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 Iowa History

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Churches and Religion

Pages 47 - 52

Historical Sketches of Iowa Baptists, 1886

S. H. Mitchell

 Published by Burdette Co., Burlington, Iowa



An Instructive Incident—American Sunday School
Union—A Mysterious Subscription—The
Appropriate Work of the State Convention—An Able Address.

IN our last chapter was sketched the almost phenomenal growth of our Iowa Churches and Associations during the years from 1852 to 1862. The present we will devote to an account of the formulation and early growth of our own State Missionary organization, State Convention, etc. Before entering upon this, however, I wish to introduce an incident, which, though not strictly "Baptist history,'' is in close connection, is unique in itself, and highly suggestive, and is exceedingly good reading. It is in connection with the labors of Rev. Dexter P. Smith, D.D., now of Santa Anna, California. From 1845 to 1851 Bro. Smith was missionary of the Home Mission Society at Iowa City. From 1851 to 1859 he was "employed by the American Sunday School Union as General Sunday School Missionary for the State of Iowa." I give the following sketch in his own words, as furnished to Hon. N. Littler, of Washington, Iowa, and by him furnished to me for these sketches. Bro. Smith says: "As the salary of General Missionary was provided for by friends East, all collections were paid into the treasury of the American Sunday School Union, and expended in supplying libraries for Iowa. Each new school, upon request, received a donation of one-half the cost of a good library. February 17, 1856, I was in Davenport. In the morning I preached in the Congregationalist Church and received a collection of $60.25. In the evening I addressed a union meeting at the Baptist Church. Cash collection $103. Slips of paper were circulated for subscriptions.  Upon one of these small slips was the following subscription : 'Mailin Reisarf one thousand dollars ($1,000) payable at Cook & Sargent's bank, Davenport, Oct. 2, 1856.' As no one of the friends knew any person in Davenport by the name of Mailin Reisarf, the subscription was valued at a discount of about one hundred per cent. The next morning, with a friend, I inquired at Cook & Sargent's bank, but the officials knew no such person, which strengthened the belief that it was a mere hoax, and that we should hear no more of it. But my own mind was strongly impressed that God had touched the heart of some one, and disposed him to do a noble thing for the good cause. Just before the subscription matured, upon the streets of Davenport, a stranger met the Rev. E.M. Miles, pastor of the Baptist Church, and inquired, 'Do you recollect that a subscription of $1,000 for the Sunday School work was given in response to Mr. Smith's recent lecture and appeals?"

"I recollect it very well,' said Mr. Miles, and the stranger continued:

'Can you convey the funds to Mr. Smith without trouble?"

"Mr. Miles assured him that it could be done without the least trouble."'

"Then,' said the unknown stranger, 'I will pay the amount to you instead of depositing it at the bank,' and handed him a purse of gold containing a thousand dollars in fifty pieces of twenty dollars each. In the excitement of the moment the stranger passed from sight, and from that day search was made in vain for the generous donor.

"But," says Mr, Smith, "the name and the act have received an imperishable record in the great memorial book on high. Stranger than romance, it was a God-send to Iowa.  By it influences were started which will reach down the ages to the end of time, to be gathered up, reviewed, and fully appreciated only under the blaze of eternity's broad sunlight."

In accordance with instructions, the funds were paid over to Mr. A.W. Corey, of St. Louis, who had charge of a branch book depository of the American Sunday School Union, from which Sunday School libraries for Iowa were furnished. The Union was at that time doing a great work for Iowa, planting Sunday-schools  "where no Church or mission out-post could be sustained."  Each Sunday school was "the nucleus around which gathered a congregation and a permanent interest," and "many of these schools subsequently developed into churches.''

Our broad-minded Baptist workers were quick to recognize and to identify themselves with such beneficent movements where they were needed, and also quick to avail themselves of the development, and to advance every denominational organization so soon as the field was providentially open to such work.

When the Iowa Baptist State Convention was first organized, and up to 1855, its object was to awaken interest in, and devise means for the promotion of the missionary work of other existing missionary organizations. In 1855,. J. M. Witherwax, of Davenport, treasurer of the Convention, reported, "Received for the American Baptist Home Mission Society $161.40;  for the American Baptist Missionary Union, $288.08, and for the American and Foreign Bible Society $24.10. "' This was the aggregate of collections for missionary purposes in one year, after the Convention had been at work thirteen years.

Although great financial embarrassment is spoken of this year, limiting the work of all the societies, the amount two years earlier, for 1853, was still less.  The day of small things, truly, in missionary collections for a state organization! But it did not daunt the spirit of our earnest pioneers.  It seems that in 1854 the Convention began to consider the question of taking up and maintaining missionary work in its own name and by funds of its own raising. A committee had been appointed to secure a German missionary to labor among the Germans of the state, and to raise money to provide in whole or in part for his support. This committee seems to have made a report which was referred to the Board at the meeting in 1855, but no record is left of its work.

At the same meeting in 1854, a committee was appointed "to prepare and offer" at the subsequent meeting "a revision of the constitution" which in its existing form did not "contemplate the department of domestic missionary effort."  Rev. T.S. Griffith was chairman of this committee, but in his absence the report of the committee was read by Rev. E. Gunn, and after some amendments was adopted, looking in its provisions to
"the appropriate work of the Convention" the prosecution of domestic missions.  This was in 1855. The secretary of the previous year. Rev. H.R. Wilbur, mentions in his annual report that "this subject has already received the attention of several Associations in the state,'' and that ''at their recent annual meetings resolutions were passed of very decided character, commending this matter to the favorable regard of the Convention." A missionary board was appointed at this meeting, which was held at Mount Pleasant, and a collection was taken to aid in its work, which amounted to §18.50 in money and $175 in pledges.

Directed by a resolution of the Board, the Corresponding Secretary, Rev. E. Gunn, prepared and printed with the Minutes of that year, a circular, addressed "To the Pastors and Members of the Baptist Churches in Iowa, and to the Friends of the Baptist Cause, and the Cause of Christ generally," commending unto them this new work of domestic missions.  The address is a very able one and in Bro. Gunn's own strong and earnest style. It took a comprehensive view of the rapid growth and present and prospective needs of the great state, the evangelization of which from within itself was just beginning to be considered as a pressing duty.

A few sentences we transcribe: "The State of Iowa is at present filling up by an immigration altogether unexampled in the history of our country. It is computed by those best qualified to judge, that not less than two hundred thousand people have found homes within the ample borders of our State within the last two years."  "The great thoroughfares of travel along the line of the lakes, uniting the Atlantic cities with the Mississippi River, have been choked with emigrants from all the Eastern and Middle States."  "Every point of transit across the Mississippi has been crowded with the canvass covered wagons of the hardy pioneers from other Western States." "Whole townships and counties have been taken up and settled as by magic. Tracts of country, scores and even hundreds of miles in extent, where but two years ago the wild Indians disputed the possession only with the prairie wolf and the elk, are now dotted all over with the rude cabins of the settlers."

Such is Iowa as a missionary field in 1855. The address takes a comprehensive view of the necessity of evangelizing this moving, seething mass of humanity. A single sentence, or two, must suffice for reproduction here: "Neglect this field for ten years, and it is possessed by the man of sin, by the disciples of Abner Kneeland, of Andrew Jackson Davis, or of the Mormon prophet. Let Satan make such a disposition of this great central valley, and he will have but an easy task with the rest of our country and the world."

As we read these words, by one who has been so widely known throughout the West for his almost consuming zeal in fighting the fight of faith for nearly thirty years since they were written, and when we think of the many others equally as well known, we cannot but thank God for the forces thus early marshaled against the combined powers of evils that have contested every inch of ground, and for the measure of success which has been achieved.

We have found it well nigh impossible not to tarry thus long in contemplation of the conditions under which the "appropriate work'' of our State Convention was begun. The development of it, which we had hoped to reach in the present chapter, must therefore, wait until the next.

As these Sketches have largely to do with beginnings, the subsequent growth will require less of detail.

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