Something in the Cause of Education
“We have also commenced something in the cause of education”—Letter from James B. Taylor to his father, June 11, 1830
From the early 1800s, existing and emerging denominational leaders continued to discuss the need for additional seminaries to educate future Baptist ministers. In 1830, two young but already influential ministerial figures, James B. Taylor (1804-1870) and Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802-1880) brought the subject to those attending that year’s annual gathering of Baptist leaders from across the state, the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV).1 Taylor was the pastor of Richmond’s Second Baptist Church, which hosted that year’s association meeting. Jeter had experienced his own rapid ministerial success since being appointed one of Virginia’s first two Baptist missionaries seven years before. By 1830, he led multiple congregations in Virginia’s Northern Neck region.
A tour through the eastern portion of Virginia took Taylor near Jeter’s home, and the two traveled together to Richmond for the General Association meeting. During the journey, they discussed the impediments faced by Virginia’s applicants to Columbian College, particularly their poor preparation for advanced study, and they arrived at the meeting ready to discuss possible solutions: providing funding to selected students in existing educational settings or creating a Virginia seminary. Some attendees—including Robert Ryland (1805-1899), who would soon lead Virginia Baptist Seminary—raised concerns about the financial risk of forming a seminary and pushed instead for Virginia’s Baptists to support Columbian College and to “raise funds for the maintenance of young men in schools already established”: the state’s schools, academies, colleges, and the University of Virginia. Despite Robert Ryland being “destined to be one of the foremost in promoting the objects of the society” when he agreed to lead Virginia Baptist Seminary just two years later, Jeter recalled that he “took no part in [the society’s] formation” and viewed its efforts “with distrust, if not hostility.” Even with these objections, Jeter and Taylor were able to rally sufficient support among other ministers “to cooperate with us in any practical plan.”2
On June 8, 1830, Jeter, Taylor, and others formed the Virginia Baptist Education Society,3 committed to providing educational assistance to those deemed fit for ministerial roles, support that was meant “to enable them with greater success to preach the gospel of Christ.” The society’s board would oversee all aspects of any educational system that emerged from the plan: the selection of students who would receive funding (known as “beneficiaries”), curricular design, fundraising, and the hiring of teachers. Because the goal of a permanent “school in our midst” would require funds, a campus, and extensive planning, the society’s first educational effort would instead center on individual ministers who agreed to board, teach, and mentor students in their homes. This temporary solution resulted in the formation of two education centers between 1830 and 1832, one in Powhatan County at the home of Edward Baptist (1790-1863), and another in Henrico County at the residence of Eli Ball (1786-1853).4