Saturday, January 9, 2021

The year is 1806. We remember the Baptist preacher Samuel Stillman. The reading is from William Arthur Dunkerley, "Wakening."

It is the 9th of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I'm Dan van Voorhis.

The year was 1806.

It was a peculiar time for the newly minted "Americans" as the Revolutionary generation gave way to the first generation of regular 19th century Americans. As you might expect, such a shift would cause tensions. And to list them all would take a show 10x as long as this.

But consider this: In 1806, the celebrated revolutionary Thomas Paine published the 3rd and final section of his book "The Age of Reason." Paine had, since the American evolution, gone to France for their revolution, took part in the General Assembly, but then removed himself from it when Louis XVI was killed. Paine was imprisoned and began work on this simple handbook for popular Enlightenment Deism. But the American radicals back home had become part of the establishment. Those who might have cheered on an anti-establishment book like this one in the past turned on the one-time hero.

The American founding and revolution would always struggle between the two poles of Enlightenment reason and Puritanical Christianity. Furthermore, the calls for a revolution and the Millennial expectations of many preachers helped form a bond between political and theological radicals. And it is worth noting that the revolutionary tradition was strongest amongst one Christian group, the Baptists. Not known today for sticking it to the man, they were at one time the Christians against the status quo.

And today, we remember one of the critical Baptist preachers of the age, born in 1737. Samuel Stillman founded the first Baptist Missionary society in America, helped found the bastion of non-conformity that would become Brown University, and was a celebrated orator and preacher. Samuel Stillman died on this, the 9th of January in 1806.

Born in Pennsylvania, he was raised in South Carolina and served as a pastor there until 1764. He then moved to Massachusetts, where he became the minister of the First Baptist Church of Boston. Along with James Manning and Ezra Stiles, Stillman joined a group of Baptists looking to start an American University without the denominational baggage and restrictions that saddled other higher learning institutions.

The college's original name was the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The charter reads, in part: "Sectarian differences of opinions, shall not make any Part of the Public and Classical Instruction."

The choice of Rhode Island was significant as it was the original home of colonial dissent. You may remember the advocate for religious liberty Roger Williams and supposed antinomian Anne Hutchinson, who began that colony as exiles.

After the revolution, Stillman kept with his radical preaching. Unlike others who had become the establishment, Stillman and the Baptists were able to keep their critical eye on an America that would soon become uneasy around nonconformists.

Stillman would, however, find himself on both the 1779 Massachusetts state convention for ratifying the constitution and the Massachusetts state convention for adopting the U.S. Constitution. Friendly with many founders, John Hancock and John Adams were known to rent pews at Stillman's church to hear his oratory, despite being Deist unitarian types. (And I promise we can talk about Pew Renting at some point… it's weird.)

Stillman's legacy, beyond the one generally outlined here, was a bridge between the radical deist revolutionaries and pious Christian revolutionaries. Stillman's language from the pulpit reflected both his study of the Bible and his well-earned membership in the American Philosophical Society. Stillman's call for religious freedom, for all religions, was paramount mostly as he was a minister. And kind of a punk rock minister at that, one of those rowdy early American Baptists. Samuel Stillman died on this, the 9th of January in 1807. He was 70 years old.

The reading for today comes from William Arthur Dunkerley. This is his "Wakening."

This mortal dies,--
But, in the moment when the light fails here,
The darkness opens, and the vision clear
Breaks on his eyes.
The vail is rent,--
On his enraptured gaze heaven's glory breaks,
He was asleep, and in that moment wakes.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 9th of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at The show is produced by a man who is not a Baptist but is punk rock, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.