A Ministry of Enlarged Culture: The First American Baptist Seminaries, 1811–1850

“A Ministry of Enlarged Culture”
The First American Baptist Seminaries, 1811–1850

Nineteenth-century American Baptists charted a new direction for themselves in theological education with the founding of what became the first Baptist post-baccalaureate theological institutions in America. Columbian College (founded 1820 in Washington, D.C.) was short-lived, while, over time, Hamilton Literary and Theological Institute (1820, Hamilton, NY) and Newton Theological Institute (1825, Newton Centre, MA) developed into flagship Baptist seminaries throughout the nineteenth century. Until 1850, Hamilton and Newton were the only Baptist graduate-level theological schools in America. Their differences with previous ministerial and theological educational models opened new vistas for Baptist life and theology, particularly in the North.

As with much of nineteenth-century Baptist history, this era, these people, and these issues are understudied. This essay will build on the foundation laid by William Brackney (Congregation and Campus [2008] and A Genetic History of Baptist Thought [2004] being the most important) and a handful of short works by various historians. These few works have provided histories of individual people or schools but have not attempted to give a holistic presentation of the founding of this movement and the theological course it set for the Northern Baptist tradition.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the historical and theological character of these new ventures by considering how they differed from previous options and what foundation they laid for the future. The focus will be on the founding generation of this new Baptist tradition, and on three men in particular: Nathaniel Kendrick (1777–1848), Irah Chase (1793–1864), and Barnas Sears (1802–1880). This paper will argue that the history of the earliest Baptist seminaries demonstrates several important characteristics of the First American Baptist Seminaries, including: its “Baptist” identity, its graduate-level education, its institutional support, its regional distinctives, and its theological method. In sum, new directions were set for a new Baptist tradition.

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