THE LAST FIFTY YEARS
IN order to appreciate the Baptist history of the past fifty years, we must first of all gain as vivid and accurate a picture as we may of the state of the Baptist churches of America at the middle of the nineteenth century. Naturally our first resort is to statistics, but we speedily discover that no really trustworthy figures are accessible.1 The only statistics of the denomination for the year 1850 are taken from the Baptist Almanac for the following year) and are as follows:
These figures are open to much suspicion. In a table, many times republished, which first appeared in the Baptist Year-Book for 1872, the following totals are given for the year 1850: Churches, nine thousand five hundred and fifty-two; ministers, seven thousand three hundred and ninety-three; members, seven hundred and seventy thousand eight hundred and thirty-nine. So great an increase in a single year as is shown by a comparison of these figures, particularly in the number of churches and ministers, appears quite improbable. We may, however, take seven hundred thousand as approximately the number of Baptists in the United States in 1850. The census of that year returned the total population as twenty-three million one hundred and ninety-one thousand eight hundred and seventy-six. There was at that time, therefore, one Baptist to about thirty-two persons in the population—reckoning only those in full denominational fellowship. If we had included all the varieties of Baptists in our computation, the total number would become not fewer than eight hundred thousand (the Baptist Almanac gives eight hundred and fifteen thousand two hundred and twelve), and the proportion would be about one in twenty-nine of the population. This was a very marked increase from the year i8oo, when the proportion is supposed to have been one Baptist to every fifty-three persons, or thereabouts. It is further to be noted that in making these comparisons, only actual reported members of Baptist churches are included. If we computed “adherents,” at the rate of three for each member, it would probably be true that in 1850 one person in each eleven of the population was a Baptist in esse or in posse.
But even if one could trust these numerical results as precisely accurate, they would give us a most inadequate idea of the condition of Baptists in 1850. We need to know many facts besides mere numbers. What was the measure of the piety and intelligence of these people? How did they compare in evangelistic and missionary zeal with other Christian bodies? Were they united in their efforts or disorganized by heresy and faction? The answer to such questions as these will go further to decide the strength of a denomination than an array of figures, however imposing. This is what some have meant by saying that a denomination must not only be counted, but weighed.
Perhaps the most striking fact, as we survey the denomination in 1850, is that it had just emerged from a period of prolonged and bitter controversies, which had resulted in a number of schisms. In spite of these contests, Baptists had continued to increase with wonderful rapidity, far outstripping the growth of population, and surpassed in numerical increase by the Methodists alone of all American Christians. This growth was not due to immigration, as in the case of many religious bodies; nor to proselytism, as in the case of certain others; but to the making of converts among the native population.
As to the state of piety and intelligence among Baptists in 1850, it is not easy to speak in general terms that will be at once accurate and just. In intelligence, they may be conceded to have been inferior to some other denominations, notably to the Presbyterians, inferior to the standard that now obtains among themselves. It
would be shame to them if it were not so. If all the educational advantages enjoyed by this generation have not set them above their fathers, then those fathers toiled and sacrificed in vain for unworthy children. The standard of piety was high among the Baptist churches of 1850. The fathers believed heartily in the fundamental Baptist principle of a regenerate church; and candidates for membership were subjected to a thorough and searching examination of the grounds of their belief that they had been born again. And in most cases, the fathers insisted strenuously that a profession of regeneration should be avouched by a godly walk and conversation. Discipline was not one of the lost arts among Baptist churches in the “fifties.”
Most important of all—at any rate, most striking of all things that may be said of the Baptists of 1850—is the fact that they had unconsciously come to the beginning of a new order of things. Up to this time, or near it, Baptists had been the sect everywhere spoken against —the Ishmael among denominations, every man’s hand against it, and to a certain extent its hand against every man. Before this, Baptists had everywhere been few in numbers, composed chiefly of what are contemptuously called “the common people,” often persecuted, always despised, frequently unlearned. Now they had become the largest Protestant body but one in the United States; they surpassed most other bodies in the scope and effectiveness of their missionary operations; they were rapidly increasing in wealth, intelligence, and social consequence. In a word, it was actually becoming respectable to be a Baptist. Only those who have carefully studied the beginnings of the denomination, in our own country and elsewhere, can fully comprehend how much that means. Some can remember communities where, since 1850, it was not quite respectable to be a Baptist—where to be a member of that denomination was to incur a social stigma of which most who live to-day have had no personal experience.
Fifty years of history—what have they brought forth for the Baptists of America? We are to consider the half-century most wonderful for the rapidity of its material development in the history of mankind, and the country in which this development has been unmatched elsewhere on the globe. To these five decades belongs almost wholly the growth of the mighty West, with its fourteen new Commonwealths containing a greater population to-day than the whole United States could boast in 1810. Nor is the religious development of this vast region one whit less wonderful. How far have Baptists kept pace with both?
Again let us have recourse to statistics, as a beginning. The actual population of the United States in 1900 was seventy-four million six hundred and ten thousand five hundred and twenty-three, or, including all the Territories, seventy-six million three hundred and three thousand three hundred and eighty-seven. The denominational statistics show that four million one hundred and eighty-one thousand six hundred and eighty-six persons were members of regular Baptist churches—or one Baptist to every eighteen of the population. If we add those churches which, though not in full fellowship, may be fairly said to hold and practise Baptist principles, the proportion is about one in sixteen. If we add “adherents “—those connected with Baptist families, congregations, Sunday-schools—one person in every seven or eight of the entire population may be reckoned a Baptist in sentiment.
In the way of numerical increase, what could be more gratifying to a religious body? The population has increased about three and one-third fold during the last half-century, while, in the same time, Baptists have increased in numbers almost sixfold—nearly twice as fast as the population.
This is the counting; now for the weighing. Has the increase in piety, in intelligence, in wealth, in missionary zeal, kept pace with this growth of numbers? In many of these particulars, if not in all, it is possible to answer the question with an emphatic "yes." It is, in truth, speaking soberly, to say that the numerical increase of Baptists during the last fifty years is the least striking feature of their history. To present the subject with any approach to adequate fulness would require a volume; but it is possible, even within the limits of this chapter, to indicate the facts that warrant this assertion.
Consider then, in the first place, the progress in education made by the denomination in fifty years. In 1850 Baptists had in the East five institutions of collegiate grade: Brown University (1764), Waterville College, now Colby (1818), Madison University, now Colgate (chartered in 1846, but really founded in 1819), Columbian University (1821), and Lewisburg University, now Bucknell (1846). Most of these names were prophecies, which have not yet been fulfilled; there was not then, anywhere in the United States, an institution that deserved the name university. The combined buildings and endowments of the five institutions named would be considered in these days not too large a “plant” for one good academy. There were, in addition, two theological seminaries—that at Hamilton (1817), and the Newton Theological Institution (1825). In the West and South there were sixteen other institutions2 of nominally collegiate grade (several of which were not in reality above academic), all struggling to keep the breath of life within them, all practically unendowed. Possibly I have overlooked some institution that then had a name to live, but had little else, and soon ceased to have even that. There are no statistics of these schools, but it is hazarding little to say that the total invested funds of all would not have exceeded five hundred thousand dollars. There was at this time no theological institution in the West, but a theological department was maintained at several of the colleges for the instruction of candidates for the Baptist ministry.3
The provision for academic education was even more scanty in 1850. It is true that of existing Baptist academies, nine were established prior to that year, and that an unknown number had been begun and had come to an untimely end before that date, but in their beginnings at least most of these academies were private schools, and are not at the middle of the century to be reckoned among denominational facilities for education.
The year 1850 marks the beginning of a really great work in the foundation and equipment of schools of learning by Baptists. The following decade saw the establishment of twenty-three colleges and two theological seminaries, beginning with the two institutions at Rochester. In the “ sixties “ three more seminaries were founded, thus completing the denominational provision for theological education, but only eight colleges were added, three of which were schools for the freedmen, established after the close of the Civil War. The last three decades have been the period of most rapid increase in educational facilities. The “seventies” saw the addition of fourteen colleges, of which six were for the freedmen; in the “ eighties “ twelve colleges were established, only one of which was for the Negro race; and fifteen colleges have been added during the last ten years, including the greatest of all Baptist institutions—the University of Chicago.
But here again weighing is no less necessary than counting, for the mere multiplying of institutions is not necessarily educational progress. It is not needful to deny, rather would one affirm, that good judgment has not always been characteristic of those who brought these schools into being. But whatever lack of wisdom Baptists have shown in the founding of denominational colleges, the one thing that is not shown is lack of appreciation of the value of higher education. And therefore, on the whole, a Baptist has no reason to be ashamed of the record. The zeal to found has in most cases been followed by the zeal to endow. Of the ninety-two schools of collegiate grade now existing, it is true that fifty-three are wholly without endowment; but on examination it proves that these are mainly of three classes: schools very recently founded, schools for the Freedmen, and Southern schools for young women—which last have always depended for support on the tuition fees received from their patrons, like the “ seminaries “ for young women in the North. All but about half a dozen of the unendowed colleges come under one of these heads.
But it is still true that the movement to secure adequate endowment for these institutions has been comparatively recent. The earliest educational statistics are found in the Baptist Year-Book for 1872. According to this table, there were then nine theological schools (two of them departments in colleges), with endowments amounting to one million sixty-nine thousand dollars (an average of over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars each for the seminaries proper), and other property worth eight hundred and twenty-three thousand dollars. There were twenty-eight colleges, with a total endowment of two million three hundred and seventeen thousand nine hundred and fifty-four dollars (an average of less than one hundred thousand dollars each), and other property valued at two million six hundred and sixty-four thousand dollars. There is no report of academic institutions, but such a report appears the following year (1873). Thirty-one institutions are named (some of which have since been transferred to the collegiate list), of which three had endowments aggregating but sixty-five thousand dollars, and the rest were utterly unendowed; the whole number reporting property valued at one million two hundred and three thousand seven hundred dollars.
The statistics for 1880 show an advance that is highly gratifying, but hardly surprising. There are now reported eight theological schools, with endowments of one million three hundred and thirty-seven thousand eight hundred and twenty-six dollars, and property amounting to one million seven hundred and fifty-one thousand two hundred and four dollars; thirty-one colleges, with three million two hundred and forty-three thousand six hundred and forty dollars in endowments, and other property valued at seven million three hundred and thirty-six thousand and seventy-four dollars; forty-nine schools of academic grade, with four hundred and twenty-two thousand two hundred and thirty-five dollars endowment, and two million five hundred and seventy thousand one hundred dollars in other property. In the next decade the advance is yet more notable. In 1890 the tables show seven seminaries with endowments almost double those of 1872 (two million sixty-nine thousand eight hundred and one dollars), while the other property very little exceeded that reported in 1872 (nine hundred and forty-six thousand one hundred and thirty-four dollars). This last rather surprising item proves, on analysis, to be due to more conservative estimates of the value of the property. For example, Newton reported buildings and other property to the value of four hundred thousand dollars in 1872, but in 1890 these are set down at only one hundred and twenty-six thousand three hundred dollars. There are also tabulated returns from thirty-one colleges, with endowments of five million five hundred and ninety-six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one dollars, and other property worth four million eight hundred and thirty-one thousand eight hundred dollars; thirty-two schools for women only, having six hundred and sixty- eight thousand five hundred and seventy-seven dollars in endowment, and two million seventy-one thousand and thirty-eight dollars in general property; forty-six academies with seven hundred and fifty-eight thousand six hundred dollars endowments and one million eight hundred and sixty thousand nine hundred and eighteen dollars in property; besides seventeen schools for the Freedmen and Indians, with only nominal endowments, amounting in all to fifty-four thousand six hundred dollars, and other property valued at eight hundred and two thousand three hundred and twenty-five dollars.
But it is in the last ten years that the really surprising progress has been made. The endowment of the seminaries has reached two million five hundred and eighty-six thousand and sixty-five dollars, and their other property is valued at two million two hundred and forty-four thousand and fifty-one dollars. Here the greatest increase has been in providing adequate material facilities, in buildings, libraries, etc. The universities and colleges now report endowments of fourteen million four hundred and forty-two thousand eight hundred and seven dollars, and other property to the amount of fifteen million two hundred and forty-nine thousand and fifty-eight dollars. Even subtracting the large sums credited to the University of Chicago, it is found that both endowments and other property have been just about doubled during the past decade. The academies now have endowments of one million four hundred and fourteen thousand four hundred and seventy-three dollars, and other equipment worth three million four hundred and fourteen thousand four hundred and seventy-three dollars—sums inadequate, it is true, but marking an immense advance.
It would be less than just not to point out that a chief factor in this progress has been the agency of the American Baptist Education Society, organized in 1888, and the grants made through this society by a single Baptist, Mr. John D. Rockefeller. What he has given personally, and what his gifts have impelled others to contribute, together constitute the major part of the increased endowments of the past decade.
Altogether, American Baptists have to-day invested in their educational institutions the enormous sum of forty-four million dollars, of which fully half is in productive endowments, and almost the whole of which is the accumulation of the last fifty years. But not only has there been this great material development, the standard of education has also risen proportionately; educational ideals and educational methods are far higher than a generation ago—so much higher that work that made a man a valedictorian when some of us were students would not insure his graduation to-day. In all that constitutes a liberal education, as well as professional and technical, Brown University in the East and the University of Chicago in the West must now be reckoned as standing among the very first American universities. And Baptist colleges, attempting the less ambitious task of giving to young men only that course in the arts and sciences that is crowned by the baccalaureate degree, are to-day, as they have been from the first, fully abreast of the more famous institutions. Man for man, these colleges have always sent out graduates in every way as well equipped as those that have gone front the most renowned halls of learning; and in the hard push of life it has not often been their alumni who have gone to the wall.
How far have the people taken advantage of these facilities? This may be quickly answered. In 1872 there were in all Baptist schools two thousand four hundred and fifty-seven students; in 1873 there were also four thousand two hundred and forty-seven academic students —making a total of six thousand seven hundred and four. In 1880 there were nine thousand five hundred and twenty-four; in 1890 the number had risen to twenty thousand five hundred and forty-one, while in 1900 it is reported as thirty-eight thousand and twenty. Nothing can be more gratifying than to see the eagerness of the youth of our denomination, and outside of it, to take advantage of the increased facilities for education that have been provided. If so much space has been given to educational development, it is because this is really the most impressive thing in the Baptist history of the past fifty years.
It is time to give our attention to the advance in missionary zeal that has marked the same period. Let us first consider the progress of foreign missions, so far as it is marked by definite results. In 1850 there were in Baptist Asiatic missions sixty-nine churches, with seven thousand five hundred and twenty-one members; by 1860 they had increased to two hundred and seventy-eight churches, with fifteen thousand six hundred and fourteen members; in 1870 these had become three hundred and seventy-two churches, and eighteen thousand seven hundred and forty members; in 1890 there were seven hundred and forty-three churches and seventy-five thousand eight hundred and forty-four members—a rate of increase seldom, if ever, paralleled in the history of the denomination; and for 1900 the figures are: churches, eight hundred and forty-four; members, one hundred and fifteen thousand nine hundred and twenty-nine. In recent years African missions have been added, with twelve churches and one thousand nine hundred and twenty-five members. This survey does not include missions to the nominally Christian lands of Europe. In 1850 there were in such missions fifty-nine churches and three thousand and thirty-eight members, of which number two thousand eight hundred were in Germany, where ten times that number of Baptists are now reported—viz., twenty-eight thousand six hundred and forty-one. Since that time there have been many fluctuations in the fortunes of these missions, some having been abandoned altogether, others pursued fitfully, so that comparison by decades would be misleading without elaborate explanation of the figures. Suffice it to say, that in 1900 there are reported in connection with European Baptist missions nine hundred and fifty-one churches and one hundred and five thousand one hundred and seventeen members.
If we consider the advance in the annual gifts of the denomination for this work, as a practical mark of increase in zeal, results are not greatly different. In 1850 the total receipts of the A. B. M. U. were eighty-seven thousand five hundred and thirty-seven dollars; in 1860 they had risen to one hundred and thirty-two thousand four hundred and twenty-six dollars; in 1870 they were one hundred and ninety-six thousand eight hundred and ninety-seven dollars; and in 1880, two hundred and fifty-two thousand six hundred and seventy-seven dollars. Then there was a great leap to four hundred and fifteen thousand one hundred and forty-four dollars in 1890, which has become six hundred and twenty-six thousand eight hundred and forty-four dollars in 1900.
In five decades, therefore, the members of these missionary churches have doubled nearly four times, and the income of the Society has doubled three times. In the same period the supporters of the Society have hardly doubled twice. The growth of the denomination in missionary zeal, and in the fruitfulness of its work, has far outstripped its progress in mere numbers. It is doubtless true that much more might have been accomplished, but the bitter reproaches of their denomination in which writers and speakers sometimes indulge might well be softened in view of these facts.
If now we turn to home missions, we meet the initial difficulty that it is not possible to compute numerically the results of this work on the growth of the denomination, because the churches established by the agency of this Society have soon taken their places in the regular statistical column of the denomination, and have no longer been reckoned separately. We can for the most part only apply the financial tests, and assume a fairly constant rate of fruitfulness. In 1850 the total income of the American Baptist Home Mission Society was twenty-five thousand two hundred and one dollars; by 1860 it had nearly doubled—forty-four thousand six hundred and seventy-eight dollars; but after the Civil War a great advance was made, largely on account of the new interest felt in the freedmen’s work, and the income became one hundred and forty-four thousand and thirty-two dollars. Since then a constant and large rate of increase has been maintained: in 1880 the income rose to two hundred and seventeen thousand and ninety-three dollars; by 1890 it became three hundred and seventy-five thousand two hundred and fifty-four dollars, and in 1900 it is returned at four hundred and sixty-one thousand eight hundred and one dollars. In 1850 there were one hundred and ten laborers employed, a number that has gradually risen to one thousand and ninety-two. In the fifty years just closed, four thousand six hundred and five churches have been organized by the agents of this Society—nearly one-tenth of the net increase of Baptist churches in the whole United States during that period.
The special work of Baptist women for missions has been a development of the last thirty years. In 1871
the Women’s Baptist Foreign Missionary Societies were organized, one for the East, with headquarters at Boston; one for the West, with headquarters at Chicago. Both societies have sustained auxiliary relations with the Missionary Union—the women nominating missionaries and designating funds, the Union appointing the missionaries and disbursing the funds. Similar relations to the Home Mission Society are sustained by the Women’s Baptist Home Mission Society of the East, formed in 1877, with headquarters at Boston; but the like society for the West, formed the same year, and having its headquarters at Chicago, has from the first maintained a complete independence, making its own appointments and managing its own affairs. This last society maintains a missionary training school. It was prophesied that the formation of these separate societies for women would divide missionary interest and divert funds from the older societies. Experience shows that whatever may be accomplished in this direction finds ample compensation in the general increase of intelligent interest in missions, and the consequent growth of contributions to all causes.
Thus far facts have been given relating only to the operations of our Northern societies. Similar facts are not
accessible regarding the work done by the Southern Baptist Convention. No statistics regarding foreign missions have been discovered prior to 1890, in which year there were one thousand three hundred and thirty-eight members reported, which have increased in a single decade to five thousand three hundred and forty-seven. The receipts of the Foreign Mission Board regularly increased up to 1890, when they reached one hundred and forty-nine thousand five hundred and eighty-four dollars; since then there has been a decided falling off every year (one hundred and nine thousand two hundred and sixty-seven dollars reported in 1900). The Home Mission Board reported contributions of sixteen thousand two hundred dollars in 1880, sixty-nine thousand three hundred and ninety-eight dollars in 1890, and sixty-one thousand two hundred dollars in 1900. Inasmuch as the work only began in 1850, and was not vigorously prosecuted before 1880, the ratio of increase in the missionary operations of the Southern churches shows an excess over that of the Northern societies.
This has been a period also of expansion, in many directions, in the Society’s work. In 1852 the church edifice department was established, at first with the object of making loans exclusively to churches in the West, but since 1881, gifts outright have been made in the larger number of cases. By the close of the century, over two thousand churches had been aided, about seventeen hundred of these within the past twenty years. The growth of educational work among the freedmen since the Civil War has already been described. The eleven schools controlled by the Society have buildings and equipment valued at over a million dollars, and productive endowment amounting to over two hundred and eighty-six thousand dollars. Missions have been established and are maintained among our various foreign-born citizens, those especially flourishing being among the French of New England, the Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, and Spanish. A mission to Mexico was begun in 1870, which has had a fair degree of success and promises to accomplish much more. The acquisition of Porto Rico and our intimate relations with Cuba opened new and interesting fields just as the century closed, which the twentieth century will see occupied and developed.
Though the American Baptist Publication Society was founded as a tract society as early as 1824, and reorganized as a general publishing house in 1840, almost the whole of its labors belong to the period under consideration. The active history of the Society begins with its acquisition of a building in Arch Street, Philadelphia, in 1850, and the election of Benjamin Griffith as secretary in 1857 marks a further step forward. Thenceforward progress was rapid. In 1869 the prosperity of the business warranted the establishment of branches in the principal cities, to which others have since been added. Other events of great importance were the beginning of the chapel-car work in 1891, the erection of the new printing house in 1896, and the completion of the fine main building in 1898.4 There have been over two thousand eight hundred publications issued by the Society, of which eight hundred and twelve million copies have been printed. From the profits of the business, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars has been paid to the missionary department, which has received and expended altogether three million three hundred and forty-three thousand dollars. The colporters and missionaries thus employed have been instrumental in the organizing of eleven thousand five hundred and sixty-one Sunday-schools and one thousand three hundred and fifteen churches. The total assets of the Society have increased during the fifty years from almost nothing to a million and a half, and its annual transactions amount to little short of a million dollars.
Has the denomination increased in wealth as rapidly as in numbers during the half-century? We have inadequate means of answering this question with the definiteness desirable, since facts of the sort required were not recorded until a comparatively late day. The first attempt to gather and tabulate the general financial statistics of the denomination was made in the Year-Book for 1880. A good measure of the increase of denominational wealth is the valuation of church property. In 1885 this was twenty-six million six hundred and eighty-five thousand nine hundred and fifty-nine dollars; in 1890 the figures rose to fifty-eight million one hundred and sixty-two thousand three hundred and sixty-seven dollars—part of which increase was doubtless due to the better gathering of the facts. In 1900 there is reported eighty-six million six hundred and forty-eight thousand nine-hundred and eighty-two dollars. Another fair measure is the annual expenditure in maintaining public worship. This in 1885 was four million seven hundred and two thousand three hundred and eighty-one dollars; in 1890 it was six million nine hundred thousand two hundred and sixty-six dollars; and for 1900 the figures are nine million six hundred and twenty-two thousand and sixty-six dollars. Another measure of wealth, as well as of zeal, is the total contributions for missionary purposes: in 1885, six hundred and sixty-one thousand one hundred and sixty-six dollars; in 1890, one million ninety-two thousand five hundred and seventy-one dollars; and in 1900, one million one hundred and twenty-three thousand eight hundred and thirty-nine dollars. The totals of contributions for all purposes will be regarded by many as the most satisfactory test of relative ability to give. In 1885 these were six million five hundred and seventy-nine thousand eight hundred and seventy-two dollars; in 1890, ten million one hundred and ninety-nine thousand two hundred and fifty-nine dollars; and in 1900, twelve million three hundred and forty-eight thousand five hundred and twenty-seven dollars. Allowing for the imperfect gathering of facts at first, it would appear that the property of the denomination has tripled within fifteen years, while its annual contributions for all purposes have more than doubled. In the same time the membership has increased about sixty per cent. Applying every practicable test, we come to the conclusion that the denomination has increased in wealth fully twice as fast as in numbers.
The close of this half-century sees Baptists not only greater, richer, wiser, better organized, but more united, than at any previous time in their history. It sees them also enjoying greatly improved relations with other denominations—convictions respected, distinctive principles better understood, and in cases not a few, tacitly admitted or even accepted. Controversy has nearly disappeared, jealousy is less frequently manifested. Mutual respect, comity, co-operation, are the rule; and if the organic union of all Christians, of which some have prophesied, must be regarded by the sober-minded as “such stuff as dreams are made on,” some form of federation in evangelistic and missionary effort is certainly one of the possibilities of the present century.
Certain counter-currents ought not to be overlooked in this study of Baptist progress. The unity of the denomination in its doctrinal and practical teaching has been the boast of its members and the wonder of others. Apparently a rope of sand, each church independent of every other in theory, and to a great extent in practice, it has not been the inferior in coherence of bodies that have a strong centralized government. The reason of this is not far to seek: it has been the close adherence of the Baptist churches to their understanding of the teaching of the Scriptures, and their loyal acceptance of this teaching as the supreme authority in all matters of religion. It is not putting it too strongly to say that Baptists from the beginning of their separate history have been fully conscious that they had no justification for a separate existence except this loyalty to what they believed the Scriptures to teach, and their conviction that the teaching of the Scriptures must be followed at all cost. But the last decades of the closing century have seen a very considerable weakening among them of this conviction, some important modifications of their understanding of what the Scriptures are and what they teach. If this weakening should become general, there cannot fail to be a great denominational disintegration. The historian can only record what has been and what is; to tell what shall be is the office of the prophet.
As has already been implied, there has been a decline in the discipline maintained among Baptist churches, as serious as it is great. In the majority of churches in the cities, exclusions are practically unknown except for some notorious wickedness. Even in cases of notorious wickedness, there is often complete immunity for the offender. Little serious attempt is made to exercise oversight of the lives of members, and to hold them to accountability for departures from even a moderate standard of Christian ethics. The place of exclusion has been taken by a new practice, called “dropping,” by which is meant the simple erasure of a name from the roll of membership, no stigma of any kind attaching to the person so dropped, with no inquiry, no charges, and of course no examination or trial. This growing practice threatens to become universal in much less than another half-century, with results on the spiritual efficiency of the churches and the personal piety of their members that cannot fail to be most disastrous. Nothing can explain such disuse of discipline but a general weakening of moral fiber. This is an alarming phenomenon, and goes far to offset all that has been recorded of material and spiritual progress.
There has been a notable change in the character of preaching, and in the methods of church work, during the past fifty years. In these things, however, Baptists are in no way peculiar; they have but shared in the change that has come over American Christianity as a whole, and it is only the conservative that views all change with alarm who will see necessary evil in this change. One important result is, however, worthy of specific mention. Owing to the increasing infrequency of revivals, and the decline of the older evangelism, the majority of the converts are now received into the churches through the Sunday-school and the young people’s society; the conversion of adults becomes with every decade increasingly rare. It is yet too soon to measure the effects of this great change upon denominational life and character.
Another striking result of the past fifty years has been the great development of the denominational societies. These, nominally the creatures and servants of the churches, have become in fact great independent corporations that control the churches, so far as their united efforts in missionary and educational enterprises are concerned. The annual meetings of these societies are in theory composed of delegations from the supporting churches; in fact, they arc mass meetings composed of any who care to attend. The officials seldom have any trouble in directing such a meeting into any channel agreeable to them. The officials are men of high character and practical wisdom, and the affairs of the corporations have been most wisely managed; but the inevitable result of the system has been a growing estrangement of the churches from the societies and the work that they represent. Year by year the difficulty becomes greater, and just how it is to be surmounted is the greatest problem the Baptist denomination has at present to solve.
A sentiment is growing in favor of the unification of Baptist societies into something resembling the old Triennial Convention, and the making of this Convention a strictly delegated body, so that all the denominational enterprises shall be once more, in fact and not in theory only, subordinated to the churches. Whether this sentiment will prevail is one of the questions that the twentieth century must be left to decide.
What manner of men ought they to be who have entered upon the great opportunities of the twentieth century, the inheritors of such a history? What boundless possibilities of growth, of achievement, lie before them! How much Baptists may and should do to hasten the coming of the kingdom of God! How great will be their condemnation if, having this wealth of opportunity in their hands, they squander it selfishly, or slothfully fail to make of the ten talents entrusted to them other ten that they may present with by to their Lord at his coming!
1 Until 1868, when the American Baptist Publication Society began issuing the “Year Book” nothing like official denominational statistics were known, end it is only in an accommodated sense that the “Year Book” figures since that date may be called “official.”
2 These are: Baylor College and Baylor University (both 1845), Denison (1831), Franklin (1834), Georgetown (1829), Howard (1841). Kalamazoo (1833), Limestone (S. C., 1845), Mercer (1837), Richmond (1832), Shurtleff (1827), Southern Female College (two of came name, both Ala., 1842, 1843), Southwestern Baptist University (Tenn., 1845), Wake Forest (1843), William Jewell (1849)
3 These have all been discontinued except the one at Shurtleff, but a new one has been lately established at Baylor.
4 This building has since been sold, at a large profit to the Society, and a new structure will be erected in the near future, still better adapted to the business and missionary needs of the Society.
Title Page - Index
Chapter 24 - Baptist Churches - Baptists in the US -- Irregular Baptist Bodies