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Jonathan Maxcy: A New England Baptist in the Old South


For someone who exercised such enormous influence upon America’s Baptists in the antebellum period, Jonathan Maxcy has hardly received the attention he deserves. Indeed, Maxcy’s legacy extends well beyond Baptists, as he was president at two non-Baptist colleges during his relatively short lifetime (1768–1820). According to his biographer Romeo Elton, “Dr. Maxcy, it is believed was appointed to the office of President the youngest, and officiated the longest in proportion to his years, of any person in the United States.” In 1792, at just 24, Maxcy became president of Rhode Island College, following his mentor James Manning. Ten years later, he was appointed the third president of Union College, succeeding Jonathan Edwards Jr. But he stayed only two years in Schnectady, New York. In 1804, Maxcy became the inaugural president of South Carolina College in Columbia, where he would serve for the rest of his life and influence an entire generation of Southern Baptists.


Jonathan Maxcy was known as a somewhat sickly individual with an incredibly erudite mind, receiving an honorary doctorate from Harvard at 33 in 1801. And he passed on his New England learning to his Southern pupils. In a letter in the Charleston City Gazette on July 16, 1819, one of his listeners remarked, “I would now walk even twenty miles through the hottest sands to listen to such another discourse.” Maxcy’s lectures were extolled by many. At South Carolina College, one of his colleagues asserted, “As a teacher, Dr. Maxcy enjoyed a reputation higher, perhaps, than that of any other president of a college in the United States.” In Columbia, Maxcy was revered by several students who would eventually help found the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, including W. T. Brantly, Basil Manly Sr., and William B. Johnson. Maxcy’s impact on Brantly and Johnson was especially profound.


However, what made Maxcy truly unique in Baptist and American history is his ability to transfer the theology, politics, and mind of New England to the Old South. In fact, one could argue that no Baptist in the South ever embodied more Northern characteristics and values than did Maxcy. For example, even as a Baptist, Maxcy was one of the nation’s leading proponents of the moral governmental theory of atonement, the signature doctrine of the so-called New England Theology. In his anthology of works on the atonement, Andover professor Edwards Amasa Park included a discourse by Maxcy. According to Park, “His Discourse, printed in 1796, was favorably received by his denomination, and since the publication of it some able advocates of the Edwardsean theory have appeared among the Baptists.” (lxxix) Chief among these adherents was William B. Johnson, the first president of the SBC, who also held to a moral governmental view.


Jonathan Maxcy was also a staunch, New England-style Federalist. Even though, as a Baptist, he was opposed to the Standing Order, his politics closely mirrored that of the Congregationalists. When Maxcy was being considered for the presidency of Union College, trustees objected to his “keen sarcasms against the Anti-Federalists” in a Fourth of July sermon. In their view, Maxcy was a “violent Politician” whose beliefs did not accord with a president of an ecumenical institution such as Union. Nevertheless, in a region of New York deeply influenced by New Englanders, Maxcy’s politics were not completely out of the ordinary (other trustees objected to his Baptist faith). In Columbia, Maxcy’s red-hot Federalism again emerged as a topic of discussion. “We must have a republican at the head of the college or all is lost,” declared trustee William D. James, who supported another candidate. Nevertheless, it was the endorsement of fellow Baptist and Federalist Richard Furman that cemented his appointment. Furman wrote to the president of the Board of Trustees concerning “the reputation which Dr. Maxcy has acquired as a man of science, of talents, and of virtue: his great experience as the President of a college…his eminent oratorical accomplishments…and especially his excellent capacities for governing youth.” (Rogers, 132) Furman and Maxcy, who had corresponded frequently while Maxcy was in Providence, became like-minded partners in their quest to educate the Baptists of the South.


The life and legacy of Jonathan Maxcy is a subject that beckons much more research from historians for a number of reasons. First, Maxcy came from an important family in the American Baptist story. His father Levi testified in the famous Balkcom case in 1782 which scored one of the first major (though short-lived) victories for Baptists in terms of religious liberty. (McLoughlin, 234) Levi was an eminent figure in the Baptist church in Attleborough, Massachusetts, where Jonathan was born. Secondly, for various reasons, Jonathan was not the only Maxcy brother to move South later in life. Milton graduated from Brown University in 1802 and became a successful lawyer in Beaufort, South Carolina where he died of yellow fever in 1818. Levi, another brother, died in the South as well. The most famous Maxcy brother, Virgil, also demonstrated Southern sympathies throughout his impressive political career, serving in the Maryland senate and becoming one of the closest confidantes of John C. Calhoun. Thirdly, the Maxcys were definitely sympathetic to slavery, as the father Levi owned at least one slave during his lifetime. However, Caesar was a member of the First Baptist Church of Attleborough, and Levi’s generous epitaph on his tombstone is still recorded in Jonathan’s corpus of writings (30). Virgil, Jonathan’s brother, was active in the American Colonization Society. Maxcy’s close friendships with a number of slave-owning Baptists, including Furman, suggest that he too defended the great Southern evil. (It is unclear, at least to this writer, whether he owned slaves)


From the beginning of his adult life, it seems, Jonathan Maxcy was believed by his peers to be destined for academic and pastoral greatness. His ordination in 1791 as pastor of FBC Providence, the oldest Baptist church in America, was a veritable who’s who of America’s Baptists: Samuel Stillman of FBC Boston preached the sermon, Hezekiah Smith of Haverhill gave the charge, Isaac Backus of Middleborough presented the high hand of fellowship, Benjamin Foster of FBC New York made the introductory prayer, and William Van Horn of Scotch Plains, NJ gave the consecrating prayer. On the very same day that he was ordained, Maxcy was also appointed professor of divinity at the college. For the rest of his life, Maxcy would preside over some of the finest institutions of higher learning in the early republic and mold some of the most influential figures — Baptists and non — in America. Perhaps, with further study, the true extent of Jonathan Maxcy’s influence may be uncovered.

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