Jeremiah Bell Jeter
Jeremiah Bell Jeter1 was a prominent Baptist missionary and minister, influential in the denomination and more broadly as a leader in religious and secular thought. His commitment to ministerial education led to the formation of the Virginia Baptist Education Society in 1830, providing the foundation of what became Virginia Baptist Seminary in 1832 and Richmond College in 1840. His early career involved extensive missionary work. He later became pastor of several prominent Baptist congregations, including two in Richmond, and played a key role in the 1841 division of First Baptist Church into two racially separate congregations, leading to the creation of First African Baptist Church. He was instrumental in the 1845 separation of Southern Baptists from the national convention in response to disagreements over issues related to enslavement. He also played a founding and sustaining role in the creation of the Richmond Female Institute and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and acquired and served as editor of the influential Religious Herald newspaper. At the time of his death, he was “perhaps, better known than any other minister of the Baptist Church throughout the United States.”2
Until a period of recent research, Jeter’s role as an enslaver and his advocacy for slavery and claims of white superiority had not been considered in institutional narratives. The biographical material below provides a fuller overview of Jeter’s life and work. Additional information about his role in enslavement and race issues is available at Jeremiah Bell Jeter, Enslavement & Race. Further information about Jeter’s role in the creation of Richmond College and its precursor institutions is available at Formation and Early Years.
Jeter was born in Bedford County, Virginia, on July 18, 1802. He was the son of Pleasant Jeter (1775-uncertain) and Jane Eke Hatcher Jeter (c. 1778-uncertain), both members of prominent Bedford County families. The home where Jeter was born was described as “probably the most commodious private residence in the entire community.”3 While the Jeters were part of respectable society, Pleasant Jeter’s “eccentric character” prevented them from achieving the affluence he sought, keeping their lives unstable and leaving Jeter’s mother overwhelmed by the “dissipated and reckless habits of her husband.”4 Jeter recalled that his father “always thought that he could do better somewhere else than where he was.”5 This led to frequent moves in the first decades of Jeter’s life.
One of Pleasant Jeter’s longest periods of professional stability was as the overseer for General John Preston (1764-1827), a former treasurer of Virginia, owner of the Horseshoe Bottom plantation, and enslaver of more than 70 people.6 In this period and throughout his early and middle childhood, Jeremiah Jeter recalled being “brought up in the midst of slavery,” describing enslaved people as his “nurses” and “companions.”7 He witnessed “a few instances of cruelty” to enslaved people in his early years and vowed not to enslave people himself. This aversion did not seem grounded in moral concern. Rather, Jeter believed that profitable enslavement required “responsibility, care, and trouble” that he described as “uncongenial” to his “taste and habits,” a view that shifted in his adulthood.8
Jeter described himself as a curious child who craved knowledge, but his experience with formal education was frequently disrupted. At age seven, he was taught briefly by the Preston family’s tutor on their plantation. By the time he was nine, his family had returned to Bedford County and the relative stability of his extended relations. He began attending school, but his studies were interrupted when the instructor departed, though Jeter learned the basics of reading. Over the next years, he was able to benefit somewhat due to “considerable improvement” in the schools, but remained conscious of his educational disadvantages.9
At home, Jeter was a voracious reader of the Bible and memorized the words and speech patterns of preachers, reenacting their sermons for himself. Initially, his attraction to religious language was tied to his longing for intellectual stimulation rather than spiritual seeking, but he was increasingly attracted to faith.10 He attributed his deepening connection to the powerful influence of his maternal grandfather, Jeremiah Hatcher. For years the Hatcher Meeting House (later Mt. Herman Church) was “the center of religious influence in Northern Bedford,” and Jeter remembered it as the place where his “eyes first saw the light.”11
During his adolescence, Jeter would swing to and from concentrated religious devotion, at times associating his strong feelings with evidence of “nervous trouble” and believing that he needed to suppress his impulses. This would then lead him uncomfortably “far from God.”12 He would respond by imposing on himself an extreme asceticism, forbidding “all amusements” including laughter. His views changed in the ensuing years and eventually believed that laughter “is one of the first signs of intelligence in infancy, and one of the last exercises of healthful humanity.”13
Jeter and his thereafter lifelong friend and fellow minister, Daniel Witt (1801-1871), met on August 3, 1821, as Bedford County was experiencing a surge of religious revival activity. At the time, Jeter was 19 and described himself as a spiritual seeker but still “volatile” and “full of delusive hopes.”14 On December 2, 1821, Jeter was baptized in the North Fork of the Otter River. Immediately after his full immersion, he “sprang to the shore” and shouted a sermon to those gathered there.15 For the next year and a half, Jeter and Witt were active preachers in the area and this period was pivotal for them both.
In 1823, Jeter and Witt attended a meeting of the newly formed Baptist General Association of Virginia and made a favorable impression on the state’s Baptist leaders.16 The two were recruited by the association’s executive board as its first Baptist missionaries. Their tour was in part a fact-finding mission, designed to determine the state of faith in Virginia’s western counties (some in present day West Virginia) and shape the association’s further efforts there.17 The first phase took them to 14 counties.18 In his autobiography, Witt described it as a “bold and adventurous experiment” in which they “abandoned every secular pursuit.” They encountered “many difficulties,” including anti-missionary resistance from those who believed they represented “mercenary notions” of the General Association.19 Still, the two were becoming famous as word spread that “two Bedford plowboys had suddenly entered the ministry and were turning the world upside down.”20 They were soon dispatched on a second expedition.21
Despite their success, Jeter and Witt were self-conscious about their lack of formal education. When Luther Rice (1783-1836)—the influential Baptist missionary and a founder of Columbian College—heard of their missionary work, he decided to help the “two mountain boys” by allowing them to attend college. The opportunity would have meant a pause in their preaching, so Jeter and Witt turned the decision over to two of Virginia’s leading Baptists, Robert Baylor Semple (1769-1831) and Andrew Broaddus (1770-1848). Given the need for ministers, Broaddus and Semple steered Jeter and Witt away from formal education.22 Instead the two were to separate and engage in a “short season” of study with established ministers: Witt with Semple, and Jeter in the home of Nathanial Chambliss (d. 1827), who had hosted him prior to his missionary work.23
Jeter was treated as a son by Chambliss and his wife, sharing their Sussex County, Virginia mansion and receiving books and other “generous and timely presents” that facilitated his rising status.24 The family’s home library was already impressive and Jeter was allowed to select additional books for purchase. Chambliss also provided him with money for a new wardrobe. During the three years Jeter lived in the home, he “grew speedily in knowledge, refinement and self-respect,”25 reading and studying, driven by an “unquestionable thirst for knowledge.”26 He was ordained in Sussex County on May 4, 1824, acted as an assistant to Chambliss, and preached in several area churches over the next two years.27
In his time in the Chambliss home, Jeter would have been served by those enslaved on the property.28 Despite his childhood hesitations about the brutality of enslavement, he described this period as a critical step toward the conviction he held for the last 25 years of the enslavement era: that “the Negroes should be retained in a state of slavery.”29 He claimed that “with few exceptions” enslaved people in the area around the Chambliss home were not abused and that in many instances, “relations between the masters and their families, on the one hand, and the slaves, on the other, were exceedingly pleasant.”30
Ministerial Career & Rise as a Denominational Leader
In 1826, Jeter’s aspirations led him to leave the strong professional and personal ties of his “adoptive home” in Sussex County, where his ministerial opportunities had been limited to part-time and assistant positions.31 He settled briefly in Campbell County, Virginia, where he served in part-time or assistant positions in four churches.32 Jeter’s biographer described the time as “the most unproductive and discouraging part of his entire ministerial life.”33 After marrying Margaret Waddy in 1826, her death a year later marked this as a period of personal loss as well.
Jeter had previously declined an invitation from Morattico Church in the Northern Neck of Virginia (the peninsula between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers) due to his worries over malaria and belief that the War of 1812 had spoiled the region. Jeter recalled that the “best and most thrifty” families had left after their homes were damaged or destroyed and a “large number of slaves was enticed away.”34 After his unhappy year in Campbell County, however, he changed his mind and accepted a second call from Morattico. He described the next nine years, during which his pastorate included both Morattico (Lancaster County) and Wicomico Church (Northumberland County), as “probably the most important period” of his life. He baptized approximately 1,000 people, equally divided between “whites and negroes.” The increasing social prominence of his white congregants pleased him: “Among the whites were many of the most intelligent, respectable, and influential persons in the counties of Lancaster and Northumberland. My congregations became large, and were intelligent and respectful, as well as respectable.”35 During this period, Jeter baptized Henrietta Shuck, then 14, who would become the subject of his 1846 book, A Memoir of Mrs. Henrietta Shuck, the First American Female Missionary to China.
During his years in the Northern Neck, Jeter became a fixture at denominational meetings and a statewide leader.36 He was active in the Baptist General Association of Virginia and helped to create the Virginia Baptist Education Society that ultimately led to the formation of Richmond College.37 He began what would be a life-long dual role as a minister and shaper of wider public opinion, weighing in on the implications of Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt in the pages of the Religious Herald.38 In 1834, William Crane (1790-1866) invited Jeter to join him in Baltimore to expand a church in that city. Crane was one of the original members of the Virginia Baptist Education Society, an original purchaser of the Spring Farm property for Virginia Baptist Seminary, organizer of the Foreign Missionary Society of Virginia, supporter of education for Black people, and an enslaver who grew increasingly anti-slavery in his thinking. Jeter struggled between the effect he might have in Baltimore, where Baptists had “sunk into a state of coldness, & degradation,” and his Virginia home, where he had “society, refined, kind, & pleasing.”39 As he had with the opportunity to attend college, Jeter deferred to the wishes of denominational leaders who decided to keep him in the state.40 He remained “intensely ambitious, admitting that he “loved the pre-eminence” and “gloried in leadership.” Opportunity soon aligned with ambition, and he accepted the pastorate at Richmond’s First Baptist Church the following year.41
First Baptist Church, Richmond
First Baptist, when Jeter arrived in 1835, had 1,717 members (1,384 Black and 333 white), a dramatic contrast to the modest numbers in his Northern Neck congregations. Jeter was troubled by the Richmond church’s racial imbalance and what he viewed as radically different requirements for each group. He described the Black members as a “heavy burden” on the white congregants, requiring time-consuming “discipline” and prolonged and expensive instruction.42 Black congregants had attempted to develop their own church in previous years but met stiff resistance, worsened after Nat Turner’s Revolt. The catalyst for the eventual division was Jeter. Portions of the church structure dated to 1802, and he felt the building was in need of replacement. A move to a different neighborhood would also be an advantage. These considerations presented the opportunity to separate the congregation into two churches, one white (First Baptist Church) and one Black (First African Baptist Church), with the latter housed in the existing church building. Jeter recruited Robert Ryland (1805-1899) to serve as pastor of First African Baptist Church, while Ryland also performed his role as Richmond College president. While First Baptist Church histories and Jeter himself often described this separation as an act of generosity toward enslaved and free Black congregants, self-interest was a significant factor in the move to build a “surpassingly grand” church for white congregants and leave the “dingy old house on the hill-side” for those who were Black.43 More information can be found at First African Baptist Church.
Jeter noted that after the racial division the white church attracted “noble specimens.”44 During a revival immediately following the separation, First Baptist Church grew by 170 new members, and Jeter took pride in their social prominence. Many were “heads of families, men of business and influence, who added greatly to [the church’s] strength and efficiency.”45 Jeter became a “popular hero” among some for his role shepherding the church split, and he likewise viewed dividing the congregation as “the most important event” in his ministry there.46 During this period, he also became active in the Colonization Society of Virginia, an organization committed to the removal of free Black people from the United States and more closely tied to the interests of slaveholders than the national organization.47
In the early 1840s, Jeter had been an enslaver himself for more than a decade, and any hesitations about enslavement had disappeared, replaced by a conviction that slavery “could not have been wrong.”48 In 1843, when he extended an invitation to a widely known Northern antislavery pastor, Jacob Knapp (1799-1874), to preach at First Baptist Church, he asked him to avoid mentioning slavery. When Knapp began inserting criticisms of enslavement into his sermons, there was public outcry, and Jeter and others asked him to leave Richmond. Knapp later wrote that Jeter, as an enslaver, was “raising boys and girls for market, like so many calves and pigs.”49 In Jeter’s published description of the events, he also noted that Knapp had been concerned at the condition of the clothes worn by a man Jeter enslaved, Davy. Jeter defended himself against Knapp’s accusation of neglect.50
Southern Baptist Convention
In 1845, Jeter was a key figure in the separation of Southern Baptists from the national convention. Arguing that slavery was not a sin, Jeter still hoped to avoid a split, but insistence among abolitionists and leaders of northern churches that enslavers could not be missionaries was a point on which Jeter and other Southerners would not compromise.51 Their withdrawal led to the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention. Again in his role as a church leader, in 1848 Jeter published a long open letter, reprinted in several newspapers from Richmond to Boston, defending the practice of enslavement and detailing his own changed mind on the subject.52
Second Baptist Church, St. Louis
While considered a great constructor of sermons, Jeter was not a notably popular speaker. His unusual voice, described as “shrill” and “shrieking” when he spoke before a crowd, was his “most serious drawback as a preacher.”53 Nevertheless, Jeter’s position at First Baptist was stable, supported by Archibald Thomas (1796-1861) and James Thomas, Jr. (1806-1882), both allies and donors to the church and wealthy tobacconists and enslavers.54 Jeter was satisfied with his position there for 13 years, but his opposition to the installation of an organ may have been a key factor in his sudden decision to leave for a position in St. Louis, Missouri. Like other conservative Baptists at the time, he opposed “instrumental and operatic music in public worship,” believing it “wholly alien to the spirit of the New Testament.” While he succeeded in blocking the installation, the disruption was described as “the latent cause of his resignation.”55 After receiving the offer from St. Louis, Jeter was frustrated that his First Baptist congregants did not show “a strong, earnest and general demonstration of desire for me to remain.”56 His overall ambition also drove his departure from his position at the church, which he recalled as “not commensurate with my desire for usefulness.”57
Jeter assumed leadership of St. Louis’s Second Baptist Church in 1849, joined by his third wife, Charlotte Wharton Jeter (1821-1861), whom he had married that year. His second wife, Sarah Gaskins Jeter, had died in 1847. Initially, Jeter was pleased at his Missouri prospects and even invited Daniel Witt to join him there.58 Second Baptist was an exclusively white church, and he enjoyed the small congregation of “many brethren of intelligence, piety, great devotion to the interests of the church, and prosperous in business, if not rich.”59 Jeter was less happy with the cultural and religious diversity in the city: “a mixture of French, Germans, Irish and Americans, collected from every State in the Union.” He was comforted that “Americans . . . decidedly preponderate over all foreigners” and that “principal merchants and leading men are Anglo-Americans, and they have greatly the lead in social influence.”60 In addition to his ministerial work, he served as an assistant editor of the Western Watchman newspaper.61
Jeter also developed two “colony churches” out of his St. Louis congregation, a decision that resulted in his primary church losing those who most supported him. He was left with those he described as “restless” and “discordant.” His decision to return to Richmond and take up leadership of Grace Street Baptist Church in fall 1852 was driven in part by these strained relations with congregants and in part by concerns over his wife’s health.62 His personal wealth had significantly increased as a result of his time in St. Louis. Lots he purchased there “became quite valuable” and their sale “enabled him in his later years to live in comfort.”63
Grace Street Baptist Church, Richmond
Jeter led Richmond’s Grace Street Baptist Church, at times known as Third Baptist Church, for 17 years. According to his biographer and friend William E. Hatcher (1834-1912), there had been speculation that by installing Jeter, Grace Street might draw prominent members from his former pastorate, First Baptist Church, but “if he and his people had flattered themselves with this hope, they were doomed to disappointment.” Robert Ryland, a longtime member of First Baptist, “curtly announced that it need not be expected that the First Church would furnish any recruits for the re-enforcement of Grace Street.” This was enough to prevent a migration.64 Jeter’s church did contain a number of figures with ties to Richmond College, including three trustees: Wellington Goddin (1815-1886), an auctioneer of real estate and enslaved people; James B. Taylor (1804-1871), who, with Jeter had inspired the formation of the Virginia Baptist Education Society; and Jeter’s close friend and Richmond College fundraiser, Abram M. Poindexter (1809-1872).65
He led the Grace Street congregation through the Civil War and for five years afterward. During this period Jeter continued to wield influence as a denominational leader, serving as president of both the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board and the Baptist General Association of Virginia.66 In 1865, he also became co-owner and senior editor of the Religious Herald. Increasingly, his national prominence came from his newspaper work, and in 1870, when sustaining the two roles as pastor and publisher began to exhaust him, he gave up full-time ministry to concentrate on his editorial role. During this period, he was also engaged with Baptist education.
Jeter was actively involved in the founding of three Baptist educational institutions: Virginia Baptist Seminary, which became Richmond College; the Richmond Female Institute; and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While deeply supportive of private education throughout his adult life, and particularly denominational education, he opposed publicly funded education, particularly the prospect of racially mixed schools in the years following the Civil War.67 (See: Jeremiah Bell Jeter, Enslavement & Race.)
Virginia Baptist Seminary (1832) and Richmond College (1840)
In 1830, Jeter, along with James B. Taylor, called for the formation of what became the Virginia Baptist Education Society, the first step in the 1832 creation of Virginia Baptist Seminary, which would be chartered as Richmond College in 1840. Jeter was a founding trustee of the college and, with the exception of the two years he spent in St. Louis, he remained an active member of the board for the rest of his life.
Jeter’s influential role in the college’s history was addressed by Richmond College faculty member (and later trustee and board president) J.L.M. Curry (1825-1903) at Jeter's funeral:
Nothing touching the welfare of Richmond College was indifferent to him, and his last direct contribution to the Religious Herald, of which he was the principal editor, was in reference to the college. Faculty and students always had in him a sympathizing and enthusiastic friend and defender. The board meetings attested his punctuality, sagacity and wide-awake activities. All exercises at the College, even competitive declamations and annual sports of the young men, found him present with the appreciativeness and gleesome enjoyableness of a boy.68
As a trustee, Jeter had been involved in deliberations and decisions including the charter of Richmond College in 1840 and creation of its governing documents;69 solicitation of subscriptions to the college as a funding stream and acting as a volunteer agent (fundraiser) for the college;70 representing Richmond College at state and national educational conventions71 and on a state committee of schools and colleges;72 the hiring of staff and faculty;73 acting as Board President pro tem during Robert Ryland’s occasional absences;74 defining presidential duties;75 decisions about the institution’s location;76 the curriculum and establishment of a law department77 and advocacy for the establishment of the mercantile department;78 decisions related to the investment of the endowment (including introducing a resolution that a donation from Daniel Witt be invested in Confederate funds);79 removal of Ryland as the college’s president in 1866; and leadership of the subsequent post-Civil War reorganization of the college.80
Following Ryland’s departure as president, the board eventually (and relatively briefly) appointed Tiberius Gracchus Jones (1821-1895) to the role, after two other men declined; three faculty, including Bennet Puryear (1826-1914), were also appointed to prepare Richmond College to reopen. Jeter assumed the role of board president in 1868. By 1869, the financial situation required a reorganization of the college, which included abolishing the office of college president and installing a chairman of the faculty (elected by the faculty and approved by the Board, with Puryear serving as the first chairman), who had responsibility for “classroom instruction and government of the college,” presiding at campus events, and serving as “custodian of the college property.”81 As board president nearly continuously until his death in 1880, Jeter saw the institution regain its footing, with increased enrollment, faculty expansion, broadened curriculum, improved facilities, and new donations, though, as national conditions shifted, the college continued to be buffeted by dramatic changes in financial fortune and found it necessary at times to sell assets.82 Jeter also occasionally used his role as senior editor of the Religious Herald (discussed below) to burnish the reputation of the institution in times of difficulty, such as the departure of Tiberius Jones as president as part of the reorganization of the college. 83
For additional information about the first decades of Richmond College and its precursors, see Formation and Early Years.
Richmond Female Institute (1854)
In 1851, Baptists had made education for girls and young women a priority, and an effort was soon under way to create a “female institute” in Richmond.84 Jeter was a founder of the resulting Richmond Female Institute, which was chartered in 1853 and “opened its first session in October 1854 with an enrollment of 136 women.”85 The institute’s financial foundation had been formed when Jeter created a joint stock company intending to sell $20,000 in shares. According to a letter Jeter wrote to Daniel Witt, Richmond College trustee James Thomas, Jr. purchased all of the shares.86 The school was located between Clay and Marshall Streets and comprised three departments: preparatory; collegiate, which was modeled on the academic structure of the University of Virginia; and Music and Ornamental, which provided students with fine arts instruction.87 As board chairman, Jeter was continuously involved in the institution until his death 27 years later. Seeking to provide opportunities “equal in grade to the best of our Colleges for young men,” it became one of the “largest and best known” educational institutions for girls and young women in the city.88 In the late 19th century, the institute became the Woman’s College of Richmond, and in the 20th century, it was tied to the formation of Westhampton College on the new campus of what became the University of Richmond.
In the 1890s, after Jeter’s death, a plan was developed by Baptists in Jeter’s hometown of Bedford, Virginia to establish a new female institute there, to be known as the Jeter Female Institute (unrelated to the Richmond Female Institute he helped to found). The Jeter Female Institute opened in 1892, but the economic panic of 1893 forced the institution to close after its first year of operation.89
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1859)
Finally, Jeter was considered a founder of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which opened in 1859 in Greenville, South Carolina.90 He was part of a three-man committee charged with examining the possibility of a regional seminary and making a recommendation to the Southern Baptist Convention.91 He served on the seminary’s Board of Trustees from 1859 until his death in 1880 and was the board’s president from 1868 until his death.92 He was also a benefactor of the institution.93 The institution later relocated to Louisville, Kentucky, and became one of the world’s largest theological seminaries.94
Jeter and the Confederacy
Jeter’s connections to the Confederacy spanned the Civil War years and beyond. In 1860, he wrote that the “incessant agitation of the slavery question” convinced him “the time has come when we must have an adjustment of our difficulties with the North, or go out of the Union,"95 and he was thereafter an ardent supporter of the Confederacy.96 With Robert Ryland and dozens of other prominent white Southern Protestants, he signed Address to Christians Throughout the World, arguing that the Emancipation Proclamation “is, in our judgement, a suitable occasion for solemn protest on the part of the people of God throughout the world,” and the war was a “ravaging of the Church of God by fanatical invasion.”97
Jeter preached to Confederate soldiers in their camps and often led legislators in a prayer before sessions of the Confederate Congress.98 One prayer preceded a resolution affirming the Confederacy’s commitment to war and the introduction of a bill focused on the impressment of enslaved and free Black men to build fortifications and work on infrastructure.99 He or his wife, Kate Jeter, collected signatures of many Confederate officials and officers. The autograph book, dated January 1864 and titled “Autographs of Distinguished Characters of the Confederate States,” contains signatures of Confederate President Jefferson Davis; members of his cabinet; legislators; and military figures, including generals J.E.B. Stewart, John Hunt Morgan, John Bell Hood, and former U.S. Vice President, John C. Breckinridge.100
In his post-Civil War role as editor of the influential Religious Herald, Jeter devoted a lengthy editorial to praising Confederate leaders as moral exemplars. The item was prompted by statements in the Northern press that he believed were meant to “blacken and degrade Southern character.” Expressing a view that was common among Confederate supporters, Jeter argued that General Robert E. Lee was “one of the noblest specimens of humanity” and likewise praised Jefferson Davis (citing personal experience with him), General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and General John B. Gordon, who would later be elected as a U.S. Senator and Governor of Georgia and “recognized as the leader of the Ku Klux Klan” in the state.101
Books and Pamphlets
In addition to his ministry and denominational leadership, Jeter gained significant influence as a writer and newspaper editor. His first work was published in 1837, and in the 43 years that followed, he produced more than 15 stand alone works, including sermons, tracts, biographies, and doctrinal analysis. While some had limited reach, like his 1875 biography of Daniel Witt, others were widely read and discussed, including Campbellism Examined, his contribution to a decades-long reform controversy.
A Memoir of Abner W. Clopton, A.M. (1837)
Memoir of Mrs. Henrietta Shuck, The First Female Missionary to China (1849)
Campbellism Examined (1855); republished with Campbellism Re-Examined (1860)
The Mirror, or A Delineation of Different Classes of Christians, in a series of Lectures (1855)
Don’t Swear (1861)
The Evils of Gaming: A Letter to a Friend in the Army (1861)
The Seal of Heaven, or The Impression of Divine Truth on a Candid Mind (1871)
The Life of Rev. Daniel Witt, D.D. of Prince Edward County (1875)
Recollections of a Long Life (posthumous, 1891; collected autobiographical sketches originally published in the Religious Herald)
Religious Herald Editorials (1865-1880)
Jeter’s connection to the world of newspapers began in 1851 with his work as assistant editor of the Western Watchman during his brief residence in St. Louis.102 Following the Civil War, he purchased the Richmond-based Religious Herald with Alfred E. Dickinson (1830-1908). Prior to the Civil War, the Herald had been most widely read in the South and West, but at a time when denominational newspapers were extremely influential, Jeter was determined to make it “the greatest Baptist paper in the country.”103 He led the newspaper for almost 15 years. As senior editor, Jeter wrote weekly editorials on a range of subjects including doctrinal issues, grammar, and political and social issues.104 His friend and biographer William E. Hatcher called him a “controversialist” who published “sharp” opinions “when, in his judgment, truth was imperilled [sic] or error was rampant.”105
Using his wide editorial reach, Jeter attempted to repair divisions between white Baptists in the North and South while defending the treatment of the enslaved prior to emancipation, fighting the public education movement that sought to provide access to schools to Black and poor white children, preventing associations of Black and indigenous Baptists from joining the Baptist General Association of Virginia, and defending white racial “purity.” For details and excerpts, see Jeremiah Bell Jeter, Enslavement & Race.
The Religious Herald’s circulation and influence grew dramatically during Jeter’s editorship, absorbing at least four other denominational newspapers.106 At the time of his death in 1880, it was described by a South Carolina editor as having “long occupied the highest position” among newspapers in the country.107
Death & Memorialization
Jeter experienced two episodes of severe illness in the five years following the Civil War, followed by a decade of good health. Early in 1880, a cold precipitated a period of severe pain and delirium, and Jeter died of heart-related causes on February 18, 1880.108 He was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, and the Richmond College Board of Trustees collaborated with his widow, Mary Catherine (“Kate”) Dabbs Jeter (c.1824-1887), on the monument at his grave.
The board also published a tribute to him, recognizing “the loss of one who has been prominently and continuously identified with the great educational movement which began among the Baptists of Virginia in 1830” and “which resulted a few years later in the founding of Richmond College.”109 Jeter bequeathed to Richmond College his “books, manuscripts, and copyrights” and the board established a Jeter Memorial Committee to raise funds to build a “Library Hall in honor of Dr. Jeter.”110 The structure was envisioned as a new South Wing of the main campus building downtown (known as the central building or central edifice). The addition opened in June 1884.111 In 1882, Richmond College founding trustee, benefactor, and Jeter’s successor as board president, James Thomas, Jr., had died, and the board commemorated both men in the new wing, with the first floor designated Jeter Memorial Hall (sometimes referred to as Jeter Library Hall) and the second, housing a museum, known as Thomas Memorial Hall.112
In the early 20th century, as Richmond College was developing the current University of Richmond campus, the board appointed a committee to recommend names for the first buildings to be constructed on the new campus. In 1916, the board adopted the committee’s recommendation to transfer the memorial namings for Thomas and Jeter to the new campus with the naming of the first two campus dormitories, which had opened in 1913.113
In 2021, the University of Richmond Board of Trustees initiated development of Naming Principles to guide naming decisions at the University. Those principles were adopted in March 2022 and included the stipulation that “No building . . . at the University should be named for a person who directly engaged in the trafficking and/or enslavement of others or openly advocated for the enslavement of people.” Accordingly, the Board renamed Jeter Hall and Thomas Hall, which are now known, consistent with their initial designations on the original campus building plans, as Residence Hall No.1 and Residence Hall No.2.114
More Information: Marriages and Family
Jeter was married four times between 1826 and 1862, losing three wives to illness. By all available accounts, he had strong feelings for all four women. Three of them were members of wealthy and socially prominent families, and it was through marriage that he began enslaving adults and children.115
Margaret Waddy Jeter (1800-1827)
Jeter was married to Margaret Waddy (1800-1827), originally of Northumberland County, from 1826 to 1827, and was devastated by her death. In a letter to Daniel Witt written during this period of grief, he was preoccupied with his own mortality and who he would meet in heaven. He imagined that after he and Witt had both died their friendship would “be refined, unalloyed & immortal.” Then Jeter contemplated seeking Margaret Jeter again: “Shall I meet her, who was bone of my bone, & flesh of my [sic]; the delight of my eyes, & the treasure of my heart_ my dear Margaret. Oh, I know not what I feel. Is it grief? is it joy? is it hope? is it submission to God’s righteous will? Or is it all these combined that draws from my hard heart the briny tears?”116
Sarah Ann Gaskins Jeter (1807-1847)
After Jeter’s move to the Northern Neck, he married Sarah Ann Gaskins (1807-1847) on December 9, 1828. They had one child who died in infancy.117 William Hatcher’s account of Sarah Jeter indicates that she was profoundly shy and struggled with the social requirements of her role as an ambitious minister’s wife, which resulted in Jeter limiting his own social connections to congregants.118 She was described as an “invalid” in the last years of her life and died on October 9, 1847 “after a protracted illness.”
Hatcher described Sarah Jeter’s family as one of “high rank,” and she brought enslaved persons to the marriage.119 Jeter’s census entry from 1830 includes seven enslaved people, two adults and five children.120 His census entry in 1840 includes three enslaved individuals, two women and a boy under 10.121 In his late-life recollections, he described his decision to continue holding the adults and children who had been enslaved by the Gaskins family. His justifications ranged from his assertion that he was considering the wishes of those he held to admitting that his own self-interest was a significant factor in his decision to “rule” them. Additional details on those Jeter enslaved can be found in Jeremiah Bell Jeter, Enslavement & Race.
Charlotte Wharton Jeter (1821-1861)
In 1849, just over a year after Sarah Jeter’s death, Jeter married Charlotte Wharton (1821-1861), a member of “one of the most prominent families in Northern Bedford” and described as the “most queenly and attractive young woman in the community.”122 The two relocated to St. Louis that year when he accepted the ministry of Second Baptist Church. They returned to Richmond in 1852. Charlotte Jeter died in 1861. It is not known if the number of people enslaved by Jeter grew directly as a consequence of his marriage to Charlotte Jeter. According to the 1860 census, Jeter hired out at least one person he enslaved, an 11-year old boy.123
Mary Catherine Williams Dabbs Jeter (c. 1824-1887)
In 1863, Jeter married Mary Catherine (“Kate”) Dabbs, (c.1824-1887), the wealthy widow of Josiah Dabbs (1802-1862). Jeter joined her in a large Richmond home owned by Catherine Thomas, widow of Archibald Thomas. The Jeters remained in the Thomas home until 1865.124 It is not known if the number of people enslaved by Jeter grew directly as a consequence of his marriage to Kate Jeter, though two years before his death, the 1860 census recorded Josiah Dabbs enslaving at least 25 people in Henrico County. While at the Thomas home, Jeter placed a newspaper advertisement offering $200 for the return of Robert Davis, an enslaved man he hired out, and who had escaped.125
The Jeters later lived across the street from Grace Street Baptist, also known as Third Baptist Church, near the state capitol building. Kate Jeter was active in the church and denominational work, building a Sunday school program that became “the largest in the South,” serving as president of the Ladies’ Aid Society, and helping to establish in Richmond the Spring Street Home for unwed mothers and the Baptist Home for Aged Women.126 She traveled with Jeter in his work on behalf of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and was president of the Woman’s Missionary Union of Virginia. She was also actively involved in the operations of the Religious Herald from “its first publication” of her husband’s editorship, helping “select and prune articles for the first page,” and assuming “editorial charge of the Family Department,” which included the home and children’s sections.127
Jeter adopted four children—some formally, some informally. The first was an orphan named Bessie Bradley, later Bessie Jeter Woodward (1855-1882), possibly adopted prior to his marriage to Kate Jeter. Following that marriage, he formally adopted Kate Jeter’s own adopted child, Philip Stratton Jeter (1855-1866), a relative of Kate Jeter’s late husband, and “received into his family” without formal adoption, two nieces of Kate Jeter, Merrie Pender Sugg (1855-1942) and Maria Pender Tupper (1859-1921).128