Baptist History Spotlight: Morgan Edwards

Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

Morgan Edwards was a notable Baptist leader in the 18th century who was one of the founders of present day Brown University in Rhode Island. He compiled a lot of early Baptist History of this country. He helped lay a foundation for Baptist historians in the future to build on. He was a notable spokesman for Baptist beliefs as evidenced by his purpose for recording this history as well as his helping bring Baptists together though common beliefs and practice. Baptists owe a great deal of debt to him for compiling such an extensive Baptist History. We need to remember where we came from lest we forget who we are.

Much of what we learn about early Baptists in America came from Edwards’s meticulous writing and journaling of the Baptist work in America. It is interesting, since Edwards was not born in America, that he had such an interest in recording Baptist History in America. Walter Shurden said, “Edwards’ enthusiasm for his work of collecting and writing Baptist history could not be concealed. He wished desperately that “all the Baptist churches from Nova Scotia to Georgia be made sufficiently known toward one another.” Baptists were a loose group springing up in remote areas. He longed to see a unity among them that seemed to indicate he was ahead of his time in a denominational organization. Given the Baptist independence as local churches this was not an easy ambition or a simple task. He did go about making his dream a reality in his recording of the history of Baptist work in this county.

Edwards was born in Wales in 1722. He attended Bristol College and was ordained in June of 1757 while serving a congregation in Cork, Ireland. He served as pastor there for nine years. He served for a year in Rye, in Sussex. John Gill, famous Baptist pastor in England, recommended Edwards to the empty pastorate at First Baptist Church of Philadelphia. He came to the city and church entering the pastorate on May 23, 1761. This was the last church he served as pastor. He served the church for 11 years and immediately began to exert influence among Baptists in America.

Edwards presented the idea of a Baptist College first to the Philadelphia Baptist Association. He later became one of the first leaders in obtaining and signing a charter for the establishment of what was first called the college of Rhode Island and later Brown University in 1764. He actually was instrumental in securing funds for the college’s inception. He was all-inclusive in his desire to have other trustees initially which were not Baptist. This feat is commendable since Baptists had been treated rather roughly in the colonies for over a century at this time by these other denominational groups.

Edwards took the side of his mother country as war rumblings came and then the war commenced. He had resigned the pastorate at First Baptist Church of Philadelphia before the war began. His continual allegiance to Great Britain could have been attributed to his newness to America and not living here for any time to speak of when the time of resentment began toward Great Britain’s treatment of the colonies. Edwards nevertheless became one of the few Baptist ministers supporting the British cause as a Tory during the pre-war and inception of the war.

After resigning the pastorate at First Baptist Church of Philadelphia in 1772 Edwards moved to Delaware and supplied for vacant churches during the Revolution. After the war he did a lot of writing and gave lectures on Divinity all over New England. This exposure increased his notoriety despite his support of the British cause. During this period Edwards began to compile his massive history of the Baptists in America, a task which may not have been possible without his freedom from the demands of being pastor of a church. He continued this ministry along with accumulating and writing Baptist History in America until he died in 1795.

Edwards was described as a man of refined manners and a master of scholarly attainments. He was very proficient with the biblical languages. He loved to articulate Baptist Principles. He also was a very generous man. He would give anything to a friend or a cause in which he supported. He was a man of uncommon genius as well.

Edwards also traveled all over the colonies finding historical sites and recording the history of the Baptists. He traveled as far North as New Hampshire and as far south as Georgia. He published Materials Towards a History of the Baptists which many have described as the most valuable Baptist records in the country for that time. The work was a twelve volume history of Baptists in America.

Edwards longed for more unity among Baptists. He moved to have more associations linked to the Philadelphia Association. It had more of a semi-Presbyterian structure and not a congregational structure causing many Baptists to reject it. The sheer size of the country also worked against having such an organization in place in Edwards’s lifetime, although he remained true to Baptist principles and doctrine.

Articulating why he was a Baptist in his preface to the volume of history on Pennsylvania, Edwards here describes how an Episcopalian minster of Philadelphia arrogantly invited Baptists to return to the Church of England. In his sarcastic response to the minster he lists various distinctives of Baptists at the time. They were:

(1) Christ, not bishops or ecclesiastical courts, is the only Head and Lawgiver of the church; (2) a church should be composed of believers only and not a “mixed multitude”; (3) local congregations, with their ministers or elders, have power and authority to receive persons into membership, to censure, and excommunicate; (4) the Bible says nothing about saying “the confession, Lord’s prayer and creed,” nor do people have to respond in worship according to the Book of Common Prayer; (5) the New Testament does not authorize use of musical instruments in public worship; (6) infant baptism is wrong; and (7) sprinkling or pouring are wrong as forms of baptism.

 

Edwards was a brilliant historian and theologian. He served Baptists well during their early days in America. Much of what we know about their beginnings and growth are due to his extensive research.