Baptist Ministerial Education

In 1662, circumstances were bleak in the English churches. Charles II had been restored to his father’s throne two years before, and was enacting legislation intended to force men who could not submit to its conscience-breaking demands out of every possible position of influence. Dissent from the Church of England was a punishable offence, and many were subject to cruel injustices for conscience sake. Among the many stipulations was this: in order to attend one of the great Universities, one must submit to the royal prerogatives and participate in the life of the Established Church. Since future ministers received their education at Oxford and/or Cambridge, this meant that an educated ministry was now very difficult for Dissenters to obtain.

Some older, experienced and well-trained ministers established private academies for young men, but these were for paedobaptist students. Seeing the great need, an elder from a Baptist church in Bristol bequeathed funds to provide formal training for young men seeking to enter the Baptist ministry. Edward Terrill’s bequest became the basis upon which Bristol Baptist College was founded, and it became the school that supplied many outstanding pastors throughout the 18th century.

In the American Colonies, Baptists recognized this need as well. In October 1756, the Philadelphia Association adopted this resolution:

Concluded, to raise a sum of money towards the encouragement of a Latin Grammar School for the promotion of learning amongst us, under the care of Brother Isaac Eaton, and the inspection of our brethren Abel Morgan, Isaac Stelle, Abel Griffith and Peter Peterson Vanhorn.

This was the first attempt of its kind among Baptists on this side of the Atlantic. While this was not exclusively a school for ministerial training, it served that purpose well. Among the graduates are such illustrious names as Samuel Jones, of whom William Cathcart writes “if not superior in scholarly attainments to every other American Baptist of his day, was equaled by few, and surpassed by none” and Hezekiah Smith, the pastor of the church in Haverhill, Mass. who served the Baptists of northern New England in parallel to Isaac Backus in southern New England. Jones was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity by (what was then) the College of Pennsylvania; Smith went on to study under Samuel Davies at Princeton.

One of the men trained in Bristol Baptist College, Morgan Edwards, emigrated to the United States in 1761 serving as pastor of the Baptist congregation in Philadelphia. Understanding the importance of theological education, Edwards helped lead the Philadelphia Association and the young American Baptist movement in the formation of Rhode Island College (later to become Brown University). This was the first of many efforts beyond a local level to provide instruction for men entering the ministry. As the nation grew in population and expanded westward, associations in almost every state and territory planned and acted, forming theological training schools.

Why did they do this? At heart, it was because they understood the fundamental principle articulated by Paul in 2 Timothy chapters 1 and 2. In order for the faith to continue, it is necessary that men be equipped to teach the next generation. The Apostle had received his deposit of truth from heaven, by direct revelation (2 Tim. 1:9-12). He passed this on to Timothy (2 Tim. 1:13-14), and instructed his disciple to do the same (2 Tim. 2:1-7), ensuring that it was received by faithful men. In this way, the divine deposit of truth would be passed from generation to generation. Ministers would be prepared to serve Christ and his church as the years rolled by.

This perspective was powerful in the minds of our Baptist fathers. Especially in America, they knew that the challenges of a growing population, territorial expansion and an uncertain political future made it imperative to put Paul’s commands into practice. Useful ministers were well-trained ministers, men who understood the Scriptures, Christian theology, and the times in which they lived. A simple acquaintance with the Bible was not enough. Hard study and through preparation were a necessity for the times. They looked beyond their own day and considered the future. While only the Lord can bring blessing, they understood their responsibility to plan the course.

Our fathers promoted the cause of education and training. They raised funds. They asked some of their most capable pastors to take the lead in developing training programs. They urged capable men to earn credible academic credentials. They built institutions which served the churches very well for many years.

This story could be expanded. New England Baptists in 1826 founded Newton Theological Institution near Boston—a school with one purpose: preparing men for ministry. Only 14 years after the Southern Baptist Convention was founded, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary commenced its work. Examples may be easily multiplied. It is curious that many people think that Baptists undervalue the need for education and preparation while our history testifies to exactly the opposite. Will we be like them? Will we give time, effort and funds to plan for the future?