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Prof: Today’s missionaries owe much to Baptist pioneer Luther Rice’s work

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and missions agencies such as the International Mission Board owe much of their existence to the groundwork laid more than 150 years ago by Baptist pioneer Luther Rice, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Mark Terry said in an annual faculty address in October.

Terry, the seminary’s A.P. and Faye Stone Professor of Christian Missions and Evangelism, said Rice’s contributions to Baptist beliefs are sometimes overshadowed by those of other pioneers, including Adoniram Judson. But Terry noted that Rice, who lived from 1783 to 1836, played a significant role in the history of Baptists in America.

“He led in the transformation of widely scattered, disorganized churches into a true denomination,” Terry said. “He envisioned and initiated programs of foreign missions, home missions, Christian education and publications which enrich Baptist life and witness today. The records show that Baptists were interested in missions before Rice returned from India, but he was a kind of catalyst for Baptists.”

It was in India where Rice and Judson began their service on the mission field in 1812. Once in India, the two men changed their beliefs on the ordinance of baptism — leading to a split with a group of Congregationalists who had backed the trip.

“This voyage to India has become famous to Baptists,” Terry said. “The new missionaries planned to first visit with William Carey at Serampore before establishing their own mission station. Therefore, Adoniram Judson began studying his New Testament in order to prepare himself to refute the Baptist position on baptism. In the process Judson became convinced the Baptist doctrine was correct.”

Judson’s change of mind led Rice “into an intensive period of study and prayer,” Terry said.

“Having made his long study and painful decision, Rice was baptized on Nov. 1, 1812, in the Baptist church of Calcutta by Rev. William Ward,” Terry said. “[Rice] wrote his parents saying, ‘It was a comfortable day to my soul.'”

But now that Rice and Judson were Baptists, they “realized that they could no longer receive support from the Congregationalists,” Terry said. Needing financial support, Rice returned to the United States in 1813 to seek the help of Baptist churches. Over the next few years, Rice planted the seeds that led to the formation of denominations and missions-sending agencies.

“What was the condition of the Baptist denomination in 1813?” Terry asked. “One could hardly say that there was a denomination. When Rice returned to the United States, there were 115 associations and about 2,400 churches. Generally, the churches only related to each other through their associations. There were no state conventions and no institutions other than Brown University in Rhode Island.”

Facing a lack of unified effort to help missionaries, Rice’s request for financial help changed that, Terry said.

“The baptisms of Judson and Rice electrified American Baptists,” Terry said.

After hearing Rice’s testimony, a group of Baptist churches in Boston wanted to get churches in New England “to contribute to the Judsons and Rice through their organization, but Rice was able to convince them that a new national body would garner more support. To that end they requested Rice to travel throughout the middle and southern states to gain Baptists’ cooperation and organize missionary societies which would combine their efforts with New England.”

Rice traveled first to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., before heading south. Terry said that while visiting churches in the Carolinas and Georgia, Rice received support from Baptist pioneers Richard Furman, William B. Johnson and Jesse Mercer.

“All three showed great interest in the cause of missions,” Terry said.

“Buoyed by this support, Rice retraced his steps northwards,” where he stopped and addressed the United States Congress. The congressmen contributed $67, Terry said.

Finally, in May 1814, 26 pastors and seven laymen from 11 states and the District of Columbia met in Philadelphia to form “The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America, for Foreign Missions. The delegates decided to meet every three years, and the new organization soon was called The Triennial Convention,” Terry recounted.

“It is difficult to discern Luther’s role in the convention,” the professor added. “He kept a low profile apparently.”

But for the next several years, Rice “traveled constantly, promoting the cause of missions. The records of his travels are as remarkable as the man who made them.” During one 11-month stretch, Terry said, Rice traveled a total of 9,359 miles — this coming mostly on horseback. He survived on a salary of $8, paid by the convention.

While promoting missions, Rice also raised money.

“This came to be his life’s work,” Terry said. “How successful was he in this endeavor? Contributions by Baptists to foreign missions totaled $1,239.29 in 1814, but by 1816 the amount given was $12,236.84 — almost a tenfold increase.”

Rice also planted the seeds for what became the Woman’s Missionary Union. As he traveled he organized missionary “societies.”

“These societies contributed to foreign and home missions as well as innumerable benevolent causes,” Terry said. “These societies eventually joined together in the South to establish the Woman’s Missionary Union.”

Rice never returned to India, although he made such a request to the Triennial Convention’s board. It was turned down because the board wanted him to stay in America.

“Luther Rice was a man of broad vision,” Terry said. “He wanted to see Baptists develop many different ministries. In 1817 he encouraged the Triennial Convention to support home missions, and they agreed to support John Mason Peck, who planted so many churches in the Mississippi Valley. In 1819 he founded a Baptist Magazine, ‘The Columbian Star.’ Eventually the ‘Columbian Star was transferred to Georgia, where it eventually became ‘The Christian Index,’ the Georgia Baptist state paper.

Terry said that Rice’s contributions were enormous.

“Baptists discovered that the most effective means of promoting religion at home is to encourage foreign missions,” Terry said. “The proliferation of voluntary societies led to an age of benevolence in American Christianity. … The establishment of these overseas societies led to the division of home and foreign missions.”

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  • Michael Foust