The Watershed: When Principled Conviction Leads to Action

The Watershed: When Principled Conviction Leads to Action

by Nick Kersten, Librarian-historian

 

       “Depend on it, brethren and sisters… we shall be accountable for our fellow creatures who are destitute of gospel privileges and the sacred scriptures, which we are indulged with, if we do not use our exertions to communicate these blessings to them—even their blood will be required at our hands. These inestimable privileges were certainly put into our hands to communicate to others… our incumbent duty now is to communicate these blessings and favors…” —Circular Letter of the SDB General Conference, 1818, p. 15.

 

The General Conference sessions of 1818 represented a watershed moment in Seventh Day Baptist history. Two critical actions were taken in that year’s Conference sessions, held in Berlin, New York. The second of these actions encouraged churches to refrain from using the word “Sabbatarian” to refer to themselves, and to direct that all further correspondence to the Conference be addressed to the “Seventh-day Baptist General Conference.” The immediately prior action was to move on the long-simmering desire of Seventh Day Baptists to send missionaries onto the frontiers of America.

The movement to send missionaries is what led to the creation of the Conference in 1802, but the churches had been unable to decide exactly how this should be accomplished. While churches were working to send missionaries on their own or in smaller sending groups, the impulse to send them as a Conference was now gaining momentum.

At the previous sessions of the General Conference, a suggested plan was slowly taking shape as the details were worked out. In 1818, the Conference voted unanimously that the time was ripe to move on the plan they had conceived.

Beginning in 1819, a series of missionaries were sent out to sow the Gospel in the prairies, fields and mountain valleys of America. These missionaries often went out alone traveling long distances, sometimes over difficult terrain, in order to preach and teach the Good News of Christ’s kingdom. These trips were planned to include visits to known SDB families on the frontier, to build up those fledgling congregations and encourage them in their faith.

While it is difficult to know exactly how successful these traveling missionaries were, we can find from their printed reports tens of baptisms; perhaps a few hundred over the course of those early years. In addition, these meetings led to increased vitality in SDB congregations, and directly contributed to the creation of our publishing and educational endeavors.

The Seventh Day Baptist Missionary Magazine, begun in 1821, was in part an effort to publicize the missionary efforts of the Conference and the larger Christian world. During one of missionary Amos Wells’ journeys, he encountered a young Presbyterian named Alexander Campbell, who would end up becoming a Seventh Day Baptist pastor, revivalist, and tireless advocate for SDB education.

It is clear that the vitality of the General Conference in these years was driven in no small part by their missionary zeal and their passion to reach the lost. That was demonstrated by the quote from the 1818 Circular Letter above.

Does our current life as a group mirror this zeal and passion? Do we, as individuals, have this passion for sharing the Gospel, enough to sacrifice some of our own personal desires or pet issues? It is clear that our vitality as a Conference of local congregations depends on our answers to these questions.

The final words of that Circular Letter can instruct us:

“…whatever is done in the missionary cause through faith in God, with a desire to promote his praise and the good of mankind, will of course be consecrated by prayer, and will certainly be attended with the blessing of God. From motives and principles like these may God enable us all to act for the upbuilding and extension of the kingdom of his dear Son. We add no more.”

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