Improving the Gifts of Young Ministers


The ranks and influence of the Virginia Baptists grew from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century. The number of those affiliated with Virginia Baptist congregations increased from 15,391 white members and 5,926 Black members in 1790 to 42,377 white members and 44,832 Black members in 1850. By 1860, Virginia’s Mainline Baptists affiliated with the General Association totaled 298,029.1

“[I]t is almost universally agreed among the Baptists of Virginia that it would redound to the glory of the Redeemer’s Kingdom to take prudent steps for improving the gifts of young ministers.”—Virginia Baptist General Meeting of Correspondence, 1820

When Virginia’s Baptist leaders began developing a Baptist educational institution in 1830, their lives were remarkably different from those who had preached to informal congregations during the previous century when the Baptist denomination “operated on the fringes of the religious mainstream and attracted a mere handful of adherents.”2 During the colonial era, Baptists’ approach to religion challenged prevailing structures through resistance to infant baptism, commitment to independence—yielding a congregational and ministerial freedom antithetical to the hierarchical nature of Anglicanism—and the high levels of emotion that often distinguished the Baptist preaching style and jarred those unfamiliar with it. Among some early Baptists there was also an aversion to enslavement.

Color painting depicting five men holding a man’s head under water in a stream and more than 25 onlookers, with a small building in the background..
Sidney E. King's The Struggle for Religious Freedom: David Barrow Dunked and Nearly Drowned imagines the 1778 attack on Barrow (1753-1819), who had been preaching near Portsmouth, Virginia (Copyright and courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society). Barrow was later among the most well known anti-slavery Baptists and author of the 1808 pamphlet “Slavery Examined.”

After years of persecution and marginalization—including instances of harassment, violence, and the jailing of over 40 ministers—by the early to mid-18th century, the social positions of many Baptists had stabilized. White Baptist leaders were respected business and educational figures, with affluent and powerful landholders and enslavers among their number. This fact also appears to have led to an overall shift away from the earlier antislavery thinking among influential Baptists. While the Virginia Baptist General Committee agreed to an anti-slavery resolution in 1790,3 by 1793, the body espoused “that hereditary slavery was not a moral or religious issue and hence it was not a subject for discussion by that ecclesiastical body.”4 Some prominent Baptist enslavers considered themselves antislavery in thought if not practice, but increasing numbers of associations and individual congregations moved toward support for enslavement.

The information below is adapted from Reuben Alley’s History of the University of Richmond, 1830-1971 (1977).

Excerpt of Rice's printed report.
Excerpt of John L. Rice’s critique, Evangelical Intelligencer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 1807

As the Baptist denomination grew, increased attention was paid to the formal education of ministers. Suggestions for seminary construction in the state were considered in the years after the Revolutionary War, followed by proposals for possible locations, but the dissolution of the General Committee in 1799 prevented progress. According to University of Richmond professor, trustee, and institutional historian Reuben E. Alley (1896-1983), it was “harsh criticism based on factual and embarrassing evidence” that prompted an increased focus on formal ministerial education in 1807. In a critique published in the Philadelphia-based Evangelical Intelligencer, prominent Presbyterian minister John Holt Rice (1771-1831) wrote that the Baptist preachers in the part of the state he had observed were “extremely ignorant and illiterate men,” and their “views, of course, are limited and their minds filled with prejudices.” Rice was concerned by the resistance to education among some ministers and the influence they wielded over those they led. He also noted the opposition some ministers had to cultivating literacy among the rapidly growing number of Black Baptists, writing that white ministers were telling Black congregants—those he referred to as “the poor blacks”—that there was no need for them to read the Bible themselves, an essential component of the Baptist approach to faith.5

Responses to Rice’s letter were swift, though to little ultimate effect. One Virginia Baptist association responded to the “stigma” that Rice “unjustly cast on the Baptists,” insisting that its members were not opposed to “Human Learning,” and that education was “useful and beneficial in its proper place.” Representing the Baptist General Meeting of Correspondence,6 John Kerr (1782-1842) wrote that while formal education presented risks of worldly rather than spiritual allegiance, “human learning” was still “among the most precious of earthly things.” Kerr would eventually serve as president of the Virginia Baptist Education Society. It took 23 years for some of the state’s established and emerging Baptist leaders to rally behind the cause of denominational education.7

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