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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Were Rural Baptists in the Early United States Really Opposed to Education?

Through the years, scholars have often portrayed early American Baptists as unsophisticated and uneducated to the point of being anti-intellectualist, and this mischaracterization has lasted for decades in American religious studies. In The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan Hatch depicts rank-in-file Baptists during the Second Great Awakening as a mostly unrefined, homespun people who did not necessarily reflect the ideals of those toward the top of the denomination. Indeed, Hatch's evaluation has merit. President of Rhode Island College James Manning once confessed to a British Baptist, "We are the poor of the world." Yet Hatch has also argued that the “localism and independence” that “confounded” Baptist history between the Revolutionary era and the Jacksonian period, “played out on the fringes of denominational life, is not fully appreciated, given its lack of coherence and the penchant for early denominational historians to celebrate the growth of respectability and organizational coherence.” (97) While early Baptist historiography has certainly presented an overly simplified and sanitized depiction of denominational growth, the assumption that rank-in-file Baptists pursued a “quest for localism and independence” at the expense of “respectability and organizational coherence” is a narrative that should likewise not be pressed too far. When given the opportunity, Baptists desired respectability and coherence and education nearly as much as any other denomination. In addition to state conventions and the Triennial Convention in 1814, Baptists saw an explosion of colleges in the early republic: Hamilton, New York (1819), Waterville, Maine (1820), Washington, D.C. (1822), Georgetown, Kentucky (1824), and at Newton, Massachusetts (1825). In the ten years following, Richmond College, Wake Forest, Furman University, Mercer University, and New Hampton Institution would also emerge.

Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802-1880) lived through the War of 1812 and the Civil War. As pastor of First Church and Grace Street Church in Richmond, Virginia and of Second Church in St. Louis, Missouri, Jeter witnessed some of the highest peaks and lowest valleys in 19th century America. He played key roles in Landmarkist and Campbellite controversies in Baptist life, helped form the Southern Baptist Convention, and even served as acting secretary for the SBC’s Foreign Mission Board. Jeter was pro-missions and pro-education, and his ministry demonstrates the link between these two movements. In his Recollections of a Long Life (1891), Jeter records some revivals in Virginia in the 1820s, and his description helps explain the milieu in the Baptist South and why many rural Baptists were opposed to the cause of education. He writes,

This revival was specially important as forming a sort of connecting link between the old and new dispensations of the Virginia Baptists. The fathers preached without salaries, maintained themselves by their secular toils, and trained the churches, most successfully, to give nothing for the support of the gospel. Many of them were opposed, not to learned ministers, but to the training of ministers for their work. They were unfortunately driven to these extremes by their opposition to the colonial religious establishment. As they charged the clergy with preaching from mercenary motives, they deemed it necessary to show their own disinterestedness by preaching without fee or reward. As they maintained that the clergy were men-made preachers, they aimed to demonstrate that they themselves were God-made teachers by preaching without special training for it. With all their excellent qualities and noble works, they erred on these points. These mistakes the progress of knowledge and progress were sure to correct. The new dispensation — the time of missions, Sunday-schools, and ministerial and general education — was co-etaneous with the revival above described. It was not the cause, but an important factor in the change. It would have taken place had the revival not occurred, but certainly not in precisely the same way. It gave a mighty impulse to the Baptist cause in the upper portion of the State — an impulse that was soon felt to its utmost limits — and furnished the first missionaries of the General Association.” (41-42)

Jeter’s portrait of Virginia Baptists supports the idea that revival indeed produced certain centripetal effects in American religion, bringing together Baptists from different traditions and providing a “mighty impulse” toward education and organizational coherence like mission and Sunday schools. Regular and Separate Baptists in South Carolina like Oliver Hart, Evan Pugh, Joseph Reese, and Richard Furman exhibited the same impulse. Jeter’s account also reveals certain aspects of the Baptist mind. In the early republic, due to the heavy emphasis by Congregationalists and Anglicans upon a learned clergy, many Baptists were virtually incapable of imagining the very concept of education without a political component. In New England, for instance, Isaac Backus had to persuade the more pietistic rural Baptists that the new college in Rhode Island would not repeat the same godlessness at Harvard and Yale. As Backus well understood, the strongest prejudices on the part of Baptists were not against learning per se, but against the Standing Order and their irreligious establishment. For Baptists, the question was not whether knowledge was good or bad, but rather what someone did with their knowledge. As Jeter attests, even in the 1820s, anti-education Baptists were “driven to these extremes by their opposition to the colonial religious establishment,” indicating that the strong link between establishment and education was a sour legacy that Baptists could still not get out of their mouths. In other words, they opposed education for the same reason they opposed missions organizations: religious liberty. According to Jeter, Baptists were not anti-intellectualist, but anti-establishmentarian. In Jeter’s hopeful view, however, this aversion to education was something that “the progress of knowledge and experience [was] sure to correct.” As religious liberty was introduced into the land and “progress” gradually made in the denomination, education would eventually garner a better reputation among Baptists, Jeter argued. Indeed, he seems to have been correct.

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