and to America's republican identity. Thus, in some sense, prisons represented American moral philosophy and the nation’s commitment to the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.


If any religious group in Massachusetts had thought deeply about the nature of justice inside a jail cell, it was the Baptists. Separate Baptists like Isaac Backus knew well the prejudices and religious bigotry of the Standing Order (Congregationalists), who frequently imprisoned Baptists for not paying religious taxes to the state church. As an agent for the Warren Association, it was actually Backus’s job to record these injustices. In fact, it was not until 1833 that Massachusetts would disestablish the Congregationalist church (the last to fall in the U.S.). Therefore, when Rev. Covell (who died one year after visiting Charlestown) looked upon the new prison, he might possibly have thought of his spiritual ancestors who endured over a century of persecution in jails across New England.


In the early national period, Baptists responded to the rise of prisons in a number of ways. Not surprisingly, their primary response came in the form of evangelism. In the midst of the Second Great Awakening, Baptists shared their gospel behind bars just as they shared it almost everywhere else. In the winter of 1816-1817, John Mason Peck not only preached an average of three times a week in the Philadelphia area, but he also regularly visited the local prisons where he “conversed with and preached to the prisoners.” (Pioneer Life, 63) When Peck was eventually commissioned by the Baptists’ Triennial Convention as a missionary to Illinois and Missouri, he evangelized in frontier prisons. In 1823, in Alton, Illinois, Peck recorded in his journal, “The state of morals is truly deplorable in this State; and this does not so much arise from the general depravity of the inhabitants, as from the dreadful neglect (or connivance, as may be feared) of the judiciary, leading to a non-execution of the laws against crimes.” The frontier was indeed a land of lawlessness, and Baptist preachers like Peck saw this firsthand.


Nevertheless, less than two months later, Peck was brought to officiate the execution of a local murderer who had professed faith in Christ and requested baptism. Peck arrived reluctantly, thinking that a profession might diminish the appearance of justice at the execution. He was also suspicious of the murderer’s sincerity. However, after spending two days with the inmate, Peck became completely convinced that his conversion was authentic. On Thursday, February 5th, Peck recorded in his journal that he preached the story of the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39–43) to Mr. Green and posed “very close, heart-searching questions” regarding salvation. After hearing Mr. Green’s “pertinent and satisfactory” replies, Peck was compelled to take him to a small pond two hundred yards away from the prison with a chain around his leg to be baptized. Peck recorded, “To baptize a murderer, under sentence of death, and who must inevitably be executed in one week, was a novel thing, what I should least thought of doing once; but in this case I became satisfied that it was my duty, and would not shrink from it.” Peck ministered to Green up to his final moments, noting after the execution, “Never did I see such proof of the power and support of Divine grace in the awful hour of dissolution.” (189-91)


As Baptists took such a large role in the so-called “benevolent empire” in the early United States with groups like Bible and temperance societies, it is little surprise that they also participated in prison reform. Henry Holcombe was one such Baptist who spearheaded many voluntary groups in the early republic in both the North and South. Holcombe’s experience on death row was somewhat different than Peck’s. After hearing of the impending execution of a man named David Rice for stealing a five-shilling pistol, Holcombe befriended the convict and saw him repent and believe in the gospel while awaiting his death. After Rice was executed in Savannah in 1802, Holcombe believed that relatively mild crimes were often being punished with undue severity. Proportionality, Holcombe argued, was key. What was needed was not necessarily death, but discipline. With time, Holcombe helped reform Georgia’s penal code and in the erection of a state penitentiary. (Boles, 391-92)


The evangelical fixation with concepts like justice and punishment and proportionality continued throughout the antebellum period, especially as the slavery issue took center stage in the American mind. And Baptists gave thought to these ideas not only in their doctrine of atonement and moral philosophy, but also as it pertained to criminals. The theological ideas that were brought to bear on the nature of Christ’s death were also relevant for earthly crimes. Just as every sinner was a criminal before God who needed divine justice satisfied, so every earthly criminal needed justice satisfied in some way. By 1859, John L. Dagg, who defended slavery, articulated his thoughts on justice in terms of a penalty for a crime: “It is not true, that the principles of distributive justice repels the notion of so much suffering for so much sin. Justice has its scales in government, as well as in commerce; and an essential part of its administration consists in the apportionment of penalties to crimes.” (Manual, 328) In other words, by his blood, Jesus Christ paid exactly what sinners' owed to God. And this was the approach that many Baptists applied to death row: just punishment must be proportional. For Green, his punishment was just but he ultimately received mercy in glory. For Rice, he did not receive justice in this life but he was accounted just in the eyes of God. The prison system in early America evoked a range of ministry and movements from the Baptist denomination, and it also demonstrated tangibly why the relationship between crime and punishment was so important in the Baptist mind.

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