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In 1815, he worked towards what Southern Baptists now call the Cooperative Program, over 100 years before it actually came into existence.

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Luther Rice and Others
Commissioned for Missionary Service

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LUTHER RICE, (1783–1836)

One typically wet and cold day in the fall of 1783, Dr. John Ryland wrote in his diary, “This day Baptized a poor young shoe-maker.” That young shoe-maker in Northampton, England was William Carey. That same Fall in Northborough, Massachusetts , a continent away from England, a baby was christened. Carey, a determined Baptist, and this child who would grow up a Congregationalist were destined to meet years later and in very different ways change the way the church thought about missions forever.

The baby who was christened in Northborough was Luther Rice. Luther was the ninth child born into the Rice family. While the youngest of the boys, he would make the most lasting impression on the world around him. Luther and his brothers were normal boys in every way. Asaph, John, Amos, Curtis, Jacob, and Luther spent hours of playtime at wrestling, stool ball, and mumble-the-peg. All was not fun and games however. They lived on a farm and their father expected hard work and long hours from all of them.

Living in New England in the late 1700’s placed the Rices at the heart of all that was happening in the new nation of the United States of  America. Many notable men passed though the town of Northborough on the Great Road. Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams and John Hancock had all come this way. But Luther never forgot that day in October of 1789 when he was six years old. Word came that President George Washington would be riding right by their home on his way to some other destination. Luther, his brothers, and sister lined the road for hours ahead of time straining to catch a glimpse of the “Father of the Country”.  Then, there the procession was. How proud they were to see their father leading the President’s coach! [1] The Rice family was sure there would never be another day quite as grand as this.

A week after that great day Washington paid a visit, Luther Rice began his education. It was a typical school of its time. There,  Luther along with the other children ranging in age from six to eighteen, studied from the New England Primer, Noah Webster’s Speller, and of course the Bible. Among others in his class was John Davis who would one day become both governor of Massachusetts and a United States senator. Neither could have known as young boys how their lives would influence a larger world they had yet to discover.

Things weren’t all well for young Luther Rice, however. For reasons neither Luther nor his older brothers ever really understood, Rice’s father seemed to turn any displeasure he had toward his youngest son. Luther battled through the years trying to understand why his father treated him so poorly but never found the answer. Though his father was a successful man, he also had a problem with rum. When the elder Rice drank it seemed his wrath was kindled even more hotly against Luther.

As Luther Rice entered adolescents a battle with a different father ensued, with his Heavenly Father. For some time now he had been burdened by a deep sense of guilt over his sins and a gnawing fear that he would never come to know true regeneration. Luther Rice was a child of the era in which he lived. Jonathan Edwards had sought to breathe life back into Congregationalism years before. Indeed, America experienced a time of awakening in the mid 1700’s. But by Luther Rice’s time much of the Congregational church was once again gripped in a kind of Puritanism on life support. While retaining much of the formal theology of the Puritans these believers had lost the heart of Puritanism. The very things which Edwards had warned against had come true. The church was frozen in a lifeless formalism that gave lip service to the sovereignty of God but failed to understand what being a Christian really even meant. Luther’s own father was a good example of what the Halfway Covenant [2] had done to the church. It was filled with unregenerate church members whose lives did not reflect the person of Jesus Christ.

Now eighteen, Luther trudged through the unusually deep January snow on his way to the Northborough Congregationalist Church. He thought of the long conversations he had with his mother, Sarah, on the subject of salvation. Her only suggestion was to call on their pastor, Rev. Whitney. Arriving at the church Rice unburdened his heart to Mr. Whitney. He told his pastor of his deeply troubled mind and heart. How could he ever find God’s forgiveness and acceptance? Unfortunately the pastor had no real solution either. Finally he advised Luther to present himself to the church as a Half-way Convenater. “Tell God,” encouraged the pastor, “I’ve done my part, God, now you do yours.”[3] So Luther Rice joined the church no more a Christian than before he came.

The next three years were a time of deep searching for Luther Rice. He read the Life and Letters of John Newton over and over. How he wanted to be cleansed of his sins as the former slave trader had. He drank in every word of Richard Baxter’s Directions for Getting and Keeping Spiritual Peace and Comfort. Luther also continued to endure the increasing hostility of his father toward his religious zeal. Finally on September 14, 1805 Luther Rice came to see what true faith was. He wrote, “Whether I would be willing to give Deity a blank and let Him fill up my future destiny as He should please!” [4] In spite of the obstacles of a vengeful father and a heartless pastor, Luther came to see that all God really wants us is to give Him is ourselves. That night Luther Rice did just that. Everyone in the Rice house knew something was different the next morning. Luther loved to sing and had a rich baritone voice. As he headed toward the barn to feed the cattle, animals and family alike heard him singing the new song of a redeemed heart:

Come sound his praise abroad
And hymns of glory sing
Jehovah is the sovereign God
And universal King!

Soon, Luther Rice was on his way to Leicester for his first taste of higher education. His whole outlook on life had changed. Gone was the dark brooding and in its placed was a hopeful optimism. He wrote in a journal while at Leicester, “My feelings often vary, and vary much, but not my hope.” [5] While at Leicester, Rice learned Latin, English grammar and some Greek. It was here that he gained the good penmanship that would serve him so well in the years to come in the many letters and circulars he wrote raising money for mission work.

After two years at Leicester, Luther headed off to Williams College in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. He could have gone to Harvard where his cousin attended but for some reason Williams seemed the right place. No doubt, the spiritual atmosphere was probably one of the things that attracted Rice to Williams. In its isolated location, Williams College had seen a great spiritual awakening.

One William’s student immediately caught Rice’s attention. Sam Mills, Jr. had a fervor for God and a calling to foreign missions, both of which fascinated Luther. Mills saw in Rice potential for mission work and they spent many hours in prayer and discussion about the subject. It wasn’t long before Luther was writing his older brother, Asaph, “I have deliberately made up my mind to preach the gospel to the heathen, and I do not know but it may be Asia.” [6] Like in the Holy Club of John and Charles Wesley, Mills and Rice formed a secret group of like minded students, calling themselves the Brethren. At first there were five young men who committed to the group’s cause of world missions (Samuel J. Mills, Ezra Fisk, James Richards, John Seward, and Luther Rice). As time went by others joined the group. Then one hot and muggy summer day five of the Brethren found themselves caught in a thunderstorm while traveling and took refuge under a haystack near campus. In what became known as the Haystack Prayer Meeting, those five men committed themselves to proceed with seeking service in foreign mission. Luther Rice was not with them that day but he quickly joined in the commitment to go wherever God sent them. [7]

In 1810 Luther Rice transferred to Andover College to continue his education. A number of other Williams College men had already made their way to Andover including Sam Mills. When Rice arrived he immediately wanted to know about the Brethren. The Brethren were indeed still meeting, now led by a handsome dark-haired Brown University graduate by the name of Adoniram Judson. Judson and Rice’s lives would from then on be intertwined. As aspiring missionaries the group met after classes. They would pray, sing, and often times read aloud from the Serampore Circular which was published by the English Baptist Mission in India.  Together Rice and the others hungrily read the marvelous accounts of William Carey, Dr. Thomas, and the other missionaries who left England to spend their lives in India.

June of 1810 brought the annual associational meeting of the Congregationalist at Bradford. The Brethren along with the support of several Andover professors decided to petition the association to commission them as missionaries to the Far East. Many in the association didn’t even know such a group existed and were somewhat concerned about the enormity of expense in sending this many missionaries at one time. The Association agreed to pray for the men but would not commit at that time to anything more concrete. God was going to send them but in His time not theirs.

That autumn, Luther Rice was elected by the Brethren to be their president. Education once again took its prominent place as Rice learned French and Syriac. During this time Rice met Rebecca Eaton and found his heart drawn to her as he never had to a woman before. Perhaps she was to be the wife he would take with him to the far reaches of the earth. Rebecca was drawn to Luther Rice but not to his love for missions. Hope never died easily for Luther Rice so he continued to pray that God might bring them together but that was not in the Almighty’s plans.

God’s timing is always different from ours. After months and months of waiting when it seemed like nothing would move them closer to India, the Mission Sender set things in motion. It was learned that two ships were available to transport missionaries to the East. The problem was, these ships were ready to set sail very soon. Providence pushed the Association into action in a way the Brethren could not. Now they would act – so an ordination and commissioning service was set to send these men and for those who were married their brides off to India.

February 6 of 1812 was a grand day in Salem, Massachusetts. Believers from a number of denominations converged on the Salem Tabernacle. Missionaries leaving for a foreign land was a rare thing and no one wanted to miss this auspicious event. This excerpt from Evelyn Wingo Thompson’s biography of Luther Rice describes the scene beautifully:

“As the men knelt on the floor, Dr. Jeridith Morse gave the ordination prayer. The audience was almost overwhelmed with emotion as the five bowed their heads and five ministers stood, one behind each candidate.

There was …Judson – brilliant, impulsive, persistent … He had turned down the associate pastorate of the biggest church in Boston …

Gordon Hall, like Rice, unmarried … His selfless motto, ‘Duty is ours, consequences God’s.’ When offered an attractive pastorate his reply came,’ No .. Others will be left whose health or pre-engagement requires them to stay at home, but I can sleep on the ground, can endure hunger and hardship. God calls me to the heathen. Woe to me if I preach not the gospel to the heathen.’

Newell knelt next … He would be the first to tread the valley of the shadow and was parted from his wife Harriet within the year.

Nott, well born, tall and wiry, whom ill-health would force home where he would outlive all the others.

And there was Rice, the tallest, the most athletic, energetic, gifted in speech and voice, a persuasive man but troubled in his thoughts this day as he wrote, ‘worn down with fatigue and agitation of mind, I did not realize it so impressively as was desirable in an event most sacred.’” [8]

A few days later on February 18, 1812 the missionary band prepared to sail out of Philadelphia harbor. They would sail in two groups on separate ships. That decision indicated what faced missionaries in that day. Even going to the mission field was a dangerous and uncertain enterprise. By sailing in two ships they could better their chances that at least one group would make it through the many storms, pirates and French war ships that lay between them and India. On board Rice’s ship were Baptist missionaries from England on their way to India as well. Because of fierce opposition to mission work by English merchants (mainly the East India Company) these Baptists had first sailed to America to avoid questions as to why they were headed for India.

Baptists! Luther had mixed feelings about this group of believers. As Rice was growing up, Congregationalism was the state church of Massachusetts. Baptists weren’t considered to be heretics anymore but they also were viewed to be somewhat lacking as a denomination. During the Revolutionary War attitudes began to change toward Baptists. Separate Baptist represented by Isaac Backus were staunch advocates of separation from Great Britain. Their voices had been heard calling for freedom throughout the land. As a result their stature was raised a notch once the war was over. For Rice personally, it had been a Baptist by the name of Seth Grout who helped him most during his time of spiritual searching. But still Baptists only baptized adults and denied the Scriptural basis for infant baptism. How could Rice ever agree with such false teaching? Over the following weeks as their ship plodded across the Atlantic Ocean, Rice had much time to discuss and sometimes argue over the issues of baptism with the Baptists who were making the trip with him.

Finally the two ships arrived in India. Calcutta presented them all with a scene like none they could have imagined. The city teemed with many thousands, all without Christ. William Carey was there to meet them. Small and balding, Carey wasn’t impressive in his physical appearance but the power of God exuded from him. Now they could at last preach the gospel to the heathen. But things would not be that easy. Ironically, it was England that stood in their way not India. English merchants had no use for missionaries and they ruled just about everything in India. While Carey was firmly entrenched by now in the Indian society these newcomers were not. Added that they were Americans, not British. Therefore, the government commanded all the newly arrived missionaries to leave.

The edict to leave was not the only surprise to face Luther Rice when he arrived in India. To his amazement he found that Adoniram and Ann Judson had engaged in a similar investigation into baptism during the voyage as they traveled on the other ship.  Knowing they would have to face William Carey and his Baptist ideals, they had studied their Greek New Testaments during the trip. While they were looking for arguments to refute Carey what they found was undeniable evidence from God’s Word that the Baptists were right on this issue. Now the Judsons announced their intention to be baptized by Carey.

Luther Rice was still not convinced. Sickness however forced Rice to have several months of isolation and rest. As he suffered from the effects of hepatitis he also read his Greek New Testament. After studying the Scriptures for several weeks alone Luther Rice came to a decision that would change everything for him and his soon to be fellow-Baptists back in America. So on October 23 of 1812, Luther Rice wrote home to the Congregationalist mission board that had sent him. He told them that his study of baptism had brought to him the “conviction that those persons only, who give credible evidence of piety, are proper subjects; and that immersion is the only proper mode of Christian baptism.” [9] So Rice was baptized by William Ward in Calcutta India on November 1st.

The notice of eviction from India loomed over the American missionaries more every day. They knew they would have to leave soon. The Judsons had already set their hearts toward Burma. Rice and Judson realized that someone would have to return to America to formally break ties with the Congregationalists and to petition the Baptists for support. Because Rice was single, it was decided that he should go home and return as soon as proper funds had been acquired for their mission endeavor in Burma. Neither could have known the direction that decision would take them over the years to come. With that the Judsons and Luther bade farewell to each other with hopes of seeing each other again in perhaps a year at the most.

Luther’s heart pounded as his ship entered New York harbor in September of 1813. First there was the unwelcomed business of formally withdrawing from the Congregationalist Mission Board. After a long and impassioned speech by Rice, the Board accepted their resignations and then politely asked the Judsons and Rice to repay all monies that had been designated for them. With that out of the way Rice was ready to meet his new family, the Baptists. First, he was asked to preach at Olive Street Baptist Church in New York and was received warmly. Then Rice called on Rev. Thomas Baldwin of Boston’s Second Baptist Church. Without hesitation the Boston Baptist Missionary Society offered to take up the support of the Judson’s in Burma. [10]

As Rice traveled from Boston to Washington and then Baltimore it became obvious why God had chosen him to return from the mission field. Now, all of those natural abilities Luther carried were used to their fullest potential. He was by nature outgoing and a passionate speaker. People were drawn to his message. There was just no better choice for a spokesman concerning missions than Luther Rice. People also listened because as one observed, “he was the only American who had gone out into the darkness of paganism and returned to tell us what existed there.” [11]

Unlike the Baptists of England, American Baptists were only loosely organized at best. A few societies existed (mainly in the North) with missions as their emphasis but the work was meager. Luther Rice began to galvanize Baptists with a unified interest. Over the following months he met with a veritable who’s who of Baptists. There was Francis Wayland in the North and Richard Furman in the South. In Georgia, there was Jesse Mercer who remained throughout Rice’s life as he favorite preacher. Along the way mission societies were informed of the need and where there was no society one was formed. By the end of 1813 there were seventeen such societies stretching from Boston to Georgia.

At this point one of Luther Rice’s greatest strengths showed itself. Unfortunately, it also later proved to be his greatest weakness. Rice was a dreamer. He was a dreamer that gave birth to visions and visions that gave birth to actions. Above all Rice was doer. He was always thinking about what could be done next for the cause of Christ. As he rode the long hours by horseback from one town to another a new and greater dream was forming in Luther’s heart.

Luther Rice was a Congregationalist by birth. As a result he was used to things being more centralized in the church than were Baptists. Because of their firm adherence to the autonomy of each local church, Baptists were by nature a little leery of a “national” anything. But that is exactly what Luther Rice envisioned. With that in mind Rice wrote to Judson, “My mind became impressed with the importance of a general combination of the whole Baptist interest in the United States, for the benefit alike of the denomination here, and the cause of missions abroad.”[12]Men from the South such as Richard Furman also desired to see ministerial education and home mission work as a part of a national endeavor as well as foreign missions.

Almost from the beginning it became evident that there were differences in the way Northern and Southern Baptists envisioned a denomination. Northern Baptist were more in favor of societies doing the work of missions. Societies were made up of individuals rather than churches. Baptists in the South leaned toward associations in which churches were represented rather than individuals. Culture played a large part in this difference. Northern Baptists were driven by their remembrances of state churches while Baptists in the South were driven by the plantation model which was more centralized in its makeup.[13]

In spite of those differences, Baptists met for their first national meeting at Philadelphia in 1814. It was called “The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in United States of America, for Foreign Missions.” Since the convention would meet every three years it came simply to be called the Triennial Convention.” At this meeting Luther Rice was appointed by the Board to be their missionary. With a salary of eight dollars per week plus expenses he was given the duty of traveling among Baptists in America and informing them of the work of missions.[14] Some later accused Rice of abandoning his missionary calling and the Judsons were ever pleading with their friend Luther to return to them. For the time, though, Rice would not be going back to be with the Judsons in Burma. He had a job to do in America and he saw it as a part of his calling to missions.

For the next three years Luther Rice traveled almost constantly, sharing with every church and Christian he could find, the needs of foreign missionaries. He traveled by horseback and surrey. At times he swam freezing rivers, braved severe blizzards, and many other dangers. Hostile Indians and unwelcoming pioneers at times stood in his way. In spite of these obstacles Rice pushed on.

The hours alone as he traveled gave Luther Rice time to pray and think about the work of Baptists. As he moved throughout the country he saw more and more needs. There was a great need for home missions. Great parts of the expanding young nation had few educated pastors. Indians and Negroes needed to hear the gospel. There was need for a national paper for Baptists so they could know of what God was doing in all these far-flung places. In short, Luther Rice wanted Baptists to become a true denomination, unifying their efforts to share the gospel in every corner of the earth.

While preaching in Lattintown, New York in June of 1815 Luther Rice met a young man by the name of John Mason Peck. As one writer put it, “when the mind of Peck heard the voice of Luther Rice appealing for the vast world, it knew a crisis had come.” [15] Peck knew that his lack of education and the size of his family would not allow him to go to foreign fields. Still, Peck shared with Rice his dream to do something to further the kingdom. The two men immediately hit it off. They had much in common. Both of them had come to be Baptist by way of Congregationalism. They shared a common burning passion to see the lost come to Christ. And both saw the need for a national movement of Baptists.

As they traveled together throughout upstate New York, Luther Rice encouraged Peck to consider becoming a home missionary to the areas westward of the Mississippi. Sparked by Rice and God, Peck applied to the Mission Board to become a missionary. So in May of 1817 Peck and a Mr. Welch were appointed to become Baptist missionaries to the Missouri Territory. [16] No one man influenced Baptist work more in the Mid-West over the coming years than John Peck. He was a pioneer of new methods. He founded the first Sunday Schools, women’s societies and missionary societies in the Territory. Peck organized the first Baptist churches west of the Mississippi and helped found Alton Seminary which later became Shurtleff College. [17] Peck also served two terms in the Illinois State Legislature and was a vocal opponent of slavery.

With the work progressing in the West, Luther Rice turned his attention to another need. On his first trip to the West Rice had witnessed the lack of educated clergy among the churches there. The problem wasn’t just among the clergy however. In seemed the people there were openly hostile to educated and paid pastors. Much of that probably had to do with their memories of State Churches and tax supported clergy back in Colonial days. Rice saw education as a part of missions but others saw it as a competitor to missions.

By the time of the 1817 Triennial Convention Luther Rice’s influence led the Convention to  recommend that when there were competent funds that did not compete with foreign mission dollars there should be established a Baptist University. Unfortunately the words of that recommendation were nebulous and led to much confusion. Rice with his typical take-no-prisoners approach plunged ahead with plans for the new university. This decision was to bring him great grief, rebuke, and disgrace in the near future.

An uneasiness was brewing among the Baptists. Even Richard Furman of the Charleston Association warned that the Convention was being too hasty in its push to have a university. [18] Nevertheless Rice and the University Board moved ahead with plans and soon there was a new Baptist University in the nation’s capitol, Washington City (now Washington,D.C). Columbian University convened its first class in the fall of 1821 and by 1822 was acknowledged to be a success by most involved.

At this juncture in Luther Rice’s life it would appear that all was well for Baptists in America. Rice had labored tirelessly from 1814 to 1820 in carrying the message of missions throughout the United States. In his report  to the Board in May of 1817 he wrote:

“Since … 1816, I have traveled 6,600 miles – in populous and dreary portions of country – through wilderness and over rivers – across mountains and valleys – in heat and cold – by day and by night – in weariness, and painfulness, and fastings, and loneliness; but not a moment has been lost for want of health; no painful calamity has fallen to my lot; no peril has closed upon me; nor has fear been permitted to prey on my spirits; nor even inquietude to disturb my peace.” [19]

Through all these travels, Rice preached nearly every day. Cathedral or cottage, it did not matter. Preaching the good news of Jesus Christ and the call to missions was his passion. Finally Baptists were being molded into a national body with a common calling – carrying the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

However, all was not well. Since the book of Acts, Christians have proven that we can both be at our best and at our worst when endeavoring to carry out the Great Commission. James may have been the first to hear complaints over missionary methods (Acts 15) but he certainly was not the last! By 1815 there was already a rumbling among some of the older established Baptist churches. Beginning with Rev. Henry Holcombe, pastor the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia, and spreading to others was an incipient distrust of Luther Rice and this new work. Soon men who had known nothing of the privations of a missionary’s life that Rice had, began to call into question his missionary calling. That same year the Board passed a resolution informing Rice that it was time for him to return to India but then one month later they rescinded that resolution recognizing how much he was still needed to further the cause of the Board. [20]

Dr. Straughton, president of the Board also came under attack during this time. Tracts were made and circulated making harsh charges about Straghton’s handing of the Board. Rice was accused by some of not being willing to do what he was encouraging others to do in going to the mission field. Opposition seemed to be the strongest in New York and Rhode Island. Various voices began to even question whether Adoniram Judson and Rice had really become Baptists at all. A split between Northern and Southern Baptists was forming long before the slave issue arose. No doubt, a storm cloud was brewing.

Out West, things weren’t going as well either. By 1820 the Board had decided to withdraw John Peck from the Missouri Territory so that more emphasis and monies could be given to foreign missions. Peck respectfully resigned the Board and spent the rest if his life ministering with meager funds to the people of the Western Territories. Alexander Campbell was also beginning to make his presence felt in West and the lower South. Posing as a Baptist, Campbell began publishing The Christian Baptist in 1823. Campbell claimed to be restoring the original New Testament Church and denounced all churches which did not follow his teaching. Luther Rice was a particular target of the Campbellites because they were fiercely anti-missionary. Others, like John Taylor, accused Rice of using unbiblical methods to raise money for missions and ruthlessly compared him to the Pope’s money collectors. [21]

Other events were totally out of anyone’s control. A sharp depression hit the land in 1819 lasting several years. Quickly, the University found itself in deep debt. Rice and the Univeristy Board borrowed against funds which were allocated for missions. In essence they were “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Rice was far to trusting in the pledges of Baptists around the country. He often counted pledges as cash received. When those pledges didn't come, things got even worse.

Luther Rice also had much more personal storm clouds in his life. His beloved Rebecca never came back to him and he remained unmarried the rest of his life. Loneliness was a constant companion. Only Christ was with him at times but that was fine with Luther. He corresponded with the Judsons continually assuring them that he planned to come to Burma as soon as God released him from his present calling. In 1817, at Judson’s request, Luther Rice went to Plymouth to meet with Adoniram Judson’s parents and sister. They were still in great confusion over their beloved Adoniram’s change to Baptist. Some months later Rice was happy to write his friend in Burma that the Judson’s had gone to Boston and been immersed as Baptists.

As months stretched into years the Judsons began to pressure Rice to return to them. One could not blame such a request. Life in Burma was beyond difficult. Few new missionaries who had been sent proved worthy of the mission and many returned home. Others were not physically up to the challenge and died shortly after arriving. In June of 1817 Rice wrote to the Judsons that it might be a decade before he was finished in the States with his mission education and establishment of the University. To this Adoniram wrote back:

“Your mention of ten years has cut off the little hope I had remaining of uniting with you … in missionary labors … I feel disposed to pour out my regrets, but I suppose that would be unavailing. I really expect to see you no more in this world. “[22]

Rice took these remarks as a censure against him and protested in subsequent letters. But Judson rightly warned his friend that by not coming to Burma he might be fueling the fires of criticism toward Rice. Over time, Judson came to accept Luther Rice’s decision to stay in America. He wrote: “Go, on my dear brother; and may God prosper you abundantly in all your ways. I feel assured that though we labor apart on earth, we shall rest together in Heaven, in the embrace of everlasting love.” [23] Judson sought to comfort his dear friend when he at last realized the kind of attacks he was under. He encouraged Rice by writing, “Your labors will be ultimately appreciated and the page of history will do you ample justice, notwithstanding the dissentient voice of the narrow-minded of the present day.” [24]

The final insult came to Luther Rice at the Triennial Convention of 1826. How ironic that the meeting was held at the Olive Street Baptist Church in New York, the first Baptist church Rice had preached in thirteen years earlier when he returned from India. At that meeting his opponents had their way and Rice was dismissed as an agent of the Board. Some even called for his removal as a Board member of the University but that was defeated.  More unsettling was the rumor mill which had it that Rice had misappropriated funds as an agent of the Board. Luther Rice demanded an inquest and was shown to be faithful in all of his conduct. Such accusations were baseless and dismissed.

Rice labored for another ten years. He valiantly sought to rescue the financially strapped Columbian Univeristy to no avail. Finally the University passed out of Baptists hands in 1901 and became George Washington University. Following a pattern of his life Rice seemed to engender missionary success in others.  While raising monies in Kentucky for the University in 1828 it seemed that effort had failed. Yet men hearing him preach caught a vision and founded Georgetown College there in Kentucky.

In 1832 Rice suffered a mild stroke but continued to labor on. Though he was relegated to a place of near anonymity, his influence forged on. By 1832 the Board had appointed 72 missionaries to the foreign field, many of them hearing the call to mission under the preaching of Luther Rice. John Mason Peck was still blazing a trail in the West and had established the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Another protégé of Rice’s, Samuel Waite, was moving the Baptists of North Carolina in great ways. He organized a state academy which would one day become Wake Forest Univeristy. Luther Rice was nearly forgotten by the Triennial Convention but his influence was not.

Rice attended his last Triennial Convention in Richmond, Virginia in 1835. In the 21 years since its first meeting in Philadelphia membership had grown from 8,000 to 600,000. The Convention supported 25 missions and 112 missionaries. By now there were 15 institutions of higher learning in the Baptist camp. [25] Who gets the credit for such things is unimportant. That God gets the glory is. Luther Rice understood this in spite of his personal sorrows.

While traveling the South Luther Rice left this earth in 1836. On his deathbed he asked his friends to sell his horse and sulky and give the proceeds to the University. That was all Rice had to leave. He had never married (turned down three times in proposal). He had no home accept his heavenly one. All he had to leave was an unfailingly optimistic belief that God has greater things for us to do than we have ever imagined.

What can we learn from the life of Luther Rice? We can learn that he was a man much like many of us. He had great strengths and great weaknesses. Maybe his greatest weakness was that he ran ahead of God at times. It seems, however, that history has proved that Rice more often ran ahead of other men than he did God. He was a believer in tomorrow. Alexis Caswell, President of Brown University said it best in 1864: “He was beyond the charge of dishonesty .. He wanted simple food and raiment, and gave all the rest to open channels for a preached gospel. He preached like an angel. He had great weaknesses. One was excessive hopefulness …” [26]


[1] Evelyn Wingo Thompson, Luther Rice: Believer in Tomorrow (Broadman Press, 1967), p.10.
[2]The Halfway Covenant allowed unsaved people to join the church and partake of communion. The hope was this would later lead them to a true relationship with Christ. As Jonathan Edwards warned in the mid 1700’s, this practice would only lead to a church full of people who knew nothing of the true saving grace of Jesus Christ. His warning was proven true.
[3] Thompson, p. 20.
[4] Ibid., p. 28.
[5]William  W. Rice, The Centenary  of Leicester Academy (Worcester, 1884), p. 17.
[6] Thompson, p. 36.
[7] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Broadman Press, 1987), pp. 344-345.
[8] Thompson, p. 59.
[9] James Barnett Taylor, Memoir of Rev. Luther Rice (Baltimore, 1841), p. 116.
[10] Thompson, p. 85.
[11] Francis Wayland and H.L. Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of Francis Wayland, (New York, 1868), p. 54.
[12] McBeth, p. 346.
[13] ibid, pp. 347-350.
[14] Thompson, p. 99.
[15] ibid, p. 101.
[16] McBeth, p. 353
[17] McBeth, p. 354
[18] ibid, p. 355.
[19] Fourth Annual Report to the  “The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in United States of America, for Foreign Missions,” p. 145.
[20]Thompson, p. 153
[21] ibid, p. 161.
[22] Taylor, pp. 173-174.
[23] Thompson, p. 134.
[24] ibid., p. 135.
[25] ibid., p. 196.
[26] ibid., p. 203.

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