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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XXXVI. - Dr. Baxter - Inaugurated Professor

On the death of John H. Rice, D. D., September 3d, 1831, the eyes of all were turned to Dr. Baxter as his successor. At that time it was the custom for the Synods to take the first step in elections. The Synod of North Carolina meeting first, proposed Dr. Baxter for the professor. The Synod of Virginia in session at Harrisonburg soon after, concurred in the recommendation. The Board of Directors, on the 9th of November, unanimously made choice of Dr. Baxter to fill the vacant chair. Mr. Elisha Ballentine, a favorite student of Dr. Rice, was appointed assistant teacher, having been designated for the office by the departed professor. Dr. Baxter was making preparations to remove to the Seminary in the succeeding spring. The decision of the Synod of New Jersey, against the removal of John McDowell, D. D. to take the chair of Ecclesiastical History, induced him to repair immediately to the Seminary; and on Monday, December 5th, 1831, he entered upon his office. The report of the Board in April, 1832, represents the Seminary as flourishing, the students having pursued their studies with great vigor, under Messrs. Baxter, Goodrich and Ballentine. From April 1831 to April 1832, there had been in connection with the Seminary forty-six students, of whom eight had been received during the year.

The Rev. S. L. Graham, by request, delivered at the meeting of the Board, April 10th 1832, a sermon upon the death of Dr. Rice. On the next day the Board repaired to the Brick Church, and after prayer and a hymn of praise, Dr. Baxter pronounced his inaugural address. Dr. Hill proposed the usual questions and received the answers from the professor elect; and then in the name of the Board delivered the charge ; prayer, singing, and the apostolic benediction, closed the services. Mr. Ballentine was invited to continue his work as assistant teacher, in the department of Mr. Goodrich. A. few sentences from the address and charge, will exhibit the state of feeling in Virginia and North Carolina. Probably none of the brethren had felt as deeply and thought as profoundly upon the difficulties gathering in the northern horizon, as Dr. Rice, who said a little before his death, he saw a storm coming which would convulse the Church. This anticipation arose from his familiarity with men and things in the Northern and Eastern States. His brethren hearing by report, were less interested in discussions agitating other sections, and less alarmed at any appearances of outbreaking violence.

Dr. Baxter in his address, said, “The object of erecting this institution, was to furnish the Church and the destitute parts of the world, with a competent supply of gospel ministers. Few parts of what may be called the Christian world, exhibit a more melancholy appearance of moral and religious destitution, than can be found in the regions by which we are more immediately surrounded. The two Synods connected with the Seminary contain within their bounds a population of about two millions, nearly one sixth part of the population of the Union.” (1831.) “The number of evangelical religious teachers, of all religious denominations, in this region, is entirely insufficient. There are numbers in almost every part of our country, who attend no Church and hear no voice of salvation ; and if there be none to break the bread of life, how shall the Church of God be fed? The preaching of the gospel by the living voice, is the means most especially appointed for the conversion of the world. Unless our country can be filled with preachers in sufficient numbers, to carry the ordinances of the gospel with considerable frequency to every neighborhood, the knowledge of God will not cover our land, and we shall not enjoy the privileges and happiness of a Christian people. Much depends on the character of ministers. We need men full of the Holy Ghost,—men who cannot rest while the Church is asleep; men who agonize in prayer for the prosperity of Zion; men who keep a close walk with God, and are importunate with him continually, for a present blessing on their labors for the conversion of sinners. No doubt the zeal of the minister ought to be according to knowledge; and rashness should be avoided. But I think Christians are in an unpromising state when they are afraid of no danger but rashness.”

On the importance of adhering to our standards, Dr. Baxter said —“The body of truth contained in the standards of our church, is substantially the same system of doctrine, which has pervaded, directed, and animated the sacred ministry at all times, in which the church has enjoyed remarkable purity and prosperity, or contributed largely to the happiness of society. And if this institution could be made the instrument of spreading this truth effectually through our land, I have no doubt, that, under God, fruits arid consequences would arise, which would not only induce our cotemporaries, but men of distant ages to pronounce it blessed. On this account I think it desirable that preachers trained in this Seminary, should be imbued with a cordial attachment to our Confession of Faith. The Scriptures are an infallible guide; the creed is only the best exposition which a fallible church could give of the Scriptures. As such, however, they must take it the bond of union in all their operations. It is therefore not only desirable but necessary that the ministers of a church should be imbued with a cordial attachment to its creed as the bond of its union. The creed of a church cannot be broken up, or trampled under foot, without such a complete destruction of its harmony as would ruin its usefulness. A minister may disturb the peace of his church, by appearing to deviate from its creed, when he does not do so in reality. He may do this by the substitution of new terms, to give an air of novelty to his speculations. How often has the peace of the Church been disturbed for years, congregations distracted, and almost ruined, and /mutual confidence between pastors and people destroyed, by things which when brought to the test of dispassionate explanation, have been pronounced on all hands as unworthy of a moment’s contention. I sincerely believe that much of the uneasiness which pervades our church at the present moment, has arisen from this cause. Much of new divinity would become old divinity, if the terms of our Confession, or similar terms, were used to express, what, on fair explanation, appear to be the real sentiments of the authors.”

After enlarging on the impropriety of using Pelagian terms in addressing common audiences—and on the disposition to indulge a contentious spirit, which he thought he saw in different parts of the Church —he thus spoke about ministers.—“We think the cause calls for preachers who will make up their minds to endure hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ—men strong in faith, who will throw themselves on the promises of their Master, and who will look to that hand which clothes the lilies, and feeds the ravens, to give them day by day their daily bread. When such men shall arise, and enter the field of labor, the Church may consider it as a signal that the accomplishment of the promise draweth nigh. God will own such men in his cause ; he will go with them to the work, and put forth that exercise of his power, which will give to his Son the destitute parts of our country for his possession.

Of the labors of his predecessor, the much loved Dr. Rice, he spoke thus—“This Seminary would not have commenced, and advanced to its present state, without the assistance of God. And where God has begun a work, or bestowed remarkable favor in its commencement, we have the best encouragement for carrying it on. When I say God has bestowed a manifest blessing on this 'Seminary, I refer to the fact that more has been done to bring it into operation, and to give it a permanent existence, than perhaps had been done, in the same length of time, for any similar institution. And yet some other institutions were evidently in circumstances which gave them a fairer promise of public patronage than this. When I ascribe the prosperity of the institution to God, I do not forget what is due to that distinguished man, who devoted to it his talents, his labors, and his life, and who was, under God, the honored instrument of laying its foundation. On the contrary, I believe that, we give the highest honor to an instrument that can be given, and one which would have been dearer to our departed brother than all others, when we say that God worked with him. And certainly God did operate with him, and bless his labors, or this Seminary could not have occupied its present situation.”

Rev. William Hill, D. D., in his charge to the Professor, said — “ It has so happened heretofore that our Southern churches have been distinguished for their unanimity of sentiment, and for their uniform moderation in disputed doctrines, and in their conduct toward their brethren at large. While our brethren at the North have been split into parties, and agitated by angry controversies, we have happily preserved the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace. This has redounded much to our honor, and given weighty influence in our ecclesiastical councils. Oh that this state of things might be long continued, and handed down to the latest posterity, as a rich legacy from their fathers. While many of our Northern brethren have acquired either an extravagant rage for innovation, or an indiscreet zeal for orthodoxy, have been classed as belonging either to the New School or to the Old School, and have become zealous partizans of course, we have stood aloof, and wondered and grieved at their indiscretion.

“But there is reason to fear that this happy state is. not long to continue, and that our Southern clergy are suffering themselves to be drawn into the vortex of contention. The circulation of inflammatory ex parte pamphlets and periodicals; the appointment of central and corresponding committees, and their exaggerated statements and misrepresentations, if some expedient cannot be adopted, is enough to set on fire the course of nature. And this mystery of iniquity has already begun to work among us. I need not tell you that much care will be necessary to guard our theological students against these things. Great danger has arisen in former times, and is likely to arise again, to the peace and prosperity of the Church, from angry and unnecessary disputes about orthodoxy. Orthodoxy literally signifies correct opinions, and is commonly used to designate a particular system of doctrines, or a connected series of facts on the subject of religion. It is not to be supposed, however, that the orthodox are, or ever have been, entirely unanimous in their opinions on the subject of religion. In matters comparatively unessential, and m their modes of stating and explaining and establishing essential truths, there has always been a diversity of opinion. Thus persons may disagree as to the form of church government, or as to the mode of administering the ordinances, and not forfeit their claims to oitaodoxy. Or persons may differ in their interpretation of particular passages of Scripture, and their bearing on certain fundamental doctrines, without losing their character for orthodoxy. I would by no means speak disparagingly of creeds and confessions, for I readily admit .their lawfulness and utility. Religious liberty includes the right to have creeds, if men please, as well as to have none, if they please. But scriptural, and venerable, and useful as creeds have been and are, their efficiency falls infinitely below the exigencies of the Church of Christ. They do not produce holiness of themselves, nor do they ensure it; nor can they preserve themselves from innovation in times of declension. And of all stupidity, orthodox stupidity is the most dreadful. It ought to be remembered that ice palaces have been built of orthodox as well as heterodox materials. And when the creed, which is but the handmaid of religion, is regarded with more zeal than religion itself, then the reign of high church and creed idolatry has begun.

“There is no remedy for self-ruined man but regeneration; and there is no remedy for corrupt and wealthy communities but revivals of religion. Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord. The government of God is the only government which will sustain the Church against depravity from within, and temptations from without, and this it must do by the force of its own laws, written upon the heart. We never expect or wish to see the Church governing the world; but the world must become Christian, and learn to govern itself by the laws of the Bible. And there is as much liberty in self-government, according to the laws of Christ, as in self-government, according to the laws of the devil; and as much free agency, or republicanism, if you please, in holiness as in vice and irreligion.

“Be assured, my brother, we have fallen on other times than the Church of God ever saw before — times in which the same exertions and influence which served its purpose in a former age, will not enable it to hold its own. The intellect of man has waked up to new activity. Old foundations are broken up, and old prejudices, and principles, and maxims, are -undergoing a thorough and perilous revision. The present state of our own country, to say nothing of the European world, is such, on account of the rapid increase of population, by birth and immigration, the rapid influx of wealth and improvements of various kinds, and the vast irreligious influences consequent on these, that without a Correspondent divine influence to render the influences of the gospel effectual, the Church, instead of exciting persecution, would sink into such obscurity as to be overlooked both by fear and hatred. Some, who, from past analogies, seem to think it most desirable that conversions should be rather dilatory and gradual than sudden and multitudinous, forget that the cause of the devil has its revivals, as well as the cause of Christ, and the kingdom of darkness is moving on with terrific haste and power. Millions are bursting into that kingdom, and taking it by force, while only hundreds are added to the kingdom of Christ. It’is no time for ministers to think themselves faithful, without revivals of religion among their people. The seed cannot lie long buried without being trodden down, past coming up, and being choked by thorns, should it vegetate. On steamboats, and canals, and railroads, and turnpikes, the ungodly are mustering their forces, and putting forth their strength to obliterate the Sabbath, and raze the foundations of Zion. Nothing but the power of God can sustain the Church in this tremendous conflict, and nothing but speedy and extensive and powerful revivals can save the Church and our nation from impending ruin, and nothing but a phalanx of holy hearts around the Sabbath will save it from desecration and oblivion.”

The two speakers represented the ministers of the Virginia and North Carolina Synods. Perhaps never were there two addresses delivered at an inauguration that were so completely an index of things as they existed at the time, and revealed the germs of the things to be developed in after times. As is asserted in these speeches, unanimity prevailed throughout the Southern Presbyteries upon very many important subjects. On the importance of a well prepared self-denied ministry, the object of the Seminary,-the importance of revivals to the Church and the world, the vast advantage, the absolute necessity of harmony among brethren; on these subjects there was no dispute. There had been purity of doctrine and forbearance among themselves, and towards brethren at a distance, who seemed to differ materially from their Southern brethren. The men that had given tone to the Southern church, were eminent for their adherence to the doctrines of the Confession of Faith, and equally so for their fervent charity among themselves. They had neither been fond of innovation, or ready to make a man an offender for a word. Living at a distance from each Other, and oppressed by ever recurring labors of the ministry, they had no time to indulge in disputation when they met for communion seasons, or in ecclesiastical assemblies; or to cherish novelties in their solitude. They enjoyed social intercourse; the mother Presbytery of the Virginia Synod made it a standing rule to spend a Sabbath in the congregation with which she held her regular meetings. By the Hanover Presbytery it was re-enacted at the first meeting after the Synod was formed; by the other Presbyteries observed as a custom without an order on their minutes. Discussion of important subjects, selected previously for the occasion, was for a time encouraged at the Presbyterial meetings, but after a few years abandoned as not productive of the good designed; and incidental discussions, arising necessarily, consumed all the time. The Presbyterial meetings were times of religious intercourse and enjoyment. On the subject of creeds and confessions, all were united in maintaining their necessity as bonds of union; and an honest exposition to the public of these bonds, drawn out in precise well-arranged words. Some thought a very careful attention to the formulas not only appropriate, but necessary. Others thought there might be too great stress laid on uniformity, and too much reliance on the virtue of creeds, and were alarmed lest on these subjects there should arise a controversy to distract the Southern church.

As yet the Southern clergy had taken little or no part in the vehement discussions, carried on in the Northern and Eastern Presbyteries — about the nature and extent of the atonement — the ability and inability of man, natural and moral — the nature of sin and of imputation — the origin of revivals — viewed as metaphysical subjects, and argued upon as such, rather than as gospel truths. On all these subjects as doctrines taught in the Bible with clearness and definiteness sufficient for salvation, and as well expressed in the Confession, the Southern ministers preached often, and plainly, and powerfully. They were not accustomed to discuss these subjects in public, except as doctrines of the Bible, to be interpreted by the rules of exegesis, as matters of fact sufficiently plain to be understood, and sufficiently abstruse and offensive to require the authority of revelation' for their belief. Few cases had ever occurred, in all / the Southern churches, of discipline for unsoundness of doctrine ; but the discipline had been administered with becoming firmness.-and kindness when required. The difference in the expressed opinions among ministers, was generally attributed to the ambiguity of words which might be explained away. The fierceness of the discussion in the Northern churches was generally looked upon as a waste of charitable feeling and loss of time. The Rev. John H. Rice was probably the first Southern man that thought and said, that from the disputed subjects already mentioned, and the vexed question of the Education Society, and the equally vexed question of Foreign Missions, there was arising a storm to rend the Church to fragments; that the time was hastening when the Southern churches would be compelled to consider carefully these matters, and judge upon them in the tribunal of the last resort. His memorial on missions, was, put forth to avert the violence of the storm, if not the storm itself. He earnestly desired that the Assembly of 1831, might be an arena of life. He did not see that Assembly, nor did his memorial produce the effect he desired. He passed away in the zenith of his usefulness and fame. And now, in less than a year, there is evidence that leading men were beginning to feel that the neutrality of the South was at an end. On what ground should the South meet the coming tempest, that was moving down from the North? Should it be that of more, or less, strictness of creed? Should she cast her influence with either of the distinctly formed parties at the North, or should she endeavor to repress extremes, and call the church back to its primitive charity and belief? The first alternative she dreaded; of the last, she almost despaired.

The affairs of the Seminary, as a Theological school, went on prosperously under Dr. Baxter and his associates. The new Professor found the chair of Theology the proper sphere for the full development of all his powers of mind, and qualities of heart, and the richness of his varied acquirements. And when called to put forth all his strength, as he was in taking the chair vacated by Rice, he excelled the expectation even of his warmest friends. His power of analysis, his accuracy in distinctions, and logical reasoning, his profound research, his clearness of conception, and his simplicity in thought and style, were pre-eminent. With these was a vastness of comprehension. Nothing in the range of human thought was beyond him; he was at home everywhere. Like Rice and Alexander, he seemed not to know when he uttered what others called great thoughts or little thoughts in Theology, all were equally clear to him, and all so completely inwoven in the beautiful tissue of revelation.

In financial concerns the new Professor was a child; and the Seminary felt the loss of that incomparable agent Dr. Rice. By the great exertions of Mrs. Rice, and her personal friends, and the friends of the institution, the debts were paid, and the buildings completed, with prospects of great and increasing usefulness of the Seminary.

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