This Month in Our History
January 2011 – We are on the cusp of a New Year!
We are on the cusp of a new year.
It is still clean and open and ready for us to make the best of it. When the General Association met in 1877, Jeremiah Bell Jeter delivered an address on “the Obligations of Baptists to their Distinctive Principles.” Of course, he surveyed some of the past among Virginia Baptists. He had every right to do so. He had been present at the beginning of the General Association in 1823 and had served as one of its first two missionaries, the self-styled “Bedford Plowboys.” He had held pastorates in prominent churches; and following the Civil War, he had served as editor of the state Baptist newspaper, the Religious Herald.
In his address, Jeter described the early Virginia Baptists of a century before the time of his message. Based upon historical information, he stated that in the 1770s there were about 85 Baptist churches scattered across Virginia with a membership of about 5,000 and perhaps 50 preachers, “most of them imperfectly equipped for their warfare.” He described the Baptists as “generally poor, comparatively illiterate and of limited social influence.”
He pictured the religious scene of the 1770s. “The English hierarchy, by law established in the Colony, employed all its power and its resources to arrest the progress of the rising sect [of Baptists]. The hierarchy acted in the spirit of the age and verily believed that they were rendering service to God and men by their measures. Persecution [actually] promoted the cause which it was designed to crush. The Baptists, after the Revolutionary War, increased rapidly.”
By the time of Jeter’s address, in 1877, there were 1,177 Baptist churches in Virginia with a membership of 277,215. In addition, there were the Baptists of West Virginia which had been a part of Virginia until the Civil War. Jeter briefly listed other evidences of denominational advancement: missionary societies, Sunday schools, a college, religious publications and access to a seminary. “It is surely encouraging,” said Jeter, “and calls for our gratitude to God. It lays, however, no foundation for pride or self-confidence. As a denomination, our wealth is not equal to our numbers, and our liberality is far from being commensurate with our wealth. Whether we have greater cause for thankfulness or humiliation, it is not easy to decide nor worthwhile to consider.”
He then turned attention to the future. He said: “We cannot with certainty conjecture what the future will develop. A thousand influences, unknown to us, may control coming events for good or evil. Still, there are indications which may well inspire us with confidence and hope regarding the progress of our denomination. If our fathers, poor, feeble, persecuted and a handful at best, accomplished so much in the last century, what ought not their sons [and daughters], numerous, and possessed of learning, and wealth, and all needful [things], effect in the next century?”
“Our fathers were faithful – [we] may be [unworthy] to their trust. Our fathers labored with self-sacrificing zeal for the advancement of their cause; [we], trusting to [our] number and influence…may fail to put forth effective efforts. Prosperity has its dangers for churches as well as adversity. Worldliness [is] more to be dreaded by them than persecution with its fines, prisons and tortures.”
Jeter felt some measure of hope for the Baptists of the next century, projecting his thoughts ahead to the 1970s. He found encouragement in part because the great divisions of his time – the anti-missions controversy and the Campbellite controversy – had run their courses and Virginia Baptists were strong and united. He also took hope because many of the basic Baptist principles were finding acceptance beyond the Baptist fold.
“On the whole, we enter upon the [new] century with cheering prospects, resolution and elevated purposes. We may reasonably hope that God, who has preserved, guided and prospered us in the past, will watch over and bless us in the future.”
“In order to secure [God’s] favor, we should be grateful to the Giver of our blessings, humble in spirit, faithful in the performance…”
In closing his address, Jeter employed an effective illustration. He got the messengers to the BGAV meeting to imagine what it would be like if the founders and leaders of the Association’s earliest years as well as those listening to him were to return to be present for a late 20th-century meeting. “Great changes will have taken place. New faces will meet our eyes, and unfamiliar voices salute our ears; but the gospel – our distinctive principles – will be unchanged. There will be [evidences] of the growth, prosperity and multiplication of churches, the success of missionaries, the efficiency of Sunday schools, the consecration of young [people] in the ministry… as would put our dwarfish efforts and successes of the present day in the cause of Christ to the blush.”
Virginia Baptists of past centuries indeed would be in awe of much which they would find in this opening decade of the 21st century. It would take awhile for them to get caught up on all the changes and enlargements. They would be amazed at the growth in churches and membership numbers, in the large church buildings and in the very vehicles which fill the church parking lots. They would be gratified at the enlargement of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board and of the “foreign missions” work of Baptists. They might expect to read the Religious Herald; and although the style, format and appearance will have changed, the paper with the same name, values and purpose will be there. Although it would take awhile to understand the complexities of the Baptist world of 2011, there would be a general familiarity.
And then the Baptist saints of old would want to know about the principles which they had entrusted to their great-great-grandsons and granddaughters. What about the Baptist principles of congregational governance, of priesthood of the believers, of religious liberty and all the others.
We stand on the foundation and on the cusp.