by Jeff Straub
In the good providence of God, Central Seminary has become the new home of a valuable, large collection of materials related to early American Baptist history: the Morgan Edwards papers. This is the largest compilation of extant Edwards material in the world. It consists of handwritten notes on the history of Baptists in Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. In addition, the collection contains 16 volumes of Edwards’ sermons in manuscript form. It represents nearly half of what at one time appears to have existed. Most of the remaining sermons are presumed lost.
This collection was originally donated to the Crozer Theological Seminary of Chester, Pennsylvania, by Horatio Gates Jones. Jones’ father, also Horatio Gates Jones, was a Delaware Baptist who intersected with Edwards early in life. Jones Jr. was an eminent Philadelphia attorney and legislator who had a deep love for history, especially Baptist history. He was a board member of Crozer Seminary for many years.
When Crozer merged with the Colgate Rochester Theological Seminary in 1970, the materials became a part of that collection. In recent days, the Colgate–Rochester–Crozer Divinity School (CRCDS) has been downsizing its library, and the Edwards materials were offered for sale to Central Seminary by an alumnus and friend of the school. Central Seminary has acquired more than 27,000 volumes from the CRCDS collection for its own library. The addition of these rare manuscripts, which have an important connection to early American Baptist history, provides a unique opportunity for Central Seminary to become a focal site for the study of that discipline.
Who exactly was Morgan Edwards, and why is this collection so significant? Edwards was born in Trevithin, Wales, in 1722; and was educated at Trosnant Academy in Wales and at Bristol Academy in England under Bernard Foskett. Following his formal education, he served at the church in Cork, Ireland, for nine years and then briefly at Rye in Sussex. In 1761 he was recommended by the London Baptist, John Gill, to become the pastor of the Baptist Church of Philadelphia. The church had recently lost its pastor and had sent word to England seeking an educated man to fill its pulpit. Edwards and his first wife, Mary, and their children answered that call. Edwards moved to America, where he would spend the rest of his life and ministry, with the exception of an occasional visit back to England.
Edwards entered his pastorate in Philadelphia on 23 May 1761 and remained there for the next decade, leaving in October 1771 to become an evangelist with the Philadelphia Association. During his tenure at Philadelphia, he became a leader among American Baptists—particularly in the Philadelphia Association—the first and foremost association of Baptists in America. The Philadelphia Association had been formed in 1707 by five churches and had adopted a slightly amended version the Second London Confession (1689) in 1742.
As a leader at Philadelphia, Edwards took an important role in denominational affairs of the day. One of his most significant contributions was founding the College of Rhode Island (Brown University) in 1764, the first school of higher education among American Baptists and sponsored by the Philadelphia Association. As a highly educated man himself, Edwards saw the value of providing Baptists with a place where their best and brightest could prepare for their life’s work. Together with James Manning, Edwards worked tirelessly, traveling far and wide, including back to England, to secure the necessary funds to place the young college on a solid financial footing. With Edwards’ help, the College of Rhode Island became a chief Baptist institution for the next 150 years. Edwards remained associated with the Philadelphia Association for most of the rest of his life. He served in numerous capacities in the association—as its clerk, its moderator, its librarian, its evangelist-at-large, and as preacher of the annual sermon. He also authored an important work on Baptist polity, The Customs of the Primitive Churches (1768).
During his Philadelphia pastorate, Edwards also made two other vital contributions to American Baptist life. In 1770, he published the first of a proposed 12-volume series on American Baptist history, Materials Toward a History of the Baptists in Pennsylvania. By doing so, Edwards became the first Baptist historian in America. While his materials are not as comprehensive as later historical works, they provide a goldmine of early historical data upon which later American Baptist historians built. More than 20 years later, volume two on New Jersey Baptists was published. Though Edwards had collected materials on Baptist origins in 10 other states, no more notes were published during his lifetime. Only materials on nine states are extant. It is presumed that he worked on Baptist history in New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont, but it appears that these notes have not survived. It is possible that some of the material may have been destroyed when Edwards’ house was razed by the British in the War of Independence.
It is also possible that his materials were used by others. He did lend some of his notes to Isaac Backus, who most likely used them in his own A History of New England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians Called Baptists (1777). Backus in turn passed some of the materials on to David Benedict, who may have used them in his A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America (1813). Furthermore, Edwards himself sent copies of his notes on Baptists in the South to Richard Furman of South Carolina, who subsequently made corrections, but Edwards died before these could be returned to him. These corrected notes are housed in the library of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.
The final important contribution of Morgan Edwards to American Baptist life was the planting of seed* that germinated into the Triennial Convention in 1814. In 1770, Edwards had recommended to his fellow Baptists that they form a larger association of churches to promote the greater Baptist cause. Because Edwards had traveled extensively up and down the eastern seaboard, his proposal included Baptists from Nova Scotia to Georgia. It would take nearly 50 years before his vision was realized, but he is remembered for his far-sightedness in proposing the plan of association.
Central Seminary is indeed fortunate to have acquired these notable and exceptionally rare Baptist materials. In addition to the Edwards sermon manuscripts and Baptist history notes, Central Seminary also acquired copies of the two printed volumes by Edwards—on the Pennsylvania Baptists (1770) and the New Jersey Baptists (1792)—as well as printed copies of the notes on the Rhode Island Baptists and the Delaware Baptists which were published posthumously in 1867 and 1885. Finally, the collection includes handwritten transcripts of Edwards’ notes by Horatio Gates Jones on the Delaware Baptists and rare Edwards published materials from the late 18th century, including a printed copy of the ordination sermon of Samuel Jones (1763), Res Sacrae: An Academical Exercise (1788) and Two Academical Exercises on Subjects Bearing the Following Titles; Millennium, Last-novelties (1788). This latter work is a pre-Darby expression of dispensationalist ideas. This collection of materials makes it the finest collection of Edwardsiana in the world.
*There is some debate as to whether the idea for this association actually originated with Edwards or whether he was simply its most prominent early proponent.
“Love is Strong as Death.”
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
“I have not sought Thee, I have not found Thee,
I have not thirsted for Thee:
And now cold billows of death surround me,
Buffeting billows of death astound me,
Wilt Thou look upon, wilt Thou see
Thy perishing me?”
“Yea, I have sought thee, yea, I have found thee,
Yea, I have thirsted for thee,
Yea, long ago with love’s bands I bound thee:
Now the Everlasting Arms surround thee,
Through death’s darkness I look and see
And clasp thee to Me.”